Tag Archives: British Columbia

Two Summer Days in the Mamquam Valley


The sound was as loud as it was clear! The distinctive grunt and snapping of jaws left little doubt as to its source. Motioning silently to each other, we beat a hasty retreat down the alder choked logging spur, hightailing it back to the Mamquam Forest Service Road. Chris and I had no question that we’d run into an ill tempered black bear, even though neither of us had seen it. So ended our ill fated assault on Pinecone Peak!

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Actual black bear, possibly similar to what was heard. The sound was enough to get rid of us!

This story had its beginnings in the third week of June 2008, when we had decided to set out to climb the aforementioned mountain. Armed with some decent route descriptions and trip reports from good friend Simon, we had made our way deep into the Mamquam Valley in Chris’s trusty Ford, under deceptively clearing skies. The road was still wet from spring torrents as Chris displayed an array of evasive manoeuvres to avoid obstacles better left to four wheel drive travel. In addition to running some damn fine bookstores ( visit him at one of Vancouver’s Pulpfiction Books locations ), he can also flat out drive a logging road! Up until that ursine encounter, it had been a fairly pleasant outing. We had even taken the time to stop and look at the many creeks bursting with meltwater as the skies seemed to part above, hinting at a bluebird day. Optimistically, I felt that the weather would take a turn for the better, after all, how often does the forecast turn out to be wrong these days?

Rushing waters were the order of the day!

 

The M-22 Spur, bear not included!

Alas, we were duped by the weather gods! It was just as well, I suppose. Ominous clouds had begun gathering above and the rain then began to fall, lightly at first, then harder, and harder still. What to do now? Well, we wandered about the valley, hiked up a few logging spurs, located the M-110 logging spur that led to the Pinecone Lakes Trail and Peak 6500, then spent a little more time perusing the area. Some considerably large stumps of Western Red Cedar were one highlight of the morning, along with several piles of shotgun shells and views of misted forest.

Wandering a cut block above the Mamquam River

Clouds hung low in the morning silence, a deer hopped through an opening in the clearcut and soon disappeared. We marvelled at the endless determination of the road builders, and wondered aloud how many more piles of spent shotgun shells there might be in this valley. Good thing none of the local Leroys were around that day!
A stroll up yet another spur netted a really rare find- an old Zenith cabinet style  colour television with, you guessed it, another nearby cache of shotgun shells!

 

A moody day
Colourful array of spent shell casings

 

A misty forest scene
Is this thing on?

As my friend Tracy later said “Wow, that TV’s seen better days!! I bet it remembers this Coke commercial, or this Big Mac commercial, and, of course, Mikey.”                 Televisions like these sure do bring back fond memories, don’t they? In my mind, I almost could imagine Adam West (R.I.P.) and Burt Ward in an episode of the old Batman series playing out on screen! Bam! Sock! Thwack!

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The only real Batman (the late Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) ***Not for profit, All rights reserved***

 

Alive with greenery!
Chris heading for one of those big cedar stumps
Bearberry

From there we bushwhacked back through the clearcut, admiring the surprising biodiversity, and the general aura that showed us that the Mamquam Valley was a special place, despite the obvious human disturbances.

We finished our foray with a wander down to the banks of the Mamquam River itself, enjoying the sounds of the roaring current amid the din of the pouring rain, while I vainly attempted to keep my camera dry just to try and land a few decent photos!

Thuja Plicata, the Western Red Cedar
The Mamquam River

 

Another raging creek

It hadn’t exactly been the kind of alpine excursion we’d daydreamed about, but it had nevertheless been a memorable day!  I’d characterize it as unexpectedly eventful, at  minimum.
Soon enough we were enjoying our lunch in a Squamish cafe, drinking coffee and telling more tales, a little wet but certainly none the worse for wear. An ironic denouement, at least for Chris, considering his profession. We’d come to buy, but settled for browsing, in the end, though we enjoyed it well!

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The weeks rolled by swiftly, and soon, summer was almost over. Doug and I seized the opportunity to head up the Mamquam Valley again, before the days began to shorten. On this occasion, not only was it not raining, but the chance of precipitation was basically nonexistent! We were determined to find the M110 logging spur and hike up to Peak 6500, sometimes known as Seed Peak. The mountain sits in the same cirque as Mt Gillespie, in an alpine playground full of tarns, beautiful granite blocks. There are even remnants of a pocket glacier, whose demise seems inevitable.

Here are a couple of views from the road as we drove up the M 110 spur….

The Mt Garibaldi massif, as seen from the M-110 logging spur. It’s the closest volcano to the Greater Vancouver area, and it’s right on the doorstep of Squamish!
After winding our way up all those logging roads, finally we managed to reach the trailhead to Peak 6500. Both the road and the trail had been brushed out and reflagged, making our passage somewhat easier. The track began with a beautiful walk through subalpine forest to a plateau, then followed with a steep scramble up to Peak 5700, which has an outstanding view of the surrounding Coast Mountains!

The more we meandered, the greater was my affinity for this place. Should you decide to visit it yourself, please remember to treat it with the utmost respect. Be sure to leave no trace by packing out what you pack in, and take great care not to damage the fragile environment!
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One of the sections of fast melting glacier in the basin
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As day trips go, this wasn’t a long one by my standards. It was about seven hours car to car including all the alpine sauntering, but the drive up will take you at least a couple of hours, so an early start is recommended. One thing I can assure you is that you won’t be disappointed!

A view from the summit cairn

 

 

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Seven O’Clock Happens Twice a Day

Steve laughed heartily, leaning over to the right in the cab of his Toyota 4X4. “Damn it,” I said. “When am I ever going to get that right?” You see, his truck is imported from Japan, where vehicles are all right hand drive, so I keep on going toward the wrong door when I go to get in the passenger side. “Haha, you’ll just do it again before this trip’s over! Mark my words,” he replied, laughing harder still. He opened up the tailgate and we rearranged our gear for the long drive north. Soon, we were bound for Britannia Beach, where we’d be meeting Doug and Wally at Galileo’s for a coffee at 7 am. From there, it was back onto Highway 99 to Pemberton, where we’d be detouring toward Birkenhead, and a series of logging roads that would finally bring us to the head of Tenas Creek. Destination? Seven O’Clock Mountain.

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Seven O’Clock Mountain, from July 2010, taken from Sun God

Nestled high on the divide between the Birkenhead, Tenas, and Tenquille Valleys, this was a familiar haunt to Doug and I, as we’d biked up the Tenas Creek Road with overnight packs and set up camp near Sun God Mountain eight years before ( You can read more about that here ). While we then managed to climb Sun God, we’d run out of time to summit Seven O’Clock Mountain on that occasion, so were stoked to be returning for another try. For Steve and Wally, it would be their introduction to the area.

There would be quite an eclectic mix of generations present on this trek, with Doug and I in our fifties, Wally in his seventies, and Steve in his thirties. The coffee went down smoothly, and we soon moved on, with Doug leading the way in his Toyota Tacoma. Our only stop was for fuel in Pemberton, where we amused ourselves with current tales of adventure and had a few laughs looking at some very peculiarly dressed summer tourists. The weather was clear and sunny, and we couldn’t have been happier to have had a couple of days free to enjoy the mountains!

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Wally gets a photo of Doug before we head up, with Mt Ronayne in the background

Driving up the Tenas Creek Road had not been an option for us back in 2010 due to washouts and downed trees, and cycling up the road had been pretty gruelling back then, as we’d later reminisce. This time we’d heard the road could be driven right to the trailhead, and as it turned out, that proved to be true. Just before 1030 am we parked the trucks and geared up for the hike, much to the delight of the waiting clouds of insects. On this trip there was a lot to look forward to, with plenty of food and gear along for the ride, and a full cooler of beer for refreshments!

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No, Steve is not a member of ZZ Top! Those dudes are way, way older and not as “sharp dressed”

The forecast was typical for the region in July, expected to be clear, sunny, and approaching the low thirties in degrees Celsius. The trail, if you can call it that, is a notoriously steep and sparsely marked track. We soon settled in for the long uphill grind.

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I was surprised to notice you could see the summit ridge of Sun God from where we parked

Among the sundry topics of conversation as we climbed was an online trivia game for prizes Doug told us he’d been playing lately. All players answer the questions and are eliminated as soon as they fail, apparently. He spoke of one question that involved clocks that knocked out a lot of competitors, then wryly suggested that all the millennials must have dropped out of the running because none of them knew how to read clocks with hands. This brought great laughter from all, and good humoured protest from Steve, who proclaimed he had no trouble telling time and proceeded to prove that several times during the hike. Besides, it was more than easy for him to get back at any of us when we mentioned anything prior to the mid eighties, since he was more than happy to point out he hadn’t even been born by then! None of that stopped me from branding the colour of his shirt as “Millennial Orange”, though.

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The approach trail is pretty minimalist and features a lot of this type of action!

The trail through the forest was steep and unforgiving, but the the bushwhacking was still light and tolerable. I could tell that the route hadn’t received excessive traffic in the years since my last visit. I found, however, that my memories of the approach had blurred, and after a while it seemed like unfamiliar territory. All that changed, naturally, when we broke out of the trees to the welcome view of Mt Ronayne. It then dawned on me that we were not too distant from where Doug and I had bivouacked eight years before, with Sun God Mountain towering above us.

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Our first look at Mt Ronayne!
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Me, Wally, and Steve crashing through the brush! Photo by Doug
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Wally, me, and Steve grinding up the boulder field. The Sun God/ Seven O’Clock Col was getting ever closer! Mt Ronayne in the background. Photo by Doug
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Doug smartly taking refuge in the trees as we scrap our way uphill
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Sun God comes into view, can you see Doug scrambling around the corner?
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We could now see the road we had driven up the Tenas Creek Valley
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Arriving at the col! Photo by Doug

Once we were within sight of a most familiar lake below the summit ridge of Sun God, we decided to take a break. I was glad of that because I had to take off my new boots and repair some blisters they’d already given me. The meadow looked as beautiful as ever, snow free as it was this time. When Doug and I had last visited it had been entirely snow covered.

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The southeast summit of the Ronayne massif
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A big zoom on Birkenhead Mountain across the valley. We hope for a closer look someday

Steve then trekked down to the lake to replenish his water supply while the rest of us snacked. Wally and Doug, meanwhile, were discussing the frustrating issue of markers continually disappearing from Grouse Mountain hiking trails back in North Vancouver. The problem was resulting in lost hikers and late nights for the North Shore Rescue team that they volunteer with. Somehow Wally, armed with an effusive sense of humour, managed to make that a funny conversation. I think his many experiences in different parts of the world have given him some well rounded perspectives on life!

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The guys enjoying a snack before we begin the battle
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Steve heads down to the lake for water. “Millennial Orange” is an easy colour to spot!

I spoke of my impending move to Vancouver Island, which was to begin in several weeks. Changes are often unsettling to me, and this one was about as big as they get! Having lived several decades in the same place, I’d be going from knowledgeable to neophyte, so to speak. The bright side was going to be all the new discoveries I’d be making!

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Back to business! The first order of the day was to gain this ridge line

A brief meeting of the minds followed while we scrutinized the route in front of us. It looked relatively straightforward to begin with, because we needed to reach the high point visible on the ridge above to make a clearer decision about where to go next. The walk began on blocky steps, which became steeper as we climbed. The views of the valley and Sun God Mountain had our spirits soaring, and the sun, as it turned out, was not nearly as hot as we imagined it might be.

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Doug leads Wally and I up to the ridge. Photo by Steve
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Doug and Wally lead the way!
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Sun God and the lake. Doug and I had camped there in 2010
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Nearing the ridge crest
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So many distractions!
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Wally, Steve, and…what’s that? Me taking a photo? Pretty unusual! Photo by Doug

Once we reached the top of the ridge, we could see that there was a broad col and another sub summit that was our next obvious destination, but the route we needed to follow wasn’t immediately apparent. In the end, we chose to flank the ridge on the left side and work our way around it, which required thrashing our way through some pretty persistent krummholz before we managed to emerge just above the col. Krummholz, by the way, is defined as a forest of stunted trees near the timber line on a mountain. It also has the nasty tendency of scratching unprotected limbs and provoking random outbursts of foul language!

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We have reached the sky!
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Distant horizon looking somewhat foreboding, but good weather stayed with us on this trek
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This was our next target, but first we would have to find the best way of getting there
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The clouds were a great source of entertainment all day long!
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Sorry, no photos of the brush I led us through. This photo makes me look smarter!

It was Doug who immediately concluded, and all agreed, that we should try out the other side on the way back. For a few minutes though, we savoured the satisfaction of being at the col!

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Sun God at the centre of attention!

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Mt Ronayne and company

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The col was a wind blasted and barren place, all except for one persistent plant!
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That plant in question was the durable mountain veteran Purple Penstemon

Now it was time to cross that col, with its splendid vistas far and wide, and scramble up the next pile of rock. Feeling a bit more energetic, I led the way upward, weaving through, around, and over the great granite boulders. It seemed as though we’d reach the summit soon, but as I crested the top I realized we still had to gain another 200 metres in elevation. We soon realized there was yet another peak to negotiate, and this one was going to be a bit more complicated!

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We would follow the left skyline here, with some variations
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This fine view of Cerulean Lake greeted us as we arrived on this part of the ridge!
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Sun God was now looking larger than life!

We took to the rock enthusiastically, at first we followed close to the top of the ridge but, upon further inspection, we were forced to drop down and traverse it on a series of ledges on the left side. The right side, due to sheer drops, was not really an option at all! Already we could see that there was still another climb to deal with after this one, and after a little more meandering we were soon at its base.

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The ridge crest had a great view, but no way were we walking on the remains of a cornice!
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It was at this point I scouted ahead and decided to descend and traverse, after we got “cliffed out” here
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Wally with Doug and Steve as we head for the next objective
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I found some ledges then we scrambled up and across this formation.
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Rock Ptarmigan. So often you don’t see them until you’re right on top of them!

While it didn’t lead to the summit we all wanted, that next section of scrambling finally cracked the code! We were now on an expansive and broad plateau that led to an outcropping of rock almost half a kilometre away. Seven O’Clock Mountain was finally in our sights! We took a short break at an icy tarn there as Steve filtered some water for everyone. I can clearly recall how wonderful it tasted, as does everything when you’re in the mountains, it seems!

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Are we there yet?         Nooooooo!
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Looking over the divide into the Tenquille Valley
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Steve’s military grade water filter did a great job of restocking our supply here!
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I almost decided to take a nap here!
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My idea of a perfect world!

 

Doug now took the lead again as we traipsed across the summit plain and soon we were digging in for the last hundred metres or so of climbing. It had taken us about twenty more minutes to reach the final pitch.

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Doug getting started on the plateau
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Snow layers over rock
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At one point the sky turned so blue that I had to check to see whether or not I was wearing my sunglasses. I was!
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The clouds rescued us from direct sun exposure here, which was fortunate
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A clump of the delicate looking but ridiculously tough Mountain Rock Phlox
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Looking back at the plateau as we make for the summit

The top was reached somewhere around 2 pm in the afternoon. Steve and Doug mused that it would have been cool to be on Seven O’Clock at seven o’clock, but of course that would have meant we would have had to walk out in darkness! At Wally’s insistence, we all assembled for a summit photo or two and broke out some snacks. The views of surrounding valleys were breathtaking, and it was a highly satisfying place to be relaxing.

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We now towered over Mt Ronayne and could see the mountains beyond it
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The summit cairn!
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Teal coloured tarn
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Boyz in the Hood

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Well, I reasoned, it’s time to turn it around, because “All that beer back at the trucks is not going to drink itself!” The laughter rose once more, as we began the long descent.

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Doug leads us across the plateau again
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Doug, me, and Wally begin that trek home!

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One last look at the summit of Seven O’Clock Mountain

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About to leave the plateau, but time for one more look!

 

Reversing our steps wasn’t too complicated, as it turned out, but we did manage to find ourselves off route a couple of times. At one point, we thought we’d lost Steve while contouring around the ridge again, but it turned out he’d taken a different route that got a little too complicated. I suggested we call it The Millennial Line, kind of a droll play on the Millennium Line, if you’ve ridden Vancouver’s Skytrain.

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Pondering the route back

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Ronayne resplendent in the afternoon light
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Staring at the sky while waiting for Wally to get around this corner. Photo by Steve

What follows here is a sequence of shots taken by Steve on the descent, as Wally, Doug, and I descended the route.

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This was some fairly barren ground! Photo by Steve
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Doug leading the way. Photo by Steve
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Photo by Steve
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Hands on! Photo by Steve
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Getting there…Photo by Steve
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Where to next? Photo by Steve
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Steve titles this one “Old Man Yells at Mountain”. (Smart aleck kids these days) Photo by Steve
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It’s almost like posting the same photo twice in a row, but not! Copyright The Simpsons All Rights Reserved
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The shadows began to descend, and so did the mosquitoes!

On the way back we ended up following very close to the same route, but Doug had made an earlier suggestion that would have saved us heading back to the lake and instead forging a direct line to the trail. In retrospect, it might well have served us very well had we tried it, as the extra hour or so was crucial when you consider that the bugs were now swarming aggressively as the afternoon light began fading. As it was, we careened through the brush ever downward, joyously reaching the road at six o’clock. “That’s when the big hand is on the 12 and the little hand is on the six, Steve”, as Doug explained.

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Back on the logging road, trucks within grasp!

On our way up the valley, we had managed to check out an ideal camping spot on the banks of Tenas Creek, so we returned, hoping to find it unoccupied. It was not only free for the taking, but for some strange reason the mosquitoes never really figured out we were there! Doug and Wally were going to sleep in the truck, while Steve and I set up our tents with the idea of viewing the heavens later.

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Obligatory camp shot, with my MSR Hubba in front

I had brought firewood but we managed to add to our supply by cleaning up the wood lying about the parking area. Soon we settled in for dinner, drinks, other refreshments, and an evening of tall tales told around the campfire. All manner of trips, past, present, and future, were discussed, as well as gear, music, history, and numerous other topics. Wally had us all laughing hard with the funniest story of the evening, all about a guy who used to do work safe presentations at a place he had worked at many years before. His films featured the woes of chainsaw accidents and apparently, though gruesome, were sometimes as funny as they were terrifying. Let’s just say one of the incidents recounted had us crossing our legs in mock agony. I told some stories about a couple of the more colourful baseball managers I’d played for over the years, while Doug shared some hilarious tales about the late North Shore Rescue leader Tim Jones, who we all knew and loved. Steve? He added a few stories of his own, but mostly, he just “enjoyed listening to you old guys talk!”

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Tenas Creek

After a superb night out under the stars, we awoke to yet another picture perfect day, packed up, and had breakfast before beginning the long ride homeward.

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Even as I once again failed to find the passenger side of Steve’s truck, it nevertheless struck me that you can never spend enough time with first rate friends. Seven o’clock may happen twice a day, but ironically, time has a way of standing still in the mountains.

 

 

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Oft Forgotten Mountain Hemlock

Here in the Pacific Northwest, when talk turns to the preservation of old growth trees, generally what people are discussing are the giants of valley bottom ecosystems. Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce are most frequently mentioned. Why is that? Well, the answer seems obvious, in that they are located at lower elevations and as such might seem more relatable to the average person. They also reach great size and are conspicuously targeted by logging companies in pursuit of the almighty  dollar.

There are, however, a number of different species that grow in the Coast Mountains that simply don’t garner as much attention. One such tree is the Mountain Hemlock, also known as Tsuga Mertensiana . If you’ve ever explored the forests above 800 metres in elevation, then you’ve seen your share of them. What you have likely never heard, however, are sharp cries of protest when the oldest of their kind are cut down. In truth, most people remain unaware that they are even targeted for harvesting!

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Five foot diameter Mountain Hemlock on Black Mountain in Cypress Provincial Park
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An interesting pair of Mountain Hemlocks near Cabin Lake in Cypress Provincial Park. I like to call them The Happy Couple!

Invariably, you’ll find the Mountain Hemlock at those higher elevations, where it’s most prolific. In coastal British Columbia it shares space with Yellow Cedar, Pacific Silver Fir, and in this subalpine zone it tends to be the dominant forest tree.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time in British Columbia’s southwest region, I’ve come to admire this hardy survivor of the woods. It’s specially designed to be able to hold the heavy snows of winter in the alpine regions, and to shed them efficiently. The Mountain Hemlock can be found growing in the most adverse conditions. It can thrive in groves, where some protection from the elements is afforded, but some big specimens are often found on exposed ridges, where they must confront the wrath of winter head on. Smaller, stunted versions are often found growing on rocky summits where their trunks thicken even more to withstand the winds.

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Heavy snow loads and crazy shapes in winter!
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Snow encrusted Mountain Hemlocks
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Me with an ancient Mountain Hemlock near the Seymour Trail junction. Photo by Doug
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Tsuga Mertensiana, the Mountain Hemlock. This one is on a wind blasted ridge at almost 1500 metres in elevation on Chanter Peak

The Mountain Hemlock is a tree that grows at a very slow and measured pace. When you see one that is just several feet wide in diameter that usually identifies a tree that is already several hundred years old. Growing season is short and difficult in the mountains, and nutrients are sparse, yet I’ve seen so many that have lived multiple centuries. In 2008, when Cypress Provincial Park was given permission to remove trees to accommodate some of the facilities for the Olympic Games, I made a startling discovery. Quite by accident I wandered into an off limits area where dozens of old growth Mountain Hemlocks had been cut down. Even the ones that were just three feet wide proved to be over 400 years old when I counted the growth rings and some of the trees were nearly two metres in diameter. Experts estimate that the tree can reach up to 800 years in age but I am convinced that some may make it into a second millennium.

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Gnarled and ancient Mountain Hemlock. If ever there was such thing an ent, this is it! It grows on the summit of Mt Bishop, at over 1500 metres in elevation

Yet another example of similar negligence occurred when the trail to Joffre Lakes was expanded  back around 2010. BC Parks contracted a firm to do the excavation and during the process they decided to take down a number of Mountain Hemlocks that were over a thousand years old. This was done, allegedly, in the name of public safety, but truthfully in this case they simply took the easiest possible line to widen the path. I’m quite certain they would be standing today had that evaluation been more accurate.

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Making tracks in the magic of a Mountain Hemlock forest

Many an ancient Mountain Hemlock has been levelled by ski resorts, road builders, loggers, and even homesteaders building cabins, over the years. Sometimes this has been done for business purposes, and other times for expediency, but nevertheless countless venerable trees have been destroyed in the process. Much of that destruction has occurred out of sight and out of mind, and it’s high time we paid more attention to this fine and noble tree. In the big picture, it plays an important role in nature, and must not be forgotten!

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Sun sets on Mountain Hemlocks and Vancouver, as seen from Mt Seymour

 

 

 

The Magic of the Blue Cedar Grove

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.

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The only find on a very rain soaked day was this fine four hundred year old cedar
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A day when you could not keep the water off your camera lens!

 

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.

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There it was, the moss covered boulder field where I had begun my retreat several years before!

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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.

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In this case, moss grows on the east side of this big cedar!
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If you like marked trails with few obstructions, avoid hiking with me!
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Fallen giant on the forest floor
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An explosion of greenery!

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Spectacular place to spend an afternoon

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!

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Douglas Fir aka Pseudotsuga Menzieszi
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Bigleaf Maple on O’Hayes Creek
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The sheer volume of their foliage is overwhelming!
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Bigleaf Maples are highly underrated if you ask me

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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.

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Just a shot here to give you an idea how steep and rough these creek valleys are. These are the nearby cliffs at Jack’s Burn, where you can sometimes spot mountain goats
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O’Hayes Creek as seen from a helicopter. Credit to Doug for this photo, which really gives you a different perspective!

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…

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O’Hayes Creek
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Over the years quite a few huge boulders have tumbled down this creek gully
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Those are The Needles in the background
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I got to see this rock tower from above on the day we traversed The Needles several years before
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The canyon walls
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A truly unique place, and one I’ll never forget!
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The ice cave back in 2007. For scale, the opening is, or was, seven feet at its tallest. I did not go inside!
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The sounds emanating from within were intimidating to say the least!

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!

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This territory is about as rugged as it gets!
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Cliffside cascade

 

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I could not resist another look back at a truly incredible place

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The end of a great day, heading back to my bike

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.

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Introducing “The Elk”, one very interesting Pacific Yew!
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The base of “The Elk”

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.

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Shadows in the forest
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This cedar tree had a very long piece of bark that seemed to have stripped from the trunk

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Spiky treetops usually mean old growth trees!
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Any time you find a yew around two to three feet wide you have yourself a very old tree
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When a giant falls it can either be quite a roadblock or a highway for escape!

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Rattlesnake Plantain
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Timeless beauty

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Little things!
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Partners

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Sunlit Alder trees
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I call this cedar “The Moose”
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Tilting panorama of a cedar tree

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.

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Western Red Cedar, aka Thuja Plicata
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Towering Douglas Firs

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!

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Blue Cedar Grove

The Bishop Giants

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!

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The patriarch of the Bishop Trail Grove, which may be almost 1000 years old

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!

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Doug and the two giants of the Bishop Grove from several years later in April 2006
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700 year old cedar in the Bishop Grove

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!

 

 

The Disappearing World of the Garry Oak

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.

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These trees manage to survive in dry, scrubby soils on rock outcroppings that are typical of the region. This is on Mt Tzouhalem, near Duncan

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?

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This look at Piper’s Lagoon in Nanaimo shows the highly desirable seaside habitat that Garry Oaks prefer. Unfortunately, so do people

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.

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A particularly nice grove in Nanaimo’s Piper’s Lagoon Park

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!

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They often share space with the Arbutus tree, also known as the Madrone, as with this stand on The Notch in Nanoose Bay
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The bark is unique and easy to identify

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!

 

 

 

The Kennewick Cedar

“I think we’ve got something here!” I turned abruptly, just in time to see Chris clambering swiftly up the steep gully we were crossing. From my vantage point, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew he was absolutely serious. I followed along, and as he disappeared from sight into the brush, suddenly his source of excitement became obvious. There, on the south bank of the gully, was one of the most impressive Western Red Cedars I have seen, before or since!

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Me and the Kennewick Cedar…Photo by Chris H.

The tree rests on the edge of an unnamed tributary about halfway between Kennedy and Wickenden Creeks, hence the moniker, somewhat borrowed from the Washington city of the same name. It took us quite some time to decide how to actually measure this giant, just because of the way it sits on the bank, but its diameter may well exceed fifteen feet! That ranks it in the top six we have seen in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park and far and away the largest Chris and/or I have discovered there. I returned to the tree again six years later with Doug in the spring of 2012 to find it still in excellent health!

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Looking skyward!
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A vertical panorama

What’s even more remarkable is that for its size its wood gives the appearance of a younger tree, and none of its towering leaders have yet been broken by storms. I believe that it is less than five hundred years old, which augurs well for record future growth, should it survive well. Perhaps more than any other tree, the Kennewick Cedar could perhaps truly inspire future generations of tree hunters in the region, because as I’ve said before, there have to be more giants out there just waiting to be discovered!

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Chris with the Kennewick Cedar

The Hurley Cedar

It was early December of 2005 when Chris and I set out on the Cedar Trail, trekking toward Kennedy Falls in North Vancouver’s Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. The route, at that time, was a relatively rough track that very few people bothered to hike, but it was a favourite of mine. It had that feeling of isolation that I so enjoy about wilderness, and along the way, there were two six hundred year old cedars to visit!

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The rarely tracked wilderness of Lynn Headwaters Regional Park is a treasure worth preserving

What we had hoped to discover, however, was an entirely different tree. It was perched, according to noted British Columbia tree hunter Ralf Kelman, on a precarious bank above a creek with no name. He had told me about it a year or two before, but it was only then that we were getting around to looking for it. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t too difficult to locate, and was a highly underrated tree. Its age was approximately five hundred years, said Ralf, and it was roughly eleven to twelve feet in diameter. The tree had been discovered by Randy Stoltmann back in the early 1990s, apparently.

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Exploring the woods on a winter day can be very exhilarating! Photo by Chris H.

The key to finding the tree is relatively simple. There is a short section on the trail which is rigged with ropes to assist hikers down a steep bank to a creek crossing. Once you cross the creek, immediately make a left turn and follow a spine uphill along the creek. Eventually, you’ll reach the tree, which I started calling the Hurley Cedar years later on a day Doug, Ryan, and I were searching the general area for a lost dog who goes by that name. The dog was found alive and happy, though nowhere near the tree, but the name seemed to stick in my circle of friends so I am using it here.

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The massive trunk of the Hurley Cedar

 

It did not take us too long to find the tree, as Ralf’s directions were pretty concise. Once there, we spent half an hour or so enjoying the cool, crisp, early winter day. There was a fresh snowfall on the ground that added to the ambience and at least, we thought, it wasn’t raining at the time!

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A pretty good place to stop for lunch
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Trying to get that perfect shot! Photo by Chris H.

Over the years, I have returned to this grand old cedar on many occasions, so if ever you’re out this way, I suggest you pay it a visit yourself. You won’t regret the effort!

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This tree remains as healthy as it was 13 years ago. See it while you still can, and do be careful in its presence.
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Powerful and strong, the Hurley Cedar!

 

***

Times change. Thirteen years later, the trail to Kennedy Falls has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. The building of a parking lot on upper Mountain Highway and temporary road closures of usual park access have served to help popularize the route. Up until that time, it was my understanding that Lynn Headwaters Regional Park had not  marked the trail in both directions because there was a notion the location of the trail ought to be kept relatively quiet. Consequently, I don’t think they were unprepared for the increase in traffic , which has also resulted in significant damage to the path. The actual marking of the trail is no longer an issue, but do please stick to the path and please do your part to minimize erosion.

***

The Giant Maple of Squamish Creek

High in British Columbia’s Seymour Valley, in a broad clearing once razed of vegetation by landslides, is a most incredible tree that I call the Squamish Creek Giant. It’s a massive Bigleaf Maple that grows right along the creek bed. Rising above it is a rugged coastal valley that has seen little if any exploration, in no small part because its terrain is so difficult! I’m not sure exactly why the creek is named Squamish, by the way, as it is not near the well known city by that same name.

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Bigleaf Maples like these are often 400 years old!
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Upper crowns of Bigleaf Maples are incredibly productive!

 

In the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest, Acer Macrophyllum, as it’s also known, is a relatively common tree, usually native to riparian zones. Generally it will have multiple trunks, and tends to support a wide variety of plant life that grows from its limbs. Just because of its crown spread, it can be difficult to photograph on a tree hunt, and its lifespan can widely vary. The largest of its kind is reputed to reach over five hundred years in age, but many seldom reach half that age, perhaps due to the state of flux they endure growing near watercourses.

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These trees are hard to photograph but I love to try!
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Looking into the upper canopy, four centuries of growth and still thriving
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Each massive trunk is loaded with lifeforms
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I have not explored much of the forest above the cascades. Who knows what’s hiding there?!

This particular tree is one I stumbled upon at least a decade ago, and we returned to photograph last year. It’s quite close to an especially captivating place I call The Giant’s Rock Garden (story is here ). Lately my interest about other Bigleaf Maple trees has definitely been on the rise. I have encountered many of them, but it has usually been when I am hunting other  species, like Western Red Cedar or Douglas Fir. Has anyone else out there developed an interest in these beauties? Feel free to leave your comments if you have!

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My idea of golden!

 

Living on the Edge: The Forgotten Forest, Part Four

Late in May of 2007, Chris and I decided it was high time to explore the Wickenden Creek Valley above the 400 m elevation. While we were uncertain as to what route to forge, we ended up figuring we’d just fly by the seat of our pants and just choose a random direction. Is that because the very nature of tree hunting is that you allow instincts to guide you? Well, not really, that’s just how we roll! Here’s how that day played out, well over a decade ago now.

Instead of enduring the rude awakening of fording the icy waters of Lynn Creek at the Third Debris Chute, we decided to walk the Headwaters Trail and visit one of my favourite trees first. Located not far off the path (to Norvan Falls) at roughly 4.7kms, this ancient Western Red Cedar carries with it a very illustrious tale. If ever you take the time to visit, you’ll know just what I mean! For more on that topic, just read The Story of The Survivor .

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Chris meets The Survivor, an ancient cedar that through unusual circumstances still survives today!
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This tree is the subject of one my more unusual stories!

After saying hello to my old friend The Survivor, all we needed to do was bushwhack down to the east bank of Lynn Creek, where I now knew we would be able to cross over a massive fallen fir to the other side. We carefully picked our way through a field of Devil’s Club, aka Oplopanax Horridus, a well known spiny hazard for all would be tree hunters. If you see it, do not touch it!

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The thorns of Devil’s Club can break off and stay in you for weeks, sometimes causing inflammation

This is a truly picturesque part of Lynn Creek Valley, with its wide, rocky banks and sweeping mountain views. I remember thinking at the time how fortunate I was to experience places like this so very close to home, and so close to the sprawling metropolis of Greater Vancouver!

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Looking southwest to Mt Fromme, a much more dramatic looking peak when seen from upper Lynn Creek
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There’s the log crossing, which was originally marked in 1985 and is still there today. Doug and I had stumbled upon it earlier in 2007

The log crossing once again proved reliable, but it was the last time we had the opportunity to use it in ideal conditions. It was incorporated as part of a rough trail blazed by the North Shore Hikers in 1985, yet mysteriously, in 2009, when I saw it next, it had been deliberately stripped of all its bark and some of its branching, making it much more dangerous to cross. I have yet to learn exactly how or why that happened, but in any event I am not unwilling to ford Lynn Creek when conditions are right.

Now safely across Lynn Creek, Chris and I kicked up an eroded bank then worked our way southwest into the Wickenden Creek Valley. Fortune was shining upon us that day, as the sun emerged from the clouds and the day became comfortably warm. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves among the giants again. Lower Wickenden Creek has an ambience that is increasingly hard to find in southwestern British Columbia, with its towering cedars and firs that are centuries old!

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Thuja Plicata, the Western Red Cedar
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I call this tree Split Personality. You can see that half of it has decayed and fallen away, yet the other half somehow continues to thrive!
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Walking the broad bench in lower Wickenden Creek
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Just seeing this has me wishing I were there right now!
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Western Red Cedars are never lacking originality. No two are ever the same

The crown jewel of Wickenden Creek is a massive cedar that measures over 14 1/2 feet in diameter and has likely lived over seven centuries, though I’m uncertain as to its exact age. Chris had discovered it the year before, I believe, on one of his forays into the area, while Doug and I had found it just weeks before, in April of 2007. Here are a few images  of this inspiring tree!

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Chris calls this tree “The Wall of Wood”. I think that’s a pretty good name for it!
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Even sixty feet up it still might be nine feet in diameter, and it enjoys very robust health.
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A very impressive tree!

 

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There is a certain art to measuring a tree!

It seemed like a perfect time for us to take a bit of a respite at that point. We’d both started the day off relatively tired, and what better place could there be to relax for a while! Sandwiches were eaten and tales of recent adventures were shared, with the usual smattering of Simpsons imitations mixed in.

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Yeah, we do a lot of these voices. Some very well, some not so much! (Photo credit: Fox TV: The Simpsons)

Writing this chapter today, I realize it’s been almost seven years since my last visit to this valley. So many places, so little time, I guess, but the memories brought to life by these photographs are as vivid as ever! It is a place I most certainly had hoped to return to sooner than later.

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Lunch time!

Once satisfied, it was time to get back to the plan, which essentially was to cover some ground we had not before. Choosing to follow a line in a westerly direction, we stayed for a time on the north bank of the creek. Travel was not too difficult, and we were surprised to find some fair sized Douglas firs as we pressed onward and upward.

 

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The Twins, as I called them, hiding at the base of a steep slope that would soon have us hiking up the creek bed instead
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Straight and true, one can see why mature Douglas fir has been so targeted for harvest by loggers
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The largest of the firs were about seven feet in diameter, in well protected locations, which bodes well for their future!
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Chris has been so many places that despite an excellent memory he insists on keeping notes

The next thing we knew we were up against a near vertical slope that had little to offer the avid tree hunter, so the decision was made to take to the creek bed in order to progress further up the steep sided valley. Not only would the hiking be easier, but we also made an interesting discovery. Right beside the creek was a snag standing forlornly, not an untypical sight, until we saw what lay at its feet across the waterway. It was the remainder of what may have been the lower valley’s largest tree. The massive trunk had died, broken away, and crashed to the rocks below leaving only the snag standing. I am still convinced it might have been over 16 feet wide if standing intact, but it had degraded considerably so it was hard to be certain, as it might have fallen the century before!

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It may not look like much now, but it must have been quite something in its day!

We clambered further and higher, still hiking up the creek bed as a means of travel. I knew that at roughly 400m in elevation there was a broad clearing where we could make a clearer decision on where to walk next. It was something of a relief to hop some rocks for a while and take a break from the bushwhacking. In just another twenty minutes, we arrived at the point of reckoning.

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Hmm, what are we looking at here?

At first it looked incongruous, to say the least . To our right were sheer cliffs and the south face of Wickenden Peak, and to the left, somewhat less steep slopes with the bleached broken tops of  ancient cedars visible above us. There was also a gully heavily jammed with dirty looking snow to contend with. There had been an avalanche here, in what winter travellers often call a terrain trap, or shooting gallery. On top of many rocks was a loose layer of gravel as well, indicative of recent slide activity.

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To move straight and west up the valley would have been easier, but we needed to swing left and southward to gain a steep basin above us.
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Mick: “Uhh, what was that, Chris?” Chris: “I said, what the hell is this?” Mick :”Hey! Hey!” (insert Krusty the Clown laughter)

With a sheer stroke of genius, read, blindly choosing a random line, I suggested a way onto the spine above. Chris agreed, wryly commenting that we might as well try it before we started thinking too hard. It turned out that it worked, but not before we wondered if it would!

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I remember thinking every time the two of us hike together we end up climbing snow free slopes where I wish I’d brought my ice axe. This was one of them!
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And here comes Chris. You can’t hear the curse words, but I still can!
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It’s been a while, but I wish I could remember what he was saying here, lol, because I know it was funny!

I wasn’t quite right, as it turned out. Rather than having attained the spine proper, we were now on one side of a narrow, concave basin and would have to cross it to get to where we wanted to be. This meant some ugly bashing through disheveled alder and salmonberry brush, but we sure as heck would not be retreating whence we came without a rope! This we did as patiently as we could, now within sight of the big trees again. It was remarkable how resourceful nature can be, that so many cedars had managed to grow so well there. I do not believe another human being has been there before or since, but I’ve been wrong about that before. Numerous specimens were between six and ten feet in diameter, and considering the tenuous growing conditions, many had to have been five centuries old!

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Old growth cedars atop the steep southern spine of Wickenden Creek
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Wickenden Creek continued to surprise us!
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This cedar was poised on the edge of a very sharp drop, as I recall

There were a considerable number of fallen trees to negotiate and and some very unstable ground, but we didn’t mind taking our time as we took in the sights. It soon became apparent that we were walled in on the south side, so we’d have to head east, which would eventually find us back where we began the route at Lynn Creek. Just as we began hiking downhill, we discovered yet another giant cedar. It was at least twelve feet wide, and just so I could get a photo for scale Chris had to wedge himself into the hillside!

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One of my favourite tree hunting photos!

Following a new line back to our starting point produced many new finds, as we steadily lost elevation from our high point of about 550 metres. The weather not only held, but even improved a little as the day went on. Here are a few sights and scenes, as they were encountered.

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Yet another 400 year old cedar!
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Pillars

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The lower reaches of Wickenden Creek have numerous cedars in excess of eight feet in diameter, and as we walked down we would basically sight one and by the time we staggered to it we could then see another! It was a very rewarding day, to be sure!

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Occasional glimpses of The Needles across Lynn Creek Valley also kept us amused as we neared the valley bottom.
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This fine specimen was found below 300m, just minutes from Lynn Creek

In about half an hour we reached the banks of Lynn Creek once again, but one more challenge remained. It turned out we were well south of the log crossing, and because we didn’t feel like bushwhacking upstream, we decided to try and hop across on rocks instead. That started out pretty well, but it wasn’t long before we ended up getting wet anyway and having a few laughs. While the waters were frigid, at least the temperatures outside were pretty warm!

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The art of fording. This is the ideal method…
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…and of course, this is what you often end up having to do! Here Chris demonstrates how it’s done

Once we’d taken some time to dry out we simply walked downstream and hiked back to the Headwaters Trail via the old North Shore Hikers Trail that still remains on the east bank of Lynn Creek. We enjoyed a few more sights and scenes.

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Does anyone know exactly what this is?

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It had been a real adventure, and my only regret is taking a dozen years to share this tale. If truth be told, I had misplaced the photos for about five years. The Wickenden Creek Valley is truly one of the last great stands of old growth forest close to Vancouver, but if you do choose to explore it, be prepared for anything and everything. The last thing you want is to find yourself “Living on the Edge”!