Trees as tourist attractions

🕔May 28, 2007

We have a rough road to travel, but Dick Bellis, Haida carver and tour guide extraordinaire, says it will all be worth it.

“You know about Howard Hughes?” he asks me as his old pickup turns onto the Queen Charlotte Main, a bumpy, muddy and/or dusty logging road, depending on the weather.

“Sure,” I reply, unsure of how a dead billionaire will fit into a trip to what Bellis assures me is the biggest tree I’ll ever see.

“Well, you know about the Spruce Goose?” he says, referring to Hughes’ boondoggle airship of the 1940s. The Hughes story melds into many others, but Bellis relates them all back to a Haida Gwaii attraction he’s taken hundreds of tourists to see—a 700-year-old, 55-foot-circumference mother of all spruce trees.

According to Bellis, the best spruce in the world grows here on Haida Gwaii. Countless paddles have been carved from Sitka Spruce because the wood is nearly impossible to break. “And you don’t get slivers either,” he says.

Continuing with his tale, Bellis says that island spruce is not like mainland spruce—a spindly species that grows like hair on a dog’s back. With winter winds of 160 kilometres per hour blasting through the forests, local trees are flexing all the time, he says. He doesn’t know if there is any truth to the rumour that Hughes’ behemoth aircraft, with a wingspan longer than a football field and built to carry 750 World War II troops, was constructed with island spruce, but he does know how important the species is and has been to his people.

The trees get tougher and tougher as they grow, perfect for Haida purposes—weapons and paddles, he says.

But why is this particular tree, about 200 metres back from the Yakoun River and just past the point where a bridge washed out 25 years ago, so darn big? The surrounding stand is impressive, but none of the trees share the girth of this one. (Bellis is quick to point out this is no flaring-at-the-bottom-like-a-Redwood kind of tree, but rises straight out of the ground like a fat cigar.)

Thanks to a professor at the University of Victoria, Bellis thinks he’s figured it out. Thomas Reimchen—known on the islands as Stickleback Tom—studies bears and fish, and discovered a link between the marine nutrients left in the forest by salmon-hungry bears and the growth of plant life there.

Bellis observes that this spot on the Yakoun provides perfect access for bears, whereas elsewhere along its meandering path its banks are steep and slippery. The river here is shallow and slow by a sandbar, and the water laps gently up to the forest floor. He envisions bears over the centuries gorging themselves here on the bank and dropping their discarded fish remains near the growing tree.

We approach the spruce and Bellis warns that I might not even see it from 100 metres away. Many have tried and failed to find the big old tree. And he’s right: I don’t notice it until we come around and approach from a different angle, and whammo!—there’s the biggest tree I’ll ever see.

Bellis says he once went to Radley Park in Kitimat, to see a Sitka Spruce that is also touted to be “the biggest tree.” It is so big it is written up in the province’s Big Tree registry, but Bellis says it is nothing compared to the jaw-dropping power of this one. I don’t ask why the Haida Gwaii spruce, if it is so big, isn’t included in the registry—I just take his word for it. Later, when I find out the Spruce Goose wasn’t even made of spruce (it was mostly birch), I start to wonder about Bellis’s tales. Hmm, I think I’ll take a trip to Kitimat myself.

What the heck?

Now if you liked that story, let me tell you about the Peeing Tree. Drive up the Nisga’a Highway from Terrace toward the Nass Valley, and you may notice a large cottonwood in a pullout just before the tiny village of Rosswood.

The pullout is at the far end of Kitsumkalum Lake, with a view of glaciers and grand snowy mountains all around. The creek burbles below, and you can breathe in the fresh scent of spring on the wind. But wait—where’s all that water coming from?

“It does make one wonder,” says Louise Parmenter, one of the many local residents who are intimately acquainted with the peeing tree.

The three-foot-diameter cottonwood spews gallons of the clearest, sweetest water many have ever tasted. In fact, says Louise, the tree has been the main source of water for the community for many years.

Now, cottonwoods are known for growing in wet places. On the prairies, pioneers were often thrilled to see one of the big, thick-barked, shiny-leafed trees, as it meant a water source was nearby.

But what…who…how…why? Questions flood one’s mind to see water gushing from a pipe sticking out of this tree.

The answer can be found in a house 100 metres away. When the Parmenters moved to Rosswood in 1971, the only way to get water was to dip it out of the nearby creek. After a year of doing so, Don was looking for other options, and found a hillside spring gushing straight onto the mossy forest floor. He figures the water comes from a glacier on a mountain more than five miles away.

“We think it’s the best water in the world,” exclaims Don, who set about finding a way to get that water to his home with a little more ease.

So he rigged up a pipe to catch the flow, and led the spring down the hill toward the road. He considered creating a cement stand, but then noticed a big cottonwood nearby and thought that it looked like as good a place as any. He cut into the bark and ran the pipe up the tree to a perfect water-dispensing height.

The road has been widened and paved since he first rigged the tree, and the original cottonwood is gone. It meant a little more work for the Parmenters and other local helpers to move the pipe to a different tree, but the Highways foreman chipped in by paving a bigger pullout where cars and trucks can stop and fill up. In doing so, the incoming pipe was paved over, which helps add to the mystery of the tree.

The cottonwood itself has grown over the rest of the pipe, making it hard for those who don’t know to figure out the inner workings of this incredible tree.

The Parmenters confessed they were not the first in the area to create a peeing tree, there is another on the Kitwanga back-road, between Kitwanga and Hazelton on the north side of the Skeena.

More trees to wonder about

How about the Monkey Puzzle tree on Borden Street in Prince Rupert? If you’ve never seen one of these unique-looking trees, go check it out. It is on private property, but Judy Parkin takes her city tours by there on a regular basis during cruise ship season.

Native to Chile, these conifers with their spiky trunks got their common moniker from an Englishman in the 1800s who quipped that a monkey would have trouble figuring out how to climb such a tree. How this 70- to 100-year-old specimen found itself in Prince Rupert is up for grabs, but some say the seed came from a hidden garden on northern Vancouver Island built 100 years ago by a man named Ronning. But that’s another story.

Rainforest east of Prince George?

Farther east, past the bright lights of Prince George, you’ll find more trees that are attracting a lot of attention.

Known as the Ancient Inland Forest, the big cedars in the Dome Creek area seem out of place compared with the nearby spruce (those ones like dog hairs), pine and fir zone.
But as storms sweep over the inland mountain ranges, they create a zone of elevated precipitation within sight of the Rockies. Big, fat, 1000-year-old cedars nestle into the local valleys, shrouded by mist and moss.

You can see some of BC’s best-kept secrets for yourself on the Ancient Forest Trail found on the south side of Highway 16, 113 km east of Prince George.