Beachcombing Big Trees

Drift wood on Sooke's Ella Beach

The beaches of Vancouver Island are fantastic places to see big trees, both those growing on the shore, and the ones washed up on the sand and rocks. Exposed beaches on the outer west coast end up as drift log cemeteries, covered in huge tangled piles of sun-bleached carcasses of rainforest giants.

Van Gogh's Starry Night in driftwood

Throughout the wild and windy coastal winters rain-heavy winds lash the coastline. Huge swells and waves throw ocean borne forest debris up onto beaches everywhere in a swirly maelstrom.

Large drift logs and whole trees may stay a few days, weeks, months or years, depending on the size of the debris and weather conditions. If they stay long enough it will bleach and dry in periods of dry, hot summer weather.

More Ella Beach driftwood showing a tangle of roots

Swollen rivers in winter disgorge large amounts of forest debris that falls into the water from above, or is actively eroded out by the high, raging waters. Huge rainfalls see many of Vancouver Island's rivers transporting big tree debris to the ocean, destined for a beach and final resting place.

Fallen branches on pocket beach, Sooke Basin

Most beaches on the south island will have collected some drift wood. It certainly adds interest to a walk on the beach.

Back when Vancouver Island logging was in its heyday, rafts of huge logs were transported to saw mills on the mainland, up the Fraser River. Over the decades thousands of logs were lost to storms. These logs eventually found their way to local beaches.

This source of driftwood ended with the building of mills on the island, downturns in the economy, whole-log shipments, and the eventual depletion of the Dry Coastal Douglas-fir forest. However, many of the logs that got loose during the period of intense tree harvesting still lay on the hundreds of kilometers of beaches of Vancouver Island's coastline.

The beach at Port Renfrew has collected piles of big tree debris

Beaches open to the full brunt of the Pacific Ocean tend to gather more forest debris. The beach at Port Renfrew shows this nicely. During the winter it gathers massive drift logs for as far as the eye can see. Not only that - the beach is also often littered with much smaller wood debris, small chips of wood sanded smooth by the wave action.

Whole tree, roots and all on the sand, Port Renfrew

This stump on Billings Spit has lay here for many years

Beaches often yield great wood remnants. Often showing the results of chainsaws, naturals also end up here.

And the great thing is you never know what you will find. Each day can bring new treasures, as the beach is built anew every day by the wind and waves.


West Coast Trail Redux

Ancient Western Red-cedar close to Bamfield

It will be 22 years this month since my first visit to the wilderness of Vancouver Island, and my introduction to the wet, wild, and rugged 75 km (46 mile) West Coast Trail (WCT). I had traveled from the Canadian prairies, a semi-desert with a lot of grasses and not much for trees. I wanted to see big trees. I was not disappointed.

The remote and scenic park passes through a narrow corridor of coastal old growth spruce, hemlock, and cedar. Some of the biggest, tallest, and oldest trees in the world live in this green, wet land. I had purchased a WCT guidebook with the curiosity of a land-locked teen. Over the years I dog-eared the pages while making plans to hike this remote coastline cloaked in fog and big, shaggy, moss-covered trees.

The West Coast Trail retraces parts of an old telegraph line cut through the coastal rain forest wilderness in 1890. The frequently wet, muddy trail passes beneath a forest canopy that disappears as it rises up through the fog.

On one side is the near-impenetrable forest, on the other, the rugged shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. This is the dangerous, rocky coast that has claimed as many as 66 ships over the years.

This section of coastline became known as the "Graveyard of the Pacific", and in 1891 the Carmanah Point Lighthouse was built to guide the increasing number of ships plying the wet coast.

Between 1907 and 1910 the original telegraph trail was upgraded for the rescue of shipwrecked mariners.

Over the years improved technology lead to reduced marine casualties and less need for the trail. In 1954 the Canadian Government abandoned the remote and rugged Dominion Lifesaving Trail.

In the 1960s when logging companies began to threaten the remote west coast, citizens interested in preserving the old trail and old growth forest campaigned for preservation.

In 1970 Pacific Rim National Park was established - the WCT was included and revived.

I first hiked the trail starting from Bamfield and hiking to Port Renfrew. Along the way is a mix of rain forest hiking and traversing varied beach topography.

Passing by thousand year old cedars and some of the tallest Stika spruce in the world made every step enjoyable. At the end of some afternoons we took series of rickety ladders down steep headlands on the way to camp for the night on sandy beaches below.

Once on the beach there were cliffs, sandstone ledges, sea caves, arches, tidal pools, and waterfalls to explore. Tsusiat Falls is the largest set of falls on the trail, and is one of the best campsites to stop at for a while. It is also a good place to fill a bottle or two with often rare fresh water.

Campsite at Tsusiat Falls

The West Coast Trail section of Pacific Rim National Park is a fragile, narrow 25,640 hectare strip of waterfront southeast of Barkley Sound between the villages of Bamfield and Port Renfrew. Hiking it when I did, before more recent regulations and upgrades, was still about adventure and survival. But upgrades have not diminished the beauty.

Wide, dry trail closer to Bamfield

The WCT is stunningly beautiful. It is a world class hike that draws hikers from all corners of the globe. In spite of this, clear cut logging of old growth forest was ongoing right up to the park boundary when I hiked it in 1989, 1990 and 1992. The destruction continues unabated to this very day.

A mini-corduroy road through dense bush and wet ground
Although we could often hear logging activity from the trail, we were blown away by the monumental trees saved within the confines of the West Coast Trail. It highlights the payoffs resulting from conservation and long-term thinking.

Hiking between the forest and the sea

West Coast Trail Facts

- 6000 people a year hike the WCT. 1-2% need emergency evacuation due to injury, illness, or hypothermia.

- Vancouver Island has one of the highest concentrations of black bears and cougars in the world.

- Although the trail can be hiked in as little as 24-48 hours, I recommend taking as long as you possibly can. Some hikers carry small day packs and try to get through in about a day. When my group was hiking it we were trying to set the 'longest time to hike' record, aiming for 10 to 14 glorious days or more. Most people take about one week, but even that is a pretty grueling pace, depending on conditions (yours and the trail's).
Long ladders, big trees

- we hiked in the days before mandatory registration and fees. Now you have to pre-register for a spot for hiking between May 1 and September 30, or arrive in person and possibly have to wait for up to 3 days. 2 weeks on either end denotes the shoulder season when conditions may not be ideal, but you get to skip the registration process.

- the more challenging section of the trail is at the Port Renfrew end, with large elevation changes aided by many ladders. As the trail approaches Bamfield it gets more level, wider, and with more massive trees.

Beach camping under the trees at Michigan Creek
- In December 2006 a winter storm with record wind speeds blasted the west coast and knocked down 3000 trees on the WCT. Other trail infrastructure was damaged, but was quickly rebuilt.

- a great way to travel to or from the Bamfield trail head is on the west coast freighter, the MV Frances Barkley, that plies the Alberni Inlet from Port Alberni.

- for more WCT information see here.

Getting There
  • Pacheena Bay Trailhead, Bamfield - gravel logging roads from Port Alberni or Duncan, approximately 3 hours; or by West Coast Trail Express Bus (wcte@pacificcoast.net). MV Frances Barkley from Port Alberni. The WCT Hiker Registration Office located 4 km south of Bamfield. 
  • Gordon River Trailhead, Port Renfrew - drive approximately 2 hours from Victoria via Highway 14; or by West Coast Trail Connector Bus from Victoria. Follow highway signs in Port Renfrew to the WCT Hiker Registration Office. 

View West Coast Trail in a larger map


Changing Into Tree-Substance

Changing into tree-substance in Harbourview Cemetery, Sooke, BC

"A person should be buried only half a meter, or two feet, below the surface. Then a tree should be planted there. He should be buried in a coffin that decays so that when you plant a tree on top the tree will take something out of his substance and change it into tree-substance.
When you visit the grave you don’t visit a dead man, you visit a living being who was just transformed into a tree. You say, “This is my grandfather, the tree is growing well, fantastic.”
You can develop a beautiful forest that will be more beautiful than a normal forest because the trees will have their roots in graves. It will be a park, a place for pleasure, a place to live, even a place to hunt."

- Friedensreich Hundertwasser


Renfrew's Avatar Grove Moves Closer To Protected Status

Lower Avatar Grove, Port Renfrew, BC

It is rare to find large sections of old growth forest on southern Vancouver Island - 90% of the original forest has been logged, and ancient trees continue to fall. Forested areas with trees over 500 years old are rare.

But old growth forest is what Victoria resident TJ Watt found when he noticed the grey, weathered spires of ancient Western red-cedars from a well-traveled logging road near Port Renfrew, a former logging town. The big trees were dubbed Avatar Grove. With the help of Watt and the Ancient Forest Alliance, we learned that the grove was surveyed and flagged for cutting.

Avatar Grove ancient candelabra cedars
After a very successful campaign, Ancient Forest Alliance is reporting that the BC government is making moves to protect the grove of mind-blowing trees, some of which are over 1000 years old.
"The popularity of Avatar Grove, as it was named in a brilliant branding move, has convinced the British Columbia government to protect the area – and it may yet lead to a rethinking of how the province manages its oldest forests." - Globe and Mail
Thousands of visitors to the grove are witnessing the grandeur of accessible old growth, a rarity on southern Vancouver Island.

With your support, we can push for fully protected status for Avatar Grove and other areas of precious old growth ecosystems.

Ancient forests are far more valuable standing than when cut to fuel our short-term, insatiable demands for more.


The Life Of A 350 Year Old Coastal Douglas-fir

Old Douglas-fir on the new urban/forest interface
I was investigating a new residential development near Thetis Lake Park in the city of Langford, BC recently to see what the new urban/forest interface looks like. This land on the side of Mill Hill is only one of many places where the rapidly developing city is expanding into forest land still in its natural state.

The population of Langford increased 20% between 2001 and 2006 alone. The hills of the city that have been richly forested with big trees for 10,000 years are being blasted into submission and covered with ticky-tacky boxes that all look the same.

While witnessing the completely terraformed landscape I spied one of the remaining large trees at the highest point of the development. I stopped, amazed that it has survived as long as it has, especially through this most recent wave of development which has come within 10 meters of the wide, furrowed trunk.

I considered this tree's long life, about 350 years. It is a time period that saw the arrival of Europeans, and the beginning of the departure of the primeval forest. Along with people from away came an insatiable lust for lumber, land, and profit that continues to this day.

Timeline Of A 350 Year Old Coastal Douglas-fir

900 - The Millstream watershed is in the traditional territory of First Nations belonging to the Northern Straits Salish language group. Some of the groups who reside in the area included the Saanich, Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Numerous archaeological sites indicate the area has been used for at least 3000 years. In all this time, although First Nations used forest resources extensively, they were never a threat to the overall health of the ancient forest.

1661 - a Douglas-fir seed germinates on the bank of a small stream in the forested hills bordering the Salish Sea. The stream is in the Millstream watershed which empties into what is now Esquimalt Harbour. The biggest threats to the seedling (that could grow to the year 3161) are storms blowing off the ocean and browsing mammals. Annual height increment is relatively slow the first 5 years.

1676 - the tree can produce its first viable seed-bearing cones.

1681 - Tree begins growth spurt - Coastal Douglas-fir grows the fastest between 20 and 30 years of age, but some add height at a substantial rate for more than 200 years.

1691 - Height growth peaks at an average of 61 cm (24 in) per year.

1700 - in January of this year the tree survives the Cascadia earthquake, a walloping shaker that comes in at magnitude 9 plus.

1761 - Tree has reached its first 100 years. Height growth has slowed to an average of 15 cm (6 in) per year.

The Douglas-fir has an intact top and is growing vigorously
1774 - Juan Perez sails to the Northwest Coast from the south. Trades with the Haida of Haida Gwaii, and the Nootka of Vancouver Island. The trees in the forest begin to feel uneasy when they see the Spaniards trading buttons, nails, iron and tin for valuable sea otter pelts.

1788 - Captain Cook lands at Nootka sound (about 350 km up the west coast from Victoria) and cuts ships spars, becoming the first recorded European to harvest trees on Vancouver Island.
- John Meares harvests timber to build the forty-ton North West America, the first European-style ship launched in B.C.
- Captain Meares left the island with a load of ships spars bound for China, becoming the first recorded export of BC timber. The coastal forest can see where this is going, and the trees are trembling.

1843 - Fort Victoria is built (out of trees).

1848 -  Hudson's Bay Company builds its first saw mill on what is now known as Millstream Creek in Langford. The area's forests are logged to feed the mill, and the towering Douglas-fir begin to fall. Our Douglas fir, a youthful 188 years old, can hear axes hitting wood not far away. Civilization approaches, posing the most serious threat so far.

1849 - First recorded export of Vancouver Island lumber to San Francisco starting a tradition that built their docks (more than once, due to fires). Ancient Douglas-fir become piers, buildings, and railroad bridges, providing the materials required to build the infrastructure of the west coast.

1850 - James Douglas signs treaties with most of the First Nations groups in the Victoria area, obtaining proprietorship of the land in exchange for bundles of blankets and the promise that they could continue to hunt and fish “with the same freedom as when they were the sole occupants of the country.” 

1851 - Captain Edward Langford establishes one of four HBC farms close to where the hillside tree is located. More ancient forest is cleared to grow food for the European population based in near-by Victoria.

1855 - a more robust steam-powered mill at Craigflower Farm replaced the mill at Mill Falls - summer water levels were insufficient to power the mill. Tree falling is stepped up to feed the more efficient mill works at the new mill.

1861 - Our tree is 200 years old and begins peak cone productivity which will continue for another 100 years. During this time the tree could produce 20 to 30 times the number of cones per hectare than second-growth stands 50 to 100 years old.

1880 - a fire started on a recently logged area spread from present-day Thetis Lake to the Millstream estuary, and also burned the north side of Mill Hill Regional Park. The 10 cm (4 in) thick corky bark of the old tree protects it from the fire.

Development encroaches only 10 meters away
1911 - The Douglas-fir has reached a height a height of 33 m (108 ft) and a d.b.h. of 90 cm (35 in).

1962 - Tree is now 301 years old having survived decades of logging and exploding population numbers.
- the remnants of Typhoon Freda hit Vancouver Island on October 12 with wind gusts up to 140 km/h (90 mph). Many trees are blown down.

2000 - Langford is entering a decade of unprecedented growth after some years of stagnant economic times. The city is pro-development, and demand for new homes is high. The urban/forest interface is spreading outwards as forest lands are lost to residential development.

2006 -  The tree survives the worst winter storm since Typhoon Freda. Wind gusts on the night of December 16th hit a record 158 km per hour (almost 100 mph). Thousands of trees are knocked down along the coast and in Vancouver's Stanley Park.

2009 - Development starts on new neighbourhood near Mill Hill Park. The hillside area requires clear cutting of what little remains of the forest here, and extensive blasting of bedrock. A steep cliff is blasted out of the hillside just meters from the base of our tree, the largest Douglas-fir remaining in the area.

2011 - The new neighbourhood is ready for home building, and at the edge of it all our tree remains standing. It has attained a height of about 46 meters (150 ft) and a d.b.h. of about 120 cm (47 in). The tree has an intact leader and appears to be healthy.

From seed to maturity, Douglas-fir is subject to serious damage from a variety of agents, and yet this tree has survived them all.

The tree's seeds have been scattered by the wind, and the old growth trees of the future are maturing around it. Will they be able to grow to old age here, or will the next wave of development take them and the grandparent tree down, replacing more wild forest with the permanent imprint of civilization?

The ancient Douglas-fir has a new view

Are Ancient Trees In Langford Afforded The Protection They Deserve?

Does the city of Langford have a tree protection bylaw that might protect this ancient tree, and trees like it all over the city? I checked their website:
"The City of Langford does not have a general tree cutting bylaw. It controls the cutting of trees and the removal of vegetation in designated environmentally sensitive and hazardous Development Permit areas contained within the city's Official Community Plan.
These include, for example, areas of steep slopes, sensitive ecosystems, areas around lakes and streams, areas of potential wildlife habitat and biodiversity, and zones of high or extreme interface fire hazard.

If there are no designated areas on a property then the property owner is free to remove whatever vegetation they wish." - City of Langford website

This "vegetation" could include 350 year old Douglas-fir and other ancient trees.

Location of Tree

View Langford 350 Year-old Douglas-fir in a larger map


Forest Creatures: Bears and Cougars At The Urban/Forest Interface

Female cougar and cub tranquilized in Sooke, BC, Sooke NewsMirror photo

Vancouver Island has one of the highest concentrations of cougars and black bears in the world. In the south of the island, where the development and population are concentrated, this means potentially dangerous wildlife encounters, especially in areas where development abuts the forest - also known as the urban/forest interface.

Rapid development of previously wild areas on south Vancouver Island means human encounters with bears and cougars are increasing. Although wildlife encounters are more likely in areas close to the forest, wild animals pop up anywhere. We are continuing to move into their territories, whether with chainsaws or new houses, and the animals have nowhere to turn.

Park sign regarding bears and cougars

The photograph above shows a mother cougar and her cub that were tranquilized by wildlife officials in a backyard in Sooke. The two had recently taken down a deer in a nearby yard, and were eventually treed by two special dogs.

Once there the officials tranquilized the mother and cub for re-location. They will be taken to Jordon River and released. It was a happy ending for these elusive, buff-coloured forest creatures that had been preying on small dogs, cats, and deer.

Not all encounters at the urban/forest interface end as well. A recent cougar incident in Sidney, 65km northeast of Sooke ended differently:
"Just after midnight on Friday, July 8th, 2011, Sidney North Saanich RCMP responded to a cougar sighting near the new McTavish Interchange on Highway 17. Officers located the cougar and followed it in to the Town of Sidney.
Once in the Town of Sidney, after going through many yards and businesses and walking right down Beacon Avenue, the cougar was cornered on the shore by the Beacon Pier.
The BC Conservation Service was called, attended immediately and it was determined that it was unsafe to attempt to tranquilize the animal. The cougar was shot and killed by the Conservation Service." - source

For me seeing wildlife is one of the benefits of living on the fringe of the wilderness. But such encounters are all too often deadly for the creatures involved. Last year 62 black bears were killed by conservation officials on Vancouver Island. Eight of the island's cougars were killed during that time. Learn about reducing bear encounters at the urban/forest interface here, and about cougar safety here.

Black bear sharpening its claws on a big Black Cottonwood

Most of south Vancouver Island has been logged once, or more, usually clear cut. After that insult, the past few years have seen unprecedented development and the urban area is growing into the forest on many fronts. Places like Mary Lake, which is still in the process of possibly being saved to preserve the old growth Dry Coastal Douglas-fir forest that grows there, 99% of which is gone in this endangered ecozone.

Development now rivals the logging industry as a leading cause of forest destruction, and this time, the trees will not be growing back. It is not only the trees that suffer, but also everything else that lives in the forest including large predators like black bears and cougars.
They are everywhere

Cougar Facts
  • The cougar, also called mountain lion or panther, is Canada's largest cat. Cougars have long tails which may be one-third of their total body length.
  • An adult male cougar weighs between 63 and 90 kg (140-200 lbs), and a female cougar, between 40 and 50 kg (90-120 lbs). The biggest cougars are found in the interior and the Kootenays.
  • The cougar's primary prey is deer. It will also feed on wild sheep, elk, rabbits, beaver, raccoons, grouse, and occasionally livestock.
  • Cougars are most active at dusk and dawn. However, they will roam and hunt at any time of the day or night and in all seasons.
  • During late spring and summer, one to two-year old cougars become independent of their mothers. While attempting to find a home range, these young cougars may roam widely in search of unoccupied territory. This is when cougars are most likely to conflict with humans. - source