There are times, I am reminded, that a simple gesture of kindness leads to a great deal of happiness. Fifteen years ago I was given scanned excerpts of an out of print map published by the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC) by my good friend Vida, and that aided me in a long quest to rediscover the hidden old growth trees of the Seymour Valley. It has been a memorable journey, and during those years not only was I able to find all of the trees on the map, but also many more of the valley’s secrets.
The Temple Grove of Giants was really the first part of the map that captured my attention, with its high concentration of ancient Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars. The Seymour River Valley had been extensively logged earlier in the twentieth century, so how had these trees managed to survive? Thankfully, there will be no more timber harvesting in the North Shore Mountains, so they are at least now protected for future generations.
In order to get the big picture, I suggest reading Tolkien, Story of a Tree, in which I detail a broader history of the Temple Grove of Giants, but for today, I’ll focus on the Temple Giant.
Well over six centuries have passed since the Temple Giant took root in the forests of Hydraulic Creek. Since that was long before the time of colonization, its life was relatively undisturbed for most of that duration, but the early 1920s brought about considerable change. It is said that a human caused fire in 1936 broke out while fallers were working in the area, and authorities closed down their camp at that point. There was also The Great Depression to contend with, when timber prices plummeted, and that may have helped to save the grove as well. Years later, in the 1990s, when there were plans to begin harvesting again, the efforts of the WCWC finally led to the end of logging in Greater Vancouver’s watersheds.
The Temple Giant is without a doubt one of the most impressive Douglas Firs I have seen, certainly ranking in the top five as far as British Columbia is concerned. Its diameter is well over eight feet at breast height and it pierces the skies at a height of over 250 feet! It may be as old as 700 years in my estimation. There are many others in the Temple Grove of Giants that are over four hundred years in age, in fact. If you’re interested in a visit, you’ll probably want to bring your bike so that you can cycle the Seymour Valley Trailway to the Hydraulic Creek Bridge. It’s an excursion well worth making!
The Blue Cedar Grove. It’s a title that stirs the imagination, kind of like The Golden Spruce, I remember thinking, when I first read the words. I never did remember to ask Ralf Kelman exactly why he’d chosen such a name, but as soon as I saw it on the Western Canada Wilderness Committee (WCWC) map, I knew that I needed to see these trees!
The first trip I made to this grove was hardly a day filled with great inspiration. It was a one of those spring days when it’s hard to anticipate what way the weather is going to turn. In short, I guessed wrong. Only half an hour into my bike ride up the valley, light rain began to fall, escalating into a torrential downpour by the time I had left my ride to hunt for the trees. I did decide to press on, but it seemed the further I walked the harder it poured! I made it as far as a soaking wet, moss covered boulder field before I conceded defeat.
The high point of the day was returning to my truck to don dry clothing, devour a sandwich, and drink a thermos of hot chocolate laced with Grand Marnier! ( I highly recommend that last part if you haven’t tried it before, just don’t drink and drive. Take a very long nap, like I did. )
It was four years later in 2008 that I finally returned. On that occasion I chose perfect weather, with the sun shining warmly on my birthday, no less! In a scant twenty minutes from where I left my bike I reached the grove, which certainly did not disappoint.
Tall and towering cedars, draped in moss, set the scene. The forest floor and understory were a carpet of innumerable greens, though it was far from easy to decide where to place your next step.
I was quite surprised to also find a number of very nice Douglas Firs interspersed here and there, and along the creek a number of massive Bigleaf Maples held court, shading me from the midday sun. Nearby, a quizzical deer observed me clambering about, no doubt wondering what in the world I was doing there!
After enjoying the grove, I was soon drawn uphill, following the dull roar of water that I could hear in the background. When I found the source of the noise it was a surprise to me. A winter avalanche had roared down the creek canyon right down to an elevation of 500 meters. By the month of May the snows had melted out and the creek had created a cavern beneath them, leaving me something highly unique to explore. I dared not venture inside it, though, as I could hear the creaking and groaning of shifting ice echoing from within.
Some years later I was to learn that this creek was highly volatile indeed, as during heavy rains the entire couloir released and stripped out the creek bed right down to earth. You can still view the scars of that event in Google Earth images, another five years after it occurred! Here then is the walk up the canyon as I viewed it that day…
Having finally run out of time, I descended the gully once again, vowing to return. The next decade, however, would have a lot to say about whether that was going to happen, but suffice it to say that I was a very happy hiker on that sunny afternoon in late May!
In 2018, I would finally return again, on another absolutely resplendent day. I knew that soon I was to be moving away from the North Shore Mountains, and the Blue Cedar Grove compelled me to visit one more time. The day of discovery was a rewarding one, as I found several sizeable Pacific Yews , hiding in plain sight as they always seem to be. One of them was so twisted and gnarled that I named it “The Elk”, for its upper branches that gave the appearance of antlers.
I will never forget having lunch on the banks of O’Hayes Creek that day, warmed by the sun as countless birds sang nearby. It may seem trite to say I feel as though I’ve developed a bond with this place over the years, but I can’t think of any other way describe it. It is, without a doubt, one of the Seymour Valley’s special places. Here is a guided tour of what I experienced that day.
Imagine, if you can, the Seymour Valley in the late 1800s. It was a land almost completely undisturbed, abundant with wildlife, and blanketed with one of the finest coastal temperate rainforests this land had to offer.
With the influx of settlers and the further displacement of indigenous peoples, however, everything changed. Much of the valley bottom timber was harvested, and the majority that remains many years later is in the stages of recovery. There are, however, places that do remain relatively pristine, and I’ve made it a passion of mine to search for them. The Blue Cedar Grove certainly possesses that magic in abundance, a place that always fills me with gratitude. Should you take the time to seek it out, I’m sure you’ll agree!
Fifteen years ago, I cycled up the Seymour Valley’s East Side Road on an impeccable spring day. The intention was to find the approach trail that led up to Vicar Lakes and Mt Bishop, which I accomplished, but what I discovered was something else again.
Just minutes after wondering whether I ought to just head home after spotting what I thought was the tail end of a very big cat near the trailhead, I gathered myself and continued up the forest path toward Mt Bishop. I was glad I did!
At first I thought my eyes were deceiving me, but upon further examination, they were not. There in in an auspicious clearing in the forest was the monstrous trunk of a venerable Western Red Cedar. Due to the second growth trees that surrounded it, at first it was difficult to tell whether or not I was looking at a live tree or not, or even if it was a stump. I began to circle this giant, trying to get a look at its canopy high above the forest floor. Sure enough, it was alive, and it was immediately apparent just how ancient it really was, perhaps a thousand years old. What’s more, a somewhat smaller tree of similar old age sat quietly beside it in the shadows. This was a revelation!
It isn’t every day that you find two trees, each over seven centuries old! A decade and a half later, they are both still thriving well, and perhaps receive just a few dozen visitors every year. It’s hard to imagine that once trees like these were a common sight in the Seymour Valley, but heartening to know that their status is now well protected. See them while you can!
High in British Columbia’s Seymour Valley, in a broad clearing once razed of vegetation by landslides, is a most incredible tree that I call the Squamish Creek Giant. It’s a massive Bigleaf Maple that grows right along the creek bed. Rising above it is a rugged coastal valley that has seen little if any exploration, in no small part because its terrain is so difficult! I’m not sure exactly why the creek is named Squamish, by the way, as it is not near the well known city by that same name.
In the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest, Acer Macrophyllum, as it’s also known, is a relatively common tree, usually native to riparian zones. Generally it will have multiple trunks, and tends to support a wide variety of plant life that grows from its limbs. Just because of its crown spread, it can be difficult to photograph on a tree hunt, and its lifespan can widely vary. The largest of its kind is reputed to reach over five hundred years in age, but many seldom reach half that age, perhaps due to the state of flux they endure growing near watercourses.
This particular tree is one I stumbled upon at least a decade ago, and we returned to photograph last year. It’s quite close to an especially captivating place I call The Giant’s Rock Garden (story is here ). Lately my interest about other Bigleaf Maple trees has definitely been on the rise. I have encountered many of them, but it has usually been when I am hunting other species, like Western Red Cedar or Douglas Fir. Has anyone else out there developed an interest in these beauties? Feel free to leave your comments if you have!
If you happen to be out for a nice summer bike ride in the Seymour Valley this year, keep an eye out for a marker at just past the 6km mark on the Seymour Valley Trailway. As you head north it will be on your left, on the uphill side. Just a minute or two off the road is the massive stump of an ancient Western Red Cedar, on what is called the See More Stumps Trail. There are a number of these behemoths in the valley, where once stood some of the most impressive forest stands that British Columbia had to offer. This particular stump nearly measures five meters in diameter, and if it stood today, would be more than eleven centuries old!
An excellent article by forest ecologist and tree hunter Ira Sutherland has more information on the Super Stumps of Seymour Valley and on the topic in general. There are two fine photos of the See More Stump as it looks from the outside. In the first photo he is seen measuring the stump with a friend. In another photo later in the piece, you’ll also see a photo of Ira standing atop this spectacular stump!
When I visited the stump, I then wanted to see if I could present it from a different point of view. This giant reminder of the past has now given life to the forest around it. A group of Western Hemlocks now gain sustenance from its remains and are well rooted into the stump they began life in. The stump also supports a community of lichens and mosses! What I did was to take the time to climb into the hollow of the tree and photograph the forest canopy above it from the inside. I think it provides a pretty unique perspective, don’t you? Once again, the resourcefulness of nature shines through. Nothing is wasted, and everything has a purpose!
***Thanks to Ralf Kelman, B.C’s best known tree hunter, for the information generously shared with me about the Seymour Valley back in 2004***
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.
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
We took another short break before hiking back down toward the road again, greeting several more ancient cedars en route before emerging at roadside.
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!
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!
Over the years, hiking and snowshoeing in Mt Seymour Provincial Park has occupied a lot of my free time, and, if you ask me, very few parts of the park can capture your heart the way the Suicide Bluffs do. It’s become something of a tradition for Doug and I to make it up there once the snow falls. While it’s not an entirely unknown area, it does tend to be a lot quieter. Why? Because the sometimes complicated route finding and difficult micro terrain can be challenging. Like anywhere in the Coast Mountains, all the usual cautions apply, especially in winter. Maybe the name, too, is something of a deterrent.
I don’t know exactly how these bluffs earned their auspicious name, but there are certainly a number of intimidating cliffs on the bluffs. The Suicide Creek drainage nearby even features a pair of waterfalls known for their death defying drops as they plummet to the Seymour Valley below.
We generally access the trail by first hiking to Dog Mountain, then branching onto it just before the lookout. Then we make our way eastward to where the route links eventually with the main Mt Seymour Trail.
While I call it a trail, it definitely stretches that definition, as even in summer this convoluted route uses ropes and chains to help on some of the steeper sections.
In winter, you have to be prepared for full on mountaineering. It’s not a place for the uninitiated, or for those expecting an easy and well marked track, so gear up appropriately if you go! We usually bring ice axes, snowshoes, and crampons as well as a GPS, compass, and maps. Clouds and fog can move in quickly as well, challenging your visibility.
The views are 360 degrees from all of the summits. You can see Mt Baker down in Washington, all of the Vancouver area and harbour, as well as most of the North Shore Mountains. In summer it’s still a beautiful hike, but it’s in winter that it truly shines!
My own history with the area actually began far below in the Seymour Valley, where I started with a hike with some friends to lower Suicide Creek. We explored an old logging camp near the Spur Four Bridge in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve (LSCR) where there was once an incredible ancient forest.
I would also return later to the valley with regular hiking partner Doug on several occasions to explore and maintain the rough track that leads up to Suicide Falls. North Shore Rescue has used this route to save wayward skiers and snowboarders on more than a few occasions. The Suicide Creek Valley is rough, vertically steep in places, and under some conditions downright hazardous due to its frequent landslides. The two photos below here pretty much sum up the kind of hiking you get into on that trail.
But I digress. Only after I explored these lower reaches did I actually hike the Suicide Bluffs Trail, some 400 metres above the falls, and 800 metres above the Seymour River. The trail is entirely within Mt Seymour Provincial Park. The first hike was so much fun that Doug and I began to make the bluffs an annual winter destination.
When we go, we’re very careful about choosing the right conditions, especially in winter, both in regard to the snow conditions and to visibility. We’ve learned that it’s more prudent to ascend the steep slopes from west to east because those same slopes are usually much more precarious to descend during those times. In that way, we get to do a little more climbing too, which we prefer. In summer, we have hiked it in both directions.
The forest of Suicide Bluffs is predominantly mountain hemlock, sprinkled with the occasional yellow cedar. Some of those hemlocks are well over 500 years old. Interestingly, unlike the the trees of the lower valleys, they don’t tend to garner a lot of attention from conservationists. Perhaps because they are out of sight to many, they are also out of mind. There have been precious few studies devoted to their longevity as a result.
All that said, here are some images from our most recent hike on New Year’s Eve of 2015 and from some of our previous treks in other years.
On a good day you can also see Mt Garibaldi, Mt Baker, and much of the Britannia Range in addition to most of the North Shore Mountains.
Over the years, it isn’t surprising that we have come to see Suicide Bluffs as our favourite winter stomping grounds. There is something about standing high above the treeline in fresh snow and looking at so many places that you have been lucky enough to visit. In twelve years we have hiked, climbed, and thrashed our way through countless North Shore valleys, and these bluffs afford fine views of many of them!
If you’re looking for a local winter hike that still gives you that wilderness feel. and you have already honed your mountaineering skills, then make your way to the Suicide Bluffs. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it well!
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