The Hollyburn Fir is an absolute revelation! Sitting almost inconspicuously in a shaded forest clearing on West Vancouver’s Brewis Trail, it has somehow managed not only to avoid being logged, but also to evade even being discovered until 1985, at least officially! Its trunk measures over ten feet in diameter and its age is estimated at about 1000 years old. The tree was nominated for the B.C. Big Tree Registry by Randy and Greg Stoltmann, both West Vancouver residents at the time, I believe. It still ranks highly on British Columbia’s list of top ten Douglas Firs, as far as I know.
You would think that an enormous Douglas Fir would have drawn more attention over the years, especially as it resides in an area that once had extensive logging and has also been used considerably for recreation. It may just have been that it was a well kept secret by locals, as there are even eighty year old cabins in the vicinity that are less than two kilometres from this tree!
It’s no surprise, however, that it was found on the lower slopes of Hollyburn Mountain. A large scale logging operation at the turn of the twentieth century did a fair share of harvesting in both Lawson Creek and nearby Brothers Creek. The forests of Lower Hollyburn were legendary! Many of the trees taken in those days were between 500 and 1000 years old in age. Even so, many grand specimens do remain standing, but with certainty, the Hollyburn Fir may just outshine them all!
If you haven’t had the chance to visit this giant, I suggest that you do. In a world that persists in seeing ancient forests simply for their dollar value, trees that have lived for a millennium are in increasingly short supply. This one, at least, is protected from that avarice, and to see the Hollyburn Fir is like travelling back in time!
I’ll call him “A”, and ultimately, it was his vision. His brainchild was to build a unique trail joining several challenging obstacles on the east side of Mosquito Creek Canyon to connect with a substantial log crossing on Mosquito Creek. From there, a serpentine path would twist its way through a superb grove of Western Red Cedars on Grouse Mountain that had somehow escaped the crosscut saws of early twentieth century loggers. It would eventually meet with the well worn Lower Grouse Mountain Highway (LGMH) Trail, which could then be used to access other paths. That trail would come to be known as Dreamweaver (click here for map)
Our unnamed trail builder was a highly skilled woodsman with an impressive array of carpentry skills. The evidence shows that he is also someone who seems to like to tackle a difficult project. In other words, the perfect person to battle the route’s obstructions. The crux of the matter was a sharply sloped hillside high above Mosquito Creek bisected by a jagged ravine which had been worsened by decades of flooding. There was also the usual problem of massive fallen trees, not at all uncommon in this canyon.
But were those downed trees really a problem?
“A” certainly didn’t think so. There was a massive log that spanned the hillside, but it was not quite safe for passage, at least not for most hikers. So what was the solution? In time, he figured it out! He would build a bridge using that fallen giant as a base.
In actual fact, that bridge had two incarnations because he wasn’t happy with the prototype. The final version would even be bolstered by wire rope cables. There would also be a sturdy cedar plank deck and some handrails at one end. The result, after all those trials and tribulations, was a secure bridge that could withstand all but the absolute worst of Mosquito Creek’s propensity for natural disaster. It was a complex process into which he put his heart, soul, and determination. Days of work were required, as well as plenty of ingenuity, to get the job completed. A chainsaw, winch, plenty of physical strength, and the occasional friend also proved helpful.
So was he successful? Absolutely! The Kwai Bridge, as he named it, has stood solidly for the last seventeen years that I know of! Once this feat of engineering was mastered, then the next stage was to find a way to cross the oft raging waters of Mosquito Creek Canyon.
Once down on the banks of the creek, “A” once again found a similar solution to the problem of crossing Mosquito Creek’s main tributary. There was another fallen old growth giant admirably wedged across the waters! It could be used to bridge over to a series of big logs on the west bank of the creek! He set to planing it flat and etching it for improved traction. With all of that accomplished, all that remained was to choose an entry point into the forest above, where the track would continue its way into that splendid grove of cedars hidden nearby.
I have never had the chance to thank him personally, but the dedication he put into this project can only described as a labour of love. The North Shore Mountains have had more than their share of iconic trail builders, and Dreamweaver’s creator certainly takes his rightful place on that honour roll. Soon after it was built, the trail became a fast favourite of mine, and in the rest of this story I’ll try to show you why!
As the map shows, the trail actually begins in the maze of old skid roads near the top of St Mary’s Avenue in North Vancouver, where it makes use of a variety of different tracks which get it into the Mosquito Creek Canyon. For the purposes of this story I simply describe the trail from the point at which Dreamweaver intersects the Mt Fromme Trail, because I generally skip the conventional access and begin quite near where the Kwai Bridge is located ( I hike in via the Mt Fromme Trail which begins near the water towers at the top of Prospect Drive).
When some local officials first saw the Kwai Bridge ten years later, there was a lot of disdain for it. In fact, though, despite its unorthodox construction, it has proven its worthiness over and over again. When you cross it yourself, take the time to linger and appreciate the effort it took to make it a reality, as you gaze down the sharp defile into the canyon.
Once you are across the bridge, your journey into the old growth forest begins! There is a nice group of cedars to wander among before the trail makes its way downhill to reach Mosquito Creek’s log crossing.
The next segment of your excursion takes you across a slide slope that released about twenty years ago, with its origins half a kilometre uphill from the creek. The trail here becomes crude, with loose gravel, rock and exposed earth. New trees and foliage are struggling, with modest success, to reestablish growth on the rough hillside.
Once you’re down on the banks of the creek, you’ll be looking to cross it, then head slightly downstream on the opposite side. If waters are high, you might find that fording the creek is now necessary, because that sturdy downed tree that makes the crossing has shifted somewhat over the years during storms.
In heavy rains, Mosquito Creek is not the place you want to be! In fact, further down the canyon the District of North Vancouver has even had to construct some elaborate cages of wire rope cable in order to catch and control debris torrents. Despite its proximity to North Vancouver, there have also been a disproportionate number of hikers that have lost their way in this canyon. Be well prepared if you go hiking there, and allow plenty of time so you don’t get caught out by darkness.
The trail is sparsely marked once you reach the west side of the creek and enter the woods, so pay close attention to the footbed. The forest soon works its charm wonderfully as you hike upward once again. On a sunny morning I cannot think of a place I’d rather be, as every step adds to the enchantment.
The silvered and spiky treetops pierce the upper canopy as the sounds of woodpeckers and songbirds fill the air. The forest takes on an entirely different character; Douglas Squirrels chatter loudly, laying claim to their territory, and the sounds of ravens and eagles are often heard echoing above.
It isn’t unusual to see a deer, pine marten, or a black bear, and, on more rare occasions, even a bobcat or cougar. Barred Owls swoop silently in the treetops above sometimes, in search of prey. The creek itself is home to the Coastal Tailed Frog, a blue listed species in southwestern British Columbia, and the feisty Pacific Water Shrew.
The trees in this grove are centuries old, as wide as eleven feet in diameter, and the forest supports a diverse and mature understory which is wonderful to photograph. There are also immense boulders and several small brooks that trickle through the glades. It’s hard to believe that you’re so close to civilization when you walk there, and it’s very easy to lose yourself in the moment. Places like these must be preserved for future generations to appreciate!
You gain a few hundred metres in elevation as the track continues, and by the time you reach LGMH , you’re suddenly among the second growth trees again. Soon after that you will also encounter the signs of human detritus along the trail.
In terms of expediency, taking LGMH back down to the toward the top of Skyline Drive is the most efficient return to where you began, if you take my preferred route. Eventually you will reach the Baden Powell Trail and follow it down to the Mosquito Creek Bridge, (which isn’t far from the top of Prospect Drive). The Baden Powell Trail then loops back to Dreamweaver, and all of the other trails that connect to it.
Of all of the places in the North Shore Mountains I’ve hiked, the Dreamweaver Trail takes you through some of the most idyllic forest you’ll find anywhere. Hopefully you get the opportunity to explore the Mosquito Creek Valley more closely, though I do have to happily warn you that one visit probably won’t be enough. Just to prove it, here are some more images that showcase Dreamweaver’s beauty!
To close this out this diatribe, I’ll leave you with this 1976 music video by Gary Wright. I think it’s reasonable to assume his song just may have inspired the name of this trail. In any event, the music does seem to suit a walk through the wilderness, if you ask me. I played it while browsing the photos in this report and it somehow it just sounded right. I’ll let you decide if you agree!
There are times, I am reminded, that a simple gesture of kindness leads to a great deal of happiness. Fifteen years ago I was given scanned excerpts of an out of print map published by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC) by my good friend Vida, and that aided me in a long quest to rediscover the hidden old growth trees of the Seymour Valley. It has been a memorable journey, and during those years not only was I able to find all of the trees on the map, but also many more of the valley’s secrets.
The Temple Grove of Giants was really the first part of the map that captured my attention, with its high concentration of ancient Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars. The Seymour River Valley had been extensively logged earlier in the twentieth century, so how had these trees managed to survive? Thankfully, there will be no more timber harvesting in the North Shore Mountains, so they are at least now protected for future generations.
In order to get the big picture, I suggest reading Tolkien, Story of a Tree, in which I detail a broader history of the Temple Grove of Giants, but for today, I’ll focus on the Temple Giant.
Well over six centuries have passed since the Temple Giant took root in the forests of Hydraulic Creek. Since that was long before the time of colonization, its life was relatively undisturbed for most of that duration, but the early 1920s brought about considerable change. It is said that a human caused fire in 1936 broke out while fallers were working in the area, and authorities closed down their camp at that point. There was also The Great Depression to contend with, when timber prices plummeted, and that may have helped to save the grove as well. Years later, in the 1990s, when there were plans to begin harvesting again, the efforts of the WCWC finally led to the end of logging in Greater Vancouver’s watersheds.
The Temple Giant is without a doubt one of the most impressive Douglas Firs I have seen, certainly ranking in the top five as far as British Columbia is concerned. Its diameter is well over eight feet at breast height and it pierces the skies at a height of over 250 feet! It may be as old as 700 years in my estimation. There are many others in the Temple Grove of Giants that are over four hundred years in age, in fact. If you’re interested in a visit, you’ll probably want to bring your bike so that you can cycle the Seymour Valley Trailway to the Hydraulic Creek Bridge. It’s an excursion well worth making!
It was an early October afternoon a few years back when Doug and I finally got around to doing something we probably should have done years before. What was that, you ask? Hiking to the summit of Mt Seymour to catch the sunset! When I originally posted the photos from this trek, a lot of people I know said “Is that the first time you’ve done that? I thought you guys did that all the time.” Truth is, as often as both of us had explored the remotest corners of Mt Seymour Provincial Park, we had never actually lingered over a sunset there. There had been, of course, many treks where we’d seen the sunrise, but it was high time to change that equation.
So it was that Saturday evening Doug and I were headed up the mountain at about 5 pm, on yet another flawless autumn day. The plan was to scramble the south face of Pump Peak, then head over the shoulder below its summit, bypass Tim Jones Peak, then get to the summit of Mt Seymour well before the magic hour. The climb up was fun, with afternoon shadows providing a welcome respite from rays of sunshine that were unusually warm for October.
We set a decent pace uphill, reaching the summit by about 615 pm, where we soon broke out the cameras and refreshments. The sunset was an incredible show, and we had the place entirely to ourselves. Unbeknownst to Doug, I’d packed up four beers, some chocolate bars, and a sandwich, so we were well prepared for the show.
Although Mt Seymour is so close to the ever burgeoning metropolis of Vancouver, it is sometimes easy to forget that it is also the gateway to an expansive tract of wilderness. Few people find themselves on its summit at day’s end and fewer still venture beyond it, especially as darkness approaches.
The ever changing light was a delight to photograph, and we spent a good hour and a half savouring every moment. From the towers of Mt Judge Howay and Meslilloet to the glaciers of Mamquam Mountain and Garibaldi, from the city lights of Vancouver to the distant peaks of Vancouver Island, every mountain seemed visibly pronounced in some shade of vivid colour. I still recall it as one of the finer golden hours I’ve had a chance to see! Here are some of the more notable images I captured.
I could go on and on about all of the things I love about Mt Seymour, but what I have always liked best is that you are in an alpine environment with unrivalledviews of the city.
There is no tram to pay for on the way down, foryou must hike and scramble over rock, not staircases, and if you want beer you’d better bring your own, just the way I like it. When I moved to the Lower Mainland many years ago from Montreal, it was the first Coast Mountain I ever hiked. It is wilderness in every way, however, for those uninitiated, despite its proximity to civilization. Once you are above the ski runs and into the backcountry try not to forget that all the inherent dangers remain, along with all the potential for solitude and adventure.
With beers downed and photos taken, we packed up to head down via the standard parks trail. By the time we reached Tim Jones Peak the light had all but vanished, so then we were relying on headlamps, a GPS track, and our familiarity with the trail. When finding your way in darkness, the old route up the face of Pump Peak is somewhat harder to navigate, so we purposefully allowed more time for the descent. Hiking in the dark is in itself a skill, and not to be underestimated. For me, it’s something I don’t commonly do, but for Doug, as a North Shore Rescue member, it’s something he does all the time. It gives one a whole new sense of appreciation about what it takes to locate and rescue lost hikers at night. What was also interesting was that I discovered I really do know every inch of the Mt Seymour Trail, dark or otherwise. There are, by the way, always a headlamp and an extra set of batteries or two in my pack because lighting is never underrated!
All told, it took an hour and fifteen minutes to hike up, about an hour and ten minutes on the summit, and less than an hour and a half to hike down in the dark to make itthree hours fifty minutes for the trip. Highly recommended, but only if you are very well prepared, have excellent navigational skills, and you know the mountain well. If not, why not camp on the summit? I think I’ll do that myself sometime!
The Blue Cedar Grove. It’s a title that stirs the imagination, kind of like The Golden Spruce, I remember thinking, when I first read the words. I never did remember to ask Ralf Kelman exactly why he’d chosen such a name, but as soon as I saw it on the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC) map, I knew that I needed to see these trees!
The first trip I made to this grove was hardly a day filled with great inspiration. It was a one of those spring days when it’s hard to anticipate what way the weather is going to turn. In short, I guessed wrong. Only half an hour into my bike ride up the valley, light rain began to fall, escalating into a torrential downpour by the time I had left my ride to hunt for the trees. I did decide to press on, but it seemed the further I walked the harder it poured! I made it as far as a soaking wet, moss covered boulder field before I conceded defeat.
The high point of the day was returning to my truck to don dry clothing, devour a sandwich, and drink a thermos of hot chocolate laced with Grand Marnier! ( I highly recommend that last part if you haven’t tried it before, just don’t drink and drive. Take a very long nap, like I did. )
It was four years later in 2008 that I finally returned. On that occasion I chose perfect weather, with the sun shining warmly on my birthday, no less! In a scant twenty minutes from where I left my bike I reached the grove, which certainly did not disappoint.
Tall and towering cedars, draped in moss, set the scene. The forest floor and understory were a carpet of innumerable greens, though it was far from easy to decide where to place your next step.
I was quite surprised to also find a number of very nice Douglas Firs interspersed here and there, and along the creek a number of massive Bigleaf Maples held court, shading me from the midday sun. Nearby, a quizzical deer observed me clambering about, no doubt wondering what in the world I was doing there!
After enjoying the grove, I was soon drawn uphill, following the dull roar of water that I could hear in the background. When I found the source of the noise it was a surprise to me. A winter avalanche had roared down the creek canyon right down to an elevation of 500 meters. By the month of May the snows had melted out and the creek had created a cavern beneath them, leaving me something highly unique to explore. I dared not venture inside it, though, as I could hear the creaking and groaning of shifting ice echoing from within.
Some years later I was to learn that this creek was highly volatile indeed, as during heavy rains the entire couloir released and stripped out the creek bed right down to earth. You can still view the scars of that event in Google Earth images, another five years after it occurred! Here then is the walk up the canyon as I viewed it that day…
Having finally run out of time, I descended the gully once again, vowing to return. The next decade, however, would have a lot to say about whether that was going to happen, but suffice it to say that I was a very happy hiker on that sunny afternoon in late May!
In 2018, I would finally return again, on another absolutely resplendent day. I knew that soon I was to be moving away from the North Shore Mountains, and the Blue Cedar Grove compelled me to visit one more time. The day of discovery was a rewarding one, as I found several sizeable Pacific Yews , hiding in plain sight as they always seem to be. One of them was so twisted and gnarled that I named it “The Elk”, for its upper branches that gave the appearance of antlers.
I will never forget having lunch on the banks of O’Hayes Creek that day, warmed by the sun as countless birds sang nearby. It may seem trite to say I feel as though I’ve developed a bond with this place over the years, but I can’t think of any other way describe it. It is, without a doubt, one of the Seymour Valley’s special places. Here is a guided tour of what I experienced that day.
Imagine, if you can, the Seymour Valley in the late 1800s. It was a land almost completely undisturbed, abundant with wildlife, and blanketed with one of the finest coastal temperate rainforests this land had to offer.
With the influx of settlers and the further displacement of indigenous peoples, however, everything changed. Much of the valley bottom timber was harvested, and the majority that remains many years later is in the stages of recovery. There are, however, places that do remain relatively pristine, and I’ve made it a passion of mine to search for them. The Blue Cedar Grove certainly possesses that magic in abundance, a place that always fills me with gratitude. Should you take the time to seek it out, I’m sure you’ll agree!
Fifteen years ago, I cycled up the Seymour Valley’s East Side Road on an impeccable spring day. The intention was to find the approach trail that led up to Vicar Lakes and Mt Bishop, which I accomplished, but what I discovered was something else again.
Just minutes after wondering whether I ought to just head home after spotting what I thought was the tail end of a very big cat near the trailhead, I gathered myself and continued up the forest path toward Mt Bishop. I was glad I did!
At first I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but upon further examination, they were not. There in in an auspicious clearing in the forest was the monstrous trunk of a venerable Western Red Cedar. Due to the second growth trees that surrounded it, at first it was difficult to tell whether or not I was looking at a live tree or not, or even if it was a stump. I began to circle this giant, trying to get a look at its canopy high above the forest floor. Sure enough, it was alive, and it was immediately apparent just how ancient it really was, perhaps a thousand years old. What’s more, a somewhat smaller tree of similar old age sat quietly beside it in the shadows. This was a revelation!
It isn’t every day that you find two trees, each over seven centuries old! A decade and a half later, they are both still thriving well, and perhaps receive just a few dozen visitors every year. It’s hard to imagine that once trees like these were a common sight in the Seymour Valley, but heartening to know that their status is now well protected. See them while you can!
Late in May of 2007, Chris and I decided it was high time to explore the Wickenden Creek Valley above the 400 m elevation. While we were uncertain as to what route to forge, we ended up figuring we’d just fly by the seat of our pants and just choose a random direction. Is that because the very nature of tree hunting is that you allow instincts to guide you? Well, not really, that’s just how we roll! Here’s how that day played out, well over a decade ago now.
Instead of enduring the rude awakening of fording the icy waters of Lynn Creek at the Third Debris Chute, we decided to walk the Headwaters Trail and visit one of my favourite trees first. Located not far off the path (to Norvan Falls) at roughly 4.7kms, this ancient Western Red Cedar carries with it a very illustrious tale. If ever you take the time to visit, you’ll know just what I mean! For more on that topic, just read The Story of The Survivor .
After saying hello to my old friend The Survivor, all we needed to do was bushwhack down to the east bank of Lynn Creek, where I now knew we would be able to cross over a massive fallen fir to the other side. We carefully picked our way through a field of Devil’s Club, aka Oplopanax Horridus, a well known spiny hazard for all would be tree hunters. If you see it, do not touch it!
This is a truly picturesque part of Lynn Creek Valley, with its wide, rocky banks and sweeping mountain views. I remember thinking at the time how fortunate I was to experience places like this so very close to home, and so close to the sprawling metropolis of Greater Vancouver!
The log crossing once again proved reliable, but it was the last time we had the opportunity to use it in ideal conditions. It was incorporated as part of a rough trail blazed by the North Shore Hikers in 1985, yet mysteriously, in 2009, when I saw it next, it had been deliberately stripped of all its bark and some of its branching, making it much more dangerous to cross. I have yet to learn exactly how or why that happened, but in any event I am not unwilling to ford Lynn Creek when conditions are right.
Now safely across Lynn Creek, Chris and I kicked up an eroded bank then worked our way southwest into the Wickenden Creek Valley. Fortune was shining upon us that day, as the sun emerged from the clouds and the day became comfortably warm. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves among the giants again. Lower Wickenden Creek has an ambience that is increasingly hard to find in southwestern British Columbia, with its towering cedars and firs that are centuries old!
The crown jewel of Wickenden Creek is a massive cedar that measures over 14 1/2 feet in diameter and has likely lived over seven centuries, though I’m uncertain as to its exact age. Chris had discovered it the year before, I believe, on one of his forays into the area, while Doug and I had found it just weeks before, in April of 2007. Here are a few images of this inspiring tree!
It seemed like a perfect time for us to take a bit of a respite at that point. We’d both started the day off relatively tired, and what better place could there be to relax for a while! Sandwiches were eaten and tales of recent adventures were shared, with the usual smattering of Simpsons imitations mixed in.
Writing this chapter today, I realize it’s been almost seven years since my last visit to this valley. So many places, so little time, I guess, but the memories brought to life by these photographs are as vivid as ever! It is a place I most certainly had hoped to return to sooner than later.
Once satisfied, it was time to get back to the plan, which essentially was to cover some ground we had not before. Choosing to follow a line in a westerly direction, we stayed for a time on the north bank of the creek. Travel was not too difficult, and we were surprised to find some fair sized Douglas firs as we pressed onward and upward.
The next thing we knew we were up against a near vertical slope that had little to offer the avid tree hunter, so the decision was made to take to the creek bed in order to progress further up the steep sided valley. Not only would the hiking be easier, but we also made an interesting discovery. Right beside the creek was a snag standing forlornly, not an untypical sight, until we saw what lay at its feet across the waterway. It was the remainder of what may have been the lower valley’s largest tree. The massive trunk had died, broken away, and crashed to the rocks below leaving only the snag standing. I am still convinced it might have been over 16 feet wide if standing intact, but it had degraded considerably so it was hard to be certain, as it might have fallen the century before!
We clambered further and higher, still hiking up the creek bed as a means of travel. I knew that at roughly 400m in elevation there was a broad clearing where we could make a clearer decision on where to walk next. It was something of a relief to hop some rocks for a while and take a break from the bushwhacking. In just another twenty minutes, we arrived at the point of reckoning.
At first it looked incongruous, to say the least . To our right were sheer cliffs and the south face of Wickenden Peak, and to the left, somewhat less steep slopes with the bleached broken tops of ancient cedars visible above us. There was also a gully heavily jammed with dirty looking snow to contend with. There had been an avalanche here, in what winter travellers often call a terrain trap, or shooting gallery. On top of many rocks was a loose layer of gravel as well, indicative of recent slide activity.
With a sheer stroke of genius, read, blindly choosing a random line, I suggested a way onto the spine above. Chris agreed, wryly commenting that we might as well try it before we started thinking too hard. It turned out that it worked, but not before we wondered if it would!
I wasn’t quite right, as it turned out. Rather than having attained the spine proper, we were now on one side of a narrow, concave basin and would have to cross it to get to where we wanted to be. This meant some ugly bashing through disheveled alder and salmonberry brush, but we sure as heck would not be retreating whence we came without a rope! This we did as patiently as we could, now within sight of the big trees again. It was remarkable how resourceful nature can be, that so many cedars had managed to grow so well there. I do not believe another human being has been there before or since, but I’ve been wrong about that before. Numerous specimens were between six and ten feet in diameter, and considering the tenuous growing conditions, many had to have been five centuries old!
There were a considerable number of fallen trees to negotiate and and some very unstable ground, but we didn’t mind taking our time as we took in the sights. It soon became apparent that we were walled in on the south side, so we’d have to head east, which would eventually find us back where we began the route at Lynn Creek. Just as we began hiking downhill, we discovered yet another giant cedar. It was at least twelve feet wide, and just so I could get a photo for scale Chris had to wedge himself into the hillside!
Following a new line back to our starting point produced many new finds, as we steadily lost elevation from our high point of about 550 metres. The weather not only held, but even improved a little as the day went on. Here are a few sights and scenes, as they were encountered.
The lower reaches of Wickenden Creek have numerous cedars in excess of eight feet in diameter, and as we walked down we would basically sight one and by the time we staggered to it we could then see another! It was a very rewarding day, to be sure!
In about half an hour we reached the banks of Lynn Creek once again, but one more challenge remained. It turned out we were well south of the log crossing, and because we didn’t feel like bushwhacking upstream, we decided to try and hop across on rocks instead. That started out pretty well, but it wasn’t long before we ended up getting wet anyway and having a few laughs. While the waters were frigid, at least the temperatures outside were pretty warm!
Once we’d taken some time to dry out we simply walked downstream and hiked back to the Headwaters Trail via the old North Shore Hikers Trail that still remains on the east bank of Lynn Creek. We enjoyed a few more sights and scenes.
It had been a real adventure, and my only regret is taking a dozen years to share this tale. If truth be told, I had misplaced the photos for about five years. The Wickenden Creek Valley is truly one of the last great stands of old growth forest close to Vancouver, but if you do choose to explore it, be prepared for anything and everything. The last thing you want is to find yourself “Living on the Edge”!
He named it the Mary Jewell Cedar, after his closest companion. I never did get to see it for myself, but Vancouver artist Ralf Kelman described it to me as quite a sight to behold. It was a venerable cedar, roughly twelve feet in diameter, with an expansive hollow chamber, and perhaps seven centuries old. If it stood today, it would be among the largest remaining cedars in the Seymour Valley, to my knowledge, but sadly, it now lives on only in folklore.
The story of the tree’s demise dates back twenty years and begins with Ralf’s efforts to preserve the remaining giants of the Seymour Valley from logging. He walked the steep drainages below Lynn Ridge and The Needles, discovering and documenting these ancient remnants, in what was then known as the Seymour Demonstration Forest. At the time, the powers that be did not take kindly to being told what they could and could not do with the lands in our watersheds, including logging. It was only through bringing notoriety to the area that change would result. Each grove he found was later featured on a map published by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee ( WCWC ) and that, combined with timely and persistent lobbying, finally brought about an end to harvesting timber in Greater Vancouver watersheds.
It was in the early 1990s that Ralf visited the cedar with Mary Jewell and friend Neva Hohn. They made several treks to the forest, and enjoyed them well. Time, though, moved forward, and as the century turned, the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, as it is now known, eventually made plans to build the Seymour Valley Trailway above the old Seymour Mainline. There were upgrades slated for the Seymour Dam, and a need to give recreational users a safe way to access the valley. Unfortunately, when they were building the new route, the contractors decided the tree was an impending hazard and that it had to be felled. Another version of events was that one of the crews had an accident and damaged the tree beyond repair, though I have never substantiated that story. In any event, the Mary Jewell Cedar finally met its maker.
Does my story end here? Well no, of course it doesn’t! You see, roughly where the Seymour Valley Trailway road crosses the 4 km mark the rest of the trees still remain. If you look closely, after climbing a steep bank, you may find tattered remnants of 25 year old flagging tape that lead you steeply into a stately grove of Douglas Firs. The WCWC map calls these trails the Mary Jewell and Neva Hohn Trails, but nowadays what little that’s left is more of a suggestion than a trail, and above the grove there are even more hidden mysteries. What follows here are my tales of further exploration in this time forgotten place!
My first foray dates back to 2007, when Chris and I rode our bikes up the Seymour Valley to try and track down this group of trees. While the ride was short and brisk, travel was slow and deliberate in the woods, which is pretty much the norm for off trail exploration.
Not only did we find some of the valley’s taller firs, but a number of massive boulders that had come to rest in the forest there. Were they erratics deposited by glaciers or the byproduct of a powerful landslide? Difficult to say but nonetheless very impressive!
To round out our day we ended up bushwhacking our way northwest toward the upper reaches of McKenzie Creek. Steadily gaining altitude to about 550 meters in elevation, suddenly the forest began to get noticeably brighter. The reason was soon apparent, as we found ourselves at the base of a massive boulder field! I had the immediate notion there had been relatively recent activity there. The rocks were moss covered but almost every one of them moved when walked on, so we concluded the slide had not yet stabilized. We tread very carefully there for a while while we worked our way northwest. Were it not for the low cloud across the valley our perch would also have afforded fine views of the Fannin Range.
In another half hour we began our retreat to the bikes, taking a roundabout route to complete our circle of exploration. The hiking seemed somewhat precarious, with both of us staggering and lurching often through the loose underbrush.
The best moment of comedy came when I stepped on a log while moving downhill, and the next thing you know it was rolling right at me in pursuit! Not long after that, Chris nearly took an awkward fall of his own. When we hike, it’s not official until we each manage to end up on the ground somehow! We discovered several promising old growth cedars there too, but figured it was time to quit while we were ahead and forged our way back to the road.
Fast forward to the spring of 2018, when Doug and I took advantage of a sunny spring day to revisit these trees. After caching our rides carefully, we set off into the forest in the hope of making some new discoveries. Many a tree had fallen in storms since I’d last walked there, but most of the same giants still survived. For good measure we hiked up to the sunny, salal covered bluffs to the south of the trail, but soon doubled back to the grove, realizing that our time was short. It was one of those days just made for photography, so I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves!
What is particularly inspiring about the firs of the Mary Jewell and Neva Hohn Trails is that they show such great promise for the future. Reaching estimated heights likely in excess of 240 feet already, in subsequent generations this group of Douglas Firs may well become some of the finer specimens in southwest British Columbia. Less well known than their nearby brothers in the Temples of Time Grove, they remain equally important. The most surprising thing of all, though, is their proximity to such a popular and busy trail, and the fact that only a handful of people have experienced them!
Though these trees have gained protected status for the foreseeable future, the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve is not particularly interested in promoting their existence, probably over concerns about public safety. That means, in a broader sense, that they’ll only be seen by the type of intrepid explorer who ventures off the road well traveled. In the end, maybe that is as it should be, for those who seek out life’s mysteries ought to be armed with the necessary passion and determination. For many folks, it’s enough just to know that forests like these are still out there!
It should be said that the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve has definitely lived up to the promise of protecting the forests of the Seymour Valley. That is something that should never be taken for granted. Conservation today is as important as ever, if future generations are to experience the beauty of our remaining old growth forests
You can see it on a signboard at Cypress Provincial Park, where it’s featured as one of the trees discovered by Randy and Greg Stoltmann. There’s a a picture of a magnificent Amabilis Fir deep in a snow filled gully, with one of the brothers posing beside it back in the late 1980s. Randy, who passed away in a skiing accident in 1994, is even today a legendary tree hunter and conservationist. It would have been interesting to have met him, indeed, his legacy still burns brightly.
I’ll admit that I’d been hunting old growth trees for many years before I ever went looking for a record Pacific Silver Fir ( the other namesake of the Amabilis Fir ). The tree occurs in cool forest glades at lower elevations, often less conspicuous in the company of the larger Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir, and Western Red Cedar. True giants of the species, however, are generally found at higher elevations where they are similarly overshadowed by Mountain Hemlock and Yellow Cedar. In a sense, they sometimes seem to be hiding in plain sight!
It was actually in 2004 that I first heard about the Cabin Lake Fir, when talking to Ralf Kelman, B.C.’s preeminent big tree hunter. Over a decent cup of coffee, he told me, among other things, a tale of a November trek to see the tree back in the late 1990s. Accompanying Ralf on that excursion was Washington state tree expert Robert Van Pelt, who was hoping to measure the crown spread of the tree with then state of the art laser technology. Typically for Ralf, not known for preferring early starts, the trip began a bit late in the day. While they did manage to locate, photograph and measure the tree, there were some adventurous moments extricating themselves from the steep approach gully and subsequently, hiking back to the parking lot in Cypress Provincial Park. Darkness, sleet, and poor visibility didn’t help them much either. The day ended with more than a few beers at an east end Vancouver drinking establishment where all finished the day both dry and more than a little happy!
It was my frequent partner in exploration Doug who finally convinced me that we had to rediscover this tree some eight years later. He reasoned that we ought to approach it by following a direct contour line off of one of the Black Mountain ski runs. Doug also thought that we might just have the chance to find some of the large Mountain Hemlocks he’d also seen marked on some maps. It didn’t take too much effort to get me hooked on his plan. I later learned, years later, that due to the destruction of Washington’s Goodman Creek Fir, the Cabin Lake Fir had since become the largest known of its species. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were now hunting for the world champion Amabilis Fir!
We chose a decent spring day for the hike, and though the terrain was steep and time consuming, travel was reasonable. The forest was well spaced, and indeed, full of the beautiful Mountain Hemlocks the park is well known for!
We soon managed to work our way close to a broad chute fortified with high walls on the side we found ourselves on . It was first necessary to climb safely into the chute so that we could explore the area, which was at roughly the elevation we expected to find the Cabin Lake tree. The light soon began to shine more brightly as we kicked our way into the snow slope and gradually worked our way down. We were glad to have brought our ice axes for the descent.
We didn’t see it at first. Curiously, the next thing we noted was that the snows below us were covered with a fine layer of fallen moss and lichens – the kind you often see draping trees in the high mountains. I’ve heard it called Old Man’s Beard.
While we were both pondering exactly where that carpet of foliage had come from, a towering spire appeared almost right in front of us, just downslope. It was clear we had found the source of all that fallen plant life, it was the Cabin Lake Fir itself! In its company were a number of young Silver Firs, perhaps seeded from the cones of their parent nearby.
To some, it might seem like hyperbole to assign mythical qualities to a simple being such as a tree, but the Cabin Lake Fir most certainly had a peculiar aura. It grows in a location quintessential for its survival and it’s doing exceptionally well. The tree is ideally situated to acquire all the necessary nutrients, water, and just the right amount of sunlight. Simultaneously, the steep rock walls nearby shade it from the midday sun and protect it from high winds. It is even evident that the slides and avalanches which take place in the couloir follow a path well away from the tree.
We spent quite a while in the presence of this grand old spirit of the forest, taking ample time for photography and lunch, before packing up and climbing out of the gully to Cabin Lake, as we wanted to be certain to chart the entire route. I was certainly happy that Doug had been so insistent that we make the trek that day!
Two years later, we would return in autumn, descending that same gully downward from Cabin Lake, with the bluffs of Black Mountain looming above. Paul, who was along with us on that day, was also keen to get a look at the tree.
If you are taking notes on the approach and how it might look once the snow melts, after you leave the lake behind you should find yourself in a blocky, granite boulder field that is very distinctive looking . Just carry on downward, with bluffs on your right, as you descend toward the gully.
The tree was no less magnificent on that occasion, and the weather was about the same as it was for our first visit. Fog and mist made getting an ideal photo something of a challenge. All agreed, though, that it was a tree worth revisiting!
In the end, it seemed fitting once again to walk in the footprints of the Stoltmann brothers, and my only regret was all of the years I had waited before searching out the Cabin Lake Fir. To paraphrase the immortal Warren Miller: “Get out there and get it done. If you don’t do it this year, you will just be one year older when you do!”
I have recently learned that the Cabin Lake Fir has died, as reported in the summer of 2015, not long after our last visit. Here is a link to the BC Big Tree Registry that documents its demise in two very telling photos. It was a privilege to have made its acquaintance and it truly magnifies my concluding paragraphing this story. Had we not made the effort to see the tree when we did, we would not have seen it alive at all. It will have to live on in memory alone, once the largest and perhaps the oldest known tree of its kind! It was, at least, the world champion for about seven years!
You know, when you’re open to possibilities, sometimes the day you envisioned turns out to be a whole lot different than you planned, and the story that follows here is a prime example of that. While it’s been the better part of a year just getting my act together enough to write about this day, I still thought it worthwhile to share, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did!
This trip began in the parking lot of North Vancouver’s Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve (LSCR). That’s where Steve and I readied our bikes for the ride up the Seymour Valley. We stuck to the Seymour Valley Trailway for the first half hour, before branching off toward the Spur 4 Bridge, and eventually to the road that climbs along the east side of the Seymour River.
The idea was to search for a grove of ancient Sitka Spruce which had evaded both of us, previously. Well, spoiler alert, we still haven’t found it yet! As I recall that day, it took a while for me to get my biking legs going, but our usual joking around helped to pass the time quickly!
The remote places of the Seymour Valley have certainly become an avid pursuit to me and I truly enjoyed exploring my backyard during the years I lived nearby. It might surprise you to know that there are still many tracts of rarely explored wilderness that are relatively close to the hustle and bustle of North Vancouver traffic. Steve has also spent dozens of hours trekking the valley’s obscure drainages and has managed to discover many things that have escaped my eyes. Truth is, when terrain is rugged you can only cover so much ground, so there is always something new to see even in places you’ve been before!
Once we reached the likely marker on the road, we spotted an old logging spur that seemed to head down to the riverbank and I decided we should explore it. You know, had I brought a map that day, we might have spared ourselves an extra half hour or so of thrashing about spindly second growth timber and brush before it dawned on us the suspect spruce grove was actually on the opposite side of the road. Mea culpa! At any rate, with that little diversion now behind us, it was back to the road and we carried on for a little while longer. I’ll explain more in the caption on the map below…
In just another ten minutes we were shouldering our bikes into the woods and stopping for lunch. We were very much at home in this wild, rugged enclave, which I called “Camp Rock”, for obvious reasons. We took the time to enjoy it well before moving on. There had still been no signs of the mythical spruce grove, so instead we decided just to head uphill into a tract of forest we had not been before.
Well satisfied, we left our bikes behind and began climbing, with the sounds of the Seymour River gradually fading into the background. The first hundred meters of travel were painstakingly slow and difficult. There were plenty of fallen trees to hurdle and the footing was typically unstable. The only noise now came from branches crackling underfoot and the many birds busying themselves with their daily tasks.
Our first finds were several old growth cedars that had managed to establish themselves on very steep ground. Some were as wide as five feet and likely 300 years old or more.
You have to be creative when you’re bushwhacking this type of ground, clambering over rocks, walking up and along fallen trunks, and sometimes ducking under them.
High cliff bands to the east of us soon had us moving a bit further north of our original line, and the forest seemed to gain character and diversity as we climbed. The usual stumbles and falls aside, I could see that what was ahead looked especially intriguing.
You could now discern those cliff bands emerging from the shadows as the sun began to illuminate the forest. While we could see a way we might be able to climb above the bluffs, instead we chose to hike beneath them and explore the cliff walls.
What caught my eye at first was a number of old cedars that looked like they had fallen from above and were now leaning against the granite walls! It was all at once, beautiful, improbable, and chaotic!
Well, the hike had certainly been enjoyable up until this point, but after moving down from the cliffs and just 100 meters further north, it soon became clear that we were in the presence of something truly unique. Nestled beneath those vertical cliffs was a rugged bench strewn with massive moss covered boulders, some as big as small houses, others the size of cars. Ancient, broken topped spires rose high into the forest canopy above, some growing atop the boulders, others surrounding them. Somehow this idyllic grotto had escaped the hands of human destruction and remains relatively undisturbed. The superb biodiversity we discovered there was remarkable too. I have taken to calling it The Giant’s Rock Garden. I could describe it some more, but better still, here is what it looks like!
More time was spent wandering about taking photographs, and thoroughly examining our surroundings. I know I must have been quite distracted at the time, because somehow I managed to miss a nasty branch that sprang back at me and gave my eye a hard whiplash. As I write this almost a year later it has only now properly healed! A word of warning to all of you would be tree hunters: On that day, I didn’t have my sunglasses (with clear or amber lenses) with me which I normally wear while bushwhacking to prevent such accidents. Don’t forget to wear your own eye protection!
Our day was already a great success, but where to go now? Steve suggested we head northward, into an area he had previously explored while hiking the year before. I was quite certain I had been there too on several occasions, but I had not approached it from the south. Along the way we rediscovered several very old Pacific Yews. There are a great many of these trees in the groves along the Eastside Road and it’s always a treat to find one!
Soon, the sounds of a creek could be heard, and we emerged into a broad, well lit clearing. Now we could see the gigantic group of Bigleaf Maples that tower above the creek there. On their map, which I reference here, the LSCR calls this Squamish Creek , and the drainage we had begun our walk in is called Wyssen Creek. In any event, the trees there are truly magnificent.
Each Bigleaf Maple is much like its own separate ecosystem in the sense that they support such lush plant life. Even among tree hunters they are often overlooked, and undeservedly so if you ask me.
There are actually several cascades to enjoy there if you follow the creek further uphill, and the rugged valley above them all is still just waiting to be explored!
We took another short break before hiking back down toward the road again, greeting several more ancient cedars en route before emerging at roadside.
It just so happened then that when we found the road we were looking right at the Bigfoot Cedar, which is found near the 10 km marker. This tree is at least ten feet in diameter and could well be over 500 years old!
The trip back was a fun one, as we rode back to the Spur 4 Bridge again and eventually out on the Fisherman’s Trail, before walking our bikes up the short and sharp grind that is the Homestead Trail. It had been a rewarding day with great company, and one I’ll always remember!
As I look back fondly on this day it dawns on me that this was my last trip into the Seymour Valley before I moved to Vancouver Island last summer. Well, you can take the boy out of the valley, but you can’t take the valley out of the boy! A part of me will always remain there, and I know I’ll always be compelled to return!
Travels and adventures past and present, from camping to hiking to searching for B.C.'s remaining old growth trees, and treks to the mountains