A Visit With Coastal Giants

 

You hear it from everyone who has visited the west coast of Vancouver Island. They rave about the tall trees, the crashing surf, the unforgettable sunsets, and countless other charms. Wilderness adventurers of all experience levels come from far and wide to visit its forests and beaches year round.

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October surf at Long Beach, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, Tofino, B.C.
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Adventure guide Duncan Morrison with a massive Western Red Cedar in Eden Grove , near Port Renfrew

British Columbia’s future may very well depend on how our province chooses to protect its natural world. It has become clear that times are changing. To those who reside here, one crucial question must be asked: If nature is really our greatest resource, why are we in such a race to destroy our future legacy?

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Who could disagree that nature is what makes British Columbia special? Our mountains, rivers, and forests need to be preserved for future generations!

 

The answer would seem simple, but conflicted interests make it complicated. We are at a crossroads: No longer are industries based solely on the extraction of natural resources  a reasonable base for a thriving economy. The truth is, they have reached the point where they are destroying that very foundation. In my mind, the only way to shine the light in a different direction is to spend more time bringing attention to the natural world. That then, is primarily what this story is all about. This province needs to save its earthly splendour, and what better place to start than the windswept shores of Vancouver Island’s Pacific Coast?

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Imagine that all ancient cedars were preserved for everyone to enjoy, like this giant in North Vancouver’s Wickenden Creek

The month of March brought with it unseasonably warm and dry weather this year, so it seemed like decent timing for a visit to Vancouver Island’s wild west coast. Set in the heart of unceded Pacheedaht territory, the forests near Port Renfrew still hold many hidden secrets which I hope to explore. Fortunately for me, I had an ideal tour guide for the mission, in the person of Chris Istace. “Stasher”, as he’s known to many, has spent plenty of days wandering the coast, and is one of the first good friends I’ve made in my new island home. Our plan, basically, was to visit many of the trees on the map seen below here, and to walk the Botanical Beach area. Here is a link to the fine story about this trip that Chris wrote up a while back, I highly recommend his website!

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Map courtesy of the Ancient Forest Alliance . Consider donating to their tireless efforts in saving B.C.’s remaining old growth forests

We met early in Chemainus before heading toward Lake Cowichan, where we’d grab a coffee before reaching the coast via the old Harris Creek Mainline. The last time I’d driven that road was nearly a decade before, when it was still unpaved! Much had changed, but some things had remained the same.

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Back in 2007, this fellow manned the Harris Creek Gate. Not sure where he is today!

The ride left us plenty of time to discuss a wide variety of topics, especially the preservation of British Columbia’s ancient forests, which we both have been very vocal about. The interior of Vancouver Island is an absolute statement on how not to manage those forests and you get a front row seat to view that devastation on the road to Port Renfrew! At the very least, we as citizens ought to have more say in what happens to our forests, and there are a lot more valid questions. Why can’t we log sustainably? Why can’t we transition to a lumber economy that focuses on processing second growth timber or older stands of less prime value? Why have we been exporting raw logs and all the processing jobs that go with them? Why is there no willingness by government to protect the finest of our forests from clearcutting? To be succinct, I am not in favour of abolishing logging at all, I just feel it’s high time to change the model on which the industry operates.

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The map tells the tale well. Orange is already logged forest, green remains unprotected. Over 92% of the prime valley bottom timber on Vancouver Island has already been clearcut. It’s clearly time to protect the rest!

 

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These forests, in their intact state, have considerable value in terms of ecotourism dollars,  which generate long term and sustainable employment. Harvesting the trees is a one time opportunity, and even when second growth harvest is factored in, the cashflow realized is far less than income realized through tourism. We need to make decisions that benefit the environment!

 

It was also a chance to learn a bit more about each other’s backgrounds. We have each managed to find our way westward, but through markedly different routes.  Chris has previously lived in Alberta and Estevan, Saskatchewan, whereas I moved to Nanaimo after living in Montreal, Edmonton, and North Vancouver. What I’ll say, to summarize, is that the love of outdoor living brings a lot of people to Vancouver Island!

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Harris Creek Canyon

The morning air still held a chill, as we reached  Harris Creek. There we took a break and Chris showed me several of his favourite spots along the creek. The rushing waters of the canyon made for an ideal place to clear the mind, and we were happy to linger there for a while.

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One of Chris’s favourite stops along Harris Creek

Our next stop was the nearby Harris Creek Spruce, a massive Sitka Spruce which is likely about five hundred years old. It’s quite fortunate that the logging companies decided to preserve it, for it holds so much life upon its aging limbs. The tree is surrounded by a picket fence, to protect its root system, and nearby there is a beautiful stand of Bigleaf Maple trees. I had first visited the tree back in 2007, and was heartened to see an old friend once again.

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The sign that marks the short trail to the Harris Creek Spruce
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The original old growth forest here was logged in 1893, but the Harris Creek Spruce was spared. Logging has been prohibited in this area since 2012 now.
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This tree is vibrantly alive and growing happily beside Harris Creek
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I processed this in black and white in order to show the tremendous intricacy an ancient spruce has. They are always covered in mosses and lichen and support a veritable community in their network of limbs!

Port Renfrew was the next destination, where we would spend some time hiking the shores of Botany Bay and Botanical Beach. It wasn’t quite possible to arrive there at low tide, which would have been ideal for viewing the many tide pools, but nevertheless, we had a lot of fun.  There is nothing quite like exploring the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, with its pounding surf and wind blasted Sitka Spruce providing the backdrop. The geology alone is quite interesting, and of course the biodiversity you find in each and every tide pool is unique and fascinating. Quite commonly you’ll see black bears wandering the shoreline foraging for food but we weren’t lucky enough to spot one that day.

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Beautifully striated rock layers in Botany Bay
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Enjoying the Pacific surf!

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Mussels
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By now you might be asking if you can have too many photos of the surf? The answer, by the way, is no, of course not!

Sometimes you need to go the extra mile to get yourself a really good photograph too. Have a look at this sequence and you’ll see just what I mean.

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Soon we scrambled around the point and onto Botanical Beach, where we wandered just a bit longer before moving on to the next attraction. I never tire of these coastal beaches, and even the sound of waves triggers so many pleasant memories.

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Powerful coastal storms deposit scores of trees on the beaches every year. Be sure to remember to never turn your back on the ocean, especially when seas are rough!

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If you ever get to know Chris you’ll soon find out he’s a big advocate of sustainable and smaller housing solutions. This one looked great, and even had a swing, but alas, it’s also in a provincial park!

 

Our whirlwind tour continued as we stopped for a bite to eat, then headed over to Avatar Grove. The trees there were preserved through considerable effort by the Ancient Forest Alliance. On the way up we actually ventured off the trail looking at several trees that get less attention, one a venerable Douglas Fir.

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Chris spotted this big Douglas fir just off the trail, so we bushwhacked in for a closer look!

 

The Ancient Forest Alliance, with the help of many volunteers, built trails through both the upper and lower groves and did a commendable job of campaigning for the preservation of these trees.

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Communing with nature on the Upper Avatar Grove Trail
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Walking these groves has you feeling like a much smaller part of nature. I have often felt people see themselves as too important, and many could do with more experiences like this!

The upper grove is most known for the burled and twisted Western Red Cedar affectionately called Canada’s Gnarliest Tree. I’m not sure whether it can lay claim to that title but it is certainly quite the sight, with its heavily burled trunk and twisted branches!

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Chris getting set up for a photograph
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Massive burls!
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It’s quite likely this tree is over 600 years old

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Back on route, we visited the rest of the trees in the upper grove, and met a number of other folks paying their own respects as well. It’s notable that when left standing, forests like these drive both spiritual and economic interest in a region, which is a unique combination. Ancient forests are undoubtedly places where people find their souls.

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Afternoon light in the forest
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These trees are an irreplaceable resource

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The lower grove was our next objective, and though Chris had been to Avatar Grove a number of times he had not happened to see it yet either. I found it to be quite a revelation, in part because you could could hear the Gordon River running in the background, as filtered sunlight shone through the trees. There was a subtle breeze to go with it all, and as it turned out, we may have spent more time there than in the upper grove!

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Welcome to Lower Avatar Grove
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The base of another ancient cedar
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Magnificent cedar in Lower Avatar Grove
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Composing the shot
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So many things in nature defy description

 

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Chris filming a very subtle moment as a faint breeze blows through some hanging moss. Sometimes it is the smaller things you appreciate the most.

 

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The process of the nurse log assisted tree is perfectly illustrated here

 

What I’ll call the high point of the day, at least in my mind, came with a visit to Big Lonely Doug, which stands almost alone in a clearcut off Edinburgh Main.  Its stark existence, ironically, brings to mind that there is a campaign going on to save the trees in nearby Eden Grove merely a few hundred yards away. Keeping stands of old growth forest intact should be our goal, and in British Columbia that has been a difficult task to accomplish.

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Getting to Big Lonely Doug involves crossing a spectacular bridge over the Gordon River on Edinburgh Main
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Cross section of a big cedar stump on which you may stand to get a good look at Big Lonely Doug

The story of Big Lonely Doug is an interesting one, to say the least! Apparently, on a winter morning in 2011, a logger named Dennis Cronin was walking through a stand of old-growth forest in the Gordon River Valley near Port Renfrew. He was supposed to  survey the land and flag the boundaries for an up and coming clearcut. Soon he would soon stumble upon one Canada’s largest Douglas firs, no doubt worth a considerable sum in the timber market. Cronin, for reasons of his own, marked the tree with a ribbon that instructed the fallers to leave the tree standing, and that is just what they did. Everything around the tree was levelled and removed, leaving the now solitary fir alone in the cut block. Ironically, the tree was even used as a spar, as cable was wrapped around it in order to help haul other trees out of the cut block. Some time later, environmentalist T.J.Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance, an organization committed to preserving old growth forests in British Columbia, happened to find it while out searching for big trees in the valley.

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Chris on his way down to the tree
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This is one of British Columbia’s largest Douglas firs!
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Many centuries have passed since this fir was born!
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Chris and Big Lonely Doug

 

 

If ever there was an apt metaphor for the destruction of British Columbia’s ancient forests, that Douglas fir was a textbook example. A towering giant, set in a field of destruction, the tree would soon be given a name: Big Lonely Doug. It would gain tremendous popularity, embraced by Port Renfrew, which calls itself  “Tall Tree Capital of Canada”

 

The sheer scale of this Douglas Fir is something to behold. I had seen countless photos of it and closely followed its story, but as they say, seeing is believing! Chris had seen the tree before, but was no less impressed. I’m not at all surprised that author Harley Rustad was inspired to write a book about this tree!

 

 

 

Just looking at Big Lonely Doug and all the stumps in the clearcut, I could not help but imagine what has been lost in our forests. Time is definitely running out to save them! We spent the better part of an hour just taking it all in and working for the ideal photo opportunity.

 

 

 

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Highly recommended reading! (Image property of Walrus Books, House of Anansi Press, and Harley Rustad )

 

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The indelible mark of a wire rope cable on its trunk seemed sadly symbolic
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Chris and Big Lonely Doug

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It stands alone!

Before we headed homeward, we decided to make one more stop. It had been years since I had been to the San Juan Spruce, which was British Columbia’s largest Sitka Spruce up until several years ago, when a storm destroyed part of its upper canopy. I lamented the fact that I’d not taken photos of it back in 2003, as I didn’t have a camera with me at the time. It remains, nevertheless, still an inspiring tree, set as it is right beside the San Juan River, in the middle of a forest service campground!

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The San Juan Spruce
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The tree has suffered damage but remains spectacular!
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The nearby San Juan River
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A curious hollow in the main trunk
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This is where the damaged limbs came to rest
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There are several Bigleaf Maples nearby that have reached enormous size
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An amazing tree, well worth seeing

The drive home seemed somewhat faster than I expected, but then again all  things come to an end, relatively speaking. As we parted ways in Chemainus, I was already contemplating a return trip and some new explorations. You can never get enough of coastal British Columbia!

As I write this, the current state of preservation of old growth trees here on Vancouver Island is still of pressing concern. Already, very little ancient forest remains here, and neither the incumbent New Democratic Party, the current opposition B.C. Liberal Party, nor a plethora of logging companies have any desire to cease the destruction. Only British Columbia’s Green Party, part of the coalition government at this time, is supporting a moratorium on old growth logging. What is really needed here is a paradigm shift, for lack of a better phrase. The tired rhetoric of  seeing old growth forest as a decaying resource that might as well be harvested or it will lose value is simply an excuse for justifying environmental destruction. Why not consider change?

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Well, maybe one last look at Big Lonely Doug

 

************************ Author’s Note***********************

If you’re also interested in supporting the preservation of our forests here in British Columbia, consider investigating these sources and contributing, if you can, to the fine work they are doing:

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