Tag Archives: trees

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!

 

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A Tale of Two Olympic Champions

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

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Spring sunset on the Washington Coast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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The Cheewhat Lake Cedar

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

 

 

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 first 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 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 a special wilderness that is so close at hand, yet still so well hidden.

Another hour passed, and in no time 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 four 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!

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 forest enclaves 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 is 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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Into the Mystic: The Forgotten Forest, Part Two

Only a few pages of the 2007 calendar were to turn before favourable spring weather had us thinking about a return to Kennedy Creek. It was the first day of April when Chris and I began our early day hiking along the Cedar Mills Trail in Lynn Headwaters Park. The idea, this time, was simply to try and cover some ground we hadn’t the first time. Would we be April fools? Well, yes, but read on and find out how!

On reaching the Third Debris Chute, the first mission was fording Lynn Creek. A word to the wise and wary: you have to be comfortable with cold, fast moving water, especially when you do this in spring. Your trip can easily be over before it begins as sometimes it’s simply too dangerous! Techniques will vary. Sometimes I will leave my boots on and walk straight across and sometimes I carry my boots. I recommend hiking poles or finding a long sturdy branch to help with balance as well. Last but not least, put your cameras in a resealable plastic bag and pack extra clothing in case you end up going for an unplanned swim. A climbing helmet is also not a bad idea not only for the creek crossing but also for all the clambering over rocks and logs you’ll be doing!

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Not sure if I was smiling here or just chattering from the cold!

Chris had reasoned that on this trek we ought to work our way up to about the 450m elevation mark then traverse north toward Wickenden Creek. This made sense as then we would cover exploring the belt of forest just below the one we had walked the first time. No sooner were our boots back on after the ford than we were faced with the unexpected  fast moving waters of lower Kennedy Creek, but we managed to steeplechase that with minimal difficulty.

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Lower Kennedy Creek

Once past the creek it was a matter of bashing our way uphill for about half an hour. On our first trip we had followed the crude flagged route that heads west up to Kennedy Falls after you cross Lynn Creek but on this day we were well north of that line. Morning mist drifted through the trees as the sound of the rushing torrents faded. Silence descended, and almost magically we were again among the giants.

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Morning in the forest
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Chris with his first find of the day, a cedar over 12 feet in diameter

Normally we think of ourselves as tree hunters, but on this excursion, as with the first one, the trees were more or less finding us! I was surprised by the sheer number of them as much as anything else. This was a stand of forest in which many trees had reached way over 400 years in age.

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Another giant, well over 10 feet in diameter
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If a tree falls in the forest, I still have to climb over, under, or around it. This fallen cedar was quite a blockade!

The quietude was interrupted from time to time by the rhythmic sounds of a nearby woodpecker building a home, and punctuated by the occasionally inane Simpsons’ banter that seems to follow Chris and I wherever we go. On we thrashed, in the direction of an unnamed creek not far south of the Wickenden drainage, with plenty of distractions along the way.

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The way a forest is supposed to look
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Find after find, could this day get any better? It’s all a blur now.
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Every tree is unique in its own way

Another half hour passed, and we found ourselves in a steep creek gully that was peculiarly bright and open. On subsequent trips I discovered that avalanches are not infrequent there, as the gully is at the bottom of a chute that shows evidence of very forceful slides. For a moment, I looked uphill, where I could see the spiky tops of more ancient cedars, then downhill, where I could see the The Needles in sharp relief across the Lynn Creek Valley. Where to go next?

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Spiked tops above usually means an old tree and usually a big one, where cedars are concerned
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Ironically, only months later we would end up beneath this rock face below the Middle Needle

In proof of the old saying “You can’t see the forest for the trees”, suddenly Chris was on his way up the chute, saying “I think we have something here!” And so he did! It was a huge western red cedar, most likely about 500 years old yet relatively young in appearance judging by its trunk wear. Because of where it was growing it was difficult to say exactly what its diameter was was but it was definitely in the neighbourhood of 15 feet wide, perhaps more. What is likely is that if it reaches the age of the oldest trees in the park it will almost certainly someday be among the largest. Here are a few looks at this grand old specimen!

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Just figuring out where to measure it took a lot of time!
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A look up into its massive crown
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One of my happiest moments. We named this tree the Kennewick Giant. Photo by Chris H.
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Here is Chris getting a closer look
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Yet another look at this wall of wood

Well, that tree had certainly made our day memorable, but as it turned out the walk home delivered just as much wonder! We were now at an elevation of roughly 350m, and so opted to follow that lower line back toward the Kennedy Creek again.

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Trees rooted atop a rock face
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Massive tree fallen on the hillside
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Mylar balloons…I have found countless samples commemorating almost every occasion and birthday. Someday I’ll write a story about them all!
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Cedars  in early afternoon light
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Magic

Not to sound trite, but this was one of those days that has you really appreciating the wonders of nature. I advocate responsible forest management but I find it hard to understand that some people would only see this forest in dollar signs. In this day and age there is really no excuse for harvesting old growth forest. Thankfully, Lynn Headwaters Regional Park has seen its last logger.

Midday gave way to afternoon, and we decided to stop for lunch near a tree both of us nearly walked past. Life was good.

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Afternoon light on another ancient cedar
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Twisted Column

 

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Mighty and flared, and over 400 years old
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Chris taking note of our discoveries
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Our lunch time companion. A 13 foot wide tree I called the Keyhole Cedar

Half an hour later we were making our way across lower Kennedy Creek again. The waters were flowing even harder than they had been in the morning, which is typical of creeks during the spring snowmelt.

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We had just crossed the creek when I spied something odd lying on the ground and picked it up and showed it to Chris, who exclaimed “What? No way?!”  It turned out he’d lost his lens cap on a previous excursion to the area and had been doing without it for some time. And they say it’s hard to find a needle in a haystack? Not for me!

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A short time later we were crossing Lynn Creek again even as we planned our next adventure. Several hikers were having lunch on the other side and from their bemused looks they were no doubt wondering where in the world we had come from. It had been another successful day!

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Stay tuned for the next chapter, because the story is far from done!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Giants of Kennedy Creek: The Forgotten Forest, Part One

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A piece of an old teapot on the Cedar Trail

In these days of public outcry over the destruction of British Columbia’s remaining old growth forests, it is no small twist of irony that one of the last bastions of remaining giants is relatively close to the metropolis of Vancouver. Tucked away in what is still a remote corner of the North Shore Mountains is the Kennedy Creek Valley. It lies within the boundaries of Lynn Headwaters Regional Park on the less travelled west side of Lynn Creek, with its headwaters at seldom visited Kennedy Lake.

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Kennedy Lake

It was only through subtle hints in Randy Stoltmann’s Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwestern B.C. that my curiosity regarding the area was first piqued. On page 74, he stated “When this valley was logged before the turn of the century, hollow or broken topped trees were often left, and the steep valley sides were only partially cut over. In these areas, massive cedars up to sixteen feet (five metres) in diameter and 200 feet, 61 metres in height still live on into their second millennium.” Well, that was more than enough to get my undivided attention, so I soon decided I had to see what was there!

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Kennedy Creek forest: This shot is a tribute to the cover of Randy Stoltmann’s hiking guide

But first, maybe a little history is in order. It was near the turn of the twentieth century that the west side of Lynn Creek was harvested by Julius Fromme’s logging crews. They managed to forge their way as far as Kennedy Creek, but, perhaps because of the market conditions of the day, or just plain good fortune, the forest stretching north between Kennedy and Wickenden Creeks was not completely razed. As a result, much of the original forest between 400 metres and 700 metres in elevation remains intact to this day!

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Remnants of an old cast iron wood stove used at one of Julius Fromme’s logging camps

There is no easy access to its steep, rugged slopes. You must either hike in to Kennedy Falls on the rough track of the Cedar Trail, or ford Lynn Creek near the Third Debris Chute on the Cedar Mills Trail, that is, if it’s safe to do so. However you get there, you must be fit and well prepared for the experience, as it’s a strong test of all of your wilderness skills. I began by hiking the Westside or Cedar Trail to see the two monstrous Western redcedars that Randy had described in the aforementioned book, but beyond that, there was little more knowledge on which to base further exploration.

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Matt with the Stoltmann Cedar. It’s over 650 years old and 14 1/2 feet in diameter
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The second big cedar on the Cedar Trail, about halfway to Kennedy Falls. It’s over 600 years old and 13 1/2 feet in diameter

On several of my earlier excursions I also visited the beautiful Kennedy Falls, which lies at about 400 metres in elevation. For the ideal photo opportunity, it is best visited after heavy rains, though of course that can make getting around more difficult. While the falls are not exceptionally tall, the cascade and surrounding sections of Kennedy Creek always make the destination worthwhile. Seeing those spectacular trees on the Cedar Trail certainly whetted my appetite for more exploration, but I needed more information so that I’d know exactly where to look.

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Ryan at Kennedy Falls. It’s not easy to get there, but it’s certainly one of the North Shore’s most idyllic places

When I spoke to park employees they had little to say, really, yet at the park’s Mill House there were photos of some of the park’s giant trees. In time, I discovered, the park officials are not that enthused about encouraging hiking on the west side of Lynn Creek, perhaps due to the inherent hazards. In many of those photos the face of one person seemed to show up frequently. That person turned out to be Ralf Kelman, a Vancouver artist, who is the son of a Seymour Valley logger. Ralf had grown up in the forests of Vancouver’s North Shore. He was, and still is, this province’s master treehunter, and over the years had been integral in finding numerous champion trees. I managed to contact him, and over a cup of coffee, he was kind enough to share a wealth of knowledge with me about Kennedy Creek and much more. Better still, he said, the valley had not been completely searched, though he cautioned that ground was far from easy to cover.

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Tree hunter and conservationist Ralf Kelman

Finally, in 2006, Chris and I began our day by fording an icy cold Lynn Creek on a cloudy day in September. After that crossing , we hiked up the valley toward the falls, and then worked our way up the slopes on the north bank of Kennedy Creek. It didn’t take long before we made our first find, a grove of cedars all at least eight feet in diameter and all well over four hundred years old.

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Chris with one of the first big cedars we found. It measured over ten feet in diameter
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Old growth forest
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Marked, but still standing

From there, we decided, we’d just  continue upward until the stand petered out, then traverse north in the direction of Wickenden Creek. A natural bench presented an ideal opportunity for travel, if not necessarily an easy one. Fallen trees made it necessary to climb up, over , and around countless obstructions. The finds were frequent, with more cedars up to fourteen feet in diameter and several that were truly ancient. It was hard to believe, but we had basically hit the motherlode, as far as treehunting goes! Forests such as these, once ever present in southwestern British Columbia, are basically a thing of the past. I can still recall how elated we were to be there!

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The art of measuring  trees
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It isn’t always easy

 

Soon we were upon the south banks of an unnamed creek in the drainage at about 550 metres in elevation. Once we crossed this creek we were in the midst of another grove, this one equally spectacular. By this time, we had seen so many big trees that we were taking the nine foot cedars for granted!

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Giant trees everywhere!
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This tree measured over twelve feet wide

 

Since time was running short at that point, we stopped for lunch underneath a thirteen foot cedar which may have been the oldest tree we we found that day. I believed it to be roughly 700 years old.

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There is no artist quite like nature!
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This tree had us wondering what the world looked like in the fifteen century, when it began life

We then opted to try heading uphill again to see what we could find. Our route was determined by the finds – sight big tree, hike to said tree, then on to the next one.

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And another…
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…And another!

 

We had ended up, by now, at an elevation of 650 metres, and were just below an expansive boulder field below the end of Goat Ridge.

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Not exactly welcoming terrain

It was here that we made another grand discovery, a huge cedar spanning over fifteen feet in width, and well over 600 years old. Despite its seemingly unguarded position and exposure to winter avalanches, it had thrived well and its hollowed lower trunk looked to have been used as a winter den of sorts.

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We never did name this one, but I’ve taken to calling it the Boulder Field Giant
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Chris enjoying the find! Another veteran of over six centuries. The tree, that is

Soon time became short and we had to begin the trek home. There were some interesting finds on the way back too.

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This tree was found below the falls on the walk out. It’s about ten feet in diameter
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A  very healthy Western Hemlock

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For both of us, this trip was tremendously rewarding in that we were making discoveries that few had made before us. As we hiked out of the valley toward Lynn Creek again, we both knew we’d be returning, and that’s why this story is only part one of a lengthy tale. Each time I revisit, it’s an exhilarating experience, for who can refuse a trip back in time without leaving your own era?

 

 

 

 

Snow Falling From Cedars

Well it’s December here on the west coast and finally winter has arrived in earnest. There has been snowfall in the North Shore Mountains lately like we haven’t seen in years. Trouble is, everyone has been set on enjoying it at the same time, so it took a little planning for Doug and I to figure out the best way to enjoy one of our favourite local haunts without having to brave the crowds.

Rather than join the throngs of humanity up at the ski resort area, we decided to take on a somewhat different approach. Knowing that the snow line was relatively low, we opted to begin our trek somewhat lower on Hollyburn Mountain. The destination? A walk through the old growth forest of Brothers Creek up to Lost Lake and West Lake. As it turned out, we had the best of all worlds: relative solitude, enjoyable weather, a decent navigational exercise to work through, and plenty of untrodden snow to play in!

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Lower Brothers Creek on the fire road

The trek began on Millstream Road at the trailhead for the Brothers Creek Fire Road. It wasn’t as cold as we thought it might have been, so we were able to dress fairly lightly for a winter trek. After about half an hour or so, we were already in the midst of old growth forest at an elevation of about 600 metres.

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Old growth forest on Brothers Creek Fire Road

It was a narrow escape for the cedars here at the turn of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s a full scale logging operation ran for quite some time, one of the first to use large steam donkeys as engines and incorporate the use of incline railways. However, a collapse of the cedar shake market put an end to all of that prosperity, and years later when it did resume easier sources were sought. The lands are now owned by British Pacific Properties and managed for public use.

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Three twisted ancient cedars, all well over 400 years old

Soon after, it was that this valley, then called Sisters Creek after the two prominent peaks then called The Sisters (and now called The Lions), was renamed as Brothers Creek. Logging has pretty much ceased since therearound 1912. Hiking there gives one the ready opportunity to see sections of ancient forest which are almost intact to this day. To see these trees clad in winter snow is especially worth the effort!

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But beware, unlike its distant cousin the yellow cedar, the western red cedar is not built to hold snow and usually sheds it quickly and without warning. We had to pay close attention to falling snows, hence the title of this entry.

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Here it comes!
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Mountain hemlocks on the Lost Lake Trail

The old fire road makes its way up to a bridge that crosses Brothers Creek at about 720 metres and joins the Brothers Creek Trail that meanders the other side of the creek. Our destination though, was Lost Lake, one of the small subalpine ponds that dot the lower reaches of the mountain. There is a well marked route that leads into Cypress Provincial Park and on this day it had been trodden as far as the lake.

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Lost Lake

The silence was conspicuous once we reached the lakeshore, with nobody in sight and blue skies above the trees. We stopped briefly at the lake to reconnoiter our route, as from that point on we would be  breaking trail in two to three feet of new powder snow! In the Lost Lake area, the silver fir and mountain hemlock dominate the forest, along with the yellow cedar.

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The snow was deep! I ended up dropping my camera in it and having to painstakingly dry it out

Doug got out his GPS and we decided to head up the mountain to West Lake, once the site of an old ski lodge. My memory of the trail was a bit vague, but we both knew that it wound its way into the upper valley of Brothers Creek and then crossed over the creek into the West Lake drainage. As it turned out we ended up taking a partly new route to the lake, where we stopped for lunch. Before that we managed to step into a few big snow holes and managed a difficult creek crossing. Somewhere along the way I lost one of my snowshoe straps, which made walking a bit more difficult but not especially hazardous.

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West Lake

There was much to talk about as we hiked as we’ve had a long history with the area over the years. At one time you could hope to see a Northern Spotted Owl on these trails but as it’s very elusive that’s not too likely.  I have, however, run into black bears and pine martens occasionally and have seen signs of deer, rabbits, bobcats, mountain lions, and even a wolverine. Woodpeckers, barred owls, and Douglas squirrels are commonly seen as well.

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Great views as we walked down the old West Lake access road

Once we’d had enough to eat we decided to make our way down the West Lake Road to the Baden Powell Trail. In summer that’s easy to do but it took some doing to find the junction where the trail crossed the road as the signpost was almost buried.

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Most signposts were buried by the snow
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Brothers Creek Trail at Crossover Trail Bridge

Once we got that out of the way it was clear sailing. We hiked down to the Crossover Trail with the intention of heading back to the Brothers Creek Fire Road. Travel was fast, with only a brief respite or two, including one at the bridge  where the trail crosses Brothers Creek. Only weeks before, we had hiked this trail in the total absence of snow, so it was interesting to see it in such different conditions.

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The ancient Crossover Cedar, as I call it

Before we knew it we were back at the truck once again headed for home, filled with new memories and images of a place so very familiar to us both.

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Merry Christmas, 2015

Strolling the Ancient Cedars Boardwalk

A couple of weeks ago, when we were passing through Mt Revelstoke National Park, I managed a short hike on the Ancient Cedars Boardwalk. As my treks go, it’s a relatively effortless one, but I like to stop there every so often to enjoy this forest. It’s a stand dominated by western redcedars, and while few of the trees exceed six feet in diameter, it’s notable that they are nevertheless very old, some perhaps five hundred years in age. You see, because they grow at a much higher elevation and experience a high volume of snow, they take considerably longer to reach mature size. Parks Canada did a fine job of building this trail for all to enjoy, in the process also protecting the fragile understory, where delicate ferns and thorny Devil’s Club can be found, among many other types of plants. It’s not uncommon to see woodpeckers, squirrels, hummingbirds, deer, or even an occasional black bear in the area. The boardwalk is just half a kilometre long and suitable for almost all ages and abilities. Here is a link to the parks website if you are interested in the park trails…

http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/revelstoke/activ/activ2.aspx

Here then, is a tour of the trail. I hope you enjoy it well!

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Cedars in sunlight
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Sunlit forest
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Devil’s Club leaves
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Quiet Morning
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A clearing
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Standing strong
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Panoramic View
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Devil’s Club bud and thorns
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Sunlight on cedar
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And it’s dog approved too!

 

 

Canyoneering 101: An Afternoon in Looper Creek Canyon

 

It was September of 2012 when I received a message from my good friend Chris: Was I interested in joining him and a group of friends to do some canyoneeering on Vancouver Island?

First, a brief explanation, of sorts. For those of you who have never heard of canyoneering, it’s a sport in which you don a wetsuit and dry pack and make your way down a creek canyon as best you can to hopefully emerge in one piece. I kid, really. Actually, it is generally a very safe pursuit when you consider that you make use of a plethora of mountaineering gear, if needed, and take all the necessary precautions while making said descents.

It didn’t take me long to answer in the affirmative. Chris had been telling me canyoneering tales for years and I’d been intrigued for quite some time. His description of the Looper Creek Canyon’s beautiful polished rock and verdant limestone gorge sounded fantastic to me, and so more plans were made.

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Morning on the ferry deck

Since Chris was on a tour of some Pacific Northwest canyons and already on Vancouver Island, I’d be taking the ferry over to Nanaimo to meet him in Departure Bay. Riding the boat with me was Vlad, a long time climbing partner of Chris whom I’d only had the chance to meet briefly before. Also in on the trip were Kevin and Francois, aka Fix, who were also on “The Island” and had been descending some other canyons there. The sun was just beginning to come up as my wife Jan dropped Vlad and me off at Horseshoe Bay. We were in luck, it looked as though it would be another warm and sunny day.

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Looking back at the city, Island bound again!

As the ferry steamed toward Nanaimo, Vlad and I sat out on the upper deck enjoying the scenery and sharing hiking stories. Soon the boat was docking, and we met Kevin and Fix on the other side. They were still recovering from the previous day’s adventure but other than lack of sleep they were none the worse for wear. I had known Kevin from sites online for years, so it seemed, strangely, as though we had already met. Fix, who was entirely new to me, was a real canyon enthusiast with a strong interest in photography and filming.

But, where was Chris? He’d left his transplanted home in Utah some days ago and as far as I knew had last been somewhere in Washington state. In another fifteen minutes, his well used Jeep Cherokee rolled into the parking lot and Vlad and I jumped in for the ride. With Fix and Kevin following in Kevin’s Jeep, we all set out for Lake Cowichan, where we would begin a long drive on logging roads bound for Looper Creek. “Don’t mind the dust, chips, the box of blueberries and whatever else you find.” Chris warned, jokingly. “Just move whatever so you can sit down!” Many shenanigans were shared along the way; this was to be the sixth canyon in six days for Chris, one of his busier weeks ever.

We continued to Lake Cowichan where there was a stop to fuel up, and then hit the logging roads for at least another fifty kilometres. Finally, Chris pulled over abruptly at an inconspicuous looking bridge. We walked over and stood about for a minute. “Well, that’s the canyon down there,” Chris said. I peered down into the deep gorge, but I couldn’t see much of anything in the midday shadows.

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Peering into the “abyss” from the Looper Creek Bridge

Seconds later Kevin and Fix arrived and the next half hour was taken up with both idle banter and the important task of outfitting everyone with the necessary gear for the trip. Then there was an important discussion regarding the possible technical challenges. In canyoneering, teamwork is paramount, because once you’re in the canyon, you’re pretty much committed and it can often be difficult to reverse your direction. Since this was summer, high water flows were not expected. If we were lucky, the whole trek might be able to be done in wetsuits and of course the mandatory climbing helmets, but nevertheless we would be ready for anything!

I was of two worlds on this trip. Firstly, I was the oldest person in group, but secondly, I was also the least experienced, as this was to be my first canyon. Since Chris has been one of my best mates for years and I’d heard so many stories, I did have a good idea of what to expect, however. As for the others, Vlad had been in a number of canyons with Chris, while Kevin and Fix were both seasoned veterans.

Once we had packed up, it was time to make our way up the logging spur near the bridge for about a kilometre and a half to where we would drop in to the canyon. Being the ever eager rookie, I’d already put on my wetsuit and tied it off at the waist for the walk uphill. The result of that was an uncomfortable stroll in the hot sun, though I was glad to have the leggings on when we bushwhacked down into the gorge.

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Kevin dropping in!
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Vlad gets ready
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Chris is pretty relaxed, he’s been here before

 

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Monster Bigleaf Maple specimen, probably 300 years old
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Polished rock

No sooner had Fix led the way down the steep, brushy slope, than we were all on the banks of Looper Creek. Huge Bigleaf Maple trees towered above us as the creek ambled quietly by. I could tell almost immediately that this was a special place, quite unlike any I had been before. As a youngster one of my favourite things to do was to find a creek and explore it, so this seemed like another chapter of my youth, in a sense.

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An otherworldly place

We walked onward through the waters, descending, almost imperceptibly at first. The mood was light and there was no shortage of humour from everyone.

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Vlad and Kevin taking it all in
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Fix leading the way
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Kevin contemplates the day
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Walking downstream

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Pretty soon we reached a clearing with deep emerald pools and a series of small cascades, so it looked as though we’d now be doing some swimming. It was there that everyone else got into their wetsuits.

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I also got a tutorial on how to stash your camera in a dry bag. Kevin and I were using waterproof digital cameras whereas Chris and Fix had digital SLRs. They had ample suggestions about how best to keep your camera dry but that was something that was brand new to me!

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Vlad in the very first pool

We moved on, walking through narrows, hopping on rocks, and swimming through pools. It was just a lot of good clean fun! There was plenty to see along the way.

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Kevin befriends one of the locals
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Into the mystic

Canyoneering is a very unique experience. I found it similar in spirit to exploring forests, one of my favourite pursuits, in that you envelop yourself in the surroundings. The walls help to enhance that feeling. It is very different from mountaineering, my other passion, where you may begin in forest but you work your way ever upward into the open terrain of the alpine. Each pursuit has its own enticing qualities, I believe.

There was but one demanding section, as depicted below, near a confluence of huge fallen trees. Chris had thought we might need to break out the harnesses and rappel down to the waters below, but as it turned out it was able to be circumvented using a simple hand line. For good measure, though, Chris and Kevin took the time to practice setting up some gear. The rest of us were either taking photos or clowning about, and jumping into pools!

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Kevin and Chris setting up
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Fix looks on as they rig gear
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Chris tests out his work

The sun made occasional appearances too, wherever an opportunity presented itself.

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The canyon was a place of truly phantasmal beauty, and it seemed that everywhere one looked caused the fascination to grow stronger.

There were the walls. Sheer, unyielding, granite, limestone. Sometimes they were smooth and polished, other times rough, even somewhat sinister, and enclosing.

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Then there were the fallen trees, interlocked to create obtructions, or perfectly placed to aid our path. It rather reminded me a life sized version of the kids game “Kerplunk”, as we manoeuvred our way over, under, down, and around their hulking skeletons. Whenever it seemed we had reached an impasse, nature seemed to provide some avenue of escape.

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The vegetation too, was everywhere and conspicuous. Every available space for growth was exploited, wherever possible, and sometimes where improbable.

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Another huge Bigleaf Maple tree

Last but far from least were the pools. Clear, green, shimmering, sometimes travertine. Some were shallow, others deep. Some you walked, some you swam, others you floated through.

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I learned a lot about photography in watery conditions on this trek. Each person had their own way of landing shots and a system of setting up for the ideal image. Even if you brought a waterproof camera, as I did, you still have to keep water off the lens!

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Fix landing the ideal shot
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One of my favourite shots from the trip, taken with my eight year old Olympus 410 Waterproof Camera. It still works well today!

The journey continued on down the gorge. Eventually, we arrived at the crux of the trip, a large pool surrounded by rock walls that canyoneers sometimes wryly refer to as a “keeper pothole”. The name derives from the fact that they can sometimes recquire a grappling hook to escape. This one had no such issues, though I scuffled briefly because for whatever reason my hands had gone numb. Here’s a short video Kevin took of the resulting shenanigans, where, if you ask me, Vlad steals the show by repeatedly leaping in and climbing out again.

After a few more laughs and a lot more photographs we moved on again. Just when it seemed the trek might never end, or simply wasn’t meant to end, we reached the grand finale.

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Chris heading through a narrows

Suddenly, the creek virtually vanished, its flow now subterranean. Our path bent sharply to the right, then to the left before the water reappeared in a succession of swims that finished in a cavern like chamber underneath the bridge we had begun at. It was high above us, and partially obscured. From the road above one could never have known that such magic was so well hidden from sight!

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We lingered there as long as we could, reflecting on the day. I later discovered that my friend Karsten K. had once rappelled off the bridge to the place we now stood admiring. Now that is what I call making an entrance! This is Karsten, below, after that rappel into the gorge. Check out his Flickr photo site by clicking on the photo, it’s well worth the time!

Looper Creek Canyon

We left reluctantly, scouting for the exit trail nearby. It was well rigged with a series of ropes to aid us in our ascent. In another ten minutes we were at the trucks, sharing the stoke of a truly unique adventure. Amid all the camaraderie, a few beers were drank, thanks to Kevin, and we stowed away a lot of wet gear for the ensuing ride homeward.

We then parted company with Fix and Kevin, who were bound for Duke Point, and set out for Departure Bay. The ride back on the ferry featured an epic sunset to craft the ideal ending to what was, in every way, a near perfect day.

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Ship in the night
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Texada Island from the ferry deck

If ever you’re looking for a unique experience, I highly recommend you give canyoneering a go. You won’t regret it! My only misgiving was that I had waited so long to try it myself!

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Well, maybe just one more look!