A Rainforest Experience in The Upper Walbran Valley

A short photo-story of a young man's solo bicycle and hiking trip into one of Vancouver island's most remote and beautiful valleys. Huge trees, magical mushrooms and bears. The trip had a clear lasting impact as the adventurer, www.IraSutherland.com, is now pursuing professional career as a forest ecologist.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Upper Walbran and Carmanah Valleys are known for their spectacular scenery, stupendously large trees and mystical energy. Anyone like myself who is curious about the association between old growth rainforests and supernaturalism should visit one of these valleys or a similar forest; however, there are few places like them left. Almost all of the world's great valley bottom forests have been cleared and probably few were as glorious as these to begin with. Also, many of those that remain are crowded by tourists, limited in size or bordered by development. The Upper Walbran and Carmanah Valleys have remained pristine thanks to their remote location on the Southwest Coast of Vancouver Island. The tallest tree in Canada, a 95 m. Sitka Spruce, is in the Carmanah Valley and the world's largest Sitka Spruce by volume is within the Walbran Valley. Thanks to their locale, neither were discovered until the late 1980s and still they remain rarely visited except by the odd adventurous camper or hiker. I passionately seek to explore the remaining ancient  forests that are seldom visited and thus retain a sense of purity and wildness. To see such forests is a beautiful experience but it is the time that I spend alone within them that makes a profound impression on me.

My opportunity to visit Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park came in June 2009. I had just completed a 50-hour wilderness first aid course in Victoria, then set off to cycle westward along the coast to the beautiful coastal community of Port Renfrew, which serves as a wilderness gateway for hikers starting the West Coast Trail. Rather than heading to the misty fresh beaches of the west coast trail, I instead went alone into a maze of logging roads that snake through clearcut valleys rarely traveled by tourists. As a bicycle traveller, roads like these serve as adventure highways, in this case, towards one of the world's most glorious forests.

In the first-aid course I learned a great deal of skills and knowledge that I am certain will come in very useful. However, hopefully not on a solo trip where any mishap can be a very challenging situation. The course was exhausting. I studied ten hours of class per day, and along with a long bicycle commute, I was primed for some nature refreshment and deep relaxation.

Leaving Victoria, I cycled west along the excellent Galloping Goose Trail rail bed to Sooke where I met my good friends Amy and Megan at the Sooke Blue Grass Festival. I was amused by the unique culture of it, but performances by oddly named groups, such as the Downtown Mountain Boys and Ol' Yella, were oddly riveting. Blue Grass is all string instruments and certain combinations like a violin, a bass, a banjo, and two acoustic guitar players, combined beautifully. Stretched out on the grass with my head on my backpack and staring up at the tall and slender Spruce trees, the blue grass sounds brought me a euphoric sense of freedom from travel that I had been with out for some time. As the sun set the final band left the stage leaving just two fiddle players who stayed and performed a thrilling fiddle off that left them cherry faced and sweating despite the chilly temperature. I never knew Blue Grass was so intense!

The next morning I purchased five days of delicious food for the wilderness ahead. Good food is needed to power on, and is highly appreciated if the weather turns foul and I end up trapped alone in my tiny tent in a deep and lonely wilderness. Here are a few wilderness food tips; I like cereal (with powdered milk) and bagels with cream cheese for breakfast, pita bread with hummus and veggies for lunch, of course plenty of smoked salmon, and cous-cous with nuts and dates for dinner.

From Sooke it was a stiff 95km with the heavy bike to Port Renfrew where I camped on a secretive beach that I had discovered after hiking the West Coast Trail the summer before. My mandate when I travel by bicycle is to avoid paying for camping at all costs. My tent spot was sheltered by salmonberry bushes and alder trees yet only 30 meters from the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. Like when I discovered it a year before, salmon berries were abundant and choice. After pitching my tent I realized that I was set up right on a bear trail and so I quickly built a wall of logs around me just to make sure a bear would't charge over me while I slept. While the sun set on the misty coast, a few shafts of light pierced through the overcast and set a fiery glow to Pandora Peak and other low mountains to the north. Sitting on a giant piece of driftwood in the salty spray and fresh wind I was stirred by the beauty before me. The west coast of Vancouver Island is one of the most striking and relatively pristine areas I have ever visited.

The night was June 21st, the summer solstice, which is a day I like to be out camping for so that I can spend some time in silence and appreciate the seasonal transition. It's important to be aware of the sun, which grows our food, builds our clouds and drives our wind.

In the morning I packed up and cycled excitedly across the rickety Gordon River bridge and beyond the civilized extent of smooth paved road. All gravel from here. The sense of adventure was thrilling and I knew I was going to have some good experiences while exploring. The road snaked along the Gordon River and meandered under a deep Sitka Spruce canopy brimming with sounds of singing birds and creaking trees. Scattered branches, huge fallen logs, and a rich undergrowth filled the forest floor. It looked dense, wild and entangled such that a hiker could barely penetrate in. Thank goodness I had the road and my bike, which cruised along at a good pace of about 15 km/hr. However, quickly the beautiful forest and its lush growth and singing birds were replaced by fresh clearcuts on either side of me. The open expanse was dotted with huge stumps many of which were two meters or more across and the land appeared ravaged and the nature destroyed. Already, I felt a longing for some semblance of the old growth forest ahead.
Further along, the mountains grew higher above the road forming a deep and wide, but very troubled valley. A rumble from behind would grumble into a deafening roar. "Good god!" I would swerve off the road just as a loaded logging truck storms past, kicking up a hell storm of dust in my face. Those trucks seemed to travel faster than sound because getting off the road in time required an urgent rush each time. Chainsaws scream from the valley walls, and truck after truck came thundering past me, each one loaded precariously with thick cedars and long straight spruce. It was a horrid sight and seemed more like a war zone than a calm remote valley but this of course is the reality of British Columbia. While the West Coast Trail hiking tourists marvel at the beaches and deep forest along the West Coast Trail they have no idea that only a few kilometers inland from the Pacific Rim National Park almost all the valleys are entirely clearcut. From studying the road layouts in my Mapbook I was expecting what I found and it was interesting to see but nonetheless, accepting the scale of it was difficult and often I kept my eyes fixed to the road in front of me rather than witness the tragedy to my sides.

That was the most active logging site I traveled through and a degree of peace and tranquility returned soon after. Through the entire day, though, I saw few old-growth trees. There were many fresh clear cuts and many healthy second-growth forests that seemed to be recovering nicely and in them I saw several deer families and a couple of furry martens. Near the abandoned logging camp of Gordon River I left the main road and headed West along a side-road called the TR2. The road climbed a steep hill and at its summit a large landslide had recently washed over the road. On a bicycle I was able to cross the otherwise impassable slide and then I cruised the long descent towards Maclure Lake where I would camp the night. Other than a single family camping at the lake, there was nobody. I was now quite far from the highway, far enough that most people would imagine to find an untouched wilderness and healthy ecosystem but most trees around me were still second-growth.

I awoke to a beautiful morning and left camp eager to arrive in the Upper Walbran Valley, which was only about 40km away. No cars were on the road but I stopped abruptly at one point as I spotted a large Black Bear ahead on the road. He was far away but coming in my direction at a quick pace. I had plenty of time to stop and pull out my camera to snap a couple photos and then a video. As he approached me he was still oblivious to my presence. Bears have very poor sight and the wind was blowing my scent away from him. Finally I let out a great yell and he fled at such an incredible sprint back down the road that a thick cloud of dust like that from a speeding truck blew up obscuring him and soon he was far down the road and out of view. I proceeded cautiously along the road but I knew he would be long gone and out of sight anyway.

Finally I left the Walbran Main and began down the short road that led towards the Upper Walbran Valley. I had not seen anyone or any animals all morning and the setting was beginning to feel quite remote and desolate. After every pass and around every corner lay another expanse of flattened forest void of spirit and life. Finally I passed by a tiny lake and aroundit were tall slender Sitka Spruce trees that marked signalled to me that i must be getting near. Following my Backroad Mapbook I took a tiny overgrown spur road and followed it down hill smashing through branches along the way. A small sign marked the boundary of Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park and I had arrived. After another 200 meters the road had fully ended at a headwall of thick brush and big trees. Above and ahead of me stood immensely tall spruce trees reaching like the shafts of giant wind turbines into the sky. The trickle of a creek but otherwise total silence accompanied my view and I sensed that the forest might exceed my grand expectations.

It had been a beautiful clear day when I woke up and left camp but here the sky was overcast, the air was still warm but it was damp and heavy. I locked my bike to a tree and repacked my gear from my panniers into my backpack and then began walking down a flagged but overgrown trail. This led to a wide and calm creek with a mossy log bridge over it, its handrail had long since wrotted out and collapsed. It seemed that few people had been here in the past many years. The trail was originally built by the Wilderness Committee and other volunteers in an urgent effort to have the valley's beauty acknowledged and saved from rapidly advancing clearcut logging. The area was declared a provincial park in 1990 barely in time to save the remaining two kilometers of valley from the advancing chainsaws. It became an epic effort to save the valley and for a while it was buzzing with activity of trail builders, bioligists, and artists. Now there was silence.

On the other side of the bridge was a clearing and the trail disappeared into a ten foot wall of tangled salmonberry. Knowing that I would never access the heart of the park without staying on the trail, I was forced to take a guess as to which way it continued and then start crawling, thrashing and powering my way through it. Picking up the trail was difficult and after 20 minutes I was still only 200 meters into the trail. I had 3 kilometers to go to reach Anderson Lake where some "rough camping" was supposed to be possible as indicated by my mapbook.

The entire way I was utterly shocked and entranced by the scale of the forest. Many of the old Sitka Spruce trees were 2 meters in diameter, the verdant bracken ferns grew well over my head and in some spots I was forced to smash through them with a blunt stick. Some tree fungui were three times the size of my head and the fungui variety was mesmerizing. Frequently I would stop and allow my gaze to follow the trunk of a spruce as it climbed into the misty clouds that swirled around its crown.

I came to a large clearing that was so entangled with undergrowth that I swore and nearly cried at the prospect of swatting my way through it. The clearing was only 50m across but its impenetrability was nearly enough to turn me back from my goal. But then a piece of wire mesh on a fallen log caught my eye. I climbed onto the giant Sitka Spruce log, which was over 2m. off the ground, and saw that it was indeed the trail. On the elevated trail I still had to thrash through thick undergrowth that climbed up its side and lay over it. But sure enough the log took me across the clearing and I was back on a beaten path through the forest.I must mention that for me a trail like this though challenging is immensely fun to walk. British Columbia hiking is often more than just walking, it is a mixture of climbing, balancing, crawling, and just generally finnessing your way through crazy complicated terrain all the while searching for the next marker, hint of path or most logical route.

Hours into the hike I crossed back over the stream that I had crossed initially. There the creek was braided and wide. It flowed softly around huge trees and islands of swamp plants with huge waxy green leaves. A fallen giant was my bridge and while crossing it I couldn't help but mutter "oh man, this is cool." As I pushed further into the valley the trees grew higher and more frequently were fat Western red Cedars with immense girths. One caught my eye as exceptionally thick so I measured it with my arms to find it was 8 1/2 arm wingspans (about 50 ft) around at shoulder height. It was the thickest tree I have ever seen.

Finally I arrived at Anderson lake and found a sign indicating that I was at the old camp. To my surprise, there were remnants of a campfire and a few footprints that must have been less than a week old. The footprints trailed off to the south end of the park where an alternative access point is. Less to my surprise, a little off from camp I found a fresh and huge cougar print. I considered a couple of spots to set up my tent put eventually decided to sleep right on the lakes edge by a sandy beach (partly because it was further from the cougar tracks). I cooked my food and smoked a spliff. The silence was absolute. The stillness in the lake was almost suspicious. From the South end of the lake where I camped a clearcut was just visible on a far mountain to the north. This upset me greatly as I realized the tiny extent of this park in comparison to the extensive lands surrounding it that were robbed of every single tree. But rather than fret I decided to concentrate on my immediate surroundings and allow myself to learn from the forest and waters that flowed through it.

On either side of the valley were forested mountains covered mostly in Sitka Spruce, but there was also old decrepit and bleached cedars standing out noticably as if in definace of the elements and time. The trees where I camped stood mysteriously still. Whisps of mist rolled along the slopes and the view constantly changed. Something was eerily calm and a touch of anxiety told me all was not normal in here. I decided not to investigate or overthink the forest but rather to get a restful nights sleep. In the morning the forest would reveal its secret. I slept deepily but was stirred once from my sleep by the loud groaning and croaking of rainforest toads all around me.

I woke up to a torrent of rain. Right... rainforest. I guess that figures. Already my things were getting damp. My tarp held well above my tent but water was pooling around me so I got out and dug channels around my tent, took a pee, and jumped back inside already very wet. I slept till noon, it was still raining hard. I read my first aid book for two more hours. I got very bored and then hungry. I had to get food and so I decided that I would make a challenge for myself. First I emerged into the storm and whacked through sopping branches to get my food from the bear hang. Then I found a great big tree that sheltered out the hard rain and started working to build a fire under its shelter. Finding the tree wasn't too dificult, after all most trees were atleast two meters thick so when I found one leaning to its side I was home under its overhang. Getting a fire going was difficult but I persevered and succeeded by finding bits of dry cedar under logs and from inside stumps. Once the fire was going I was comfy and drying wet cedar was no problem to keep it going. I had some Guatemalan dark coffee and a cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese.

By my fire I felt safe and secure so I decided to indulge in something I had been keeping for quite a while, which was to be used only for the perfect occasion. A small dose of magical mushrooms would be enough for myself in this unpredictable and potentially overwhelming environment. My stomach grumbled unhappily and very soon the stones surrounding my dry shelter were becoming increasingly vibrant. Shimmering brightly, their colours saturated and when I concentrated I could see them rising and falling in unison. Amazed by this sight I took a deep breath and watched as they took a great rise and fall. The ground of the forest was breathing. This motion was most interesting for me and I watched the scene observantly. All around me streams were beginning to form as the puddles from the ever drenching rain overflowed and linked together in flows. Soon my dry spot would be a huckleberry and cedar island in the middle of a stream. A huckleberry island, hehe, could be worse I thought. Thank you stream. Rain drops danced from above, falling all around me like liitle crystal prisms, wet but hydrating and hissing in my fire which overpowered them and burned warmer and friendlier each time I shared another piece of cedar with it. I sat for hours watching the streams grow, the shining stones breath and dancing rain droplets sing and sail from the tips of the magnificient trees that looked down upon me like an aphid on a leaf.

Then I thought, if this scene can be so marvelous than surely something magnificent must lay further along the trail. I had not yet continued south from Anderson Lake and that is where my mapbook indicated the tallest and most notorius trees to be. The rain eased so I hung my food in the friendly tree and set down the trail to find something that I must have known I was looking for. Big trees, entangled shrubs, and dripping swordferns were the medium and I was the subject and together it seemed that we were the scene from a science fiction film. It seemed plausible that here I might meet a hobbit with whom I would smoke a pipe and blow mystical smoke or perhaps it could be here that I would be frightened to come across an extinct dinosaur!.

Everything was drenched and each step was a hop over a puddle or around a pit of mud. The wetness was nearly overwhelming but at the same time incredibly beautiful. The colour of everything was unbelievably deep and vibrant, there were a million shades of green and the earthliest and deepest browns and blacks in the mud where waxy green swamp plants grew. The most striking colour of all though was from the foundation of the forest ecosystem: The Sitka Spruce. A deep purplish blue emanated off the the scaly Sitka Spruce bark. With them as the dominant tree and the majority of them being wide and reaching to the sky like pillars of a holy cathedral, this purple colour was abundant. The scene was extremely relaxing and the purple cast a mellow ambience. I remembered that blue and purple are relaxing colours and so I looked deep into the bark and found such relaxation that my mood changed entirely.

I felt very good now but I wanted to open myself up to the energy of the forest. During a few occasions in my life I have been in the perfect state of relaxation that the forests' energy could seemingly enter myself and thus stir about great amounts of peace and intense appreciation for my circumstances. One such time was while sitting on a massive log that spanned the Cameron River connecting the two majestic halves of Cathedral Grove near Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. In that experience, I sat alone for hours and as sunset occurred and the sky turned pink the world became excessively gorgeous. Each droplet of water that flowed under me was of the outmost perfection, the trees on either side of the river were gigantic, ancient and exceptionally beautiful. The ferns and shrubs below the trees and growing from the old log where I sat were full of life and I knew the bears and deer that foraged through them were harmonous and natural as were the eagles and ravens that watched over them. As I pondered the beauty of the Cameron River and my surroundings I was I realized that not only was this forest unique and special in this developed and industrialized world but it was a masterpiece of creaton itself. The landscapes and the life found on it formed as millions of variable circumstances that could have gone wrong anywhere clashed and here they created absolute perfection. As These thoughts flashed through my mind I began to feel a powerful energy passing through the great log under me connecting the two sides of the river. It was so powerful that I could hardly move at all and I had to shake myself from it with considerable effort. There was something disturbing in all those experiences; though they were in a way glorious and undoubtedly inspiring, they were also incredibly disturbed and left me feeling on edge.

 Anyway, having such an experience is never a planned event and they come in diferent forms so I did not know what would happen this time. But I was feeling very good and being that I was so deep in The Walbran Valley, guaranteed days from another soul, alone immersed in silence amidst the verdant plants and 1000 year ancient trees, this was no surprise. I had my eyes fixed to the groud as I negotiated some slippery and deep mud pits. I was hoping to keep my shoes dry until returning to my old companion the fire. Suddenly I stopped. Looking from the mud pudles to the ground ahead  my eyes found an immense trunk of thick purple scales. As my eyes climbed its trunk I lost concern for my shoes or for anything. It was by far the most incredible tree that I had yet seen. It was a monstrous Sitka Spruce thicker than I knew could be possible and it shot straight up to the sky as if it were determined to find the sun throgh the creamy clouds. It had an enormous growth about 4 meters up which made it look ancient, wise, and unique. This ancient being literally took my breath away and my heart pounded heavy beats. Like an explorer looking for treasure my heart skipped beats as I knew I had found what I had been searching for. I wanted to be inside this tree, to know what its seen, to feel its magnificence and get a feel for the energy which is blasted into it by the constant wind, the tremendous and frequent storms and the occasional rays of sun.

A little wind whispered around us and shook the leaves and branches that reached out towards me. I reached out towards the branch to my right and swayed my arm as if to mock its movement. A connection was made. I began to roll my arms around, sway my head, and bend and shake my knees. How could such a rigid person blend into the flow of nature? To feel the forest I had to move like the forest. Sublimity consumed me and my thoughts flushed into the oxygen rich air around me, my body disappeared below me and for a moment I didn't exist at all. Harmony overtook my being and I was no more myself than I was the branches, the wind or this great tree before me.

Such a strange sensation it is to have lost yourself while at the same time found exactly who you are.

I brought myself back. Realizing my experience, my body pulsated with adrenalin, my heart pounded with passion, and my eyes teared with joy and amazement. Such an experience is too much to try to explain. Even to write about it, I get shivers through my spine and water flows to my eyes. I am not of any religon, nor with much understanding of spirituality but I can still say that for me this is a spiritual experience because it leaves me so utterly satisfied as if I am enriched with knowledge or touched by a supernatural force. A skeptic might say it is contrived by my mind, but it could certainly not have occurred without being in this perfect rainforest medium. No matter how hard I stare at a concrete wall or sit in a wooden house I cannot feel any connection with the substances that surround me. The ancient forest is ripe with the marks of time as seen in the old trees and their peculiar growths, it is scarred by the energies of the elements as seen in the bleached and decrepit cedars and it is thriving in the creation and destruction of life. In the rainforest for one thing to grow, something else must die for there is only so much light and new trees need dead trees to grow off instead of the harsh acidic rainforest soil that presides.

I brought myself back because I did not no where it would take me and alone in this remote location I had to be absolutely sound of mind. I have only myself to watch over me and so perspective of my reality had to be maintained. After taking the wilderness first aid course only days before, the countless dangers of the wilderness flashed through my mind. Always the reality that when alone the only rescuer is the patient himself regardless of severity of injury must be in mind. To optimize state of mind is to maximize safety and yes I did consider this when I ate the mushrooms and this in my mind every time I roll a spliff.

Walking back into camp I felt glad to be back so I stoked the fire and cooked my dinner. While I ate my cous-cous I felt that the cougar was near but had no intention of bothering me and my fire and my huckleberry island. I felt on edge about something more than that though. Like in my experience in Cathedral Grove I felt as if I had no place to be here. I regretted building a fire and burning the wood, clearing huckleberry branches to sit by my fire, and swatting down ferns on the trail to better find my way back. Something makes me think that these last holdouts of old growth forest is where mother nature's spirit has retreated too and that these places must be treated with the highest level of respect. I can only reassure myself of my pressence being non intrusive because I try to leave little trace and I gain so much inspiration from the experiences that it urges me to encouage harmony between man and all other things living. There is so much potential in this world. From the individual level to the government and to the global level there is more efficient ways to use our resources and more holistic ways to respect the environment and all things that are a part of it.

I put my strange feelings aside because I knew they would not help my circumstances. Going to bed I felt satisfied by my day but worried for the next. I had planned to stay only one night but due to the heavy rain I stayed for a second. With minimal food I had no choice to leave the forest in the morning and return to the city with all its stress, confusion, pollution and ignorance for what nature truly is. My concern was not where I was going but for the exit itself. The forest was drenched and my difficult walk in would be intensified by deep mud pits, slippery green logs and millions of slick roots. Also, the old trail would be difficult to follow as branches hung down low entwined and drenching to the touch.

I woke up at 5AM to the sound of continuing heavy rain. I ran for my food and came back to eat a bagel and have a big cup of fresh hot Guatemalan coffee. The delicous meal boosted my moral as I joked out loud "atleast breakfast was good," before laughing for a few seconds. Then in a haste I packed up and was on my way by 630 as morning light began to penetrate the canopy and light the deep forest. I could not believe how the forest had transformed itself in just 30hrs of rain. The gravel paths on which I had come were swift streams deep up to my knee. The beach by my camp was consumed entirely by the lake. Rather than maintain the dryness in my shoes, which had taken considerable time drying by the fire, I would plunge right into the creeks and cross them safely step by step rather than by leaps and balance movements. I cautiously maneuvered through the demanding terrain and without a single slip or slide arrived back to my bike in half the time it took me to come in.

I had nothing to celebrate yet though as I was still on a remote logging road where cars might pass each week or even less frequently. I saddled up and started up the hill towards the main road. I felt relieved when I had reached the Haddon Main because there a car would likely pass each day if I had an accident or breakdown. After a little bit more hill climbing on The Haddon I was at considerable elevation and soon I was on a continuous downhill grade. I ripped fast down the jittery road flying past a road that led into the great Carmanah Valley. A few big trees towered like fish out of water over the road on the right and I picked up speed down a steeper hill. The view opened up to misty clearcut mountains all around and I went faster and faster. Mud was spitting from the tires to my face. I cringed and squinted my eyes to see through my plastered sun glasses as I sped faster and faster. I flew past a pile of burned garbage, at the base of which was a pool of melted plastic moulded like a permanent monument to the landscape and I felt like my blood was beginning to boil. The road was smooth but at such an incredible speed my bike shook like hell and I laughed in joy as the hill got steeper and began to wind like a stream. My teeth were plastered in mud and the grit tasted good to my tongue as my wet rain gear stuck like cellophane to my skin in the high speed. Roaring like an unstoppable train I could barley see a thing through my glasses as I soared down, down and down the never ending hill. Flying around a tight bend I pulled my brakes to safely avoid flying off the road and down the steep clearcut mountainside. My back breaks were full of mud and they shuddered like hell as they gripped in. My front brakes squealed like an old car as they bit the muddy rim. The squeal gave just enough warning to avoid a great accident with a potentially harmful outcome. From between the mud splotches on my glasses I clearly looked into the ass of a huge running black bear but a few meters ahead of me. I was right on him as he veered off the side not stopping a moment to look back and see what this squealing terror upon him was. My heart pounded with adrenaline, a cold sweat quickly flushed onto my skin and I laughed aloud as I again let gravity accelerate my bike to thundering speed. I began screaming and laughing like mad and it felt liberating and empowering. Fuel the madness! The Caycuse river was visible flowing along the valley below me and soon I was down along side it at the end of the hill and at the end of my adventure in the middle of another great clear-cut. Right then a bumbling camper van swerved around potholes and past me down the Carmanah Main. They didn't stop to admire me, a crazy Canadian cyclist plastered in mud, soaked to the bone and smiling through his shivers.

                                                                           Port Renfrew

Walbran Valley