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Travels and adventures in the forests and mountains of British Columbia, and beyond! Member, B.C. Big Tree Committee
Updated: 1 day 18 hours ago

A North Island New Year

Sun, 11/19/2023 - 15:05

“Hey Mick, I’ve been thinking about a novel way to begin 2023. You game?” The message came from Chris, with whom I’ve shared many an adventure. He was hoping to visit Vancouver Island to ring in the New Year! My response came quickly. “You’ve got my attention, so what’s the plan?” “Well, I’m calling it a mountain, a tree, and a beach. I’d like to head up to the north end of the island and have a look at Koprino Mountain, Grant Bay, and San Jo Smiley.” In all honesty, I drew an absolute blank on those first two names, but I knew the third happened to be Canada’s largest Sitka spruce on record!

I was well convinced, and the next thing I knew, the two of us were heading north on the Island Highway, several hours before sunrise. I was more than reluctant to wake up, accompanied by that ever present wave of nausea that often goes hand in hand with a lack of sleep. Thankfully, Chris was doing the driving, and in no time the Simpsons imitations were flying back and forth between us!

“Hey, hey!”

Meanwhile, the late December sun struggled unsuccessfully to emerge, and light rain began. We were glad, at least, that the roads north of Campbell River weren’t inundated with snow. Topics of discussion included a South American trek Chris had planned for February, and several of my big tree expeditions of 2022. Considering the trials and tribulations of day to day life in a mining camp- he is a geologist by profession- Chris was just happy to be getting away for a few days!

Everyone takes a photo of this classic roadside display, but take it seriously, because up here you need to be self sufficient!

Hours later, we reached Nahwitti Lake, which we had decided would be our first stop. Recently, I’d read a post from the Ancient Forest Alliance about a beautiful spruce grove there, and since Chris had seen it before, he volunteered to show me around!

Nahwitti River Trail

The North Island, especially in winter, is notorious for its rainfall, so the damp conditions that greeted us seemed entirely appropriate. All that precipitation is a major reason Sitka spruce there can grow to immense size, after all! A jolt of cool morning air soon prompted us to throw on extra layers before taking to the forest. The walk was quietly inviting, and an ideal opportunity to stretch our legs. We would soon be climbing a mountain, after all!

This forest is predominantly western hemlock, Sitka spruce, with some western red cedar Chris scopes out the largest Sitka Spruce in the grove

Or would we? Had we known of the obstacles ahead, we might have been deciding to stop for a beer (or three) and a burger at The Scarlet Ibis Pub in Holberg instead!

Still regretting not stopping at The Scarlet Ibis on New Year’s Eve, but I’ll definitely be back!….Photo is from their website, there’s even cabins to stay in!

Koprino Peak, by all reports, was a modest 808 metre hill with little technical difficulty, but we knew next to nothing about the road conditions. Due to limited time and daylight, it would be necessary to drive relatively close to our objective to ensure success, but that was not to be. Thwarted by fallen trees, unfriendly trenches, and an assortment of other hazards, we simply could not find reasonable access. Admittedly, I suppose we didn’t miss much, because the views would have resembled the inside of a cloud! Still, optimism prevailed, since there was ample time to climb a mountain the following day.

You win this round, Koprino! Off to try another road…


Road about ready to slide, with desperate logging at its worst on display
Less than impressive views, at this point! This is within view of one of the massive trenches used to deactivate the next road we investigated

Frustrated by those efforts, we soon turned our thoughts to the beach. Grant Bay, a remote cove on the west coast of Vancouver Island’s Quatsino Sound, turned out to be a revelation! We arrived in early afternoon, intending to set up camp well before nightfall. Better yet, as we reached the trailhead, the skies miraculously began to clear! The well groomed path was a luxury, and a mere ten minute stroll from the beach!

An easy trail to the beach and a few nice trees too!

Coastal forest shrubbery Rustic commode, complete with air conditioning! Well now, this is more like it!

Gazing upon the rolling surf and colourful horizon inspired limitless imagination. We could see the faint outline of Lawn Point, as the mist floated over the mountains. The ever mysterious Brooks Peninsula, which escaped glaciation during the most recent ice age, loomed in the distance. All of this improved our outlook on life, sleep deprived as we were!

Beach meets forest
Patterns in the sand

So, what did we do then?

Years earlier, Chris had attempted unsuccessfully to visit this beach, via a route which had now reputedly fallen into disuse. He was quite curious to find out whether or not he could locate the terminus of that old trail. Meanwhile, I opted for a little bit of beachcombing and a whole lot of photography!

Chris had waited a long time to see this beach. The old access was much longer, via a rougher trail which was harder to locate, and so he’d come up short on a previous attempt A picture is worth a thousand words! Breaking surf! Chris exploring the beach. These  structures on the beach, I later learned, have to do with local First Nations harvesting from the seas and are used for drying.

Time passed slowly, and several other parties visited the beach briefly, but only a few decided to stay the evening. I lost myself in the remoteness of this place, which I never knew existed only a week before. The weather was cool and windy for the most part, with intermittent rain, but the sun repeatedly persevered!

The beach 

West coast scenery!
The ever changing light
Lawn Point and Brooks Peninsula can be seen from this location
An odd green colour appeared on the horizon just before the golden hour

Just as sunset began approaching, an ethereal light enveloped the bay, and the skies took on unimaginable colours. Then, one of the brightest, clearest rainbows I’d ever seen formed a perfect arch over the seaside forest. I could not have envisioned a better way to usher in the New Year! My only regret was that my entire family could not be there to share in it all!

Suddenly a bright light enveloped the beach!


It looked for a moment like it might rain, but instead, all stayed bright




Sunset colours

Chris, for his part, did not find that old trail, but arrived back in camp to enjoy the end of the light show. We made dinner in the fading light and exchanged thoughts about the following day, as the air around us cooled noticeably. After returning to the truck for more clothing, we sauntered back to camp, then we cracked open some Mt Benson IPAs I’d brought along for refreshments (thanks to White Sails Brewing in Nanaimo).  It wasn’t long until we more or less gave in to exhaustion, and turned in well before midnight.

The blues of twilight Fading light on the surf Just before they turned out the lights!

The calm and starry night was alive with the roar of crashing surf and the sounds of trees swaying in the wind. Having seen their tracks on the beach,  I wondered whether we’d be fortunate enough to hear the calls of coastal wolves. They are, in my perception, an iconic symbol of wilderness, and I felt honoured to be sharing their home.

Coastal wolf ……Via Wikipedia (this image is the property of photographer Mathieu.S.Addison and cannot be used for profit without permission)

We awoke in the darkness on New Year’s Day, with no complaints about lack of sleep, since we’d turned in sometime around 730 pm the night before! A quick breakfast and some coffee, in my case at least, and we set off in search of San Jo Smiley!

Nautical detritus near the trailhead the previous day. Our time in Grant Bay, I am reminded once more, was all too short

This meant negotiating a network of logging roads near San Josef Bay  well before sunrise. Fortunately, Chris was able to make short work of that assignment, and it took about an hour to find the tree, which is located on Raft Main. 

Silhouette of  British Columbia’s champion Sitka spruce, San Jo Smiley, as we arrived in the twilight of New Year’s Day

A number of years ago, the reigning champion Sitka spruce in British Columbia, the San Juan Spruce, sustained irreparable damage. While it still clings tenaciously to life, it’s no longer the largest in the province. That distinction now falls to San Jo Smiley, most certainly one of the more regal specimens I’ve ever seen! It has a diameter at breast height (DBH) of 4.36 metres (14.30 feet), and measures 77.8 metres(255 feet) tall, with an averaged crown spread of 19.6 metres (64.29 feet). The trunk tapers slowly as it rises into the canopy above, which makes this giant all the more impressive! I have not seen an estimate of the tree’s age, to date.

Me and the spectacular San Jo Smiley! I stand about 6’1″, for scale….. Photo by Chris H


Gargantuan, really! In terms of volume, this tree stacks up well against any other Sitka spruce The trunk of San Jo Smiley tapers very slowly indeed! The bark of ancient spruce is always interesting to examine!

San Jo Smiley compares quite favourably with both the Quinault Spruce, and the Queets Spruce, both of which reside in the United States, on Washington’s west coast. According to tree expert Robert Van Pelt, the Queets tree is the largest Sitka spruce on the planet,  when measured by laser technology to establish total volume. On the other hand, it is sometimes argued that the Quinault Spruce has a larger recorded diameter at breast height, although substantial erosion around its base,  complicates that measurement. While I’m not certain that San Jo Smiley would outrank either of them,  it looks to me to be a strong contender for the top five Picea sitchensis, without question.

I happened to visit Washington’s Quinault Spruce this September, so here it is, for comparison’s sake. What an incredible specimen it is!


The Quinault Spruce is believed to be second largest in the world, in terms of volume, as recorded by renowned tree expert Robert Van Pelt Since I happen to be a representative of the BC Big Tree Registry , here’s an excerpt of British Columbia’s largest Sitka spruce trees, for perspective. HT=height, DBH=diameter at breast height, and Cr=averaged crown spread


It was still twilight when we arrived at the tree, and we took a fair amount of time to admire its presence. In the surrounding forest, a Western Forest Products tenure on the traditional lands of the Quatsino First Nation, there are also some other sizeable Sitka spruce. It is a place that most certainly warrants more exploration.

Chris with our Canadian champion Sitka spruce. I’m very thankful he came up with the idea to visit this beauty on New Year’s Day! A very healthy crown emerges from the darkness of New Year’s morning! A nearby Sitka spruce which was over three metres in diameter!

Our time with this legend was limited, as we still hoped to climb one of the mountains near Telegraph Cove on the way home. I had visited that area the previous October, to measure some Pacific yews for the B.C. Big Tree Registry, but that’s a tale for another time! Weather was now improving, and  we were graced by sunshine once more!

Déjà vu! Sadly, our fate in Telegraph Cove was similarly sealed, since the our quest was derailed by a combination of damaged roads, and locked gates. Nearly a year later, neither of us can even recall the name of the mountain we were after, but I suppose that doesn’t matter too much. Chris wanted to return home at a reasonable hour, and since a long drive awaited us, we waived the white flag of surrender, and returned to the highway.

An idea of what we might have seen from a Telegraph Cove mountain top, had we reached one.

Still, I felt little in the way of disappointment, since the northern reaches of Vancouver Island have a way of inspiring dreams.  Our goal had been a mountain, a beach, and a tree, and to paraphrase the late rock musician Meatloaf, “Two Outta Three Ain’t Bad”!

Categories: G2. Local Greens

Welcome to the Grand Illusion

Sat, 08/19/2023 - 08:50

In the world of trees, especially that of the western red cedar, what you believe you’re looking at can often turn out to be something else entirely! That was certainly the case recently, when Greg and I journeyed to the remote shores of Doobah Lake, on Vancouver Island’s west coast. We were answering the call of Christine, who serves as the registrar for the BC Big Tree Registry. She had recently received a nomination for a massive cedar, measuring 5.41 metres(17.75 feet) in diameter, and wanted someone to verify the details.

While most of our missions tend to be planned in advance, this one had happened on a whim. Greg simply had the day off and asked me if I was interested in locating this promising giant. If the numbers proved to be correct, the tree would be a very highly ranked specimen. Naturally, I agreed!

Four legged companions like Angus have a much easier time negotiating the brush! He’d be along to help us out.

It would be a long day of driving, especially for me. The plan was to meet in Port Alberni, then travel the heart of Vancouver Island to reach our quarry, located on a spur road off Rosander Main. We were well aware of the area’s reputation for difficult bushwhacking, but the coordinates given placed the tree less than a hundred metres off the road. Good news, right? I mean, how hard could it be?

Well, for openers, it was roughly five hours after my first cup of coffee in Nanaimo that we finally parked and began walking the road. That part wasn’t too hard, and we could even glimpse the shores of Doobah Lake through the trees. This was the kingdom of ancient trees, and it was clear that the forest around the lake was well worth exploring.

So close, but yet so far! It’s not so easy bushwhacking around Doobah Lake

Eventually, we crashed into the brush, beginning the search for this venerable giant, and immediately, we were surrounded by obstructions. Walls of twenty foot salal, twisting evergreen huckleberry, and fallen trees blocked us at every turn. Damn, it was good to be on the wild west coast again! Now, I have a personal theory of relativity when it comes to bushwhacking, which can basically be summarized as “the number of curse words used shall increase in direct proportion to the difficulty of travel.” I’m sure you can imagine the colourful language that followed! This forest had changed very little over the last ten centuries, and ancient cedars lurked everywhere. When I say lurked, I mean it, since you had to get within twenty metres of a tree just to understand what it was you were seeing!

In the quiet shadows, a massive complex of cedar soon materialized. Since we weren’t sure this was the tree we were searching for, Greg suggested “circumnavigating” the tree, just to be certain. In the end, there seemed nothing else nearby that matched the description we’d been given.

When examined from this side, one has no reason to believe this complex is anything other than a single stem tree Most definitely in that “Wall of Wood” category all big tree seekers dream about!

Now to determine its status, and gather some statistics! We examined the tree from all aspects, noting that its point of germination was quite low, and expecting its diameter to be immense. That is, until we finally walked around it entirely. One particular side told a different story, revealing that this tree was not one, but two cedars! Where the two trunks originally met, it appeared they may once have given the impression of being “merged”, but there were definitely two distinct stems present. “Groupings” like this are not an uncommon occurrence when it comes to large cedars. I sometimes think that congregating in this fashion may even aid them in growing to tremendous size!

Bark has been lost from both trees where they once have appeared merged, but clearly there are two trunks here
This angle clearly shows the truth, that the Grand Illusion is actually two ancient trees, not one

These giants can be photographed from, say, seven different angles that give you the impression you’re seeing a single tree. Alas, the eighth and most telling perspective yields the truth, exposing them as a remarkable pairing instead! Each of the individual trees is likely over 1500 years old, and we intend be revisit them to gather more information. While this duo cannot be entered in the registry as a single stem tree, it is nevertheless unique and will be recorded, for posterity.

Greg beside the tree, which looks, once again, like a single tree from this vantage point.
Ancient bark of the western red cedar, Thuja plicata

Doobah Lake is most certainly full of surprises!
Headed once more to get a closer look. This “tree” sure can give you a confusing first impression!

With a nod to the old seventies art rock band Styx, I decided, as we began the drive home, that I’d like to call this pair of giants “The Grand Illusion.” Granted, you have to be of a certain vintage to be familiar with Styx, but their popular sound was part of the soundtrack of my youth!If you love big trees, the opening words of the song Grand Illusion seem more than fitting to describe this twisted, gnarled veteran of the old growth forest:

“Welcome to the grand illusion….Come on in and see what’s happening… Pay the price, get your tickets for the show.”

Did you really think I wasn’t somehow going to make it about The Simpsons? Remember this scene? Homer playing Odysseus , seen here steering his ship, having been told by Circe: “You must pass through Hades, crossing the River Styx. As the song “Lady” by Styx plays in the background and skeletons dance on the shoreline, Homer screams “Ohhh, this truly is hell!

The original nominators perhaps felt that they were looking at a single tree whose heart had rotted away and split, but evidence showed that to be a fanciful interpretation. Still, I understood their optimism, as I have been captivated by my own first impressions many times. In the realm of the western red cedar, sometimes what you find can exceed your expectations, but not necessarily in the way you expected!

I never tire of seeing creations like these,  improbable as they are! Thanks to the original nominators for giving us a reason to visit Doobah Lake, it’s an experience we will definitely be repeating!

Categories: G2. Local Greens

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