When most conservationists speak of forest protection here in the Pacific Northwest region, they are usually talking about the giants of valley floor forest ecosystems, such as Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce. There is a species, though, that seems to consistently fly under the radar. That tree is the Garry Oak ( Quercus Garryana ), known also as the Oregon White Oak. With its twisting trunks and beautifully detailed bark, it doesn’t have the enormous size of many of its relatives in the Oak family, but in its natural habitat it certainly fills a vital and unique ecological niche.
Garry Oak ecosystems, which also support a wide variety of specialized plant life, have for years been endangered in their northern range. They are generally found on British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and on a relatively narrow strip along Vancouver Island’s east coast. Though once absolutely common in those areas, these trees have not fallen victim to disease, conventional logging, or even climate change, for the most part. So what, exactly, has shrunk their habitat?
The answer is actually quite obvious: their greatest enemy is none other than encroaching human civilization. People have a great desire to build homes in waterfront areas, where trees like arbutus and Garry Oak often thrive. Of course, land developers highly covet the land they grow upon, and this has led to severe reduction or elimination of many groves.
It’s now estimated that less than 5% of Garry Oak ecosystems here in coastal British Columbia remain intact. Most of those are basically islands of preserved growth that were once part of broader populations that also allowed for greater genetic biodiversity. The result of that condition is that numerous species found in these ecosystems are either endangered or at risk. What’s worse is that they are often battling invasive species like Scotch Broom just to survive!
In the general area of Nanaimo, where I live, you can find fair sized forests in Nanoose Bay, Parksville, Harewood Plains, Joan Point, and Mt Tzouhalem, for example. Sadly though, countless other populations are either small, dwindling, or already eliminated. I’m soon hoping to explore these forests in springtime, when their numerous wildflowers emerge. It’s a world I’m just beginning to discover, in what I now call my backyard. Here on Vancouver Island there is a society devoted to these trees, it’s called the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society ( GOMPS ). Continual efforts must be made to set aside protected areas for these fast disappearing trees, for without them, so much will be lost. The Garry Oak is well worth treasuring!
It was September of 2012 when I received a message from my good friend Chris: Was I interested in joining him and a group of friends to do some canyoneeering on Vancouver Island?
First, a brief explanation, of sorts. For those of you who have never heard of canyoneering, it’s a sport in which you don a wetsuit and dry pack and make your way down a creek canyon as best you can to hopefully emerge in one piece. I kid, really. Actually, it is generally a very safe pursuit when you consider that you make use of a plethora of mountaineering gear, if needed, and take all the necessary precautions while making said descents.
It didn’t take me long to answer in the affirmative. Chris had been telling me canyoneering tales for years and I’d been intrigued for quite some time. His description of the Looper Creek Canyon’s beautiful polished rock and verdant limestone gorge sounded fantastic to me, and so more plans were made.
Since Chris was on a tour of some Pacific Northwest canyons and already on Vancouver Island, I’d be taking the ferry over to Nanaimo to meet him in Departure Bay. Riding the boat with me was Vlad, a long time climbing partner of Chris whom I’d only had the chance to meet briefly before. Also in on the trip were Kevin and Francois, aka Fix, who were also on “The Island” and had been descending some other canyons there. The sun was just beginning to come up as my wife Jan dropped Vlad and me off at Horseshoe Bay. We were in luck, it looked as though it would be another warm and sunny day.
As the ferry steamed toward Nanaimo, Vlad and I sat out on the upper deck enjoying the scenery and sharing hiking stories. Soon the boat was docking, and we met Kevin and Fix on the other side. They were still recovering from the previous day’s adventure but other than lack of sleep they were none the worse for wear. I had known Kevin from sites online for years, so it seemed, strangely, as though we had already met. Fix, who was entirely new to me, was a real canyon enthusiast with a strong interest in photography and filming.
But, where was Chris? He’d left his transplanted home in Utah some days ago and as far as I knew had last been somewhere in Washington state. In another fifteen minutes, his well used Jeep Cherokee rolled into the parking lot and Vlad and I jumped in for the ride. With Fix and Kevin following in Kevin’s Jeep, we all set out for Lake Cowichan, where we would begin a long drive on logging roads bound for Looper Creek. “Don’t mind the dust, chips, the box of blueberries and whatever else you find.” Chris warned, jokingly. “Just move whatever so you can sit down!” Many shenanigans were shared along the way; this was to be the sixth canyon in six days for Chris, one of his busier weeks ever.
We continued to Lake Cowichan where there was a stop to fuel up, and then hit the logging roads for at least another fifty kilometres. Finally, Chris pulled over abruptly at an inconspicuous looking bridge. We walked over and stood about for a minute. “Well, that’s the canyon down there,” Chris said. I peered down into the deep gorge, but I couldn’t see much of anything in the midday shadows.
Seconds later Kevin and Fix arrived and the next half hour was taken up with both idle banter and the important task of outfitting everyone with the necessary gear for the trip. Then there was an important discussion regarding the possible technical challenges. In canyoneering, teamwork is paramount, because once you’re in the canyon, you’re pretty much committed and it can often be difficult to reverse your direction. Since this was summer, high water flows were not expected. If we were lucky, the whole trek might be able to be done in wetsuits and of course the mandatory climbing helmets, but nevertheless we would be ready for anything!
I was of two worlds on this trip. Firstly, I was the oldest person in group, but secondly, I was also the least experienced, as this was to be my first canyon. Since Chris has been one of my best mates for years and I’d heard so many stories, I did have a good idea of what to expect, however. As for the others, Vlad had been in a number of canyons with Chris, while Kevin and Fix were both seasoned veterans.
Once we had packed up, it was time to make our way up the logging spur near the bridge for about a kilometre and a half to where we would drop in to the canyon. Being the ever eager rookie, I’d already put on my wetsuit and tied it off at the waist for the walk uphill. The result of that was an uncomfortable stroll in the hot sun, though I was glad to have the leggings on when we bushwhacked down into the gorge.
No sooner had Fix led the way down the steep, brushy slope, than we were all on the banks of Looper Creek. Huge Bigleaf Maple trees towered above us as the creek ambled quietly by. I could tell almost immediately that this was a special place, quite unlike any I had been before. As a youngster one of my favourite things to do was to find a creek and explore it, so this seemed like another chapter of my youth, in a sense.
We walked onward through the waters, descending, almost imperceptibly at first. The mood was light and there was no shortage of humour from everyone.
Pretty soon we reached a clearing with deep emerald pools and a series of small cascades, so it looked as though we’d now be doing some swimming. It was there that everyone else got into their wetsuits.
I also got a tutorial on how to stash your camera in a dry bag. Kevin and I were using waterproof digital cameras whereas Chris and Fix had digital SLRs. They had ample suggestions about how best to keep your camera dry but that was something that was brand new to me!
We moved on, walking through narrows, hopping on rocks, and swimming through pools. It was just a lot of good clean fun! There was plenty to see along the way.
Canyoneering is a very unique experience. I found it similar in spirit to exploring forests, one of my favourite pursuits, in that you envelop yourself in the surroundings. The walls help to enhance that feeling. It is very different from mountaineering, my other passion, where you may begin in forest but you work your way ever upward into the open terrain of the alpine. Each pursuit has its own enticing qualities, I believe.
There was but one demanding section, as depicted below, near a confluence of huge fallen trees. Chris had thought we might need to break out the harnesses and rappel down to the waters below, but as it turned out it was able to be circumvented using a simple hand line. For good measure, though, Chris and Kevin took the time to practice setting up some gear. The rest of us were either taking photos or clowning about, and jumping into pools!
The sun made occasional appearances too, wherever an opportunity presented itself.
The canyon was a place of truly phantasmal beauty, and it seemed that everywhere one looked caused the fascination to grow stronger.
There were the walls. Sheer, unyielding, granite, limestone. Sometimes they were smooth and polished, other times rough, even somewhat sinister, and enclosing.
Then there were the fallen trees, interlocked to create obtructions, or perfectly placed to aid our path. It rather reminded me a life sized version of the kids game “Kerplunk”, as we manoeuvred our way over, under, down, and around their hulking skeletons. Whenever it seemed we had reached an impasse, nature seemed to provide some avenue of escape.
The vegetation too, was everywhere and conspicuous. Every available space for growth was exploited, wherever possible, and sometimes where improbable.
Last but far from least were the pools. Clear, green, shimmering, sometimes travertine. Some were shallow, others deep. Some you walked, some you swam, others you floated through.
I learned a lot about photography in watery conditions on this trek. Each person had their own way of landing shots and a system of setting up for the ideal image. Even if you brought a waterproof camera, as I did, you still have to keep water off the lens!
The journey continued on down the gorge. Eventually, we arrived at the crux of the trip, a large pool surrounded by rock walls that canyoneers sometimes wryly refer to as a “keeper pothole”. The name derives from the fact that they can sometimes recquire a grappling hook to escape. This one had no such issues, though I scuffled briefly because for whatever reason my hands had gone numb. Here’s a short video Kevin took of the resulting shenanigans, where, if you ask me, Vlad steals the show by repeatedly leaping in and climbing out again.
After a few more laughs and a lot more photographs we moved on again. Just when it seemed the trek might never end, or simply wasn’t meant to end, we reached the grand finale.
Suddenly, the creek virtually vanished, its flow now subterranean. Our path bent sharply to the right, then to the left before the water reappeared in a succession of swims that finished in a cavern like chamber underneath the bridge we had begun at. It was high above us, and partially obscured. From the road above one could never have known that such magic was so well hidden from sight!
We lingered there as long as we could, reflecting on the day. I later discovered that my friend Karsten K. had once rappelled off the bridge to the place we now stood admiring. Now that is what I call making an entrance! This is Karsten, below, after that rappel into the gorge. Check out his Flickr photo site by clicking on the photo, it’s well worth the time!
We left reluctantly, scouting for the exit trail nearby. It was well rigged with a series of ropes to aid us in our ascent. In another ten minutes we were at the trucks, sharing the stoke of a truly unique adventure. Amid all the camaraderie, a few beers were drank, thanks to Kevin, and we stowed away a lot of wet gear for the ensuing ride homeward.
We then parted company with Fix and Kevin, who were bound for Duke Point, and set out for Departure Bay. The ride back on the ferry featured an epic sunset to craft the ideal ending to what was, in every way, a near perfect day.
If ever you’re looking for a unique experience, I highly recommend you give canyoneering a go. You won’t regret it! My only misgiving was that I had waited so long to try it myself!
When I first found myself on the west coast of British Columbia after arriving from Quebec in the late 1970s, the very first thing that captivated me here in British Columbia were the towering conifers. The very scent of the forest was something completely unknown to me, and I can recall spending an inordinate amount of time looking upward in admiration. It was that sort of awe that kindled my interest in hiking, and it remains strong even today. I have spent countless hours in search of the province’s remaining old growth trees.
Years later, when I began to research the whereabouts of these remaining giants, I began to follow the exploits of legendary B.C. big tree hunter and conservationist Randy Stoltmann. Through his book Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwestern British Columbia, I learned of numerous incredible finds. Two particular areas captured my imagination more than most others. One was Cheewhat Lake, and the other was the Carmanah Creek Valley, both on Vancouver Island. Cheewhat is notable for the discovery of the world’s second largest Western Red Cedar, perhaps as old as two thousand years. Carmanah features great stands of ancient Sitka Spruce, and is among the last intact valley bottom ecosystems to escape the saws of logging. The Cheewhat Cedar is now protected within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, while Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park gives sanctuary to the Carmanah Valley.
It was not until the autumn of 2012, however, that the right opportunity to visit these forests would present itself for me. It was on a late October afternoon that Doug and I would finally see ourselves enroute to the west side of Vancouver Island. Naturally, the trip began on the ferry at Horseshoe Bay, bound for Nanaimo. The goal, from there, was to make our way to Cowichan River Provincial Park where we’d camp the first night. The rains persisted right up until the time we arrived at the campground.
We’d been listening to the World Series on the radio while we drove, and so the drive seemed to fly by. That night, clutch hitting by Pablo Sandoval and a gritty pitching performance by veteran Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants was enough to down the Detroit Tigers and their ace Justin Verlander, if you’re a baseball fan.
More showers ushered in a somewhat gloomy night, but to us that hardly mattered. We were armed with plenty of tarps, and Doug’s sturdy MEC Wanderer tent, which has served as basecamp for many of our adventures. Add to that steak to barbecue, a cooler full of beer, and an ample supply of firewood, and we had the makings of a fine evening. The next day called for improved weather, so our fingers were crossed for better fortune on that front. We spent a great night in camp, reminiscing about past exploits and bantering about future plans. As we turned in, the night descended into a world of silence, broken only by the sounds of rain striking the tent and the hiss of our campfire being quietly extinguished.
Wanting to get as early a start as possible, we awoke in darkness to get breakfast straightened away. Ahead was the rest of the highway to Lake Cowichan, followed by a lengthy drive on logging roads to the Rosander Main and the Cheewhat Cedar.
We soon realized that sunshine was upon us, and that it was going to be a bluebird day. After a stop for fuel, we took to the gravel, aided in no small part by a work crew which had newly graded much of the road surface. It was still early in the morning when we parked beside a small roadside cairn. Beyond that cairn lay a rough track that would hopefully lead us to the legendary tree.
Radiant morning sun filtered through the forest canopy as we passed the sign that let us know we were now within the national park reserve.
A massive fallen cedar immediately captivated our attentions. A giant well over 15 feet in diameter, its massive root ball and trunk had become host to a vibrant community of new life. The understory was very biodiverse, and the further we hiked, the larger the trees became. The trail itself was a somewhat indistinct path, and aside from the occasional marker, close attention was needed to stay on track.
After walking through a clearing in the forest we stumbled upon the gnarled mass of a very large cedar which was well over fifteen feet in diameter. It was easy to tell that it was very, very elderly.
Though we were following but a faint footbed, Doug figured we were on the right track, and I agreed. It was as though we had landed in another world as the forest grew more enchanted with each step!
Soon the trail took the sharp bend to the left that we were looking for, and we were led to an absolute giant of a tree. As massive as it was, at nearly eighteen feet in diameter, we knew that it wasn’t the Cheewhat Cedar. The entire grove, in fact, was a true old growth stand, so rarely seen nowadays, yet once so commonplace on Vancouver Island. Before moving on we stood still, not speaking much, but simply absorbing the atmosphere.
We knew that the monarch could not be far away, as the map indicated it was only yards downhill from where we were, and so we continued hiking. Suddenly, and somehow almost surprisingly, it appeared in the clearing below. I could now understand the feeling its discoverer must have experienced.
This tree was truly gargantuan, spanning twenty feet in diameter. Since the time this tree had begun its life as a seedling, two millennia had passed, give or take a decade or two. Two thousand years! That was almost beyond comprehension, though by no means could it compete with, for longevity, with the world’s oldest trees. That is a topic for another time, of course.
The next hour was spent eating lunch and rambling about the tree taking photographs from every conceivable vantage point. The Cheewhat Cedar is truly a remarkable exhibit of nature at its finest. I highly recommend visiting it if you ever get the opportunity.
Wanting to make our way to Carmanah, we hiked resolutely back to the trailhead and continued up the logging road, accompanied by the midday sun.
The morning had given way to a beautiful autumn afternoon, as we rolled into the parking lot. It seemed a deserted campsite, and there wasn’t a soul in sight.
We decided to take advantage of the clear skies and take to the woods right away, as more rain was predicted for the evening. The park trails were comparatively well developed in contrast to the Cheewhat Trail we had just walked.
In fact, in the early 1990s this valley had been the centre of a very well organized conservation effort. Randy Stoltmann, among many others, had been integral in spearheading that movement at the time.
It was the year before before his untimely passing in a ski mountaineering accident in 1994 that the valley finally attained designation as a provincial park. Miles of boardwalk had been built by scores of volunteers to raise awareness of this rare forest. The campaign was also supported by numerous artists of worldwide acclaim.
In just twenty years, these paths have begun to fall into disrepair, but the dream they represent still burns brightly. It was a triumph to preserve this special place for all to see.
Our hike down the valley continued quietly along Carmanah Creek. On the sandy gravel banks the tracks of animals could be seen clearly, and our necks craned trying to find an elusive Marbled Murrelet nest. A shy, retiring creature, this bird has the habit of nesting in the tops of old growth Sitka Spruce trees. Much of its habitat on the west coast has been destroyed or altered, and its southern population has dwindled over the years. In Canada’s north, where apparently it is a ground nesting bird, it has far more abundant numbers, I understand. Unfortunately, we never did see one.
We visited the Heaven Tree, among the largest spruce trees in the valley, and admired the vast garden of hanging mosses it presented. This tree is definitely one of the park’s star attractions.
Then we walked down to the Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove, home to several massive specimens. We felt immense pride in following in Randy’s footsteps, as we have done on many hikes. He also lived on Vancouver’s North Shore, as we do, and spent hours in the forests we have walked.
That Carmanah survives well would likely mean a great deal satisfaction for him, I imagine, but Randy Stoltmann left us long before his time.
The route toward the ocean is officially closed beyond the grove, but I’m told it’s actually somewhat intact, if riddled by deadfall in some stretches . There is a giant Sitka Spruce called the Carmanah Giant further downstream that I plan to look for someday. The trail actually follows Carmanah Creek to its intersection with the well known West Coast Trail, which one needs a permit to hike.
After a short stay at Stoltmann Grove we hiked back to walk some of the upper section of the trail and to visit The Three Sisters. The forest there was equally enchanted. We lingered for a while but since skies were darkening we headed back to the truck to get camp set up.
It turned out we did have the whole park to ourselves and the only firepit in sight as well. Amidst eating dinner while the rains began to fall we listened to the faint and crackling radio feed of the second game of the World Series, where the Giants Pablo Sandoval was once again terrorizing Tiger pitching.
This day also ended with cold beer and a decent campfire! Darkness came early, and when the beer was gone we turned in, with the distant sounds of Pacific surf drifting in the wind. The sound of rain drowned out all consciousness, and the next thing we knew morning had dawned.
Breakfast came early, and all that remained was the long journey home. A relentless downpour chased us all the way to the ferry terminal at Departure Bay. It had been two remarkable October days, a time I’ll always remember.
I dedicate this this to the late Randy Stoltmann (1962-1994) whose efforts helped ensure that Carmanah-Walbran became a provincial park. It is important to note, though, that there is more work to be done, as the entire Walbran Valley is not yet fully protected.
With a few precious days off and a rare chance to get our whole family together, we headed off to Vancouver Island two Saturdays ago for a short camping vacation.
The idea was to catch an afternoon ferry over to Departure Bay from Horseshoe Bay then hang out in Nanaimo for the first night. There’s a nice private campground at the mouth of the Nanaimo River called Living Forest Campground that we like to stay at there.
The boat ride over was relatively uneventful and pleasant, so we arrived in Nanaimo at around 230 pm. With some time to spare, we stopped in at Petroglyph Provincial Park for some exploration. We had driven past the park sign for years without ever visiting , and I’m quite glad we finally did. In addition to the petroglyphs, there are also some bouldering possibilities there. We were there for about half an hour, and enjoyed the stay immensely. http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/petroglyph/#
My daughter has an innate talent for climbing just about anything, so of course she ran up this face to a tiny ledge and scrambled up from there! Naturally, the slide down was twice as much fun, so she did it again and so did I!
The views at the campground did not disappoint. We were able to see not only the Nanaimo River and Gabriola Island but much of Nanaimo Harbour as well. The blend of the estuary’s natural scenery and the industry beyond gave us plenty to look at, and we passed the rest of the evening drinking cold beverages and listening to the calls of barred owls by the campfire before turning in.
The campground has a number of trails that give you a fine view of the river delta and the area is well known for its birdwatching opportunities as well.
The following day we awoke to overcast skies and headed south along Highway 1 toward Victoria before swinging west toward Sooke on Highway 14. The spring rains hit hard late Sunday morning, as we arrived in Langford to fuel up.
Sunday’s destination? French Beach Provincial Park. It has become a family favourite of ours over the years. Set in a beautiful forest of cedar and Sitka spruce, it features a cobblestone beach that crashes and rattles when the Pacific surf crashes its shores. If you’re lucky, you can also catch glimpses of migrating gray whales in March and April.
Along the way, my wife and daughter got a chance to stop off at a local meadery called Tugwell Creek near the town of Shirley to sample its wares.
Mead, if you’ve not heard of it before, is an alcoholic beverage, wine to be specific, made with honey! Tasty stuff, and something to do while you wait out the rainstorm, which by now was hitting us in full stride! We pulled in at French Beach by mid afternoon, and after a very wet hike on the nearby trails, we spent the rest of the day drying out.
These rocks below are the cobbles that generate the signature sounds of French Beach, especially on days of high surf and brisk winds. This place as as unique for its sound experience as it is for anything else.
Sometimes it rains so much on the coast that attempting to have a campfire is almost an exercise in futility, and this Sunday was just such a day. We amused ourselves by drinking, reading, creating dinner, and playing games, all good fun!
Monday morning dawned with much improved weather, and upon seeing some sunlight, I made for the beach that morning. The tide was at ebb, but the waves were much higher and the beach clattered with its all too familiar sounds. I was able to see across the waters to the Olympic Peninsula and Washington state, in the United States.
While there were no whales in sight, the odd Harbour Seal popped its head out in curiosity. Seas were calm, and birds could be heard when the surf receded. Listen, if you like, to the sounds of French Beach in the video below…
I returned to camp and ended up going back to the beach again with my son, who had just awakened. We spent another half hour there before breakfast. He has a natural love of being near water, even to the point that he often prefers to walk in the rain.
This photo below had me thinking back to a time when he couldn’t peer through an outhouse window six feet off the ground. Time flies, and your kids grow up fast!
We eventually decided to head north toward Port Renfrew, with the idea of camping on the beach at Jordan River. Unfortunately, the CRD has temporarily closed the area to camping while a dam above the town is being assessed for safety reasons. Some time was spent on the beach watching surfers and paddleboarders out on the break.
Since the sunshine was holding true, the choice was made to reverse directions and retrace our steps toward Nanaimo again. This time the plan was to stay the night at Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park near Parksville. Though this meant a little longer on the road, it would also make for a more relaxed return trip the next day as the park is not all that far from Departure Bay. On the way back toward Sooke we stopped at Sandcut Beach Regional Park, which is not too far from French Beach, and my daughter and I hiked down to the shores.
It was an ideal cruising day for the trip around the horn, as the sunshine persisted. We even pulled over to pick up some farm fresh eggs in Sooke along the way. On this Monday, even the people driving the Malahat near Victoria didn’t seem to have their usual frenzied sense of urgency, and we hit little or no traffic until we arrived in Nanaimo.
It was about 4 pm when we rolled into Rathtrevor Beach. Once there, I tended to splitting some firewood and we took turns walking the beach and trails. Rathtrevor is a special place to me, as I always see something interesting that I hadn’t before, whether it be animals, trees, or distant mountains.
The park is noted not only for its beach but also for its forests of old growth Douglas Fir. There are very few low elevation fir forests that remain intact on Vancouver Island as most of them have been harvested long ago. There is considerable biodiversity and wildlife that lives on there despite the area’s popularity in the summer months. The beach and its reasonably sheltered waters make it ideal for watersports like kayaking and canoeing too.
I had not noticed on my last visit, but you can see the hulking mass of Tantalus Mountain, 2605 metres tall, visible in the distance.
I was particularly interested in seeing what the sunset had to offer after dinner and a couple of very cold beers, so I walked back to the beach just as the sun was beginning to set.
I had already known that Rathtrevor was an epic place to catch the sunrise, but I certainly was more than contented with the sunset too. It was a very quiet scene, silent but for the odd call of the occasional owl. It’s very obvious why the people of Parksville enjoy this place so much as it’s one of the island’s most beautiful parks. More beer and laughter ensued late into the night, but that wasn’t going to deter me from getting up early to see the sunrise!
It’s 6 am Tuesday morning, and I’m rolling out of bed trying not to wake anyone, a normal occurrence on our road trips. As someone who craves solitude, something I take naturally to but that was well reinforced spending mornings with my father while younger, there is really nothing quite like the sun’s first rays. A mere five minute walk had me on the beach to begin the day.
This, however, was no ordinary sunrise. The whole time I was there, the natural world virtually paraded before me. First, there were the calls of loons, followed by herons swooping by above. Then came the sounds of eagles, woodpeckers, and songbirds. Canada Geese flew across the waters at intervals as did Brants, and the entire time I was serenaded by the barking of sea lions.
It was soon evident that there were sea lions everywhere, perhaps as many as fifty, from where I was observing. I later was to discover that there was a run of herring going on, so of course the food source was what was drawing all the attention. When I returned to the beach later with my son, we also spotted a killer whale breaching in the distance and a few harbour seals, and not long after that a sizable pod of dolphins also showed up to the party. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in some time.
Reluctantly, I headed back to camp for breakfast, and the girls set out for a walk on the trails for a while before we left for home. As I write this today, with the rain crashing down here on Vancouver’s North Shore, it reminds me of how much I appreciate sunny spring days here on the west coast. This trip was well worth the time. Here is another image taken on the deck of the ferry, looking toward Mt Garibaldi, the closest volcano to Greater Vancouver. Until next time…
Time now for the conclusion of this chronicle. The sundial moves forward yet another year, to May of 2009, and, you guessed it, we’re chilling again at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal. It’s way too early to be drinking anything but coffee, but it’s another bluebird day, and this time we’re going to find that tree, right? The Simpsons imitations are flowing freely, and I’m doing my best Troy McClure ( credit here to The Simpsons, all rights reserved, and the late great Phil Hartman )…
” Hi, we’re tree hunters Mick and Chris, you may remember us from such failed Red Creek Fir expeditions as last year, and the year before that. Will we be third time lucky? ”
This time, though, as far as I was concerned, it was going to work out just fine. I had contacted my friend and fellow hiker Scott, who lives in Victoria, and had been to see the tree before, in 2005. The plan was to pick him up along the way and head out to Port Renfrew on Highway 14. Morning sunshine provided some fine views on the boat ride to Nanaimo.
It was smooth sailing to Nanaimo, and trouble free driving to Victoria, where we met Scott. He’s what you’d call a true Vancouver Islander, in that he loves the lifestyle there and sees little need to venture to the mainland very often. I can’t say as I blame him, as I certainly enjoy my time there too! Much of the drive was spent catching up and discussing prospective climbs in remote regions of The Island, especially the isolated northern ranges, which I’ve not visited at all.
We had planned in advance to approach via the new logging spur, so we crossed over the San Juan River and then doubled back over the Lens Creek Bridge. Hopefully, this time, the tree wouldn’t see us coming and hide, you know, like it did the last time.
The new spur lands you at about the 13 km mark on the old Red Creek Main, and in Scott’s memory the trailhead was quite close to where the roads intersected. It was decided we’d try to spot the tree from the vehicle at first but when that proved fruitless, we jumped out and began to scrutinize every tree and rock for signs of disturbance. After about ten minutes of searching, suddenly we heard a loud holler from Scott, he had found the trail! Chris drove back and parked in a clearing with a pile of old culverts. If you go, pull over on driver’s right, the trailhead is on the same side of the road just upriver from where you’re parked. We rebuilt the cairn, which had been dismantled, and found some flagging tape to do some marking where the path begins.
Ironically, the tree is a very short stroll from the road, and the last time we visited we were, unwittingly, not much more than 150 metres from where it stands, As an added bonus, you get to see three very old Western Redcedars that are just downhill from the world champion Douglas Fir. They are called The Three Sisters, appropriately enough, and all are over 400 years old.
I clearly recall the elation I felt on the hike in, as we’d already devoted over 40 hours on three separate excursions in the quest to see this forest giant, after all! At that point, though, we’d probably have crawled there on broken glass, I recall Chris saying, only half jokingly. It had been since the early 1990s that I had first read about the tree, and I had been sure it would prove almost mythical in stature.
The next thing I knew, Scott called out excitedly. “It’s still here!” And so it was, though it had lost a limb from its ancient upper canopy, perhaps in the great storm of December 2006. Scott was just as impressed as he’d been when he first visited, and as for us, I’m not sure if we were more in awe or just dumbfounded that we could finally see it!
The tree is almost 14 feet in diameter, and is the world”s largest member of the pine genus as well. Its future status is reasonably ensured, but nearby logging has made it somewhat vulnerable and exposed to rough coastal windstorms. Still, it has managed to survive a millennium, so perhaps it will survive another.
Huge valley bottom specimens such as this are the rarest of the rare, and it’s not likely very many remain. We need to make every effort to preserve trees like the Red Creek Fir for others to see.
This image below is a five frame vertical panorama that I took of Scott and the tree. It really puts into perspective just how immense it is. I had never seen a fir over 10 feet in diameter before and to see one 14 feet in diameter was remarkable. It’s about 240 feet in height, but the top leaders were blown off years ago so it’s possible this tree was once close to 400 feet tall. We could actually get close without trampling the root system as we were basically standing on the fallen limbs.
We spent quite a while clambering around and looking at different aspects, here are a few more.
The broken limb that had crashed relatively recently nearby was as big as a young second growth tree all by itself.
You could certainly build a few houses from the timber if this giant were ever to fall, but I hope that that day never comes to pass!
Now it was time now to head home, but I found it especially hard to leave. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that now we at least knew where to find it, but it almost seemed like we should spend a week there, considering how long it had taken to see this tree.
It was a happy trek back to Victoria, where we brought Scott home. How does a guy from Toronto end up living near the corner of Yonge St and Toronto Ave in Victoria? I’m calling that a strange coincidence, to put it mildly. We bid adieu, and continued on the highway back to Departure Bay, this time with a sense of accomplishment. If you read this, thank you Scott!
So, what were we going to do now, with this mission impossible finally accomplished?Well, we’d probably find something else to obsess with, after all, it’s what we live for! Time for yet another ferry ride to close out this epic. I couldn’t wait for the cold beer that I knew awaited me in the fridge at home, hours away!
Thanks to all of you who actually took the time to read the whole tale. I hope you had as much fun reading it as I did writing it. Until next time…..
The months rolled by, the pages of the calendar turned, sometimes slowly, sometimes swiftly, as life goes. Now it was May of 2008. Chris and I had resolved to try again on a spring day to find the Red Creek Fir and so, there we were again, somewhat livelier, in line again at 5 am for the ferry to Nanaimo. Filled with laughter and optimism, how could we possibly fail? [sarcasm/] Well, keep reading, for more insight into that rather unlikely scenario [/sarcasm].
We spent much of our time that morning on the wind blasted deck of the ferry, identifying distant peaks and planning future treks. The rest of our time was taken up watching the trials and tribulations of a very confused fellow passenger. He had had great difficulty in listening to the traffic employees direct him where to park when boarding, and later he arrived late to his car, having forgotten exactly where it was. He became thusly known as “Dude, where’s my car?”, after the title of a recent movie neither of us had actually seen. I could certainly relate to his struggles, as I’ve had plenty of trouble finding my truck in mall parking lots over the years and I’m hopeless at finding my keys!
Soon enough, we were on the road again, intent on taking Highway 18 to Lake Cowichan so that we could save time by driving the Harris Creek Main across the island to Port Renfrew. Here are some scenes from our trip along the road, including a stop to see the Harris Creek Spruce, 400 years old and over 12 feet in diameter.
In due time, we’d arrived at the point of reckoning, as we crossed the bridge over the San Juan River.
A mere five minutes more, and we pulled into the entrance of Red Creek Main, with about 12 kms to go until we found the tree.
Not without some mildly harrowing moments negotiating a washout or two, Chris managed to skillfully pilot us to where the trailhead supposedly was. Somehow though, things seemed altered from the original description. There was a new spur that came in from the hill above on the right that appeared to be the new road in, and the old road had been extended for what looked like a km or two at least. We opted to walk the road, searching for any sign of a trail, but we could not find anything promising. We did not have either a GPS or a set of coordinates for the tree to go by, so then we drove up the hillside to see if the tree was visible from above, even engaging in some fruitless bushwhacking for a while. I’m not sure whether it was just collective mental exhaustion or just plain inability to think logically, but we just could not figure it out at the time. By this time Angry Chris had made his appearance and he was NOT happy with the Red Creek Fir gods! The score, after the inevitable capitulation that followed, was Red Creek Fir, 2, Chris and Mick, 0. Shut out again, and none too pleased!
Now what? Well, Plan B suggestion for the day was to explore the new spur, called Red 100, to see where that led us, and then possibly to see if we could head down Gordon River Main and locate the Braden Creek Canyon. You see, Chris has an obsession with canyoneering. For the uninitiated, that’s a sport where you don a wetsuit and pack dry bags and climbing gear in order to descend a creek or river whatever best way you can. I’ve now tried it once, and so I can understand how he got addicted, but that’s a tale for another day.
We caught all the breaks on the next part of our day, and in half an hour we had found the Braden Creek Spur, and we got out to scout the upper canyon. This was well worth the time, and almost assuaged the considerable frustration that was renting a room in our heads by now. Here is a look at Braden Creek. I’m still not sure or don’t recall whether Chris has descended it yet or if he will any time soon, as he’s living in Utah as I write this.
So, what was left? A long ride back to Departure Bay, to catch the ferry to Horseshoe Bay again. We began to relate to how the 1982, and especially the 1994 Vancouver Canucks must have felt when their dreams were dashed, but no, we were not going to quit! This was far, far, far, from over. Like Homer Simpson gunning for that last remaining doughnut, we vowed to return. God willing, for our own good and the good of our wives’ sanity. Who knows, maybe we’d even succeed next time?
Yet another lengthy day came to a close 18 hours after it began, and the sunset views on the boat ride home put it all into perspective, our problems being, on a world scale, really rather trivial at best…
There are times that a wilderness excursion is but a simplistic jaunt, that is to say: you make a plan, you follow that plan, and everything goes as planned. Here then, is a trilogy or an epic of sorts, describing that what can go swimmingly for some can somehow become an exercise in perseverance for others.
The principals? Myself, and good friend and fellow tree enthusiast Chris. Chris is that guy you know who has been pretty much everywhere you’ve been and a lengthy list of places you’ve never heard of. We’ve both spent a lot of time hunting for big trees in B.C., Washington, Oregon, and assorted other locations. The objective? Vancouver Island’s Red Creek Fir, the world’s largest Douglas Fir, residing some 13 kms from Port Renfrew on the reputedly heavily damaged Red Creek Main. We won’t have to actually discover this leviathan, as its location has been very well known since 1976, all we’ll have to do is find the time to get there! Ha, if only it had been that easy….
This story begins in February of 2007, with the two of us struggling to remain awake at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal, waiting at 5 am for the ferry. Chris wondered aloud if we might not be wasting our time. There had been an epic windstorm in December of 2006 -the one that levelled scores of trees in Vancouver’s Stanley Park – and those gale force winds had hit the west coast of Vancouver Island at gusts of over 140 km/hr. Still, we were enthused, as the tree had lived for 1000 years and so we hoped it had survived.
Due to the recent snows we decided to take Highway 1 to Victoria and then drive Highway 14 to Port Renfrew. It was an idyllic winter day, as the skies had cleared and were now blue and inviting. Some 5 1/2 hours later, we were at the head of the Red Creek Main and began our journey down the old rail grade logging road, but not for long….. “Whoa, what’s that?” Chris exclaimed. In front of us was a number of full sized trees that had fallen across the road. While I’d brought a chainsaw and some fuel for just such an occasion, we’d have needed most of the day just to clear them out, and who knew what lay beyond? As conditions were, a 24 km hike was definitely out of the question.
Due to time constraints, we now had to opt for Plan B, to cross the San Juan River for Lens Creek and a hike to see Chester’s Grove, a beautiful stand of Sitka Spruce. This was a hike that did not disappoint in the least! However, the final score that day was Red Creek Fir, 1, Chris and Mick, 0.
After parking at the Lens Creek Bridge, it was a mere 15 minute stroll to the trees, with views of the river and a truly primordial group of trees that I was elated to see.
Chris had been there before, and this time we managed to measure several of them; the largest were over 13 feet in diameter and easily 500 years old. Enjoy our walk through the grove through these images…
With time passing quickly, it was time to hike back to the Jeep, and begin the long trek homeward on the highway, and finally the ferry, and then the highway again. What began in darkness at 430 am with an endless stream of Simpsons imitations ended in darkness at 930 pm with more of the same. Were we smart enough to shelf our pursuit of the elusive forest giant? Well, no, you must be thinking about two much smarter guys, because we’d be back for another try! Read on if you will, to the next chapter of this expurgated trilogy….
Travels and adventures past and present, from camping to hiking to searching for B.C.'s remaining old growth trees, and other thoughts on life