“I’m not sure I remember that being there!” That comment, uttered by yours truly a few weeks ago, is one I seem to make more often these days. The thing is, I think I’m getting to the point in life where some memories seem crystal clear, while others seem so nonexistent they might as well be a figment of my imagination. In the end, I’ll settle for the ability to get to where I’m going and a safe return, with the all important opportunity to reminisce. After all, that’s one reason why I’m writing this story right now!
Frosty fall mornings tend to remind me of my tree hunting escapades. The autumn season, with its diminished sunlight hours, has often been my time for exploring the forests. My other passion, mountaineering, seems better suited to longer days. So it was this November that Duncan and I were rolling along Highway 18 recently, bound for Port Renfrew. Our destination? The Lens Creek Trail and Chesters Grove, a resplendent group of Sitka Spruce and Bigleaf Maple on the banks of the San Juan River.
This wasn’t my first occasion to visit these trees, and, relevant to my introduction here, I was neither convinced I could locate them again, nor was I certain they were even still there. It had been nearly thirteen years since Chris and I, thwarted on our first attempt to see the vaunted Red Creek Fir, had enjoyed them back in February of 2007. As it turned out, the two visits certainly had their similarities, but so too, their differences.
That first excursion was in the throes of west coast winter. Fresh snow had fallen several days before, though the route was relatively clear of obstructions. After parking near the Lens Creek Bridge, we hiked a reasonably easy path, noting the wreck of an abandoned car near the road head. As per the title of this story? Well, I can’t boast of a vintage 1982 DeLorean but at least this tale will take you back in time, and you get a beaten up 1986 Honda CRX, so hopefully that covers my artistic license?
Soon after that, the trail crossed a small creek, one that years later I would have no recollection of at all. What followed, by my account, was a walk down to the San Juan River on an old road that would take us another fifteen minutes. One of the few distinct things I recalled was that there was a decaying old yellow truck in the bush beside the road, likely of 1950s or 1960s vintage.
The path through second growth trees to Chester’s Grove was a short one that had us among the giants soon thereafter, where we enjoyed what remained of a unique forest. In this coastal riparian zone, the Sitka Spruce is often the dominant tree, accompanied by Bigleaf Maple, and the occasional Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock or Douglas fir. Growing conditions on the San Juan River are ideal for these natives of the coastal rainforest. The humid climate and warm winds of the Pacific are ideal for growing large Sitka Spruce, which have been known to reach diameters in excess of fifteen feet and heights of up to 190 feet. Nearby trees, such as the Harris Creek Spruce and the San Juan Spruce, have reached enormous size!
While examining these spectacular trees back then, we could not help but be reminded of the past glories of Port Renfrew. While it remains a memorable place, it is nevertheless a shadow of what existed before the advent of logging. These lands, which are unceded Pacheedaht territory, were, and still are to some extent, a natural wonder. In this new era, greater attention will have to be given to preservation, as valley bottom stands of old growth have become increasingly rare on Vancouver Island. I’ve not been able to find much about the history surrounding Chester’s Grove, but I was once told it was named for well respected Pacheedaht elder Jack Chester. On thing that is certain is that the San Juan Valley has a decided magic to it, which I’m sure you’ll savour as I take you on a walk through these trees!
When Duncan and I arrived nearly thirteen years later, some things had certainly changed, while others had remained the same. Those two vehicle wrecks along the trail have deteriorated considerably, to put it mildly!
When you follow the original road which the Lens Creek Trail uses you’ll note it is joined from the left by a newer road, and you’ll want to bear right at this junction and continue on toward the river. Parts of that road, beyond the junction, had been regraded in recent years, and yet another spur had been cleared that parallels the Chester’s Grove Trail. That spur continues on, terminating at the river, beside the grove itself.
It seems likely that there is some harvesting planned for the sixty year old second growth forest that grows beside the grove. Naturally, Duncan and I were hopeful, upon seeing this, that the trees of this grove would be left to stand. Despite that obvious concern, I know of no plans to log Chester’s Grove and it’s been my understanding that the trees there do have protected status.
Just as Chris and I had done years before, Duncan and I then wandered the grove, battling our way to as many trees as we could. They were as grand as ever! The Sitka Spruce there range between nine and thirteen feet in diameter, and the surrounding Bigleaf Maples must be an incredible sight when all in leaf. This grove is also thickly matted with underbrush, and so those expecting a groomed trail might be a little disappointed. Your efforts will, however, be well rewarded, just be careful where you place your steps, as footing can be somewhat challenging!
Once again, we were drawn to the river, where we gained a different perspective. It was easy to conjure up ideas for future exploration, as more towering spruce dot the riverbanks as far as the eye can see, while the hoof prints of elk mark the sand everywhere! Unbeknownst to me at the time, I later read that a mere forty metres upstream there are reportedly a pair of record sized Black Cottonwood trees. They are said to rise sharply on the opposite bank, towering over the maples beside them. According to reports, both are nearly six feet in diameter, of considerable age when you realize that half that girth generally denotes a tree that’s over a hundred and fifty years old!
I have to say I was elated to see these trees again, and as I now live on Vancouver Island, it will be a whole lot less time consuming to visit them in the future. There was a certain joy in sharing them with someone new, as Chris had once done with me years before. I’m determined to continue searching out the secrets of the San Juan Valley, and I’ll no doubt be sharing those adventures here. If you’re interested in seeing these trees, I highly recommend the experience, for who can resist such a journey back in time?
During my research about Port Renfrew, this publication, dating back to 2005, has excellent notes on local history , among other things. I thought it quite interesting and so I’m sharing here as recommended reading.
Most of all, I’d like to recognize the Pacheedaht First Nation, on whose lands I have enjoyed many adventures, and who have always been welcoming to me. When you’re in the area, you might want to consider camping at the Pacheedaht Campground near the Gordon River.
You hear it from everyone who has visited the west coast of Vancouver Island. They rave about the tall trees, the crashing surf, the unforgettable sunsets, and countless other charms. Wilderness adventurers of all experience levels come from far and wide to visit its forests and beaches year round.
British Columbia’s future may very well depend on how our province chooses to protect its natural world. It has become clear that times are changing. To those who reside here, one crucial question must be asked: If nature is really our greatest resource, why are we in such a race to destroy our future legacy?
The answer would seem simple, but conflicted interests make it complicated. We are at a crossroads: No longer are industries based solely on the extraction of natural resources a reasonable base for a thriving economy. The truth is, they have reached the point where they are destroying that very foundation. In my mind, the only way to shine the light in a different direction is to spend more time bringing attention to the natural world. That then, is primarily what this story is all about. This province needs to save its earthly splendour, and what better place to start than the windswept shores of Vancouver Island’s Pacific Coast?
The month of March brought with it unseasonably warm and dry weather this year, so it seemed like decent timing for a visit to Vancouver Island’s wild west coast. Set in the heart of unceded Pacheedaht territory, the forests near Port Renfrew still hold many hidden secrets which I hope to explore. Fortunately for me, I had an ideal tour guide for the mission, in the person of Chris Istace. “Stasher”, as he’s known to many, has spent plenty of days wandering the coast, and is one of the first good friends I’ve made in my new island home. Our plan, basically, was to visit many of the trees on the map seen below here, and to walk the Botanical Beach area. Here is a link to the fine story about this trip that Chris wrote up a while back, I highly recommend his website!
We met early in Chemainus before heading toward Lake Cowichan, where we’d grab a coffee before reaching the coast via the old Harris Creek Mainline. The last time I’d driven that road was nearly a decade before, when it was still unpaved! Much had changed, but some things had remained the same.
The ride left us plenty of time to discuss a wide variety of topics, especially the preservation of British Columbia’s ancient forests, which we both have been very vocal about. The interior of Vancouver Island is an absolute statement on how not to manage those forests and you get a front row seat to view that devastation on the road to Port Renfrew! At the very least, we as citizens ought to have more say in what happens to our forests, and there are a lot more valid questions. Why can’t we change the way we log? Why can’t we begin transitioning to a lumber economy that focuses on processing more second growth timber? Why have we been exporting raw logs and all the processing jobs that go with them? Why is there no willingness by government to protect the finest of our forests from clearcutting? To be succinct, I am not in favour of abolishing logging at all, I just feel it’s high time to change the model on which the industry operates.
It was also a chance to learn a bit more about each other’s backgrounds. We have each managed to find our way westward, but through markedly different routes. Chris has previously lived in Alberta and Estevan, Saskatchewan, whereas I moved to Nanaimo after living in Montreal, Edmonton, and North Vancouver. What I’ll say, to summarize, is that the love of outdoor living brings a lot of people to Vancouver Island!
The morning air still held a chill, as we reached Harris Creek. There we took a break and Chris showed me several of his favourite spots along the creek. The rushing waters of the canyon made for an ideal place to clear the mind, and we were happy to linger there for a while.
Our next stop was the nearby Harris Creek Spruce, a massive Sitka Spruce which is likely about five hundred years old. It’s quite fortunate that the logging companies decided to preserve it, for it holds so much life upon its aging limbs. The tree is surrounded by a picket fence, to protect its root system, and nearby there is a beautiful stand of Bigleaf Maple trees. I had first visited the tree back in 2007, and was heartened to see an old friend once again.
Port Renfrew was the next destination, where we would spend some time hiking the shores of Botany Bay and Botanical Beach. It wasn’t quite possible to arrive there at low tide, which would have been ideal for viewing the many tide pools, but nevertheless, we had a lot of fun. There is nothing quite like exploring the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, with its pounding surf and wind blasted Sitka Spruce providing the backdrop. The geology alone is quite interesting, and of course the biodiversity you find in each and every tide pool is unique and fascinating. Quite commonly you’ll see black bears wandering the shoreline foraging for food but we weren’t lucky enough to spot one that day.
Sometimes you need to go the extra mile to get yourself a really good photograph too. Have a look at this sequence and you’ll see just what I mean.
Soon we scrambled around the point and onto Botanical Beach, where we wandered just a bit longer before moving on to the next attraction. I never tire of these coastal beaches, and even the sound of waves triggers so many pleasant memories.
Our whirlwind tour continued as we stopped for a bite to eat, then headed over to Avatar Grove. The trees there were preserved through considerable effort by the Ancient Forest Alliance. On the way up we actually ventured off the trail looking at several trees that get less attention, one a venerable Douglas Fir.
The Ancient Forest Alliance, with the help of many volunteers, built trails through both the upper and lower groves and did a commendable job of campaigning for the preservation of these trees.
The upper grove is most known for the burled and twisted Western Red Cedar affectionately called “The Gnarliest Tree in Canada”. I’m not sure whether it can lay claim to that title but it is certainly quite the sight, with its heavily burled trunk and twisted branches!
Back on route, we visited the rest of the trees in the upper grove, and met a number of other folks paying their own respects as well. It’s notable that when left standing, forests like these drive both spiritual and economic interest in a region, which is a unique combination. Ancient forests are undoubtedly places where people find their souls.
The lower grove was our next objective, and though Chris had been to Avatar Grove a number of times he had not happened to see it yet either. I found it to be quite a revelation, in part because you could could hear the Gordon River running in the background, as filtered sunlight shone through the trees. There was a subtle breeze to go with it all, and as it turned out, we may have spent more time there than in the upper grove!
What I’ll call the high point of the day, at least in my mind, came with a visit to Big Lonely Doug, which stands almost alone in a clearcut off Edinburgh Main. Its stark existence, ironically, brings to mind that there is a campaign going on to save the trees in nearby Eden Grove merely a few hundred yards away. Keeping stands of old growth forest intact should be our goal, and in British Columbia that has been a difficult task to accomplish.
The story of Big Lonely Doug is an interesting one, to say the least! Apparently, on a winter morning in 2011, a logger named Dennis Cronin was walking through a stand of old-growth forest in the Gordon River Valley near Port Renfrew. He was supposed to survey the land and flag the boundaries for an up and coming clearcut. Soon he would soon stumble upon one Canada’s largest Douglas firs, no doubt worth a considerable sum in the timber market. Cronin, for reasons of his own, marked the tree with a ribbon that instructed the fallers to leave the tree standing, and that is just what they did. Everything around the tree was levelled and removed, leaving the now solitary fir alone in the cut block. Ironically, the tree was even used as a spar, as cable was wrapped around it in order to help haul other trees out of the cut block. Some time later, environmentalist T.J.Watt of the Ancient Forest Alliance, an organization committed to preserving old growth forests in British Columbia, happened to find it while out searching for big trees in the valley.
If ever there was an apt metaphor for the destruction of British Columbia’s ancient forests, that Douglas fir was a textbook example. A towering giant, set in a field of destruction, the tree would soon be given a name: Big Lonely Doug. It would gain tremendous popularity, embraced by Port Renfrew, which calls itself “Tall Tree Capital of Canada”
The sheer scale of this Douglas Fir is something to behold. I had seen countless photos of it and closely followed its story, but as they say, seeing is believing! Chris had seen the tree before, but was no less impressed. I’m not at all surprised that author Harley Rustad was inspired to write a book about this tree!
Just looking at Big Lonely Doug and all the stumps in the clearcut, I could not help but imagine what has been lost in our forests. Time is definitely running out to save them! We spent the better part of an hour just taking it all in and working for the ideal photo opportunity.
Before we headed homeward, we decided to make one more stop. It had been years since I had been to the San Juan Spruce, which was British Columbia’s largest Sitka Spruce up until several years ago, when a storm destroyed part of its upper canopy. I lamented the fact that I’d not taken photos of it back in 2003, as I didn’t have a camera with me at the time. It remains, nevertheless, still an inspiring tree, set as it is right beside the San Juan River, in the middle of a forest service campground!
The drive home seemed somewhat faster than I expected, but then again, all things come to an end, relatively speaking. As we parted ways in Chemainus, I was already contemplating a return trip and some new explorations. You can never get enough of coastal British Columbia!
As I write this, the current state of preservation of old growth trees here on Vancouver Island is still of pressing concern. Already, very little ancient forest remains here, and neither the incumbent New Democratic Party, the current opposition B.C. Liberal Party, nor a plethora of logging companies have any desire to change the situation. Only British Columbia’s Green Party, part of the coalition government at this time, is supporting a moratorium on old growth logging. What is really needed here is a paradigm shift, for lack of a better phrase. The tired rhetoric of seeing old growth forest as a decaying resource that might as well be harvested or it will lose value is simply an excuse for justifying environmental destruction. Why not consider change?
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 actually 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All of this preceded the Magna Carta in 1215, by over 200 years, so much has happened in this world since then!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 those who have seen it before must have experienced!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Doug still does, and spent hours in the forests we have explored together there.
That Carmanah survives well would likely mean a great deal satisfaction for him, I imagine, but Randy Stoltmann left us long before his time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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…
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….
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