4. Cascara: Are you my mother?
I was on Salt Spring Island a few months ago, accompanying Kate Harris to an author event. Over dinner, I started chatting with a writer friend I'll call Kevin, as that is his name. We were talking about adventures on foot. He mentioned his desire to walk from Churchill, Manitoba to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and I immediately said I'd go with him. Why not? Adventure.
When I returned home to Vancouver, I was describing my island visit to the fellow I was seeing at the time. While I was on Salt Spring, I'd texted with him about my commitment to walk from Churchill to Rankin Inlet at some point in the next year or so.
"Do you know how far that is?" he asked. "And how long it will take?"
"Nope," I said.
He raised an eyebrow. He is always heading off for extended ski trips into the backcountry, and is extremely well prepared. "I looked at a map," he said. "It might take you a few months. Didn't you look at a map?"
"Nope," I said. "I figure there's time to look at a map later."
I also reasoned that there would be time to procure supplies, book off time from work, buy skis, and learn how to shoot a rifle. I'm a fairly indecisive person, but I've learned that I need to be impulsive about committing to adventures and big projects. If I rationalized all the reasons why I might fail or why I am not yet ready, I'd never start. I took this approach when I moved to Toronto in 2008 to start an editorial internship at Knopf Canada, and again when I was ready to leave my job as an editor at Penguin Random House Canada in 2016. Book your train ticket, give your notice...then figure it out.
There are plenty of reasons to avoid walking from Churchill, starting with bears, cold, and distance. There are also lots of reasons not to look for all 43 Champion trees on the BC Big Tree registry, primarily my own ineptitude when it comes to identifying trees. In addition, since they were entered in the registry, some of these trees may have fallen or been cut down.
So when I went looking for a cascara in Comox a few days ago, I wasn't sure what I'd find. For starters, what the heck does a cascara look like? I’d never heard of the tree before. Internet sleuthing gave me a general idea, but you can only glean so much from an online description. You have to see, feel, and smell to really identify a tree.
The BC Big Tree registry didn't fill me with confidence in my undertaking: "When nominated the tree was located in the Lannan Forest. Current tree and landownership status is unknown."
The Lannan Forest is about 40 acres of second-growth deciduous and conifer trees, abutting a residential area. In 2004 the province sold a parcel of the forest to a housing developer, Silverado Land Corporation, which cleared part of the forest in 2010. Residents have resisted the sale of these public lands for years, and have led conservation efforts, including the restoration of Brooklyn Creek. According to the BC Big Tree Register of large trees, the Lannan Forest is also home to a notable trembling aspen (1.63 m circumference, 31.55 m height, 12.55 m crown) and a Pacific crab apple (1.3 m circumference, 15.7 m height, 13.35 m crown).
The coordinates from the BC Big Tree registry sent me to 2129 Austin Road on the Comox peninsula, about a twenty-minute drive from Courtenay. I headed down a quiet residential street around 12:30 pm on a Monday and parked at the last house on the left, a tidy home with flower baskets on the porch. From the street, I could see tall trees in the backyard—could the cascara actually be on this property? The yard backs onto the Lannan Forest, and a trail leads from the end of the street into the woods.
I decided to start by knocking on the door of 2129 Austin, ready to introduce myself as just your regular tree fanatic and could I look in your yard, please? But as it was the middle of the day, the only answering reply was a dog. I had less luck at the neighbour’s house.
I then took the trail into the forest. Despite some dumping of organic materials at the trailhead and a few overgrown areas along the path, the trail appears to be well-used—I’m sure it's a popular spot for locals to walk with their dogs. I could still hear the mighty guardian of 2129 barking as I headed down the trail, stepping over fallen logs and walking along plank bridges that would be necessary in wetter months.
Though one might mock these conservation efforts as NIMBYism pure and simple, I can understand why residents fought to preserve this parcel of forest—it was incredibly soothing to walk along mulched paths while listening to birdsong and sheltering from the noonday sun. Between November and April, it must become wonderfully damp, with streams winding their way beside and across the paths.
Once I was in the woods, I had the distinct feeling of looking for a pine needle in a GD haystack. The coordinates on the registry had led me precisely to a forest, and from there I was on my own. The keepers of the registry are working to improve the description of the Champions, including precise GPS coordinates, photos, and an update on the conditions of the trees. Ira Sutherland of Vancouver Big Tree Hiking Guide heard about my Tracking Giants project over Twitter and reached out, asking if I could provide some citizen science to support the registry. Even having the coordinates for this forest was more ample than the info for a lot of the other trees. As a beginning tree tracker, with little knowledge of what I am looking at, I didn’t know if this quest in the Lannan Forest was akin to finding the Holy Grail in a mountain cave, or a flat white in a Queen West café.
I knew from the BC Tree Book that cascara grow with conifers, and there were plenty of firs and cedars here. I tromped around the paths, looking up, down, and around. I peed in the bush (of course) and kept an eye out for dogs off leash, but I didn’t see a soul.
Cascara seemed to be everywhere, mixed in with tall conifers and maples. I found what appeared to be a grove of cascara, but none was the approximate size I was seeking.
Then, on my way back to the main entrance, I spied a large cascara and trotted through the undergrowth to take a closer look. Could this be the Champion, with its 1.09 m trunk and 12.4 m crown? That Champion, at 17.8 m tall, was verified by Chris Walther in 2003. The tree I whispered to was not forthcoming with its Champion status. Quick estimates of its size and a review of its bark and leaves told me that it could very well be the tree I was seeking, but please correct me if you notice from my pictures that this tree is not even a cascara. Gosh, tracking giants is a surefire way to bolster self-doubt.
This tree is located about 100 m down a winding path that begins at the end of Austin Road. Where the path forks in the forest, walk straight ahead into a grove of cascara and the tree will be on your right.
Back at my car, I brushed myself down and checked for ticks, then ate a couple of salad rolls. There’s posh for you. I vowed to shell out for forester's measuring tape so I can take more accurate measurements and verify what I’m seeing. Though my scientific treehugging is a starting place, my immense wingspan is only an affectionate approximation; citizen science demands accuracy and quantifiable data.
Gradually I’ll get the hang of this project. Nothing like experiential learning to boost your knowledge. On that note, it was time to head off to Sayward to find a yellow-cedar.
Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana DC.), Lannan Forest, Comox, unceded territories of Homalco, K'ómoks, Sliammon, Éy7á7juuthem