The Tallest Spruce Trees In The World: Carmanah/Walbran Provincial Park

My first visit to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park was summer of 2006. It was a slow, rough drive into the heart of Vancouver Island's once-magnificent coastal forest. Our route took us from Sooke to Port Renfrew, past Cowichan Lake, and on to Nitinat Lake. The last services of the route are here, then the road climbs on toward the park. A sturdy vehicle, emergency supplies, and a good driver come in handy. A back roads map is essential.

While bumping along Rosander Main logging road past Nitinat, we were treated to vistas over the green mist-cloaked hills to the distant Pacific Ocean. Not far away is the West Coast Trail, but it is inaccessible from this side. We continued following the small provincial park signs sensing that we were getting close to Vancouver Islands tallest trees.

In addition to the coastal forest landscape you will witness "off-road" logging trucks carrying old-growth logs - only four or five huge columns of wood to each giant vehicle. This is a harsh and unforgiving forest environment and the road and industrial activity do not make it any safer. But without these roads most of this area would be largely inaccessible. Drive defensively - industrial traffic has the right of way and you must yield to them.

Knowing that in the mid-1980's the Carmanah valley was slated to be harvested makes it worth dodging logging trucks on roads riddled with potholes and stretches of washboard that will rattle your old fillings out. The park at the end of this road is unlike any other you have seen, or are likely to see anywhere else. It is a gargantuan green cathedral of mist-filtered light and stillness.

Carmanah valley was once considered too remote for profitable logging to take place. Then Randy Stoltman found the oldest, largest Sitka spruce trees in Canada, and the world. In the 1980's the B.C. government, without public consultation or notification, gave MacMillan Bloedel permission to clear cut the area.

Fearing a repeat of previous logging fiascos that ended in protest and protection, the logging company moved in quickly to harvest the valley. Randy Stoltman, tireless big tree defender, along with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, mounted a campaign to protect the area's natural assets from destruction. In 1990, after sustained protests, Carmanah Park was formed.

At the end of your jarring ride you will find a pristine valley full of some of the world's largest trees. Today you will only see trees like these in small patches along the west coast of North America, and the forest of Carmanah Walbran holds some prime examples in a relatively large area. If you are not humbled here, you are not paying attention.

After passing through large clear cuts, one which extends right to the park gate, we arrived at the parking lot at the end of the road. I gazed up the trail at two tiny hikers dwarfed by the surrounding giants. I thought that the destruction of these trees to make plywood would be similar to going to the Temple of Karnak in Egypt, "harvesting" its 5000 year old columns (21m tall, and over 3m diameter), and crushing them to make gravel. Large Sitka spruce can be only a few hundred years old, but Western red cedar can grow for thousands of years. There are many large cedars in the park.

Canada's tallest (known) Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), the Carmanah Giant, towers 95 metres (315 ft) over the lush valley of Carmanah Creek. Its 9.4 meter diameter makes Karnak's columns look like toothpicks. However, visitors are not encouraged to hike the deteriorating trail to visit this record tree for fear of compromising the areas ecological integrity. It is good enough for me just to know that the Giant exists.

The third largest Sitka spruce in the world with a wood volume of 298 cubic meters (10,540 cu. ft.). It is 58.2 m (191 ft) high with a diameter of 5.39 m (17.7 ft.) at 1.37 m (4.5 ft.) above the ground. (Van Pelt, Robert, 2001, Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast, University of Washington Press.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:QuinaltSpruce_7246c.jpg

The park is in the Very Wet Hypermaritime subzone, an area that is intimately affected by the nearby ocean, and can be wet any time of the year. When we visited it was drizzly, but the real problem was the cloud of mosquitoes hunting us down. Our meals were eaten with one hand shoveling the food in, and the other hand waving the mosquitoes away. When even that became too much the only option was to run through the parking lot taking hasty stabs at our food.

Mosquitoes may be the most obvious wildlife here, but they are not the only wildlife. The old growth forest here maintains a rich web of life that can not exist in the second and third-growth forests that have replaced the original forest on much of Vancouver Island. This is a special place.

Spotted owls, marbled murrelets, wolves, trout and salmon, black bears, bats, pileated woodpeckers, red-backed voles, salamanders, banana slugs, flying squirrels. All of that and more is here to be discovered, enjoyed, and protected.

Carmanah Walbran Park is isolated and difficult to get to, and once there you will find no comforts of civilization. This park is about wilderness, and in that regard it delivers. However, encroachement continues. Without a buffer zone, clearcuts extend right up to park boundries. As we hiked and camped in this magical place we watched helicopters swinging giant columns out of the surrounding forests to staging grounds. Their thundering rotors resonated in our chests, or was that our hearts going out to the destruction of the 10 000 year old forest and the creatures that used to live there?

If not for Randy Stoltman, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and thousands of regular big tree supporters, Carmanah valley and the largest Stika spruce on the planet would have been reduced to a ravaged landscape.

View Larger Map

For now it remains one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. If the government works for us, and we want big trees saved, then why is the government backing the logging companies and the temporary jobs that old growth harvesting represents? What will they do when all the old growth is gone?

Visit Carmanah Walbran and try not to become a big tree enthusiast. This is the kind of place that can change your life. It did mine.


When A Tree Falls In The Forest...It Becomes Large Diameter Woody Debris

When I taught grade six science my favorite unit to teach was Trees and Forests which was all about the importance of forest eco-systems. While discussing old growth forests I had to teach my students about major characteristics of these ancient places, such as Large Diameter Woody Debris. Even though this term never failed to elicit giggles and snickers from students, they soon came to see how it holds great importance for the forest environment.

I often scour the forested hills surrounding my home for large diameter woody debris. LDWD is a tell-tale sign of an older, undisturbed forest. These large trees can be standing dead trees (snags), or fallen dead trees, or healthy trees downed by windthrow. They provide irreplaceable habitat for a host of forest life. On one recent trip I followed the Galloping Goose trail into the Sooke Hills Wilderness.

Just before Sooke the western section of the Galloping Goose trail turns north and heads into the Sooke River watershed . The trail traverses a 1918-built CNR rail line that once saw wood-powered Shay locomotives hauling massive trees out of the pristine forest. Now it provides access for people recreating, including those seeking out big tree wilderness.

The trail's western terminus, about 12km from where it leaves the coastal plain below, is 14 hectare Kapoor Park Reserve. This undeveloped park contains the remains of Leechtown, a 20th century gold rush and lumber town. Anything that remains has been reclaimed by the ceaseless growth of the forest, not to mention the invasive Scotch Broom. The Galloping Goose trail ends here, but the old line pushed north through the forested hills to Cowichan Lake.

Along this section of the trail there is a high frequency of scattered Douglas fir veterans that soar over 45 m/150 ft and are hundreds of years old. The tops of these trees emerge from the smaller forest around them, and announce their presence. Douglas fir typically live about 750 years with documented cases of well over one thousand years old.

The old tree's trunks stand out from the background of toothpicks of 2nd or 3rd-growth trees. Often the trunks show evidence of fire across the deeply furrowed, fire-resistant bark. Before fire suppression started, wildfires occurred on a regular basis. Such fires kept down smaller trees and underbrush, leaving an open forest dominated by 122 m/400 ft ancients.

Every winter storms slam into this region, and their power and fury is recorded in old tree's twisted limbs and broken tops. Occasionally storms topple trees and the big ones come down with a crash... if there is someone in the forest to hear it, that is. Sometimes they are uprooted (windthrow or blowdown), and sometimes trees snap off up the trunk (windsnap).

Imagine standing next to one of these 10 story tall trees while it is oscillating back and forth during a gale-force wind. Soon you hear wood snapping and cracking, then during a strong gust, the dangerously leaning tree keeps on going until it crashes to the ground at your feet. You hear it. You feel it, too. This tree, perhaps 400 years old, has just become large diameter woody debris, a very important part of this ecosystem.

Standing veteran trees are ecosystems unto themselves over the hundreds of years they live and provide habitat for a variety of plants and animals. From the mosses and lichens growing on their bark to the marbled murrelet in its branches or the heartwood decaying fungus slowly hollowing out the inside of the trunk, such a tree harbours a complex self-sustaining system. When such trees die and/or fall to earth the micro-hoards of decomposing creatures begin the relentless process of recycling these giant columns of biomass back into the system.

Many species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles use LDWD for a variety of purposes. Birds such as the Pileated woodpecker (the largest type of woodpecker, used as a model for Woody Woodpecker), visit downed Douglas firs to hunt for carpenter ants or excavate cavities to live in. Unlike headbangers, Pileated woodpeckers have a cushion built into their brain to reduce the damage from all that beak slamming into solid wood. Ancient snags are hollowed out as nesting sites, and after primary cavity nesters move out owls, other birds and small mammals move in. The shedding wrinkly bark also gives shelter to bats.

Black bears, martens, fishers and bobcats all use suitable downed LDWD for denning sites. Sharp-tailed snakes, endangered in B.C., are residents of the vanishing coastal Douglas fir forest and live in and around downed trees. A salamander can live its whole moist life in a single log; everything it needs is there.

Over decades, as the log melts into the forest floor, new trees take advantage of the rich nutrients it provides. One day one of these small trees may fill the hole left by its fallen ancestor. The same ancestor that nursed the young tree to its youth.

The whistle of the logging locomotives is not heard any longer in these parts, but veteran trees continue to fall. From the old rail bed I can see where recent clear cut logging has taken out some of the remaining 1% of original low elevation Douglas fir forest on Vancouver Island.

Such clear cuts raze the forest right down to the ground. Extra woody debris (and there is often a lot of it) is burnt in large piles, or is salvaged by outfits further down the chain, much like the vultures that pick on the remains of dead animals. But as vultures prefer the carcasses of herbivores, the same with post-clear cut salvage outfits. They prefer the high value cedar more than anything else.

Large diameter woody debris may be funny, but it is of supreme importance to the things that live in and around it, including humans. You can educate your family and friends AND provide humour at the same time - just mention LDWD.


Trimming The Christmas Tree Coastal Style

Here in big tree country it takes big ladders and a small army of elves not afraid of heights to get ready for the holidays. Look up, way up, and witness the trimming of the Christmas tree in the coastal community of Sooke - the village with volunteers extraordinaire, and a huge brightly lit Douglas fir in the middle of town. This close to winter solstice the giant, festive tree is a welcome beacon - a living, growing lighthouse guiding us through the darkest days of the year.

On the left hand side of the photos you can see the Loggers Pole, a testament to the past when loggers tackled the largest trees on earth largely unaided by machines. How appropriate that the two towering Douglas fir trees have been left to grow amidst the development surrounding them. They stand as living examples of the trees that once covered this region, and that helped build this town and province.

Plus the property the trees are on is part of Evergreen Mall, so it's nice to have at least a couple of evergreens around. Just ask the people down the street at Cedar Grove Mall about mascot trees. Their goodwill ambassadors were removed to make way for progress prompting more than one person to suggest a name change. Cedar-less Grove Mall was proposed, but there is no grove either so Cedar Grove-less Mall was deemed more appropriate.

The little people stringing lights in Sooke's giant Holiday Tree give a human scale to the height of these green towers. The individual to the left of the trunk was swinging around on a rope rather freely, possibly having fun (must be a volunteer). Click on the photo for a larger version and see how many tree elves you can find - there are several up there. You can also see how large the trunk of the tree is 2/3 of the way up.

Evergreen Mall's mascot trees gracing the center of Sooke are 'only' around 30m/100ft and seem huge. The Red Creek Fir outside of Port Renfrew is about 74m/242ft tall. Historically, trees over 120m/394ft were reported. It's hard to wrap your grey matter around living columns of such proportions. Has anyone living today seen Douglas fir tree of this size? Will anyone ever see one again?

O.K. Somebody flick the switch and light this sucker up !


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?


Royal Roads, Colwood, B.C. - An Urban Ancient Forest

I have passed by the fat, ancient, and soaring hulks of the Douglas fir trees on the Royal Roads lands at the top of Lagoon Road many times. I overlooked the area, even though I have been aware of it's ecological significance for some time. Perhaps this is because the Royal Roads old growth forest is located in Colwood, an urban area west of Victoria. On one side of the street are large houses, big screen TVs, and hot and cold running water. On the other side, a wild remnant of a forest landscape that has been 99% consumed in only 200 years time.

One rainy day I stopped by to explore this island of ancient wonders. I passed through the gate, swung it closed on creaking hinges, and left suburbia behind. It was a time machine. A few steps down a wide path and I was surrounded, immersed in a land little changed over thousands of years. The car exhaust lingering in my nostrils faded away as I walked under the massive canopies of Douglas fir, Spruce and Hemlock. Thick trunks shot up all around and the sun beamed shafts of light through the mist. It smelled richly of growth and decay. A slug slowly slid across the trail and left its own glistening path.

The 650 acre Royal Roads property (and adjoining DND lands) has one of the last remaining undisturbed old growth Garry Oak/Coastal Douglas-fir habitats on south Vancouver Island. The site has a history of human settlement dating back thousands of years. The Straits Salish people, the Songhees, had a settlement at Esquimalt Lagoon, and evidence such as shell midens by the lagoon, and culturally modified trees in the forest, are a testament to early occupation. They have outstanding land claims to the area to this day.

View Larger Map

Royal Roads University is the current occupant of the site. There are two manicured gardens and a historical building on site as well. But the old growth forest of Royal Roads is by far the most significant aspect of the entire area. Such forests are rare in this undisturbed state, and in this size, anywhere. Never mind driving out to Cathedral Grove. Here you will find trees that are among the top 10 largest in the province. Trees that are many hundreds of years old. The Sitka spruce growing here represent the farthest eastern limit of their habitat on Vancouver Island.

There is pressure to develop this land. Some though, recognizing this ecological jewel, propose protection. Royal Roads and the DND lands are already public meaning that we would not need to buy the land in order to protect it for future generations. What a legacy a park would make. Some are calling it a potential 'Stanley Park' for Victoria and region.

Often old growth forest is synomonous with wilderness, but not in the case of Royal Roads/DND lands. This is one ancient forest you can get to on a city bus. There is access off Sooke Road and at Lagoon Rd. and Heatherbell. There is a small spot to park on the side of Heatherbell. Across the street you will see a gate in the chain link fence. Pass through and leave the city behind.

Don't let the Royal Roads urban location fool you. It's wild in there. Can we make sure it stays that way?


Rally For Our Ancient Forests, Jobs, and Climate: Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Western Canada Wilderness Committee was formed in the 1980s, and has been working ever since toward preserving what little is left of Vancouver Island's big trees and ancient forests. They will be hosting a rally in
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada on Saturday, October 17, 2009. The Ancient Forest Rally is just their latest effort to educate and motivate government to adopt more enlightened forest policies.

WCWC cut their teeth on the Carmanah Valley campaign which ended in the protection of the tallest Sitka spruce forest in the world. One spruce, the Carmanah Giant, is 95 m/311 ft in height, Canada's tallest known tree. The B.C. government had already given the go-ahead for clear cutting of this precious resource when the Wilderness Committee launched into action.

WCWC was also instrumental in the protection of the Walbran valley, Clayoquot, Sooke Hills, and more recently the Sea-to-Sea Green Blue Belt that connects Sooke Basin to Saanich Inlet, and then extends north to Saltspring Island.

The following is from WCWC's website:
Ancient Forests Make BC Special

How many jurisdictions on Earth still have 1800 year old trees that grow to be as wide as living rooms and as tall as skyscrapers? Our endangered coastal old-growth forests are world wonders that deserve to be protected. Politicians must listen when enough people make them listen. With YOUR voice we can ensure that the BC Liberal government enacts a solution that works for the climate, biodiversity, First Nations, forestry workers, tourism industry, and the people of BC!
We need vast areas of untouched forest, as do the plants and animals that live there. Remaining old growth forests on Vancouver Island are global treasures that deserve to be protected in perpetuity. The wholesale cutting of trees a thousand years old is unbelievably short-sighted. The end of ancient forests is a certainty if things don't change. What will we do then?

If you are able, attend the march and rally. It begins at 11:30am at Centennial Square. Participants will then march to the Legislative Buildings. Show the government that you care about what they are doing in our disappearing forests. Jobs are gone, mills have closed at an alarming rate, and our government, in conjunction with multi-nationals, is exporting whole ancient logs to be processed elsewhere. Is this what we want? Who will speak for this treasured landscape if we do not?


Forest Creatures: Snakes and Slugs (Warning: graphic photos)

I was touring one of my favourite big tree haunts recently when I spotted thissssss beautifully patterned forest resident. It reminded me that I was visiting the homes of many creatures that reside in the rain forest, and make up the web of life here. The occasional pile of purple poo from passing black bears was also a reminder that I must be aware of the larger forest residents. Cougars are regular visitors, too. Out here I am prey.

Today the garter snake was the one to make its presence known. Found under the Sooke River Super Cedar of Gargantuan Proportions (I really must streamline this naming thing), this snake was surprisingly fast. When I slowed down, so did the snake. It stretched out before me and sunned a bit in a shaft of light piercing the forest canopy. We stared at each other for a while, his beady black eye to my blue one.

Here is how I envision a garter snake deciding on potential prey:
  • Is it alive?
  • Will it fit in my mouth and down my throat?
  • Can I catch it?
If the prey satisfies these criteria, it is on the menu. I found out on a hike last year, that the garter menu includes the second biggest slug in the world, the Banana Slug (more than 20cm). I didn't think anything ate slugs. Compared to dung beatle fare, slug could be considered a delicacy. After all, slugs are basically snails without shells - large escargot.

The snake did not move while I photographed it attempting to consume this large lunch. How could it? I was simultaneously mesmerized and mortified. I continued on my hike. Both snake and slug were gone when I returned. Note: you can click on any of the photos to get a blown up view of this amazing natural phenomena. Just thought you would like to know...

The garter snake will also eat small birds, leeches, amphibians, small rodents, and other snakes. This snake is very aquatic and in coastal areas fish makes up a large part of their diet. The snake I saw recently was next to the Sooke River, so the tiny salmon I was watching that day were no doubt in trouble when the snake hit the river.

Garters are fast on land and in water. As I watched the snake it slithered off quickly. I had to move fast to follow, hunched over and moving through the understory. About 10 meters away the snake bee-lined (snake-lined?) for a hole at the base of a fallen tree, right under the root ball. Had I discovered a snake den, or "communal hibernacula"?
Garter snakes spend the winter in communal dens, sharing space and warmth through the cold temperatures. This looked like one. I had a sudden urge to stick my hand in. Why? I resisted. One should not harass wildlife. Especially snakes. Do not touch garter snakes unless you want to see their defense mechanism - they will poop on you (it is very smelly). If they feel threatened they could also bite. Best to enjoy them from a distance, like all wildlife.

Here is a group that is trying to improve life for another coastal snake, the sharp-tailed snake, on Salt Spring Island. They remind us that snakes are an important part of our ecosystem and should be treated with respect. The Salt Spring group educates the public on habitat conservation and builds hibernacula for sharp-tailed snakes. You can build a hibernacula in your own yard or garden. How fascinating would that be?

I will be watching the Sooke River Cedar Hibernacula location in the spring when the snakes will be out on warm days to stretch their bodies (adults are 46cm to 1.3m) and warm in the sun. After being bundled in a coil with a hundred friends all winter, they will be ready for mating. Mating involves bundling up in a ball again, this time with many males surrounding a single female. Garter snakes are live-bearing and give birth in July or August. Baby snakes are born fully developed, and litters range from as few as 5 to as many as 80.

Every creature in the forest ecosystem is important, and that includes snakes and slugs. Slugs are the recyclers of the forest and clean up dead and decaying matter and return nutrients to the soil. Snakes keep insect and rodent populations in check. Many forest animals feed on snakes, including raccoons, blue herons, eagles, and owls. If you can respect slugs and snakes, and recognize their important place in the cycle of the forest, surely you can respect everything in the forest. Such respect is sssssorely needed today.


Sooke Basin - Big Salmon, Big Trees

It was not trees that initially motivated me to slide my canoe into Sooke Basin, west of Victoria, B.C. It was salmon. A variety of salmon have been spawning in Pacific coast waters for millions years. Salmon and human cultures have intertwined for many thousands. Every year the people of Salmon Nation celebrate the strength and gifts of this flash of lightning as it leaps toward home.

Recent news of 10.6 million Fraser River sockeye going missing was nothing to celebrate, and I wanted to see if I could find a bit of good news in local waters. The Billing Spit area has three public accesses, and I launched from one of them. The Sooke River empties into the harbour here, so this is a good place to view salmon and the things that feed on them, like fishermen and eagles... and the odd bear.

View Larger Map

Two or three paddle strokes into my voyage a chunky silver-sided salmon exploded from the water, glinting in the early morning light. Then another, and another, often two or three at the same time, breaking free of the water, then slapping back down. In the still quiet of the morning, salmon belly flops were all I could hear. A spectacle of the natural world and not something you see everyday. Humans need the salmon and now, the salmon need us. They need us to give them a fin up, so to speak.

Having found at least some evidence of returning salmon, I paddled into the morning sun. An easterly breeze was meeting with an incoming tide and raising waves. The bow of my canoe slapped out a rhythm to accompany that of the salmon slapping around me.

I like the fact that south Vancouver Island lacks obvious evidence of tree harvesting. Even from local mountain tops one sees an almost endless stretch of forested hunchbacked hills. From my canoe on Sooke Basin all I could see was an endless stretch of water, rocks and trees. Water, rocks and trees. And what beauty and variation in each.

The water ranged from silky flat and dark, to rolling with white caps. Rock formations plunged into the water, harbouring flowering succulents above and florescent starfish below. The forest also showed its variations. Above the evenness of the trees tower the emergents - genetic superiors, or lucky recipients of a choice location.

I paddle past the three small islands making up the Goodrich Islands group. They all have caps of bent trees that have been pruned into aerodynamic shapes by relentless winds. In many places along the shoreline of the basin the trees come right down to the water. The water-loving cedar branches add lime green to the dark blues of the watery depths below me.

I spot a Douglas fir in such an exposed area that it has been blown horizontal over the years. The trees I am seeing from the water are not in the huge category, but some are old none-the-less. These woody warriors are on the edge and are vulnerable to harsh winter winds and lashing rain. Since this exposure is not the best growing conditions, the trees I see are older than similar sized trees in more ideal locations.

The larger trees bordering the basin also show evidence of being battered and de-limbed by storms. You can see their hulking masses dominating the surrounding forest. Deeply furrowed bark, missing branches and shaggy lichens give these centuries old trees character they deserve after weathering everything the coast has thrown at them, year in and year out.

The tree in the header at the top of this blog is the largest shoreline tree I surveyed on my paddle, and one of the chunkiest trees I have seen in the area. It is in Roche Cove Park, and is a fine specimen of a Douglas fir. Note the bench below it and a bit to the right to give this giant tree some perspective. It is notable for the small amount of taper that the trunk has. It stays fat and massive for a long way up. I have sat at this tree's massive trunk, but what a sight from the water.

I pulled up on the beach back at Billing Spit, exhausted and elated. I had hoped to relax for a while on one of the many rocky beaches that I passed, and had even brought a book along. But alas, the wind was against me for the 4km to the east end of the basin, then it shifted and blew against me out of the west for most of the way home. Thinking of salmon migrating up to a thousand kilometers against the currents of major rivers gave me the inspiration I needed to battle the currents testing me all day. Pondering the stick-too-it-ness of old trees helped, too.


B.C.'s Biggest Trees Not Protected

British Columbia holds record breaking trees, both in the books, and out in the forest waiting to be discovered. In order to increase awareness and protection of these tree Titans and old growth areas, Randy Stoltmann single-handedly started B.C.'s Big Tree Registry in the 1980's.

Modeled after registries in eastern Canada and the U.S., it has grown from just 18 trees of 13 species, to 190 trees of 37 species in 2006. With Stoltmann's death in 1994 the Big Tree Registry passed through a variety of homes, and now is hosted by the provincial government in the Ministry of Forests and Range.

The B.C. Big Tree Registry records the 10 biggest trees for each species, but affords the outstanding listed trees no protection. The Victoria chapter of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee is recommending that the registry list the 100 biggest trees of each species, as well as legislating protection for them.

It seems unlikely that someone would cut down a record-breaking tree, and that is probably what Forests Minister Pat Bell meant when he said that big trees on the registry are not usually harvested. He added that he is not contemplating any changes to the registry or to old growth logging practices in the province.

Robert Van Pelt, author of Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast, insists that ancient giants still exist in little explored areas of our province. Particularily, he fingers Vancouver Island as a potential source of record-breaking sized trees yet to be found. Record-breakers usually gain some notoriety (the registries intended purpose) that gives them unofficial protection-like status. These valuable resources deserve full protection.

And what of Van Pelt's potential record-breaking trees yet to be discovered? Will we ever know about them, let alone protect them, before they become big stumps? WCWC has ample evidence that trees exactly like the ones we worship in our parks are being logged. Is there a record-breaking stump out there?

Let's protect these magnificent trees and remaining ancient groves. Let's do it for all those forward-thinking timber workers that have identified significant trees and groves in the forest and saved them. Or for the Red-backed vole that lives its life in single giant Douglas firs, like the Red Creek Fir (itself a Big Tree Registry champion). Let's do it for Randy Stoltmann.


Big Leaf Maple

A magnificent hardwood species is mixed among the monumental softwoods of the Pacific forest. The Big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) is a coastal broad-leafed tree which grows predominately in the southern coastal western hemlock biogeoclimatic zone. They grow in a narrow strip along the ocean from Alaska to California. Big leaf maple live an average of 200 years with 300+ not unheard of, and reach heights of 34m with a crown of equal width. While conifers are king (or queen) in the Pacific forest, the overlooked Big leaf maple is an important member of the court.

"It is so ubiquitous that many people, Douglas-fir tree farmers in particular, consider Big leaf maple to be a common and bothersome weed," says Mike Dubrasich, tree farmer, "but Big leaf maple is easy to grow, and on most sites it will out-grow any other native tree for the first twenty years."

Big leaf maple's preferred habitat is close to rivers or streams on gravely, moist soil, but it will also grow in dry areas. These trees can withstand temporary flooding and do well in nutrient-rich floodplains. The tree pictured is on the floodplain of the Sooke River, and grows in a field unchallenged by competitors. A bicycle is shown to provide scale.

When Big leaf maple grows in a forest, shaded by other trees, it develops a tall bole with no branching until 1/2 - 2/3 of the way up. Then a small crown grows above the single large trunk. These trees are increasingly valued in the forest industry since the single bole can provide larger pieces of wood.

Growing out in the open the maple's crown reaches its maximum  spread, and the bole splits into a multiplicity of branches just a couple of meters up.

The Big leaf maple featured here is in Sun River Nature Trail Park, a narrow park that stretches along the west bank of the Sooke River. It is accessed by a trail head off Philips Road, itself a gateway to big trees and beautiful vistas of the Sooke River valley and surrounding forest-cloaked hillsides.

The rough trail passes through a riparian forest of large Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Western red cedar, and Hemlock. This flood-prone forest also has broad-leaf trees such as Red alder and Big leaf maple, and harbours bear, cougar, owl, and slug. Spawned out salmon fertilize this forest every fall. Valley bottom forests of Vancouver Island are the richest environments on the coast and the largest trees grow there. These valley bottoms are now mostly logged out.

Typical of a non-shaded maple, this tree has an expansive crown. Branching starts low on the trunk and spreads in all directions forming a massive green umbrella that almost touches the ground all the way around the perimeter. Big leaf maples can grow such a dense canopy of frizbee-sized leaves (up to 61 cm including the stalk) that only 1 to 2% of the light falling on the tree reaches the ground below. On a hot sunny day it was several degrees cooler in the shade of this glorious moss-covered giant. After some hard biking I was appreciative of the air conditioning. The soporific sun was held at bay and I felt revived.

Under the canopy of this tree were small tufts of grass and not much else. The huge leaves, when shed in the fall, will smother anything that tries to grow below the circumference of the crown. Also falling to the ground is a variety of epiphytic growth consisting of plants that live on other plants, but derive their nutrients from rain and the air, not the host.

Luxurious rain-soaked mosses adorn the branches of Big leaf maple. Lichen, as well as licorice ferns are also growing on the trees. Often this growth is so abundant that it weighs more than the leaves of the tree. When epiphytic growth falls to the ground it fertilizes the tree in exchange for providing a place to grow. Big leaf maple is a soil building species, and like Red alder, it improves the soil where it grows.

Although I do love standing, living trees, Big leaf maple is increasingly seen as a commercial product. It has a fine grain and is desired for furniture and instrument making. The market for figured wood (wavy, quilted, curly, flamed...) is growing as wood workers and instrument makers come to value this unique wood.

The Glimer Wood Company in Portland, Oregon sells specialty woods including Big leaf maple for instrument building. Their website shows chunk after chunk of amazing one of a kind blanks ready to be made into guitars, violins, mandolins and ukeleles. Unfortunately, instrument woods most in demand are those from trees older than 150 - 200 years. The wood from such trees is clear of knots with an even fine grain, and provides the resonance instrument makers and players alike enjoy.

As a guitar player, and tree lover, I experience some guilt about owning the remains of old growth trees such as Sitka spruce and Big leaf maple. The classical guitar shown here has a spruce soundboard and uses figured maple for the back and sides. The back is a book matched piece. This means that the maple blank was cut in half and "opened up" to show matching patterns. Looks beautiful, sounds great. Probably came from very old trees.

Trees are such a giving, and useful species. It is hard to imagine life without them. Is it even possible for large modern, developed societies to exist without trees? Forests are massive contributors to ecosystems around the world, providing us with benefits that can not be fully calculated, or replaced. Trees are also large contributors to economies around the world. I love the trees, but I love my guitars, too. Here is one group that is trying to resolve issues around dwindling supplies of instrument woods. Perhaps a donation will help soothe my conscience.

Not all uses of the Big leaf maple require killing them. Like its more famous eastern cousin, the Sugar maple (Acer saccarum), the Big leaf maple can also be used for making syrup. The sugar concentration in Acer macrophyllum is less than in Acer saccarum, so more sap must be collected to produce the same amount of syrup. At the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan, one can learn all about Vancouver Island Big leaf maple syrup making during the Bigleaf Maple Syrup Festival in February.

Today I will honour the generous Big leaf maple by spending some time beneath the shady branches of the tree featured above meditating on the gifts it bestows, living or otherwise. When I get home, I will compose a song about this harmonious hardwood, then perform it on the guitar that owes its life to the ultimate sacrifice made by individual, old trees. Thank you, trees.


Multi-Century Cedars: Canada's Largest, Oldest Trees

Bark of an ancient Avatar Grove Cedar
Less than 100 km, as the eagle flies, from Sooke lives Canada's largest known tree, the Cheewhat Lake Cedar.

This Western red cedar (Thuja plicata - thoo-yuh ply-kay-tuh) is 18.34 m/60.2 ft in circumference and 55.5 m/182 ft in height.

It is the second largest known tree of its type on the planet.

The largest cedar is the Quinault Lake Cedar on the Olympic Peninsula, over the Juan de Fuca Strait from Sooke.

After a hike to the Cheewhat Lake Cedar, tree pilgrims are often left feeling speechless. It is difficult to achieve a sense of proportion around such a massive living thing. The Cheewhat Cedar is often described as "a wall of wood." This wall is old, with estimates ranging upwards of 2500 years, and still growing.

Vancouver Island is in the middle of Western red cedar range. The island is prime territory for these slow growing, long lived, droopy, fragrant trees. Fittingly, the Western red cedar is British Columbia's official tree.

Cheewhat Cedar, Pacific Rim Park

In practice, however, the liquidation of this sacred tree continues. British Columbia's business-friendly government is aiding in the demise of its own provincial trees.

In 2007 the B.C. Liberals adopted a new Coastal Forest Action Plan.

The plan reported that "since 1995, the proportion of old-growth harvested on the Coast has declined from 95 per cent of the harvest to 71 per cent."

The plan attributed the decline to the increase in the amount of old growth protection, but is more likely due to the dwindling supply of old growth trees. With only about 25% of original old growth forests left on Vancouver Island, it will not be long before the cathedral-like ancient groves are gone.

Sooke River Ancient Cedars

The Sooke River watershed contains several cedars that are prime specimens. The river valley also contains huge Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, Hemlock, and Fir, but the largest diameter trees in the area are Western red cedars.

They are the oldest, too. In ideal conditions a cedar can live for thousands of years, making it the oldest living tree in the British Columbia rain forest. The oldest trees in the Sooke River valley are easily many hundreds of years old, perhaps close to one thousand.

Sooke River valley Western red cedar
One of the indicators of old growth forests (over 250 years) is an abundance of large diameter woody debris. It includes large fallen logs as well as standing dead trees (snags), and provides habitat and nutrients for the forest ecosystem. Fallen logs also act as "nurse logs", providing nutrients for new trees. Small patches of this type, such as in small ravines, remain along the Sooke River.

A cedar snag can continue to stand for a century after it dies. Once it falls it can lay on the forest floor for centuries more before it fully decays. Because of this rot resistance, cedar is the most valuable, sought after wood of the Pacific forest.

Big tree hunters like Robert Van Pelt think that record breaking cedars still exist on Vancouver Island, although opportunities to identify them are "dwindling." Some may be in unexplored protected areas, and some certainly exist in privately held lands.

All along the river one can also see evidence of logging. Early hand loggers used springboards to raise themselves up the trunk of trees so that they were above the thickest part of the bole (the main stem of the tree). This left tall stumps.

"Cedar Rats", or shake bolt cutters, work in old cut blocks harvesting the large cedar stumps left behind from previous logging. On a good show the cedar stumps can be more valuable than the second growth forest around them.

The massive fluted trunks of ancient cedars are so spectacular that it is easy to forget to look up to admire the equally impressive crowns of these trees. Over hundreds of years they take on a droopy, gnarled, weathered look. The reddish-grey bark is stressed wood at its best, and the crown is a dense confusion of droopy light-seeking branches and scaly leaves.

A 250 year old cedar can be anywhere from .61-2.44 m/2-8 ft in diameter. Much larger trees exist here. The biggest trees, though, aren't until you get to the valley bottom. There you will find very large, very old Western red cedars, accompanied by luxurious mounds of moss and towering ferns.

The atmosphere and towering columns give one the sense of being in a natural cathedral. It is hard, even for professional foresters, to age a tree, but these are Brobdingnagian boles.

Currently, Sooke does not have a tree protection bylaw, even though many tourists come to the area specifically to see big trees.

Who would travel here to see someones siding, roofing, or deck?

Outside of Sooke and up the coast there are very few protected areas and/or parks. Muir Creek represents one choice old growth location for protection and park status. There are nice Western red cedars in the Muir Creek watershed.

That Vancouver Island has any old growth left is something to celebrate. We have protected only 6% of Vancouver Island's productive forest lands in our parks system.

If we are not careful British Columbia will soon have to change its provincial tree from the Western red cedar to the Red alder. Red alder is the "healer tree" of the forest as it fixes nitrogen in the soil and speeds forest regeneration. It is the first tree to grow in clear cuts, and B.C. has plenty of those.

Related Posts

Related Posts with Thumbnails