Visiting the North Shore Giant
The North Shore Giant was discovered in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park by Vancouver-based big tree hunters Colin Spratt and Ian Thomas last year and is now the fourth-widest known tree in Canada, clocking in at a stunning 5.8 meters in diameter. While the exact age is unknown, it's almost certain to be over 1,000 years old and possibly even close to 2,000. A discovery like this is incredibly rare and exciting, and that’s before taking into consideration that it’s right in Vancouver’s backyard!
For those who are unaware, logging of Vancouver’s immediate forests was quite thorough and didn’t officially end until a few decades ago; virtually all of our temperate rainforest is second growth with varying degrees of age, depending on when it was logged. There are old growth trees scattered throughout the region in these second-growth forests, unfortunately by fluke and happenstance rather than goodwill. The settlers, politicians and companies of the past lacked the foresight to preserve any amount of these areas for future generations.
Unsurprisingly, the North Shore Giant is located in Vancouver’s only real remaining tract of productive old growth forest. When you consider that logging of the Lynn Creek watershed began in 1863 it’s quite a miracle that anything survived, let alone a rather large swathe of original forest! Remember that old growth forests are not simply as old as their oldest trees – they are far older. During a visit to the area two years ago, Matt and I stumbled across an old logger’s camp, so there was clearly an intent to log this mountainside at one point, or perhaps it was just a camp for mine surveyors. The camp contained a huge saw, a kettle and some other remnants that were indiscernible to us, possibly a cart. I don’t know why logging plans fell through here, but I can tell you I’m very thankful for it.
As soon as we heard of the tree’s discovery, my good friend Matt Jackisch and I knew we wanted to give it a visit. It’s unfortunately somewhere in the final stages of its life and who knows how long it has left, plus both of us are quite drawn to places that have been visited by so few people. We both also have similar goals in documenting these trees by using an artistic spin. The exact location of the tree is not available online, but based on the rough description about it, we figured the tree was likely in an area of the park that we had started exploring a few years ago. There is no direct trail access to this magical place, but for us that just adds to the fun!
Due to having a busy summer and Matt suffering from complications of laser eye surgery, our plans to revisit the area were put on the backburner for a while. This ended up working out for us anyway – Matt proposed that we begin our search in early spring, after the snowmelt, but before foliage regrowth and regeneration. This would make for significantly easier travel and better visibility.
We arrived at the parking lot, equipping our bear spray and satellite communicators. The beginning of the hike is on an easy trail followed by a hike/wade up the creek. An initial assessment looked promising for water levels. To our dismay, there was a not insignificant amount of snow along the valley-bottom trail and we began to wonder if maybe we needed our microspikes. This was unexpected, as I failed to take into account that the valley has a north-to-south alignment and that these valleys receive a lot more precipitation than elsewhere! It was a mistake to use the higher elevation, south-facing slopes that I’d been shooting lately as a barometer.
When we started the day I told Matt my hopes weren't high. In the past we've failed to locate trees while having actual descriptions of the route! Despite their huge size, these ancient trees tend to just vanish into the forest background, lurking unseen. Fortunately our experience in this area helped us out significantly. We already knew where the tree probably wasn’t, and if you pay attention, there are patterns to how the trees have grown in this particular forest. If you find one big cedar, you'll almost certainly be able to spot another one nearby, usually upslope. As far as I can tell from four different trips to this area, there aren’t any notable exceptions to this rule. Follow the clusters, or veins as Matt called them!
We continued our hike down the relaxing trail, enjoying the birdsong and fresh morning air. This morning it was primarily the varied thrush, calling out with its hauntingly beautiful song, almost sorrowful; my favorite of all. Its call is often my only noticeable companion when wandering alone through the forest and I find it quite comforting.
Matt and I made our way to a spot where the trail meets a wide section of the creek. Thanks to very low water levels, we were able to make significant progress before we had to replace our boots with neoprene socks and more suitable footwear. The sun was blazing and it almost felt like a summer day in the creek bed, if it weren’t for the ice cold water and piles of snow!
As we came closer to the point where we’d need to exit the creek, we had a choice: we could do two final ice cold wades or cut through a relatively benign looking section of forest. Naturally we picked the forest route because it looked nice. This is the moment where the narrator proclaims: it wasn’t! After exiting the creek we came face to face with Oplopanax horridus - otherwise more affectionately known as Devil’s club - and other thorny flora while sinking into snow with who knows what underneath. Thankfully it was only a short distance that needed to be covered, but Devil’s club is the enemy of the bushwhacker, especially after winter when it’s harder to spot. Horridus indeed.
Once we gained a little bit of elevation and got away from the valley bottom the snow disappeared almost entirely; a seemingly counterintuitive concept, however we were quite happy about it! It was time for the best part of the day’s adventure to begin: the search for the North Shore Giant.
A chipmunk clung to a tree in the distance, scurrying up and out of sight at the sound of our arrival. We made our way past the area we’d already explored on past excursions, navigating over a minor drainage covered in snow. It was important to choose our paths carefully, as these drainages are often filled with boulders, rotten logs and random holes, making it difficult to tell what snow is safe to step on. You don’t want to break a leg or step into a buried patch of Devil’s club!
As we entered the snow-free part of the forest, it was hard to not stop and admire the beauty. Everything here is covered in various types of thick mosses and lichens, a stark difference from the second-growth forest just a few kilometers south of our position. Moss covers the forest floor and most boulders like carpet, feeling as soft to the touch as wool. To top it off, it was all beautifully backlit by the warm glow of the sun. Verdant bliss and rapture.
While we wandered I was also keeping my eyes out for vegetation that would flower in later spring, marking them on my GPS. There are few things as beautiful as an old growth rainforest during wildflower season and I plan on going back to photograph it. We continued on and it wasn’t long before we spotted our first ancient Thuja plicata (Western redcedar) of the day.
That meant it was time to gain some elevation, so up we went. We picked our way up the mountainside, following the ancient cedars. The terrain became worse and worse and trickier to navigate, with the giant nowhere in sight. I’m not great around heights ever since an incident at a waterfall and the spot we eventually found ourselves in was making me feel a bit anxious. It was looking like the tree probably wasn’t in this vein, but Matt did one last check upslope to be sure.
Unfortunately he found nothing; the vein had ended.
We turned around and picked our way back down to the lower bench to stop for lunch. I always savor the moments of just sitting around and taking in my surroundings, and not just because I have bad knee problems. It struck me how serene, quiet and special this place was and how few people have experienced it. The residents of the forest are quite active in this area, with telltale signs everywhere. Some of them probably don’t see people too often. We are certainly being watched at one point or another, likely by some fearful deer or a careful black bear. I finished up my unsatisfactory protein bar while Matt finished his delicious looking sandwich, and we began making our way north along the easy bench.
Occasionally our chosen path ended up being a game trail, making for pleasant travel. We stopped at a particularly beautiful section, taking out our cameras for a few photos. It was impossible to not be enthralled by the dappled light falling on the myriad of mosses and lichens. That being said, it certainly wasn’t always sunshine and roses – when you’re bushwhacking in the temperate rainforest it never is.
One of the most unique hallmarks of an old growth forest is the significant amount of deadfall, much of it large and well incorporated into the organic layer. Some fallen trees are easily navigated, but some require crawling underneath or careful straddling, especially if you’re unfortunate enough to encounter one that’s fallen up or down a slope! Western redcedars in particular are naturally quite resistant to decay and take a very long time to break down once fallen.
Suddenly we spotted a large cedar. It was time to follow the next vein up.
I took my time going up the mountainside, as my bad knee was getting back to the unfortunate stage where it feels like it wants to explode. We stopped to admire a particularly interesting looking Western redcedar that proved to be very difficult to photograph, despite its beauty. Matt went on ahead while I went at my own pace, picking my way up the ancient boulder field.
Suddenly I could hear Matt yelling, “I see it!”
I can’t remember what I said in return, but I yelled back excitedly and picked up the pace, much to the chagrin of my knee. The terrain was annoying, with stubborn bushes and logs strewn about the boulders. I pushed my way through and went up the final part of the incline. There it was before us, the North Shore Giant and a companion champion just downslope of it. I truly did not expect to see it on this day and I was feeling absolutely elated.
Of all the ancient trees I’ve visited, this one probably has the most unique and interesting environment. A very minor drainage runs through this area, which is apparently sufficient enough to create a happy habitat for moisture loving bigleaf maples. The tree is surrounded by ferns, boulders and these maples. Everything that can possibly be covered in moss is covered in moss. If you’ve ever tried to photograph big old trees, you’re probably familiar with the frustration of having a beautiful tree with surroundings so barren or so chaotic that it’s almost impossible to photograph.
I lost track of time while admiring the beautiful tree and scene, carefully making my way around to photograph it, doing my best to minimize any damage to a sensitive environment that has taken thousands of years to develop and mature. Eventually it was time to go and we bid farewell to the tree.
On the way down, Matt wanted to take a look at another ancient cedar we spotted across a steep ravine. I knew it would be unwise to push my bad knee any farther so I picked a spot to wait while he did his thing. Moments after he scrambled up the other side of the ravine a thundering noise roared. It was an avalanche, high up on the other side of the valley; a reminder of Mother Nature's raw power. Once Matt rejoined me we kept talking about how lucky we were to find the North Shore Giant, the excitement lingering.
I was so excited and tired that I forgot my usual carefulness when stepping on a large boulder on the hike back down the slope. The boulder began to roll and I immediately jumped off, shouting some choice expletives. It was a large boulder, weighing hundreds upon hundreds of pounds and it shouldn't have moved, but it did. It was a reminder of why I'm normally so cautious around boulders in rarely travelled terrain. Time flew by and we made it back to the parking lot, tired and satisfied.
It's not every day you get to have such a special experience. 13 hours door to door, it was an excellent day and a successful adventure! I can't wait to go back.
PS: Again I would like to thank Colin Spratt and Ian Thomas for discovering this tree. I would also like to thank Mick Bailey (AKA BC Tree Hunter) and TJ Watt for inspiring and helping to grow my love of old trees with their continued photos, stories and discoveries.
Landscape photography is a tough career and sometimes I question choosing it. If you're looking for some beautiful prints to liven up your home, don't hesitate to send me a message!