Haida Cedar Plank Longhouses

Haida 6-Beam Longhouse, artwork by Gordon J. Miller

The cultures that have thrived on the west coast of North America have lived among some of the biggest trees in the world for thousands of years. In that time, they have used these wood resources in creative and monumental endeavors, including the Haida 6-beam longhouse.

Since time immemorial coastal people have been using the rain forest for an amazing variety of things. Haida Gwaii produced some of the largest Western red-cedar in the world, and they provided lodging, clothes, transportation, and tools - everything the Haida needed. 

Cedar is valuable because its wood and bark are water-resistant. The wood grain is unusually straight with few knots so it's excellent for splitting into the long, even, and smooth planks which the big houses required. Cedar is a solid wood yet is easy to carve and its natural oils resist rot.

Forest resources are just as important today as they ever were, although they have been logged unsustainably since the arrival of Europeans. The once rich resource is being depleted, especially the sacred (and expensive) cedar, the center pole of west coast life. However, the Haida approach logging differently, now and in the past.

When Haida lumberjacks of days gone by needed to harvest huge cedar for a new plank longhouse, they would canoe in a large group to the location of big cedars. While one group set up camp and cooked, another went to fell the giant trees needed for the beams and large planks used in building the massive long houses.

To fell the large cedar, wet mud was packed at breast height all around the base of the trunk. Wood was piled around the tree and set alight. The fire was maintained until the tree was weakened and fell to the ground. Then it would be de-limbed and prepared for the journey by canoe to the building site.

The posts and beams, which weighed several tons, were lifted into place using simple tools and the cooperation of the entire village. The longhouse, which could be up to 120 feet long and 20 feet high, had a number of fire pits for warmth and cooking with smoke holes directly overhead. The Haida raised totem poles in front of their houses while other groups painted the facade with pictures of real and mythical beasts.

The trees were harvested in a process of respect and reverence, then were used in efficient and artistic ways that also showed respect for the resource. When the longhouse was old and no longer used, it would slowly return to the forest, melding in to the greenery without a trace.

Contemporary longhouses at the Haida Heritage Centre

Beautiful longhouses are still being built on Haida Gwaii, although not as large as some of the historical structures. It has only been fairly recently that the Haida regained control of their access to the cedars of their territory, so we can expect to see more of these traditional dwellings as the Haida continue to reclaim their past.
"In the past cultural wood was used mainly for poles, boxes and masks but with the Supreme Court of Canada, Sapier and Gray decision (2006) this has changed. The court decision, in part says, that the use of cultural wood for domestic purposes is a constitutional right much like the right to harvest wood for poles and weaving. This means that Haida and other First Nations are now able to take wood to build houses or use wood for siding a house."
- from: Haida Laas, September 2009
The Haida Gwaii Land Plan, and the implementation of Ecological Based Management, will ensure that there are trees available in the future for canoe logs, longhouse beams, posts, and planks, totem poles, and other cultural uses.

The Haida Heritage Centre has new longhouses that contain exhibits for the public to enjoy. The totem poles and canoes shown here are incredible.

Check here for photos of some amazing contemporary cedar structures built by a local company.


The Wonders Of Big Trees

"The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe
about us,the less taste we shall have for its destruction."
- Rachel Carson

During winter I usually do more big tree hunting online than I do in the field. Every once in a while a really big specimen emerges from the digital background, like the one above. It is a monumental big tree that was not identified, although I had some good ideas as to its type and location. It was a big tree mystery.

It was not difficult to find other photos of the giant. As I suspected, the tree is a Coastal redwood. Several other pictures of the tree on the web indicate that it is in Jedediah Smith State Park in California.

California has the largest trees in the world. If it weren't for them, Vancouver Island would hold this distinction.

However, size doesn't matter so much - it is all about paying attention to the wonders and realities of big trees, wherever they are.


Snow In The Big Trees

Snowy Sooke River falls
It is not often that you get to snowshoe at lower elevations on Vancouver Island's south coast. But every once in a while we get a good dump that stays around for a day or two before warmer weather melts it away. I headed up to the end of Sooke River Rd., and Sooke Potholes Regional Park today to take advantage of the recent heavy snowfall. It was a rare winter wonderland.

Tons of snow hung on everything in the forest. It changes the look of everything with some things highlighted, and others muted. Along with the weak winter light, the covering of snow turns the landscape into a black and white Japanese drawing. Sounds are muffled, all is quiet.

Winter scene bordering Sooke River


Everything strained under the weight of the heavy white stuff. Small trees bent over in graceful white arches. Larger trees that were wobbly before the snow have toppled to the ground. The occasional branch gave way and came crashing down, breaking the silence. With the old branches come loads of lichen for wildlife to dine on.

Snow falling on cedars
The snowshoeing was excellent on snow depths ranging from a few centimeters under the trees, and up to 30 + centimeters in open areas. The accumulation was enough for easy off-trail hiking. My winter forest bath was a magical, invigorating moment among my favourite big trees close to home.

It is going to warm up to +8 Celsius by the weekend, so get out and enjoy the snow while it lasts. You will be rewarded with a rare glimpse of the big trees in their stunning winter attire.

Watch for falling branches.


Big Leaf Maple Comes By Name Honestly

Large Big leaf maple, San Juan Bridge Forestry Service Campground
The largest known Big leaf maple in the province of BC grows on the lower mainland in Vancouver's city-center Stanley Park. The big-leafed big tree is 10.70 m/35 ft in circumference, 29 m/95 ft in height, with a crown spread of 19.5 m/64 ft, and 533 AFA points. Stanley Park has champion maples galore with 5 more on the list of BC's 10 largest Big leaf maples.

That's not to say that Vancouver Island doesn't have some large maples of its own, like the epiphyte-draped tree shown above. This tree is in the same area as the more famous San Juan Spruce, the largest spruce tree in Canada. The Big leaf maple is a short distance away, dominating the center of the campground, and looking like something out of a Tolkien tale.

Big leaf maple leaves/seeds
The Big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), is the largest maple in Canada, and the largest deciduous tree in the coastal forest. This tree lives up to its name and produces giant leaves as large as a medium pizza.

A favourite fall activity on the coast is getting out into the forest to see who can collect the largest leaf. Not surprisingly, the winner is usually found in Vancouver.

The largest maple leaf currently on record measured 53 cm (20.86 in) wide and 52.2 cm (20.55 in) long and was discovered by Vikas Tanwar and family in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, on 14 December 2010. 

Big Leaf Maple Facts
  • grows up to 40 m tall, with leaves possibly up to 60 cm wide
  • in forest has narrow crown with single branch free trunk and small narrow crown
  • in open trunk branches low down into many branch trunks growing into a large crown
  • restricted to southwest corner of BC low to mid-elevations
  • like gravely moist soil as beside rivers and lakes
  • grows in mixed forests
  • older trees are draped in mosses, ferns and lichens because the bark is rich in nutrients and moisture
  • the tree will extend roots up from the branches into the gathering moist material resting on them
  • older trees are notorious for dropping large limbs


Watershed Trees

Desert erosion creates beautiful tree-like forms

Do trees look like watersheds, or do watersheds look like trees? 

When water flows the resulting erosion on the landscape can form shapes similar to trees. The 'trunk' of the main river is fed by smaller and smaller 'branches'. The overall form gives the appearance of the canopy.

It is another example of the repeating patterns expressed in nature. If you watch closely you can spot such patterns everywhere.


Guest Tree: Quinault Lake Cedar

Quinault Lake Cedar, W. Siegmund, 2005
The champion tree highlighted in this post is not one of Vancouver Island's big trees, although it is close as the crow flies. The Quinault Lake Cedar can be found across the Straight of Juan de Fuca in the Quinalt Lake Rain Forest area of Olympic National Park, Washington, USA.

Like Canada's largest tree, the Cheewhat Lake Cedar, the Quinault tree is of massive, human-dwarfing proportions. For comparisons sake, the Cheewhat tree is 5.84m (19.2ft) in diameter, 55.5m (182ft) tall, and 449 cubic meters (15,870 cu. ft.) in volume.

The Quinault Lake Redcedar
  • Description: Thuja plicata 
    The largest known Western Redcedar, in the world with a wood volume of 500 cubic meters (17650 cu. ft.). It is 53.0 m (174 ft) high with a diameter of 5.94 m (19.5 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.)
  • Viewpoint location: Near the northwest shore of Quinault Lake north of Aberdeen, Washington, about 34 km (21 miles) from the Pacific Ocean. It is near Higley Creek in the southwest corner of Olympic National Park.
  • Viewpoint elevation: 400'
  • View direction: North    - wikipedia

View Western Redcedar National Champions in a larger map


If A Tree Falls, Does Anybody Hear?

"Felling A BC Fir Tree", 1920. Photo: University of British Columbia

Written in 1988, the hit single "If A Tree Falls" from the album Big Circumstance raised awareness of the destruction under way in the world's rain forests. Now, over 20 years later, the destruction continues.

If A Tree Falls, Bruce Cockburn (1988)

Rain forest
Mist and mystery
Teeming green
Green brain facing labotomy
Climate control centre for the world
Ancient cord of coexistence
Hacked by parasitic greedhead scam -
From Sarawak to Amazonas
Costa Rica to mangy B.C. hills -
Cortege rhythm of falling timber.

What kind of currency grows in these new deserts,
These brand new flood plains?

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
Anybody hear the forest fall?

Cut and move on
Cut and move on
Take out trees
Take out wildlife at a rate of species every single day
Take out people who've lived with this for 100,000 years -
Inject a billion burgers worth of beef -
Grain eaters - methane dispensers.

Through thinning ozone,
Waves fall on wrinkled earth -
Gravity, light, ancient refuse of stars,
Speak of a drowning -
But this, this is something other.
Busy monster eats dark holes in the spirit world
Where wild things have to go
To disappear

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
Anybody hear the forest fall?

Quotes by Bruce Cockburn about his song If A Tree Falls:

"When I wrote that song they were cutting down the Amazon rain forest to put in cattle. But that didn’t work out, and the next thing you know they’re planting soybeans. But they’re still cutting down the forests, and they’re still displacing the natives. Corn for the biodiesel trade, that’s the new big thing. You can’t win. You create all this awareness about one aspect of the problem, but as soon as you think you have a foot on top of that, it squeezes out from under and morphs into something else." (2010)

"My exposure to rain forest, with the except on one brief day in Australia, has been in the Northwest, the western coast of North America, which is as much rain forest as anything else. It's just not tropical. So a lot of the time when people talk about the rain forest, they don't realize that they are also talking about the large groves that grow on the west coast of Canada and North America." (1997) 

"A lot of critics didn't like that song. They felt it was too pedantic and I was being too literal and I was 'stretching my metaphors too far'. I have a two-word response for those people." (1989) - source

2012 - The Year We End The Old Growth Slaughter

There are people who want to destroy all of the earth's original forests for short term profit. I, like Bruce Cockburn, have a two-word response for them. 

Actually I have several two-word answers, the nicest being, "Hell, NO!". 

Let's make 2012 the year that we stop the ongoing greedy, senseless, selfish, slaughter of our old growth forests.