Tag Archives: Sitka Spruce

A Tale of Two Olympic Champions

It was the spring of 2012 in Oregon, and as we rolled northward on Highway 101 heading for the Washington Coast, there was a touch of excitement in the air. It had been over a decade since we had last visited, yet the smell of salt air, tall trees, and the sound of crashing waves remained fresh in my mind. This story, if you’re wondering by now, is not about two great athletes, as the title might suggest. It’s all about two champion trees in Olympic National Park. Ultimately, our destination was Kalaloch Beach, where we would be camping, but along the way I had plans to see the Quinault Lake Cedar.

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Spring sunset on the Washington Coast

It was, I knew, the largest known Western Red Cedar on the planet, and already well over a thousand years old. Having spent so much of my time in the forests of the Pacific Northwest hunting old growth trees, I knew that I needed to see this giant! It was said that its hollow inner chamber was large enough to hold several adult human beings, and that the tree measured over nineteen feet in diameter! When we arrived at Quinault Lake, I regretted not having more time, as the area has many more forest trails that I would hope to hike someday. One such trail leads to one of the world’s largest Sitka Spruces in the world, the Quinault Spruce.

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This sign has since been taken down and the trail is not being used anymore, but there is also a very large Douglas Fir right across from the trailhead

We arrived at the trailhead in early afternoon, and there was just one other car parked there, with Oregon license plates. As it turned out, I met a very nice older couple who had a farm down on the Oregon Coast once I got to the tree, so there were some people to share the experience with. The Quinault Cedar was a mere ten minute walk to reach, and I won’t soon forget the absolute awe that it inspired! While it wasn’t an ideal day for photography, I nevertheless enjoyed my time with this veteran of over ten centuries. I could just imagine the stories it could tell, and thought of the times in which it had lived.

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How’s this for a first impression? I had never seen a cedar that was over nineteen feet wide, at the time

I will often contemplate historical contexts when it comes to the age of trees, just for perspective, so I looked up but a few events of the year 1012, when it may have been born. Here are but a few of them, to accompany some more images of this venerable tree:

In the spring of 1012, King AEthelred (The Unready) resumes the payment of Danegeld, 48,000 lbs of silver, in an attempt to buy off the Viking raiders so that they did not ravage his lands. I’m not sure whether that had anything to do with his nickname.

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The trunks of ancient Western Red Cedars are a delight. Each one is ever fascinating
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A closer look at the trunk

In Ireland, Mael Morda mac Murchada leads a rebellion against High King Brian Boru, but it ends in defeat in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf.

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The expansive hollow chamber of the Quinault Lake Cedar
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A little attempt at HDR just to show some more detail on the upper crown

All of this preceded the Magna Carta in 1215, by over 200 years, so much has happened in this world since then!

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The top of this aging giant is showing the signs of extreme decline in this photo
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It actually took some time to walk around this tree, so impressive was its girth!

But I digress, this was 2012, and the culmination of many years of scheming to get a chance to see the Quinault Lake Cedar had finally been satisfied, for me. I happily walked back down to the truck, chatting with the fellow from Oregon while his wife hurried on ahead.  He told me he had decided to leave America during the years George Bush had been president and that he had moved to Canada, near where I lived, before moving back again in 2008. He spoke so well of honour, peace and decency toward fellow men. I can only guess at how he might be feeling today, in 2019, because he stressed the importance of protecting public lands and wild places from industrial exploitation. We can never forget the value of natural wonders!

One of the reasons I like to travel is the opportunity to meet people from different places. I would know that man from Oregon in an instant if I met him again, yet ironically I never asked him his name!

 

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Nowhere but in nature could you find something as marvellous as this!

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Soon we were moving on, bound for Kalaloch once again, where we arrived by late afternoon. My wife and I had first visited the campground back in 1988, on our very first road trip to the Pacific Coast. Having grown up in eastern Canada, I had never before seen the roaring surf of the open ocean before. I was instantly hooked! The wind blasted canopies of Sitka Spruce and twisting, spike topped cedars instantly captivated me.

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Coastal Sitka Spruce forest is a revelation, with all the windblown and twisting spires
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I took a photo of this nearby camper to show the scale of this forest. The only thing missing is the wind and the sound of breaking surf!

I also knew that not far from camp was the venerable Kalaloch Cedar, among the most improbable trees in the world, and naturally I planned to pay it another visit the following morning. For now, though, it was time to enjoy some beach walking, cold beer, campfire, and an inspiring sunset. It had been an especially fulfilling day. Here are some memorable visions of Kalaloch, one of my favourite beaches!

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Sitting here and enjoying a few samples from Oregon’s fine Rogue Brewery just made this better!
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Sitka Spruce, Picea Sitchensis
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If you’re ever on Kalaloch Beach, this character, known as The Root Tree, is a popular sight. Coastal rains and root expansion in these soils have exposed its roots. This Sitka Spruce has been this way for at least the thirty years I have known it!
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You can see that the process shown in my previous shot has repeated itself over the years

The sunsets at Kalaloch deserve a chapter of their own! Just sitting on one of the numerous driftwood logs and pondering worlds far away is one of the very best parts of a camping trip. As they say, sharing is caring, so here are a few looks before the sun disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.

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I woke early the next day, choosing to sit quietly outside listening to the birds and the waves while drinking my coffee. To me, those moments of quietude are the ones I live for, and it’s always as though the world makes more sense when everyone else is still sleeping! Soon the sun would begin to rise above the forest, bringing with it the mist that accompanies so many coastal mornings. After breakfast, the Kalaloch Cedar awaited us!

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Well, maybe just one more look. Coffee is good, but coffee with Kalaloch is just that much better!

Visiting this tree had become a rite of passage for my family. Beside our introduction in 1988, we had stopped in to see it again in 1999 when our kids were young. This time it felt just like seeing an old friend. Though it had lost a sizeable limb or two since the last time I was there, much of its grandeur remained well preserved. In its prime, one could have argued that this tree had widest diameter of any other cedar, but its many broken topped leaders showed the struggles of coastal winds. In terms of volume, it ranked in the top ten known Western Red Cedars and for 22 years it was the world champion!

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The former world champion Kalaloch Cedar, one of the gnarliest trees ever!
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The opposite side of the tree, which also supports a number of Western Hemlocks!
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An old friend. There aren’t too many people I have known for over three decades!
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Such an improbable sight, this thousand year old monarch!

I was as overjoyed as ever to see the Kalaloch Cedar on that day, but I had no idea it would be the last time I would see it intact. In March of 2014, it would finally succumb to a powerful storm. Much of its trunk fell away and only part of it remains upright, and it’s a matter of time before its demise is complete. Hearing this was sad, but it’s part of the cycle of life in the forest. Its massive trunk will now decay and return nutrients to the earth, giving rise to new growth.  This excellent video by Exotic Hikes shows you the aftermath of the tree’s untimely destruction.

Just over two years later in the summer of 2016, a similar fate would befall the Quinault Lake Cedar. It too split apart in inclement weather and much of its bulk now rests on the forest floor, approaching the end of its days.

 

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The end of an era for perhaps the greatest cedar of them all!

It marked the end of an era for the world champion, now ceding its title to Vancouver Island’s Cheewhat Lake Cedar, itself an amazing natural creation! Here are some looks at that tree, still strong and incredibly healthy!

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The Cheewhat Lake Cedar

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Though these trees may have lost their lustre, their legends still live on. I am certain that there is a strong chance there are even larger and older cedars hiding in the wilds of Olympic National Park, or perhaps Vancouver Island. For many of us, the dream of discovery, and the magic created by these denizens of the coastal rainforest will always be worth protecting. May they stand forever tall!

 

 

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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.

 

 

The Saga of the Red Creek Fir, Part 1 of 3

There are times that a wilderness excursion is but a simplistic jaunt, that is to say: you make a plan, you follow that plan, and everything goes as planned. Here then, is a trilogy or an epic of sorts, describing that what can go swimmingly for some can somehow become an exercise in perseverance for others.

The principals? Myself, and good friend and fellow tree enthusiast Chris. Chris is that guy you know who has been pretty much everywhere you’ve been and a lengthy list of places you’ve never heard of. We’ve both spent a lot of time hunting for big trees in B.C., Washington, Oregon, and assorted other locations. The objective? Vancouver Island’s Red Creek Fir, the world’s largest Douglas Fir, residing some 13 kms from Port Renfrew on the reputedly heavily damaged Red Creek Main. We won’t have to  actually discover this leviathan, as its location has been very well known since 1976, all we’ll have to do is find the time to get there! Ha, if only it had been that easy….

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“Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, woob, woob woob, woob!” We’re like the Three Stooges, only there’s just two of us. Not sure which two

This story begins in February of 2007, with the two of us struggling to remain awake at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal, waiting at 5 am for the ferry. Chris wondered aloud if we might not be wasting our time. There had been an epic windstorm in December of 2006 -the one that levelled scores of trees in Vancouver’s Stanley Park – and those gale force winds had hit the west coast of Vancouver Island at gusts of over 140 km/hr. Still, we were enthused, as the tree had lived for 1000 years and so we hoped it had survived.

Due to the recent snows we decided to take Highway 1 to Victoria and then drive Highway 14 to Port Renfrew. It was an idyllic winter day, as the skies had cleared and were now blue and inviting. Some 5 1/2 hours later,  we were at the head of the Red Creek Main and began our journey down the old rail grade logging road, but not for long….. “Whoa, what’s that?” Chris exclaimed. In front of us was a number of full sized trees that had fallen across the road. While I’d brought a chainsaw and some fuel for just such an occasion, we’d have needed most of the day just to clear them out, and who knew what lay beyond? As conditions were, a 24 km hike was definitely out of the question.

Due to time constraints, we now had to opt for Plan B, to cross the San Juan River for Lens Creek and a hike to see Chester’s Grove, a beautiful stand of Sitka Spruce. This was a hike that did not disappoint in the least! However, the final score that day was Red Creek Fir, 1, Chris and Mick, 0.

After parking at the Lens Creek Bridge, it was a mere 15 minute stroll to the trees, with views of the river and a truly primordial group of trees that I was elated to see.

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An old tow truck. When you see this you’re not too far from the grove
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Almost there!

Chris had been there before, and this time we managed to measure several of them; the largest were over 13 feet in diameter and easily 500 years old. Enjoy our walk through the grove through these images…

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A primeval forest
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Nature’s art
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A look into the forest canopy
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It almost looks like Chris is running here, but really he’s high stepping through dense undergrowth
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A beautiful grove
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The moss clad limbs of a giant Bigleaf Maple, an unexpected find
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Chris measuring a huge Sitka Spruce
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Picea Sitchensis, the Sitka Spruce
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The riverfront
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Looking for that perfect photograph
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Primordial
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The moss covered trunks are a habitat unto themselves
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Stillness and winter waters
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Me and a forest giant…Photo by Chris

With time passing quickly, it was time to hike back to the Jeep, and begin the long trek homeward on the highway, and finally the ferry, and then the highway again. What began in darkness at 430 am with an endless stream of Simpsons imitations ended in darkness at 930 pm with more of the same. Were we smart enough to shelf our pursuit of the elusive forest giant? Well, no, you must be thinking about two much smarter guys, because we’d be back for another try! Read on if you will, to the next chapter of this expurgated trilogy….

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Sitka Spruce cones