12. Pacific yew: Risk and reward
“Quick, in here!” I whispered.
We squeezed our bodies into the cavern of a rotted tree stump, bumping shoulders with each other and the flaking rust walls. Our sneakers pressed into wood chips, sand, and clay as we perched in the Western red cedar clinging to the sodden slope. Just below us, the creek rushed over slick logs and around mounds of ferns and mossy rocks.
A cry rang out through the damp woods. “Ready or not, here I come!”
It was always darker in the ravine. I was amazed that anything grew along its steep sides, let alone old-growth cedars and Douglas firs. The sunlight didn’t so much dapple into the understory as blob, falling in liquid blotches on the ferns and mud. Mosquitoes floated and hummed in the cool air as they searched for blood.
The ravine was long, measured in distance from home and hours of play before the call of dinner. Our parents knew where to find us, in this slip of green running through the Royal Heights neighbourhood of north Surrey. The ravine was carved by water, and still drove perceptibly down, alongside the rushing cars of Scott Road Hill and toward the flats surrounding the Fraser River. The creek moved alongside homes, banks, auto-repair shops, a railroad track where we laid pennies. The water continued through an underground system, flowing beneath a biker headquarters, wreckers yard, and used car lots, finally meeting the muddy Fraser.
There were two options for entering the ravine, sometimes called the gully. You could take the stairs, 100 steps and landings plunging in Jacob’s ladder fashion down each side and meeting in a walkway over the creek. From the momentum you’d built running down the stairs, your footfalls would pound and echo on the wooden bridge, laid over with stainless steel hatching to prevent slipping. Or you could take your chances and barrel down the side of the ravine, building up mounds of dirt and leaves as you slid, grasping at roots and vines, and taking care to not collide with innumerable wheels, shopping carts, and other crap that had been dumped there over the years.
We heard the seeker move away from us, heading toward a downed log crossing the creek, and allowed a sigh. Our shoulders softened and we moved imperceptibly apart, taking in our hidey-hole. The stump created a proscenium onto the expanse of the ravine, its long roots blending with the trunk to create an arc above our heads. Spiderwebs dotted with dust and beads of water hung in the opening and lined the flaking wood around us.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
I shifted a little closer to Derek, laid a finger to my lips. But listening again, we knew the seeker was nowhere nearby, his voice drowned out by the rush of water and the cars zipping along 96th Ave, which crossed over one end of the ravine.
With no immediate risk of being found, I began feeling around the walls of the stump, breaking the orange chips and avoiding the webs as I ran my fingers toward the roots. Most of the tentacle-like roots plunged directly into the soil, plug in socket, but to my right was a cavity—either a gap between the soil and wood, or a deep opening in the rotted root.
My sisters and I loved true crime, and were particularly transfixed with our parents’ lavishly illustrated Crimes of the Twentieth Century. I’d recently been reading about the cave where Billy the Kid and his gang hid out in New Mexico. This is a perfect place to hide booty, I was thinking, when my hand closed on something long and smooth.
I pulled out a slim rectangular box about the width of my hand and half the length of my forearm. I nudged Derek, and we stared at its black-leather surface and brass hinges. I didn’t need to ask if we should open it or not. We eased the case open, revealing a white satin lining. The case was empty but for a few links—gold, we presumed. Our fingers thrummed and, forgetting all about the game, we rushed from the stump and up the stairs to Derek’s house to tell his mom, Ingrid, what we’d found. There’d been a burglary, there must have been! A jewellery store had been robbed. A house had been broken into. We could help solve this crime. Maybe there would be a reward!
I think Ingrid phoned the police to report the discovery of the jewellery case, but nothing came of it. The case disappeared, and we went back to playing in the ravine. But from then on, the ravine took on a different hue—a place for crimes, misdeeds, or at least clandestine behaviour. As I entered my teens, the gully and numerous other ravines in Surrey became spots for bush parties—places to smoke up, drink a shit mix, fool around, and avoid falling down the steep slope when cops standing at the top shone their high-powered beams through the blackberry bushes. The ravine was thrilling and mildly dangerous. Any wooded area, by extension, became a place for risk and opportunity.
In the North Shore mountains, where hikers and skiers go missing every year when they stray from the path on purpose or unintentionally, I’ve learned to temper these risks. I allow enough daylight hours to complete a hike, I pack essential equipment (dark chocolate and peanut butter), and I always leave a trip plan with my Official Safety Checker.
“Hiking Capilano River Park with Stephen Hui and heading into the Cap watershed to find large Pacific yews. Safety,” I texted my sister yesterday morning.
“Safety,” Jenny texted back.
I met Stephen at East Cafe, on the corner of Nanaimo and Hastings (good jazz, great sausage rolls). Stephen is the author of 105 Hikes In and Around Southwestern British Columbia. The guide, which is a follow-up to David and Mary Macaree’s 103 Hikes in Southwestern British Columbia, came out with Greystone in May this year, and has been my go-to for local hikes ever since. I messaged Stephen to tell him how much I appreciated the guide and to invite him on a tree-tracking trip.
Stephen and I headed to Capilano River Regional Park in North Van and parked at the salmon hatchery. After checking out the spawning chinook and the water rushing over the Cleveland Dam, we headed into the woods, bound for a Pacific yew of Champion proportions.
The BC Big Tree registry lists the Pacific yew as 23.5 m in height, with a 2.84 m circumference and 10.4 m crown—huge for a yew, indicating a great age for this slow-growing tree. Pacific yews generally grow as a small tree or large shrub, typically in the understory alongside Douglas firs, hemlocks, and cedars. They grow to a height of 10–15 m, but can grow taller than 20 m when left undisturbed in protected areas, and in gullies.
The Pacific yew or Western yew (Taxus brevifolia) grows in the Pacific Northwest and in a few spots in southeastern BC and northern Idaho. This tree’s cones hold one seed each, surrounded by a red aril, similar to a berry and open on one end. The aril is edible—birds and rodents eat the cones whole and spread the seeds in their droppings.
The Pacific yew’s needles grow in a spiral pattern around the twig, but are flattened so they’re not obviously in a spiral—don’t think of this tree as having helix branches. The Pacific yew’s bark is scaly, thin, and red or purple, with a rosy underbark. Drug manufacturers use a semi-synthetic version of cultivated Pacific yew bark to make the chemotherapy drug taxol. This tree’s wood is strong and used for making paddles and bows—it’s similar to the English yew, which Robin Hood and his merry men likely used for their bows, and which was probably used to make the longbows at Agincourt.
Ralf Kelman nominated the Pacific yew for the registry in 1991, and has nominated and/or verified numerous Champions. Randy Stoltmann was also a leading big-tree tracker. He wrote three books about wild areas of BC, including two hiking guides for finding big trees. Stoltmann campaigned to preserve the ancient rainforest of the Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island. Tragically, he died in a mountaineering accident in 1994. A grove in the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park was named after him to honour his efforts in conserving these old-growth forests. Big-tree trackers like Ira Sutherland have taken up the torch.
I turned to Stoltmann’s last book, Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwestern British Columbia, for more information on the old-growth trees in the Capilano River valley, including a map of where to find them (novel!). Stephen and I set the GPS with the coordinates for the Pacific yew (also novel!) and headed into the woods, toward Ballantree Park. We soon emerged in the swanky residential area of the British Properties, and hiked uphill on the roads for about 15 minutes, passing multimillion-dollar homes. Vancouver real estate, now that’s the real crime in the woods.
We looped back into the forest, coming to a water tower. We knew that the Pacific yew is in the Capilano watershed, and that public access is restricted. But we figured it wouldn’t hurt anyone if we walked (with pure intention and responsible faces) for 1 km in the watershed to see a tree, right? What we didn’t plan on is the barbed-wire fence enclosing the watershed—perfectly understandable, since the area holds our drinking water. After skirting a section of the perimeter, we found a way to get in should we want to, but decided it wasn’t worth being “prosecuted” for trying to find the yew. There are crimes in the woods, and crimes of the woods, including rampant clearcutting of old-growth and tree poaching. While trespassing is sometimes worth the risk, it can also result in official misdemeanours that I don’t want shadowing me on this big-tree journey.
Metro Vancouver offers watershed tours in July and August, so I emailed them today to ask if it’s possible to arrange a special trip to see the Pacific yew. My tree-tracking project is steadily expanding my comfort with risk (see basically every post so far) but I also know when to fold ’em.
We set out on a section of the Baden Powell Trail that Stephen hadn’t hiked yet. These trails run along lower Hollyburn Mountain. Near the Brothers Creek forestry road, we saw the candelabra tree, a Douglas fir more than 61 m tall, and so named because of two secondary trunks growing at the top that resemble the arms on a candelabra. The area was logged in the 1920s, and some old-growth firs were left because their tops were gnarly, sometimes indicating rot inside. Other trees that grow straight but have twisted trunks, like the candelabra tree, were also spared.
The area where I grew up in north Surrey has a fair amount of old-growth cedars and firs, spread out among the houses, parks, and in the ravines. I wonder now if these trees were spared because of perceived “weaknesses” in the wood. Before I moved to Toronto, I assumed that trees everywhere were that tall; dreams of these tall trees compelled me to move back home to BC.
Along the trail, we found railway spikes from the logging railway, and rusted buckets. We also saw numerous “faces” in the springboard cut marks in tree trunks, which hikers have accentuated with rocks for eyes…we joined in the fun.
Back at the parking lot, we followed Stoltmann’s map to find a towering Douglas fir. “This tree,” Stoltmann writes, “just a shade over 6 feet, 1.8 metres thick, is 251 feet, 76.5 metres tall, making it one of the tallest trees known in the Vancouver area.” Near the garbage cans, we found three Pacific yews. You know what they say: Location, location, location. The largest of the three yews, leaning at a rakish angle over the path, is possibly more than two hundred years old, according to Stoltmann. It is growing needles on just its top half, which I think might speak to its general health or age.
We headed back across the Burrard Inlet, and I dropped Stephen off, making plans for a future hike. I hope we can return to see the Hollyburn Fir, an 1,100-year-old fir just a bit west from where we were hiking. Either way, a tree for another day.
“Back in East Van,” I texted Jenny.
“Safety,” she texted back.
Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), Capilano River Regional Park, North Vancouver, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh