Tag Archives: Cypress Provincial Park

In Search of the Cabin Lake Fir

You can see it on a signboard at Cypress Provincial Park, where it’s featured as one of the trees discovered by Randy and Greg Stoltmann. There’s a a picture of a magnificent Amabilis Fir deep in a snow filled gully, with one of the brothers posing beside it back in the late 1980s. Randy, who passed away in a skiing accident in 1994, is even today a legendary tree hunter and conservationist. It would have been interesting to have met him, indeed, his legacy still burns brightly.

Randy Stoltmann (1962-1994). Without his efforts there might not be a Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park. Now it's time to finish the job and protect the entire Walbran Valley
The late Randy Stoltmann, who, along with brother Greg, discovered the Cabin Lake Fir

I’ll admit that I’d been hunting old growth trees for many years before I ever went looking for a record Pacific Silver Fir ( the other namesake of the Amabilis Fir ). The tree occurs in cool forest glades at lower elevations, often less conspicuous in the company of the larger Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir, and Western Red Cedar. True giants of the species, however, are generally found at higher elevations where they are similarly overshadowed by Mountain Hemlock and Yellow Cedar. In a sense, they sometimes seem to be hiding in plain sight!

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Typical stand of Pacific Silver Fir ( Abies Amabilis ) which you’d often find at elevations of 300-500 meters in Southwest B.C.
The cones of Amabilis Firs are very distinctive and aromatic.

It was actually in 2004 that I first heard about the Cabin Lake Fir, when talking to Ralf Kelman, B.C.’s preeminent big tree hunter. Over a decent cup of coffee, he told me, among other things, a tale of a November trek to see the tree back in the late 1990s. Accompanying Ralf on that excursion was Washington state tree expert Robert Van Pelt,  who was hoping to measure the crown spread of the tree with then state of the art laser technology. Typically for Ralf, not known for preferring early starts, the trip began a bit late in the day. While they did manage to locate, photograph and measure the tree, there were some adventurous moments extricating themselves from the steep approach gully and subsequently, hiking back to the parking lot in Cypress Provincial Park. Darkness, sleet, and poor visibility didn’t help them much either. The day ended with more than a few beers at an east end Vancouver drinking establishment where all finished the day both dry and more than a little happy!

It was my frequent partner in exploration Doug who finally convinced me that we had to rediscover this tree some eight years later. He reasoned that we ought to approach it by following a direct contour line off of one of the Black Mountain ski runs. Doug also thought that we might just have the chance to find some of the large Mountain Hemlocks he’d also seen marked on some maps. It didn’t take too much effort to get me hooked on his plan. I later learned, years later, that due to the destruction of Washington’s Goodman Creek Fir, the Cabin Lake Fir had since become the largest known of its species. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were now hunting for the world champion Amabilis Fir!

A rocky gully behind the northeast end of Cabin Lake leads you to the tree, not recommended for inexperienced hikers

We chose a decent spring day for the hike, and though the terrain was steep and time consuming, travel was reasonable. The forest was well spaced, and indeed, full of the beautiful Mountain Hemlocks the park is well known for!

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One of the larger Mountain Hemlocks I have seen in Cypress Provincial Park
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These were not the Mountain Hemlocks on Doug’s map, but nevertheless they were great finds
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Untouched and unlogged, just the way I like to see a forest!
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As we approached the couloir we were looking for, the forest opened up somewhat

We soon managed to work our way close to a broad chute fortified with high walls on the side we found ourselves on . It was first necessary to climb safely into the chute so that we could explore the area, which was at roughly the elevation we expected to find the Cabin Lake tree. The light soon began to shine more brightly as we kicked our way into the snow slope and gradually worked our way down. We were glad to have brought our ice axes for the descent.

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Doug using his ice axe to dig in on a steep traverse we made to get down into the gully

We didn’t see it at first. Curiously, the next thing we noted was that the snows below us were covered with a fine layer of fallen moss and lichens – the kind you often see draping trees in the high mountains. I’ve heard it called Old Man’s Beard.

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Where had all of this come from?

While we were both pondering exactly where that carpet of foliage had come from, a towering spire appeared almost right in front of us, just downslope. It was clear we had found the source of all that fallen plant life, it was the Cabin Lake Fir itself! In its company were a number of young Silver Firs, perhaps seeded from the cones of their parent nearby.

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This tree has lived for hundreds of years! You can see the mosses hanging from every appendage
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In contrast, the mature trunk of a mature Silver Fir at right, and a relatively young tree at centre here

To some, it might seem like hyperbole to assign mythical qualities to a simple being such as a tree, but the Cabin Lake Fir most certainly had a peculiar aura. It  grows in a  location quintessential  for its survival and it’s doing exceptionally well. The tree is ideally situated to acquire all the necessary nutrients, water, and just the right amount of sunlight. Simultaneously, the steep rock walls nearby shade it from the midday sun and protect it from high winds. It is even evident that the slides and avalanches which take place in the couloir follow a path well away from the tree.

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Doug and the Cabin Lake Fir, both good friends, one a lot older!

We spent quite a while in the presence of this grand old spirit of the forest, taking ample time for photography and lunch, before packing up and climbing out of the gully to Cabin Lake, as we wanted to be certain to chart the entire route. I was certainly happy that Doug had been so insistent that we make the trek that day!

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You can see this tree is loaded with character!

 

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Towering in the mist
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Getting that all important location
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Lunch with the World Champion Cabin Lake Fir!
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The Cabin Lake Fir!
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This photo was taken on the walk out of the couloir. If you are approaching the correct gully from the lake when it is snowed in, this is what you should be looking at
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You will also see this iconic pair of Mountain Hemlocks just before descending the gully. I call them The Happy Couple

Two years later, we would return in autumn, descending that same gully downward from Cabin Lake, with the bluffs of Black Mountain looming above. Paul, who was along with us on that day, was also keen to get a look at the tree.

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The well known Cabin Lake. Most folks don’t get too far beyond its shores and the nearby summit of Black Mountain plateau
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Tour Guide. I hire only the best ones!
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The ponds were just beginning to freeze on that early November day

If you are taking notes on the approach and how it might look once the snow melts, after you leave the lake behind you should find yourself in a blocky, granite boulder field that is very distinctive looking . Just carry on downward, with bluffs on your right, as you descend toward the gully.

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Doug and Paul getting ready to head toward the gully

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A look at the boulder field. some of the rocks are huge in size
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Yep, we’re heading down there!

The tree was no less magnificent on that occasion, and the weather was about the same as it was for our first visit. Fog and mist made getting an ideal photo something of a challenge. All agreed, though, that it was a tree worth revisiting!

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A different angle shows the broken top of the Cabin Lake Fir
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Still straight and true!
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Centuries of bark

In the end, it seemed fitting once again to walk in the footprints of the Stoltmann brothers, and my only regret was all of the years I had waited before searching out the Cabin Lake Fir. To paraphrase the immortal Warren Miller: “Get out there and get it done. If you don’t do it this year, you will just be one year older when you do!”

****IMPORTANT UPDATE***

I have recently learned that the Cabin Lake Fir has died, as reported in the summer of 2015, not long after our last visit. Here is a link to the BC Big Tree Registry that documents its demise in two very telling photos. It was a privilege to have made its acquaintance and it truly magnifies my concluding paragraphing this story. Had we not made the effort to see the tree when we did, we would not have seen it alive at all. It will have to live on in memory alone, once the largest and perhaps the oldest known tree of its kind! It was, at least, the world champion for about seven years!

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Heading back to Cabin Lake on the walk home

 

 

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An artistic rendition of the Cabin Lake Fir, emphasizing the shadows. It was a grand old tree, I will miss it a lot

***In memory of Warren Miller (1924- 2018 )***

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Snow Falling From Cedars

Well it’s December here on the west coast and finally winter has arrived in earnest. There has been snowfall in the North Shore Mountains lately like we haven’t seen in years. Trouble is, everyone has been set on enjoying it at the same time, so it took a little planning for Doug and I to figure out the best way to enjoy one of our favourite local haunts without having to brave the crowds.

Rather than join the throngs of humanity up at the ski resort area, we decided to take on a somewhat different approach. Knowing that the snow line was relatively low, we opted to begin our trek somewhat lower on Hollyburn Mountain. The destination? A walk through the old growth forest of Brothers Creek up to Lost Lake and West Lake. As it turned out, we had the best of all worlds: relative solitude, enjoyable weather, a decent navigational exercise to work through, and plenty of untrodden snow to play in!

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Lower Brothers Creek on the fire road

The trek began on Millstream Road at the trailhead for the Brothers Creek Fire Road. It wasn’t as cold as we thought it might have been, so we were able to dress fairly lightly for a winter trek. After about half an hour or so, we were already in the midst of old growth forest at an elevation of about 600 metres.

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Old growth forest on Brothers Creek Fire Road

It was a narrow escape for the cedars here at the turn of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s a full scale logging operation ran for quite some time, one of the first to use large steam donkeys as engines and incorporate the use of incline railways. However, a collapse of the cedar shake market put an end to all of that prosperity, and years later when it did resume easier sources were sought. The lands are now owned by British Pacific Properties and managed for public use.

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Three twisted ancient cedars, all well over 400 years old

Soon after, it was that this valley, then called Sisters Creek after the two prominent peaks then called The Sisters (and now called The Lions), was renamed as Brothers Creek. Logging has pretty much ceased since therearound 1912. Hiking there gives one the ready opportunity to see sections of ancient forest which are almost intact to this day. To see these trees clad in winter snow is especially worth the effort!

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But beware, unlike its distant cousin the yellow cedar, the western red cedar is not built to hold snow and usually sheds it quickly and without warning. We had to pay close attention to falling snows, hence the title of this entry.

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Here it comes!
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Mountain hemlocks on the Lost Lake Trail

The old fire road makes its way up to a bridge that crosses Brothers Creek at about 720 metres and joins the Brothers Creek Trail that meanders the other side of the creek. Our destination though, was Lost Lake, one of the small subalpine ponds that dot the lower reaches of the mountain. There is a well marked route that leads into Cypress Provincial Park and on this day it had been trodden as far as the lake.

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Lost Lake

The silence was conspicuous once we reached the lakeshore, with nobody in sight and blue skies above the trees. We stopped briefly at the lake to reconnoiter our route, as from that point on we would be  breaking trail in two to three feet of new powder snow! In the Lost Lake area, the silver fir and mountain hemlock dominate the forest, along with the yellow cedar.

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The snow was deep! I ended up dropping my camera in it and having to painstakingly dry it out

Doug got out his GPS and we decided to head up the mountain to West Lake, once the site of an old ski lodge. My memory of the trail was a bit vague, but we both knew that it wound its way into the upper valley of Brothers Creek and then crossed over the creek into the West Lake drainage. As it turned out we ended up taking a partly new route to the lake, where we stopped for lunch. Before that we managed to step into a few big snow holes and managed a difficult creek crossing. Somewhere along the way I lost one of my snowshoe straps, which made walking a bit more difficult but not especially hazardous.

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West Lake

There was much to talk about as we hiked as we’ve had a long history with the area over the years. At one time you could hope to see a Northern Spotted Owl on these trails but as it’s very elusive that’s not too likely.  I have, however, run into black bears and pine martens occasionally and have seen signs of deer, rabbits, bobcats, mountain lions, and even a wolverine. Woodpeckers, barred owls, and Douglas squirrels are commonly seen as well.

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Great views as we walked down the old West Lake access road

Once we’d had enough to eat we decided to make our way down the West Lake Road to the Baden Powell Trail. In summer that’s easy to do but it took some doing to find the junction where the trail crossed the road as the signpost was almost buried.

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Most signposts were buried by the snow
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Brothers Creek Trail at Crossover Trail Bridge

Once we got that out of the way it was clear sailing. We hiked down to the Crossover Trail with the intention of heading back to the Brothers Creek Fire Road. Travel was fast, with only a brief respite or two, including one at the bridge  where the trail crosses Brothers Creek. Only weeks before, we had hiked this trail in the total absence of snow, so it was interesting to see it in such different conditions.

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The ancient Crossover Cedar, as I call it

Before we knew it we were back at the truck once again headed for home, filled with new memories and images of a place so very familiar to us both.

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Merry Christmas, 2015