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The Squamish giants among us

Seeing the forest for the 850-year-old cedar tree at Cheakamus Centre

Not far from Paradise Valley Road stands a giant more than 850 years old.

The cedar, however, is not alone. The area was last clear-cut around 100 years ago and has nearby neighbours — perhaps relatives — that have likewise resided there for centuries.

There's the 750-year-old tree and another likely around 600 years old.

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Source: Keili Bartlett

Ses'emay (Aura Lewis), an assistant cultural worker at the Cheakamus Centre and a member of the Metis Nation, helps facilitate the Squamish Nation elders with their Indigenous education component at the centre. She lives in the valley, and walks the trails between the trees nearly every day.

While unsure why the tree was left uncut, Lewis ventures a guess that the density of its trunk was too difficult for the two-person handsaws that would have been used during the last clearcut of the area around a century ago. Looking at its 11-metre circumference, there aren't the tell-tale slots that loggers cut in the base of trees to insert planks and cut higher above the ground — they didn't even attempt to cut this cedar, Lewis says.

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The cuts loggers made in trees. - Keili Bartlett

The tree was carbon dated in the late 1990s, revealing it could be up to 900 years old.

"It's pretty crazy to think that this was a seedling in the 12th century," Lewis said. "It's almost mindblowing."

For the kids who visit the centre, Lewis said, seeing the tree is "a chance to understand where they fall in history. It gives you a better perspective on how old it is. I think for the older students, we really like to talk about environmental sustainability, what it means to protect a tree of this age or a forest of this age.

"I like the idea too, to think about it in the scope of where this tree is just a small blip," Lewis said, adding that cedars only came to the Lower Mainland around 7,000 years ago. In 500 years' time, they became 50% of the foliage and fauna in the area. (Now it's closer to 20%.)

In that context, she said, cedars are relative newcomers to the area.

While the Nature Conservancy of Canada began its conservation covenant on these lands in 1997, Siýámken (Matthew Williams), the cultural education facilitator for Cheakamus Centre, said in an emailed statement that "This place is one of learning and spiritual significance since time immemorial."

The day The Chief visited the tree, Siýámken was teaching students at one of the schools in North Vancouver. He grew up immersed in Skwxwú7mesh ways and now shares knowledge about cedars, also known as the tree of life, with people of all ages.

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"The cedar gifted us many things including: canoes, building materials, and regalia. These practices continue today using both traditional and contemporary methods," Siýámken wrote.

On one side of the tree, there is some exposed bark between swaths of the moss-covered surface. The scratched strip, Lewis said, is from wildlife seeking shelter in the cedar's high branches. She calls it the "animal highway".

The protection the tree offers isn't limited to critters — its far-reaching root system acts as a communication network between it and other trees.

"A mother cedar, or a mother tree, would send extra nutrients to its own offspring and it would even go so far as to choke out or make life difficult for cedars that are growing that aren't their own offspring," Lewis said. "There's this wonderful secret life underneath the ground of an information highway network, basically, on their root systems."

The tree has also been known to communicate with humans. When some Japanese tourists visited the tree, Lewis recalls two women leaning in close and excitedly whispering. Through an interpreter, Lewis learned they were speaking with the tree. Their giggling was because the tree considers itself youthful, despite being the oldest in the area — it's still young at heart.

The tree sits on private property, and can only be viewed under the guidance of the Cheakamus Centre staff to make sure both the sensitive ecological reserve and its visitors stay safe. While school groups often visit the site, it's also open on the first Sunday of every month with the Friends of Cheakamus program series.

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Source: Keili Bartlett

The public can join programs of different themes and explore the trails. Next month's program, on March 1, is a cedar theme led by biologist Edith Tobe of the Squamish River Watershed Society.

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