“Looking for Champion trees is like trying to count toddlers in a ball pit”

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      By Amanda Lewis

      The following excerpt is adapted with permission of the publisher from the book Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest, written by Amanda Lewis and published by Greystone Books in May 2023. Available wherever books are sold. 

      “These fucking trees.”

      I spat the words as I turned slowly, peering into the brush around me. Salmonberry and sword ferns edged in on the narrow mountainside trail, crisscrossed with exposed roots. The trail had been slowly worn by hikers, deer, and larger creatures I hoped I wouldn’t encounter. Douglas-fir and hemlock boughs draped above us, their dark green needles offering shade from the midday sun. The reflective tape on my bear spray holder, shoved in a water bottle compartment on the side of my red backpack, was a beacon in the low light. Sweat stuck my striped cotton T-shirt to my back and I wheezed like a poured kettle. 

      My boyfriend, Jason, and I had just climbed most of the way up Coliseum Mountain, a mound of granite in the North Shore range, a subrange of the Coast Mountains. Across the Burrard Inlet from Vancouver, the North Shore Mountains are a popular hiking, skiing, and biking destination. They’re a beautiful vista, helping to drive up the cost of real estate in one of the world’s most expensive cities. But only a 20-minute drive from downtown, these mountains are deceptively accessible and notoriously dangerous—easy to lose the path, slip on a rock or log, tumble off a ledge, or be caught unprepared for a rapid change in temperature. Hikers go missing every summer, the lucky ones rescued or wandering out themselves, the unlucky succumbing to the elements or their injuries.

      We were in Lynn Headwaters Regional Park, usually referred to as Lynn Valley, on the unceded territories of the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish Nations. The trail we were hiking on that August weekend was rated as difficult and usually closed from October to early summer. An emerald slice between mountains, Lynn Valley is packed on the weekend with hikers and trail runners, who usually follow Lynn Creek to Norvan Falls, a low waterfall cutting around boulders, but don’t venture up Coliseum as it presents a full day of trekking. The Lynn Creek trail was beaten and wide, and logging remnants rested alongside it: rusted buckets, wagon wheels, metal cables. The nature of the trail itself indicated logging; in these temperate forests, when you’re walking on a straight trail, rather than meandering around big trees or land features, you’re generally on what was once a skid road, a corduroy path lined horizontally with greased logs to facilitate an ox or horse team pulling carts loaded with huge trees. Slender trees of a single species valuable to the timber industry, say Douglas fir, growing tightly beside the path are also signs of logging and replanting.

      After hiking for two hours along the creekside trail, Jason and I had turned onto the path for Coliseum and climbed another hour up a dry slope strewn with boulders and huge stumps. Lower Lynn Valley is an exceptionally fertile site and used to be thick with majestic western red cedars and Douglas firs, some with a diameter of four to five meters, but many were cut down when the area was logged between 1920 and 1928. One, the Lynn Valley Tree, was the tallest known coastal Doug fir in 1902; it measured more than 122 meters in length—after it had been cut down.

      On our ascent, we slipped in the dense duff—rotting bark, needles, and twigs—grabbing hold of roots and logs to steady us. “Much up!” Jason said as we clung to the slope, catching our breath. Vertical advancement seemed to be a common theme of our pastimes: indoor bouldering, hiking. Jason was always up for what I was up for, and I was usually up for folly.

      He had been in a foul mood when we set out that morning, upset about some work drama, and I hadn’t slept much the night before, the plight of the anxious insomniac. But as we settled into our time on the trail, the exercise, fresh air, and the act of searching for something outside ourselves made us feel happier. It also might have been the aerosols from the trees, which have a healing effect on the mind and body, soothing us despite the climb. The trail up was dusty and laden with exposed rock, without much undergrowth, but where the path leveled out, the air became cooler and moister. We were met with a rich understory of salal, ferns, and thimbleberries. A mix of old-growth cedar, Doug fir, and hemlock towered over us. I wondered if the logging had stopped here because it would have been too much work to haul trees any farther.

      I stood akimbo and surveyed the forest, catching my breath. On one side of the trail, a steep slope, lined with rocky debris from an avalanche years earlier, led down to a tranquil blue-green pool fed by a stream and waterfall. Farther along the trail was an alpine meadow with wildflowers and, beyond that, the top of Coliseum. It was goddamn bucolic, but there was no time to stop for a dip in the mountain pool. I hadn’t scrambled my way up here to find tranquility on the mountain. As Norman Maclean writes in A River Runs Through It, “You can’t catch fish if you don’t dare go where they are.”

      I was hunting big trees. My quarry, the Champion western hemlock in British Columbia, was supposed to be about 50 feet away from the trail on a gently sloping incline. This trip was my third time looking for this Champion, the largest known tree of its species in the province. Two previous times that year, I’d tried but had to turn around due to poor weather and trail conditions.

      In theory, I couldn’t miss the tree: it was last measured in 1999 at 45.7 metres tall with a diameter at breast height (DBH) of 3.05 metres. That’s about the height of four telephone poles and the width of two pool cues, end to end. This western hemlock is the fourth biggest known anywhere, and it has the widest DBH ever recorded. I’d jotted down the measurements from the BC Big Tree Registry, an online database that records the sizes and locations of significant native trees. My notes indicated that the western hemlock’s top had fallen off but that it had five or six new leaders (the thickest, uppermost branches) forming a candelabra shape at the top—imagine several flexed Popeye arms extending off the trunk. I hadn’t found recent photos of the tree online, and it was anyone’s guess whether it was still standing.

      In this way, tree tracking is different from, say, mountaineering. One extreme mountaineering goal is to summit the 14 peaks that are 8,000-plus metres above sea level, all located in the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. While climbing each 8,000-metre peak is exceedingly difficult and often deadly, at least it is possible to keep score of your successes and failures; the mountains remain largely intact for millennia, and there are no undiscovered 8,000-metre peaks to add to the list. But trees are mortal: they keep growing, and they are susceptible to fire, drought, wind, and insects. You can find a Champion only to have your achievement erased when that tree dies or is replaced by a larger specimen. Looking for Champion trees is like trying to count toddlers in a ball pit.

      I’d been on the trail of Champion trees for over a year by this point and hadn’t had anything to show for many months. I could measure a tree’s circumference and its crown spread (if I had a buddy to hold the other end of the tape for me), but I was still sketchy on how to measure the height. I could tell trees apart—a cedar versus a Douglas fir, for example—but I needed to look up other characteristics, such as the bark or seed cones, to determine if it was a yellow or red cedar. Western hemlock is the most com- mon tree on the West Coast, but despite having grown up here, I had never paid it a moment’s notice before now, preferring to gaze upon what I deemed the more beautiful trees: arbutus, cedar, Doug fir. From field guides and hasty internet searches, I had a fairly good idea of what western hemlocks looked like: lace-like branches, flat needles, and small seed cones. They were easy to pick out when looking at a tree line, as their flopsy leader usually drooped over whereas the similar-looking Doug firs stood erect. But this far in the woods, all I could see was a wall of green as I looked for a single tree in a forest, the proverbial needle in a haystack.