I don’t cry easily, and that’s been true as far back as I can remember. Numbness comes more readily than tears, a sort of stoic deadening I hide behind when emotions start to bite, but that didn’t happen when I visited the Harris Creek Spruce back in 2018.
It was my first truly giant tree, a Sitka spruce of a startling, almost grotesque diameter, untapered from root to canopy. Its bark had so completely surrendered to time that no useful distinction could be made between the flesh of the tree and the blankets of lichen and bryophyte embedded therein, generations of Witch’s Hair that couldn’t have been excised with a scalpel.
This titan is tucked in the regrowth of an 1893 clearcut in southwestern Vancouver Island, and while the surrounding forest has recovered admirably from the axe – already larger and wilder than any I’d yet seen – the Harris Creek Spruce is separated from its neighbours by centuries of experience, much of it with loss.
The understory is dark and damp, and even in the unobscured fury of the noontime sun, this spruce only glowed a modest, unassuming lime green. When my heart began heaving at its base, no numbness came to stop it. I cried, quietly and involuntarily, into my hands long before I dared raise a camera, appreciating, for the first time in my life, what has been lost in the coastal temperate rainforest of the Pacific Northwest.
My wife, knowing my flaws only too well, was dubious of this story. She simply couldn’t believe that a tree, any tree, had pierced my emotional armour on a work trip to British Columbia. Even when we became residents of BC five years later, and stood beneath Western redcedars so old they flirted with immortality, she dismissed all tales of her weeping husband as romantic exaggeration. These trees were magnificent, she confessed, but they hadn’t come close to breaking her.
So, in September of 2023, I returned to that poorly marked, dirt parking lot in southwestern Vancouver Island, leaned against the disintegrating wood fence containing the mighty trunk and risen, tentacular roots of the Harris Creek Spruce, and watched as my wife cried a few paces ahead. I empathized, but I also couldn’t resist.
The Car (Harris Creek and San Juan Spruce, Pacific Marine Road)
I never knew just how sexy a station wagon could be, not until clapping eyes on a 2008 Volkswagen Passat in the extended driveway of a fella named Gunnar. It was a bright, toasty July morning in the BC Interior, about seven weeks before my triumphal return to the Harris Creek Spruce, and I was smitten. No one would ever accuse me of being a “car person” – my idea of elegant machinery is an Underwood No.5 typewriter with a fresh ribbon – but Gunnar’s VW was the machine I never knew I always wanted.
The car was mine within an hour, and its expensive tastes, for premium gasoline and fancy, full-synthetic, European motor oil just made me love it more. It wasn’t the sleek, chrome exterior or heated seats that seduced me. It was the sheer, stupid, overly romantic and entirely theoretical promise of adventure, implied by its smooth ride and ample trunk. This car would take me places, and when all else failed, I would fold down the seats, build a nest of blankets, and fall asleep in the back within minutes of reaching any campground in British Columbia, my new home as of that same July. No tent. No bear spray tucked under my pillow. Just legroom and bliss.
No emotional decision has ever paid off so handsomely, or so quickly, as when we steered my station wagon for Vancouver Island. Night after night, I slept complacently as the coastal temperate rainforest lived up to its name. Five merciless metres of annual precipitation is not uncommon, and I swear they all came tumbling down that last week of September. It wasn’t quite “vanlife,” but I was warm and dry in the back of my rolling fortress, chasing some of the largest trees in the world for $20 a night.
While the Harris Creek Spruce is unique in its character, it’s not unique in its circumstances. Several giants line the Pacific Marine Road between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew, each of them excused from clear-cuts that ripped away their kin. The Harris Creek Spruce is marked by a tiny, embossed, wooden sign on the east side of the road, easily missed if you aren’t watching for it. The others, like the San Juan Spruce, are concealed down networks of permanent logging roads, in places without signal, but where Google Maps is damn near essential. I was thankful to have downloaded the appropriate maps for this Big Trees Vancouver Island road trip before crossing the Salish Sea.
After exchanging gravel for pavement several times over, and crossing a bridge built for logging trucks, we found the ignominious San Juan Campsite, an aborted attempt to capitalize on the largest Sitka spruce in the country. The San Juan Spruce, standing big and strange over dilapidated picnic tables and vacant, vaguely haunted campsites, was struck by lightning in 2016, its magnificent crown obliterated, its upper trunk still a hollow, pale, open wound. Because so much of its 333 cubic metres bulk was lost in the blast, it is no longer Canada’s largest Sitka spruce, but its naked grandeur is still intimidating, and the tree itself is very much alive.
The largest branch of the San Juan Spruce has turned skyward, renewing the tree’s pursuit of the sun, an enormously heavy, awkward, buttressed shaft of wood mingling with the crowns of neighbouring trees in a confused mess of vegetation, leaving San Juan so lopsided that, in all decency, it ought to give up and topple over. But it won’t, at least not in my lifetime. On this tree, I read grim determination, a stubborn old man straight from an Edward Abbey novel, surviving almost out of spite.
I was surprised to see the short driveway – connecting the logging road to the decommissioned campground with a firm wooden ramp – had been deliberately destroyed, forcing visitors to park on the shoulder and ease themselves over the gap, or else admire the San Juan Spruce from a nostalgic distance, as if peering at an old memory, rather than a living, breathing, kicking being.
The San Juan Spruce is named for the San Juan Valley in which it grows, one of the largest and flattest on Vancouver Island with ideal conditions for gigantism among its trees, but you wouldn’t know to see it. Making a wrong turn on my way to other titans, I ended up on a ridge overlooking the valley, and for all my staring, I couldn’t find a square inch not covered in cut blocks. They exist, certainly, but they are scraps so small no casual visitor could hope to find them. A hundred years ago, this valley might have supported the largest big-treed forests on Vancouver Island. Now there’s just an old man, trying to remember his strength.
Eden (Eden Grove and Big Lonely Doug, Gordon River Road)
I’m rarely lost for words, prone to exposition if met in person, and downright Melvillian with a pen in my hand, but after ten paces in Eden Grove, I had absolutely nothing to say. The scale of it, the ethereal glow of sun reflected through the understory as if by mirrors, the rich, lively, colourful, passionate diversity of species, and a silence which seemed to scream in my ear, was so overwhelming to my squishy, primate brain that I was anxious, almost frightened, to linger too long in such a place, let alone press deeper and deeper on a trail for which there was no map, and no clear end. This was classic, unadulterated, dare I say pure coastal temperate rainforest, intact and underway, the movement of energy through its legions of living things uninterrupted since glaciation. Close your eyes, hold your breath, stand deathly still, and you can just about feel it.
Eden Grove strikes the soul, not just for its splendour, but for its company. To reach it, one must proceed down Pacific Marine Road until it divides into Gordon River Road, then veers right down Edinburgh Main Road. One can drive over the Edinburgh Main Bridge or park nearby and cross on foot, depending on the strength of one’s automobile. Either way, before reaching Eden Grove – marked by the affectations of engaged locals – one must pass by another of the solitary giants marooned in the centre of a wretched clearcut – none other than Big Lonely Doug.
He is a king among shrubs, his strikingly straight trunk testament to a lifetime among other giants, in which he was obliged to jockey for the sunlight. But no longer. His surroundings, indeed the valley and mountains as far as the eye can see, had been peeled away like flesh from muscle, with a single hair, a single follicle, left behind. Big Lonely Doug was different from Harris Creek and San Juan only in species – a Douglas-fir rather than Sitka spruce.
Eden Grove, a short walk on, was once the very same forest containing Big Lonely Doug, the same, continuous ecosystem subdivided by foresters. All visitors must endure the hot, dry, open, windy, bug-ridden plain on which stands a disjunct giant, before descending into the gobsmacking grove next door. In its cool, brilliant, dripping depths, Eden Grove is home not to any one god, but to a pantheon, several dozen giants looming over an intact kingdom. They are true children of the coastal temperate rainforest, its mild winters, ample precipitation, comically few natural fires, and rare, localized insect outbreaks allowing for more or less continuous growth, such that trees achieve not merely exceptional size, but also exceptional age, with some surpassing 1,000 years, and a few Western redcedars exceeding 2,000. You might say it’s in their nature.
“The best way to grow old,” said forest ecologist Andy MacKinnon, “is to not die young.”
Follow the brief trail of Eden Grove to its end, and one is confronted by just such an ancient redcedar, its wavy surface like a thousand smaller trees fused together into a single trunk. Its millennia of mass rose gracefully from a bedrock of bush and fern, and sprouting from natural gardens cupped in its trunk were huckleberries, their delicate green limbs hanging several dozen metres overhead in the space between trees, their red fruits decorating the ancient cedar-like tinsel.
The emotional tug of Eden Grove was very much like that of the Harris Creek Spruce, but while it managed to shut me up, it didn’t draw tears. I spent much of our return walk to the Volkswagen parsing out my emotions and found something I didn’t expect – anger. Over 90 percent of the valley bottoms of BC’s coastal temperate rainforest – where the soil is richest, the climate the gentlest, and giant trees grow – has been logged on Vancouver Island as well as the mainland. For every Eden Grove left standing, at least nine have been destroyed, probably more. Despite growing public adoration, and the celebrity status of Big Lonely Doug, Eden Grove has no legal protection from logging, and has been considered open for business since its discovery.
The thought of it being cut down turned in my stomach like an eel. As a rule, opposing the conversion of rainforests to plantations comes easily to most people, but the human animal relies on its senses, forming bonds with what it can see, touch and inhale, and few places have the subliminal power of Eden Grove. Tourists walk in, and radicals walk out.
Making Peace (Where to Camp and the Future of the Forests)
We slept in the Volkswagen three nights in all, once in the Little Qualicum Falls Campground west of Nanaimo, once in the Pacheedaht Campground in Elliotsville just north of Port Renfrew, and once in the China Beach Campground in Jordan River. Every night we rehydrated a bag of vegan chilli, curry or oatmeal, watched old sitcoms on my laptop, and bedded down in the trunk just ahead of the rain, falling with a regularity bordering on harassment.
It’s Pacheedaht I remember best, host to old (if not quite ancient) trees, a self-serve policy that we late arrivals appreciated, and, most importantly, a waterfront wrapped around the property like a blanket. When the rain thundered, it was mixed with sonic booms rolling in from the beach as the Pacific Ocean flung itself against shore, and the old trees croaked in the wind.
Little did I know that hiking ancient trees and forests by day, and sleeping in my truck by night, might be the salvation of the temperate coastal rainforest. Not long after my tour of the big trees of southwestern Vancouver Island, well over $1 billion was put forward by the provincial and federal governments to effectively double the amount of protected land in British Columbia, with over $100 million earmarked for the protection of intact, ancient, big treed, temperate coastal rainforest.
Where and when these protections will occur hasn’t yet been sorted out, but the First Nations of BC will lead the charge, and the dominant mechanism will be Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs), rather than provincial or national parks. Many ancient forests will be brought into the fold, and many are off-limits to logging until everything’s settled.
These efforts would never have materialized without the “radicalization” of good people by ancient forests, and the campaigns and organizations that resulted. Avatar Grove, hugging both sides of Gordon River Road before it passes Big Lonely Doug, was the birthplace of the Ancient Forest Alliance, which has fought harder than most for these widespread protections, and is now advocating a long-term solution – bring more people into the forests.
“The goal here is for some of this funding to support the development of conservation-based economies, instead of old-growth logging,” said TJ Watt, co-founder of the Ancient Forest Alliance. “There’s massive potential to expand the ecotourism opportunities in old-growth forests across Vancouver Island and British Columbia at large. People will fly from all over the world to see these ancient forests.”
It’s an opportunity which has not been seized, not really. I was amazed at how many risks were inherent to visiting ancient trees and forests in southwestern Vancouver Island. The Red Creek Fir – by far the largest Douglas-Fir on the planet – is a little deeper into the maze of logging roads containing the San Juan Spruce, but the path was too steep and narrow for my Volkswagen, and there wasn’t enough daylight left to walk.
Logging roads are rough or impassible, signage is sparse or non-existent, and sometimes visitation is outright discouraged, such as the dismantled driveway of the San Juan Spruce. Compare Eden Grove in the west to Cathedral Grove in the east – perhaps the best trafficked ancient forest in British Columbia inside MacMillian Provincial Park, west of Nanaimo – and you’ll see forests of similar calibre, but with safeties and accessibilities worlds apart. Harness the powers of the temperate coastal rainforest to sequester carbon, house biodiversity, carry out ecosystem services and support thoughtful ecotourism, and giant trees will be worth more standing than lying down. Until the money is spent, the protections are enacted, the signs are raised, the roads are paved, and hotels and restaurants and gift shops and campgrounds can benefit from something like a Big Trees Vancouver Island road trip, we can do worse than find them anyway, and sleep in the trunk.
Want to Experience a Big Trees Vancouver Island Road Trip?
If you’re keen on visiting this area and seeing its majesty with your own eyes, click here to see a map and driving directions to Avatar Grove, Red Creek Fir, San Juan Spruce, Harris Creek Spruce, and Big Lonely Doug. This Big Trees Vancouver Island road trip will give you the ultimate taste of Vancouver Island’s old-growth forest and perhaps inspire you to fight for these rapidly depleting natural beauties.