Anyone who knows me well enough is quite aware that I’m an obsessed Tour de France fan, so much so that I’d somehow shamelessly work “Le Tour” into the title of a story. There’s something about the true sacrifice, courage, and suffrage of the world’s premier bicycle race, which was first held in 1903, that has always fascinated me. I’ve been a devoted fan of Le Tour for decades. This story, full disclosure, bears no real resemblance to that gruelling 21 stage bike race, seeing as how it’s really about a one day tour of the Black Tusk region in Garibaldi Provincial Park. That said, I hope you’re enjoying the race so far this year and that you enjoy this tale. Hey, in the end, I’ll settle for the latter!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
What follows here is a sequence of shots taken by Steve on the descent, as Wally, Doug, and I descended the route.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
When most conservationists speak of forest protection here in the Pacific Northwest region, they are usually talking about the giants of valley floor forest ecosystems, such as Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce. There is a species, though, that seems to consistently fly under the radar. That tree is the Garry Oak ( Quercus Garryana ), known also as the Oregon White Oak. With its twisting trunks and beautifully detailed bark, it doesn’t have the enormous size of many of its relatives in the Oak family, but in its natural habitat it certainly fills a vital and unique ecological niche.
Garry Oak ecosystems, which also support a wide variety of specialized plant life, have for years been endangered in their northern range. They are generally found on British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and on a relatively narrow strip along Vancouver Island’s east coast. Though once absolutely common in those areas, these trees have not fallen victim to disease, conventional logging, or even climate change, for the most part. So what, exactly, has shrunk their habitat?
The answer is actually quite obvious: their greatest enemy is none other than encroaching human civilization. People have a great desire to build homes in waterfront areas, where trees like arbutus and Garry Oak often thrive. Of course, land developers highly covet the land they grow upon, and this has led to severe reduction or elimination of many groves.
It’s now estimated that less than 5% of Garry Oak ecosystems here in coastal British Columbia remain intact. Most of those are basically islands of preserved growth that were once part of broader populations that also allowed for greater genetic biodiversity. The result of that condition is that numerous species found in these ecosystems are either endangered or at risk. What’s worse is that they are often battling invasive species like Scotch Broom just to survive!
In the general area of Nanaimo, where I live, you can find fair sized forests in Nanoose Bay, Parksville, Harewood Plains, Joan Point, and Mt Tzouhalem, for example. Sadly though, countless other populations are either small, dwindling, or already eliminated. I’m soon hoping to explore these forests in springtime, when their numerous wildflowers emerge. It’s a world I’m just beginning to discover, in what I now call my backyard. Here on Vancouver Island there is a society devoted to these trees, it’s called the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society ( GOMPS ). Continual efforts must be made to set aside protected areas for these fast disappearing trees, for without them, so much will be lost. The Garry Oak is well worth treasuring!
“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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.