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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.