The grey, weathered sticks poking out the top of the thick forest canopy near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island’s southwest tip look like so much deadwood to an untrained eye.
But for a man whose aim is to draw visitors to the Island’s western shore to experience the awesomeness of old-growth forests, they are a reason to get excited. Very excited.
“Those candelabra tops are a sign of ancient red cedars,” explains T J Watt, cofounder of the Ancient Forest Alliance, a nonprofit organization that seeks to protect old-growth forests and ensure sustainable forestry jobs in B.C. “When I first saw those tops, I knew instantly we’d found a treasure trove of big trees.”
The year was 2009 and Watt was searching for an accessible, iconic stand of trees that could serve as a rallying point in a marketing campaign for the Alliance. He found the tract—dubbed Avatar Grove by the group after the James Cameron blockbuster film (brilliant marketing move or majorly lame, you decide)—just a 10-minute walk/scramble from a logging road and a 20-minute drive from the logging town of Port Renfrew.
Thanks to the Alliance’s efforts, this extraordinary collection of giant western red cedars, Douglas firs, and Sitka spruces—which is estimated to be between 500 and 1,000 years old—has been mapped and is now protected from logging.
Finding the grove takes a bit of pre-trip planning. There are no location markers, just paper signs in plastic sleeves and flagging tape hanging from trees to mark the starting point of the primitive trail. Visitors will need a map (available for free on the Alliance’s website) or, better yet, a guide to find the giants. Watt is happy to lead groups to the most impressive trees, including, in his words, “Canada’s gnarliest”: a massive cedar with a four-metre-wide trunk that’s distorted with lumpy, bumpy fungus growth.
These days, the Alliance is busy fundraising to build a boardwalk to the grove. “We’ve had thousands of people visit in the last two years,” Watt says. “Steps on the trail’s steeper sections and boardwalks around the most popular trees will protect the forest floor and make it easier for people of all abilities to see the incredible trees.”
Keen for more? The Alliance’s website also provides directions to the Red Creek Fir (the world’s largest Douglas fir) and the San Juan Sitka spruce (Canada’s largest spruce), both located near Port Renfrew and accessible via poorly maintained gravel roads.
Access: To reach Avatar Grove, take Highway 14 to Port Renfrew (just over a two-hour drive west of Victoria) and follow the directions at the Ancient Forest Alliance website.