Ten centuries ago, this world was a very different place. Already, Leif Erickson, son of Eric the Red, had just led his expedition to the east coast of North America. Soon after, battles raged throughout Europe as The Crusades began, not to mention all that followed in the next nine hundred years. Why all the history? The answer, in my mind, is that it gives relevant perspective when you discuss ancient living things. Time illustrates the incredible longevity, in particular, that trees can have.
Even as Erickson landed in North America, in the relatively undisturbed coastal rainforests of Vancouver Island, a fateful cone, plausibly, had seeded itself not too far from what is now the San Juan River. Fortunately, there would soon be a sapling where the cone once lay, which eventually managed to grow well over 300 feet tall and almost fourteen feet in diameter! It may also have reached the age of a thousand years, though that estimate is based on known sizes and ages of similar trees of its species.
Today that tree is called the Red Creek Fir, and it is, by volume of wood, the largest Douglas fir on the planet! Over the years, several violent storms have reduced its height, but it still stands at 74m (242 ft) tall. It is not, however, the world’s tallest Douglas fir. That honour goes to Oregon’s Doerner Fir, which measures 327 ft tall ( it is formerly known as the Brummit Fir).
The Douglas fir, ironically, is not actually a true fir, but a member of the pine family (Pinaceae) . Pseudotsuga Menzieszi is its Latin name, and Pseudotsuga actually translates as “false hemlock”. Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies and Scottish botanist David Douglas are its noteworthy namesakes. The Douglas fir has been a vitally important species to the timber industry, due to its strength, durability, and versatility.
My own history with this tree has been somewhat checkered, to say the least. When I lived in North Vancouver, I visited Vancouver Island not once, not twice, but three times with good friend Chris before finally getting to see it in 2009. What I’ll say for certain is that it was well worth the effort! The Red Creek Fir is definitely one of the more awe inspiring trees I have ever seen!
Considering the amount of logging that has taken place on the west coast of Vancouver Island, it’s no small miracle this giant still stands today, but now it is safe from harvesting, at least. The tree can be reached by a network of rough logging roads and a short, pleasant forest trail. I’m including a map and a few photos here that will help you find the trailhead, and detailed driving directions can be found here.
It isn’t often that you get the opportunity to meet a living being that has been around as long as the Red Creek Fir. If you’re ever in the area, and you have a vehicle with half decent ground clearance, it’s well worth a visit!
“I think we’ve got something here!” I turned abruptly, just in time to see Chris clambering swiftly up the steep gully we were crossing. From my vantage point, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew he was absolutely serious. I followed along, and as he disappeared from sight into the brush, suddenly his source of excitement became obvious. There, on the south bank of the gully, was one of the most impressive Western Red Cedars I have seen, before or since!
The tree rests on the edge of an unnamed tributary about halfway between Kennedy and Wickenden Creeks, hence the moniker, somewhat borrowed from the Washington city of the same name. It took us quite some time to decide how to actually measure this giant, just because of the way it sits on the bank, but its diameter may well exceed fifteen feet! That ranks it in the top six we have seen in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park and far and away the largest Chris and/or I have discovered there. I returned to the tree again six years later with Doug in the spring of 2012 to find it still in excellent health!
What’s even more remarkable is that for its size its wood gives the appearance of a younger tree, and none of its towering leaders have yet been broken by storms. I believe that it is less than five hundred years old, which augurs well for record future growth, should it survive well. Perhaps more than any other tree, the Kennewick Cedar could perhaps truly inspire future generations of tree hunters in the region, because as I’ve said before, there have to be more giants out there just waiting to be discovered!
It was early December of 2005 when Chris and I set out on the Cedar Trail, trekking toward Kennedy Falls in North Vancouver’s Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. The route, at that time, was a relatively rough track that very few people bothered to hike, but it was a favourite of mine. It had that feeling of isolation that I so enjoy about wilderness, and along the way, there were two six hundred year old cedars to visit!
What we had hoped to discover, however, was an entirely different tree. It was perched, according to noted British Columbia tree hunter Ralf Kelman, on a precarious bank above a creek with no name. He had told me about it a year or two before, but it was only then that we were getting around to looking for it. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t too difficult to locate, and was a highly underrated tree. Its age was approximately five hundred years, said Ralf, and it was roughly eleven to twelve feet in diameter. The tree had been discovered by Randy Stoltmann back in the early 1990s, apparently.
The key to finding the tree is relatively simple. There is a short section on the trail which is rigged with ropes to assist hikers down a steep bank to a creek crossing. Once you cross the creek, immediately make a left turn and follow a spine uphill along the creek. Eventually, you’ll reach the tree, which I started calling the Hurley Cedar years later on a day Doug, Ryan, and I were searching the general area for a lost dog who goes by that name. The dog was found alive and happy, though nowhere near the tree, but the name seemed to stick in my circle of friends so I am using it here.
It did not take us too long to find the tree, as Ralf’s directions were pretty concise. Once there, we spent half an hour or so enjoying the cool, crisp, early winter day. There was a fresh snowfall on the ground that added to the ambience and at least, we thought, it wasn’t raining at the time!
Over the years, I have returned to this grand old cedar on many occasions, so if ever you’re out this way, I suggest you pay it a visit yourself. You won’t regret the effort!
Times change. Thirteen years later, the trail to Kennedy Falls has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. The building of a parking lot on upper Mountain Highway and temporary road closures of usual park access have served to help popularize the route. Up until that time, it was my understanding that Lynn Headwaters Regional Park had not marked the trail in both directions because there was a notion the location of the trail ought to be kept relatively quiet. Consequently, I don’t think they were prepared for the increase in traffic , which has also resulted in significant damage to the path. The actual marking of the trail is no longer an issue, but do please stick to the path and please do your part to minimize erosion.
You can see it on a signboard at Cypress Provincial Park, where it’s featured as one of the trees discovered by Randy and Greg Stoltmann. There’s a a picture of a magnificent Amabilis Fir deep in a snow filled gully, with one of the brothers posing beside it back in the late 1980s. Randy, who passed away in a skiing accident in 1994, is even today a legendary tree hunter and conservationist. It would have been interesting to have met him, indeed, his legacy still burns brightly.
I’ll admit that I’d been hunting old growth trees for many years before I ever went looking for a record Pacific Silver Fir ( the other namesake of the Amabilis Fir ). The tree occurs in cool forest glades at lower elevations, often less conspicuous in the company of the larger Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir, and Western Red Cedar. True giants of the species, however, are generally found at higher elevations where they are similarly overshadowed by Mountain Hemlock and Yellow Cedar. In a sense, they sometimes seem to be hiding in plain sight!
It was actually in 2004 that I first heard about the Cabin Lake Fir, when talking to Ralf Kelman, B.C.’s preeminent big tree hunter. Over a decent cup of coffee, he told me, among other things, a tale of a November trek to see the tree back in the late 1990s. Accompanying Ralf on that excursion was Washington state tree expert Robert Van Pelt, who was hoping to measure the crown spread of the tree with then state of the art laser technology. Typically for Ralf, not known for preferring early starts, the trip began a bit late in the day. While they did manage to locate, photograph and measure the tree, there were some adventurous moments extricating themselves from the steep approach gully and subsequently, hiking back to the parking lot in Cypress Provincial Park. Darkness, sleet, and poor visibility didn’t help them much either. The day ended with more than a few beers at an east end Vancouver drinking establishment where all finished the day both dry and more than a little happy!
It was my frequent partner in exploration Doug who finally convinced me that we had to rediscover this tree some eight years later. He reasoned that we ought to approach it by following a direct contour line off of one of the Black Mountain ski runs. Doug also thought that we might just have the chance to find some of the large Mountain Hemlocks he’d also seen marked on some maps. It didn’t take too much effort to get me hooked on his plan. I later learned, years later, that due to the destruction of Washington’s Goodman Creek Fir, the Cabin Lake Fir had since become the largest known of its species. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were now hunting for the world champion Amabilis Fir!
We chose a decent spring day for the hike, and though the terrain was steep and time consuming, travel was reasonable. The forest was well spaced, and indeed, full of the beautiful Mountain Hemlocks the park is well known for!
We soon managed to work our way close to a broad chute fortified with high walls on the side we found ourselves on . It was first necessary to climb safely into the chute so that we could explore the area, which was at roughly the elevation we expected to find the Cabin Lake tree. The light soon began to shine more brightly as we kicked our way into the snow slope and gradually worked our way down. We were glad to have brought our ice axes for the descent.
We didn’t see it at first. Curiously, the next thing we noted was that the snows below us were covered with a fine layer of fallen moss and lichens – the kind you often see draping trees in the high mountains. I’ve heard it called Old Man’s Beard.
While we were both pondering exactly where that carpet of foliage had come from, a towering spire appeared almost right in front of us, just downslope. It was clear we had found the source of all that fallen plant life, it was the Cabin Lake Fir itself! In its company were a number of young Silver Firs, perhaps seeded from the cones of their parent nearby.
To some, it might seem like hyperbole to assign mythical qualities to a simple being such as a tree, but the Cabin Lake Fir most certainly had a peculiar aura. It grows in a location quintessential for its survival and it’s doing exceptionally well. The tree is ideally situated to acquire all the necessary nutrients, water, and just the right amount of sunlight. Simultaneously, the steep rock walls nearby shade it from the midday sun and protect it from high winds. It is even evident that the slides and avalanches which take place in the couloir follow a path well away from the tree.
We spent quite a while in the presence of this grand old spirit of the forest, taking ample time for photography and lunch, before packing up and climbing out of the gully to Cabin Lake, as we wanted to be certain to chart the entire route. I was certainly happy that Doug had been so insistent that we make the trek that day!
Two years later, we would return in autumn, descending that same gully downward from Cabin Lake, with the bluffs of Black Mountain looming above. Paul, who was along with us on that day, was also keen to get a look at the tree.
If you are taking notes on the approach and how it might look once the snow melts, after you leave the lake behind you should find yourself in a blocky, granite boulder field that is very distinctive looking . Just carry on downward, with bluffs on your right, as you descend toward the gully.
The tree was no less magnificent on that occasion, and the weather was about the same as it was for our first visit. Fog and mist made getting an ideal photo something of a challenge. All agreed, though, that it was a tree worth revisiting!
In the end, it seemed fitting once again to walk in the footprints of the Stoltmann brothers, and my only regret was all of the years I had waited before searching out the Cabin Lake Fir. To paraphrase the immortal Warren Miller: “Get out there and get it done. If you don’t do it this year, you will just be one year older when you do!”
I have recently learned that the Cabin Lake Fir has died, as reported in the summer of 2015, not long after our last visit. Here is a link to the BC Big Tree Registry that documents its demise in two very telling photos. It was a privilege to have made its acquaintance and it truly magnifies my concluding paragraph in this story. Had we not made the effort to see the tree when we did, we would not have seen it alive at all. It will have to live on in memory alone, once the largest and perhaps the oldest known tree of its kind! It was, at least, the world champion for about seven years!
***In memory of Warren Miller (1924- 2018 )***
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