Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021
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Walking Among Giants

Carmanah Walbran Park is home to the ancient ones. This is where trees grow to be 1000 years old

Once in a while, you walk into a forest so still, so serene, that it seems to have its own language. This is Carmanah, where thick sword fern clusters cushion sounds, moss pads draped high in branches soften the rustle of birds and filtered light rays muffle afternoon shadows. In the silence you look upward, following tall tree trunks as they ascend into the sky. Reaching higher than a 25-storey building, these giants defy space and time. The trees speak of continuity.

Shielded within the Windward Island Mountains, Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park is a rare rainforest remnant. Located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the park protects an old-growth temperate rainforest and some of the tallest known trees in Canada. More than 90 sitka spruce greater than 80-metres tall have been recorded in the park. The Carmanah Giant, at 95 metres, is the world's tallest recorded sitka spruce.

The trail starts on high ground, where ancient cedars rise from a moss-covered base. As the path descends into the valley you see old growth hemlock, western red cedar and amabilis fir, with a sprinkling of Douglas fir, sitka spruce and yellow cedar.

It will take a long time to walk this short trail. There are scenic spots such as the Heaven Tree, the Three Sisters and the Randy Stoltmann Commemorative Grove. Every few steps brings you to another tree, each with its own intricate moss patterns and dappled lighting literally towering above you. It's a jarring contrast and one that commands reverence.

The more you descend the trail, the more the old-growth rainforest surrounds you. Weathered trees angle toward the light, saplings grow out of nurselogs and trunks spread so wide that a dozen people can't circle them. In an area that has been shorn by clearcuts, this valley is a lifeline for species; the spruce groves attain a biomass almost double that of a tropical rainforest.

Carmanah Creek shares in this seasoned lifespan, slowly meandering through the valley as it flows to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It dips into deep green pools and pauses in eddies, reflecting the colours of the forest. You'll see the creek several times while walking along this trail. It's the artery of this rainforest valley, flooding nutrients over the forest floor and funnelling water from heavy downpours and snow runoff.

Bordering Pacific Rim National Park, the 16,450-hectare Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park was created between 1990 and 1994. Before that, Carmanah Valley was in danger of being logged. The old-growth trees became the voice of the rainforest. Their images appeared in videos, on posters and in anti-logging advertisements. A door-to-door campaign resulted in 30,000 people each adopting a tree for $25. The trees' silent voices, combined with the work of many volunteers and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, saved the valley.

This campaign also saved habitat for the endangered Marbled Murrelet. This tiny seabird breeds in old-growth rainforests, laying its eggs on thick moss pads in tree branches more than 30 metres high. In Carmanah, a total of 36 species of birds have been identified as well as some unique insect species. Given the dense forest and undergrowth of the park, large mammal populations are limited.

A warning when visiting Carmanah: the climate is very damp, so dress appropriately. More than 3000 millimetres of rain falls annually at Carmanah Point weather station. During April to September, the rainfall averages 810 millimetres. Plan on getting wet.

Also plan on being awestruck. When I left Carmanah, a heavy mist settled into the valley. As the rainforest blurred into a creamy fog, the trees stood near the streambank, trunks towering into clear sky. When all else fell silent, their presence was strong. In Carmanah, it is the trees that speak.


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