Exploring Qualicum Heritage Forest

Qualicum Beach, to most, is a quiet seaside community on Vancouver Island’s east coast. Sitting in the shadow of Mt Arrowsmith beside Salish Sea, not far from Parksville, it’s best known as a summer resort and a great golf location. If you start to look around,  however, there’s a lot more there than first meets the eye.

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Qualicum Beach

Earlier this week when looking at a map, my eyes came to rest on a most interesting name: Qualicum Heritage Forest. Tree aficionado that I am, that was something I had to see for myself, so my son and I jumped in the van and headed out to investigate!

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The trailhead on Crescent Road East is where we began our hike

We  arrived in early afternoon, parking at the trailhead on Crescent Road East, not really knowing what to expect. The online reviews all seemed quite favourable, but what we discovered was so much more. As hikes go, this one’s a most pleasant walk. It’s not going to test your endurance, rather, it’s a relatively easy stroll suited to people of all ages.

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A tall and leaning Douglas fir, 400 years old and also a onetime survivor of fire
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The Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga Menzieszi
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The bark of ancient firs is always a fascinating study
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On the trail

Just imagine, an enclave of perfectly preserved old growth forest, with towering Douglas firs rising skyward. Nearby, the tranquil waters of Beach Creek wind their way to the not too distant ocean. The woods are alive with the sounds of birds, and as you follow the trails, you find yourself walking in a world of wonder. Now what if I told you that this forest was actually a fifty acre plot set right in the middle of town, surrounded by houses, a golf course, and even a historic mansion that’s now a hotel? You’d probably have a few more questions, wouldn’t you? I know I certainly did!

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My son has always enjoyed his walks in the forest. Just for scale, he’s about 6’2″ and 200 lbs
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Three trees, all over four centuries old!

To answer a few questions about how this park came to be, let’s start with a history of this part of Qualicum Beach. Near the turn of the twentieth century, this forest was part of a large parcel of land which was comprised of the nearby golf course, the old Qualicum Beach Inn, and half a dozen large lots along Crescent Road. It was then owned by a British consortium called Merchant’s Trust and Trading. The town itself was really just getting started in those days. Brigadier General Noel Money was the next landowner. He moved with his family from England in 1914 to manage the land holdings and the Inn. During WW1, the hotel served as a convalescent hospital for a time, which the Prince of Wales visited in 1918.

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The old Qualicum Beach Hotel, which had to be demolished back in 1971 …photo Royal Museum Archives, Qualicum Beach Museum

Noel Money was quite the socialite, and entertained many dignitaries and celebrities, including the King of Siam, and Hollywood stars such as Errol Flynn, Shirley Temple, Spencer Tracey, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby. Money was well liked by the locals, providing many jobs through the resort. When he passed away in 1941 his property was sold to Major James Lowery of Calgary, of Alberta’s Home Oil Company.

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Brigadier General Noel Money…photo Qualicum Beach Museum

That brings us to 1954, when a man named Bobby Brown took over Home Oil and bought the golf course as well as Noel Money’s residence. Brown, also well regarded, owned the lands until his death in 1972. The Brown properties were then subsequently held in a trust run by Arthur Brown, who had run the Qualicum Beach Inn until its demolition in 1971. He later sold the golf course to the Town of Qualicum in 1981. Finally, in 1995, the Brown family decided it was time to sell the the mansion and its five acres, and the six adjoining lots.

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The popular Qualicum Beach Memorial Golf Course as it looks today. That’s Mt Arrowsmith in the background…photo property of Qualicum Beach Memorial Golf Course

It was the following year when this tale took a very interesting turn. As the story goes, local resident Anne Klees was out for a walk when she found a piece of paper that had come to rest on the street. Picking it up, she realized it was a detailed map that showed plans to develop the fifty acres of ancient forest into 110 building lots! Almost immediately, Anne and her husband Leo committed to raising funds to purchase the lands by forming the Brown Property Preservation Society. It took them over eight years to raise the money, but they were successful by 2004, with the help of the Town of Qualicum Beach. It’s a fine example of what a community with vision can accomplish when they work together to save a special place!

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The Brown Property Preservation Society was integral in saving these forests as parkland

The former Brown Mansion ( Noel Money’s house) still thrives today under new ownership, and is now a hotel known as Crown Mansion. It has seen considerable renovation and improvement over the years but strongly maintains the original character, history and craftsmanship of its 1914 construction.

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Brown Mansion as it looks today, now known as Crown Mansion

Being relatively new to Vancouver Island, browsing through photos of the hotel was a bit nostalgic for me, as before we moved here we had lived in a much smaller home from that same bygone era! When you look at the pictures, it’s easy to envision Rita Hayworth coming down a flight of stairs, John Wayne telling stories by the fire, or maybe even Errol Flynn with a drink or two just listening to the radio.

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Images courtesy of Crown Mansion

I realize that was a long journey down Memory Lane, but I like to think a little history adds flair to a good story! That said, I return you to Qualicum Heritage Forest, which, thanks to local citizens, is about as unchanged as you could hope for. Most of the elder specimens in the park are Douglas firs in the range of 400 years old!

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My son with a 500 year old Douglas fir
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Looking up at that same forest giant…
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A closer look at the upper canopy here

Beach Creek, we learned, is still a salmon bearing stream. The name “Qualicum”, in the Pentlatch language, translates appropriately as “Where the Dog (Chum) Salmon Run”. Care has been taken to keep the stream in pristine condition, and regular spawning runs have been reasonably successful.

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Beach Creek is a protected salmon stream, please treat it with respect

The monarch of the forest is a massive Douglas fir that is nearly eight feet in diameter and between  700 and 800 years old, according to estimates. It’s thick, gnarled bark shows not only its marvellous age, but also the work of generations of Pileated Woodpeckers whose holes dot its incredible trunk. We spent quite a bit of time with this tree, examining it from all sides. Several of the locals stopped by to say hello, and you could clearly see how proud they were of the park, with good reason. One told me that the forest was also home to both Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls!

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This Douglas fir alone is a good enough reason to visit this park
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The trunk’s thick layer of bark has been the scene of a lot of Pileated Woodpecker activity
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A vertical panorama of this Qualicum Beach giant

The Qualicum Beach area is within the Moist Maritime Coastal Douglas fir biogeoclimatic zone, which runs from sea level to about 150 metres in elevation. The region lies in a rain shadow created by the Vancouver Island Mountains, so summers are dry and hot, while winters are rainy and relatively mild. Since the vast majority of this particular zone has already been logged, original stands like Qualicum Heritage Forest have high ecological value! There are also some healthy Western Red Cedars, and, in the wetter areas, the occasional Sitka Spruce tree.

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A fern filled clearing in one of the park’s wetter areas
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Sitka Spruce trees
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Much of the east coast of Vancouver Island has seen its forest logged quite some time ago, as this interpretive sign shows visitors
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Afternoon sunlight hits the path

All told, my son and I spent a couple of hours in the park before we headed home. It doesn’t really take that much time to walk the trails but when you take a lot of photos like I do it sure does! The next time you find yourself in Qualicum Beach I highly recommend  a visit to Qualicum Heritage Forest. It’s definitely time well spent.

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Until next time!

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