|Hikers stroll along the easy boardwalk of the Big Tree trail on Meares Island.|
Perhaps it’s because they reach for the sky so far above human levels, fending off high wind and catching the soft touch of clouds whisking by. Maybe it’s because they fashion such tremendous strength from soil, water, air and light, building girths around which five or six people must stretch their arms to clasp hands. Perhaps it’s because they are simply magnificent to look at, ruddy bark, implacable strength and vernal branches in earth tones that people have found pleasing for centuries.
Whatever the reason, big trees are among nature’s most popular objects of human affection. Here on Vancouver Island, we have some splendid behemoths in our woods, trees that include some of earth’s biggest, several of the most famous, giants of our land that are not only worthwhile to see and touch, they are wonderful just to think about.
Consider what may be the most famous tree on the Island, the “Hanging Garden” Western red-cedar that stands strong, 2,000 years old, in the woods of Meares Island, a popular day-trip destination in Clayoquot Sound near Tofino. With a breadth of many meters, and innumerable crevices, ledges, branch-joins and sundry footholds for other growing things, this tree is home to a rainforest garden—huckleberries, salal, ferns, even saplings of other trees.
The latter denizens, some resting well above the ground, are fascinating examples of nature’s urge to exploit any opportunity. A 6-foot-tall hemlock seedling, for instance, may be set in a crevice in its host cedar, sending roots downward to the ground in an attempt to ready itself for dry spells or even, one day, the demise of its host tree. Then the old gives way to the new and the young tree’s roots strengthen and thicken, and one day centuries hence there may be a new big tree.
This process of growth, downfall and renewal is particularly evident at one of the Island’s most popular and easily reached big trees venues, the famous Cathedral Grove in McMillan Provincial Park along Highway 4 between Nanaimo and Port Alberni. Here Douglas-firs and red-cedars have grown in favorable circumstances into a forest of ancient behemoths, creating an outdoor arena in which the light slanting from above, the damped-down sound environment and the high “ceilings” of the branches far overhead make the grove’s name quite appropriate. But nature’s cathedral was blasted by a windstorm in 1997 that brought down some of the old giants, reminding human admirers that old-growth forests are ever-changing, not static.
An apt reminder—after all, growth is change, even in such heady circumstances. While a mature old-growth tree may add just a few inches a year (3-4 inches in the case of an ancient Douglas-fir) that totals many tons of new woody mass. And though a Cathedral Grove giant may seem as sturdy as the nearby slopes of our Island Range Mountains, the sight of them lying helter-skelter on the forest floor is evidence of nature’s other great powers, too.
There are many other wonderful spots to admire old-growth trees on and near our Island:
Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park: A long drive to the West Coast south of Bamfield (be sure to obtain good maps and directions) brings you to this marvelous stand of giant Sitka spruce trees along sparkling mountain creek waters. The tallest tree in Canada, the 96-meter (314 feet) Carmanah Giant, lies in this valley—but to protect the tree (and visitors) its location is unmarked and reached by no trail. No matter; the trees that do line the established trails here are more than 200 stunning examples of ancient spruces, including one special grove that is named after Randy Stoltmann, the activist-adventurer who led the fight to preserve these woods in the early 1990s.
Newcastle Island Provincial Park: Not all the marvelous old trees on the Island are conifers. Here, on this lovely islet in Nanaimo Harbour, are massive old Garry oaks and bigleaf maples that are among the biggest and oldest of their kind. Set at the edge of dry meadows, they represent not only big trees but a disappearing ecosystem that is found almost nowhere else but on Vancouver Island and our neighboring adjacent islands, the Garry oak prairie.
Helliwell Provincial Park: Resting atop a scenic headland at the far southeast corner of Hornby Island, this preserve harbours dry land Douglas-firs that, while ancient, do not reach the great heights of inland trees. Instead, they develop brawny, thick-bark characters that make the park seem like a fantasy movie set in which the trees themselves are stars. Though few of Helliwell’s trees reach past 100 feet, they can nonetheless be more than five centuries old. Most bear the scars of the repeated dryland grass and brush fires that have swept the headland but harmed the trees not a bit.
Goldstream Provincial Park: Though it’s best known for the salmon runs that return here every year in late summer and fall, this creek valley holds some of the Island’s most impressive black cottonwoods. These towering giants are found along riverbeds throughout British Columbia; incredibly fast-growing, they can sometimes add more than 6 feet a year. Some of the trees near Goldstream Park’s Nature Centre are more than 300 years old. Other great places to admire cottonwoods include the Quw’utsun’ Interpretive Center, along the Cowichan River in Duncan; and at Roderick Haig-Brown House in Campbell River. Few sights are as memorable as the golden spire of a cottonwood in full fall colour in October—and the tangy scent of the trees is one of the most familiar aromas of spring.
Juan de Fuca Provincial Park: Sitka spruce trees are the giants here along the coast west of Victoria; unlike at Carmanah-Walbran, the park is easy to reach, and a hike down to the shore leads past ancient spruces to lovely beaches perfect for long, contemplative strolls.
In fact, at the foot of almost any old-growth forest is a perfect place to contemplate much about life and the world we share with trees. Does our admiration derive from their size, age, strength, or sheer impressive beauty? The answers lie in each of us, and it’s a happy circumstance that Vancouver Island offers visitors the chance to admire these great natural sights—and think about what they mean while enjoying the sight.
|A popular summer venue in Lake Cowichan. Photo: PictureBC|
Tucked in between two high-shouldered ramparts of the Vancouver Island Range, fed by mountain snow and rain, oriented into the southeast sun like a warming basin, Lake Cowichan is one of Vancouver Island’s jewels—and one much better-known to residents than visitors.
Generations of Island families have been driving up the beautiful Cowichan River Valley west of Duncan for summer and autumn getaways along this lake’s peaceful shores. The road, Highway 18, makes a memorably appealing approach up a pastoral vale lined with hay fields and farmsteads, deep forests on the hillsides and tall cottonwoods along the river. Higher slopes rise in the distance on almost every side, conveying the sense of a sheltered redoubt in the mountains. Among other things, the clasp of the mountains and incoming sunlight mean the valley has one of the warmest climates in all of Canada, with average temperatures more akin to locales much farther south.
Lest there be any confusion, the region and its signature body of water are known as Cowichan Lake, while the town at the lake’s outlet is Lake Cowichan, a tidy hamlet of 3,000 people with small inns, cafes and stores offering supplies for local recreation—fishing, boating, camping, hiking. Murals by local artist Michaela Davidson depict area history and attractions on town buildings.
Farther up the lake is Youbou, an erstwhile timber-industry bastion that has created a new identity as a lakeside resort, featuring a nice beach, boating facilities, cafes and small inns. Opposite Youbou on the southern shore is Gordon Bay Provincial Park, which holds a delightful protected cove with a sandy beach, campground and park facilities perfect for family camping vacations. (Note: best to reserve campsites far in advance.)
Water skiing, canoeing, boating, sailboarding, fishing, swimming, tubing—the area’s activities almost all center on the lake and river; hiking and biking head into the woods and hills, but the lake is in view much of the time. Beaches abound, and the lake’s clear mountain water warms enough mid-summer into early autumn for very pleasant swimming. Sunshine is an almost everyday occurrence July through September, as the lake lies on the lee side of the Island’s central mountains; tall cumulus clouds rise over the peaks most afternoons, but rarely move east enough to dampen the lake.
“Cowichan” is an anglicized version of a Coast Salish word that means “warm land,” and the lake that lies at its head is a delightful illustration of its meaning. Native peoples have been honouring the virtues of this place for thousands of years, and the story remains the same today: water, warmth, peace and beauty.
|Discovery Passage Aquarium - www.discoverypassageaquarium.ca.|
What lies beneath the waters that surround us has long fascinated the human imagination—Jules Verne’s famous book about undersea exploration, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, has been a classic for more than a century. While most people imagine that tropical waters are the most vivid and rich with life, our Island temperate waters teem with marvelous creatures, a mosaic of colour and incredible marine wealth; that’s why diving is such a popular sport here.
Not everyone wishes to descend beneath the sea. Luckily, Vancouver Island holds a couple of North America’s best small aquariums, both of which are onshore quite near the waters they represent, but each quite different in style and scope.
The Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre overlooks the waterfront in Sidney, north of Victoria, anchoring one end of this charming small city’s shopping, dining and visitor district. The Shaw’s focus lies in the many subsurface denizens of the Salish Sea, and they are numerous and beautiful indeed. Glistening ivory nudibranchs, graceful anemone arms waving in the current in gemlike colours of emerald, topaz and coral, many-armed sunflower stars that, when old, look ever so much like the flowers they are named for—these are just the most conspicuous among hundreds of species. Crabs scurry beneath kelp fronds, salmon throng the near shore, halibut and soles flash in the sandy bottoms, jellyfish ghost their way in the current and baitfish such as herring form clouds glimmering in the water.
The Shaw’s touch tank allows visitors the chance to discover not just what these creatures look like, but how they feel and smell. Sea stars, sea urchins, anemones—it’s almost like being underwater yourself.
The unique Ucluelet Aquarium, housed in a brand new (2012) facility along the West Coast city’s harbour, pursues a collection philosophy practiced perhaps nowhere else—all the undersea creatures on display May through September are collected anew each spring, housed in exhibit tanks all summer, and then returned to local waters every fall. Some of these are simply amazing—such as the decorator crab, a small crustacean that disguises itself from predators by adorning its shell with bits of oceanic flotsam and jetsam (including other, smaller living creatures) thus creating a portable natural collage that seems artistic to admiring human eyes.
And new to Campbell River is the Discovery Passage Aquarium, located at the entrance to the historic Discovery Fishing Pier. Here too, visitors are enchanted by the touch tanks that allow them to get up close and personal with some of the local marine wildlife that live in the tide pools, kelp forests and eel grass beds. It is housed in the structure used as the original Ucluelet Aquarium and, staying true to the Ucluelet Aquarium’s philosophy and vision, the Discovery Passage Aquarium is open from spring, when the specimens are carefully collected, to the fall when they are returned to their natural home at the end of the season.
Though these are smaller than big-city facilities, they are all top-notch institutions that entertain and educate while providing marvelous travel attractions. And all concentrate solely on what lies beneath the rich and wonderful waters in which our Island rests.
- MacMillan Provincial Park (Cathedral Grove)
- Sooke Hills Wilderness Regional Park Reserve
- Schooner Cove Trail
- Wild Pacific Trail
- Juan De Fuca Marine Trail
- Rainforest Trail
- Big Tree Trail (Meares Island)
- Cable Bay Trail
- West Coast Trail
- North Coast Trail
|A photographer in Cathedral Grove admires the large old growth forest canopy.|
Vancouver Island on the Web!
Want access to exciting Vancouver Island Specials, Vacation Packages and Contests?
Interested in checking out stunning Videos and Photos of the Vancouver Island Region or just reading about other Vancouver Island travellers experiences and suggestions?
Favourite islandMOMENTS from Our Readers
Do you have a special, dear-to-your-heart
Vancouver Island memory?
Tell us about your experience and you could be featured in the next islandMOMENTS E-newsletter.
Email your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check the next issue of islandMOMENTS for people’s personal experiences on Vancouver Island.
Who knows, maybe your story will be featured.
Vancouver Island Videos
The Ucluelet Aquarium on Vancouver Island
For more Vancouver Island Region videos, please visit http://www.youtube.com/user/tourismvi
Vancouver Island Travel Information
Tourism Vancouver Island has a wide selection of Travel Guides to help you plan your trip to Vancouver Island.
Check out what we have available for FREE, including Complete Vancouver Island and Region Visitor's Guides, Travel Guides for individual communities and brochures with information on specific services available on the Island