The Harris Creek Spruce

Picture in your mind an ancient coastal temperate rainforest, undisturbed by man. Moss laden branches reach high into the canopy from the massive trunks that anchor them to terra firma. Home to considerable biodiversity and abundant wildlife, places like these are among the finest examples of nature at work. Everything is purposeful, from the smallest cone, to the chattering of the Red Squirrel, to the fallen giant decaying quietly amidst the ferns.

Duncan Morrison, enjoying the company of a giant Sitka Spruce in this frame! Ancient forests can never be replaced. It takes centuries for them to mature, not decades!

Waxing poetic about venerable forests, however, all too often falls on deaf ears. As a species, we simply haven’t had the foresight to steward them effectively, rendering immutable change. Early timber management was based on having an infinite resource, while preservation was scarcely a concept. Yet even during the absolute heyday of logging, a time when bravado ruled the day, men were sometimes motivated to save trees. I like to think the Harris Creek Spruce, near Port Renfrew in the San Juan Valley, embodies that very spirit!

Harris Creek Canyon, from the bridge

Full scale commercial logging commenced in the San Juan Valley in the early 1890s, and several camps in the area employed scores of hard working men for many decades following. In the beginning, especially, the work was difficult, dangerous, and time consuming. Several generations of people made their homes in the region, and almost all were supported by the timber industry in one way or another. At the same time, it’s important to remember that much of the natural resources taken from those forests did not fairly benefit the indigenous people of the region. I recommend viewing Early Logging in the San Juan Valley as an excellent historical background for some further information and images. It is a highly informative presentation.

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Early logging in the area was accomplished with the help of railways. This is a crew on the old Granite Creek Trestle

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The logging railway and Harris Creek Camp… Source: Early Logging in the San Juan Valley

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Some of the many hard working men of Harris Creek Camp…  Source: Early Logging in the San Juan Valley

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In 1959, truck logging was introduced and the railway faded into the past … Source: Early Logging in the San Juan Valley

Since the turn of the twentieth century, the vast majority of the forest in the Harris Creek drainage has been cut not once, but twice. How then, to explain a lone and towering Sitka Spruce, resting beside the onrushing waters of the creek and a stately grove of Bigleaf Maple trees? Someone, at some point, must have felt compelled by its countenance, and urged the timber barons to spare it. Whatever the reason, the tree still stands today!

 BC Big Tree Committee chair Ira Sutherland   checking the measurement of the Harris Creek Spruce. 

For those wondering, the Harris Creek Spruce, protected officially since 2012, sits on a small forest recreation site not too distant from Lizard and Fairy Lakes, where you’ll also find more old growth forest and the nearest camping facilities.

Thanks to Ancient Forest Alliance for this map of big trees in the area. Please visit their website and learn more about the endangered forests of British Columbia

This spruce, sixty one metres tall and having a diameter of four metres at breast height, is quite likely at least five centuries old! It ranks ninth in size for Sitka Spruce trees in the BC Big Tree Registry. To find the tree, drive the Pacific Marine Circle Route toward Port Renfrew from Lake Cowichan, and watch for a small pullout on your left. Look for an inconspicuously placed white sign with red lettering on a roadside tree. Remember, it’s not difficult to miss if you’re driving too fast. An easy five minute walk gets you to the tree, even if you saunter. Encircled by a rustic picket fence to protect its sensitive root system, this giant makes a lasting first impression!

Peering into the canopy of the Harris Creek Spruce
The tree has been there since long before colour photos existed, so I thought I’d pay homage to it in black and white, in which the first pictures were taken!

There are many who would take the justifiable stance that the Harris Creek Spruce differs little from a zoo exhibit, and that’s fair comment. The point they are making, of course, is that preserving entire stands of ancient forest has much more value than saving a singular tree. Even today, the forest industry pushes the ridiculous, entrenched narrative that old trees are nothing but depreciating assets. In truth, seeing the forest solely as a commodity is what has us mired in the mess we’re in today, while our planet continues to suffer irreparable environmental damage.

The Harris Creek Spruce, a true survivor! Is it nothing more than a zoo  exhibit? I think of it as much more, as a sign that we could still decide to preserve much more of our remaining ancient forest

We must continue making it abundantly clear to our leaders, and to industry, that forest preservation must be a priority. If we’re going to succeed, it will be with a unified effort! The Harris Creek Spruce is a grand specimen, without a doubt, but we need to be seeing the forest for all of its wonders, not just a few. 

Ancient forest is never replaceable. Stands like these take millennia to evolve

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