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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Nytch

Day Six: Wear Comfortable Shoes

When asked her secret for singing the huge operas of Richard Wagner so successfully, the famous soprano Birgit Nilsson reportedly said, “Wear comfortable shoes.” Or, in my case yesterday, "wear functioning shoes" would be more appropriate.

Let me back up a bit. Days four and five were spent more or less in the car, first driving from northern California to Olympia, Washington, staying overnight, and then continuing on to Vancouver Island (BC). The drive up the Olympic Peninsula was gorgeous (note for future trip: spend time there!), and the ferry ride across the Juan de Fuca Strait was uneventful (despite some wind that caused the boat to sway enough to make it hard to walk without looking like a drunkard). You can see Vancouver Island from the Washington coast, albeit indistinctly. As I approached the island, however, I noticed something; the mountainsides were covered in brown patches: even from miles away one could see the scars of clear cuts. It’s even clearer from above, as evidenced by this Google satellite image:

Here are some more pics from my crossing:

Once landed in Victoria (note #2 for future trip: spend time there as well!) I stocked up on groceries and headed down the coast to the tiny town of Port Renfrew. The drive was slow going – a 2-lane road that become progressively more twisty, narrow, and rough as I got further and further away from any population centers. By the time I got to Port Renfrew I was exhausted from carefully navigating each switchback, blind curve, and unexpected dip. But I'd made it.

In hindsight that was a lot of driving to pack into two days, and so rather than rise early yesterday and head promptly into the forests I slept in – for 10 hours. (Maybe not setting an alarm was not the best idea.) The setting here might have helped my sleep, too, though: the Remote Renfrew Retreat lives up to its name. The place is tucked away on the banks of a tidal creek outside of town and is the very definition of peaceful. There are literally no sounds here except that of birds, the slight trickle of the stream when the tide is moving, and, in the evenings, the crackle of a camp fire. Introvert Heaven.

The property even has a "big tree" of its own, a Sitka Spruce that colonized the stump of a true giant that was, according to the owners, cut down in 1904:

The “town” of Port Renfrew itself is, a) tiny and b) very beautiful. The settlement was established in the 1880s, but there wasn’t even a road here until 75 years later. The place maintains its sense of isolation from the outside world.

I made myself a hearty breakfast and headed out to the main destination for my entire trip: Big Lonely Doug. BLD is a Douglas Fir, estimated to be approximately 1,000 years old and the 2nd-largest known Douglas Fir in the world. He was spared in 2012 when a logger, mapping out the cutting plan for a new tract of forest, noticed the tree (considerably larger than its neighbors, most of whom were “only” about 500 years old), and decided to spare it. He attached a green ribbon with the note “Leave tree” and continued on his way. The result was a magnificent tree standing alone in a complete clear cut. Inadvertently, the logger had created a graphic illustration of the plight of what little old growth forest survives on the island – and the story got out. Big Lonely Doug became something of a celebrity, galvanizing the activist community and becoming a destination for tree-lovers. [For the whole story, and a fascinating history of the timber industry on Vancouver Island, I strongly recommend Harley Rustad’s excellent book, Big Lonely Doug: The story of one of Canada’s last great trees. A big thanks to Harley, with whom I’ve corresponded, for giving me some good tips on seeing the big trees of Vancouver Island.]

Getting to BLD is not easy. First there’s a 30-minute drive up the Gordon River valley on a road that is at times barely passable (I was lucky if I had a stretch where I could go faster than 20mph). The scenery, however, is stunning – especially this somewhat scary-looking bridge over the river. I had to remind myself that logging trucks regularly pass over it, so I really had nothing to worry about, but I still had a slightly queasy feeling as I drove across with barely a guardrail and several hundred feet of drop to the teaming waters below!

As I continued up the mountain, the evidence of logging became more clear: everywhere I looked I saw clear cuts, some fresher than others, all of them revealing enormous stumps of what had once stood so tall.

Eventually you turn onto a logging road that makes the main highway look like an interstate, make an even more spectacular crossing of the Gordon River gorge, engage the 4-wheel drive, and continue up into the heart of an active logging zone. Another kilometer or so up the hillside, and you’re there.

Except, I wasn’t quite there. To my right was something resembling a parking area consisting of dirt, rocks, and debris bulldozed over the edge of a sharp hillside. I assumed this was the point from which I would head down to the tree (which I could clearly see towards the other end of the cut). I would have to go down a very steep bank first then traverse several football fields’ more to get there.

Now, I knew enough about what logging leaves behind to know that the going would not be easy: while it appears to be relatively smooth going from a distance, the ground would be a tangle of trunks, branches, briars, and all other manner of debris. I knew it would be slow going, and hazardous (easy to slip, twist an ankle, or worse). But I’m intrepid. And I’d come all this way to see this tree. I was not going to be deterred. So I plunged in.

I soon found out just how slow-going and hazardous it could be! Every step had to be planned. Sometimes what appeared to be solid ground was several more feet of undergrowth than it appeared. The weathered trunks were slippery. There were raspberries everywhere, scratching me up. In places the brush was so thick it was up to my chest.

Eventually I was down the bank, but there was still a long way to go. I stopped a minute to catch my breath and map out my next moves, when I noticed my left boot felt strange. I looked down and the sole of the boot was coming off! I’d had these boots for a long time, but they always appeared solid. But some sort of dry rot and the rigors of my descent had done them in. I swore loudly, assessed my options, and accepted that I needed to turn back.

To continue on would be incredibly foolish: this terrane was treacherous enough without adding a footwear malfunction, and one misstep could lead to serious injury. So I started back up the bank – and it was every bit as arduous as it was coming down. It became more so when the next layer of sole on my left boot came off, leaving me with essentially a thin leather moccasin between my feet and the sharp splinters and thorns of the bush. Nothing to do but climb on.

And then the sole of my right boot came off, too. I lost my balance and fell backwards about 10 feet, my fall cushioned by a sapling tree and a large shrub of something. Other than my dignity, nothing was injured – but I could have just as easily landed on the sharp end of a broken branch (well, “impaled” would probably be a more accurate term). I knew I had been lucky.

This would be a good time to note that I’ve spent a lot of time hiking by myself over the years, especially during my geology days. I think things through carefully, keep track of my route so I don’t get lost, have plenty of water, and generally avoid making stupid decisions that could get me in trouble. But after that fall, and with my footwear problem, I realized that I had in fact made a stupid decision by coming this way, and I was starting to get a little scared. I needed to get up this bank and to the car, and I needed to do it without falling or puncturing what was left of the soles of my boots. The former was not helped by the latter.

I broke off a branch to use as a prop, and continued up the embankment. Eventually, I was back up. I turned around and looked back at Big Lonely Doug, sat down on a log, and had a good cry. How could I have come so far just to be thwarted by boots??

Just then, a car came up the road and drove past the turnout. It stopped a little way up the road and I heard cheerful voices…it dawned on me that I was not at the proper place; there was another spot – the spot – where folks would go down to the tree. Why didn’t I think of that? Why didn’t I explore the area more fully before plunging down into the tangled bush? After all, if BLD was a celebrity then there was likely a well-worn path down to his base. Perfectly clear in hindsight, of course; I think I was just so excited, so anxious to finally be there in person, that I didn’t think it through. And now I had no boots.

I dejectedly got into the car and drove a couple hundred yards up the road, and sure enough: several cars were parked there already, and folks were getting down to the tree in just a few minutes. Little kids with their little kid shoes. One woman in sandals. No bushwhacking required. And I just sat there, exhausted from my ordeal.

I felt like an idiot. How could I have screwed up so monumentally? I contemplated somehow tying my boots together; I asked one of the locals who was there with a pickup truck if they happened to have any duct tape. I even considered going down in my bare feet. But in the end I realized I would just have to come back the next day, perhaps at the expense of one of the other things I’d planned but so be it. I needed to sit with Doug; I needed to feel his trunk and see what he might tell me. Without that, the whole trip would be a failure.

And, I now knew, my casual shoes will be sufficient for the task.

Since I was already there, I decided to drive further up the road and see what there was to be seen. In my correspondence with Harley, he had said there was some active logging further up; since it was a Sunday I knew the loggers would not likely be working, and it would be something I could see without getting out of the car.

The way up was more beauty. There’s an old growth grove adjacent to the clear cut with BLD, cut by waterfalls and streams (and populated by bears: I saw a mother and cub scurry into the underbrush as I drove by). As I drove slowly through stand after stand of mature, majestic trees, the sense of them living on borrowed time grew.

Then I came on the devastation that is the active cut zone. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, though more tears were shed during their taking.

I then turned the car around and headed back down the mountain. I’d had enough for one day. I hadn’t gotten close to Big Lonely Doug, but I had gained context and with that, greater understanding. I would try again tomorrow.

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