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First person: The quest for an ancient colossus, in the wild rainforest of B.C.

Trees of breathtaking size surround us, draped with moss and lichen, as droplets of water sparkle on the tips of endless foliage.
Canadian Press reporter Brenna Owen stands at the base of a western red cedar estimated to be 2,100 years old west of Port Alberni, B.C., on Saturday July 22, 2023. The tree, which was rumoured to measure six metres in diameter, was measured at about five metres. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Colin Spratt **MANDATORY CREDIT**

Trees of breathtaking size surround us, draped with moss and lichen, as droplets of water sparkle on the tips of endless foliage.

Decaying fallen trees have created a multi-layered understory that ensnares our group, until a fern-lined stream bed offers a clearer path toward our goal — a mass of silvery wood that vanishes, then reappears, fleeting in the kaleidoscope of green.

Self-described "big-tree nerd" Colin Spratt, 28, has a knack for spotting the shadowy grey bark indicating an ancient western red cedar.

He points out a promising shape.

"That could be it, right? It's giving me that timeless, silver wall," he says. "These little pinholes of light are painting the picture of something incredible."

Ahead of us stands a red cedar of mythic proportions and longevity. 

Estimated by core sampling to be 2,100 years old, it is rumoured to be six metres in diameter — potentially the widest of its kind on record, and perhaps the biggest tree in Canada.

Our journey has taken us along a remote stretch of coastline on southwestern Vancouver Island, to a grove of spectacular western red cedars that offers a portal to a distant time.

We entered the forest with nerves jangling from a harrowing encounter with a cougar that approached our tents on a rocky beach the night before. The predator was aggressive, and after failing to scare it away from the camp, members of our group felt there was no choice but to kill the animal in self-defence.

Now the serenity of the forest envelopes us, soothing our nerves and offering a comforting sense of smallness among the massive trees.

But we find that our ultimate quarry, this sentinel of the forest, is nearing the end of its life.

The tree is part of a generation that experts worry may represent the last of the giants as climate change jeopardizes their descendants' ability to survive the centuries to come.

'We can still protect something'

Spratt and fellow big-tree seeker Greg Herringer invited The Canadian Press to join their search last month after hearing that a western red cedar with an estimated six-metre diameter had been spotted by forestry workers scouting the area.

The pair are members of the B.C. Big Tree Registry, which has a mandate to identify, document and conserve British Columbia's largest trees.

"The sad reality is there's so little left. What drives you is this incredible desire to sort of prove yourself wrong, that it's not all gone, that there are still these mythically large trees you're reading about from the 1800s," says Spratt, who runs Ancient Trees of Vancouver, a walking tour that visits old giants in Stanley Park.

"Going to a six-metre cedar, we can say, 'The ecosystem can still sustain this tree,' which is a miracle given climate change, given the state of deforestation."

To find such a tree would "show the world that this is still living," Spratt says. "We can still protect something."

The current record-sized red cedar, dubbed the Cheewhat Giant, grows on the west coast of Vancouver Island, with a diameter of 5.85 metres. While another tree in Washington state is slightly wider, the Cheewhat Giant's height and the spread of its crown make it the biggest-known tree of its species, and the biggest tree in Canada.

Our expedition to find a cedar crossing the six-metre threshold involves an hour-long boat ride down the Alberni Inlet, before setting up camp for two nights.

After hiking for a couple of hours, a series of markers tied to branches helps guide us to the tree. The pink flagging tape is printed with the words "road location."

Looking through the forest canopy, we see the waters of Barkley Sound — but also clear-cut logging no more than 100 metres away.

Arriving at the base of the tree, "6 M" has been spray-painted on its trunk. 

The group interprets the marking to be the rough estimate of the tree's diameter by the timber cruisers who hadn't had time to properly measure it.

Their account was tantalizing enough to inspire the trip, which also includes a third member of the registry, along with Herringer's wife, Janet, and their two dogs.

Taking in the tree, the seekers realize it appears to be dead.

The trunk bears a vein of reddish bark indicating cambium, the thin living layer of a tree. But there is also rot, and the foliage appears to be huckleberries growing on the tree.

"That cambium is so healthy, but where does it lead to?" Spratt says, peering up.

A few minutes of careful examination bring relief.

A small but spry-looking branch with sprigs of cedar foliage sprouts from the tree before its trunk splits into a silvery candelabra.

The tree is alive, although Spratt says it's "clinging to life."

Herringer wraps his tape measure around the trunk to reveal a diameter belied by its striking presence: 4.65 metres.

Spratt takes his own measurement, positioning his tape lower down around the base of the tree using a method employed by the B.C. Big Tree Committee as well as American Forests, which keeps a registry of champion trees in the United States.

That diameter is closer to five metres. If verified, Spratt's measurement means the giant is among the 15 widest-known trees in Canada, he says.

Still, it's not a six-metre tree. The tape doesn't lie, the group agrees.

Spratt says he thought he'd feel disappointed by a measurement under six metres, instead he feels invigorated and inspired to continue searching.

"There is still a six-metre cedar out there. I am 100 per cent sure of that," he says later.

Indeed, after reviewing his photos in the days after the trip, Spratt has begun to wonder whether the true record-breaking tree may have been hiding in plain sight.

Trees so large, 'the helicopter couldn't lift them'

The colossal size of three trees we measured ensures their protection, along with a one-hectare buffer preserving their surrounding ecosystem.

B.C.'s special tree protection regulation, which came into effect three years ago, states western red cedars with a diameter of 3.85 metres or more are to be preserved in coastal zones. That figure drops to 2.9 metres in other areas.

If not for the regulation, the Barkley Sound giants would likely have been cut when B.C.-based company Interfor logged the area in 2021, says Herringer, who works as a forest technologist with BC Timber Sales, the agency that manages about 20 per cent of annual harvest on public land.

"There's an underlying sense of urgency because they are disappearing. We are still cutting them down," says Herringer, who grapples with internal conflict over his love of ancient trees and his work, which involves scouting areas for harvest.

Clambering through cut blocks, our group saw several wooden platforms for helicopters to land and hoist out massive, felled trees.

On the boat ride from Port Alberni, the skipper told us he'd worked in the same area, and there were "trees in there that the helicopter couldn't lift."

For more than a century, the biggest trees have been "heavily targeted" for logging, the B.C. government says. Big-treed old growth is "now very rare compared to its historic distribution, putting it at extremely high near-term risk," it says.

In November 2021, the B.C. government announced a process to defer harvesting for two years in certain highly productive forests at risk of irreversible loss, while it works with First Nations on long-term management plans.

One of the tools Herringer uses to help preserve old giants is BC Timber Sales' coastal legacy tree program, which covers four species and uses smaller benchmark diameters than the provincial regulation.

"I would like to get the legacy tree program expanded provincewide, and that's where I can be most effective, working from within," Herringer says.

Our first day on the shores of Barkley Sound is spent thrashing through dense undergrowth and navigating two cut blocks littered with stumps and splintered wood to find a 4.52-metre western red cedar estimated to be 2,800 years old.

Herringer says that estimate — based on a core sample and a mathematical formula that considers species and diameter — means the tree is among the oldest-dated western red cedars.

The tree looks healthy, he notes, with plenty of foliage.

With daylight dwindling, we return to camp, a welcome sight after 10 hours of trekking. We eat, stash our supplies and bid each other good night.

After sleeping for an hour or so, an outburst of barking jolts me awake.

A cougar has silently prowled within a metre of our tents.

I hear yelling and attempts to scare the big cat away. But it is aggressive and refuses to leave, even after being pelted with baseball-sized rocks.

When I emerge from my tent about a minute later, the cougar is dead, killed using driftwood from the beach.

Sitting in the darkness as our heart rates settle, we try to wrap our heads around the cougar's behaviour — and feel profound relief that none of us have been hurt.

The encounter underscores the risks of venturing to remote areas in search of ancient trees, Herringer says afterwards.

Climate change means 'uncharted territory' for ancient trees

As industrial logging continues to eat away at old growth, experts and advocates worry that climate change is threatening the next generation of giants.

Judith Sayers is president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council representing 14 First Nations on Vancouver Island. She says old-growth forests carry knowledge, and one of their most important teachings is sharing the conditions they need to thrive.

"You can't replicate an old-growth forest, and that's the scary part," she says.

Old-growth forests produce medicines that can't be found anywhere else, and the largest trees are used to build canoes, welcoming figures, totems and long houses, says Sayers, the former chief of the Hupacasath First Nation based in Port Alberni.

Some First Nations can no longer find such trees on their own territories, she adds.

"They'll come into our territory and ask a logging company if they could take a tree, and if they're exercising proper protocol, they would ask us first," she says.

"Retaining enough old-growth trees for our cultural purposes is really important."

Sally Aitken, a professor in the department of forest and conservation sciences at the University of B.C., says "we're entering uncharted territory" with climate change.

"A lot of our tree species are pretty resilient," she says.

"We just don't know where the edges of their tolerance are," says Aitken, whose research examines the capacity of trees and forests to adapt to climate change.

Aitken also co-ordinates the B.C. Big Tree Registry, which is based at the university, and says quite a few of its trees have died over the past two decades.

The biggest trees perform vital ecological functions — from supporting high levels of biodiversity to filtering water to storing carbon — but they're also intrinsically special and valuable as some of the largest organisms on Earth, she says.

"They're just absolutely remarkable, and when they're gone, we don't know that we'll ever see those developing to that extent again," she says.

To give the giants of the future a fighting chance, Aitken says it's important to protect areas where trees have the potential to grow for centuries to come.

"Do we know that they're going to be able to grow into big-treed old growth? Some of them probably will and some of them probably won't," Aitken says. 

"But certainly if we don't protect them, then none of them will."

Karen Price, an ecologist based in Smithers, B.C., says no one can predict whether a new generation of trees will continue the legacy of their ancient relatives.

But in a changing climate, "the answer is probably no," says Price, who served on a provincially appointed panel that advised the B.C. government on old growth.

The increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires, droughts, storms, floods and other disturbances show Earth is moving out of a 12,000-year period of relative stability toward a future characterized by uncertainty, she says.

Industrial logging has also degraded soils, fungal networks and other key elements needed to support the biggest trees, Price adds.

"We risk that we're never going to get that productivity back."

Still, old forests are more resilient than younger counterparts, Price says. There may be some coastal ecosystems where future giants have a chance to grow, provided they retain enough moisture and avoid destructive storms and fires.

"If those conditions are all right, we can continue to grow some big trees," she says.

The 'art form' of measuring giant trees

After packing our gear and piling onto the boat back to Port Alberni, we look back at the ancient silver spires jutting above the dark green canopy and wonder whether the rainforest holds the next generation of giants.

Spratt intends to return to what he calls a "miracle grove" soon, in part because he fears the group didn't have time to properly measure a stunningly large cedar we visited on our way to the "6 M" tree.

Measuring trees is an art form, he says, adding he plans to dedicate a whole day to confirming the tree's diameter, height and crown spread.

It looked healthy, with reddish-brown bark, foliage bursting from a crown of branches, and at least two separate, smaller trees growing from its flared base.

Spratt initially thought the tree could be the record-breaker, but timber cruisers had left a tape around its trunk suggesting it was just over 4.6 metres in diameter. 

That measurement was taken above our heads, far higher up the trunk than at breast height, the method used by the B.C. Big Tree Committee. 

But our group had limited time and another giant to visit.

Spratt says he later realized the extent to which the base of the tree was obscured by soil and woody debris.

"You could see that we were walking up the tree to get to where the tape was," he says, describing its "skirt" of soils, ferns, mosses and forest detritus.

We needed to return to camp, and Spratt would later lament that "we didn't have time to properly give that tree what it needs."

Spratt says he's only had to carefully clear the base of an ancient tree to measure it once before. He likens the process to excavating dinosaur bones.

"You don't want to disturb the tree or its site much at all. You're moving more minor soils and minor plants," he says. "But it would take hours."

So, is there a six-metre western red cedar in the rainforests of Barkley Sound? 

The mystery remains, perhaps until the tree seekers return with brushes and tape measures in hand.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2023.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press