Decades ago, when I first arrived in Vancouver to teach and consult, I visited Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver. I took the main path—Beacon Lane Trail—through old-growth forest straight to the old lighthouse built in 1912 (the first one built in 1874 had burnt down) on the craggy shoreline of Point Atkinson. The point made an ideal location for a lighthouse to protect the hazardous waters off the point.
Lighthouse Park is a 75-hectare patch of rocky coastline, crowned by an old-growth forest of 70 m tall Douglas firs and Western redcedar at least 500 years old. Snugly nestled amid the urban sprawl of West Vancouver, the forest reserve was set aside by the federal government in 1874 as a dark backdrop to the lighthouse. The urban oasis now offers a glimpse into Vancouver’s wild past, when virgin coastal rainforest that covered most of the southern British Columbia coastline dripped with life.
The park features several rocky outcrops on the ocean shore, which provide spectacular views of the Salish Sea, downtown Vancouver, Stanley Park and Bowen Island.
I returned there recently for a visit and—unlike the first time when I beelined for the lighthouse and the ocean—I came to witness and experience the old-growth forest enclave, dense with thriving first-growth Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga mensiesii), Western redcedar (Thuja plicata), and Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). I went with good friend Margaret and we veered off the main trail, along the Valley Trail and Arbutus Trail to our ultimate destination: The Valley of the Giants, where trees grow into what they are destined to be—giants. Massive redcedar with wide buttresses and stringy bark rise up like massive columns. Towering Douglas-fir with grooves in their bark up to 20 centimeters deep pierce the sky with their crowns. The understory is a tangle of moss-covered nursery logs, amid lush ferns, huckleberry, salal, and Oregon grape. Moss and lichen cover everything, forming a textured mosaic on the trees and logs, and forest floor.
We walked around deer and sword ferns on spongy ground, knowing we were treading on the organic soil created by this ancient forest. Cedar heartwood is a warm red-brown and hightly resistant to moisture, decay and insect infestation due to the oils and acide (polosylphenols) it produces; it’s the phenols, in fact, that give off its distinctive pleasant aroma. When they die, cedars can remain standing as snags (habitat for wildlife) for 125 years. A fallen cedar can remain intact on the forest floor for over a century, slowly decomposing. “This durability is the result of a natural preservative that is toxic to decay-causing fungi,” says Jeri Chase, Oregon forester, who adds that this ability does not decrease with age; in fact, it increases. Nursery logs provide rich habitat for seedlings to take root and a complexity of growing plants, fungi, liverworts, and other wildlife to thrive. These ancient trees play a vital role in climate balance. They store two to three times more carbon than second-growth trees. Because of their slow decay, the old-growth temperate rainforest locks in its biomass more carbon for a longer period—creating a slow and efficient carbon store. Even dead snags and nursery logs continue to store carbon as they provide habitat for other living things.
“Old-growth temperate rainforests are, per unit area, the largest and most long-lived stores of carbon in the terrestrial biosphere,” write scientists Urrutia-Jalabert, Malhi, and Lara in the September 9 2015 issue of PloS ONE.
The Western Redcedar is known as the “tree of life” and “life giver.” Groves of ancient cedars were symbols of power, and gathering places for ceremonies, retreat, and contemplation.
I imagined the diversity of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals that flourished here. For now, the valley was quiet; it surrendered little sound except in the gentle hush of the breeze through the conifer foliage and the occasional bird. Evidence of a diversity of life was everywhere; I just had to look.
Looking up, I spotted silent holes dug in the lofty trees by the pileated woodpecker and encountered several culturally modified redcedars. Cultural modification by indigenous peoples included bark stripping and axe marks. I also noted that the tree trunks grew in a kind of helix form (the furrowed bark of the giant Douglas-fir distinctly spiraled up; this helps it increase wind firmness and overall stability. The tree is less stiff and bends more easily with less breakage in the wind. I also read that the helix grain—which occurs in more trees than otherwise thought—helps better distribute sap and nutrients in vessels and tracheid throughout the tree.
The living stump at Eagle Point showed how the adjacent Douglas-firs share nutrients through their roots.
Looking down past nursery logs covered in moss, fern and saplings, I spotted several banana slugs lumbering on the forest floor. And nose to the ground, I observed sporophytes (diploid fruiting bodies) of several mosses and lichens. On one moss-covered nursery log, I found fruiting mushrooms, pushing through the thick moss and decaying wood.
I also saw an abundance of different kinds of lichens throughout the park. Lichens are a symbiotic organism of partnering fungi and algae, which colonize many surfaces from bare rock to dead twigs and living bark. I saw:
- Horsehair lichen (on conifer bark)—The horsehair lichen, which might be mistaken for old moss, covers tree bark in thick and long brownish-black tufts with roundish greenish-white clusters of powdery vegetative structures.
- Beard lichen (Usnea), a foliose (leaf-like) tufted and branched yellowish grayish
lichen on trunks and branches.
- Tube lichen, a leaf-like form which I found on the ground on soil, moss, twigs and rocks.
- Squamulose lichen (with many scale-like lobes) on rocks, trees and branches, and
- Crustose lichen (forming a crust) on rocks.
For answers to common questions about BC’s old-growth forests go to this page of the Ancient Forest Alliance
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.