Remember the Elaho

It survived for nearly a thousand years. Think about that. Ten centuries. The Elaho Giant, one of the largest and oldest Douglas firs ever to live in British Columbia, lived at least nine and a half of those centuries in complete solitude. After all that, it managed to escape being cut down in the 1990s, when the Elaho Valley was the site of bitter conflict over proposed logging.  Additionally, the building of a route which traversed the Elaho to the Meager Creek Valley was forged, which later helped lead to the designation of the area as the Stoltmann Wilderness, named after noted conservationist Randy Stoltmann.

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The spectacular Elaho Giant in 2007

Years later, in June of 2015, a dry spring season took its toll, as a wildfire tore through the upper end of the valley. Though the grove of firs at the Elaho-Meager trailhead was spared, the Elaho Giant was caught in the midst of the tragedy, and rumour had that it  was burned beyond recognition. When a group of fire fighters who had battled the blaze reached the tree, they declared that it had miraculously been saved! Some limbs and branches were alive and green, they said, and though the trunk was charred, that seemed to be the only real damage.

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A look at the area, showing our ultimate destination. This is taken from an old Western Canada Wilderness Committee map. Due to a washout at Cesna Creek, the trail still remains inaccessible and has been for a very long time

Now, turn back your clocks to November of 2007. My only visit to the Elaho Valley was a brief one, featuring a lengthy day that featured enough torrential rain to put any set of windshield wipers to the ultimate test. The principals? Two guys willing to hunt trees in any given deluge, and that would be Chris, and me. We really wanted to see the Elaho Giant, and besides, what else would we be doing on such an inhospitable day? Armed with Chris’s trusty Jeep Cherokee, raingear, salty snacks, and a Backroads Mapbook, we were off!

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Of all the day’s views, this would become the most familiar of all. It’s a long drive from North Vancouver to the Elaho Valley!

You must reach the Elaho Valley by making your way up to Squamish via Highway 99, then by following the Squamish FSR to its junction with the Elaho FSR. From there, it’s a question of driving about as far north as the rough roads take you! Even on an unpleasant day, the valley’s character somehow shines brightly. It is the gateway to an endless, rugged wilderness that few people choose to explore. It’s also remote enough that help is a long way away, and should you venture there you should be prepared and self sufficient.

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As rainy an autumn day as you will see in the Squamish Valley!

The drive is more than long enough to immerse yourself in all manner of thoughts and conversation. What’s more, it’s male time to hone your imitation of nearly every Simpsons character, if that’s your thing! There was much to see, from shrouded views of jagged mountains and swiftly rushing creeks, to glimpses of glaciers and trees turned brilliant autumn colours in the icy November rain.

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We did make one brief stop in the Squamish Valley to check out Huberts Creek, of particular interest to Chris and his love of canyoneering. Among my aspirations were spotting one of the transplanted herds of elk, or perhaps even one of the many grizzlies that call the Elaho home!

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Huberts Creek. I don’t think Chris ever did descend its canyon, but come to think of it I never did ask him that!
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The mighty Elaho River, very popular with rafters and white water kayakers
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The roadside waterfall of Maude Frickert Creek
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I took a photo of this sign so I would never forget the name Blakeney Creek
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Blakeney Creek. Beautiful, mysterious, and fed by the glaciers high above on Exodus Peak and the Pemberton Icefield
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Clendinning Provincial Park and its rugged wilderness is also accessed from the Elaho roads

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As we bounced further up the valley, it was decided we’d first check out the Elaho- Meager Trail and its grove of ancient Douglas firs before doubling back to see the Elaho Giant on our return trip. Other than the rain, the trip was relatively uneventful, and we rolled quietly to a stop, right beside the trailhead. The view from the nearby bridge over Sundown Creek is something everyone should see!

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Sundown Creek roaring down its canyon

 

Even by then, the trail had become pretty much inaccessible. A major flood had destroyed a makeshift crossing over Cesna Creek, making it impassable, and as a consequence the trail fell into disuse. With the limited time we had, the plan was to explore the grove and see how far we could get along the main trail before turning around. The first thing we did was to walk the Douglas Fir Route, which is a 2 km loop through an extraordinary and venerable forest. There has been some conjecture about the age of this stand, but some core samples taken from other trees in the area suggest some may be as old as 1300 years. In any event, we weren’t disappointed, as the firs were inspiring to see!

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The thick bark of ancient firs is unmistakeable
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So much to discover!
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So what do you do when a tree falls in the forest?
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We just make it part of the trail!

The firs in the grove were immense in girth, with many over eight feet in diameter. Old growth Douglas Fir is becoming an increasingly rare sight in British Columbia, where most of it has already been logged. Growing conditions in the Elaho have certainly been ideal over the years, and as proof the forest here thrives very well.

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Pseudotsuga Menzieszi, the Douglas Fir
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There were many healthy trees that looked to be over 250 feet high, though height estimation is challenging when the rain is pouring so hard!
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Yet another giant
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After a while, we got used to the rain. That was easy, as we’ve had plenty of practice!
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If there’s one photo that sums up this day best, this just might be the one!

Though we only scratched the surface of this wilderness, it was easy to see why people worked so hard to save it. The Elaho-Meager trail had always been at nature’s mercy, inasmuch as the very forces that make it desirable have also served to caused its isolation. In recent years, the Meager Creek access has also been affected due to landslides and volcanic instability.  The long and the short of it? Now one of the most scenic trails in the province is unable to be enjoyed for the time being. There are no plans to repair the washout at Cesna Creek.

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Having seen the trees, we now moved on to the main trail, which was, surprisingly, able to be followed quite reasonably. It led us through more old growth forest and a rocky, exposed area that looked a lot like a manicured rock garden.

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It seemed as though every rock had been carefully placed, somehow
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Delicate mosses and lichens
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This clearing led to the forest beyond, but soon we began our hike back to the trailhead
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Our turnaround spot, as the rain intensified!

Once we turned around, it was a fairly short jaunt back to the Jeep, where again we studied the maps. According to the Backroads Mapbook, the Elaho Giant looked as though it was within shouting distance of the road. It took us just another twenty minutes to locate, and fortunately at the time, the forest nearby had also been spared from logging.

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The shadowy Elaho Giant was a standout on the dreariest of days

 

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We had expected quite a battle to find this tree!
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An unforgettable tree

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The bark of the Elaho Giant

Well, it’s said that all good things must come to an end. An optimist by nature, I’m always reluctant to admit that, but I do understand that life has no guarantees. Our brief sojourn into the Elaho Valley ended several hours later, jarred by the reality of returning to the all too familiar signs of civilization. The downpour persisted, as though it felt the need to escort us, and we managed a few stops on the way that almost helped ease us back into humanity, as it were.

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Squamish River
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A last look
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Cliffs below Cloudburst Mountain

The Elaho Giant, years later, was not as fortunate as we were. Its roots, thought only to be badly charred in that fire of June 2015, were later found to have incinerated, as it was  discovered in 2016 that the tree had finally died. A life of  a thousand years in such an idyllic place must certainly have been fulfilling, but I could not help wishing the tree had lived longer.  I did, however, take solace in knowing that its birthplace remains wild and untamed. Twelve years have passed since that cold and rainy November day in 2007, and though we’ve yet to return, I will always remember the Elaho.

 

******* Author’s Note *******

In my search for any kind of report on the Elaho- Meager hike, I came across but one good representation of what it’s like from a two people who managed to do it before the Cesna Creek washout. Thanks to Trudel and Andre for telling this story, which for all intents and purposes may not be duplicated for a while!

Dedicated to John Mann, lead singer of Spirit of the West, who lost his battle with dementia today, on November 20, 2019, at the age of 57. Live life well, you never know how long you’ve got! Thanks for the memories, John.

 

 

 

 

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