Meet Vancouver’s tallest tree and those who look after it

Many of the tallest and biggest trees in Canada are found in Vancouver

There’s a race going on in the eastern portion of Stanley Park that doesn’t get the attention of, say, the BMO or Scotiabank marathons of the world.

In this case, participants are roughly 130 years old and slower than dirt.

Most of them are named “Doug.”

Enter what’s colloquially known among naturalists as “Second Chance Grove,” a somewhat unspectacular cluster of forest that’s home to Vancouver’s tallest tree.

A short jaunt south from Beaver Lake, the towering tree measures 63.6 metres — the equivalent of more than five standard sized TransLink buses stacked end to end, 10 metres taller than city hall and twice as tall as the iconic Lee Building at Broadway and Main.

The Douglas fir is referred to as the “Second Chance Tree,” given its history growing out of the ashes of the Great Fire of 1886, which nearly incinerated the entire city.    

But with a series of neighbouring trees in its immediate vicinity, why does nature gift this particular specimen with such a lofty distinction?

“The short answer is they are all about 63 metres because they’re growing together as a group,” explains Ira Sutherland, a PhD student in UBC’s faculty of forestry. “These trees are adapted to grow in the light-limited environments of the West Coast, so they’re competing with each other to stay ahead of each other so they don’t get left behind in the shade.” 

Sutherland, as it turns out, is a big deal in the big tree community. He studies them, writes about them, climbs them and measures them.

He’s also chair of the B.C. BigTree Registry, an ad hoc group of conservationists, professional foresters and ex-government employees who scour the province in search of the next big one.

Sutherland’s knowledge of trees, particularly the big ones, is encyclopedic.

But before rattling off specifics, some housekeeping is needed first.

To that point, tallest doesn’t mean biggest and vice versa. Tallest is calculated by measuring from top to bottom, but biggest is determined by an aggregate score taking into account a tree’s height, its diameter as measured at breast height and the width of the tree’s crown.

Outside of dropping a tape measure from top to bottom, tall trees are measured using a system called Lidar. Similar in function to radar, a Lidar instrument is typically mounted to a plane or helicopter and sends laser signals to the ground. The amount of time it takes the laser to bounce back to the instrument determines the tree’s height.

Without further ado, a list of highlights:

  • Tallest tree in Canada: a Sitka Spruce, about 96 metres high and roughly 600 years old, located in the Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island.
  • Tallest tree in Vancouver history: a Douglas fir recorded in Kerrisdale in 1886 measured about 122 metres tall — the equivalent distance from home plate to the centre field wall in most major league baseball parks.
  • Tallest tree in Metro Vancouver history: referred to as the “Lynn Valley Tree,” it was measured at 126 metres in 1902. The region’s biggest trees were mostly all cut down by 1905.
  • Tallest existing tree in Metro Vancouver: a Douglas fir named the Temple Giant that’s 86 metres high and found in the Seymour Valley.
  • Biggest big leaf maple tree in Canada: it’s near the Hollow Tree in Stanley Park (29 metres in height and 3.4 metres in diameter).
  • Biggest red alder in Canada: near the concession stand at Third Beach (24.6 metres).  
  • Oldest tree in Vancouver: Sutherland suggests it’s likely a red cedar in Stanley Park that’s stood for 600 years if not longer. Higher elevations on the North Shore are home to trees that are believed to be upwards of 1,500 years old.

That Vancouver even has some old-growth forest remaining is a fact Sutherland likes to stress both as a point of pride and to counter some of the doom and gloom around forestry in general. The stretch of forest that runs along the western edge of UBC and along the banks of the Fraser River south to Marine Drive is home to 400-year-old trees. Stanley Park contains trees that date back six centuries.

“A lot of people I engage with are really surprised to learn there’s any old growth forest at all,” Sutherland said. “I think that might come from decades of rhetoric that we’re cutting down the last of the white rhinos or that we’re driving these large trees extinct. It’s small in percentage compared to the historical extent, but there’s enough left that we should still have hope that there is still old growth left.”

Dannie Piezas gets to bask in that majesty of old growth for a living. An environmental educator with the Stanley Park Ecology Society, she leads walking tours throughout the park, imparting the ways of the ancient ones on schoolkids, tourists and corporate groups. 

Born in Manila, Philippines and now a Vancouverite, Piezas’s entire life has been surrounded by urban sprawl. She’s never lived in the bush, but life in the park will do just fine.

“I’m a teacher but my classroom is outside, so it’s like being in the middle of two worlds,” she said. 

Keeping the pristine jewel that is Stanley Park in tact is also on Piezas’s to-do list, and it’s at this point that she offers some rules of engagement: don’t stray from the path, don’t disturb the underbrush and be mindful of the root systems at your feet.

Dog owners need to respect off-leash rules so that Rover doesn’t trample sensitive habitat or inadvertently transport seeds to where they shouldn’t be spread.

You’ll also have fight the urge to unleash your inner Casanova — picking wild flowers for that special someone is a no-no.

Piezas led the Courier on an hour-plus tour of Stanley Park that went past Second Chance Tree, through an area called “Tall Tree Grove” and ended near the intersection of Lee’s Trail and Bridal Path.

It’s at that junction that “Doug” made himself readily apparent. At 60 metres high and 2.6 metres in diameter, this particular Douglas fir is impossible to miss.

The 600-year-old behemoth withstood the 1886 fire, the 2006 and 2018 windstorms, waterlog, disease and anything else nature has thrown at it.

Doug even has the scars of past logging operations across its bark that seemingly go a foot deep.

It’s that resilience and shared wonder that makes Piezas’s job impervious to boredom.

“I am so blessed to have this job because I am able to go through that sense of wonder all over again,” she said. “If I’m telling them a fact I’ve said 100 times, or if I’m able to show them a bald eagle I’ve seen 200 times and they get that wow factor, I experience it all over again.”

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@JohnKurucz

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