Heading Towards My Favorite Destination On Vancouver Island: The Old-Growth Forests.
The drive on the West Shore highway on Vancouver Island is a getaway to another world. The possibilities of adventures are endless throughout the southern parts of the island. For myself, I love the feeling I get when I drive through the town Of Sooke. I’ve lived in the city of Victoria for almost two years. Beforehand, I spent a little under a year in the town of Duncan. The slower pace of life works for me. I love all the things you can do in a city, but if I had to choose between city life or a small town close to nature, the second choice by far my pick of living. After I pick up a sandwich from Western Foods in Sooke, I make my way westbound towards Jordan River. Originally a small settlement for loggers in the 1880s, home to the Low-Flying Early Warning Radar System for the Royal Canadian Air Force in WW2, and hosting Vancouver Island’s second hydroelectric dam, the settlement is a destination for winter surfing. I enjoy watching the black bumps floating in the distance; those thrill-seekers are a lot braver than I am. A series of provincial campgrounds appear more steadily as I continue west on highway 14. China Beach Campground has an incredible waterfall that falls off the coastal cliff wall in an area called mystic Beach. Sombrio Beach is a camper’s delight, with beautiful shorelines that go from pebble beaches to soft, sandy beaches. The Juan De Juca Trail hugs along the coast throughout the southwest shore of the island, passing through these campgrounds. The trail is 47 kilometers in length, giving you the ability to immerse yourself in the incredible natural landscapes the western shores of Canada has to offer. As I reach the town of Port Renfrew, I turn right off the West Shore Road onto Deering Road and make my way towards the San Juan River Bridge. The view from the bridge is beautiful, offering a glimpse of the Port San Juan inlet that runs along with the community of 144 people that’s rich in history for logging and fishing. As I make my way towards a three-way intersection, instead of heading north towards Lake Cowichan as most people do on the Pacific Marine Road, I go left, to a dirt road that goes into the Gordon River Valley.
Since the end of 2017, I’ve been in the Gordon River Valley at least a dozen times. Your train of thought changes as you move slowly on a rough logging road with no reception and little contact with anyone. As I make way down the wet, muddy path, I’m greeted by my first favorite site of the area, the Gordon River Bridge. The overview of the river is incredible, especially in the wintertime, when the water levels rise. The emerald-colored water rushes through the forest and stone canyon. Not too far away is a growing adventure destination only a landscape like the temperate rainforest can create, Avatar Grove. The Ancient Forest Alliance, a non-profit organization with the initiative of wanting to protect old-growth forests, discovered the area in 2009 before the organization was founded. The members of the group alongside local businesses fought to keep Avatar Grove safe from logging. In 2012, the BC government decided to protect the grove of old-growth forests. The landscape provides individuals to walk among giants. Massive Western Red Cedars and Douglas Firs tower hundreds of feet over you. The age of these trees can span from a hundred to thousands of years old. Avatar Grove is most famously known for what locals call “The Gnarliest Tree In Canada.” My drive on the Gordon River Road doesn’t stop here. As I continue northbound on the rocky, bumpy road, I see an arrow painted on what appears to me as an abandoned tractor tanker trailer. The route continues upwards, along a rock wall on one side of the road, and a long drop down the forest valley on the other. As I hit road maker number 38, I know I’m close to my turnoff. I turn right onto Edinburgh Road, a narrower logging road that goes along Edinburgh Mountain. The route starts to get rougher, the ruts in the road sways my head from side to side. Throughout my ascent, I see clear-cuts surrounding me. My route starts to go down into the valley, towards another clearcut. As the land opens up alongside my right side, I notice a lone, tall figure in the cutblock. I arrived at what I came for; I reached my destination. As I get out of my truck, I get to see a 230 foot Douglas Fir appropriately named Big Lonely Doug. At the end of 2012, a forest engineer by the name of Dennis Cronin was out doing what he loved doing, working in the forests for the logging companies. Cronin was marking the lines for clearcutting what is known as cutblock 7190. As Dennis was walking through the untouched landscape, he stopped in his tracks, looking at one of the largest trees he’s ever seen. Dennis could have moved on, but he decided to wrap a green ribbon around the 39-foot diameter trunk and wrote on the ribbon, “Leave Tree.” Not long after, the 29 acres that were marked for logging was gone, leaving Cronin’s Douglas Fir on its own. In 2012, Ancient Forest Alliance’s Campaigner and Photographer TJ Watts was taking photographs of clearcuts in the Gordon River Valley when he discovered the Douglas Fir. Since then, Big Lonely Doug has symbolized not only the legacy of a remarkable man like Dennis Cronin but also the critical state the old-growth forests are facing at this present moment and throughout their future.
When I first laid eyes on Big Lonely Doug, I smiled. The joy of discovering a new destination is a part of the reason I go on outdoor adventures. The smile was short lived. As I looked at the surrounding landscape, I felt sorry for the Douglas Fir. The Gordon River Valley has seen it’s fair share of storms throughout its history. This isn’t the first time Big Lonely Doug has lost other trees within its vicinity. The challenge is I don’t believe a clearcut as severe as its current surroundings is a scenario the Douglas Fir has ever encountered. I make my way down through the cutblock to get closer to the base of Big Lonely Doug. You don’t fully grasp the size of these beasts until you stand by its roots. The tree is as tall as a 20 story building. One of the tallest buildings in Victoria, the Orchard House, is 22 stories high. Over seven Big Lonely Doug’s would reach the top of the CN Tower. I stood on a stump with my camera gear by my feet in front of this giant on my first visit for twenty minutes, admiring the sheer size and beauty of this living entity. Like most people, I wanted to keep it company. Then the wonder of the practices of the logging industry started to come up in my mind. Why is the government letting logging companies log rare ecosystems like these old-growth forests? I was born and raised from the South-West shores of Nova Scotia. Temperate rainforests are unknown in my hometown. Throughout the last two years, I enjoyed spending time walking through old-growth forests. The air is so clean, the energy and vibrant colors are inspiring for a photographer like myself. For the past year, the question of how long will this old-growth forest last has become more prominent as I continue to explore locations like Eden Grove, the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, and Cathedral Grove. These locations are among a handful of small fragments of what’s left of old-growth forests throughout the province. As I take one last look at Big Lonely Doug, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to do my part in providing help towards protecting these incredible ecosystems. Throughout the following entries is my effort in trying to understand a little bit of the environmental, economical, and societal adversity the old-growth forest is facing. I hope that you join me in this four-part series of taking a more in-depth look into the landscape of some of the most incredible trees the world has ever seen, and the challenges they are up against in the present moment.