The Grove That Time Forgot

He named it the Mary Jewell Cedar, after his closest companion. I never did get to see it for myself, but Vancouver artist Ralf Kelman described it to me as quite a sight to behold. It was a venerable cedar, roughly twelve feet in diameter, with an expansive hollow chamber, and perhaps seven centuries old. If it stood today, it would be among the largest remaining cedars in the Seymour Valley, to my knowledge, but sadly, it now lives on only in folklore.

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Mary Jewell, by the way, happens to be an artist who specializes in conceptual paintings (frottage) of the surface texture of the bark of ancient native and other old-growth trees on canvas, silk or vellum, revealing patterns (Source: LinkedIn). The intricate patterns of ancient bark are endlessly fascinating, if you ask me!

The story of the tree’s demise dates back twenty years and begins with Ralf’s efforts to preserve the remaining giants of the Seymour Valley from logging. He walked the steep drainages below Lynn Ridge and The Needles, discovering and documenting these ancient remnants, in what was then known as the Seymour Demonstration Forest. At the time, the powers that be did not take kindly to being told what they could and could not do with the lands in our watersheds, including logging. It was only through bringing notoriety to the area that change would result. Each grove he found was later featured on a map published by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee ( WCWC ) and that, combined with timely and persistent lobbying, finally brought about an end to harvesting timber in Greater Vancouver watersheds.

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This excerpt from the old WCWC map shows the roads as they existed in the year 2000. The new road, which is above the Mainline Road, runs right through where the Jewell Cedar is shown here at the bottom of the map. As you can see there are a great many ancient trees in this concentrated area

It was in the early 1990s that Ralf visited the cedar with Mary Jewell and friend Neva Hohn. They made several treks to the forest, and enjoyed them well. Time, though, moved forward, and as the century turned, the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, as it is now known, eventually made plans to build the Seymour Valley Trailway above the old Seymour Mainline. There were upgrades slated for the Seymour Dam, and a need to give recreational users a safe way to access the valley. Unfortunately, when they were building the new route, the contractors decided the tree was an impending hazard and that it had to be felled. Another version of events was that one of the crews had an accident and damaged the tree beyond repair, though I have never substantiated that story. In any event, the Mary Jewell Cedar finally met its maker.

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Does my story end here? Well no, of course it doesn’t! You see, roughly where the Seymour Valley Trailway road crosses the 4 km mark the rest of the trees still remain. If you look closely, after climbing a steep bank, you may find tattered remnants of 25 year old flagging tape that lead you steeply into a stately grove of  Douglas Firs. The WCWC map calls these trails the Mary Jewell and Neva Hohn Trails, but nowadays what little that’s left  is more of a suggestion than a trail, and above the grove there are even more hidden mysteries. What follows here are my tales of further exploration in this time forgotten place!

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The trunk of an ancient Douglas Fir, which on the map is the Varley Giant, I believe

 

My first foray dates back to 2007, when Chris and I rode our bikes up the Seymour Valley to try and track down this group of trees. While the ride was short and brisk, travel was slow and deliberate in the woods, which is pretty much the norm for off trail exploration.

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What I believe to be the Neva Hohn Tree, a beautiful and ancient Douglas fir

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So you want to be a treehunter? Well, nobody said it was going to be easy!

Not only did we find some of the valley’s taller firs, but a number of massive boulders that had come to rest in the forest there. Were they erratics deposited by glaciers or the byproduct of a powerful landslide? Difficult to say but nonetheless very impressive!

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Chris and his most unexpected discovery, a monstrous boulder!

To round out our day we ended up bushwhacking our way northwest toward the upper reaches of McKenzie Creek. Steadily gaining altitude to about 550 meters in elevation, suddenly the forest began to get noticeably brighter. The reason was soon apparent, as we found ourselves at the base of a massive boulder field! I had the immediate notion there had been relatively recent activity there. The rocks were moss covered but almost every one of them moved when walked on, so we concluded the slide had not yet stabilized. We tread very carefully there for a while while we worked our way northwest. Were it not for the low cloud across the valley our perch would also have afforded fine views of the Fannin Range.

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Working our way higher into the drainage, powered by dreams of the undiscovered
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Is it getting easier yet?
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Uhhhh, no. No, it is not!
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Chris exploring the boulder field in upper McKenzie Creek
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We never did get around to exploring above the boulder field
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Taking a break and looking out across the valley
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The Seymour Valley and the Fannin Range

In another half hour we began our retreat to the bikes, taking a roundabout route to complete our circle of exploration. The hiking seemed somewhat precarious, with both of us staggering and lurching often through the loose underbrush.

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Big cedar hiding near the bottom of the boulder field
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It was the height of these trees that had us very optimistic about their future

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Seven foot diameter cedar found just below the boulder field, despite growing in difficult conditions

The best moment of comedy came when I stepped on a log while moving downhill, and the next thing you know it was rolling right at me in pursuit! Not long after that, Chris nearly took an awkward fall of his own. When we hike, it’s not official until we each manage to end up on the ground somehow! We discovered several promising old growth cedars there too, but figured it was time to quit while we were ahead and forged our way back to the road.

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This, the case of the curious trail marker. I am unsure as to its purpose because where we found it there is no semblance of a trail!
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The mist descending on this rocky clearing, time to call it a day

 

Fast forward to the spring of 2018, when Doug and I took advantage of a sunny spring day to revisit these trees. After caching our rides carefully, we set off into the forest in the hope of making some new discoveries. Many a tree had fallen in storms since I’d last walked there, but most of the same giants still survived. For good measure we hiked up to the sunny, salal covered bluffs to the south of the trail, but soon doubled back to the grove, realizing that our time was short. It was one of those days just made for photography, so I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves!

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There is nothing quite like the forest on a sunny day!

 

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Shadows at play in the upper canopy of the Varley Giant
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Hunting trees can be serious business. We try to use protective eyewear when possible and often wear helmets, as Doug shows you here

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Not so much as a trail as an exercise in finding your own path!

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What is particularly inspiring about the firs of the Mary Jewell and Neva Hohn Trails is that they show such great promise for the future. Reaching estimated heights likely in excess of 240 feet already, in subsequent generations this group of Douglas Firs may well become some of the finer specimens in southwest British Columbia. Less well known than their nearby brothers in the Temples of Time Grove, they remain equally important. The most surprising thing of all, though, is their proximity to such a popular and busy trail, and the fact that only a handful of people have experienced them!

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Future champions? Only time will tell

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Though these trees have gained protected status for the foreseeable future, the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve is not particularly interested in promoting their existence, probably over concerns about public safety. That means, in a broader sense, that they’ll only be seen by the type of intrepid explorer who ventures off the road well traveled. In the end, maybe that is as it should be, for those who seek out life’s mysteries ought to be armed with the necessary passion and determination. For many folks, it’s enough just to know that forests like these are still out there!

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An especially captivating forest clearing
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Pseudotsuga Menzieszi, the Douglas fir

 

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***Author’s note***

It should be said that the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve has definitely lived up to the promise of protecting the forests of the Seymour Valley. That is something that should never be taken for granted. Conservation today is as important as ever, if future generations are to experience the beauty of our remaining old growth forests

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