11. Tamarack: Unpredictable conditions
It takes a certain amount of foolhardiness to continue for another hour on Grizzly Road. Though housing developments tend to take on the name of trees they displace—Walnut Grove, Cedar Hills—I have learned that areas named for large carnivores tend to point to a more current reality.
I’d been driving down a potholed logging road for a few hours by this point. Loaded logging trucks churned up dust as they barrelled around corners toward me. With the trucks pushing 70 km/hour, I had barely enough time to pull over to the side of the narrow road. But I managed to catch the drivers’ pointed look every time: What on earth are you doing here in that little car? I imagined them thinking. It’s too dangerous. With no radio to call ahead and report “Empty car at 29 km,” I had to agree.
About 75 km southeast of Vanderhoof, near Bobtail Lake and Finger-Tatuk Provincial Park, is a 19 m tamarack (Larix laricina). The tamarack is a species of larch; laricina means “larch-like,” and this variety is sometimes called the American or Eastern larch. At this time of year, the tamarack’s soft blue-green needles turn yellow and start to fall. The tamarack, like the larch, is a conifer, with small egg-shaped seed cones. But the tamarack also loses its needles every autumn, making it a deciduous conifer.
Tamaracks thrive in boggy soils and cold winters. In BC, they grow in isolated pockets of the Nechako region in the Central Interior, and in a broader area east of the Rockies.
I went to the Nechako—logging, farming, and ranching country—in early July to find this Champion tamarack, and was now facing the reality of active hauling on these back roads. I had GPS coordinates for the tree (a rarity), but my directions kept indicating the tree was “just another hour” down an isolated road. I’d had James Brown’s greatest hits on repeat for a good three hours and wouldn’t you know it, I didn’t feel good.
I took wrong turns and drove down dead-end roads, dodging potholes and cow patties. Whenever I stepped out of my car to stretch or read the landscape, the hairs on my arms stood on end. Except for those moments when there was a logging truck in the area, the silence reverberated. Eventually, about 60 km down a logging road, with my signal failing and my maps sending me in circles, I decided to pack it in for the day. I shook glitter on the situation and told myself, “If it were easy, it wouldn’t be an adventure!” Still, I called my friend Cody on the drive back to the highway, looking for reinforcement. Cody and I have been friends since elementary school, and he has decades of backcountry camping experience. You might say, “He can really pack a canoe.” And you’d be correct.
“Absolutely, you were right to turn around,” he said. “It’s too dangerous to be out there alone. You could blow a tire, and then what?”
When I later texted my sister, an archaeologist who has spent years driving work trucks down logging roads in BC, she agreed. “Forget it. Not in that car. Too dangerous”
I made plans to return to the area with proper maps, a travel companion, and a CB radio. One of my best friends, Diandra, is moving back to the area in a few months, so I’ll have a home base and a buddy for this future trek. Besides, even though the tamarack is gorgeous in summer and fall, it will be a stunner in early 2019; as the Vancouver Tree Book says, “The bright and shiny new needles are a visual treat in spring, making the barren months seem worth the wait.”
Yesterday the rains fell long and hard in Vancouver, confirming the start of the rainy season we locals call Novembruary. Caution signs in the mountains near my home are now less for wildfires and more for slope failure, flash floods, and “unpredictable conditions” of all types. I went up to UBC for the second time in two weeks to try to find a Champion Sitka alder, and despite almost scaling a building in my attempt to circle in on the tree, didn’t find it. I’ll need to wait for spring, when the leaves are easier to identify.
In reviewing the BC Big Tree Registry’s 43 Champion trees, plus a range of other record holders in the registry, I realized that I am exhausting my supplies of Champion trees in the immediate vicinity, those I can attempt to bag in a weekend trip. I’m making plans to visit trees near Chilliwack and Princeton, but for those I will need tire chains and stalwart pals. The ambitious scope of the project was always intended to throw me out of my comfort zone, but I needn’t be foolish about it. BC is huge, its terrain varied, its conditions not only “unpredictable” but downright treacherous. I’m incredibly cautious on my hikes in the Coast Mountains, so why would I be anything but extremely safe on these tree jaunts?
Diandra and I saw Free Solo the other night, which documents Alex Honnold’s successful free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite. “Free solo” means on your own, without any ropes—you fall, you die. There are many huge takeaways from the film—it’s good to get yourself out of your comfort zone every now and then, even if that means placing yourself in mortal danger; it’s OK to experience fear, just feel it and work through it—but the biggest one for me is that the goals worth achieving are those you need to work toward. Honnold didn’t wake up one dry day and declare, “Ahh, today is the day to free solo El Cap!” He had been dreaming of this climb for eight years. He’d tried it the previous year and quit partway up because he wasn’t feeling 100% prepared. He practiced the route and trained his body on other routes until he was ready.
Adventuring doesn’t look like fists raised in triumph on a mountaintop. Adventuring is made up of preparation and practice, safety checkers and guidebooks, and the “power of the gut”: having the guts to do it, and listening to your gut when it’s time to pack it in and try another time. Sometimes adventure looks like stillness and sounds like silence.
Today I headed into the second-growth forest of Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver to remind myself why I am searching for these trees: not for the photo op or the checkmark, but for immersion in the place I feel most myself—deep in the forest and squarely in my body, butting up against my biggest dreams and fears.
Tamarack (Larix laricina), near Vanderhoof, BC, unceded territory of the Saik’uz First Nation, Dakelh (Carrier)