Tag Archives: Old growth

Hiking the Dreamweaver Trail

I’ll call him “A”, and ultimately, it was his vision. His brainchild was to build a unique trail joining several challenging obstacles on the east side of Mosquito Creek Canyon to connect with a substantial log crossing on Mosquito Creek. From there, a serpentine path would twist its way through a superb grove of Western Red Cedars on Grouse Mountain that had somehow escaped the crosscut saws of early twentieth century loggers. It would eventually meet with the well worn Lower Grouse Mountain Highway (LGMH) Trail, which could then be used to access other paths. That trail would come to be known as Dreamweaver (click here for map)

One of the old wooden signs that used to mark the trail. It has since been removed, I have been told

Our unnamed trail builder was a  highly skilled woodsman with an impressive array of carpentry skills. The evidence shows that he is also someone who seems to like to tackle a difficult project. In other words, the perfect person to battle the route’s obstructions. The crux of the matter was a sharply sloped hillside high above Mosquito Creek bisected by a jagged ravine which had been worsened by decades of flooding. There was also the usual problem of massive fallen trees, not at all uncommon in this canyon.

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Deadfall and other resultant chaos is common in the Mosquito Creek Valley, which is very steep sided and in a constant state of change

But were those downed trees really a problem?

“A” certainly didn’t think so. There was a massive log that spanned the hillside, but it was not quite safe for passage, at least not for most hikers. So what was the solution? In time, he figured it out! He would build a bridge using that fallen giant as a base.

In actual fact, that bridge had two incarnations because he wasn’t happy with the prototype. The final version would even be bolstered by wire rope cables. There would also be a sturdy cedar plank deck and some handrails at one end.  The result, after all those trials and tribulations, was a secure bridge that could withstand all but the absolute worst of Mosquito Creek’s propensity for natural disaster. It was a complex process into which he put his heart, soul, and determination. Days of work were required, as well as plenty of ingenuity, to get the job completed. A chainsaw, winch, plenty of physical strength, and the occasional friend also proved helpful.

So was he successful? Absolutely! The Kwai Bridge, as he named it, has stood solidly for the last seventeen years that I know of! Once this feat of engineering was mastered, then the next stage was to find a way to cross the oft raging waters of Mosquito Creek Canyon.

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The Kwai Bridge is truly one of a kind and quite a feat of engineering

Once down on the banks of the creek, “A” once again found a similar solution to the problem of crossing Mosquito Creek’s main tributary. There was another fallen old growth giant admirably wedged across the waters! It could be used to bridge over to a series of big logs on the west bank of the creek! He set to planing it flat and etching it for improved traction. With all of that accomplished, all that remained was to choose an entry point into the forest above, where the track would continue its way into that splendid grove of cedars hidden nearby.

The crossing of the creek used to be quite simple as you would simply stroll across this downed tree that “A” customized

I have never had the chance to thank him personally, but the dedication he put into this project can only described as a labour of love. The North Shore Mountains have had more than their share of iconic trail builders, and Dreamweaver’s creator certainly takes his rightful place on that honour roll. Soon after it was built, the trail became a fast favourite of mine, and in the rest of this story I’ll try to show you why!

As the map shows, the trail actually begins in the maze of old skid roads near the top of St Mary’s Avenue in North Vancouver, where it makes use of a variety of different tracks which get it into the Mosquito Creek Canyon. For the purposes of this story I simply describe the trail from the point at which Dreamweaver intersects the Mt Fromme Trail, because I generally skip the conventional access and begin quite near where the Kwai Bridge is located ( I hike in via the Mt Fromme Trail which begins near the water towers at the top of Prospect Drive). 

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Crossing the Kwai Bridge

When some local officials first saw the Kwai Bridge ten years later, there was a lot of disdain for it. In fact, though, despite its unorthodox construction, it has proven its worthiness over and over again. When you cross it yourself, take the time to linger and appreciate the effort it took to make it a reality, as you gaze down the sharp defile into the canyon.

Once you are across the bridge, your journey into the old growth forest begins! There is a nice group of cedars to wander among before the trail makes its way downhill to reach Mosquito Creek’s log crossing.

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Among the old growth trees you see once you cross Kwai Bridge

The next segment of your excursion takes you across a slide slope that released about twenty years ago, with its origins half a kilometre uphill from the creek. The trail here becomes crude, with loose gravel, rock and exposed earth. New trees and foliage are struggling, with modest success, to reestablish growth on the rough hillside.

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The slide path you cross on the way down to Mosquito Creek

Once you’re down on the banks of the creek, you’ll be looking to cross it, then head slightly downstream on the opposite side. If waters are high, you might find that fording the creek is now necessary, because that sturdy downed tree that makes the crossing has shifted somewhat over the years during storms.

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The log crossing in 2018

In heavy rains, Mosquito Creek is not the place you want to be! In fact, further down the canyon the District of North Vancouver has even had to construct some elaborate cages of wire rope cable in order to catch and control debris torrents. Despite its proximity to North Vancouver, there have also been a disproportionate number of hikers that have lost their way in this canyon. Be well prepared if you go hiking there, and allow plenty of time so you don’t get caught out by darkness.

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Mosquito Creek, just behind the log crossing
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Golden reflections

The trail is sparsely marked once you reach the west side of the creek and enter the woods, so pay close attention to the footbed. The forest soon works its charm wonderfully as you hike upward once again. On a sunny morning I cannot think of a place I’d rather be, as every step adds to the enchantment.

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Follow along yet another log as it leads you down stream to where the path climbs uphill
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Looking back at the crossing from the west side, with the slide slope in the background
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Climbing into the forest above, hearing the roar of the creek nearby

The silvered and spiky treetops pierce the upper canopy as the sounds of woodpeckers and songbirds fill the air. The forest takes on an entirely different character; Douglas Squirrels chatter loudly, laying claim to their territory, and the sounds of ravens and eagles are often heard echoing above.

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Old and sun bleached Western Red Cedars

It isn’t unusual to see a deer, pine marten, or a black bear, and, on more rare occasions, even a bobcat or cougar. Barred Owls swoop silently in the treetops above sometimes, in search of prey. The creek itself is home to the Coastal Tailed Frog, a blue listed species in southwestern British Columbia, and the feisty Pacific Water Shrew.

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Mosquito Creek welcoming committee!
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Morning mist on Dreamweaver
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Doug winding his way through the forest

The trees in this grove are centuries old, as wide as eleven feet in diameter, and the forest supports a diverse and mature understory which is wonderful to photograph. There are also immense boulders and several small brooks that trickle through the  glades. It’s hard to believe that you’re so close to civilization when you walk there, and it’s very easy to lose yourself in the moment. Places like these must be preserved for future generations to appreciate!

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Gateway!
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Woodpeckers are very busy in this forest
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Skeletal remains and blue skies
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If you do this hike, try to choose a sunny day!
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Three Rocks, as I like to call this formation

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Chris with one of the oldest cedars on the trail

You gain a few hundred metres in elevation as the track continues, and by the time you reach LGMH , you’re suddenly among the second growth trees again. Soon after that you will also encounter the signs of human detritus along the trail.

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Twisting giant in the shade
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Western Red Cedar, Thuja Plicata, over 400 years old
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Several trees in the grove were about to be cut, but thankfully remain standing today. This tree is about 500 years old
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What’s this? Classic beer bottles and an old kitchen knife

In terms of expediency, taking LGMH back down to the toward the top of Skyline Drive is the most efficient return to where you began, if you take my preferred route. Eventually you will reach the Baden Powell Trail and follow it down to the Mosquito Creek Bridge, (which isn’t far from the top of Prospect Drive). The Baden Powell Trail then loops back to Dreamweaver, and all of the other trails that connect to it.

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I call any old kitchen items I find in the woods Ted Oliver Cookware, in honour of a certain good friend of mine. You’d be surprised how much of this stuff can be found in the North Shore Mountains!

Of all of the places in the North Shore Mountains I’ve hiked, the Dreamweaver Trail takes you through some of the most idyllic forest you’ll find anywhere. Hopefully you get the opportunity to explore the Mosquito Creek Valley more closely, though I do have to happily warn you that one visit probably won’t be enough. Just to prove it, here are some more images that showcase Dreamweaver’s beauty!

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Tower of strength
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The forest as it should be seen, natural and mostly undisturbed by man
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Please do not remove the markers on this trail! They help ensure hikers do not get lost and also help search and rescue people find them!

To close this out this diatribe, I’ll leave you with this 1976 music video by Gary Wright. I think it’s reasonable to assume his song just may have inspired the name of this trail. In any event, the music does seem to suit a walk through the wilderness, if you ask me. I  played it while browsing the photos in this report and it somehow it just sounded right. I’ll let you decide if you agree!

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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 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

A Walk in the The Giant’s Rock Garden

You know, when you’re open to possibilities, sometimes the day you envisioned turns out to be a whole lot different than you planned, and the story that follows here is a prime example of that. While it’s been the better part of a year just getting my act together enough to write about this day, I still thought it worthwhile to share, and I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did!

This trip began in the parking lot of North Vancouver’s Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve (LSCR). That’s where Steve and I readied our bikes for the ride up the Seymour Valley. We stuck to the Seymour Valley Trailway  for the first half hour, before branching off toward the Spur 4 Bridge, and eventually to the road that climbs along the east side of the Seymour River.

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Seymour Valley from the Spur 4 Bridge

 

The idea was to search for a grove of ancient Sitka Spruce which had evaded both of us, previously.  Well, spoiler alert, we still haven’t found it yet! As I recall that day, it took a while for me to get my biking legs going, but our usual joking around helped to pass the time quickly!

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Steve showed me this saw blade along the Homestead Trail on our trip back, but I had to post it sooner in the story! He has a knack for finding things

The remote places of the Seymour Valley have certainly become an avid pursuit to me and I truly enjoyed exploring my backyard during the years I lived nearby. It might surprise you to know that there are still many tracts of rarely explored wilderness that are relatively close to the hustle and bustle of North Vancouver traffic. Steve has also spent dozens of hours trekking the valley’s obscure drainages and has managed to discover many things that have escaped my eyes. Truth is, when terrain is rugged you can only cover so much ground, so there is always something new to see even in places you’ve been before!

Once we reached the likely marker on the road, we spotted an old logging spur that seemed to head down to the riverbank and I decided we should explore it. You know, had I brought a map that day, we might have spared ourselves an extra half hour or so of thrashing about spindly second growth timber and brush before it dawned on us the suspect spruce grove was actually on the opposite side of the road. Mea culpa! At any rate, with that little diversion now behind us, it was back to the road and we carried on for a little while longer. I’ll explain more in the caption on the map below…

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The supposed spruce grove is allegedly off the right hand road on this map just north of Wyssen Creek. I took us on a wild goose chase off the left side of the road, hence the confusion. We actually ended up beginning our entirely different adventure by heading off to the right at roughly the 9km marker, north of our original quarry.

In just another ten minutes we were shouldering our bikes into the woods and stopping for lunch. We were very much at home in this wild, rugged enclave, which I  called “Camp Rock”, for obvious reasons. We took the time to enjoy it well before moving on. There had still been no signs of the mythical spruce grove, so instead we decided just to head uphill into a tract of forest we had not been before.

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Camp Rock, where we stashed our bikes and stopped for lunch

Well satisfied, we left our bikes behind and began climbing, with the sounds of the Seymour River gradually fading into the background. The first hundred meters of travel were painstakingly slow and difficult. There were plenty of fallen trees to hurdle and the footing was typically unstable. The only noise now came from branches crackling underfoot and the many birds busying themselves with their daily tasks.

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This is why tree hunting takes patience, endurance, and a sense of humour!

Our first finds were several old growth cedars that had managed to establish themselves on very steep ground. Some were as wide as five feet and likely 300 years old or more.

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Healthy old growth cedars early on in the hike

 

You have to be creative when you’re bushwhacking this type of ground, clambering over rocks, walking up and along fallen trunks, and sometimes ducking under them.

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Steve finds an elevated highway!
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As the sun began to shine through, the grove became more picturesque by the minute!
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Verdant and healthy

High cliff bands to the east of us soon had us moving a bit further north of our original line, and the forest seemed to gain character and diversity as we climbed. The usual stumbles and falls aside, I could see that what was ahead looked especially intriguing.

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This might just be my favourite photo of the day, but there were many more

You could now discern those cliff bands emerging from the shadows as the sun began to illuminate the forest. While we could see a way we might be able to climb above the bluffs, instead we chose to hike beneath them and explore the cliff walls.

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The cliff bands were very rugged. This portal would have been the only easy way to gain the ground above them, but we had other ideas

What caught my eye at first was a number of old cedars that looked like they had fallen from above and were now leaning against the granite walls! It was all at once, beautiful, improbable, and chaotic!

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Here I am looking up at several inverted trees leaning on the wall above me. I didn’t linger long here!
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This is the reverse of the previous image!
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These trees have thrived in a not so forgiving environment!
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True survivors!
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A close look at the cliff face
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Steve contemplates our next move
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Water streaked walls
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Another cliffside view

Well, the hike had certainly been enjoyable up until this point, but after moving down from the cliffs and just 100 meters further north, it soon became clear that we were in the presence of something truly unique. Nestled beneath those vertical cliffs was a rugged bench strewn with massive moss covered boulders, some as big as small houses, others the size of cars. Ancient, broken topped spires rose high into the forest canopy above, some growing atop the boulders, others surrounding them. Somehow this idyllic grotto had escaped the hands of human destruction and remains relatively undisturbed. The superb biodiversity we discovered there was remarkable too. I have taken to calling it The Giant’s Rock Garden. I could describe it some more, but better still, here is what it looks like!

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Some very large granite boulders here!
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A five hundred year old cedar growing atop a house sized hunk of granite. You don’t see this every day
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It was on such a grand scale that you could not really get an overview. Instead, it was much like wandering a maze
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Many of the boulders were grown thickly with mosses and other understory plants, and beneath the rocks were enclosures ideal for animals to take refuge in
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A truly enchanted forest, so fragile that we were loathe to climb the boulders least we damage the plant life
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Another spectacular cedar

 

More time was spent wandering about taking photographs, and thoroughly examining our surroundings. I know I must have been quite distracted at the time, because somehow I managed to miss a nasty branch that sprang back at me and gave my eye a hard whiplash. As I write this almost a year later it has only now properly healed! A word of warning to all of you would be tree hunters: On that day, I didn’t have my sunglasses (with clear or amber lenses) with me which I normally wear while bushwhacking to prevent such accidents. Don’t forget to wear your own eye protection!

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Just a perfect day for forest exploration

Our day was already a great success, but where to go now? Steve suggested we head northward, into an area he had previously explored while hiking the year before. I was quite certain I had been there too on several occasions, but I had not approached it from the south. Along the way we rediscovered several very old Pacific Yews. There are a great many of these trees in the groves along the Eastside Road and it’s always a treat to find one!

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The ever present Pacific Yew, often inconspicuous and not as large as its forest companions, but highly unique

Soon, the sounds of a creek could be heard, and we emerged into a broad, well lit clearing. Now we could see the gigantic group of Bigleaf Maples that tower above the creek there. On their map, which I reference here, the LSCR calls this Squamish Creek , and the drainage we had begun our walk in is called Wyssen Creek. In any event, the trees there are truly magnificent.

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Bigleaf Maples like these are often 400 years old!
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Quiet cascade on Squamish Creek, below the peaks of the Fannin Range

Each Bigleaf Maple is much like its own separate ecosystem in the sense that they support such lush plant life. Even among tree hunters they are often overlooked, and undeservedly so if you ask me.

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Each massive trunk is loaded with life
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Looking into the upper canopy, four centuries of growth and still thriving
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These trees are hard to photograph but I love to try!
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So many trunks, so little time
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My idea of golden!

There are actually several cascades to enjoy there if you follow the creek further uphill, and the rugged valley above them all  is still just waiting to be explored!

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I have not explored much of the forest above the cascades. You never know what might be up there!

We took another short break before hiking back down toward the road again, greeting several more ancient cedars en route before emerging at roadside.

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This cedar survives even though half of it was sheared away by a falling tree. Nature is tough and resourceful

It just so happened then that when we found the road we were looking right at the Bigfoot Cedar, which is found near the 10 km marker. This tree is at least ten feet in diameter and could well be over 500 years old!

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The 500 plus year old Bigfoot Cedar
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The foot of the Bigfoot Cedar

The trip back was a fun one, as we rode back to the Spur 4 Bridge again and eventually out on the Fisherman’s Trail, before walking our bikes up the short and sharp grind that is the Homestead Trail. It had been a rewarding day with great company, and one I’ll always remember!

As I look back fondly on this day it dawns on me that this was my last trip into the Seymour Valley before I moved to Vancouver Island last summer. Well, you can take the boy out of the valley, but you can’t take the valley out of the boy! A part of me will always remain there, and I know I’ll always be compelled to return!

The Heart of Wickenden: The Forgotten Forest, Part Three

The spring of 2007 was to feature a lot of sunny weather, so I was able to make several more forays into the wilderness west of Lynn Creek. The first trek, near the end of April, was with Doug. For a variety of reasons he’d been unable to join Chris and me on earlier jaunts so he was quite enthusiastic about getting a first hand look at what we’d discovered.

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Lynn Creek in morning

Once again, after walking the Cedar Mills Trail, it was a crossing of Lynn Creek at the Third Debris Chute that opened the adventure of the day. That was relatively benign…

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Doug drying out after the crossing

Of course, on hikes like these, not everything goes according to plan. It had been exactly four weeks since l’d last forded the lower tributary of Kennedy Creek, a mandatory exercise after you make it over Lynn Creek. Conditions were, how do you say, a little different this time?

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Doug searching for a way across

Somewhat compelling, to say the least, but the only real danger was getting wet, so with a little determination and adroitness, we found a way. Today’s plan was to make our way toward the unnamed creek valley north of the Kennedy drainage where Chris and I had found the Kennewick Giant. We had seen tall spires above us in the canyon on that day and I wanted to know exactly what lay in wait there. As before, we chose a line moving generally northwest to the desired area, which was roughly 550 metres in elevation.

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The first finds came quickly
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Another old cedar, roughly seven feet wide and three hundred years in age

As this was my third trip into this valley, it was particularly rewarding to introduce another hiker to this land of giants. I can still recall how much Doug enjoyed the visit, and that memory still stands out as I share this tale today. It is now time for others to discover a special wilderness that is so close at hand, yet still so well hidden.

Another hour passed, and in no time we arrived at the steep creek gully and began struggling upward on unstable ground. It wasn’t hard to see where we wanted to go, it just seemed like it took a long time to get there. Suddenly we found ourselves in an open clearing full of salmonberry thickets, a few in bloom with their bright pink flowers.Tall cedars lined both sides of the gorge, true survivors all.

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Hummingbird Meadow
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Another three metre cedar in the glade

The next thing we knew the air was alive with unusual sound. Having been on so many treks to the mountains, my inclination was to clear out right away as I figured I’d stepped on a ground nest of of wasps! Our healthy fear soon turned to laughter when it donned on us that we had stumbled upon a bustling community of hummingbirds! Not just one or two, but more than we could count. It was not possible to get a decent photo, but this is the type of bird we were looking at, though mostly listening to…

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Anna’s Hummingbird, copyright Audubon Gallery

To this day I call this glade Kingdom of the Hummingbirds, as I’ve never seen so many of them in one place before or since. Some of the cedars nearby were up to nine feet in diameter, modest in size compared to some of our recent finds but still most likely well over four centuries old.

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Trees in this location have survived living on very exposed ground below an avalanche/ rockslide runout
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Spiky topped cedars!

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We spent quite some time clambering about this unique grove of trees and were about to press onward when I spotted something unusually hulking just downhill. From where I stood, at first, it looked like a record setting tree, but upon closer examination it was actually two trees each at least nine feet in diameter that were so close together they had appeared to grow as one. Their photo, pictured here below, is framed and hangs on my living room wall today!

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When I measured these trees, the total diameter was well over eighteen feet. I call them The Wonder Twins. The tree at left could be over 600 years old, whereas the one at right is more likely a couple of hundred years younger. Appearances can be deceiving!

After a little more searching we carried on, choosing to traverse at an elevation of roughly 500 metres with the intent of reaching Wickenden Creek. Within this valley were other gems, I’d been told, even including an old cabin and a mysterious tunnel! We didn’t locate either of those, but there were plenty of trees to be found!

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Sunshine and spires
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A 500 year old cedar, half shattered, lurking in the shadows
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A relatively young giant, already three metres in diameter but perhaps only about 400 years in age
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Doug  meets another big cedar

This forest was not easy to negotiate, but an open understory allowed for steady passage, and in another hour we were dropping down toward Wickenden Creek, with our thoughts focused on lunchtime by then. As we scuffled into another sketchy ravine, something caught Doug’s eye. It was a one of a kind tree, a mature cedar well over four hundred years old. At some time in its tenure, the main trunk had fractured and it had grown three distinct reiterations, all uncommonly vertical for a broken topped cedar. We would visit this tree again a number of years later and discover that one of its columns had been toppled in a storm by another falling tree. Doug called this cedar The Triplets. It kind of saddens me to think we might have been the only people to see it with all three leaders intact. Nature is powerful!

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The Triplets
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Wickenden Creek at last! A couple of weeks later I would explore a bit of its upper canyon with Chris
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Cool, clear waters

After our break, we began to work our way down Wickenden Creek. The hope was that there would be more discoveries. Travel was relatively easy on the gravel bars of the creek, where the waters retreat underground for a spell at around 400 metres in elevation. It was here that we decided to head north before descending all the way to Lynn Creek.

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Wickenden Creek’s lower reaches

Just steps from the creek bed we were stoked to happen upon yet another cluster of old growth cedars. Many of them were eight feet in diameter, and several were considerably larger than that.

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Minutes later, we made the trip’s best find of all, a robust old cedar that measured almost fourteen feet wide. I had not expected to find a tree like that at relatively low elevation, yet there it was. We later found out that Chris had stumbled upon this giant on a solo jaunt just the week before. He had been equally impressed!

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Here is Doug doing his turn of the 20th century pose with the Wickenden Giant. Back in the day, portraits were to be stoic in character, I understand
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Here I am struggling to get a measurement on the tree. Doug is on the other side, having walked around it to hand me the reel. It took him a while to get around the whole tree!

Regrettably, it was now time to begin hiking homeward, but the forest still held some  surprises. Here are they are, the pleasant ones…

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Sunlit forest
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Doug enjoys a fine view of The Needles

… and the, well, not so pleasant ones…

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Any forensic experts out there?
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My guess was deer, but I’m not sure about that

Soon after, we reached the banks of Lynn Creek, but there were some obstacles to deal with there. Thickets of young trees, common in riparian zones, proved to be formidable opponents, if only for a short time. While thrashing about, we also picked up an old trail. It was an extension of an old North Shore Hikers route marked in 1981 that was rumoured to follow Lynn Creek’s west side, but had fallen into disuse. The trademark red paint blazes gave it away. I knew of the route through Ralf Kelman, and I had rediscovered it several years before, but at that time I had lost the track about a kilometre south of Wickenden Creek. On that day I had even found the trail builder’s camp, complete with with remnants of lunch and a couple of empty cans of spray paint!

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Just a little bit of bushwhacking, with The Needles standing guard in the background

Folklore had it that this trail eventually crossed Lynn Creek, and continued on the east bank at some point. I was intrigued, had we found a new way back? Also, what about crossing Lynn Creek?

And then I saw it! At first I thought I was imagining things, but there it was, in pain sight! What we saw was that a huge Douglas fir had fallen across the creek, creating the perfect natural bridge!

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It’s like it was custom made
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If only everything was this easy!
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The creek crossing

It turned out that not only was the log there, but that it was marked as part of the old trail, which meant it had been there for almost thirty years. When I returned in 2010, however, someone had stripped the log of bark, oddly enough, so now it is somewhat scarier to cross. The entire area is quite scenic, offering fine views of the surrounding mountains and  it seems as though it might make a great campsite, though camping is not permitted within Lynn Headwaters.

The only thing left to satisfy my curiosity was to try and find the continuation of the trail, so we followed along the east bank of Lynn Creek in search of a sign.

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One last look at the crossing

In just moments, we had found the trail again! After following it for about a while it petered out, so we simply joined the Norvan Falls Trail at about the four kilometre marker. From there it was a routine stroll home, but it had been an eventful day!

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When you see this mark on a North Shore Trail, it’s generally the trademark of the 1980s North Shore Hikers

Of all the forest enclaves I have walked, those in the Kennedy and Wickenden valleys have given me the most joy. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m sure in no small part that it’s because I have been able to find something so untamed and unique that is also so close to home. As North Vancouver develops ever so quickly, the difference between civilization and wilderness has been becoming much more pronounced. May never the two merge, and may Wickenden remain forever wild!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Giants of Kennedy Creek: The Forgotten Forest, Part One

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A piece of an old teapot on the Cedar Trail

In these days of public outcry over the destruction of British Columbia’s remaining old growth forests, it is no small twist of irony that one of the last bastions of remaining giants is relatively close to the metropolis of Vancouver. Tucked away in what is still a remote corner of the North Shore Mountains is the Kennedy Creek Valley. It lies within the boundaries of Lynn Headwaters Regional Park on the less travelled west side of Lynn Creek, with its headwaters at seldom visited Kennedy Lake.

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Kennedy Lake

It was only through subtle hints in Randy Stoltmann’s Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwestern B.C. that my curiosity regarding the area was first piqued. On page 74, he stated “When this valley was logged before the turn of the century, hollow or broken topped trees were often left, and the steep valley sides were only partially cut over. In these areas, massive cedars up to sixteen feet (five metres) in diameter and 200 feet, 61 metres in height still live on into their second millennium.” Well, that was more than enough to get my undivided attention, so I soon decided I had to see what was there!

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Kennedy Creek forest: This shot is a tribute to the cover of Randy Stoltmann’s hiking guide

But first, maybe a little history is in order. It was near the turn of the twentieth century that the west side of Lynn Creek was harvested by Julius Fromme’s logging crews. They managed to forge their way as far as Kennedy Creek, but, perhaps because of the market conditions of the day, or just plain good fortune, the forest stretching north between Kennedy and Wickenden Creeks was not completely razed. As a result, much of the original forest between 400 metres and 700 metres in elevation remains intact to this day!

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Remnants of an old cast iron wood stove used at one of Julius Fromme’s logging camps

There is no easy access to its steep, rugged slopes. You must either hike in to Kennedy Falls on the rough track of the Cedar Trail, or ford Lynn Creek near the Third Debris Chute on the Cedar Mills Trail, that is, if it’s safe to do so. However you get there, you must be fit and well prepared for the experience, as it’s a strong test of all of your wilderness skills. I began by hiking the Westside or Cedar Trail to see the two monstrous Western redcedars that Randy had described in the aforementioned book, but beyond that, there was little more knowledge on which to base further exploration.

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Matt with the Stoltmann Cedar. It’s over 650 years old and 14 1/2 feet in diameter
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The second big cedar on the Cedar Trail, about halfway to Kennedy Falls. It’s over 600 years old and 13 1/2 feet in diameter

On several of my earlier excursions I also visited the beautiful Kennedy Falls, which lies at about 400 metres in elevation. For the ideal photo opportunity, it is best visited after heavy rains, though of course that can make getting around more difficult. While the falls are not exceptionally tall, the cascade and surrounding sections of Kennedy Creek always make the destination worthwhile. Seeing those spectacular trees on the Cedar Trail certainly whetted my appetite for more exploration, but I needed more information so that I’d know exactly where to look.

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Ryan at Kennedy Falls. It’s not easy to get there, but it’s certainly one of the North Shore’s most idyllic places

When I spoke to park employees they had little to say, really, yet at the park’s Mill House there were photos of some of the park’s giant trees. In time, I discovered, the park officials are not that enthused about encouraging hiking on the west side of Lynn Creek, perhaps due to the inherent hazards. In many of those photos the face of one person seemed to show up frequently. That person turned out to be Ralf Kelman, a Vancouver artist, who is the son of a Seymour Valley logger. Ralf had grown up in the forests of Vancouver’s North Shore. He was, and still is, this province’s master treehunter, and over the years had been integral in finding numerous champion trees. I managed to contact him, and over a cup of coffee, he was kind enough to share a wealth of knowledge with me about Kennedy Creek and much more. Better still, he said, the valley had not been completely searched, though he cautioned that ground was far from easy to cover.

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Tree hunter and conservationist Ralf Kelman

Finally, in 2006, Chris and I began our day by fording an icy cold Lynn Creek on a cloudy day in September. After that crossing , we hiked up the valley toward the falls, and then worked our way up the slopes on the north bank of Kennedy Creek. It didn’t take long before we made our first find, a grove of cedars all at least eight feet in diameter and all well over four hundred years old.

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Chris with one of the first big cedars we found. It measured over ten feet in diameter
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Old growth forest
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Marked, but still standing

From there, we decided, we’d just  continue upward until the stand petered out, then traverse north in the direction of Wickenden Creek. A natural bench presented an ideal opportunity for travel, if not necessarily an easy one. Fallen trees made it necessary to climb up, over , and around countless obstructions. The finds were frequent, with more cedars up to fourteen feet in diameter and several that were truly ancient. It was hard to believe, but we had basically hit the motherlode, as far as treehunting goes! Forests such as these, once ever present in southwestern British Columbia, are basically a thing of the past. I can still recall how elated we were to be there!

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The art of measuring  trees
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It isn’t always easy

 

Soon we were upon the south banks of an unnamed creek in the drainage at about 550 metres in elevation. Once we crossed this creek we were in the midst of another grove, this one equally spectacular. By this time, we had seen so many big trees that we were taking the nine foot cedars for granted!

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Giant trees everywhere!
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This tree measured over twelve feet wide

 

Since time was running short at that point, we stopped for lunch underneath a thirteen foot cedar which may have been the oldest tree we we found that day. I believed it to be roughly 700 years old.

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There is no artist quite like nature!
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This tree had us wondering what the world looked like in the fifteen century, when it began life

We then opted to try heading uphill again to see what we could find. Our route was determined by the finds – sight big tree, hike to said tree, then on to the next one.

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And another…
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…And another!

 

We had ended up, by now, at an elevation of 650 metres, and were just below an expansive boulder field below the end of Goat Ridge.

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Not exactly welcoming terrain

It was here that we made another grand discovery, a huge cedar spanning over fifteen feet in width, and well over 600 years old. Despite its seemingly unguarded position and exposure to winter avalanches, it had thrived well and its hollowed lower trunk looked to have been used as a winter den of sorts.

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We never did name this one, but I’ve taken to calling it the Boulder Field Giant
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Chris enjoying the find! Another veteran of over six centuries. The tree, that is

Soon time became short and we had to begin the trek home. There were some interesting finds on the way back too.

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This tree was found below the falls on the walk out. It’s about ten feet in diameter
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A  very healthy Western Hemlock

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For both of us, this trip was tremendously rewarding in that we were making discoveries that few had made before us. As we hiked out of the valley toward Lynn Creek again, we both knew we’d be returning, and that’s why this story is only part one of a lengthy tale. Each time I revisit, it’s an exhilarating experience, for who can refuse a trip back in time without leaving your own era?

 

 

 

 

Tolkien, the Story of a Tree

 

Imagine a journey back in time, if you will, to the year 1497, let’s say. A tiny seed cone from a western red cedar flutters to earth deep in the North Shore Mountains, in what would later be known as the Hydraulic Creek drainage in the Seymour River Valley. It comes quietly to rest on an outcropping of granite, and in this protected enclave, somehow takes root and begins life as a tiny seedling. In a forest seldom if ever seen by human eyes, but walked by deer, bears, mountain lions, and squirrels, the tree is never wanting for companionship. Not fifty yards downslope, a tall and sturdy Douglas Fir already into its second century provides it shelter and shade.

Then, every year came the rains. The time passed, ever slowly, ever quickly, and the seedling became a tree. That tree grew to be vibrant and strong, and the forest that surrounded it in the many seasons that followed flourished equally well.

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The Tolkien Giant in the prime of life, spring of 2006
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The nearby companion of the Tolkien Giant that would come to be known as the Temple Giant, one of the larger Douglas Firs in all of British Columbia

All began and ended as nature determined until the turn of the twentieth century, when men arrived in the Seymour Valley, wanting cedar for the shingle bolts that would be used to build homes. Life for the cedar, now a towering spire, would never be quite the same. In fact, its very survival became threatened.

Teams of loggers arrived in the forests, working their way up the valley in search of the harvest. Many trees fell to their crosscut saws, but somehow, that gnarled cedar atop the rock and its neighbouring Douglas fir survived. Some might speculate that it was because of a great fire that halted logging operations in the mid 1930s, or that they may also have been saved by the fall of timber prices and the Great Depression. In any event, luckily, they were spared.

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Big trees were felled with saws like this one, found in nearby Suicide Creek

Travel far forward in time now, to the 1980s and early 1990s. The forest was then under the administration of those charged with maintaining Greater Vancouver’s water supply. The area below the Seymour Dam had been designated an auxiliary watershed and had just been opened to recreational users. Though logging had been strictly banned in the watersheds prior to 1967, once again it reared its ugly head in the years that followed. There were extensive plans to cut down the valley’s remaining timber and, unbeknownst to the public, regular harvesting was taking place in both the Seymour and Capilano Watersheds. The area below the dam, now called the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, then bore the more ominous name Seymour Demonstration Forest. It was not clear at the time just how much of the forest would ultimately be saved.

Enter Ralf Kelman, the son of a North Vancouver logger who had grown up in the woods of the Seymour Valley. He had developed a love of the forest sometimes bordering on obsession, and had spent many a day hunting down remaining stands of undisturbed old growth trees. He certainly did not want to see any of these trees destroyed, and became involved with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee in order to speed their preservation. Together with Paul George, Will Koop, Chris Player, and numerous others, he strove to end logging in Vancouver’s watersheds. The conflict raged on for quite some time, with more exploration and mapping as well as the clandestine gathering of photographic evidence. The powers that be were very reluctant to stop the practice, but eventually, in 1994, logging was finally halted in the Seymour Demonstration Forest. The  logging in Greater Vancouver watersheds did not actually become official until 2002. This link to the WCWC’s actual conservation campaign is a real eye opener and shows you the attitude of the Greater Vancouver Water District (GVWD) and logging interests at that time.

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Ralf Kelman, here in 2009. He has been one of the most accompished big tree hunters of his day, along with Randy Stoltmann and Maywell Wickheim. He has helped to inspire several generations of forest conservationists and continues to do so today!

During that time of conflict, the WCWC had published a map of the old growth tree groves in the Seymour Valley, and through my good friend Vida I was able to get a scanned copy of the map, so I set out to find what Ralf had already discovered. The very centrepiece of his finds was the Temples of Time Grove of Giants, which was just south of Hydraulic Creek.  The Tolkien Giant and the Temple Giant, two of the trees on the map, particularly captured my imagination.

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An excerpt from the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC ) map, now out of print. For today’s purposes, the newer Seymour Valley Trailway runs parallel and uphill to the original Seymour Mainline road which is now off limits to the public…Photo by Vida M.

On a perfect spring morning in 2006, Matt C. and I visited the trees to find out whether they were all still alive. While I had visited many of the them before in 2004, the plan that day was to try and visit each and every one on the map. After a brisk bike ride to the Hydraulic Creek Bridge, we stashed our rides in the woods and began hiking. Matt, who at the time worked for the Seymour Hatchery near the Seymour Dam, was really looking forward to seeing the grove.

We began as I had several years before, by trekking steeply uphill to the Hidden Giant. It is a Douglas Fir that spans about seven feet in diameter, and could be as old as four hundred years old. If it remains permanently protected, it will surely become one of the finest remaining specimens in the valley.

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Me and the Hidden Giant
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A proud moment, Matt meets the Hidden Giant, which is likely four centuries old

From there we worked our way a little bit higher, as the sunlight filtered through the forest canopy. We could easily imagine how Ralf must have felt when he discovered these trees. Just thinking about the fact that they might well have been cut down shows how far the conservation movement has come in a relatively short time. Still, the balance between preservation and industry will always be a precarious one. Hopefully, compromises will be reached, and forests like these will survive for future generations to enjoy.

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Tall firs like these may become future giants!

 

Our next stop was the Paul George Giant. Paul is well known for his environmental efforts, and also authored the book Big Trees, Not Big Stumps, which documents many of the efforts to preserve British Columbia’s forests. His namesake is a six hundred year old fir whose trunk measures about eight feet in width, and sits quietly overlooking the rest of the grove.

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Me, with the Paul George Giant

It has been nearly twenty years since I was told that an official trail was planned to be cleared and marked through this grove, but that has not happened just yet. Should you wish to explore these trees you should be fit, sure footed, and experienced in off trail hiking. If you’re lucky, as I’ve been, you might also see wildlife such as black bears, deer, bobcats, and pine martens. Cougars are also native to the area, so all normal precautions apply.

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Matt working his way up steep slopes. As you can see this is by no means a groomed trail!

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While you hike it also helps to have a keen eye for the little things, like this tiny frog that we stumbled upon, and a wide variety of mosses and fungal growths.

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Tiny frog, about the size of a Toonie, aka a two dollar Canadian coin, for those who aren’t familiar with that term

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We soon found ourselves traversing through thickets and deadfall as we worked our way toward a small creek bed (Krisby Creek on the WCWC map) that would lead us to even more ancient Douglas firs. Here we found  the tree called the Rosebush Giant, sitting in an isolated clearing that readily gathers sunlight.

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The Rosebush Giant
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The Rosebush Giant is spectacularly located to take advantage of sunny days!

Not too far away you will find the Hundal Giant and the Chittenden Giant, two more beautiful firs with deep, channeled, almost crenellated bark. A little known fact about the bark of these trees is that it may reach nearly a foot in thickness. With protection like that, a tree is capable of enduring many Pacific Northwest winters!

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The bark of the Nick Cuff Giant. If you stare at it long enough you begin to see little faces everywhere, or maybe that’s just me.
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Matt and the Chittenden Giant
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The Hundal Giant, like the Chittenden, is over four centuries old

A little more time and persistence brought us to the monarch of this grove of trees, that six hundred year old leviathan known as the Temple Giant. It measures ten feet in diameter and towers well over 250 feet from the forest floor. It may have a chance, if it thrives, to become the biggest champion tree in the valley if it isn’t already.

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Me and the Temple Giant
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And now Matt meets the Temple Giant. Hard for me to believe this day was so long ago!
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The Temple Giant, among the largest Douglas firs in Canada

Within sight of this leviathan, still wedged into the rock face just uphill, was the twisted bulk of the Tolkien Giant. It almost seemed to be watching us. I will describe our meeting with this veteran of five hundred winters, but for an important perspective, first we need to move forward in time once more…

Two more revolutions of the earth around the sun. Now it is the spring of 2008, and as the remnants of a spring storm fade into mist, I find myself once again cycling the Seymour Valley Trailway. On this day, my companions are Rich, Daryl, and Chris, tree enthusiasts all. We opted to use the more southern trailhead to access the grove on that day. There were few sounds other than our occasional banter, as even the birds were still hiding from the morning rains. We made our way slowly to the Temple Giant, which still stood tall and proud.

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Rich and the Temple Giant

I stopped for a second, watching Rich approach the tree. I recall turning to Chris, who, like me, had been to visit the Temple Giant numerous times, and saying that something didn’t seem quite the same. I didn’t remember the tree sitting in a reasonably well lit opening in the forest. Chris agreed, adding that the tree had always been difficult to photograph because of the shade.

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Looking skyward into the fog

The explanation for our momentary puzzlement became apparent all too soon. Lying in bizarre symmetry, the perfectly split trunk of a great tree had come to rest on the hillside. As it had fallen, it had also taken out a number of younger trees, hence creating space in the forest canopy above. I soon realized that the Tolkien Giant had met an untimely end.

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The now fallen Tolkien Giant in its resting place. It used to grow on the prominent rock behind at right

This was both unexpected and sad. I paused interminably, thinking. Though I’d only known the tree for a fraction of its five centuries, I felt as though I’d lost an old friend, and found myself looking back to the bluebird day on which I had last seen it. Matt and I had marvelled at what an unlikely looking survivor it had been. Its location alone, anchored steadfastly around and into the grooves of the rock face, was a classic example of the way nature wastes no opportunity.

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The Tolkien Giant, in happier times, as Matt and I had seen it two years earlier

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Matt photographs the Tolkien Giant, 2006

Much as I felt the loss, I also began to see that its passing had made way for other denizens of the forest, and my eye was drawn to some nearby cedars I had not noted in years past. Nature always provides, however mysterious its ways, so to speak.

Our hike continued that day, as the mist cleared and the forest brightened somewhat. We visited most of the trees Matt and I had seen two years before, and made several more discoveries as well. Even the most familiar walk can be a unique experience. Here are  some sights and scenes from the rest of the trek…

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Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga Menzieszi
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Fungus
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Bark
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The underrated Pacific Yew
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Closeup of yew tree
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Daryl and Rich show you what happens when you go hiking with me!
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Chris and tree
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Rich and Daryl hiking through the morning mist
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Side by side and strong
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Tall and towering
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Paul George Giant
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More bark
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Rich and rock
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Straight and true
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Foggy forest

Though it was a shame to have lost one of the valley’s most spectacular trees, there was a most fitting way to end our day, a consolation of sorts. We made our way back toward the banks of Hydraulic Creek for a visit with the Hobbit Tree, another cedar well over halfway into its first millennium of life.

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The Hobbit Tree

This tree, which can be easy to miss although relatively easily located, is at least nine feet wide and just exudes character. Rich was kind enough to pose with it for scale, just to give me an idea of its immense size. I hope that it still stands for at least a few more hundred years!

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Rich and the Hobbit Tree

There was little left to do but stop, eat lunch, and take a few photographs of the creek nearby before heading home for the day. It had certainly been an eventful day!

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Hydraulic Creek

While it’s important to remember that while these trees are currently protected, it wasn’t always so. A mere twenty years ago, after all, there was still logging in the Greater Vancouver watersheds, and only through diligence and commitment was that practice stopped. You can find out more about that history in this link here. It’s rather a lengthy read, but a worthwhile analysis nevertheless. If it had been solely up to the GVWD and the loggers who held Tree Farm License #42, the Temples of Time Grove would long ago have been logged. A tip of the hat to the people who fought so hard to save these forests!

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A grim reminder of what we have lost. This is one of the super stumps in nearby MacKenzie Creek, with my bike thrown in for scale. It’s time to ban the practice of old growth logging in British Columbia once and for all! Groups like the Ancient Forest Alliance and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee are working to accomplish just that. Get involved, make a difference!

In order to protect the best of our forests, our values of conservation must remain strong. In that sense, the message conveyed in the title of Paul George’s book remains as relevant as ever: Big Trees, Not Big Stumps.

*** Update: As of a visit to this grove in the spring of 2017, I can happily attest to the health of all the trees and that the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve remains committed to their preservation. ***

Cheewhat to Carmanah, a Journey Back In Time

 

When I first found myself on the west coast of British Columbia after arriving from Quebec in the late 1970s, the very first thing that captivated me here in British Columbia were the towering conifers. The very scent of the forest was something completely unknown to me, and I can recall spending an inordinate amount of time looking upward in admiration. It was that sort of awe that kindled my interest in hiking, and it remains strong even today. I have spent countless hours in search of the province’s remaining old growth trees.

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Coastal British Columbia forest

Years later, when I began to research the whereabouts of these remaining giants, I began to follow the exploits of legendary B.C. big tree hunter and conservationist Randy Stoltmann. Through his book Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwestern British Columbia, I learned of numerous incredible finds. Two particular areas captured my imagination more than most others. One was Cheewhat Lake, and the other was the Carmanah Creek Valley, both on Vancouver Island. Cheewhat is notable for the discovery of the world’s second largest Western Red Cedar, perhaps as old as two thousand years. Carmanah features great stands of ancient Sitka Spruce, and is among the last intact valley bottom ecosystems to escape the saws of logging. The Cheewhat Cedar is now protected within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, while Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park gives sanctuary to the Carmanah Valley.

It was not until the autumn of 2012, however, that the right opportunity to visit these forests would present itself for me. It was on a late October afternoon that Doug and I would finally see ourselves enroute to the west side of Vancouver Island. Naturally, the trip began on the ferry at Horseshoe Bay, bound for Nanaimo. The goal, from there, was to make our way to Cowichan River Provincial Park where we’d camp the first night. The rains persisted right up until the time we arrived at the campground.

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Bigleaf Maple leaf on the picnic table

We’d been listening to the World Series on the radio while we drove, and so the drive seemed to fly by. That night, clutch hitting by Pablo Sandoval and a gritty pitching performance by veteran Barry Zito of the San Francisco Giants was enough to down the Detroit Tigers and their ace Justin Verlander, if you’re a baseball fan.

More showers ushered in a somewhat gloomy night, but to us that hardly mattered. We were armed with plenty of tarps, and Doug’s sturdy MEC Wanderer tent, which has served as basecamp for many of our adventures. Add to that steak to barbecue,  a cooler full of beer, and an ample supply of firewood, and we had the makings of a fine evening. The next day called for improved weather, so our fingers were crossed for better fortune on that front. We spent a great night in camp, reminiscing about past exploits and bantering about future plans. As we turned in, the night descended into a world of silence, broken only by the sounds of rain striking the tent and the hiss of our campfire being quietly extinguished.

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Coleman stove, eh

Wanting to get as early a start as possible, we awoke in darkness to get breakfast straightened away. Ahead was the rest of the highway to Lake Cowichan, followed by a lengthy drive on logging roads to the Rosander Main and the Cheewhat Cedar.

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Lake Cowichan and unexpected autumn colours

We soon realized that sunshine was upon us, and that it was going to be a bluebird day. After a stop for fuel, we took to the gravel, aided in no small part by a work crew which had newly graded much of the road surface. It was still early in the morning when we parked beside a small roadside cairn. Beyond that cairn lay a rough track that would hopefully lead us to the legendary tree.

Radiant morning sun filtered through the forest canopy as we passed the sign that let us know we were now within the national park reserve.

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Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

A massive fallen cedar immediately captivated our attentions. A giant well over 15 feet in diameter, its massive root ball and trunk had become host to a vibrant community of new life. The understory was very biodiverse, and the further we hiked, the larger the trees became. The trail itself was  a somewhat indistinct path, and aside from the occasional marker, close attention was needed to stay on track.

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Overturned cedar and its roots, now home to many forms of life
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The trunk of the fallen giant

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After walking through a clearing in the forest we stumbled upon the gnarled mass of a very large cedar which was well over fifteen feet in diameter. It was easy to tell that it was very, very elderly.

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Some folks find this tree and think they have found the Cheewhat Cedar. As cool as it is, keep going, you have a ways to go

Though we were following but a faint footbed, Doug figured we were on the right track, and I agreed. It was as though we had landed in another world as the forest grew more enchanted with each step!

Soon the trail took the sharp bend to the left that we were looking for, and we were led to an absolute giant of a tree. As massive as it was, at nearly eighteen feet in diameter, we knew that it wasn’t the Cheewhat Cedar. The entire grove, in fact, was a true old growth stand, so rarely seen nowadays, yet once so commonplace on Vancouver Island. Before moving on we stood still, not speaking much, but simply absorbing the atmosphere.

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Ancient tree just uphill from the Cheewhat Cedar

We knew that the monarch could not be far away, as the map indicated it was only yards downhill from where we were, and so we continued hiking. Suddenly, and somehow almost surprisingly, it appeared in the clearing below. I could now understand the feeling its discoverer must have experienced.

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Doug with the Cheewhat Cedar, which is the world’s second largest Western Red Cedar
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A true giant

This tree was truly gargantuan, spanning twenty feet in diameter. Since the time this tree had begun its life as a seedling, two millennia had passed, give or take a decade or two. Two thousand years! That was almost beyond comprehension, though by no means could it compete with, for longevity, with the world’s oldest trees. That is a topic for another time, of course.

The next hour was spent eating lunch and rambling about the tree taking photographs from every conceivable vantage point. The Cheewhat Cedar is truly a remarkable exhibit of nature at its finest. I highly recommend visiting it if you ever get the opportunity.

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The tree was discovered by the late Sooke resident and tree hunting legend Maywell Wickheim in 1988
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Twenty centuries of growth, perhaps!
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Sign of designation
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The base of the Cheewhat Cedar

Wanting to make our way to Carmanah, we hiked resolutely back to the trailhead and continued up the logging road, accompanied by the midday sun.

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Onward to Carmanah

The morning had given way to a beautiful autumn afternoon, as we rolled into the parking lot. It seemed a deserted campsite, and there wasn’t a soul in sight.

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That’s a Marbled Murrelet on the park sign!

We decided to take advantage of the clear skies and take to the woods right away, as more rain was predicted for the evening. The park trails were comparatively well developed in contrast to the Cheewhat Trail we had just walked.

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Trees, shadows, and greenery

In fact, in the early 1990s this valley had been the centre of a very well organized conservation effort. Randy Stoltmann, among many others, had been integral in spearheading that movement at the time.

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Doug on the Carmanah boardwalk

It was the year before before his untimely passing in a ski mountaineering accident in 1994 that the valley finally attained designation as a provincial park. Miles of boardwalk had been built by scores of volunteers to raise awareness of this rare forest. The campaign was also supported by numerous artists of worldwide acclaim.

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Here’s a book I have in my collection. It’s well worth a look if you can find a copy

In just twenty years, these paths have begun to fall into disrepair, but the dream they represent still burns brightly. It was a triumph to preserve this special place for all to see.

Our hike down the valley continued quietly along Carmanah Creek. On the sandy gravel banks the tracks of animals could be seen clearly, and our necks craned trying to find an elusive Marbled Murrelet nest. A shy, retiring creature, this bird has the habit of nesting in the tops of old growth Sitka Spruce trees. Much of its habitat on the west coast has been destroyed or altered, and its southern population has dwindled over the years. In Canada’s north, where apparently it is a ground nesting bird, it has far more abundant numbers, I understand. Unfortunately, we never did see one.

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Wolf track
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The fabled Marbled Murrelet… Image from Wikipedia
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Carmanah Creek
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Clear and still waters

We visited the Heaven Tree, among the largest spruce trees in the valley, and admired the vast garden of hanging mosses it presented. This tree is definitely one of the park’s star attractions.

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The Heaven Tree, a huge old growth Sitka Spruce

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Then we walked down to the Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove, home to several massive specimens. We felt immense pride in following in Randy’s footsteps, as we have done on many hikes. He also lived on Vancouver’s North Shore, as we do, and spent hours in the forests we have walked.

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Sitka Spruce, Picea Sitchensis

That Carmanah survives well would likely mean a great deal satisfaction for him, I imagine, but Randy Stoltmann left us long before his time.

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Some of these spruce trees are extremely tall!
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Stoltmann Grove has quite a few spruce in the nine foot diameter range
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Walking the grove

The route toward the ocean is officially closed beyond the grove, but I’m told it’s actually somewhat intact, if riddled by deadfall in some stretches . There is a giant Sitka Spruce called the Carmanah Giant further downstream that I plan to look for someday. The trail actually follows Carmanah Creek to its intersection with the well known West Coast Trail, which one needs a permit to hike.

After a short stay at Stoltmann Grove we hiked back to walk some of the upper section of the trail and to visit The Three Sisters. The forest there was equally enchanted. We lingered for a while but since skies were darkening we headed back to the truck to get camp set up.

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The Three Sisters
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Pool alongside Carmanah Creek
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Spruce and moss

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It turned out we did have the whole park to ourselves and the only firepit in sight as well. Amidst eating dinner while the rains began to fall we listened to the faint and crackling radio feed of the second game of the World Series, where the Giants Pablo Sandoval was once again terrorizing Tiger pitching.

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Carmanah Camp

This day also ended with cold beer and a decent campfire! Darkness came early, and when the beer was gone we turned in, with the distant sounds of Pacific surf drifting in the wind. The sound of rain drowned out all consciousness, and the next thing we knew morning had dawned.

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Carmanah forest panorama

Breakfast came early, and all that remained was the long journey home. A relentless downpour chased us all the way to the ferry terminal at Departure Bay. It had been two remarkable October days, a time I’ll always remember.

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

I dedicate this this to the late Randy Stoltmann (1962-1994) whose efforts helped ensure that Carmanah-Walbran became a provincial park. It is important to note, though, that there is more work to be done, as the entire Walbran Valley is not yet fully protected.