Saving the North Shore’s Big Cedar, a Call to Action

At the dawn of the twentieth century, old growth forests in the North Shore Mountains were taken for granted. So many massive trees still stood tall and strong then that it was believed their supply was nearly inexhaustible. In today’s era, sadly, we know better. The few ancient specimens that persevere are invaluable to our heritage and ecology! 

On the rugged and winding trail to Kennedy Falls in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park is just such a tree. Local hikers simply refer to it as “Big Cedar”, and it can be reached by hiking the aptly named Cedar Tree Trail. Truly, it must be seen to be appreciated!

Big Cedar!
Big Cedar has seen many admirers, especially over the past ten years…photo courtesy of Todd Moore

This leviathan makes an indelible first impression, standing resolutely in what would otherwise be a modest clearing in second growth forest. The first thing I noticed about it  was its most prominent raised limb, which brings to mind a gigantic arm defiantly punching the sky. Nearly forty years ago, conservative estimates had the tree’s age at roughly six hundred and fifty years. This Western red cedar will soon have lived nearly seven full centuries!

As you can see here, it even has a heart!
Its aura of power is unmistakeable
Big Cedar…photo courtesy of Todd Moore

My good friend Rich Sobel may have characterized it best, in calling this cedar “Tree Power” back in 2005. When he first viewed the giant, it brought to his mind the gesture made by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they received their gold and bronze medals in the 200 metre race at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympic Games. Smith and Carlos each raised an arm high in a Black Power salute, signifying, of course, the long time oppression that people of colour have fought for so long. Silver medallist Peter Norman, a white man from Australia, also wore a badge in solidarity with their statement. Rich, who is also American born, saw a visceral connection between that moment of history and the plight of Big Cedar, for the tree had managed to survive while others of its kind had been taken. I immediately saw his point; neither black lives nor old growth trees have been treated well by humanity over the course of our turbulent history.

Twisted!…photo by Rich Sobel

So how, you might inquire, did it manage to escape those crosscut saws? It may have been because early loggers felt the effort of falling it would not be profitable, or perhaps they just thought that it was worth preserving. We’ll probably never know the real answer, yet after surviving all this time, its life may finally have met with an obstacle it never expected. Big Cedar, you see, is in danger of being loved to death!

The very first photo I took of Big Cedar, back in 2001, I believe

To understand how this tree came to be threatened, it’s worth delving into a little more history. It was in the early 1900s that foreman Julius Fromme led his crews up the west side of Lynn Creek, logging very thoroughly. The terrain was rugged, and the work was backbreaking, but eventually, they razed nearly all of the pristine forest all the way up to Kennedy Falls. It’s believed, at that point, that there was a serious downturn in the demand for cedar, and the harvest was curtailed. That turned out to be a fortuitous turn of events for the ancient trees of Kennedy and Wickenden Creeks, but those are stories for another time!

You can see from this aerial shot that the trail remains quite rugged even today!…photo courtesy of Todd Moore

Decades later, in the 1930s, cutting began on the east side of Lynn Creek, under the direction of the Cedar Mills Company. Forests there met a similar fate, and once the trees were gone, so too were the loggers. Eventually, the Greater Vancouver Water District annexed what is now Lynn Headwaters Regional Park as part of Vancouver’s water supply. Access to the area then became restricted to the public, officially speaking, until the early 1980s, when the lands were rededicated as parkland. The Cedar Tree Trail, for its part, saw irregular use as an illegal dirt bike track circa the 1960s, but few if any hikers knew of its presence. Then, in the 1990s, along came the North Shore Hikers, a dedicated group of individuals who blazed and maintained a number of trails in the region. They rediscovered Julius Fromme’s old skid road and cleared the makings of today’s path to Big Cedar and Kennedy Falls. My own introduction to the route came almost twenty years ago, when finding your way in that neck of the woods was, for lack of a better expression, kind of a rustic experience!

Doug walking the remnants of Julius Fromme’s early twentieth century skid road
The spectacular Kennedy Falls, well worth visiting

Moving forward the hands of time to 2014, the decision was made to build a parking lot on Mt Fromme to accommodate local mountain bikers. That sport had become immensely popular during the 1990s, so a solution was long overdue. In the years that followed, as many know, Greater Vancouver also experienced a boom in development and recreation, and suddenly there were also many more hikers to be reckoned with. This set in motion the happenstance that led to the once quiet Cedar Tree Trail becoming insanely popular. There were two instances where floods washed out the main access road to Lynn Headwaters Park, one rather prolonged, that drove people to enter the park via that mountain bike parking on Mt Fromme. Consequently, thousands of people began to use the trail frequently.

A rainy day view of Big Cedar, 2006

Through the ever present chatter of social media, particularly Instagram, news of this new destination now spread like wildfire. There had been only minimal work done on the trail up until that time, unfortunately, and it simply wasn’t ready for the onslaught of traffic. Basic marking had been done, but the park had neither the budget nor the mandate to improve the track, which is believed to have resulted in a marked increase in the number of search and rescue calls. Eventually, more marking was accomplished, but by then the damage had been done. The route had eroded drastically, and today it is still in dire need of repair!

Today, hikers traipse over the exposed roots of the tree, not realizing the damage they are doing…photo courtesy of Todd Moore
This photo shows the considerable erosion of the forest soils, and this has been caused by the sheer volume of hikers…photo courtesy of Todd Moore

Big Cedar was once again in the crosshairs, so to speak, and its plight had fallen seriously into question. You might ask why that is, because it is protected by park status, but that’s where things get complicated. Where undergrowth and foliage once covered the ground underneath the tree, now those plants have died and dirt has washed away, exposing the tree’s root structure. This, sadly has been directly caused by increased use of the trail. To be quite honest, what is now required is complete restoration of the lost earth and plants, and the construction of a boardwalk to protect the ground beneath the tree. In the cruelest twist of irony, Big Cedar, without intervention, is essentially condemned to the status of a sacrificial tree. It may very well be killed by the very people who innocently mean to show it love!

Only a decade ago, there were plants growing in the understory here and very few of the roots were exposed. You can see graphically here how the root system is now clearly endangered…photo courtesy of Todd Moore

I write this today chiefly to inspire the people of Greater Vancouver to mount an effort to save this irreplaceable treasure. The fate of Big Cedar and its trail must first be brought to the attention of Lynn Headwaters Regional Park and the GVRD, as well as all other relevant parties! The idea that such a noble being might simply be another victim of overcrowding and destruction is too heartbreaking to accept. I may no longer be living as close to this living giant as I once did, but a part of me will always stand bravely beside it. The question beckons : “Who will take up the cause to protect and save Big Cedar?” We owe it nothing less.

The bark of this ancient giant

*******  Author’s Note *******

My above plea is very serious. This is a tree that deserves our respect and efforts to ensure its future health.  I’m now living on Vancouver Island, so I’m not well positioned to lead an effort to save Big Cedar, but I’ll always be there for the people who decide to take up its cause. I’m reminded of words from John McCrae’s well known poem, called In Flanders Fields:

“To you from failing hands we throw. The torch; be yours to hold it high.”

The torch is yours, North Vancouver, don’t be afraid to take it. It’s not too late.

Me, in Lynn Headwaters, 2004…photo by Rich Sobel

******* My sincere appreciation goes to Todd Moore and Rich Sobel, who allowed me to use a number of their photos in this story,  and to North Shore Search and Rescue for helping to keep hikers safe in the North Shore Mountains. Additional thanks to the late Randy Stoltmann, whose writings drew me to Lynn Headwaters so many years ago, and to Ralf Kelman, who was kind enough to share his knowledge with me *******

I’d like to add that within hours of this story being posted, I received a response from the GVRD, as seen here. I will update this correspondence if new information becomes available. My thanks to GVRD for the prompt response!

Screen Shot 2020-06-17 at 9.20.18 AM

This photo, from June 20, shows that preliminary work to save the tree has begun! Thank you Metro Vancouver for acting so quickly when the call was made, I’ve much respect for the immediate action!…photo by Marina Arnaud, used with permission (Thanks Marina)


4 thoughts on “Saving the North Shore’s Big Cedar, a Call to Action”

    1. I can’t seem to find that in my files, but the one measurement I have for its widest diameter is 13 feet, 6 inches. I think I remember the circumference being around 42 feet


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