11/25/2009

Sooke Potholes Parks: Remnant Old Growth Forest (and good swimming)

At the end of scenic Sooke River Road the intrepid big tree adventurer will find not one, but two parks that offer dendro-vistas galore. Even better, the parks can be accessed by cycling or hiking via the Galloping Goose Trail. Often touted as a hangout for swimmers on hot summer days, the Potholes region is also a haven for remnants of undisturbed forest and enormous trees. Only 1% of the original old-growth Coastal Douglas fir zone is protected, so that makes Sooke Potholes Parks a tree treat to treasure.

The patches of old growth forest here have a more varied profile compared to the even-aged tree plantations that have replaced them in "90% of the low elevation, flat ancient forests, such as the valley bottoms, where the largest trees grow and the greatest biodiversity resides." The original forests contain trees of all ages, ranging from new trees struggling to gain a root-hold in the forest floor shade, on up to skyscraping seniors many hundreds of years old towering above the surrounding canopy. It is wild and rugged along the Sooke River canyon, and the forest tenaciously clings to hillsides and cracks in the bedrock.

Older trees are covered in a variety of growth turning their deeply furrowed bark into a mosaic of life. Bracket fungus, Old man's beard and Coastal wood fern hang from twisted branches and grow in aerial gardens. Fallen columns of ancient trunks add nutrients to the soil and nurse new trees to life. A Red-backed vole can live its entire life slowly traversing the branches of a single old growth tree, while a salamander can live its life out in a single decomposing log on the forest floor. Some creatures such as Marbled murrelets, Fishers, and Spotted owls can only thrive in mature forests over 250-300 years old.

The rustic Potholes parks are 5 km up Sooke River Road after turning off from Highway 14. The 5 km drive is beautiful in its own right, with views of big trees along the road, and in the Sooke Hills in the distance. Just before the parks is a truly remarkable Douglas fir by the river on private property.

Maywell Wickheim, local outdoorsman and big tree guy, estimates that the Sooke River fir is 9 ft. in diameter at the base, and 240 ft. high, making it one the largest remaining old trees in the Sooke town area. Spectacular trees like this were common here only a few decades ago.

The first park you reach is Sooke Potholes Provincial Park, and at 7.28 acres, it is the smaller of the two. This day use only park protects old-growth Douglas fir forest, and several trees are of impressive proportions. Among them reside equally chunky Western red cedar and hemlock.

By the time you hit the first parking lot (complete with pit toilets) you are in Sooke Potholes Regional Park. This 156 acre park, which stretches for 5km along the east side of the Sooke River, was saved from development in 2005. It was formed as result of work done by land preservation group The Land Conservancy, the people of Sooke and region, local singing sensation Nelly Furtado, Shaw, and the CRD. The mortgage was recently retired in a ceremonial burning at the park.

The parks provide an excellent spot to view the annual run of Coho and Chinook salmon with a variety of trails down to the river. Other wildlife that use the area include black bear, cougar, and Roosevelt elk, the largest elk species in North America. There is abundant bird life, like the tiny, round, bobbing American dipper that dives for salmon eggs during the fall salmon run.The riverside road through the park ends at the third parking lot for day users, and the campground which is a little further up, for those staying overnight. However, the Galloping Goose Trail continues up the Sooke River valley for several kilometers if you wish to hike or cycle to further adventure. Along the well-maintained, wide trail you will enjoy views of the river rushing over polished bedrock, filling deep pools and tumbling over misty waterfalls. Sprinkled through the surrounding forest are ancient weather beaten trees, guardians that have stood sentinel over these parts for centuries.

With ingredients like these you can't go wrong. The 40 minute drive to Sooke from Victoria gets increasingly more beautiful as you get to your turn off Highway 14 just before the bridge. Once on Sooke River Road you are traveling at an even more leisurely pace. The road is curvy, and the views are great - perfect for ambling along and enjoying "getting there".

Even better would be taking the bus or driving to Sooke with a bike on board. Parking is available at the Park and Ride right at the turn off to Sooke River Road. This is also where the bus can drop you and your cycle.

Then bike up the Galloping Goose Trail which can be accessed off to the right about 1 km up Sooke River Road at the end of Kirby Rd. Cycling the "Goose" is definitely the best way to get to the two parks, and a ride all the way from Victoria could be supported by a stay in the Potholes campground for a night or two before your return trip.

Sooke Potholes Provincial and Regional Parks offer unlimited potential for recreational activities year round, although I wouldn't recommend swimming in the winter. Enjoy the trees, salmon, and other treasures this wild area protects. While there, also appreciate the hard work that has been done by so many to bring us these spectacular parks to enjoy and cherish. Now, how about some parks west of Sooke?

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