Tag Archives: trees

Gemini Mountain, Welcome to The Island

It had taken us the better part of two years to sort out our move to Vancouver Island, but having finally done that, I wanted to climb a mountain here! Recently I’d joined a local hiking group called Island Mountain Ramblers , and while checking out the trips they had planned, I discovered one I had to join! Gemini Mountain, deep within the Nanaimo River Valley, sounded like a place I needed to see!

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A very reputable Vancouver Island group, the Island Mountain Ramblers have been active since 1958

There is limited access to the valley, which is controlled by Timber West, the landowners. It was only possible to hike there in autumn months, according to Matthew, our trip organizer and current club president. The twin summits of Gemini Mountain were ideally located and, if the weather was in our favour, might serve up some beautiful views. The only catch was that we’d be in there during hunting season, but at least the area we were to hike was off limits to the hunters. While that sounded a little scary, of course there were no problems!

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Neither hunters nor wabbits seen on this day!

Eight of us met at Harewood Mall, and from there drove a long way up the Nanaimo Lakes Road to reach our destination. We stopped at a checkpoint along the way, where you need to report in to let Timber West know where you’re headed. It was at least another half hour before a while before we turned onto the K15 logging spur. A long climb led us steeply up that road to where we’d begin our hike.

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The view from where we parked

The Nanaimo River Valley has a lengthy history of logging, and there are still a lot of active haul roads within its watershed. Despite the piles of logging slash burning at roadside as we climbed, you could still see that the valley maintained its strong feel of wilderness. Somehow it seems to have transcended all the harvesting that has happened there.

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Green Mountain, seen here, was once the site of a ski resort
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Mountain Hemlock draped in Old Man’s Beard

After gearing up, we began our hike at about 1200m in elevation, with cold winds urging us on.   Our leader knew the route well having been there before, but there were few markers to show us the way. The forest, a mix of Mountain Hemlock, Silver Fir, and Western Hemlock, was quite enchanting.

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Enjoying the forest walk

 

Soon the trees became more widely spaced, and we entered some attractive subalpine meadows, then heather covered slopes led us to some dense coastal brush. The mist and clouds were constant companions, and would only leave us for short breaks throughout the day.

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The subalpine meadows

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We were soon approaching the first of Gemini Mountain’s two summits, and after a short bushwhack, we were there! As we arrived, the clouds would clear, making good on the promise of those spectacular views. I had been hiking for many years in the same familiar ranges of the Lower Mainland, where I was used to being able to identify most of the peaks around me. Here on Vancouver Island, however, the surroundings were entirely new to me, so there was a great sense of discovery that had me quite enamoured.

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The view from the first summit
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Decent rewards for only an hour of hiking
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Atmospheric conditions above the clouds

 

After a short break, we began hiking over to the second, and highest summit. This involved trekking over the shoulder of the first summit and weaving our way down to a col between the two. On the ridge, we passed by  bedding and grazing sites of elk herds, and followed their paths quite often. We’d have to return the same way we came, because both sides of the col were lined with steep cliff  bands that would prevent us from taking any  shortcuts.

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Back inside the clouds

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The sun, trying to make an appearance
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Morning skies

The col was a beautiful and rugged place! Soon the skies parted for at least half an hour, as we rose above the clouds. The ground sloped sharply into a valley below the col, and in the distance the road we had driven up to the trailhead became visible. There was a sea of mountains to gaze at, but most of them were unknown to me.

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The cliffs at the col, which I recommend avoiding
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The main summit of Gemini Mountain as you see it from the col

Soon we left the col and crossed over on a ramp to the base of some steep bluffs. Here we waited, before climbing up to a bench just below the summit. That was the biggest challenge of the day, as the rock was a little unstable in places. While we did that, the skies would clear even more, which had everyone feeling more cheerful.43837671200_6faf4179b0_k

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A look back at the route we descended into the col from the first summit

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Getting closer to the summit

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Looking back down to the valley below
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The first peak of Gemini Mountain, where we had just been
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Stunted alpine trees

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Our trip leader Matthew, along with navigating, had his two year old daughter in his backpack. He also had his five year old son walking the entire route with us. He did well, and the only help he needed was a boost or two on some of the steepest sections. It reminded me of hiking with my kids when they were young, trying to share with them that fascination with nature, which they still seem to have to this day!

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Matthew and his kids

After we climbed the bluffs we then headed up to the summit proper, at 1525m in elevation. The summit plateau was fairly broad, with panoramic views. There were also some alpine tarns that were just beginning to freeze over. I was very happy to be atop my first peak on Vancouver Island!

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Gemini mountain, 1525m elevation
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That’s the mainland of British Columbia over there
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An icy summit tarn
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Atop one summit looking over at the other

Pretty soon the weather began to arrive in earnest. The winds now began blowing more briskly as we took a short break before the hike back. Many peaks could be seen in the distance, including Mt Baker down in Washington state.

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Ever changing weather
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Clouds have a way of being you it’s time to leave!
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Mt Baker is in this photo somewhere

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Light rain began to fall as we walked down to the col, then back up  to the first summit, and finally back down again to the logging road. It seemed like much longer than a five and a half hour hike, yet at 3 pm we were back at the vehicles and rolling down the road to the gate shortly after.

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A last look at one of the tarns!

If anyone out there on Vancouver Island has thought about hiking this mountain during the limited opportunity, I’d highly recommend it. As well, if you’re looking for a hiking club on Vancouver Island, join the Island Mountain Ramblers, you’ll be glad you did!

 

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Hiding in Plain Sight: The Elusive Pacific Yew

Picture the scene. You’re hunting the forests of the Pacific Northwest in search of record giants. On a hillside you can see the outline of a massive trunk in the distance. Is it a Western Red Cedar? Douglas fir? Whatever the answer is, you’re determined to find out! You struggle up the steep slope, and suddenly that tree disappears quickly, as though it had been an apparition. Why? Because now you’re going to have to scramble over some fallen timber and around a sharp cliff face before you can see it again. You press on, momentarily cursing the obstructions, and grab onto a nearby limb to pull yourself upward. Oddly, you observe, the tree you’re holding onto also has needles growing out of the trunk, and its bark is a beautifully understated hue of reddish brown, and then you look upward…and realize the tree in question is a very sizeable Pacific Yew!

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The ever present Pacific Yew, often inconspicuous and not as large as its forest companions, but highly unique

That, so often, is typical of how one happens upon a yew in the forest. It grows inconspicuously, its base preferring the shaded understory beneath the towering trees above. Meanwhile, its upper branches reach higher into the forest canopy, gathering more sunlight for growth. Quite often you’ll see one from afar and assume it’s either dead, or deciduous, as frequently there is little foliage on the lower extremities of an older specimen. The overwhelming notion, though, is that you seem to stumble upon them, as though they are hidden in plain sight!

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Introducing “The Elk”, one very interesting Pacific Yew. The tree is very opportunistic and is often noted for its unusual shapes

While they aren’t frequent topics of discussion among tree hunters, they are nevertheless highly significant forest dwellers. Their flaking bark is frequently home to mosses that give refuge to flora, and their trunks, which are usually  hollow, are often home to Douglas Squirrels and other small rodents. At higher elevations, the tree grows closer to the ground and seems to have more limbs. Quite often, when you walk a mountain trail at elevations up to 800m, you’ll inadvertently grab a piece of one to assist you upward!

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Closeup of yew tree

The giants of the species are not exceptionally large when compared to their forest companions. The largest one in British Columbia, for example, is just 0.91m in diameter at breast height, fairly modest in comparison to, say, that 14 foot wide cedar that may be growing nearby!  It has a consistent habit of rotting from the inside out, making it difficult to determine its precise age, but I’ve managed to find several that are at least 300 years old. It also boasts wood that is exceptionally hard, which can dull  a chainsaw chain after a single cut, or so I’ve been told.

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Any time you find a yew around two to three feet wide you have yourself a very old tree
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Doug with an amazing Pacific Yew, in North Vancouver’s Hydraulic Creek

I’ve grown fond of these underrated denizens of the rainforest over the years. The next time you walk through an ancient forest, take a closer look around. You might soon find yourself looking at a beautiful Pacific Yew, and once you do, you’ll be seeing the forest for ALL the trees!

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The noble Pacific Yew

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Oft Forgotten Mountain Hemlock

Here in the Pacific Northwest, when talk turns to the preservation of old growth trees, generally what people are discussing are the giants of valley bottom ecosystems. Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce are most frequently mentioned. Why is that? Well, the answer seems obvious, in that they are located at lower elevations and as such might seem more relatable to the average person. They also reach great size and are conspicuously targeted by logging companies in pursuit of the almighty  dollar.

There are, however, a number of different species that grow in the Coast Mountains that simply don’t garner as much attention. One such tree is the Mountain Hemlock, also known as Tsuga Mertensiana . If you’ve ever explored the forests above 800 metres in elevation, then you’ve seen your share of them. What you have likely never heard, however, are sharp cries of protest when the oldest of their kind are cut down. In truth, most people remain unaware that they are even targeted for harvesting!

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Five foot diameter Mountain Hemlock on Black Mountain in Cypress Provincial Park
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An interesting pair of Mountain Hemlocks near Cabin Lake in Cypress Provincial Park. I like to call them The Happy Couple!

Invariably, you’ll find the Mountain Hemlock at those higher elevations, where it’s most prolific. In coastal British Columbia it shares space with Yellow Cedar, Pacific Silver Fir, and in this subalpine zone it tends to be the dominant forest tree.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time in British Columbia’s southwest region, I’ve come to admire this hardy survivor of the woods. It’s specially designed to be able to hold the heavy snows of winter in the alpine regions, and to shed them efficiently. The Mountain Hemlock can be found growing in the most adverse conditions. It can thrive in groves, where some protection from the elements is afforded, but some big specimens are often found on exposed ridges, where they must confront the wrath of winter head on. Smaller, stunted versions are often found growing on rocky summits where their trunks thicken even more to withstand the winds.

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Heavy snow loads and crazy shapes in winter!
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Snow encrusted Mountain Hemlocks
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Me with an ancient Mountain Hemlock near the Seymour Trail junction. Photo by Doug
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Tsuga Mertensiana, the Mountain Hemlock. This one is on a wind blasted ridge at almost 1500 metres in elevation on Chanter Peak

The Mountain Hemlock is a tree that grows at a very slow and measured pace. When you see one that is just several feet wide in diameter that usually identifies a tree that is already several hundred years old. Growing season is short and difficult in the mountains, and nutrients are sparse, yet I’ve seen so many that have lived multiple centuries. In 2008, when Cypress Provincial Park was given permission to remove trees to accommodate some of the facilities for the Olympic Games, I made a startling discovery. Quite by accident I wandered into an off limits area where dozens of old growth Mountain Hemlocks had been cut down. Even the ones that were just three feet wide proved to be over 400 years old when I counted the growth rings and some of the trees were nearly two metres in diameter. Experts estimate that the tree can reach up to 800 years in age but I am convinced that some may make it into a second millennium.

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Gnarled and ancient Mountain Hemlock. If ever there was such thing an ent, this is it! It grows on the summit of Mt Bishop, at over 1500 metres in elevation

Yet another example of similar negligence occurred when the trail to Joffre Lakes was expanded  back around 2010. BC Parks contracted a firm to do the excavation and during the process they decided to take down a number of Mountain Hemlocks that were over a thousand years old. This was done, allegedly, in the name of public safety, but truthfully in this case they simply took the easiest possible line to widen the path. I’m quite certain they would be standing today had that evaluation been more accurate.

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Making tracks in the magic of a Mountain Hemlock forest

Many an ancient Mountain Hemlock has been levelled by ski resorts, road builders, loggers, and even homesteaders building cabins, over the years. Sometimes this has been done for business purposes, and other times for expediency, but nevertheless countless venerable trees have been destroyed in the process. Much of that destruction has occurred out of sight and out of mind, and it’s high time we paid more attention to this fine and noble tree. In the big picture, it plays an important role in nature, and must not be forgotten!

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Sun sets on Mountain Hemlocks and Vancouver, as seen from Mt Seymour

 

 

 

The Bishop Giants

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!

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The patriarch of the Bishop Trail Grove, which may be almost 1000 years old

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!

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Doug and the two giants of the Bishop Grove from several years later in April 2006
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700 year old cedar in the Bishop Grove

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!

 

 

The Disappearing World of the Garry Oak

When most conservationists speak of forest protection here in the Pacific Northwest region, they are usually talking about the giants of valley floor forest ecosystems, such as  Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Sitka Spruce. There is a species, though, that seems to consistently fly under the radar. That tree is the Garry Oak ( Quercus Garryana ), known also as the Oregon White Oak. With its twisting trunks and beautifully detailed bark, it doesn’t have the enormous size of many of its relatives in the Oak family, but in its natural habitat it certainly fills a vital and unique ecological niche.

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These trees manage to survive in dry, scrubby soils on rock outcroppings that are typical of the region. This is on Mt Tzouhalem, near Duncan

Garry Oak ecosystems, which also support a wide variety of specialized plant life, have for years been endangered in their northern range. They are generally found on British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and on a relatively narrow strip along Vancouver Island’s east coast. Though once absolutely common in those areas, these trees have not fallen victim to disease, conventional logging, or even climate change, for the most part. So what, exactly, has shrunk their habitat?

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This look at Piper’s Lagoon in Nanaimo shows the highly desirable seaside habitat that Garry Oaks prefer. Unfortunately, so do people

The answer is actually quite obvious: their greatest enemy is none other than encroaching human civilization. People have a great desire to build homes in waterfront areas, where trees like arbutus and Garry Oak often thrive. Of course, land developers highly covet the land they grow upon, and this has led to severe reduction or elimination of many groves.

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A particularly nice grove in Nanaimo’s Piper’s Lagoon Park

It’s now estimated that less than 5% of  Garry Oak ecosystems here in coastal British Columbia remain intact. Most of those are basically islands of preserved growth that were once part of broader populations that also allowed for greater genetic biodiversity. The result of that condition is that numerous species found in these ecosystems are either endangered or at risk. What’s worse is that they are often battling invasive species like Scotch Broom just to survive!

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They often share space with the Arbutus tree, also known as the Madrone, as with this stand on The Notch in Nanoose Bay
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The bark is unique and easy to identify

In the general area of Nanaimo, where I live, you can find fair sized forests in Nanoose Bay, Parksville, Harewood Plains, Joan Point, and Mt Tzouhalem, for example. Sadly though, countless other populations  are either small, dwindling, or already eliminated. I’m soon hoping to explore these forests in springtime, when their numerous wildflowers emerge. It’s a world I’m just beginning to discover, in what I now call my backyard. Here on Vancouver Island there is a society devoted to these trees, it’s called the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society ( GOMPS ). Continual efforts must be made to set aside protected areas for these fast disappearing trees, for without them, so much will be lost. The Garry Oak is well worth treasuring!

 

 

 

The Giant Maple of Squamish Creek

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.

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Bigleaf Maples like these are often 400 years old!
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Upper crowns of Bigleaf Maples are incredibly productive!

 

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.

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These trees are hard to photograph but I love to try!
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Looking into the upper canopy, four centuries of growth and still thriving
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Each massive trunk is loaded with lifeforms
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I have not explored much of the forest above the cascades. Who knows what’s hiding there?!

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!

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My idea of golden!

 

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 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.

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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!

 

 

A Walk in the The Giant’s Rock Garden

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.

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Seymour Valley from the Spur 4 Bridge

 

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!

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Steve showed me this saw blade along the Homestead Trail on our trip back, but I had to post it sooner in the story! He has a knack for finding things

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…

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The supposed spruce grove is allegedly off the right hand road on this map just north of Wyssen Creek. I took us on a wild goose chase off the left side of the road, hence the confusion. We actually ended up beginning our entirely different adventure by heading off to the right at roughly the 9km marker, north of our original quarry.

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.

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Camp Rock, where we stashed our bikes and stopped for lunch

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.

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This is why tree hunting takes patience, endurance, and a sense of humour!

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.

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Healthy old growth cedars early on in the hike

 

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.

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Steve finds an elevated highway!
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As the sun began to shine through, the grove became more picturesque by the minute!
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Verdant and healthy

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.

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This might just be my favourite photo of the day, but there were many more

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.

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The cliff bands were very rugged. This portal would have been the only easy way to gain the ground above them, but we had other ideas

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!

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Here I am looking up at several inverted trees leaning on the wall above me. I didn’t linger long here!
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This is the reverse of the previous image!
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These trees have thrived in a not so forgiving environment!
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True survivors!
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A close look at the cliff face
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Steve contemplates our next move
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Water streaked walls
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Another cliffside view

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!

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Some very large granite boulders here!
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A five hundred year old cedar growing atop a house sized hunk of granite. You don’t see this every day
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It was on such a grand scale that you could not really get an overview. Instead, it was much like wandering a maze
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Many of the boulders were grown thickly with mosses and other understory plants, and beneath the rocks were enclosures ideal for animals to take refuge in
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A truly enchanted forest, so fragile that we were loathe to climb the boulders least we damage the plant life
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Another spectacular cedar

 

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!

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Just a perfect day for forest exploration

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!

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The ever present Pacific Yew, often inconspicuous and not as large as its forest companions, but highly unique

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.

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Bigleaf Maples like these are often 400 years old!
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Quiet cascade on Squamish Creek, below the peaks of the Fannin Range

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.

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Each massive trunk is loaded with life
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Looking into the upper canopy, four centuries of growth and still thriving
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These trees are hard to photograph but I love to try!
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So many trunks, so little time
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My idea of golden!

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!

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I have not explored much of the forest above the cascades. You never know what might be up there!

We took another short break before hiking back down toward the road again, greeting several more ancient cedars en route before emerging at roadside.

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This cedar survives even though half of it was sheared away by a falling tree. Nature is tough and resourceful

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!

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The 500 plus year old Bigfoot Cedar
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The foot of the Bigfoot Cedar

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!

The Story of The Survivor

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The Survivor makes a powerful first impression. It’s one of the more unique trees that I have known

In a cool, quiet, forest glade in the North Shore Mountains sits a most venerable tree. Surrounded by a healthy stand of Pacific Silver Fir, this Western Red Cedar makes a daunting first impression. As you approach it from the south, the first thing you notice is the gaping wedge that has been cut from the trunk that almost resembles a mouth, of sorts. The many burls and aged trunk bely its centuries of growth, and its top thrives brilliantly, likely well into a seventh century of growth. Countless folk cruise within 40 metres of it it unwittingly every day without noticing it, on their way to Norvan Falls and points beyond. I call this tree The Survivor, and its narrative is well worth sharing.

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The surrounding forest is perfect for silver firs and cedars alike, with a few western hemlocks sprinkled in.
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The upper trunk of tree has enjoyed excellent health, even growing an extra top over the last century
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Even since the first time I saw this tree its top has grown somewhat and has changed in height. It’s quite normal for cedars to have multiple tops and go on living for hundreds of years
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Holes in trees like these once held the springboards of the loggers that felled them.

Travel back in time, if you will, to the 1920s and 1930s, in what is today Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. The east side of Lynn Creek was being heavily logged by the Cedar Mills Company. In the end, when the harvest was done, they left precious few old growth cedars behind, and decades later a strong second growth forest is slowly recovering from the onslaught. The cutting ended in the early 1940s, I have been told, and then the area was designated as drinking water supply and made off limits to the public until the 1980s, when the park was opened.

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This shot illustrates the way the cedar has compensated for weakness on one side of the trunk by overgrowing a massive root on the right side
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You can see here, on the opposite side from the wedge, where the loggers began to work with the crosscut saw. Note how they were working above a difficult burl as well

 

The Survivor, too, was expected to perish, like so many giants before it, but fate would decide otherwise. According to legend, its life would be spared, and here follows how that was supposed to have occurred many years ago. At work on The Survivor back in the day was a group of fallers, the same gentlemen who had cut the substantial wedge on one side of the tree that I mentioned previously, in the direction it was to be dropped. That being accomplished, they set to work on the other side of the tree with a crosscut saw, and began slicing a deep groove into the trunk. This was a long and laborious process, given the tools of the day, and would have taken quite some time, I’m sure, to complete.

In the meantime, another group of loggers was hard at work on a closely neighbouring cedar. As goes the tale, they were much closer to falling this second tree than they initially thought, as it fell suddenly and errantly toward The Survivor and its team of loggers. Before it crashed to the forest floor, sadly, it is reputed to have taken the lives of two of those men.

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Nearby, this is the stump from which the tree that killed the loggers fell tragically
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After the accident the other tree came to rest near The Survivor, and it remains there until this day

The loggers, for whatever reason, be it grief, be it superstition, or some other reason, decided that The Survivor would not be taken. They also decided not to harvest the wood of that neighbouring giant that fell, causing the accident. Today, The Survivor remains, standing tall and reaching high into the canopy above, while the bulk of its neighbour lies forlornly beside it. On my brief sojourns to this place, my mind often wanders to thoughts about the men who made their livelihood here. They were modest and hard working, and I have learned that most who toiled this part of Lynn Valley were also of Japanese descent. I ponder what an impact that day must have had on their families. There is a haunting sense of loss juxtaposed with that of great triumph when you visit this place: Good men lost, a fine tree saved.

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Japanese logging camp photo from southwestern British Columbia. Men like these and their families were responsible for most of the hard work in harvesting stands of old growth cedar. They were, and are, an integral part of our history… photo from North Vancouver Archives
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This place always feels powerful to me; I am always conscious of a certain energy when in the presence of this tree

It was, I believe, on April Fool’s Day, 2005, of all days, that I first saw this tree. Jim, Rich,  Jim’s dog Midnite, and my dog Amigo were my companions that day. We hiked up to Norvan Falls on what turned out to be a rather cold and inhospitable day, complete with snow, sleet, and some freezing rain thrown in just for good measure.

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April 2005. Rich, me, and the dogs crossing the Third Debris Chute, where the Cedar Mills Trail ends and joins the Headwaters Trail…. Photo by Jim H
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You get to meet my dog Amigo, at least in a photo. He’s been gone a couple of years now, and I miss him a lot…..Photo by Jim H
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Jim’s dog Midnite. She’s gone now too but is remembered as an indomitable trail partner. One year she hiked the Lynn peak Trail over 50 times!……Photo by Jim H

On the way up, just past the 4.5 km mark on the Headwaters Trail, we had stopped to look at a collection of artifacts that sat on a trailside log, as seen below here.

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This collection, minus a theft or two, still resides on that log. When you see this, begin looking forward, down, and to your left to locate the tree!

Minutes later, Rich spied a big tree just downslope off the trail that looked most unusual, and naturally, we went down to investigate. It was then that we found The Survivor, though for us the diatribe of its history was to follow later. That came courtesy of good friend Rick, who had chanced to meet some archaeologists from Capilano College some years before who had told him of the tragedy of this tree.

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Rich tries to climb into the wedge as I look on…..Photo by Jim H

We speculated, at the time, exactly what to call this tree. Rich saw it as happy to be alive, and thought it should be called “Smiley”. Others on the Clubtread hiking site speculated that it was reminiscent of an Easter Island statue, or retro cartoon character Snidely Whiplash. I have always called it The Survivor. What do you think?

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Snidely Whiplash

Easter Island statue

Whatever name you choose, it’s certainly a sight you will always remember.

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Rich and I again, with Amigo, below the crosscut mark…..Photo by Jim H

After stopping for lunch we hit the trail once again and hiked up to see Norvan Falls. It’s a place I have trekked to dozens of times over the years but in winter it can be especially interesting!

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Norvan Falls, as we saw it that day….Photo by Jim H
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Lynn Creek on a wintery day!

That trip some 13 years doesn’t seem all that long ago, and I have revisited the tree more than a few times since then. It’s like dropping in on an old friend who doesn’t get around much, but then it’s a tree, so… here are a few more photos I took this week.

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The tree above the crosscut mark, brilliantly green
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Looking up the trunk from the wedge cut!
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A closer look at one of the many burls that give the tree such character
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The forest floor nearby
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Pacific Silver Fir, also known as Amabilis Fir
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It certainly does have personality!

What I know for certain is that today a prodigious example of nature’s tenacity lives on in this cedar. I am struck not only with its ability to heal, but also with its capability to endure, in ways practically unimaginable. That The Survivor lives is a reminder of the fact that there are forces driving this planet and its many ecosystems, many of which continue to flourish despite human effort to their detriment. You know, some tout that old expression “I’d rather be good than lucky”,  while others say “I’d rather be lucky than good”? This tree, all would agree, has been as good as it’s been lucky, and I hope that luck never runs out.

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Seven centuries and counting!
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On a sunnier day!

 

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Until next time…

The Heart of Wickenden: The Forgotten Forest, Part Three

The spring of 2007 was to feature a lot of sunny weather, so I was able to make several more forays into the wilderness west of Lynn Creek. The next trek, near the end of April, was with Doug. For a variety of reasons he’d been unable to join Chris and me on earlier jaunts so he was quite enthusiastic about getting a first hand look at what we’d discovered.

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Lynn Creek in morning

Once again, after walking the Cedar Mills Trail, it was a crossing of Lynn Creek at the Third Debris Chute that opened the adventure of the day. That was relatively benign…

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Doug drying out after the crossing

Of course, on hikes like these, not everything goes according to plan. It had been exactly four weeks since l’d last forded the lower tributary of Kennedy Creek, a mandatory exercise after you make it over Lynn Creek. Conditions were, how do you say, a little different this time?

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Doug searching for a way across

Somewhat compelling, to say the least, but the only real danger was getting wet, so with a little determination and adroitness, we found a way. Today’s plan was to make our way toward the unnamed creek valley north of the Kennedy drainage where Chris and I had found the Kennewick Giant. We had seen tall spires above us in the canyon on that day and I wanted to know exactly what lay in wait there. As before, we chose a line moving generally northwest to the desired area, which was roughly 550 metres in elevation.

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The first finds came quickly
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Another old cedar, roughly seven feet wide and three hundred years in age

As this was now my third trip into this valley, it was particularly rewarding to introduce another hiker to this land of giants. I can still recall how much Doug enjoyed the visit, and that memory still stands out as I share this tale today. It is now time for others to discover this special wilderness that is so close at hand, yet still so well hidden.

Another hour passed, and eventually we arrived at the steep creek gully and began struggling upward on unstable ground. It wasn’t hard to see where we wanted to go, it just seemed like it took a long time to get there. Suddenly we found ourselves in an open clearing full of salmonberry thickets, a few in bloom with their bright pink flowers.Tall cedars lined both sides of the gorge, true survivors all.

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Hummingbird Meadow
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Another three metre cedar in the glade

The next thing we knew the air was alive with unusual sound. Having been on so many treks to the mountains, my inclination was to clear out right away as I figured I’d stepped on a ground nest of of wasps! Our healthy fear soon turned to laughter when it donned on us that we had stumbled upon a bustling community of hummingbirds! Not just one or two, but more than we could count. It was not possible to get a decent photo, but this is the type of bird we were looking at, though mostly listening to…

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Anna’s Hummingbird, copyright Audubon Gallery

To this day I call this glade Kingdom of the Hummingbirds, as I’ve never seen so many of them in one place before or since. Some of the cedars nearby were up to nine feet in diameter, modest in size compared to some of our recent finds but still most likely well over four centuries old.

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Trees in this location have survived living on very exposed ground below an avalanche/ rockslide runout
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Spiky topped cedars!

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We spent quite some time clambering about this unique grove of trees and were about to press onward when I spotted something unusually hulking just downhill. From where I stood, at first, it looked like a record setting tree, but upon closer examination it was actually two trees each at least nine feet in diameter that were so close together they had appeared to grow as one. Their photo, pictured here below, is framed and hangs on my living room wall today!

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When I measured these trees, the total diameter was well over eighteen feet. I call them The Wonder Twins. The tree at left could be over 600 years old, whereas the one at right is more likely a couple of hundred years younger. Appearances can be deceiving!

After a little more searching we carried on, choosing to traverse at an elevation of roughly 500 metres with the intent of reaching Wickenden Creek. Within this valley were other gems, I’d been told, even including an old cabin and a mysterious tunnel! We didn’t locate either of those, but there were plenty of trees to be found!

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Sunshine and spires
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A 500 year old cedar, half shattered, lurking in the shadows
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A relatively young giant, already three metres in diameter but perhaps only about 400 years in age
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Doug  meets another big cedar

This forest was not easy to negotiate, but an open understory allowed for steady passage, and in another hour we were dropping down toward Wickenden Creek, with our thoughts focused on lunchtime by then. As we scuffled into another sketchy ravine, something caught Doug’s eye. It was a one of a kind tree, a mature cedar well over five hundred years old. At some time in its tenure, the main trunk had fractured and it had grown three distinct reiterations, all uncommonly vertical for a broken topped cedar. We would visit this tree again a number of years later and discover that one of its columns had been toppled in a storm by another falling tree. Doug called this cedar The Triplets. It kind of saddens me to think we might have been the only people to see it with all three leaders intact. Nature is powerful!

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The Triplets
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Wickenden Creek at last! A couple of weeks later I would explore a bit of its upper canyon with Chris
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Cool, clear waters

After our break, we began to work our way down Wickenden Creek. The hope was that there would be more discoveries. Travel was relatively easy on the gravel bars of the creek, where the waters retreat underground for a spell at around 400 metres in elevation. It was here that we decided to head north before descending all the way to Lynn Creek.

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Wickenden Creek’s lower reaches

Just steps from the creek bed we were stoked to happen upon yet another cluster of old growth cedars. Many of them were eight feet in diameter, and several were considerably larger than that.

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Minutes later, we made the trip’s best find of all, a robust old cedar that measured almost fourteen feet wide. I had not expected to find a tree like that at relatively low elevation, yet there it was. We later found out that Chris had stumbled upon this giant on a solo jaunt just the week before. He had been equally impressed!

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Here is Doug doing his turn of the 20th century pose with the Wickenden Giant. Back in the day, portraits were to be stoic in character, I understand
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Here I am struggling to get a measurement on the tree. Doug is on the other side, having walked around it to hand me the reel. It took him a while to get around the whole tree! Photo by Doug

Regrettably, it was now time to begin hiking homeward, but the forest still held some  surprises. Here are they are, the pleasant ones…

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Sunlit forest
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Doug enjoys a fine view of The Needles

… and the, well, not so pleasant ones…

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Any forensic experts out there?
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My guess was deer, but I’m not sure about that

Soon after, we reached the banks of Lynn Creek, but there were some obstacles to deal with there. Thickets of young trees, common in riparian zones, proved to be formidable opponents, if only for a short time. While thrashing about, we also picked up an old trail. It was an extension of an old North Shore Hikers route marked in 1981 that was rumoured to follow Lynn Creek’s west side, but had fallen into disuse. The trademark red paint blazes gave it away. I knew of the route through Ralf Kelman, and I had rediscovered it several years before, but at that time I had lost the track about a kilometre south of Wickenden Creek. On that day I had even found the trail builder’s camp, complete with with remnants of lunch and a couple of empty cans of spray paint!

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Just a little bit of bushwhacking, with The Needles standing guard in the background

Folklore had it that this trail eventually crossed Lynn Creek, and continued on the east bank at some point. I was intrigued, had we found a new way back? Also, what about crossing Lynn Creek?

And then I saw it! At first I thought I was imagining things, but there it was, in pain sight! What we saw was that a huge Douglas fir had fallen across the creek, creating the perfect natural bridge!

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It’s like it was custom made
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If only everything was this easy!
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The creek crossing

It turned out that not only was the log there, but that it was marked as part of the old trail, which meant it had been there for almost thirty years. When I returned in 2010, however, someone had stripped the log of bark, oddly enough, so now it is somewhat scarier to cross. The entire area is quite scenic, offering fine views of the surrounding mountains and  it seems as though it might make a great campsite, though camping is not permitted within Lynn Headwaters.

The only thing left to satisfy my curiosity was to try and find the continuation of the trail, so we followed along the east bank of Lynn Creek in search of a sign.

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One last look at the crossing

In just moments, we had found the trail again! After following it for about a while it petered out, so we simply joined the Norvan Falls Trail at about the four kilometre marker. From there it was a routine stroll home, but it had been an eventful day!

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When you see this mark on a North Shore Trail, it’s generally the trademark of the 1980s North Shore Hikers

Of all the forests I have walked, those in the Kennedy and Wickenden valleys have given me the most joy. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m sure in no small part that it’s because I have been able to find something so untamed and unique that was also so close to home. As North Vancouver develops ever so quickly, the difference between civilization and wilderness has been becoming much more pronounced. May never the two merge, and may Wickenden remain forever wild!