7. Douglas maple: You're standing in it
In eager pursuit of a Douglas maple with a height of 18 m, I headed to Lakelse Lake Provincial Park, about 20 km south of downtown Terrace. This park is located on the unceded traditional territories of the Kitselas, “People of the Canyon.” The waters of these territories have long been harvested—Lakelse (from Tsimshian Lax Gyels) means “fresh water mussel,” and before the area became a provincial park in 1956, it was home to a federally operated sockeye salmon hatchery.
Naming matters—not simply for orientation or description, but as a guide to the palimpsest of our interaction with the land, including attempted ownership. By using the name of the mussel that clings to the lakebed and riverbed, we not only acknowledge the presence of this mollusk, but also the Indigenous peoples who continue to call this region home.
Recognizing this necessity of naming, in writing his 2018 book 105 Hikes In and Around Southwestern British Columbia, an updated version of the classic 103 Hikes by David and Mary Macaree, Stephen Hui “did a lot of research on Indigenous toponyms or place names because definitely, reading most guidebooks, that history and presence is rather erased.” As a guest in these lands, I am endeavouring to find the names whenever possible, by reading and asking; as Al Purdy implored, “say the names say the names.” If I miss or overlook any, I welcome you to educate me in the comments.
On the highway to Lakelse, I took the first marked entrance, looking for campsite 21, as the BC Big Tree Registry listed the Douglas maple as “near” the site. After cruising around the limited campsites and not noticing a number system, I asked a camper, who looked at me askance.
“This site is booked for a Scout gathering,” she said. “You want the campsite down the highway.”
Just like me to crash a Scout outing.
Now at the right campground, I looked for directions to campsite 21. There was 20, 22, 23…
I entered the nearby visitors centre, a modern building with bright wooden siding. Approaching the parks employee behind the desk, I said, “Excuse me, where is campsite 21?”
“You’re standing in it,” she said.
I blinked. “What do you mean?”
“It was a very quick decision to build this visitors centre last November,” she said brightly, gesturing with her hands to the recently poured cement floor. “We haven’t had a chance to update the camp signs.”
“So you’re telling me we’re standing in campsite 21?”
I looked at her like she’d just uttered a new four-letter word, and I don’t mean “camp.”
“And have you seen any large Douglas maples around here?” I said.
Blank look. “I think there are some around back?”
David Douglas was a Scottish botanist who made his mark all over BC and Hawaii, spraying his surname on streets and trees like a territorial dog. The Douglas-fir is a well-known example of the flora he marked, easily recognizable for its tall, straight trunk and crown of dark green boughs. The Douglas maple, my quarry in Lakelse, is a relatively small variety of maple, with smooth, lobed leaves (glabrum means smooth; Galvin means poetry). Would a Champion Douglas maple stand out in this forest?
I told the park employee that I’d be trotting around, looking for a large tree, but I didn’t hold out hope of finding it. Not that I expect all provincial park employees to know about the BC Big Tree Registry (she didn’t), but if there was no widespread awareness of the tree within the park, how could I be guaranteed that it wasn’t cleared during construction of the visitors centre?
There is a risk inherent in this project that by the time I reach the tree it will be gone. In Big Lonely Doug, Harley Rustad writes that the BC Big Tree Registry “was meant not just to be a record but also a tool for conservation.” The BC Big Tree Registry states its mandate as follows: “To identify, describe, monitor and conserve the largest trees of each species within British Columbia, and to educate and enlist the help of its citizens in this task.” But trees that are entered in the registry do not appear to be regularly monitored; nor are they flagged for easy identification; nor do they seem to be automatically protected under the Park Act, Heritage Conservation Act, or similar legislation. How, then, can they be properly conserved?
I crossed the park road away from the visitors centre, swatting mosquitoes and looking for a large maple in the dense forest. I found mostly coniferous trees, and ferns growing along a small creek. Circling my way toward the centre, I cut around back and saw a number of small maples, coated in moss. Their trunks were divided into several large limbs, which I’m learning is a marker of some maples.
I measured the circumference of the largest maple as 2.7432 m, a huge increase for a tree that was entered into the BC Big Tree registry with a circumference of 1.14 m. Brandon Schultz nominated and verified the tree in 2001, and I doubt it would have increased so much in size in seventeen years. More likely I had simply not learned to use my measuring tape properly. I was always more of a baker than a sewer, and tend to cut twice, measure in between. Does one measure around the forking limbs, or below? Perhaps a citizen scientist I am not; a tree whisperer not nearly; but a sylvan lover all the same.
There is an argument that the largest trees should not be named, their locations not publicly available. Those who know the location of Hyperion, a redwood in California that is taller than any other living tree, refuse to disclose it for fear of visitors intentionally or unintentionally damaging the tree. Is this silence problematic when some of those knowledge keepers work for the National Park Service, an organization that is dedicated to conservation as well as encouraging visitors to access and enjoy the parks?
In his excellent analysis of the argument, Robert Earle Howells writes, “Trees, unlike swimming holes or scenic canyon ledges, are living things. At a time when our national parks are receiving record numbers of visitors, and authorities are weighing all sorts of options for limiting access and minimizing crowding in ecologically sensitive areas, it’s worth wondering whether some of these one-of-a-kind trees should just be left alone. A first step toward discouraging trophy hunting might be to drop the practice of naming trees in the first place.”
On my Tracking Giants travels thus far, I haven’t seen one other individual out looking for these Champions. I have seen only one sign, pointing the way to a “Big Spruce” in Stewart, BC (technically not a Champion tree, though remarkably huge). The majority of these Champion trees do not have evocative names like Hyperion, Methuselah, Lost Monarch, or Aragorn (in keeping with the Lord of the Rings theme, I did come across a Treebeard, a non-Champion cedar in the Ancient Forest/Chun T’oh Whudujut Park and Protected Area east of Prince George).
Professor and tree researcher Steve Sillett says, “Publicizing names of champion trees is a mistake because it makes them targets of visitation,” but it appears that the BC Champion trees, for the moment, could stand to have a little more publicity, without danger of eroding the soil at their bases and threatening their longevity. As of this writing, #BCBigTreeRegistry has just 148 mentions on Instagram. The word, to put it bluntly, is not out about these trees on social media or elsewhere. In fact, Ira Sutherland of Vancouver Big Tree Hiking Guide wrote to me in an email, “That is great that you are tweeting about your journey along the way. The more publicity the better.” Ira also told me that the registry would love to include GPS coordinates for all of the trees, to enable more visitations.
Granted, BC has a much smaller population than California. But common sense paired with GPS coordinates and photos, more guided trails and boardwalks, and yes, even names—ideally in the Indigenous languages of the area where the tree grows—will lead more tree trackers to these Champions. By knowing the locations of these giant trees and monitoring their condition, we’ll be better able to protect them from overzealous tourists, park development, and perhaps even logging.
The Lakelse Lake Provincial Park employee I spoke with was interested enough in the BC Big Tree Registry that she wrote down the name of the site and said she’d check it out. I can only hope that she or a colleague will be able to bring the next confused tree tracker directly to the Douglas maple’s base, currently standing without a ribbon or any other recognition of its Champion status.
Douglas maple (Acer glabrum), Lakelse Lake Provincial Park, Terrace, unceded territory of the Kitselas