6. Black cottonwood: Just around the corner
I've seen Goodfellas countless times, though rarely from the start. In the hallmark channel surfing of a teen with cable in the 1990s, I would typically light on the Martin Scorsese film at the same scene each time: when the refrigerated meat truck opens to reveal Frankie's corpse, to the piano outro of Eric Clapton's "Layla."
Goodfellas is predicated on one lousy decision leading to another, to disastrous effect. A snort leads to a cocaine addiction; an insult leads to a murder; a lack of foresight (or knowledge of residential development) when burying a victim leads to an exhumation six months later. Despite these setbacks, the characters are drawn forward by the promise of more: money, sex, drugs. And more is often just around the corner.
When Jimmy Conway offers Karen Hill some Dior dresses for free, she must walk down to the store on the corner to pick them out. Jimmy watches her walk down the isolated street, encouraging her to keep going with calls of "It's right in there!" Karen walks far enough to look through the doorway and see suspicious men waiting in the darkened store. Realizing it's a hit, she back-pedals, tells Jimmy that she's in a hurry, gets in her car and peels away.
This scene is built on Karen going a little bit farther, hoping for a new dress but not entirely sure of what she'll find, until she opts to save herself rather than claim her couture. Though my quest to find the biggest trees in BC does not have a mob connection and associated risks, my journeys do position me in sometimes threatening territory.
With this Tracking Giants project, there is a constant push to "just keep going," even when factors suggest otherwise: bears, dead ends, lack of daylight. I know what the prize is, but not how many attempts will be required before I find it, or at what cost. But like lotto, you gotta be in it to win it. There is a reason that T.S. Eliot's line is frequently repeated when referencing adventure: "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." After all, the Northwest Passage has to be just through there, and the largest black cottonwood in BC must be right around the corner. But there is also a reason why search & rescue teams advise that, if you become lost, it's advisable to sit down. With limited outdoor skills, would I know when to draw the line and conclude that "just another corner" was just one corner too far?
From Terrace, one hot and windy morning, I drove about 100 km toward Gitlaxt'aamiks (formerly New Aiyansh) in the Nass Valley. The Nass Valley is home to the Nisga'a, self-governed and free of the confines of the Indian Act since they won back their territory in a landmark agreement in 1999, with the treaty coming into effect in 2000. As Bob Joseph writes in his introduction to 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, the Nisga'a "are self-determining, self-governing, and, most importantly, self-reliant."
Along the way, I stopped in Kitwanga and Gitanyow to view the incredible totem poles. I also visited Ts’itksim Aks (Vetter Falls), where I saw modern examples of Culturally Modified Trees (CMTs), in this case stripped-bark cedars.
I then headed through Anhluut’ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga’asanskwhl Nisga’a/Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park, a haunting lunarscape of hardened lava from a volcanic eruption in the 1700s. I was overcome by the sheer magnitude of the landscape—rough brown rock covered in lichen—and the haunting realization that the lava flow and volcanic gases killed approximately 2,000 people. I’ve never seen anything like it elsewhere in BC.
I then turned from the Nisga’a Hwy toward Gitlaxt'aamiks. The BC Big Tree registry indicated that the black cottonwood, 47.5 m in height with a 27.5 m crown, would be just before the bridge over the Ksi Sii Aks (Tseax River), about 700 m south of the Nisga'a Hwy. This BC Champion is similar in size to the reigning worldwide Champion, in Yamhill County, Oregon (44.8 m in height, 9.2 m in circumference, and with a 29.6 m crown). BC's Champions are awarded a ranking based on a number of factors, including volume, sheer awesomeness, and likelihood of making a comeback in Las Vegas.
Black cottonwoods often grow in moist areas, typically with willows and red alders, so I was in the right place beside this flowing body of water. I parked in a gravel lot and stepped out of Trouble into a swirling mass of cotton. I was in cottonwood territory all right.
Before leaving Terrace, I'd invested in a measuring tape used by loggers, arborists, and archaeologists to measure the circumference and diameter of trees (shout-out to my Math 11 teachers…er, all three of them). I approached the largest of the cottonwoods, which measured approximately 9.75 m around—large, certainly, but not the 10.68 m cottonwood I was seeking. Building on the assumption that my quarry must be over yonder, I headed a bit farther along the bank, into a small stand of trees. Scrambling around dried leaves and catkins, taking care not to slip into the river, I measured this second cottonwood at 6.5 m around.
The game was afoot.
I emerged from the woods for a scratch and a think. The registry had indicated that this Champion cottonwood "appears to be a large grove visible from the highway, yet it is just one giant tree," and other forestry koans. The trees I'd seen on the banks so far couldn't be mistaken for a grove. Then I looked across the water.
Standing on an island in the river was a double-stemmed tree that, from my angle, appeared to be several trees. It must be the Champion.
Silly me, though, I'd forgotten my hip waders. Mike Plunkard, who nominated the tree in 2014 and verified it in 2015, must have been wiser. Only those who wear rubber pants can risk going far enough.
Leaving other tree trackers to soak in the cold water, I headed west through the lava fields, intent on soaking in the hot springs. Who am I kidding: first I accidentally headed east down a rough road for 30 minutes before I realized I was off target. Back on track, I visited several sights along the road, but time was getting on and I should have seen signs for the hot springs by now, no? I mean, one wouldn't want to go too far down the wrong road…
I stopped at a pullout and drove back toward the lava fields for 15 minutes before giving my head a shake. Wasn't I on an adventure? When would I return to this part of the world? And hadn’t I gone to the trouble of packing a bathing suit, a rare occurrence for one so nude? I turned back toward the hot springs, and sure enough, as soon as I passed the point where I'd stopped, there was the parking lot and sign for Hlgu Isgwit (Hot Springs). You guessed it: just around the corner.
Up to this point, I'd seen four bears along the road, near Telegraph Cove. But I figured the hot springs must be busy, and not too far into the forest, so I brought my Wildlife Deterrent Horn™ but left my bear spray in the car.
Don't get ahead of me.
I walked for about 5 minutes through the forest and along a marshland, with the smell of sulphur becoming stronger, overpowering even the skunk cabbage. I came upon the hot springs, two wooden tubs with water piped in. Swiftly changing, less for modesty and more because of the swarms of mosquitoes, I opted for the smaller tub.
I soaked. And I sighed. And I got all Shel Silverstein up in that hot spring.
Now, I have a few tells. One I won't talk about here. The other is when I see a bear. I generally remain calm; the only indication that I am scared out of my tree is that my left leg shakes. Unfortunately, my left leg does not shake until I see the bear; i.e., it's not a useful ursus detector.
On my way back through the forest, I rounded a corner and surprised a large black bear foraging in the marshland, not 3 m from me. The bear turned and crashed through the forest, and I proceeded to clap, sing, and shake as I headed back to the car, stealing glances over my shoulder. That’s when I noticed the scat on the highway, at the entrance to Hlgu Isgwit. Had it been there when I'd driven in?
Though the bear was for all intents and purposes harmless and more afraid of me, I had to conclude that by undertaking this tree tracking trip, I was seeing gorgeous landscapes and incredible trees, yes; I was soaking in glorious hot springs, sure; but by wandering in bear and cougar territory, and driving along logging roads during the loaded season without a CB radio, I was also willingly sending myself to the store on the corner. The trick is to know when going a little farther means going too far, a lesson that came in handy when I later tried to visit a subalpine fir and a tamarack.
Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa Torr. & A. Gray), Nass Valley, Nisga'a territory