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Looking Back: Some remarkable trees


John Kinnear

Oct 4, 2023

“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky”
- Khalil Gibran

About a year ago my Looking Back column looked at a recently cut Douglas-fir stump I had come across that revealed its age, by ring count, to be 206 years old.  Douglas-fir are rather remarkable trees whose bark is thick enough to resist forest fire most times.  There is however one peril to them that they have no resistance to and that would be a chain saw.  And therein lies a story.  

In my seemingly endless collection of books and research articles I have two different copies (1984,1986) of a publication done by the Alberta Forestry Association entitled Alberta Trees of Renown- An Honour Roll of Alberta Trees.  Of course the front page of both issues just had to have the one and only Burmis Tree on it but inside each edition is a wonderful cross section of special trees that were officially surveyed. 

There are record trees and notable trees and a section labeled Trees of the Past and Legend.  It was there I found the survey of what was presumed to have been the largest-diameter Douglas-fir in Alberta in recent times.  It was located in the Porcupine Hills and was well-known locally and visited often.  The publication indicated its DBH was 176 cm in diameter (69.5 inches) and stood 30 meters (98 feet) high. The standard for measuring trees is known as DBH (diameter at breast height, 4.5 feet above ground).

They also noted that its bark was 20 cm thick or about 7 1/2 inches. This would have made it virtually fireproof to surface fires in the semi-forested area where it stood.  It was a spectacular specimen. 

It was estimated then to be 381 years old, sprouting from seed in 1538. No tree lives forever and this magnificent giant finally died naturally in 1964.   It was felled a year later and this is where the story of this magnificent old Doug gets local. It was brought to my attention last spring by Kevin Yeliga that his father Rudy, who ran a service station and Homelite chain saw sales and service in downtown Coleman was involved in its felling. To accomplish this Rudy used a Homelite XP 1000 chain saw which was a new design for that year (1965) and sported a 17-inch blade. Rudy realized that some modification would be needed to cut through the massive diameter of this old giant so he had a machine shop in Edmonton weld two blades together to make a 34-inch one. 

 Kevin was able to provide me pictures of the event which included more accurate measurements.  The old Porcupine Hill guardian was felled July 9, 1965 and proved to be 7 feet higher than the book survey’s estimate, that being 105 feet. Its age, by ring count, was pegged at 390 years old. Specimens apparently are on display at the Forest Technology School in Hinton and the Alberta Forest Depot in Edmonton. The fact that this Doug lives on in interpretation for others to see has given it another life. 

The second publication has a large two-page chart that details about 50 different native and non-native species that are record setters.  Larch, spruce, limber pine, trembling aspen, diamond willow and many other varieties are recorded (age, diameter, height, and location) and rated in a point system. In amongst this list is a Douglas-fir (pseudosuga menziesii var. glauca) located in Banff National Park reported to be the oldest living Douglas-fir in Alberta. It began growing about 1310 and was almost 200 years old before Columbus landed in America.  (Notice I didn’t say discovered!). 

They suggested then (1986) that it was 674 years old which makes it 711 years old now, if it is still alive.  Its longevity is attributed to its location on the very edge of a dry grass knoll atop a number of hoodoos.  There are several others nearby all over 500 years old and the overview states, “ The fact that these trees are not surrounded by dense forest or underbrush means that they have been exempt from any major forest fires in their lifetimes.”   

With regards to the amazing limber pine (Pinus flexilis) there is pretty significant challenger to our local Burmis Tree listed in the second edition. This still living thousand-year old tree is known as the Whirlpool Point Pine and can be found rooting in a crack in the rock along the North Saskatchewan River west of Nordegg. It was more than interesting to note that the “official measurements” were made by Fred Sutherland and Tom Loblaw.  Sutherland worked here in the Pass for a time with forestry before moving to the Rocky Mountain House area. I profiled Fred in a couple of articles some years back as he was one of the original Dambusters and flew with the famous RAF 617 Squadron on that amazing mission in 1943. 

Sutherland and Loblaw sampled for age but found that it had the expected heart rot.  The coring through the sound wood (the outside 10 centimeters) showed an astounding 400 years.  That outer core is less than one-fifth of the Whirlpool’s total radius so it is likely, by projection, that this tree is well over a thousand years old.  

There are two schools of thought around why the hell limber pines grow where they grow, one being that they need elbow room so you find them at timber line. The other, which I like, has to do with Clark’s Nutcrackers who are collectors of their seeds and are known to stash them. Where? On the rocky, windblown ridges where the snow blows away. Clarks are the Johnny Appleseed’s of the bird world and religiously stash thousands of Limber and White Bark Pine seeds. 

Just across the border in BC I recently had occasion to visit a special ancient tree site just south of Fernie known as the Morrissey Old Growth Cottonwood Forest. This area was donated to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and maintained by the Fernie Trail Alliance. 

The grove left me awestruck at the enormity of some of the black cottonwood  “champion trees” there with some aged at over 400 years with several over two meters in diameter.  It takes a few people to get your arms around one of these brobdingnagians. No misspell there folks. That is a word from Gulliver’s Travels that more or less means giants. And giants they are.  Everyone agrees that their conservation and interpretation is a good thing.

There are giants still among us still here in the Crowsnest Pass and we need to recognize that they are genuinely heritage trees that predate our arrival here by hundreds of years. Just like we preserve and interpret our occupation history here on Treaty Seven lands so should we also with our ancient trees.  That includes the beautiful cottonwoods all along Blairmore Main Street and those in Flumerfelt Park and on the Miners Path in Coleman. 

The English poet William Blake observed, “ The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eye of others only a green thing which stands in the way.” If you become aware of what appears to be a heritage tree that is imperiled then perhaps YOU should stand in the way. Saving heritage trees provides a link across generations. 

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