Encountering the Ancient Trees of Avatar Grove

What better way to inaugurate a blog celebrating the dynamic nature of West Coast life than with an excursion to Avatar Grove, a recently discovered old-growth forest site on southwest Vancouver Island?

Discovering Avatar Grove

Avatar Grove

Visiting the old-growth forest of Avatar Grove

Avatar Grove was discovered by local environmental activists in the winter of 2009. Awed by the beauty and rich history of the area, they founded the Ancient Forest Alliance to help preserve this grove and other old-growth forests of British Columbia. Currently under no official protection – although legislation is underway to designate the site an Old-Growth Management Area off-limits to logging – this forest is home to some of the largest Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees in the world.

Avatar Grove is about a two and a half hour drive from Victoria, the nearest main city. The forest site is quite easy to find, and the Ancient Forest Alliance has done a lovely job of providing detailed directions to the grove. We followed the directions easily, and with the exception of a few deep potholes (which our intrepid driver perhaps could have navigated around!) and several narrow one-lane bridges, the drive is scenic and relatively smooth.

Exploring Lower Avatar Grove

The forest itself is divided into two sections – the Upper Grove and the Lower Grove, each one a spectacular example of mature coastal rainforest. We chose to start our adventure in the Lower Grove, mainly because we had parked on that side of the road. There was no sign at the start of the trail, just pink flagging tape indicating the entrance to the grove. A well-secured rope provided extra support down the steeply graded slope leading from the road into the forest, but once inside the dense forest the terrain was quite flat. There was no cleared path, but the bright flagging tape was easy to follow and enough people had made the journey to this remarkable area that the way forward was evident.

Old-growth Cedar

Old-growth Western Red Cedar in Avatar Grove

The forest was quiet, and at this point in December was incredibly wet. We had chosen a rainy day to head out into the bush (although during a West Coast winter the rainy days are pretty much the ones that end in Y, so our odds of sunshine were slim) and the tree canopy provided little protection. The ground was slick with mud and the fallen trees were so waterlogged that they felt spongy to the touch. Being true West Coasters, we were dressed for the weather – our hiking boots, rain pants, and rain jackets kept us decently dry and eager to explore.

The forest itself was astounding. The trees simply soared above us, with low-lying fog drifting around the trunks and muffling any wayward sounds. Happening upon our first truly gigantic cedar tree, we were dazzled. Standing at its base, we gazed up in search of a top that was hidden in the mist, trying to absorb its sheer size and beauty. Soon we were scrambling around it like children, climbing as close as possible, touching the bark, balancing our way along nearby logs for a better view. Marveling at the existence and stature of these ancient trees, we exhausted our list of superlatives long before we tired of admiring the grove.

Searching for the Gnarliest Tree in Upper Avatar Grove

Canada's Gnarliest Tree

Just a portion of 'Canada's Gnarliest Tree' in the Upper Avatar Grove

Making our way back to the roadway, we crossed over into the Upper Grove. The main attraction on this side of the site is an enormous Western Red Cedar that has been nicknamed ‘Canada’s Gnarliest Tree.’ It measures almost 12 metres (40 feet) in diameter, meaning that it would take at least eight people holding hands to encircle that gigantic trunk.

The terrain in Upper Avatar Grove was a lot steeper, and the rain increased steadily. Incredibly, the trees seemed even larger on this side. Knowing that we were on the lookout for the ‘Gnarliest Tree’ we stopped frequently, wondering if each impressively big tree we found was the one. But the pink flagging tape continued, and so did we. Finally we reached The Tree, and it was worth every upward step. Set off a little from the surrounding forest, this cedar was enormous and almost eerily other-worldly with its multitude of burls and gnarls. After spending some time feeling rather dwarfed (in the best way possible) by a tree so old that was likely already well established when Chaucer composed his Canterbury Tales, we headed back to the road.

Muddy Feet!

Exploring the very wet coastal rainforest!

Warming Up and Heading For Home

Arriving at the roadway, we took a moment to record the grubby state of our boots (always the sign of a good trip) before stripping off our drenched rain gear and hopping into the van. Snuggled into cozy sweaters, we shared a delicious lunch of quinoa salad while listening to the rain pound down on the roof and relishing the sensation of being warm and dry once more. We all sat quietly for a while, reflecting on our good fortune to have gained an introduction to such a beautiful wild place. Finally, reluctantly, we started the engine and headed home.

For more pictures of our trip to Avatar Grove, visit my Flickr set.

More Heart of the West Coast:

Have You Met Elk Falls Yet?

Coastal Life at Patricia Bay

A Tale of Mice and ‘Fir’ Trees

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