When most conservationists speak of forest protection here in the Pacific Northwest region, they are usually talking about the giants of valley floor forest ecosystems, such as Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce. There is a species, though, that seems to consistently fly under the radar. That tree is the Garry Oak ( Quercus Garryana ), known also as the Oregon White Oak. With its twisting trunks and beautifully detailed bark, it doesn’t have the enormous size of many of its relatives in the Oak family, but in its natural habitat it certainly fills a vital and unique ecological niche.
Garry Oak ecosystems, which also support a wide variety of specialized plant life, have for years been endangered in their northern range. They are generally found on British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and on a relatively narrow strip along Vancouver Island’s east coast. Though once absolutely common in those areas, these trees have not fallen victim to disease, conventional logging, or even climate change, for the most part. So what, exactly, has shrunk their habitat?
The answer is actually quite obvious: their greatest enemy is none other than encroaching human civilization. People have a great desire to build homes in waterfront areas, where trees like arbutus and Garry Oak often thrive. Of course, land developers highly covet the land they grow upon, and this has led to severe reduction or elimination of many groves.
It’s now estimated that less than 5% of Garry Oak ecosystems here in coastal British Columbia remain intact. Most of those are basically islands of preserved growth that were once part of broader populations that also allowed for greater genetic biodiversity. The result of that condition is that numerous species found in these ecosystems are either endangered or at risk. What’s worse is that they are often battling invasive species like Scotch Broom just to survive!
In the general area of Nanaimo, where I live, you can find fair sized forests in Nanoose Bay, Parksville, Harewood Plains, Joan Point, and Mt Tzouhalem, for example. Sadly though, countless other populations are either small, dwindling, or already eliminated. I’m soon hoping to explore these forests in springtime, when their numerous wildflowers emerge. It’s a world I’m just beginning to discover, in what I now call my backyard. Here on Vancouver Island there is a society devoted to these trees, it’s called the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society ( GOMPS ). Continual efforts must be made to set aside protected areas for these fast disappearing trees, for without them, so much will be lost. The Garry Oak is well worth treasuring!
With a few precious days off and a rare chance to get our whole family together, we headed off to Vancouver Island two Saturdays ago for a short camping vacation.
The idea was to catch an afternoon ferry over to Departure Bay from Horseshoe Bay then hang out in Nanaimo for the first night. There’s a nice private campground at the mouth of the Nanaimo River called Living Forest Campground that we like to stay at there.
The boat ride over was relatively uneventful and pleasant, so we arrived in Nanaimo at around 230 pm. With some time to spare, we stopped in at Petroglyph Provincial Park for some exploration. We had driven past the park sign for years without ever visiting , and I’m quite glad we finally did. In addition to the petroglyphs, there are also some bouldering possibilities there. We were there for about half an hour, and enjoyed the stay immensely. http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/petroglyph/#
My daughter has an innate talent for climbing just about anything, so of course she ran up this face to a tiny ledge and scrambled up from there! Naturally, the slide down was twice as much fun, so she did it again and so did I!
The views at the campground did not disappoint. We were able to see not only the Nanaimo River and Gabriola Island but much of Nanaimo Harbour as well. The blend of the estuary’s natural scenery and the industry beyond gave us plenty to look at, and we passed the rest of the evening drinking cold beverages and listening to the calls of barred owls by the campfire before turning in.
The campground has a number of trails that give you a fine view of the river delta and the area is well known for its birdwatching opportunities as well.
The following day we awoke to overcast skies and headed south along Highway 1 toward Victoria before swinging west toward Sooke on Highway 14. The spring rains hit hard late Sunday morning, as we arrived in Langford to fuel up.
Sunday’s destination? French Beach Provincial Park. It has become a family favourite of ours over the years. Set in a beautiful forest of cedar and Sitka spruce, it features a cobblestone beach that crashes and rattles when the Pacific surf crashes its shores. If you’re lucky, you can also catch glimpses of migrating gray whales in March and April.
Along the way, my wife and daughter got a chance to stop off at a local meadery called Tugwell Creek near the town of Shirley to sample its wares.
Mead, if you’ve not heard of it before, is an alcoholic beverage, wine to be specific, made with honey! Tasty stuff, and something to do while you wait out the rainstorm, which by now was hitting us in full stride! We pulled in at French Beach by mid afternoon, and after a very wet hike on the nearby trails, we spent the rest of the day drying out.
These rocks below are the cobbles that generate the signature sounds of French Beach, especially on days of high surf and brisk winds. This place as as unique for its sound experience as it is for anything else.
Sometimes it rains so much on the coast that attempting to have a campfire is almost an exercise in futility, and this Sunday was just such a day. We amused ourselves by drinking, reading, creating dinner, and playing games, all good fun!
Monday morning dawned with much improved weather, and upon seeing some sunlight, I made for the beach that morning. The tide was at ebb, but the waves were much higher and the beach clattered with its all too familiar sounds. I was able to see across the waters to the Olympic Peninsula and Washington state, in the United States.
While there were no whales in sight, the odd Harbour Seal popped its head out in curiosity. Seas were calm, and birds could be heard when the surf receded. Listen, if you like, to the sounds of French Beach in the video below…
I returned to camp and ended up going back to the beach again with my son, who had just awakened. We spent another half hour there before breakfast. He has a natural love of being near water, even to the point that he often prefers to walk in the rain.
This photo below had me thinking back to a time when he couldn’t peer through an outhouse window six feet off the ground. Time flies, and your kids grow up fast!
We eventually decided to head north toward Port Renfrew, with the idea of camping on the beach at Jordan River. Unfortunately, the CRD has temporarily closed the area to camping while a dam above the town is being assessed for safety reasons. Some time was spent on the beach watching surfers and paddleboarders out on the break.
Since the sunshine was holding true, the choice was made to reverse directions and retrace our steps toward Nanaimo again. This time the plan was to stay the night at Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park near Parksville. Though this meant a little longer on the road, it would also make for a more relaxed return trip the next day as the park is not all that far from Departure Bay. On the way back toward Sooke we stopped at Sandcut Beach Regional Park, which is not too far from French Beach, and my daughter and I hiked down to the shores.
It was an ideal cruising day for the trip around the horn, as the sunshine persisted. We even pulled over to pick up some farm fresh eggs in Sooke along the way. On this Monday, even the people driving the Malahat near Victoria didn’t seem to have their usual frenzied sense of urgency, and we hit little or no traffic until we arrived in Nanaimo.
It was about 4 pm when we rolled into Rathtrevor Beach. Once there, I tended to splitting some firewood and we took turns walking the beach and trails. Rathtrevor is a special place to me, as I always see something interesting that I hadn’t before, whether it be animals, trees, or distant mountains.
The park is noted not only for its beach but also for its forests of old growth Douglas Fir. There are very few low elevation fir forests that remain intact on Vancouver Island as most of them have been harvested long ago. There is considerable biodiversity and wildlife that lives on there despite the area’s popularity in the summer months. The beach and its reasonably sheltered waters make it ideal for watersports like kayaking and canoeing too.
I had not noticed on my last visit, but you can see the hulking mass of Tantalus Mountain, 2605 metres tall, visible in the distance.
I was particularly interested in seeing what the sunset had to offer after dinner and a couple of very cold beers, so I walked back to the beach just as the sun was beginning to set.
I had already known that Rathtrevor was an epic place to catch the sunrise, but I certainly was more than contented with the sunset too. It was a very quiet scene, silent but for the odd call of the occasional owl. It’s very obvious why the people of Parksville enjoy this place so much as it’s one of the island’s most beautiful parks. More beer and laughter ensued late into the night, but that wasn’t going to deter me from getting up early to see the sunrise!
It’s 6 am Tuesday morning, and I’m rolling out of bed trying not to wake anyone, a normal occurrence on our road trips. As someone who craves solitude, something I take naturally to but that was well reinforced spending mornings with my father while younger, there is really nothing quite like the sun’s first rays. A mere five minute walk had me on the beach to begin the day.
This, however, was no ordinary sunrise. The whole time I was there, the natural world virtually paraded before me. First, there were the calls of loons, followed by herons swooping by above. Then came the sounds of eagles, woodpeckers, and songbirds. Canada Geese flew across the waters at intervals as did Brants, and the entire time I was serenaded by the barking of sea lions.
It was soon evident that there were sea lions everywhere, perhaps as many as fifty, from where I was observing. I later was to discover that there was a run of herring going on, so of course the food source was what was drawing all the attention. When I returned to the beach later with my son, we also spotted a killer whale breaching in the distance and a few harbour seals, and not long after that a sizable pod of dolphins also showed up to the party. It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in some time.
Reluctantly, I headed back to camp for breakfast, and the girls set out for a walk on the trails for a while before we left for home. As I write this today, with the rain crashing down here on Vancouver’s North Shore, it reminds me of how much I appreciate sunny spring days here on the west coast. This trip was well worth the time. Here is another image taken on the deck of the ferry, looking toward Mt Garibaldi, the closest volcano to Greater Vancouver. Until next time…
Travels and adventures past and present, from camping to hiking to searching for B.C.'s remaining old growth trees, and treks to the mountains