tofino rainforest - forest giants of the west coast

Tofino rain forest:
Forest Giants of the West Coast

by Adrian Dorst, Tofino

Trees on the west coast grow to spectacular size. That conclusion is pretty much inescapable to anyone who has ever driven into Tofino and observed the Eik Street Cedar (Iron Maiden, to some). But large as this tree is, it is not at all exceptional for this area. In places where optimal growth conditions prevail we can sometimes find trees that are considerably larger.

One such area is the lowland forest on Meares Island where the Big Tree Trail is located. Here you can find a number of western red cedars of truly impressive proportions. In fact, for a time during the mid-1980s, one western red cedar named “the Hanging Garden Tree,” with a girth of 20 feet, was considered the largest of its kind in Canada. I remember a CBC radio announcer remarking on how convenient it was that the biggest tree in the country had been found in a place over which an environmental war was being fought. As the saying goes, timing is everything.

After this tree’s discovery in the spring of 1984, a trail was built, and later a boardwalk, making this tree and the forest that surrounds it, accessible to thousands of visitors every summer, and in the proces, providing employment for kayak guides and boat operators as a side benefit. Like most old cedars, this tree is hollow and once, in memory of the 1960s craze of squeezing people into a phone both, we easily fit 8 people inside the trunk, with room to spare. No longer is it a record tree however. It has been eclipsed by others, measured using more modern methods.

The standard way to gauge a tree is to determine its diameter, its height, and its crown spread. From these measurements, the tree’s total point score is calculated, which are called af points (after the American Forestry Association who devised the system). The diameter is determined by first measuring the circumference of the trunk at breast height. However, anyone familiar with the giants found on the west coast, knows that this method is seriously flawed. Some trees are flared at the bottom, others have gigantic burls on their trunks, or the tree is perched on the edge of a steep incline, raising the question of where to take the measurement. Obviously, this method had serious shortcomings in measuring the giants of the west. Robert Van Pelt, a research associate in forest ecology at the University of Washington, decided there had to be a better way. And there was. For more than a decade, he has been using a laser device that measures the diameter of the trunk from top to bottom. He can also measure split trunks and large branches. From these measurements he calculates the volume of wood in cubic feet. Although he still takes measurements to determine af points, this is done purely for the purpose of comparison. For the past 18 years, with the help of locals who know the woods, or aided by forestry workers, he has been scouring the western states bordering the Pacific ocean for the biggest trees, making occasional forays into British Columbia as well. The results have been published in a wonderful book called Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast (available from Wildside Books). In it, he profiles 117 individuals of 20 conifer species, accompanied by maps, photos and pen-and-ink drawings. The results are fascinating.

How do the trees of Clayoquot stack up? Meares Island’s Big Mother, located on the south side of Lemmens Inlet at the foot of Mt Colnett, and accessible by a 10 minute walk from Miner’s Cove, is our biggest tree. It was measured by Van Pelt using the laser method, and currently ranks as the second largest western red cedar in Canada, and sixth largest in the world. In Canada, only a cedar near Cheewat Lake is larger. The Big Mother has a wood volume of 10,350 cubic feet, compared to the Cheewat Cedar’s 15,870 cubic feet. That comparison may not be entirely fair however, as the Big Mother has a single trunk while the Cheewat Cedar splits into two trunks. The Hanging Garden Tree has slid off the radar screen and is not even listed.

Growing a mere 30 feet from Big Mom is another tree that made Van Pelt’s record book, this one an Amabilis Fir (Pacific Silver Fir in the US) with diameter of 6.9 feet. While puny compared to its neighbour, this one also ranks number two in Canada for its species, and is number 5 in the world, thus slightly outranking its giant neighbour. What is interesting about this tree is that it is still young and therefore has the prospect of growing much larger yet.

One other Clayoquot tree mentioned in Van Pelt’s book is a cedar named after big tree aficionado, the late Randy Stoltmann. This one is located in the Clayoquot Arm Recreation Site on Kennedy Lake and was originally discovered and measured by Randy. While the wood volume is equal to that of the Big Mother, this tree splits into two separate trunks. Van Pelt ranks it as 3rd in Canada and seventh in the world.

Are there still other record trees still hiding in our woods? You can count on it. The forests in many areas of the sound have not been thoroughly explored, particularly not with a view to finding the largest trees. The trick, of course, is in locating them. Look in areas with optimal growing conditions. Good drainage is crucial, while deep soil and shelter from high winds are also helpful. While looking for giants, keep your eyes open for exceptional members of the lesser species such as western hemlock, amabilis fir and even western yew. Any hemlock approaching 9 feet in diameter could be in the running, as could an amabilis fir at 7 feet. For western yew, a 4 foot diameter trunk could put it in the running. While we are unlikely to find a Douglas-fir in our area exceeding the 14 foot diameter world record holder located near Port Renfrew (12,320 cubic feet), ancient giants of this species do exist in the sound, for instance on the north shore of Megin Lake, at the foot of Lone Cone, and on the steep slopes of Flores Island. A far more likely bet for finding a new champion, lies with western red cedar or Sitka spruce. Currently, a tree near Port Renfrew holds the title of second largest Sitka spruce in the world. Somewhere in Clayoquot Sound, standing alone and unknown, a larger one may well exist. So let the search begin. And in the spirit of Robert Service, remember that its not in finding the gold, its in the looking.

If you know of an unknown giant somewhere, please contact Adrian Dorst at (250) 725-1243. Visit his website to browse his superb images.
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Tofino rainforest article about the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island and other large trees in the Clayoquot Sound. Written by Tofino outdoor - and birdwatching guide Adrian Dorst.

tofino time march 2004

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