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!
If you happen to be out for a nice summer bike ride in the Seymour Valley this year, keep an eye out for a marker at just past the 6km mark on the Seymour Valley Trailway. As you head north it will be on your left, on the uphill side. Just a minute or two off the road is the massive stump of an ancient Western Red Cedar, on what is called the See More Stumps Trail. There are a number of these behemoths in the valley, where once stood some of the most impressive forest stands that British Columbia had to offer. This particular stump nearly measures five meters in diameter, and if it stood today, would be more than eleven centuries old!
An excellent article by forest ecologist and tree hunter Ira Sutherland has more information on the Super Stumps of Seymour Valley and on the topic in general. There are two fine photos of the See More Stump as it looks from the outside. In the first photo he is seen measuring the stump with a friend. In another photo later in the piece, you’ll also see a photo of Ira standing atop this spectacular stump!
When I visited the stump, I then wanted to see if I could present it from a different point of view. This giant reminder of the past has now given life to the forest around it. A group of Western Hemlocks now gain sustenance from its remains and are well rooted into the stump they began life in. The stump also supports a community of lichens and mosses! What I did was to take the time to climb into the hollow of the tree and photograph the forest canopy above it from the inside. I think it provides a pretty unique perspective, don’t you? Once again, the resourcefulness of nature shines through. Nothing is wasted, and everything has a purpose!
***Thanks to Ralf Kelman, B.C’s best known tree hunter, for the information generously shared with me about the Seymour Valley back in 2004***
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 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!
Imagine a journey back in time, if you will, to the year 1497, let’s say. A tiny seed cone from a western red cedar flutters to earth deep in the North Shore Mountains, in what would later be known as the Hydraulic Creek drainage in the Seymour River Valley. It comes quietly to rest on an outcropping of granite, and in this protected enclave, somehow takes root and begins life as a tiny seedling. In a forest seldom if ever seen by human eyes, but walked by deer, bears, mountain lions, and squirrels, the tree is never wanting for companionship. Not fifty yards downslope, a tall and sturdy Douglas Fir already into its second century provides it shelter and shade.
Then, every year came the rains. The time passed, ever slowly, ever quickly, and the seedling became a tree. That tree grew to be vibrant and strong, and the forest that surrounded it in the many seasons that followed flourished equally well.
All began and ended as nature determined until the turn of the twentieth century, when men arrived in the Seymour Valley, wanting cedar for the shingle bolts that would be used to build homes. Life for the cedar, now a towering spire, would never be quite the same. In fact, its very survival became threatened.
Teams of loggers arrived in the forests, working their way up the valley in search of the harvest. Many trees fell to their crosscut saws, but somehow, that gnarled cedar atop the rock and its neighbouring Douglas fir survived. Some might speculate that it was because of a great fire that halted logging operations in the mid 1930s, or that they may also have been saved by the fall of timber prices and the Great Depression. In any event, luckily, they were spared.
Travel far forward in time now, to the 1980s and early 1990s. The forest was then under the administration of those charged with maintaining Greater Vancouver’s water supply. The area below the Seymour Dam had been designated an auxiliary watershed and had just been opened to recreational users. Though logging had been strictly banned in the watersheds prior to 1967, once again it reared its ugly head in the years that followed. There were extensive plans to cut down the valley’s remaining timber and, unbeknownst to the public, regular harvesting was taking place in both the Seymour and Capilano Watersheds. The area below the dam, now called the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, then bore the more ominous name Seymour Demonstration Forest. It was not clear at the time just how much of the forest would ultimately be saved.
Enter Ralf Kelman, the son of a North Vancouver logger who had grown up in the woods of the Seymour Valley. He had developed a love of the forest sometimes bordering on obsession, and had spent many a day hunting down remaining stands of undisturbed old growth trees. He certainly did not want to see any of these trees destroyed, and became involved with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in order to speed their preservation. Together with Paul George, Will Koop, Chris Player, and numerous others, he strove to end logging in Vancouver’s watersheds. The conflict raged on for quite some time, with more exploration and mapping as well as the clandestine gathering of photographic evidence. The powers that be were very reluctant to stop the practice, but eventually, in 1994, logging was finally halted in the Seymour Demonstration Forest. The logging in Greater Vancouver watersheds did not actually become official until 2002. This link to the WCWC’s actual conservation campaign is a real eye opener and shows you the attitude of the Greater Vancouver Water District (GVWD) and logging interests at that time.
During that time of conflict, the WCWC had published a map of the old growth tree groves in the Seymour Valley, and through my good friend Vida I was able to get a scanned copy of the map, so I set out to find what Ralf had already discovered. The very centrepiece of his finds was the Temples of Time Grove of Giants, which was just south of Hydraulic Creek. The Tolkien Giant and the Temple Giant, two of the trees on the map, particularly captured my imagination.
On a perfect spring morning in 2006, Matt C. and I visited the trees to find out whether they were all still alive. While I had visited many of the them before in 2004, the plan that day was to try and visit each and every one on the map. After a brisk bike ride to the Hydraulic Creek Bridge, we stashed our rides in the woods and began hiking. Matt, who at the time worked for the Seymour Hatchery near the Seymour Dam, was really looking forward to seeing the grove.
We began as I had several years before, by trekking steeply uphill to the Hidden Giant. It is a Douglas Fir that spans about seven feet in diameter, and could be as old as four hundred years old. If it remains permanently protected, it will surely become one of the finest remaining specimens in the valley.
From there we worked our way a little bit higher, as the sunlight filtered through the forest canopy. We could easily imagine how Ralf must have felt when he discovered these trees. Just thinking about the fact that they might well have been cut down shows how far the conservation movement has come in a relatively short time. Still, the balance between preservation and industry will always be a precarious one. Hopefully, compromises will be reached, and forests like these will survive for future generations to enjoy.
Our next stop was the Paul George Giant. Paul is well known for his environmental efforts, and also authored the book Big Trees, Not Big Stumps, which documents many of the efforts to preserve British Columbia’s forests. His namesake is a six hundred year old fir whose trunk measures about eight feet in width, and sits quietly overlooking the rest of the grove.
It has been nearly twenty years since I was told that an official trail was planned to be cleared and marked through this grove, but that has not happened just yet. Should you wish to explore these trees you should be fit, sure footed, and experienced in off trail hiking. If you’re lucky, as I’ve been, you might also see wildlife such as black bears, deer, bobcats, and pine martens. Cougars are also native to the area, so all normal precautions apply.
While you hike it also helps to have a keen eye for the little things, like this tiny frog that we stumbled upon, and a wide variety of mosses and fungal growths.
We soon found ourselves traversing through thickets and deadfall as we worked our way toward a small creek bed (Krisby Creek on the WCWC map) that would lead us to even more ancient Douglas firs. Here we found the tree called the Rosebush Giant, sitting in an isolated clearing that readily gathers sunlight.
Not too far away you will find the Hundal Giant and the Chittenden Giant, two more beautiful firs with deep, channeled, almost crenellated bark. A little known fact about the bark of these trees is that it may reach nearly a foot in thickness. With protection like that, a tree is capable of enduring many Pacific Northwest winters!
A little more time and persistence brought us to the monarch of this grove of trees, that six hundred year old leviathan known as the Temple Giant. It measures ten feet in diameter and towers well over 250 feet from the forest floor. It may have a chance, if it thrives, to become the biggest champion tree in the valley if it isn’t already.
Within sight of this leviathan, still wedged into the rock face just uphill, was the twisted bulk of the Tolkien Giant. It almost seemed to be watching us. I will describe our meeting with this veteran of five hundred winters, but for an important perspective, first we need to move forward in time once more…
Two more revolutions of the earth around the sun. Now it is the spring of 2008, and as the remnants of a spring storm fade into mist, I find myself once again cycling the Seymour Valley Trailway. On this day, my companions are Rich, Daryl, and Chris, tree enthusiasts all. We opted to use the more southern trailhead to access the grove on that day. There were few sounds other than our occasional banter, as even the birds were still hiding from the morning rains. We made our way slowly to the Temple Giant, which still stood tall and proud.
I stopped for a second, watching Rich approach the tree. I recall turning to Chris, who, like me, had been to visit the Temple Giant numerous times, and saying that something didn’t seem quite the same. I didn’t remember the tree sitting in a reasonably well lit opening in the forest. Chris agreed, adding that the tree had always been difficult to photograph because of the shade.
The explanation for our momentary puzzlement became apparent all too soon. Lying in bizarre symmetry, the perfectly split trunk of a great tree had come to rest on the hillside. As it had fallen, it had also taken out a number of younger trees, hence creating space in the forest canopy above. I soon realized that the Tolkien Giant had met an untimely end.
This was both unexpected and sad. I paused interminably, thinking. Though I’d only known the tree for a fraction of its five centuries, I felt as though I’d lost an old friend, and found myself looking back to the bluebird day on which I had last seen it. Matt and I had marvelled at what an unlikely looking survivor it had been. Its location alone, anchored steadfastly around and into the grooves of the rock face, was a classic example of the way nature wastes no opportunity.
Much as I felt the loss, I also began to see that its passing had made way for other denizens of the forest, and my eye was drawn to some nearby cedars I had not noted in years past. Nature always provides, however mysterious its ways, so to speak.
Our hike continued that day, as the mist cleared and the forest brightened somewhat. We visited most of the trees Matt and I had seen two years before, and made several more discoveries as well. Even the most familiar walk can be a unique experience. Here are some sights and scenes from the rest of the trek…
Though it was a shame to have lost one of the valley’s most spectacular trees, there was a most fitting way to end our day, a consolation of sorts. We made our way back toward the banks of Hydraulic Creek for a visit with the Hobbit Tree, another cedar well over halfway into its first millennium of life.
This tree, which can be easy to miss although relatively easily located, is at least nine feet wide and just exudes character. Rich was kind enough to pose with it for scale, just to give me an idea of its immense size. I hope that it still stands for at least a few more hundred years!
There was little left to do but stop, eat lunch, and take a few photographs of the creek nearby before heading home for the day. It had certainly been an eventful day!
While it’s important to remember that while these trees are currently protected, it wasn’t always so. A mere twenty years ago, after all, there was still logging in the Greater Vancouver watersheds, and only through diligence and commitment was that practice stopped. You can find out more about that history in this link here. It’s rather a lengthy read, but a worthwhile analysis nevertheless. If it had been solely up to the GVWD and the loggers who held Tree Farm License #42, the Temples of Time Grove would long ago have been logged. A tip of the hat to the people who fought so hard to save these forests!
In order to protect the best of our forests, our values of conservation must remain strong. In that sense, the message conveyed in the title of Paul George’s book remains as relevant as ever: Big Trees, Not Big Stumps.
*** Update: As of a visit to this grove in the spring of 2017, I can happily attest to the health of all the trees and that the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve remains committed to their preservation. ***
There are times when I write about a trip in the mountains that I struggle to find the right words to tell the tale, and then there are the stories that almost write themselves, and this one is definitely the latter. It all began innocently enough, with an email from Doug. He had studied his maps and come up with the idea to traverse The Needles, an obscure group of wooded summits north of Lynn Ridge and deep in the heart of the North Shore Mountains. They were steep, largely unknown to most, and shrouded in mystery. They still are. A look at the maps over an Okanagan Spring Ale or two at Doug’s place was enough to hook me on his idea. In retrospect, I now know I can be talked into just about anything by cold beer, as if there had ever been any doubt about that.
Such a peregrination cannot be undertaken without superb planning, and Doug prepared thoroughly by studying the route in detail. The plan was to begin by biking to Hydraulic Creek, and after stashing our bikes there, to run up the valley to the Paton’s Lookout Trail. This is a trail that leads to Coliseum Mountain from the Seymour Valley. We’d follow it to the Needle/Coliseum Col, and then head down the Lynn Headwaters Coliseum Trail to Norvan Pass, where the bushwhacking would begin. We would then complete the traverse and exit via the Hydraulic Creek Trail to our bikes and the ride home. Sounds simple, right? Here it is on a map…
Fast forward to Saturday, July 16, 2004, a day I’ll always remember, in part because it was also my mother’s 71st birthday. The time was 430 am, and I was biking up to Doug’s house where we would rack our bikes and drive up to our ride’s starting point near Rice Lake. I despise harsh exercise before sunrise even though I enjoy rising early. This day was no exception, but on the drive up I began to catch a little more enthusiasm.
The sun was nearly emerging as we finished the first leg of the journey at Hydraulic Creek, where we locked up our bikes and set aside cold Gatorade for our return. After sorting through our gear, it was time to run about 3 1/2 kms to the Paton Trailhead, where the hiking would begin in earnest. At this point, I recall feeling very fresh, as the heat of the summer day had not reached us yet, which was good because temperatures were expected to rise to well over 30 degrees Celsius.
We had a pleasant feeling about our expedition because we had just spotted a young barred owl in the trees near the bridge. “Surely this meant things were going to go well?” I had thought.
We trekked steadily upward after our run toward Paton’s Lookout, a flat topped plateau at an elevation of roughly 1100 m. The trail was in excellent and we were packing light and fast. Time was of the essence, as we hoped to be back before 430pm that afternoon, but we were prepared to bivouac if needed. The forest in Paton Creek is an excursion worthy of its own merits, as there are large stands of untouched timber there and it’s not unusual to see a black bear or two.
At an elevation of around 800 metres you pass a huge Douglas Fir and a section of trail that overlooks some beautiful granite cliffs. As I was getting hungry, we stopped briefly here for some snacks, then began climbing again.
The Paton Creek Cliffs can be seen from well below in the Seymour Valley; I’ve used them before as a navigational feature, of sorts. As far as I know, they aren’t a popular climbing objective but they do look rather interesting.
After another half an hour we had topped out on Paton’s Lookout, and now we had to lose about a hundred metres of elevation, then regain that and more to attain the col below Coliseum Mountain. Here are some scenes from the lookout, an ideal camping spot, however, I believe camping is not actually permitted there.
It was clearly evident the mercury was rising as we worked our way toward the boulder field that gave entrance to the col. I began to wonder if we had brought enough water, as there was still a lot of ground to cover, but for now at least, we were going strongly. We could now see far into the Seymour Watershed, an area off limits to hikers.
You can see the haze beginning to build in the distance here as it often does in the mountains on hot summer days.
Had we known that tarn above was the last water source we’d see for some time, we might have chanced to fill up there despite the risk of giardia, but we chose instead to pace ourselves and conserve our supplies. Another hour passed as we hiked up the boulder field and completed the second link of our journey. We had made the col!
We were surrounded by fields of blooming heather as we hiked toward the pass. The air was calm and still, and the silence was only broken by the occasional buzz of the brilliant blue dragonflies that seemed to be everywhere in the meadows.
Now the task shifted to taking the trail down to Norvan Pass, where a brushy bench would lead us to the foot of the sub peak of the North Needle. This at least went by swiftly, and it wasn’t long before we were confronted with the real challenge of our excursion.
Of all things, this switch plate ushered the way to Norvan Pass, and we followed. The next ten minutes were the only ones we walked on relatively flat ground. The views were very enjoyable here, and we felt the privilege that only relative solitude affords; this was a rarely visited place.
Shortly, our objective came into focus. For a minute or two we studied the climb from a distance, questioning both the possibilities and the probabilities. Well, that, and our relative sanity, of course.
The way I remember it was that ascending from the left was not a tremendous idea due to pronounced gullies and cliffs, and the approach off the right side looked equally inadvisable. I’m not sure which of us coined the phrase but the mantra for the day became “Straight up the gut, not left, and not right.” That proved to be true, all afternoon long!
Well now, there we were at the base of the North Needle, and it was now time to get serious. This has always been the kind of terrain that I like to challenge, and so I more or less dove into the forest. Luckily, we also discovered the route was marked with a series of orange tapes, which we added to at several key points. You know that piece of gear you forget to plan to bring on every other expedition? Well on this trip it was gaiters, and as a result our shins took a constant thrashing from all of the stunted trees, copper bush , and heather that choked our path. Live and learn!
All of the lush greenery you see here is about eye high and just thick enough that you can hardly see in front of you. With practice, though, it gets better. We got plenty of practice.
We just trusted the line we had chosen, heading straight up the middle, over this, under that, around this, through that. By now it was about noon, and we were getting well roasted, as the temperature hit the high thirties in degrees Celsius. Understandably, our pace slowed somewhat, but we kept busy with idle chatting and the occasional profanity laced tirade. Having scrapped our way up the North Needle’s subpeak, we followed a short shelf to the next vertical section and continued the thrash.
The orange flagging on the route at least gave us some sort of psychological edge, but did not diminish the fact that we knew we were strictly on our own here. Rescue was a long, long, way away.
Ironically, rescue was among our topics of conversation, as Doug had just signed up with North Shore Search and Rescue at the time. I would have loved to have joined myself, but my life at home raising a son with autism had to take priority then as it does now. Doug has gone on to become an integral member of the rescue team since then and we often work together trying to map trails and/or get photos of remote locations for possible rescue missions.
Better yet though, we now stood atop the North Needle, where congratulations were in order and more curse words shared profusely. This summit was a mere 1260 metres high, but to this day neither of us has worked harder on a mountain, before or since!
The views were well worth the effort!
In the photo below, the unnamed peak on the Hanes-Wickenden Divide at left here in the foreground is a long time curiosity of mine which I am still hoping to scale someday. It used to be called Forks Peak. Crown Mountain lurks behind kind of menacingly, though maybe I thought so because I had just run out of water! We did not linger long, soon dropping into the saddle in pursuit of the Middle Needle.
Treed and dense, the path from the North Needle became no easier, and the flagging tape became harder to spot. The same basic technique applied, keeping to the middle to avoid the cliffs we knew were there, though impossible to see. The time began to blur somewhat, as the sun beat down on us persistently. I’m not sure how long it took, but soon the Middle Needle, at 1258 metres, was ours!
We were elated to be walking about on these rugged little peaks so rarely seen by people yet so close to home, relatively speaking. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a sense of utter accomplishment, as this was a hike that changed us in ways we may not have understood at the time.
The next link in the chain was a sharp drop of 150 metres followed by scrambling up the north side of the South Needle, which we had stood upon just weeks before. All I could think about was all the food, water, and Gatorade waiting with our bikes, so down we plunged.
As I was leading the way off the Middle Needle in more dense foliage, suddenly I felt something hit my shoe and flash past, so I picked it up, actually, more like stretched out to catch it in midair. Turned out it was a lens from a pair of sunglasses, strangely. What’s more, it turned out to be Doug’s, and at the time he was some sixty feet above me! Talk about lucky.
The fight continued, with us making reasonably short work of the ascent of the South Needle. Now we were within reach of a well marked trail, and chock full of optimism. The forest would help us chill a little, too, we hoped.
I later realized the cliffs in this photo above were those north of the head of Mayers Creek near Jack’s Burn. You can see Lost Lake in the background as well.
Seen here above, Doug celebrates the culmination of his fine but evil plan at the summit of South Needle, 1160 metres in elevation. The hardest work has been done, and we’ll now descend the Lynn Ridge Trail to the Hydraulic Creek Trail. Thirsty and tired, soon we were on our way, but not till Doug shook hands with the mythical wooden creature!
The ancient forest welcomed us with much needed shade. It was tempting just to take a nap under one of the big cedars but we pressed on, cold drinks now being closer to reality.
At roughly 800 metres in elevation on the Hydraulic Trail, trail builder Gabriel Mazoret affixed this plaque. It reads, from a poem by Christina Rosetti (1830-1894) :
“Does the road wind uphill all the way? Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? From morn till night, my friend. ”
I could not have imagined better prose to sum up our day.
It was exhilarating to refuel ourselves when we reached the bikes! What a sight we had become as we burst, scratched and soiled, from the woods carrying our bikes, to the audience of many casual afternoon riders. We were bloodied, bruised, scraped… and about as happy as can be. Almost eleven hours later, we were bound for home, already talking about another adventure!
Statistically, there was 5576′ of climbing, 5428′ of descending, and 32.5 kms of biking, running and hiking, all told, and all of it very memorable. A long and rewarding day in the mountains. The owl, it seemed, had been a good omen indeed.
It was May of 2004, and I found myself biking up the Eastside Road in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, a favourite destination of mine. At one time, not so long ago, this valley was home to magnificent stands of old growth forest. Now, though much has been lost, the area’s timber is protected for future generations to enjoy. That day, I was in search of the Eagles Nest Grove.
A cool spring morning warmed gradually, with morning mist occasionally drifting in. There was much to lose myself in as I climbed the steep incline near the 8 km mark. The grove, according to an old Western Canada Wilderness Committee map, was roughly three more kilometres away. Discovered by noted tree hunter Ralf Kelman, the Eagles Nest Grove was named for the sizeable nest atop one of the larger Douglas firs.
On my way to the grove, I decided to pay a visit to Rolf Lake, now called Lost Lake. The lake is nestled at the bottom of the Rolf Creek Valley, which has its headwaters high above in the snowfields of the Seymour-Runner Col. If you’re lucky, you’ll see Pacific Newts basking on the shore there, and sometimes a deer or a black bear.
After a brief sojourn rambling about the lakeshore, I stopped for lunch and then continued up the Seymour Valley. Once I reached the 11 km mark, the familiar screech of young eagles broke the early morning silence. I stashed my bike quickly among the trees, and made off in search of the sounds. In no time at all, I’d found the grove without the use of the map I’d brought, instead, nature had guided me there. The grove was relatively small, but I was glad it had survived the saws of nearby logging. Many of the trees were between 300 and 700 years old, and the understory was alive with tremendous biodiversity. Nearby, Douglas Squirrels chattered their warnings and a Downy Woodpecker busied herself foraging for insects. It’s a treasured place that sees few if any visits, and it’s the kind of refuge that is at the very root of my love for nature. “Well worth the 38 km bike ride,” I thought. In that moment, it donned on me that it was my birthday. I could not have imagined a better present for the occasion. Here then, is more of what I saw…
A world of thanks here to the WCWC, Chris Player, Will Koop, Paul George, and especially Ralf Kelman, for their work on the map that helped me to rediscover this time forgotten place.
UPDATE: I paid another visit to this Seymour Valley grove in the spring of 2017, about 13 years later. It remains largely intact, with some changes, and I made some new discoveries too. Look for that in an upcoming story!
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