It conjures up the grandest of images, like, say, the sturdiest of stone castles standing high on a bluff above the crashing waves of the North Sea, seemingly indestructible. While that may be fun to imagine, how many among you would have thought the name actually referred to a tree? Set deep within the forests of Lynn Headwaters Regional Park, Norvan’s Castle is, by volume, the fourth largest Western Hemlock on the planet. Its nine and a half foot diameter at breast height also makes it the widest one on record! The three trees that are of larger volume are all found south of the border on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula.
First noted by the late tree hunting legend Randy Stoltmann, the tree is only a short distance off the Coliseum Mountain Trail, not too far from the banks of Norvan Pools, at an elevation of 765 metres. The top of this giant’s main trunk was broken off at roughly 116 feet many years ago, and the six major live reiterations, according to well known tree scientist Robert Van Pelt, manage to reach a height of 149 feet. At 45 feet off the forest floor, Norvan’s Castle is still over six feet in diameter, which is incredible for a Western Hemlock!
Norvan’s Castle, aside from being a remarkable specimen, also occupies a unique ecological niche. While the Western Hemlock is also found at lower elevations, right down to sea level, pathogens exist there that nearly always prevent its kind from exceeding 200 years in age. It’s only at higher elevations within its range that it reaches maximum size and greater age. It’s thought that temperature and soil conditions, as well as the earlier onset of winter, may contribute to this phenomena, but the reasons may be unexplained as yet. The same, for example, can be said of its frequent companion, the Pacific Silver Fir, which also tends to reach its apex in such subalpine forests. In the Pacific Northwest, that habitat is often shared with Mountain Hemlock and or Yellow Cedar as well. Whatever the case, these unique growing conditions do produce champions, and these zones are definitely worth more exploration!
The forests immediately below Norvan’s Castle were once home to one of British Columbia’s most spectacular old growth coastal temperate rainforests. Now protected by park status, they were extensively logged during the previous century, though traces do remain throughout the Lynn Creek Valley. In order to reach the tree, one must first hike over seven kilometres through second growth trees, with many a gigantic stump giving rise to memories of what once existed there. It’s a timely reminder that we need to preserve what is left of these stands before they all vanish!
It was in 2005, on a hike to Coliseum Mountain, when Doug and I first happened upon the tree. It’s located on a short, flagged spur off the main trail, with plenty of underbrush obscuring its location. It was scarcely 6 am in the morning when we saw it, at the beginning of a very long day, but it most certainly made a momentous impression on us!
It’s notable that the trail is made off limits by the GVRD during winter months because it does cross a number of debris chutes which have been vulnerable to both landslides and avalanches over the years. Should you be in the vicinity, you should be experienced at assessing the hazards of difficult terrain and be equipped with all the necessary survival gear. It’s worth remembering that the life of a young man named Ben Mostardi was lost here in January of 2005, just months before we visited this tree, when he fell in a ravine and sadly died from his injuries. A memorial bench on Lynn Headwaters’ Varley Trail commemorates his untimely passing.
The recent history of this area certainly reinforces the oft repeated saying that “Geologic time is now! ” In 1998, a massive avalanche, originating above on the slopes of the North Needle, tore free and razed a sizeable area above Norvan’s Castle, causing the creek to be dammed. The resultant clearing was ominously later renamed Norvan Meadows, of all things! The creek remained blocked for an indeterminate amount of time, but rains eventually released the debris, and it continued on down the valley, destroying much in its path. In the end, the waters carried over Norvan Falls and took out the bridge below them completely, on their way to Lynn Creek. I happened to be in the area about a month later and saw the resultant carnage, which was something to behold! I heard it called a once in five hundred year event, and I’m not sure what that implies but its power was indisputable.
Oddly enough, I have not managed to revisit Norvan’s Castle since 2005, despite my best intentions. The closest I came to doing so was about four years ago, on a wintry day. As if to illustrate my earlier warnings about upper Norvan Creek, Chris and I had begun our hike on an unseasonably balmy January morning, only to have the weather unravel halfway through our adventure. Truthfully, we should have called it a day earlier, but we chose not to. The immortal words “I’m not a smart man”, uttered by Tom Hanks in the movie Forrest Gump, may explain why we didn’t! Despite the fact that we had brought extra layers of warm and dry clothing to change into, it proved to be a very trying day.
Not only did we fail to make it to the tree, but also, by the end of our rapid retreat to the parking lot some eight kilometres away we managed to push the boundaries of hypothermia about as far as we were comfortable doing! What we did manage to do, however, was to get in some exploration of the nearby forest and discover some fairly large Western Hemlocks.
The tree you see in the photos above here is a twin trunked hemlock almost eight feet in diameter. The trunk had fused together long ago, and it was a most unusual find! Since it wasn’t our main objective on this trek and something of a surprise, we may or may not have named it Sideshow Bob for its split personality.
In the end, it was wading through chest deep unconsolidated snow in a couple of the debris chutes that turned us around. That decision was encouraged by the freezing temperatures and driving sleet that also ensued! In the end, my conclusion was that waiting until warmer, sunnier weather would definitely have been a better plan, but doing it the hard way makes for a decent story, anyway!
This autumn, recently, I was delighted to receive the news from Doug that he had just succeeded in finding the tree once again. It took him a while to locate it, as he had no waypoint to refer to, but he persevered! The best thing is that it will be much easier for those who wish to see this tree in the years to come!
It will also be intriguing to see whether or not the shift in climate conditions due to current global warming will become an influencing factor. Norvan’s Castle, for now, thrives as much as ever, and that bodes well for its future survival. Indeed, it has already survived many centuries, and optimistically, it will see many more!
I’d like to acknowledge long time hiking companions Doug Pope, Chris Hood, and Steve McKenzie for all the time they have spent with me exploring the far corners of the North Shore Mountains. We’ve been inspired by the exploits of those who came before us, and by sharing these tales I hope to inspire future generations to get outside and discover new places!
If you’re just stopping in to read this story, I’d also like to take the time to thank you for doing just that. Wishing the best of the holiday season to all of my readers, and from my family to yours, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!