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Tourist make their way around an old growth tree in the Avatar Grove, near Port Renfrew, July 18, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)
Tourist make their way around an old growth tree in the Avatar Grove, near Port Renfrew, July 18, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)

Off the Beaten Path

Avatar Grove: Seeing the forest for the ancient trees Add to ...

From the logging road just outside Port Renfrew, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, there is no obvious sign that you are in the presence of megaflora.

But a small sign announcing the Avatar Grove trailhead and a few vehicles pulled over onto the dusty margin of the road make it clear this is the place to encounter ancient life.

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The forest, with its thousand different shades of green, doesn’t look any different from others anywhere else on the West Coast – except for the grey spires you can see poking above the canopy. These are what are known as candelabra tops and they signify the presence of really old cedars.

It was those weathered tips that caught the attention of T.J. Watt, a member of the Ancient Forest Alliance, a few years ago as he was ending a search for old trees. He had been crisscrossing Vancouver Island without much luck – and didn’t expect to find it so close to a logging town.

“I didn’t think there could possibly be big trees that close to Port Renfrew,” he recalled.

But he pulled over to explore anyway, stopping pretty much in the same place that thousands of tourists now do. He didn’t go far off the road before he was forced to a halt, tilt back his head and say: “Wow.”

Along the Gordon River, in moist, hilly terrain, is a cluster of giant old fir and cedar trees that somehow escaped the woodsman’s axe during the past century of logging.

Shortly after that discovery, Mr. Watt and Ken Wu, the director of the Ancient Forest Alliance, started a campaign to save the trees, branding it Avatar Grove after the James Cameron science fiction movie, Avatar, that was then drawing huge crowds and which features a massive “Hometree” on the planet Pandora.

After a brief, intense campaign the environmental activists persuaded the provincial government to set the area aside from logging – and not long after that the first tree tourists started to arrive.

Mr. Wu said so many people have come that his group, together with the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce, has now started to build a boardwalk system to protect the tree roots and make hiking around the trees easier.

“There’s a steady stream of tourists going in there,” said a delighted Mr. Wu recently. “Actually a lot of them are coming from around the world now … It’s become the second Cathedral Grove of British Columbia,” he said.

Cathedral Grove, on the road to Port Alberni, was made into a park in 1944, at a time when there were still substantial amounts of old-growth forest left on the island.

By the time Mr. Watt laid eyes on Avatar Grove, about 90 per cent of Vancouver Island’s old growth had been logged.

Mr. Wu said he’s not surprised the increasingly rare old-growth trees have become a major tourist attraction for Port Renfrew.

“There’s so little of this lowland, monumental forest left,” said Mr. Wu. “Luckily, as a result of massive public pressure, this area was saved. It’s one of the finest groves of old growth in B.C. … and it is generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for the local economy each year.”

Jon Cash, a director of Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce and owner of Soule Creek Lodge, said the economic impact of the trees isn’t something environmentalists have dreamed up.

“It’s definitely boosted tourism,” he said. “There’s been thousands and thousands of people going there.”

Mr. Cash said Port Renfrew is a tough town to market because it is a long way off the beaten tourism path that runs through Victoria.

But he said word of Avatar Grove has spread around the world.

“I’ve probably realized tens of thousands of dollars of overnight stays just from people coming up to see the trees,” he said.

A rough trail winds through the grove and although it is a short walk, it probably should be rated as an “intermediate” rather than an easy hike.

But it’s worth it – if you want to be in a grove of trees that was standing there long before Captain Cook sailed along what is now the coast of B.C.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

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