It was the spring of 2004, and I was poring over an old Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC) map when four simple words caught my eye: Owl and Talon Creek. The name alone sounded intriguing enough, but there was also a grove of trees there called the Pipe Organ Firs. Recently, I’d had the chance to meet Ralf Kelman, perhaps British Columbia’s most established tree hunter, and he had told me about all the trees in the Seymour River Valley he had rediscovered. Owl and Talon Creek, he said, was not to be missed. The Douglas Firs there were as straight, true, and tall as any he’d seen. One in particular, the Will Koop Giant, was nearly eight feet in diameter and over five centuries old! Then, he added, with a smile, “There’s an incredible canyon there that you need to see!”
In order to locate the “trail”, you have to make your way to just past the 7 km mark on the Seymour Valley Trailway, after a bridge over the creek. Generally speaking, I almost always take my bike when exploring the valley because that way you can save yourself a lot of time. These days, there isn’t much to distinguish the trailhead other than the remains of a fair sized cedar stump. If you can find the old flagging, it will lead you westward about a hundred metres before turning left and swinging southward toward Pipe Organ Grove.
Will Koop, by the way, was a key figure in the conservation history of the Greater Vancouver watersheds. He was involved in an organization called SPEC, or Society Promoting Environmental Conservation. Will played a crucial role as a watchdog, exposing the activities that were taking place in what was then called the Seymour Demonstration Forest, as well as the Capilano and Seymour Watersheds. He was particularly concerned that timber harvesting was endangering Vancouver’s water supply. Since the watersheds have always been off limits to the general public, much of this occurred out of sight, out of mind, but I have distinct memories of regularly seeing logging trucks loaded with old growth timber on the old Seymour Mainline back in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the end, Will’s efforts, along with those of Ralf Kelman and the WCWC, paid off. Logging was banned in the watersheds in 1999, officially, though it actually ceased before that. The former Seymour Demonstration Forest, now controlled by the Greater Vancouver Regional District (GVRD), has changed not only in philosophy, but in name as well. It is now known as the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, or LSCR. The forests of the Seymour Valley are now fully protected!
The Pipe Organ Grove is a truly remarkable group of Douglas Firs, notable especially for their height. Firs like these become tall first, before attaining girth, relatively speaking. Many of these giants have reached over 250 feet tall, at ages of less than four hundred years. During the age of harvest, this valley was targeted for its massive Western Red Cedars, and that may explain why the firs here escaped the saws of twentieth century logging. Ralf Kelman refers to these trees as the next generation of super firs, and it was not that long ago that 300 foot firs were commonplace in the North Shore Mountains. Indeed, there are reports that a 400 foot fir was cut in neighbouring Lynn Valley’s Hastings Creek drainage at the turn of the last century. Imagine that grandeur!
The Will Koop Giant is a narrative in itself. I have had the fortune to see it frequently while it was still standing, but unfortunately, it was toppled in a storm sometime between 2007 and 2009. In a sad twist of irony, I found it to be almost as magnificent even as it lay on the forest floor as it was when it still stood. I visited the fallen giant several years ago with Steve, and we took turns walking the entire length of the trunk, which had created a huge clearing in the forest. While it was sobering to see this tree on the ground, at least there was the consolation that it had given itself completely to the soil, so completing its circle of life.
Once you’re satisfied you’ve seen all of the trees in the grove, then you’re ready to explore the upper reaches of Owl and Talon Creek. All that you need to do is locate the main tributary and follow it upward, albeit carefully. It will eventually lead you to, of all things, a steep sided box canyon guarded by the intimidating cliffs below The Needles. It’s best to undertake this part of the hike only if you have the requisite fitness, as you’ll be scrambling up loose boulders and very uneven ground.
Curiously, you will not see any water, at least initially, in the boulder strewn channel of the creek. The water is there, but it flows subterranean beneath the rocks, not uncommon in the steep drainages of the North Shore Mountains. The rock itself is largely granitic, and much of it has calved off the cliffs above, coming to rest in the canyon below.
Evidence of wildlife seems to be everywhere in this valley. The animals I have sighted are black bears, Douglas squirrels, downy woodpeckers, a Pacific Water Shrew, and a pine marten. More frequently I have seen the signs of deer and mountain lions, but I’ve yet to see those animals themselves. If you’re fortunate, you may hear the chatter of eagles in the treetops above, or the calls of ravens, as both are common to the area. You might also expect to see an owl there, befitting the creek’s name. The barred owl is frequently seen in the area, usually at dawn or dusk.
Should you decide to hike further, to the cliffs above, you’ll notice a change as you gain elevation. Almost suddenly, you can hear the sounds of running water beneath the creek bed, and soon pools of crystal clear water and tiny cascades emerge. The canyon is lined with abundant foliage, and if you look upward, the sight of the granite walls is somewhat intimidating. In short order, you’ll reach the site of a break in the cliffs where a modest waterfall sprays down the rock face.
This shot gives you an idea of the terrain. Janie and Rich seen here following up the canyon in 2005
Once you’ve climbed your way into this seldom seen gulch, you’ll quickly appreciate that you’re in a rarified company. In all my exploration of the North Shore Mountains, I’ve never come across anything quite like it! In and amongst the granite, there are wildflowers I normally have seen at higher elevations, for example, and a number of uncommon ferns grow there. It’s clear that the geological forces that fashioned Owl and Talon Canyon are still very much alive and well, and you will most assuredly get the message that it’s not a place you want to be during extreme weather!
We’ve made several attempts over the years to climb these cliffs, but usually with limited time, or due to a variety of other circumstances, we haven’t prepared well enough to succeed so far. That doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned the mission, it just means it hasn’t been completed yet! Any determined and experienced climber would savour the reward of an expansive view, I’m certain!
Of course, whether or not one summits the cliff bands does not detract much from the true spirit of the adventure. Most will be quite content to take in the surroundings and enjoy just being there, as I know I always have. It’s a most unique corner of the world, and the base of the falls sits at under 600m in elevation. There are plenty of things to investigate along the creek bed and near the many rock pools, as well.
Even the waterfall there is something of an oddity. It seems logically formed by erosion, as of course water naturally finds the path of least resistance, but rock slides above may contribute to its unusual appearance. The spray gives the optical illusion of being angular as opposed to vertical, perhaps due to the unusually narrow opening the water channels through.
What’s particularly compelling to me is that despite the fact I have visited this place at least half a dozen times, I feel I have barely scratched the surface of its potential. What lurks above its sheer walls of granite? To be honest, I’m not really sure what can be found atop those cliffs, but I do know I’m driven by curiosity to find out! For years, I’ve been led to believe that mountain goats still roam freely there, in one of the last bastions of wilderness, where only the hardiest venture. Each visit, too, I’ve noticed several different new species of plants. The very first time I was in the canyon, I even found the wet paw print of a cougar at the base of the cliffs. Where had it gone from there? Was it watching from the rocks above, or had it circled back down the canyon just as I arrived? Owl and Talon Creek always seems to leave me wanting answers, and I guess that is why I have returned there so many times!
My last visit to Owl and Talon Creek, in 2017, might have been my most memorable of all, but then, it was also my most recent one, so I may be a little biased. I knew at the time that we were planning our move to Vancouver Island, and I may just have been influenced by the notion that this valley would no longer be so close at hand. As such, I found myself trying to absorb everything I could, as though I were filming it, at least in my mind’s eye.
Steve had brought a pair of hammocks, and after we walked the canyon, we set up camp right below the Pipe Organ Grove, just to wile away another hour or so. It occurred to me at the time that as much as I had explored the valley, I’d seldom taken the time to linger there. As we spent those minutes staring at the treetops and listening to the calls of birds, I remember thinking that this would always be a place I’d never fully leave, for a piece of my heart would always be there. It’s my belief that that nature provides opportunities like this for us every day, and that I could only wish that everyone would be fortunate enough to realize the importance they present. It is time spent in nature that has the power to rejuvenate us, and enriches our souls in ways we don’t completely comprehend. Those moments are among the life’s greatest of rewards!
I hope that by sharing this story, many others might have the chance to explore this truly special place. To be honest, it was my belief for a number of years, that perhaps it was too fragile to publicize its existence, but as time persisted, my feeling changed. It would be a shame if others never had the opportunity to experience Owl and Talon Creek, and see it as I have. I simply ask, should you choose to visit, that you leave absolutely no trace when you depart. It is a unique and rugged landscape, yet it’s also considerably vulnerable, so treat it with the utmost respect. I also recommend wearing a climbing helmet, due to the risk of rock slides. On my early excursions I didn’t, and I now acknowledge that not doing so was an unnecessary risk. Be mindful and prepared, as this is a wilderness experience!