According to BC Parks, Campbell River is home to “the only significant stand of old-growth Douglas Fir north of Macmillan Provincial Park [Cathedral Grove].” Yet the city seems to be virtually oblivious of the “towering old growth Douglas Fir and Cedar trees” in the  3.5 kilometre Riverside and Old Growth Loop trails.

While only minutes from downtown, the Riverside and Old Growth Loop Trails are not listed in the ‘Top 10 things to do within one hour of Campbell River.’

A single sentence is devoted to the forest giants in the Best Trails in Elk Falls Provincial Park:

“The old-growth forests in the area are comprised of giant Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir trees, with many in excess of 60 meters [197 feet] tall and hundreds of years old.”

They scattered throughout this section of the forest.

Elk Falls Provincial Park was created in 1940, ‘to protect rare old growth forests and related ecosystems, as well as the Elk Falls waterfall and the related canyon.’

A large number of the trees along the Riverside and Old Growth Loop Trails are more than 330 years old. Many appear to be much older.

There are five trails in Elk Falls Provincial Park:

  1. A 0.4 km path takes visitors from the park entrance to the Millennium trail.
  2. The Millennium Trail, connecting the Canyon View Trail (and John Hart Generating Station) to the network of trails around Elk Falls.
  3. A 0.2 km path to Elk Falls.
  4. The Riverside Loop Trail runs along the bank of the Campbell River. Visitors pass through large stands of old growth, as they pass Elk Falls, Deer Falls, the Dolphin Pool and Moose Falls.
  5. The Old Growth Loop Trail takes you through even thicker concentrations of old growth
Walking along the Old Growth Loop Trail – Photo by Roy L Hales

All of these paths are easy walking, but the Canyon View and Elk Falls Trails have extensive stairways.

There are some old growth trees in both the Canyon View and Millennial Trails, but they are not as numerous or as large as those above the falls.

Walking amidst these giants, one can imagine what the West Coast forests looked like before the age of industrialized logging.

BC Hydro acknowledges three First Nations at the mouth of the Campbell River, through its information plaques. The K’omoks, We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum Nations hunted deer, elk and grouse  along the banks. They also harvested stinging nettles, cow parsnips and drank Labrador tea, hot or cold. Devils club and the pitch from spruce trees were used for medicinal purposes.

Wei Wai Kum pole (carved by Thomas D. Hunt) and We Wai Kai pole (carved by Max Chikite) at the John Hart Generating Station – Photo by Roy L Hales

Two of these nations, the We Wai Kai and Wei Wai Kum, erected totem poles at the John Hart Generating Station for the reopenning of the Canyon Loop trail on December 18, 2019.

(The Canyon Loop trail was closed during the John Hart Generating Station Replacement Project.)

Pre-contact trails would not have been as well manicured as the walking paths are today.

One of the park workers, Kelly Cronin, was raking the gravel along the Canyon View Trail during one of Cortes Currents visits. She said they do maintenance work on the trails every second day and clean the parking lot at the John Hart Generating Station daily.

The first Europeans to pay attention to Campbell River were loggers harvesting the easily accessible timber along the shoreline in the 1860s. They moved on, but others came to settle. The town of Campbell River came into being as a service centre for the surrounding logging camps and became a regional centre after the road pushed up from Courtenay in 1920.

Inside one of the blackened scars penetrating into an old growth cedar’s interior – Photo courtesy Roy L Hales

A plaque in the Elk Falls parking lot remembers the great fire of 1938.

“It was the driest June since weather records were first collected in 1874. The scene was set. The most famous forest fire in British Columbia’s history was about to spring to life. Ignited in early July, during the next three weeks it burned over 74,495 acres,” wrote John Parminter in Darkness at Noon – The Bloedel Fire of 1938.

He states the first report of the fire came from ‘fire lookouts at Elk Falls and Upper Campbell’ at 4:15 PM, on July 15, 1938.

Five minutes later two employees of the Bloedel, Stewart & Welch logging company reported ‘a curl of dark smoke …coming from a pile of this seasons’ cold-decked logs about 300 feet away from the track.’

Many of the old growth trees in Elk Falls Park, and a few along the Millennium Trail, bear the imprint of fire. Some had a charred segment on the outer bark, but many of the ancients bore blackened scars that penetrated deep within their heartwood. In one case, visitors can peer right through the tree’s charred rimmed hole to the river beyond.

Peering through the charred hole to the Campbell River beyond – Photo by Roy L Hales

None of the second growth that have grown up in the past 85 years or so appear to be affected.

Top photo credit: Old growth trees along Old Growth Loop Trail – Photo by Roy L Hales