There is a certain romance about trees. A magic.
They offer shady refuge on sunny days and grow sturdy limbs for little children to climb. Lovers carve initials into their trunks and, come Christmas, they stand in living rooms, dressed in strings of lights and popcorn garland.
Poems have been written and drawings etched on the paper made of their pulp. Beautiful words have been born to describe them--from such scientific terms as the Latin Umbellularia (a genus of hardwood laurel) to the dreamy psithurism, defined as the sound of wind in the trees.
They attend to some of our most vital human needs--providing shelter and literally producing the air that we breathe. Of course, it’s no wonder that these marvels of the natural world have long served as symbols of knowledge and wisdom, places of contemplation and pilgrimage.
The latter is particularly true, here, in British Columbia. With over half of the province’s land covered in forest and with near perfect growing conditions, B.C. is (and was) home to some truly remarkable trees. And for years, people have sought them out, basked in their greatness and fought for their survival.
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The Seven Sisters
Deep within Vancouver’s Stanley Park, there once existed a grove of immense trees known as the “Seven Sisters”. The grouping consisted of seven impossibly tall Western Red Cedars and Douglas Fir. For a time, it was one of the park’s most popular attractions, drawing revellers from the end of the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. The trees were ultimately deemed dangerous as the copse's many visitors walked on their roots. The “Sisters” were cut down in the 1950s, but in 1988, a new set of seven trees would be planted, not far from the original site.
The grove is also connected to a local First Nations legend. Emily Pauline Johnson, a Canadian writer and performer of Mohawk and English descent, wrote of the tale in her book, Legends of Vancouver. The stories told were first told to Johnson by friend and Squamish leader, Joe Capilano. “The Lure of Stanley Park” tells of a witch who would tempt people into the depths of the forest, where many were never seen again. Eventually, deities would capture the witch and turn her to stone, but fearful of her potential escape, asked good men to stand watch and protect the people. Those who did were transformed into trees--the “Seven Sisters.”
Big Tree Trail
Accessible only by boat, Meares Island off the coast of Tofino on Vancouver Island, is home to some seriously large trees. Of particular note is the “Big Tree Trail”. Initially designed in 1984 by local artist Adrian Dorst, the trail was a response to the Clayoquot Protests that saw passionate opposition to the clearcutting of old growth forests in the area. Also known as the War in the Woods, the protests are largely regarded as Canada’s most extreme incident of civil disobedience.
Trees on the trail range from 800 to 1,300 years in age, with one of the most captivating being the Hanging Garden Tree. At one point, it was considered the largest of its kind in the country. With a staggering circumference of 18.3 metres (roughly 60 feet), the enormous tree is a testament to the wonder of nature.
Port Renfrew and Area
Known as the “Tall Trees Capital of Canada,” the area in and around Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island is a haven for tree lovers. The region’s climate of heavy rainfall and mild temperatures make for near perfect conditions for trees to flourish. The coastal rainforest is home to incredible old growth forests and immense trees.
Avatar Grove, located on the territory of the Pacheedaht First Nation, sees stands of ancient Red Cedars and Douglas Fir. Many of the trees feature dramatic distortions and knots, giving them an almost otherworldly quality. The grove even boasts “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree.”
Other nearby trees include the Red Creek Fir and Big Lonely Doug--the largest and second largest Douglas Firs in Canada, respectively. Also, up island a few hours, there is apparently a tree named for Betty Krawczyk, a nonagenarian environmental activist. The British Columbia by way of Louisiana great-grandmother is infamous (her word) for her time spent in prison for charges related to her opposition to irresponsible logging.
Further still, is the Cheewhat Giant. Thankfully protected within Pacific Rim National Park, the western Red Cedar, at a staggering 56 metres (182 feet) is the largest tree in all of Canada.
Caren Range Yellow Cedar
The Caren Range on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast is thought to be the oldest known closed-canopy rainforest in the country. The area consists largely of ancient Hemlock, Balsam and Yellow Cedar. The ecosystem is also home to colonies of marbled murrelets, small seabirds that nest exclusively in old-growth forests.
While the site is now largely protected, one particularly giant tree was unfortunately lost to a logging operation in 1980. The volunteer group, Friends of Caren, intent on saving the range, found the stump of the massive Yellow Cedar that revealed itself to be 1,835 years old.
BC BigTree Registry
Some years ago, the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry reinvigorated a program known as the BC BigTree Registry. The goal of the program is to document the province’s most significant trees--and there are many of them. Hundreds of the tallest, widest, gnarliest and most interesting conifers and broadleaves have been submitted by hikers, explorers and unwitting discoverers.
While many of the trees unsurprisingly hail from the coastal parts of the province, there are a good deal from other regions, as well. From Merritt in the B.C. interior and Keremeos in the Okanagan, to Terrace in the north and Kimberley in the Kootenays, the list sees spectacular specimens of larchs, maples, pines and more.
The registry also provides statistics. Height, width and crown spread are recorded, as well as a tree score--a formula designed in the 1920s which takes all tree elements into account and compares them to others within their species. Some trees are also accompanied by an image, oftentimes featuring the person or people who came upon them. Photographs both from recent years and the oldest dating back to the 60s, show children in backpacks, smiling, crowded around an impossibly wide trunk or adults, dwarfed next to their subjects.
Anyone can take part in the project and are encouraged to do so.
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The history of trees may, at first, seem quite straightforward. They grow and they keep growing until they no longer do. But, of course, upon a closer look, these pillars of the natural world and how people interact with them, use them, revere them, are a reflection of our values and of the kind of world we live in.
Trees themselves, especially old trees, are witnesses to the passage of time and the ways humans interact with and are connected to their surroundings. From using trees as resources to communing with them in a near spiritual sense, these giants undoubtedly play an important part in our ecosystems and experiences.
Here, in British Columbia, the landscape, the wildlife, the beauty of the natural world are such integral parts of provincial identity--and trees, the old, the young, those known and those yet to be discovered, are part of our history just as we are a part of theirs.