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Old Growth Forest

Written by Eric Lucas

Photo by Leslie Forsberg

The way glistening light slants through high branches to make sunshine prisms below is the reason ancient forests are often likened to cathedrals. But the comparison might better be reversed: Cathedrals mimic the serene, spiritually rich environment of old growth.

Yet no cathedral echoes the music of birdsong and tumbling water, the call of owls and footfalls of wolves, the sibilant sound of the breeze in the branches. Where else but in an ancient forest can you pull up a seat on a carpet of moss in a patch of sun and measure the thousand-year lifespan and 300-foot engineering achievement of the living beings that surround you? And these virtues reflect only the human perspective—environmentally, an old growth forest is a wealthy tapestry of life, exquisitely balanced to provide a home for thousands of plants, animals and insects. Consider the fact that much of the moss and fungi that relies on the trees for support, hundreds of feet in the air, pays the favor back when it decays on the forest floor, helping renew the nitrogen trees need to grow.

Vancouver Island is the home of some the finest undisturbed woods on the West Coast, but old-growth forest is not an exact term—forest ecologists have largely abandoned the phrases “virgin forest” and “climax forest” because the reality is more complicated than such language conveys. So are the very names by which our most familiar trees are known: Douglas-fir is not a true fir, nor is Western red-cedar a true cedar at all.

Healthy temperate old-growth forest is a diverse biological system containing young and old trees such as Douglas-fir, Western red-cedar and Western hemlock; undergrowth species such as huckleberries, salal, vine maple and devil’s club; animal inhabitants that range from salamanders to great horned owls and mountain lions. The monolithic unbroken canopy and broad, towering trunks that many envision as “ancient forest” are rarely found in true old-growth; instead, storms and old age bring down trees to create open space; the tops of cedar and spruce are often snapped by winds; young trees spring up wherever light allows. Generally speaking, Pacific maritime old-growth forest includes trees more than 500 years old, and is largely untouched by human activity.

Surely such a remarkable ecology is a place for us all to appreciate the wonders of life. “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness,” said John Muir, the famous explorer and naturalist who almost singlehandedly created the preservation movement in North America. The many First Nations peoples who relied on cedar bark and wood for clothing, tools, housing and fuel considered these trees sacred, thus melding the spiritual, practical and environmental facets of ancient forests into a pantheon of meaning.
Above all, this is scarce land: Few untouched old-growth forests exist any more, and many of the most memorable are on Vancouver Island.

Cathedral Grove: The name of this hugely popular and very accessible forest preserve reflects the common metaphor applied to such groves of trees. Technically, it is within MacMillan Provincial Park, the park’s name honoring the timber tycoon who preserved this exceptional grove of Douglas-fir and Western red-cedar and donated it to the provincial government in 1944. The firs on the south side of the road include specimens nearing 1,000 years in age, and surpassing 9 meters in circumference; the cedars on the north side are massive specimens near Cameron Lake evincing this species’ preference for wet ground.

Though the trees themselves are impressive, this grove is even more significant as a representative of the reality of old-growth: A ferocious windstorm on New Year’s Day, 1997, brought down hundreds of huge old trees, whose dead trunks are slowly decaying to return their nutrients to the ground. Meanwhile, the open canopy left when the trees fell is renewing the cycle of young growth that is part of healthy old-growth ecology. More recently, a flood along the Cameron River washed out parts of the riverside trail, also continuing the cycle of growth, demise and removal.

Details--745 acres; 25 km (half-hour) west of Qualicum Beach along Highway 4; admission free, day use only. Please stay on designated trails, for your safety and the trees’ preservation.

Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park: This park is the home of what is believed to be the world’s largest Sitka spruce, a massive tree known as the “Carmanah Giant” that stands 96 meters (315 feet) tall and is more than 9 meters in circumference. The location of this particular tree is not publicly divulged, and no formal trails lead to it—anyone who’s seen the damage done to some of the famous “named” trees in California will understand why.

However, the upper end of the park holds developed trails that lead down into marvelous groves of spruce and cedar. Some of the trees are 1,000 years old; oddly, the Carmanah Giant itself is fairly young (less than 500 years), one reason for its height being the fact its top has not yet been snapped off in a storm. With the rushing aquamarine waters of Carmanah Creek lending aural accompaniment along the footpaths, and no nearby highways, this is a wonderfully serene place to wander amid huge, ancient trees and appreciate their simple majesty.

The park also holds a memorial to Randy Stoltmann, an outdoorsman and activist who “discovered” the area’s impressive trees and worked tirelessly to fend off logging plans and preserve the valley’s woods. Stoltmann died in 1994 at the age of 32 in a mountaineering accident. The spruce grove that honors his memory is a surpassingly impressive sanctuary in the wilderness, and an apt memorial.

Details—40,650 acres; 20 kilometers northwest of Port Renfrew, approximately 100 kilometers southeast of Port Alberni; obtain maps and follow signs; access is gravel road. Wilderness camping; fees apply. Please stay on designated trails, for your safety and the trees’ preservation.

Juan de Fuca Provincial Park: The trail down to China Beach passes through a grove of old-growth spruce, in this case an example of the spruce fringe, the forest that abuts the ocean shore. Trees inland more than 50 yards or so are tall, elegant specimens of the height these spruces can reach. They are more widely spaced than in Carmanah Walbran, many exhibiting the flared base that helps both spruces and cedars withstand ocean tempests. As you near the shore, the frequent buffeting of storm winds creates an ever shorter forest which, by the time you are at the shore, has become a gust-pruned thicket that in places looks like some giant came by with shears.
The beach itself is a delightful place for a stroll, particularly on misty mornings when you may have the shore entirely to yourself. Re-entering the woods is like crossing a moat into an arborial castle.

Details—40,650 acres; the China Beach trailhead is 35 kilometers west of Sooke along Highway 14, approximately an hour’s drive. Camping nearby; fees apply. Be aware of potential rogue waves when hiking the beach.

Cape Scott Provincial Park: This vast peninsula preserve at the northwest verge of Vancouver Island is best-known as a temple of tempestuous weather that draws dedicated wilderness trekkers. However, a modest, well-maintained day-use path leads from the park’s parking lot about 3 kilometers down to the shore at San Josef Bay, a stunningly beautiful broad crescent of sand protected by headlands. Along the way, hikers pass through classic maritime old-growth rainforest, with moss-draped spruces, cedars, hemlocks and other old-growth denizens ranging from shrubs to deciduous trees. Trees in this section reach 3 meters in diameter, and the verge of the beach is classic, wind-formed spruce fringe.

Details—55,000 acres; 64 kilometers west of Port Hardy on public and private gravel roads, approximately two hours drive, suitable for passenger cars. Along the way, be alert for the famous “Shoe Tree” on the north side of the road about 20 minutes west of Port Hardy. Wilderness camping only at Cape Scott; fees apply.

Other fine places to visit old growth on Vancouver Island include Strathcona Park near Campbell River; Pacific Rim National Park, with many examples of spruce fringe, between Tofino and Ucluelet, and the famous Big Trees Trail on Meares Island; Elk Falls Provincial Park near Campbell River; and Helliwell Provincial Park on Hornby Island, whose unique semi-arid headland habitat holds ancient Douglas-firs that are sturdy, gnarled and impressive—but not nearly as tall as their rainforest brethren.

Hornby Island

Written by Eric Lucas

Photo by Leslie Forsberg

It takes not one but two ferry rides to get there. One of the most popular attractions is the local recycling facility. The biggest beach is a wide strand of white sand fondly dubbed the “Waikiki of Canada.” There are no big hotels, or even medium-size. The island store is a co-op that would fit in the produce section of a mainland mega-mart. The biggest threat to quiet is a Steller sea lion rookery at the southeast corner of the island. And one of the main roads splits in two to go around a huge old Douglas-fir.

Hornby Island is a distinctive and colorful place, and its unusual character is one of the best reasons to visit this somewhat remote and totally beautiful oasis in the Strait of Georgia just east of Vancouver Island. Aside from regulars who return each year to a seaside family-owned lodge (also the island’s main restaurant) or a few quiet B&Bs, and the thousands of visitors who flock to a mid-August festival, mainstream tourists rarely reach this spot—and that’s fine with the 800 people who live there and the adventurous travelers who do venture outbound from Fanny Bay, south of Courtenay, to Denman Island and on to Hornby.

Once you arrive at the tiny dock at Shingle Spit, you can reach the island’s main sights in a half-hour. First up is the Hornby Island Recycling Depot, a mid-island facility run by volunteers at which resources such as metal, glass and plastic are collected for recycling—and, more important, at which island residents bring all manner of unwanted goods to be passed on free to other residents who can make use of them. Hundreds of shelves hold books, clothing, tools, kitchenwares, home furnishings, sporting goods and innumerable other items, free for the taking. Not only is this approach economically sensible (shipping garbage off the island is expensive) it reflects Hornby’s dedication to a sustainable way of life that has brought international media coverage to this little facility. Less than 30 percent of the island’s waste stream is sent away as trash.

Around the bend, past the co-op store, are two exceptional provincial parks. Tribune Bay is a half-mile crescent of white sand facing into the sun whose shallow bay waters warm up to near-tropical temperatures in late summer; families flock here to sun, swim and build sand castles in surroundings reminiscent of climes thousands of miles south (www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks).

Helliwell Provincial Park, which occupies the majority of the southeast island headland that guards Tribune Bay, is a uniquely gorgeous 1,000-acre preserve with hiking trails that reach grassy meadows and wind-sculpted sea cliffs, culminating in an overlook near the sea lion rookery (www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks). The highlight of the park, though, is its old-growth Douglas-fir woodland whose trees have grown for centuries on rocky soil in a relatively arid spot compared to most maritime forests. Usually no more than 100 feet tall, these venerable specimens sometimes reach past 2 meters in diameter, and often exhibit thick, coruscated bark charred by ancient fires.

This ecosystem, known as “Coastal Douglas-fir,” is quite rare—less than 1 percent of the original remains undisturbed. But it’s no rarer or more original than Hornby itself, where visitors find one of Canada’s most uniquely memorable places. For more information, visit www.hellobc.com/en-CA/RegionsCities/HornbyIsland.htm or www.hornbyisland.com.


Bicycling Vancouver Island

Written by Eric Lucas

Bike riding is one of the most popular forms of active-travel recreation, from the back lanes of Europe to the steep slopes of Western ski areas. But few places offer as unique a venue as Tofino’s Chesterman and Long beaches, where hotel guests can stroll out the door, grab a wide-tire cruising bicycle, and ride for miles on a broad expanse of firm sand while the froth of spent waves cascades gently up the beach, inviting riders to weave their way in and out of the water line. At low tide you might be able to cross to a tiny islet that’s the province of sea gulls, cormorants and seals, park your bike and watch breakers funnel into rocky crevices; or inspect the colorful anemones and nudibranchs hidden in tidepools; or simply nestle in the sand against a log and doze in the sun.

Now, that’s bike riding.

Of course, Vancouver Island offers many more traditional riding areas, from the classic paths crafted out of old railroad grades, to country lanes that wander through pastoral farmlands, to challenging trails carved onto ski slopes and along old logging and mining roads.

The best example of the latter, in and around Cumberland, near Comox, has become an internationally recognized center for mountain bike riding. Carefully engineered trails here straddle mountains and traverse forest like ribbons, with boardwalks, bridges and extensive signage that help make the network user-friendly for less-experienced riders as well as experts (www.cvmtb.com). Nearby, Mount Washington Alpine Resort, famed for its wintertime skiing and the massive panoramas from atop its lifts, turns its network of slopes and Nordic trails into bike paths in summer (www.mtwashington.ca). The resort’s lifts are a handy aid for those who don’t like hill-climbing on wheels.

Farther south, the Galloping Goose Trail follows an old railroad line from downtown Victoria out to Sooke. The gentle grade necessary for logging trains a century ago is a great boon to riders today; the 60-kilometer trail passes from urban center into suburbs, then over tumbling creeks and along quiet maple and alder woods, winding up in the foothills at Sooke Potholes Regional Park www.gallopinggoosetrail.com. A perfect summer ride would bring you here, to one of the island’s best swimming holes, midday on a hot afternoon; and take you back to Victoria in the cool of evening. For riders who want to savor the journey and divide it in two, several inns along the trail and in Sooke cater to bicycle travelers.

Heading the other direction from Victoria, the 29-kilometer Lochside Trail traverses the pastoral Saanich Peninsula, another mostly level jaunt through farms and woods, past beaches and parks, winding up at the BC Ferries Swartz Bay terminal. Travelers on this trail can enjoy a stop in Sidney, whose small cafes and bookstores have been boosted as a destination by the new Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, a gem of a small aquarium devoted to local marine life (www.oceandiscovery.ca).

Many other communities on the Island are developing off-street recreation trails and back-road networks, including Nanaimo, Cowichan, Comox and Courtenay, and Campbell River. Numerous back roads, such as the bracing journey along the West Coast to Port Renfrew, attract over-the-road cyclists. And of course the many smaller islands adjacent to Vancouver Island offer quiet country lanes for cycling. No matter where you hit the trail, your surroundings are blue ocean or inland sea, deep forests and sun-dappled woods, tidy farms and vineyards, and beyond them all, the snowy summits of the island’s central range or the mainland’s Coast Range, Cascades and Olympics. For more information visit, www.hellobc.com/vancouverislandbiking.


Top Ten...

Lakes in the Vancouver Island Region

We recently asked our Facebook Fans, what their favorite lake in the Vancouver Island Region is. Here are their Top Ten...

  1. Sproat Lake - Alberni Valley
  2. Muchalat Lake - Gold River
  3. Cowichan Lake - Lake Cowichan
  4. Cameron Lake - Alberni Valley
  5. Upper Campbell Lake - Campbell River
  6. Nimpkish Lake - Northern Vancouver Island
  7. Schoen Lake - Northern Vancouver Island
  8. Nitnat Lake - West Vancouver Island
  9. Roberts Lake - North Central Vancouver Island
  10. Buttle Lake - North Central Vancouver Island

Photo: Sproat Lake by Alex Skelly


For more information about Lakes and other Water Activities in the Vancouver Island Region visit HelloBC.com/vi.

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