The Big Tree Art of George Tirrell: Saving Mariposa Grove

The Grizzled Giant, Sketch from nature, by G. Tirrell.

Giant sequoia, native to California, are amazing trees that can be found on Vancouver Island in Victoria. All were brought here by pioneers from the south as seeds or small trees in the 1800s. It is no wonder that people took the seeds and saplings with them - they were so impressed with these unbelievably large conifers that they did not wish to leave them behind. The pioneers left a legacy in these heritage trees that rise above all others.

Artist George Tirrell left a lasting legacy in the 1800s when he became the first person to sketch Mariposa Grove in what would later become Yosemite National Park. This grove of massive Giant sequoia quickly gained legendary status, and pilgrimages to this natural cathedral became popular. "Go to the Mariposa Grove," Alfred Lambourne advised, "and linger there until the lessons of the place sink deep into your heart".

The Devil's Spear, G. Tirrell

The Mariposa Grove contains many mighty trees. When Europeans first laid eyes on these massive columns of wood they could hardly believe it. When witnesses described the trees to others they were accused of exagerating and/or lying. But the stories were true, and nothing like the Giant sequoias had been seen before.

The Twins, Mariposa Grove, G. Tirrel

Artists like George Tirrell, were inspired by these newly discovered, cloud-scraping monuments. No doubt his work was instrumental in this global treasure eventually being protected.

Artists volunteered their work for this 1989 fund raising book
Similar efforts by artists have helped to save many of BC's beautiful ancient trees just as noteworthy and wow-inspiring as the Giant sequoias of Mariposa Grove. The campaign to save the Carmanah Valley, for example, was stunningly moved along by many Canadian artists that visited Canada's tallest trees and creatively depicted what they saw and felt.
"Campfire conversations would often turn to the stark contrast between the haunting beauty of Carmanah's virgin forest and the slash-choked, burned and blackened clearcuts that lie just outside the watershed. The artists spoke of how the distant growl of heavy logging equipment, carried by the wind from the next valley, affected them...a constant reminder as they sketched and painted, of why they were there." From: Wilderness Committee
Their efforts, like those of artists like George Tirrell before them, helped us to see the amazing beauty and diversity we would be missing if we failed to act.


Whiffen Spit - Trees and the Seas

An inviting bench beside Whiffen Spit's largest tree
There are not really any big trees on Sooke's Whiffen Spit, a bit of land that separates Sooke Harbour from the Juan De Fuca Strait. Actually, there are very few trees on the spit, and the ones that have managed to take hold there are usually stunted due to the harsh, open exposure. Charlie Brown would love them, though, and you might, too.

Whiffen Spit's beaches collect some great driftwood
This is one of the premier walks in Sooke, and it gives stellar views of the surrounding area and its forested hills. Whatever the trees on Whiffen Spit lack in size, age, or vigor is made up for in their sheer tenacity and steadfastness in the face of wind driven salt spray and crashing waves. These trees are pioneers, individuals colonizing new ground without the support of a forest. They are hard-living survivors on a tree-challenged, ocean-dominated finger of land.

Getting There

Whiffin Spit is in Sooke, BC, about 35 minutes west of Victoria. Take Highway 14 to Whiffin Spit Road. Follow Whiffin Spit Road to the end where you will find the parking lot for Whiffen Spit Park. Wear appropriate clothing - it is often windy here.

View Whiffin Spit Park in a larger map


Goldstream Park Day Use Area: Ancient Cedars

The fattest of the ancient cedars in Goldstream Park Day Use Area on trail to Nature House
Goldstream Park is a magical place, a tiny remnant of the once mighty Coastal Douglas-fir forest that covered a narrow strip along southeastern Vancouver Island. This is the closest old growth forest to a major urban center on Vancouver Island, and is only 30 minutes from downtown Victoria.

For thousands of years this was a quiet, tranquil place where the people of the Saanich tribe fished and hunted and celebrated. All that changed with the arrival of Europeans.

Park map with day use on upper right, and campground area on lower left

In 1863 the Goldstream River was the site of a gold rush, although it seems it never did live up to its name, and miners soon moved off to other local rivers such as the Leech River north of Sooke. There were also mines on the surrounding mountains for deposits such as copper.

Snowdrops at side of trail
In 1912 Malahat Drive (Highway 1/Trans-Canada) was constructed, replacing a steeper, more dangerous inland route. The Goldstream area was given park status in 1958.

The Malahat passes right through the park and its moss-covered trees towering far above the pavement. Both sides of the park offer excellent opportunities to see big trees and experience old growth forest.

Entering the Goldstream day use area on the east side of the Malahat, you will pass between two wide buttressed Western red-cedars that welcome visitors to the park. These trees are are about 800 years old, and could live for several hundred years more.

This area is a haven for many old growth big trees. Many are Western red-cedars due to the wet conditions on the floodplain of the river. There are also some impressive Bigleaf maple and Black cottonwoods to be found here.

The Goldstream River is known for its salmon and eagles every fall
The wide, gravel-covered accessible trails along the lower Goldstream River give the visitor a look at the cross sections of mighty giants that have fallen, as well as centuries old trees still growing vigorously. In March the skunk cabbage and snowdrops herald the coming of spring.

Upper Goldstream Trail is also a popular hike well worth checking out. This beautiful moderate hike winds along the river and through a small ancient forest of giant Douglas-fir and cedar. Giant fallen trees across the trail have been cut through to allow hikers to pass through its multi-ringed boles.

Check out the visitor center while you are enjoying the day use area. It can be found at the mouth of the Goldstream River. The centre (nature house) focuses on environmental education, which has not been publicly funded in parks since the BC government withdrew funding in 2003.

Every year the staff introduce thousands of people to the wonder and importance of this mossy, green, temperate rain forest. Let them, and this park, fill you with the magic that resides here.

View Goldstream Park in a larger map


Billings Spit: Trees and Beaches

An unusual bent Douglas-fir on west Billings Beach
Billings Spit, in the coastal town of Sooke, BC, is good place to see nice urban trees in a residential neighbourhood, as well as a good place to take a walk along a scenic stretch of rocky beach. The beaches here often have large drift logs that come and go with the storms, tides, and winds.

Mallards and Widgeons in Seabroom Park, off Kaltasin Road, Billings Spit
Seabroom Park, found at the end of Seabroom Road, is a salt marsh that is often flooded at high tides. This tiny undeveloped park is great for ducks, and to access a nice stretch of beach. If you are wearing your gumboots you could pass through. If not, best to return when it is drier. This beach is on the Sooke Basin side of the spit.

Cedar stump on the tip of Billings Spit
All winter long storms wash great pieces of wood onto Billings Spit beaches. Some are large enough to stay for months, or sometimes years, before moving on. The stump shown above had a complete 30 meter long silvery trunk before log salvagers came for its valuable wood. Eventually the remains moved off the beach, possibly to head out to sea for a while.

There is a view and access to the beach from this small Billings Spit park
There is another small undeveloped park not far from Seabroom. It is at the end of Kaltasin Road. It provides access to the beach on the Sooke Harbour side of the spit, and contains a couple of impressive large diameter Douglas-fir. If you visit, please do the trees a favour and park on the street instead of in the park on their roots.

Near the north end of the beach on the harbour side are several Douglas-fir veterans, including a couple that hang precariously over the beach
The west beach on Billings Spit (harbour side) doubles as a riverbank as this is where the Sooke River enters the ocean. This makes for a dynamic system rich in plant and animal life, and makes excellent habitat for many species of birds, black bear, river otters, a nesting pair of eagles, and impressive salmon runs in the fall. There are also some old trees to be seen on the banks, as well as chunky bits of drift wood littering the beach.

Glenidle Road feels like a tunnel through the trees - the old cedars are great

Even the streets of the Billings Spit area have big trees to be seen. Along Glenidle Road are several old growth Western red-cedars that have grown large fluted trunks. Rumour has it than when the sewer system is extended to Billings Spit these magnificent trees may have to be cut down to make way for the construction. I hope that is wrong. These centuries old trees look like healthy, robust specimens.

Glenidle Road big cedars

Getting There

Billings Spit is about a 10 minute drive from Sooke's town center, and about 35 minutes from Victoria. It is on bus route #61. Often people park on Highway 14, and do a walking loop down through the neighbourhood, incorporating a bit of beachcombing along the way. The best time to visit is at lower tides (consult tide table here).

View Billings Spit - Trees and Beaches in a larger map


Sooke Hills: Harbourview Hillclimb

Excellent views can be had from the Sooke Hills - this view is looking out over Sooke basin, Juan de Fuca Strait, and the Olympic Mountain Range in Washington
Harbourview Road in Sooke, BC provides access to a wide expanse of hilly, forested back country terrain, and a selection of scattered ancient trees. With new parklands in place, self-propelled is the mode of travel here. A newly upgraded parking lot is found at the end of Harbourview Road. From there the gated gravel road leads the adventurous into a rugged natural area with endless tracks, trails, and climbable peaks.

A drought tolerant Arbutus mixed in with big trees species
The area has a long history of resource extraction, and much of the area is 2nd and 3rd growth forest. But there are still spectacular trees to be found.

The Sooke region's 66 cm of annual precipitation is drier than further up the west coast. Tofino, an area that can be wet any time of year, receives over four times as much moisture.

The south island's lower rainfall is due to the rain shadow caused by Washington's Olympic Mountain range. This is reflected in the variety of plants and trees found in the region.

In the Sooke Hills the higher you climb the more the valley bottom big trees give way to smaller species such as arbutus, hairy manzanita bushes, alder, fir, cedar, and pine. Over the annual summer drought the sun beats down on plants growing on exposed slopes during strings of blue sky days.

Douglas-fir can also be found at elevation. They are usually the largest trees in these cloud scraping forests. Few are as large as their valley bottom cousins. Due to the harsh exposure up high, trees are comparatively smaller than down below, so even small trees can be of great age.

Section of the Flowline trail - be very careful as pipe is slippery
Years of experience are shown by the unique character older trees display. Deep furrows, large, twisted limbs, girthy trunks, and moss/lichen-flecked bark are indicators of old age.

The four main mountains in the lower Harbourview area all have trees of note on them. I can attest to the nice trees on Mount Manuel Quimper. It is an impressive moderate hike with a variety of trees of interest, including banzai-like arbutus near the sun-baked summit. Empress Mountain, Mount Shephard and Ragged Mountain are other good candidates for a strenuous tree hike and good view from elevation.

There are many minor peaks in the area that are also harbouring interesting trees. I found one such peak on a hike along the flowline from Harbourview Road heading West on the mossy pipe.

Hilltop big tree

After a couple of kilometers of nice forest I left the pipe and struck off uphill. Following old roads, trails and wildlife corridors I found my way to the top of a hill southwest of Quimper. (see map below)

The view was great and there were two large, twisted, weather-beaten senior Douglas-fir trees that stood out from the much smaller trees surrounding them.

The Sooke Hills are a biological "hot spot" of diversity for mosses, liverworts, and lichens, and it looks like many of them like to grow on the trunks and branches of old trees.

Usnea, a common type of lichen, also called Old Man's Beard

I didn't see any wildlife on this hike, but this is an area frequented by cougar, black bear, and gray wolves. Make noise while you hike, let someone know where you are going, give yourself lots of time to return to your car at the end of the day.

Bring lots of water. Be prepared to take care of yourself - help may be a long time coming if you run into trouble. If you are not comfortable route-finding it may be best to stick to the main road. People frequently get lost in the warren of old roads and trails through the hills.

Nice branching pattern on this hilltop Douglas-fir

Getting There

The map below shows the approximate route described in this post. To get to the tops of some of the more major peaks accessed by Harbourview and Sooke Mountain Park Roads, check out this excellent web page at Summitpost.

View Sooke Hills: Harbourview Road in a larger map


Smoke Tree

Drought-resistant Smoke tree in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
While in San Diego during the last week of February I took a sunny day to do a beautiful drive to the desert. A 2 hour jaunt from San Diego east on Highway 78 takes one through the Cuyamaca mountains and Cleveland National Forest, and then down into California's largest park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

The Anza-Borrego Desert is 600,000 acres of stark, hot, harsh beauty. It is quiet. Very, very quiet. Everything that lives here has adapted to the heat and lack of moisture.  Many plants in the desert are "drought deciduous" meaning that they drop their leaves in times of drought and go dormant. When it rains the plants become active and new leaves emerge. This cycle may repeat itself several times throughout the year.

Palm trees in Victoria's Beacon Hill Park
It is amazing that trees can even exist in this harsh environment where the average rainfall is less than 6 inches per year. Compare that to Tofino on Vancouver Island which receives over 135 inches of wet stuff per year. That is over 10 feet. But it is not rainy here all year.

The south of Vancouver Island, like southern California, has a Mediterranean climate with warm, dry summers and moderate, wet winters. Many of the plants I saw in San Diego, and even the desert, were familiar to me after seeing them in Victoria region gardens.

Palm trees for example, may not be as large or as healthy as those further south, but Victoria does sport a number of them.

Plants that tolerate drought can do well in the Victoria area. The native Arbutus is an ideal tree to plant in low water exposures. Although I have never seen one in Victoria, the Smoke tree would probably do well in the garden here, too.

The Smoke tree, native to California, grows up to 11 meters tall, although it often grows as a shrub in the harsh environs of the desert. The tree has small dark green oval leaves that turn brilliant colours in the Fall. It sports showy clusters of tiny deep blue flowers in the summer.

Smoke tree, John Gerrard
From a distance the flowers, and the fine hairs that emerge from them, look like puffs of smoke and hence the name.

Not surprisingly, the Smoke tree is said to indicate the presence of underground water. It has a long tap root that plunges through the poor soils seeking water deep below the parched surface.


Ancient Forest Alliance Takes The Forest Fight Global

Looking over Avatar Grove
From: Ancient Forest Alliance

March 4, 2011

TOMORROW: Al Jazeera News Network reports on Ancient Forest Alliance’s Campaign to Save British Columbia’s Endangered Old-Growth Forests and the Avatar Grove

The campaign to protect BC’s old-growth forests is about to get an unprecedented level of global exposure! Al Jazeera, one of the largest TV news networks on Earth that reaches 220 million homes in over 100 countries, will feature a news piece tomorrow (Saturday) about the Ancient Forest Alliance’s campaign to protect British Columbia’s endangered old-growth forests and the Avatar Grove on Vancouver Island.

Watch it Saturday, March 5 at about 10 am Pacific Standard Time in British Columbia – barring any delays due to breaking news (eg. Libyan conflict).

Watch through online streaming at:


Or watch it on 
  • Shaw Cable Channel 513, 
  • Rogers Channel 176 or 
  • Bell Express Vu on Channel 516


Big Tree Enthusiasts Be Careful - It's Wild Out There

20 meter high Gordon River bridge over 5 meter deep water near Port Renfrew
Photo: Victoria Times Colonist
Although Victoria and south Vancouver Island have many urban tree treats, my favourite places to go are in the wilderness that occupies the rest of the land. The coastal temperate rain forest is renowned the world over for its wilderness. It can be dangerous out there as three men found out last week.

The men were driving near Port Renfrew approaching the 20 meter high bridge over the Gordon River. This is a beautiful spot where the river runs through a narrow, steep sided canyon. The greenish-blue water is deep and cold. The narrow bridge hanging over the canyon has low timbers acting more as curbs than guardrails, and I am always happy when my vehicle makes it to the other side. The three campers were not so lucky.

Car in 5 meters of cold water
Photo: Victoria Times Colonist
While it was cold and snowy at the time of the incident, the back country here is dangerous at the best of times. The men's car slipped on the ice as they approached the bridge heading north east toward Avatar grove and Duncan. It broke through the timber curb back end first and plunged to the water below.

Luckily the men escaped with minor injuries, but then had to scale the steep sides of the canyon to get back to the road. After a few hours of scrambling in the dark they made it to the top. Once there they had a 4km walk to the nearest help. There was no cell phone reception.

It is wild out here. Rough logging roads, narrow bridges over steep walled canyons, heavy rains, giant logging trucks, and general industrial activity make this a place to be aware of danger at all times. Trees and forests can be dangerous, especially during high winds. Large branches and whole trees can become hazards during a big tree outing.

Tips For Safe Back Country Big Tree Exploration
  • always yield to logging trucks and other industrial vehicles, park well to the side of the road, listen for oncoming trucks before proceeding
  • leave no trace of your visit - pack out what you pack in
  • check with the proper authorities for weather conditions, road closures, and times that travel is allowed
  • let someone back at home know where you are going, and when you will return
  • take an emergency kit with food, water, and cold/wet weather gear, tire pump, patch kit
  • wear sturdy footwear, hike slow, watch for wildlife, and natural hazards
  • check your gas, and spare tire, travel in a well-maintained vehicle
Vancouver Island has one of the highest concentrations of black bears and cougars in the world. You could run into either one even on an urban big tree tour. A cougar was recently spotted in Esquimalt, and officials were warning all small children and small pets to be on the lookout.

Be Careful - it's wild out there.