Vancouver Island Home To Some Of BC's Tallest, Largest, Oldest Trees

Champion Douglas Fir: The Red Creek Fir, Near Port Renfrew, BC
"Tree measuring helps conservation because public support for tree preservation is fueled by the appreciation of champion trees. In an effort to save the best stands of trees, we look for the largest specimens." - Arthur Lee Jacobson
British Columbia's coastal forests are known for growing some of the world's tallest, largest, and oldest trees (see the 'gnarliest' tree here). Vancouver Island is home to some of BC's record-breaking trees, including all of the top Western red cedars and Garry oaks. From dry, rocky meadows dotted with Arbutus in the south, to the wet west coast Sitka spruce, to the east coast Douglas fir belt, many significant trees are to be found here.

It used to be that big tree study was the sole domain of scientists, and a handful of amateur dendrologists that enjoyed crashing through near-impenetrable bush looking for record-breakers. Recent decades have seen increasing interest in trees in general, and record breaking ones in particular. As large, old trees continue to be consumed people are taking notice.

The Internet has helped spread the word. Check out this website that features notable trees from around the world. It was on the net that I accessed British Columbia's repository of provincial champion trees. The BC Big Tree Registry, started by Randy Stoltman in 1986, lists the 10 largest specimens of 40 native tree species.

As I looked at the registry I noticed that there are still many blank spaces, and undoubtedly larger trees exist waiting undiscovered. So get out the measuring implements and set off on a big tree excursion of your own. Record breakers are out there to be found. Anyone can nominate a tree for inclusion.

I have shown the top 3 trees for several common native species from the BC Big Tree Registry (click on the table for a larger image). Measurements include an AFA rating number. The American Forestry Association considers girth, height, and crown spread when it establishes this rating number for champion trees. The methods for calculating the AFA number for a tree can be found here.

Western red cedar

All of the Western red cedar in the Big Tree Registry reside on Vancouver Island. The cool, wet climate here favours these long-lived giants. The registry's shaggy cedar champion, the "Cheewhat Lake Cedar" is not only Canada's largest tree (by volume), but more than likely its oldest as well, possibly up to 2000 years old.


Other notable champion Sitka spruce include the Carmanah Giant, Canada's tallest known tree at 96m/315ft. Found in Carmanah/Walbran Provincial Park, this pillar of wood is 5th on the list with 703 AFA points. 6th on the list is the spruce found at San Juan Bridge picnic area near Port Renfrew. If ordered by circumference this hefty contender would bounce the Carmanah Giant out of 5th place.

Douglas fir

The champion Douglas fir, the Red Creek Fir, stands above all its neighbours not far from Port Renfrew. Also on the list of champion Douglas firs are trees at Cathedral Grove near Port Alberni, and Francis King Regional Park near Victoria. The tallest Douglas fir in the registry is in the Coquitlam watershed that tops out at 94m/310ft. It has an eighth place standing with 643 AFA points.


Most of Vancouver Island is in the coastal hemlock zone, so it is fitting that the 2nd and 3rd place champion trees are here. Quisitis Point is in Pacific Rim National Park, and Cous Creek is near Port Alberni.

Arbutus (Pacific Madrone)

The third largest Arbutus on the registry shows that not all champion trees are in the deep, dark, dripping forest. This champion is in a developed area, on the Canadian Forces Base in Esquimalt. Adding to this distinction is its great girth - it has the largest recorded circumference of any known Arbutus.

Pacific yew

The number 2 Pacific yew, the champion with the greatest circumference, resides in the Muir Creek watershed west of the town of Sooke. This unprotected ancient forest includes old trees in an undisturbed setting, a salmon-bearing creek, and a host of unique plants and animals making it an ideal location for conservation.


California Sequoia

Giant sequoias in California by Jon Sullivan

After seeing several beautiful Giant sequoias on a drive along Gorge Road in Victoria I wanted to see what they looked like in their natural habitat. Well, they look a lot bigger, that's for sure. The photo above was taken in the Sierra Nevada Range of California.

These are the largest tree species in the world (by volume), and although they are one of the fastest growing trees, it takes a while to reach the size of the ones shown above. Victoria's impressive trees were brought as saplings from California by settlers in the 1800's, and are all babies as far as sequoias go.

Still, they have done well. Some believe that one of the Giant sequoias in town may be the tallest tree in Victoria. Scientifically speaking, these trees could continue to grow for another 3000 years!


The Giant Sequoias Of Beacon Hill Park

Giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), possibly the largest tree species in the world, are to be found in several locations around Victoria, BC. These trees, native to California, were planted from imports brought to the region at the turn of the century. The tree shown above is in Beacon Hill Park.

Beacon Hill Park is designated a Heritage Tree site because of its extensive collection of beautiful native and non-native trees. Among the most visited and photographed is the tree highlighted here, located on Circle Drive. It was planted in 1913.

Sequoia are impressively large trees with distinctive reddish bark covering massive trunks that soar skywards without tapering significantly for much of their height. The bulbous broad canopy matches the girth of the trunk, and together they dominate the site in which they grow.

Other Giant sequoia in Beacon Hill Park stand near Park Way and on the north side of Goodacre Lake near the Stone Bridge.

The largest tree in the world by volume is a Giant sequoia called General Sherman in Sequoia National Park. There are some that believe that if logging hadn't decimated the Coast redwood forests of California, that the largest tree in the world by volume would most certainly be a redwood.

The Giant sequoia and Coast redwood may be vying for largest tree by volume, but it is one of Vancouver Island's native trees, the Douglas fir, that may have been the tallest trees of the ancient west coast forest. The best of them, over 122m/400 ft tall, are long gone, too.

The sequoia of Victoria are outstanding trees that are hard to miss. The Beacon Hill Park trees are worth visiting to get a taste of what the current world champion tree species is like.

The park is rich with tree life, from exotic species like the Giant sequoias to ancient examples of native varieties such as Garry oak.

If you feel like venturing farther in search of giant Giant sequoias in Victoria, check out what some claim is the primo sequoia in town. This monument to massive can be found at a residential address at the corner of Moss Street and Richardson in Fairfield, just east of downtown.

Photo credit: Norm Ringuette


Sooke Big Trees - Phillips Road/Sunriver Park

Along the Sooke river on the Phillips Road side there are patches of old forest dominated by a few centuries old giant trees. Some the Douglas-fir are among the largest I have seen in the town area, as is one of the old growth cedars growing on the riverbank.

Here you will also find large Western hemlock, Sitka spruce, fir, red alder and Bigleaf maple. These big trees are in Sun River Nature Park, accessed from Phillips Road just past the T intersection with Sunriver Way. On the river side of Phillips Rd. is a trail head that will take you to these trees.

The thick bark on Douglas fir can separate from the tree and fall. Many loggers have been killed over the years by falling chunks of bark. I guess a bike helmet comes in handy here, although a sheet of bark coming from a hundred feet up is going to do some serious damage, regardless.

This tree shows its age in the deeply furrowed bark as well as the excavations in it dug by birds searching for insects.

In addition to insect holes, you can also see fire scars on these ancient trees. Douglas fir bark is so thick that it acts as fire-proofing for the tree. Older trees have bark up to 30 cm/12 inches thick at the base.


Forest Creatures: River Otters

One of the things I love about the coastal forest is the coastal part. The part where the land and trees meet the sea. It is a harsh interface with the elements of the ocean battering the wall of wood at the forest edge. It is here that the river otter can be found.

As far as I know there are no sea otters in the waters around the south island, but I have seen my share of river otters. Whole families at a time in the spring with mom and dad caring for a roiling, twisting, playful mass of three or four energetic young ones.

They are such sleek swimmers. It is fun to see them diving for crab, then eating them on the beach. Otters use a heavy jaw action to crush the hard shells and the crunching sounds can be heard from a distance.

I caught the river otter above with my camera recently. I was sitting on a beach under some overhanging branches and I was wearing all black clothing. I remained quiet and still as it dove and came up munching, close to shore. Eventually it swam right by me and disappeared up the beach.

Look for these fun to watch creatures along coastlines and along rivers. They excavate dens in riverbanks or use natural hollows such as a hollow log. They raise several pups, keeping them inside for 3 to 4 months before they are allowed out. When river otters aren't eating or sleeping they are playing, so they are very entertaining to watch.


Galloping Goose Big Trees - Coopers Cove to Roche Cove

The Coopers Cove/Saseenos area of Sooke is a thickly forested rural area with outstanding old growth trees spread throughout the hillsides and shoreline. Most are on private land, but can be seen from vantage points along Highway 14, side roads, and The Galloping Goose trail.

The trail offers many opportunities to view impressive trees as you travel with forest on one side and the ocean down below on the other. A scenic stretch from Coopers Cove to Roche Cove Park has enough old growth trees among younger forest to keep you searching for the next giant.

Evidence of ongoing forest cycles are shown by one particular tree along this stretch of trail. The bleached and twisted snag pictured here was hundreds of years old when it met its demise. How long it has been standing since then is hard to say. Snags sometimes remain standing for hundreds of years. They are key structures in a mature and healthy forest.

As time passes the sun, gravity, wind and decay take their toll. Over the years this Douglas fir has lost its upper trunk and all limbs except a huge main branch, itself as thick as a large trunk.

Other branches have tumbled to the shoreline below and lay in a grey wood-grained nest worthy of a large packrat.

This de-barked limb rests on the beach below showing a wrinkly pattern where the branch bends.

Many large old trees, links to the unmolested pre-European forest, can be seen from the Galloping Goose Trail. There is a place to park at the trail head at Coopers Cove just at the side of highway 14. At the other end, at Roche Cove Park, there is also parking available.

A short way up the G.G. trail from Roche Cove you will find Matheson Lake Park. Here you can hike through ancient forest that has been preserved. I will be visiting Matheson in the near future. Look for a post and photos on some of the choice trees in this patch of old forest.


Hollow Cedar Trunks Provided Shelter

Older Western red cedars are prone to rotting in the center of the tree. Hollow cedars use to provide temporary shelter for native peoples. Hunters would find a suitable hollowed cedar and alter it to accommodate one or two people.

These cedar trees could then be used for shelter while out on hunting trips. It is an ingenious use of such structures. The photo was taken up the Sooke River.


Goldstream Provincial Park's 600 Year Old Trees

Goldstream Provincial Park is an area of old growth forest just 16km from downtown Victoria. This towering green haven has two components - a day use area and a campground. The two parts are separated by Highway 1. Goldstream River runs through them both and supports a strong salmon run.

These photos are from the campground area which is dotted with old Douglas fir, Grand fir, Hemlock, and Western red cedar. Even larger trees are accessible by hiking the Upper Goldstream Trail. Several of these trees are well over 600 years old.

Look up, way up. A fat Douglas fir reaches for the sky.

Deeply furrowed, moss-covered trunks are scattered throughout the park. The massive Douglas fir and western red cedar are mixed with western yew and hemlock, red alder, big leaf maple and black cottonwood. Some of the Black cottonwoods in the day use area are very large. This time of the year the cottonwoods are flowering and smell like sweet spring time.

Goldstream Provincial Park is a tree lovers haven and a precious sanctuary for pavement pounders looking for a quick nature fix in natural, quiet surroundings.


Big Trees, Big Salmon

"When the trees are gone the sky will fall and we and the salmon will be no more."
- Lummi Prophesy

Big trees and salmon go together. When one is affected the other is too. Salmon need cool, clear water and deep pools created by large logs. The surrounding trees benefit from the nutrients the spawned out and decaying salmon provide. If only we were as beneficial to trees and salmon, because we depend on both. A recently announced project will allow us to give a little back.

The Salmon Interpretive Centre project on Charters Creek will enhance the health of the salmon population as well as the health of the surrounding forest. Coho salmon spawn in this tree-shaded stream that flows into the Sooke River. The water flows from the watershed of Sheilds, Grassy and Crabapple Lakes in the Sooke Hills.


Every Day Is Arbor Day

“A civilization flourishes when people plant trees under which they will never sit."

- Greek proverb

I noticed a mention of Arbor Day recently and was reminded to pay homage to this vitally important, but underappreciated day of planting and celebrating all things dendro. Here at VIBT we are celebrating the trees 24/7, not only because they are amazing in their own right, but also because of their contribution to our lives.

Lester Brown, founder of WorldWatch Institute, said, "protecting the earth’s nearly 4 billion hectares of remaining forests and replanting those already lost are both essential for restoring the earth’s health, an important foundation for the new economy. Reducing rainfall runoff and the associated flooding and soil erosion, recycling rainfall inland, and restoring aquifer recharge depend on simultaneously reducing pressure on forests and on reforestation."

He proposes we use our forest resources more wisely as civilization as we know it may depend on it. It has been fairly well established that trees are necessary for civilization to take place. No trees, no civilization. Many a collapse has been precipitated by cutting the last trees in a particular region.
"Productive orchards of olive trees meant that a foundation of the great empires of Greece and Rome had arisen and developed into complex economic and political forces. It is interesting to note that the historical decline of these empires corresponded to the destruction of their olive tree orchards that reduced the available supplies of olives, olive oil, olive wood, and olive soap." From: Explore Crete
Trees don't just keep human civilization humming along, they also provide habitat for thousands of other life forms. Trees are the lungs of the planet, and they are also just darn beautiful. I know I am not alone, not only because people are accessing VIBT daily in their quest to learn about trees, but also because of the existence of Arbor Day globally.

Canada's Forested Regions

Arbor Day is not celebrated at the same time of the year even within the same country. Take Canada for example - its national Arbor Day is called "Maple Leaf Day" and takes place on the last Wednesday in September, during National Forest Week. Tree-covered British Columbia does not have an Arbor Day celebration of its own, and Ontario celebrates not on one day, but over a whole week which is observed from the last Friday of April to Mother's Day.

So don't wait for any particular day before you plant, honour, and thank the trees. Do it today, and imagine what your life might be like without trees. More than likely it would be short and a lot less diverse.