Port Renfrew’s claim to Tall Tree Capital of Canada
Wanted: Dead or Alive?
Few things are worth more dead than alive – perhaps that tick crawling up your leg, or an E.coli bacteria that ruins an entire lettuce crop – but Port Renfrew, British Columbia, discovered living trees were worth more than logged ones with the help of big tree hunters TJ Watts and Ken Wu. Founders of Ancient Rainforest Alliance, Watts and Wu make it their business to find remaining pockets of ancient forest and help turn them into tourism attractions.
“It’s easy to spot them when you know what you are looking for,” explains TJ Watts on how one ‘hunts’ an ancient rainforest. “A second-growth forest has a uniform height, a first-growth forest is messier. It has older trees, dead tops.” Watts and Wu look for forests on gentle slopes, near a road and a community with hospitality infrastructure so visitors can easily access them.
Watts estimates that only four per cent of Vancouver Island’s ancient rainforest remains, so when they discovered the 50-hectare stand just outside British Columbia’s Port Renfrew in 2009, they were excited.
“We recognized that it had the potential to be the Cathedral Grove of Port Renfrew.”
As I stand amid the towering western red cedars of upper Avatar Grove I look up, craning my neck to see a top that seems to dance with the clouds. Hugging a tree this big is impossible but I lay my arm along its trunk and wonder if this tree, alive when Europeans made contact, knew some of its relatives would become telephone poles. When Avatar Grove was discovered, logging tape dangled from several trees. Only vigorous protest by locals and nature-lovers around the world resulted in a land swap and a stay of execution for these gentle giants.
I snap a few selfies next to Canada’s gnarliest tree, unable to share them on Facebook because – gasp – this part of Canada has no cellphone service! It felt strange this morning when I headed to Avatar Grove, making sure I had a paper map and realizing if I had car trouble on the bumpy, gravel logging road I would need to flag down a human or walk back to town.
But I wasn’t lost, my tires were round, and I want to see more of Port Renfrew, rebranded The Tall Tree Capital of Canada. I stop at a large campground owned by the Pacheedaht First Nation, and draped along a sliver of sandy white beach, the waves here popular with surfers. Campfire smoke hovers in the morning air as my toes dig into sand dotted with driftwood and a half-buried Kokanee beer can.
I head towards the root ball of an ancient tree washed ashore. The polished roots tower over my head, its size hinting of a long life, the trunk neatly sheared off, suggesting a death at the hands of loggers. Port Renfrew’s economy depended upon logging for many years but now there is a new economy built on keeping trees alive.
Back in town for lunch I wander past Handsome Dan’s cottages. Not only is Dan Hager handsome but also he has been president of the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce since 2013 and led the charge to have the BC Chamber of Commerce pass a resolution calling on the province to expand old-growth forest protection.
“I can’t correlate the increase in business with tall tree tourism, but since 2012, we have seen a fifty to sixty per cent increase in business year over year,” says Hager on the impact ancient forests have had on his business. “If we look at guest comment books, many make reference to visiting Avatar Grove.”
I stop at the Renfrew Pub to get a Wi-Fi fix and food. In the shoulder season this is the only restaurant open; the only other food in town is packaged goods at the tiny general store. There is no hospital in Port Renfrew, or a RCMP detachment, or a high school. Coming here isn’t just a visit to ancient trees; it’s a step back to a time when people leaned on community to survive. Some visitors can’t make the adjustment. “I had a friend driving here, when he got past Otter Point and lost cell service, he turned around and went back to Victoria,” laments Hager.
The pub is chock full of people, not surprising for the only restaurant open in town, but I wonder how many came to check Facebook. Locals chat across tables while tourists read the menu like it holds the secrets of the universe. I order fish and chips after the waitress promises they are “very good”. Like much of Port Renfrew, her comments are understated. The fish is some of the best cod I’ve eaten, wrapped in a light beer batter and accompanied by homemade tartar sauce.
Feeling a tall-tree siesta coming on, I creep back up a winding mountain road to my cabin at Soule Creek Lodge. Perched on a mountain, the lodge, yurts and cabins offer another perspective on the forest. Where once there was a farm, lodge owners Jon and Tim Cash have welcomed trees back to the land. A glossy Steller’s jay plays hide and seek as I unpack and plan my next foray into the big trees.
From my window I can see Juan de Fuca Strait to the west, and from the shoreline to the mountains in the east, trees carpet the horizon. I breathe deeply and realize where once these trees were valued for board feet, they are now seen as important living creatures. I recall Hager’s parting words, “As a developer, you want to use the land to its highest economic value. Cutting down trees in Avatar Grove is not the highest and best use of those trees.” I slip into slumber, glad people living and visiting here are choosing to keep their trees alive.
Best places to see Ancient trees:
Upper and lower Avatar Grove – a short twenty-minute drive from town, look for signs and parked cars along the road for trailheads.
Visit the Harris Creek Spruce on Pacific Rim Circle Route Road between Port Renfrew and Lake Cowichan.
Take a tour with Tall Tree Tours and see the Red Creek Fir (the world’s largest Douglas-Fir Tree) and the San Juan Spruce (Canada’s largest Sitka Spruce). Roads can be rough so if you don’t have a 4WD and a good sense of direction, go with an expert. bigtreetours.ca
If you go:
Try Soule Creek Lodge if you like seclusion and eye-popping views. Owners/chefs Jim and Tom Cash turn out mouth-watering delicacies each evening. Book ahead at soulecreeklodge.com
Stay at Handsome Dan’s cottages if you want to feel sea breezes and walk around town. handsomedans.ca
Visit Botanical Beach aquarium-like tidal pools at low tide but be careful where you walk so as not to damage barnacles and other sea creatures.
Stop for lunch or dinner at The Renfrew Pub. The food and Wi-Fi is a great pick-me-upper.
Maps to Avatar Grove and other giant trees can be found at ancientforestalliance.org
Music lovers will enjoy the Tall Tree Music Festival mid-summer. For dates and details go to talltreemusicfestival.com
Combine a trip to Port Renfrew with a drive around the Pacific Marine Circle Route. Start in Victoria and stop in Port Renfrew enroute to Lake Cowichan and Duncan before returning to Victoria or do it in reverse.