The Carmanah Valley – Twenty Years On

Carmanah Valley, Three Sisters - 2009

Carmanah Valley, Three Sisters - 2009

Carmanah Valley - Cathedral Spires Poster - 1989

Carmanah Valley - Cathedral Spires Poster - 1989

Twenty years ago I had just moved to British Columbia and heard stories about giant trees on the west coast of Vancouver Island. What I didn’t realize at the time is the Provincial Government had secretly given permission to logging giant Macmillan Bloedel to clearcut one of the largest intact watersheds left on the island, the Carmanah Valley. While learning some of the history about this area I was approached by a small local environmental group, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, to take part in an effort to preserve this amazing stand of timber. What an effort it was! Over a period of a few months many of Canada’s most respected artists visited the valley and painted their interpretation of the stunning biodiversity that exists. Native elders came in as well to lend their support to the cause. I was fortunate to be invited to photograph both the valley and the artists working, one of those assignments that you never forget. A beautiful coffee table book Carmanah – Artistic Visions of an Ancient Rainforest was the result and brought the beauty and importance of this area into the homes of many people throughout the world. In many ways, this was the beginning of a huge push in British Columbia to protect a very small percentage of the unspoiled forest that was left in a wild state.

Carmanah Valley, British Columbia

Carmanah Valley, British Columbia

I was honoured to produce a poster (photo above) for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee as a fundraiser. The photo we used was of three massive Sitka Spruce trees that have become known as the Three Sisters. These three trees are joined at the roots forming a massive root structure over 6 metres (20 feet) in diameter and each tree climbs well over 60 metres (200 feet). Very impressive! The poster still sells well after 20 years and is now in its 5th printing! The Carmanah Valley was protected in 1990 as a Provincial Park with the Upper Carmanah Valley and the Walbran Valley added to the park in 1995.

Fern, Carmanah Valley, British Columbia

Fern, Carmanah Valley, British Columbia

The valley is impressive for the large trees. The Carmanah Giant at 95 metres ((313 feet) is the world’s tallest Sitka Spruce. Many of the other trees are often 70 metres (230 feet) high and up to 9.4m (31 feet) in circumference. The Carmanah Walbran also boasts giant western red cedars, many of which are over 1,000 years old. It isn’t just the trees that are impressive however, the understory thrives with ferns and wildflowers while bears, wolves, cougars and deer call the valley home as well.

I had heard many stories during the past few decades of the Carmanah Valley being loved to death, too many hikers climbing on the giant trees and doing serious damage to the root structures. Protective boardwalks were put in place and many of the large trees have been roped off with the hope that people could enjoy these giants without damaging what so many had tried to save.

Well, here it is twenty years later and Harbour Publishing requested that I revisit the valley for a double page spread in the upcoming Cowichan Valley book that I am working on. With that in mind I headed up to the Carmanah, 93 kilometres of logging roads and a few hours later I was back to where it all began. My first impression is how much better the access looked compared to twenty years ago. When we first went up we passed through massive clearcuts, this time there were very few indications that serious logging had taken place. While the forest surrounding the Carmanah is still quite young it is well on its way to providing the shelter that the large animals require. The boardwalk system that has been put in place is doing a great job of protecting the trees and while I missed being able to wander through the forest I appreciate the need for this type of system. Overall I was very pleased with what I saw. I spent about 5 hours wandering amongst the large trees and was the only one in the valley, perhaps due to the bone jarring access trip to get to the trailhead. I came away realizing how much would have been lost without the unselfish work of so many volunteers 20 years ago.

Fungus, Carmanah Valley, British Columbia

Fungus, Carmanah Valley, British Columbia

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16 Responses to “The Carmanah Valley – Twenty Years On”

  1. LisaNewton says:

    Wow, amazing trees, and the comparison of 20 years ago is great. How wonderful to revisit a place to find it better than you left it.

    I don’t know where all of the natural forests and trails would be without the army of volunteers it takes to keep everything together.
    .-= LisaNewton´s last blog ..We Built this City =-.

  2. kevin says:

    Hi Lisa,

    As I was writing this your blog was on my mind as so much of what you are reporting about involves armies of volunteers as well. Really, without volunteers not much would happen in todays hectic world.

  3. Diane C. says:

    It is fascinating to see the difference in the trees after twenty years. What a beautiful forest, certainly worth protecting. Your fern and fungus photos are beautiful.
    .-= Diane C.´s last blog ..Along the Creek in June =-.

  4. kevin says:

    Thanks Diane,

    I’ll be posting some more close up photos later. I think one of the reasons I really enjoy the desert as well is the contrast, this area is so different. Both are beautiful in their own way.

  5. hip chick says:

    I love your photograph’s. This is the first time I have been to your blog but I will surely be back. I lived in Seattle for a short time but I was so young I never thought to go to any really cool places. I’d love to go back and visit British Columbia. It looks as beautiful as I’ve always heard it is.

  6. Deborah Godin says:

    Oh my goodness, I remember that poster very well, and have referred to it several times in conversation over the years. It’s a simply unforgettable image, and sll this time later, to be able to tell the photographer so it a real bonus. I am enjoying your Enchanted Isles book, and look forward to the Cowichan one, too.
    .-= Deborah Godin´s last blog ..SKYWATCH FRIDAY – Ice Cream Colors (Lake Erie) =-.

  7. mstoastburner says:

    Well, fuddle me up! I have that very poster up on my wall behind my monitor! And here I am on the blog of the taker of that photograph. Cool! :-)

    I haven’t visited the Carmanah since I returned to the Island after six years away. I’ve been so shocked by the amount of ‘development’ in and around Victoria (Bear Mountain, Millstream, etc…) that I’ve been a bit too scared to go in case I find a Tim bloody Hortons tucked into the rainforest. Ok, overstatement. 😉

    What you’ve written is very encouraging as the Carmanah is certainly a very special place. Perhaps a visit this summer might be in order.
    .-= mstoastburner´s last blog ..Mercerilocks and the Three Bears. Captioned! =-.

  8. D. Travis North says:

    What an inspiring story as to what impact artists can have on the public awareness of a resource such as this. I’m breathing a sigh of relief – and until you mentioned this, I had never heard the name Carmanah Valley. I can’t imagine the relief I would feel had I visited this before its possible extinction. Whether or not I ever get to see this in person, I’m glad to hear that it will be standing in the event I am able to visit. That, of course, is the nature lover side of my thoughts.

    Strictly sticking to the artistic side of this, your photos are awesome. I especially love that shot of the ferns. I’m going to have to look up that book to see what other inspiring works were contributed by the other artists. That must have been an incredible assignment. I hope you will keep us all posted when the Cowichan book comes to fruition.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

  9. FrugalNYC says:

    Great photos and story! thanks to Lisa (Newton) I found your blog :)

  10. […] After all, Ansel Adams framed several shots like this.  And recently, I saw a similar framing on a photograph from Kevin Oke.  I’ve personally shot a few just like this.  But cliche’s exist for a […]

  11. David says:

    I know that pictures frequently cannot–because of the medium–reflect the proper size and three dimensional qualities of real life, but I have to admit that your pictures really portray both the size and age of these amazing trees.

    I can’t imagine trees that 300′ high or that 1,000 years old! Anyway, congratulations on your breathtaking pictures. By the way, what is the status of the preservation effort/s?

  12. kevin says:

    Hi David,

    A little slow on the response to your question…

    These trees have been saved along with good parts of the adjoining valley. There is presently a move afoot to try and save a fine selection of trees on the Koksilah River a little closer to home. It’s a smaller effort but with luck will happen.

    I’m a firm believer in saving some of the amazing old growth forests around but at the same time realize that jobs are being lost and that all of us are using wood to build our houses and whatever else. A little give and take seems to work.

    Many of the areas that have been saved in British Columbia I’ll likely never visit, especially on the northern coast. It’s still a great feeling however to know that these areas do exist, if even just for the wildlife and diversity of the old growth forest.

  13. Beth says:

    Hi Kevin, What an amazing photographic story. The Carmanah Valley is sacred to British Columbia and I hope logging is done very carefully. Has the BC government opened more land to logging companies? If so, when did that happen?

  14. kevin says:

    Hi Beth,

    I’m not sure about the logging situation right now in regards to opening up new land. I can’t imagine there is much demand as the mills are closing down and the industry is certainly in trouble with the economic downturn. We were just up at Cowichan Lake this past weekend and there are still active sites so something is happening.

    I’m one for a compromise and certainly the slow down will give many forests more time to recover.

  15. kari says:

    Kevin – you are such an inspiration!
    i am going backpacking in Carmanah – leaving tonight, returning Sunday.
    Would you mind to share with me what some “typical” f-stops / iso might be good for this beautiful weather, although understandably shadow among the trees. Also, i would like to attempt shoot upwards through trees to sky, and not sure of f-stop for that?
    Bless you for your amazing contributions, Kevin!

    kevin Reply:

    Hi Kari,

    Have fun, it looks like the weather should be good. It is very dark in the forest as you can imagine. If you have a light weight tripod I would recommend taking it. If not, try shooting at ISO 640 or something and you would likely be OK. Often I put my camera on a log or lean it against a tree as well. I was looking at a few images and the exposure info of some of the big trees and close-ups is in the range of ISO 250, 1/8 second f8.

    Shooting upwards is a little tough as the trees are very dark and the sky tends to be very bright. I shot the images in RAW and bracketed a little. I found when processing I was able to use images with decent sky detail while bringing out the shadows in the RAW converter.

    Hope this helps, if you have more questions post and I’ll get back to you.


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