“Doug is just over there in that valley,” Harley Rustad explained over his shoulder, leading us on a sweaty hike up a dusty gravel road. Rustad rounded the corner and turned to his right, and there was Doug – still standing, looking healthy; tremendous, really. Rustad bounded down the rocks, through the brush and over fallen logs toward Doug, excited about the reunion. He was bursting with that kind of pride you feel when you introduce someone special to new friends – excited that they get to see, firsthand, the attributes and accomplishments you have come to love.
Rustad is a writer; Doug is a tree, and the subject of his first book.
More specifically, Big Lonely Doug, as it has come to be known, is the second largest Douglas fir in Canada, 66 metres tall and estimated to be about 1,000 years old. It was named by the Ancient Forest Alliance – an environmental organization advocating for the protection of old growth forests in British Columbia. In 2015, Rustad, on staff at The Walrus as an editor, came across a photo (taken by an AFA staff member) of the tree – the only one left standing in a massive clear-cut outside Port Renfrew, on an inlet on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.
It was a shocking image that had him immediately intrigued, he explained over salmon burgers in Port Renfrew on our way to the site. “Somebody must have saved that tree,” he said. “Maybe I could find out who – and why.” His search for answers led to a 2016 Walrus article that won a National Magazine Award.
But there was so much more to tell – not just about this specific tree but about the forestry industry, the anti-logging movement, old-growth forest ecology, ecotourism, Canadian history and more, including the characters behind the rescue of this magnificent tree. So Rustad kept writing. The result is Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees. Its coming publication was the occasion for our visit – Rustad, a photographer and me. And whoa – Doug was big all right, but on this day, a little less lonely. Reading Rustad’s book may make you want to catch the next ferry for Vancouver Island – it did for me – but it may change the way you interact with forests or, at the very least, individual trees.
“That was something I found so fascinating,” Rustad said. “Everybody was looking at the trees and seeing something different: They were seeing tourism potential, they were seeing pure timber value, they were seeing furniture, they were seeing icons that could be launched into a movement to further their cause.
“I took my Salt Spring hippie friend there and she put her hands on the tree and closed her eyes and had a moment,” Rustad continues. “And I showed a picture to my neighbour who is a fine woodworker and I could see he was salivating at what he could do with that tree.”
Doug’s saviour was Dennis Cronin, a veteran logger who was surveying the old growth forest in 2011 ahead of a planned clear-cut when he came across the massive Douglas fir. The tree was, as Rustad describes it, limbless until a great height, with a trunk wider than Cronin’s truck. Cronin had been trudging through the forest, flagging trees for clear-cutting – tying sashes around them to alert the fallers who would arrive at some point in the future: “falling boundary,” “road location.” But for this tree, he fished out a different ribbon, rarely used: a green one with two words on repeat: “leave tree.”
Less than a year later, the trees that once surrounded it were gone, cut down, loaded onto trucks, towed across the Strait of Georgia to a mill on the mainland. Doug was left standing. When a foreman on the crew that was hauling the logs from that cut-block asked Cronin why he had saved that tree, Cronin responded, “because I liked it.”
When it comes to being a celebrity tree, Big Lonely Doug has all kinds of things going for it. In addition to being a magnificent specimen that has been anthropomorphized with a name that stuck, it is also fairly accessible. It is a short drive from Port Renfrew, not far from the famous Avatar Grove, a preserve of old growth trees that has become a destination attraction and includes what has become known as Canada’s Gnarliest Tree. You can make an old-growth-tree-viewing expedition of it – and people do.
“I like to come visit it once or twice a year,” said Trystan Dunn-Jones, who lives nearby and drove up with three others as we were hiking out.
“You just feel so small. You feel like an ant next to it,” added Sophie Adams, who brought her sister, visiting from Edmonton, to see Doug.
“It’s a whole different perspective on the world,” Dunn-Jones added.
While Rustad is careful not to take sides and says his is not an activist book, it’s not difficult to guess where his sympathies lie.
“The argument to protect the largest trees isn’t purely a sentimental one,” he writes. “They aren’t simply the last of their kind or an example of a species that we will never see again if completely harvested – these big trees are vital to the stability of our coastal forest ecosystems. Their vast networks of roots bind the landscape together and offer the foundation on which every kind of smaller life – mammals, fish, insects, other trees – can thrive.”
He cites one researcher’s finding that 18,000 invertebrates would wriggle within the column of soil under each step of that researcher’s size 9.5 shoes.
Believe me, this was on my mind as I inched my way down to the tree’s base (Rustad promised an easy hike – and I suppose it is for someone such as him who has trekked through the Himalayas), stumbling at points over stumps of what had been 500- or 600-year-old cedars and firs. I had been dealing with all kinds of stress on that day. But standing at the base of Doug, it was dwarfed by the kind of calm perspective one might expect to experience in the shadow of a towering giant that would have been a seedling around the time Viking Leif Erikson first landed on the east coast of North America, as Rustad writes. Even having read the book, discussed the tree and its story on the hours-long journey to get there (and when the winding roads got the best of my vestibular system, silently contemplated it), being there was a whole other thing.
“It’s a hard thing to really, really convey to somebody; you just have to go and see it,” Rustad said. “You can call it skyscraper, you can say it’s 20 storeys tall, but until you see a tree that is 20 storeys tall …” he trailed off. “You have to see it, you really do.”
Rustad, 33, grew up on Salt Spring Island; the first few months of his life were spent living in a tent while his parents finished building their home. He had the kind of free-roam childhood city kids can only dream of. “I literally spent my childhood in trees,” said Rustad, who now lives in Toronto. “Not to sound too cheesy, but [writing this book] kind of brought me home.”
Rustad did piles of interviews for research, spending a great deal of time in Victoria, Port Renfrew and Lake Cowichan, a little more than an hour’s drive from there, where Cronin lived.
Four years after saving the tree, Cronin told Rustad that his decision that day felt like a legacy. “You’re saving something special. Even though I’m a logger and I’ve taken out millions of trees, you won’t see anything like these trees again.”
Cronin did not live to see the publication of this book, or even the article. He died in April, 2016, of cancer. A remnant of his green ribbon is still there, tied to a root near the giant, bigger-than-his-truck base. All that’s left is a single word: “Leave.”