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The San Juan River: Where spruce trees hold up the clouds

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

A Journey to Pacheedaht, 📍 Southern Vancouver Island, Canada

The rainforest welcomes us to Pacheedaht with a lovely drizzle that pours out of the dark clouds that blanket the sky, just above the dark green mountains. It would rain almost constantly for our first days here, our wet tent and clothes couldn't dampen our spirits. We were overjoyed to be here, experiencing firsthand the rain that gives life to this land. walking up the banks of the San Juan River, we were thrilled to have made it to this legendary estuary, with its towering Sitka spruce trees covered in bearded lichen, moss covered Big-leaf Maple and Red Alder swamps. We watched the raindrops fall on the San Juan, a large school of salmon swimming in a circle in the dark clear river hypnotized us, we are enthralled by the wonders of this water. This fertile valley is a place we had dreamed of visiting, and It was from here, our campsite at Pacheedaht campground, that we would base from as we adventured on foot into the surrounding forests. To witness the glory of the old growth Cedars, firs, and spruce, some of the largest trees in the world.

In the middle of our third day in Pacheedaht, the rain let up, the sun revealed itself, illuminating the droplets of rain on the trees and their lichens like glistening diamonds, sitting on the San Juan’s bank soaking wet. We laughed in awe of the beautiful river, and the multi-day storm we endured in good spirits. We felt butterflies in our stomachs in anticipation of the adventures to come. We admired our new friend, a small Sitka spruce on the riverbank that we had made our camp under, whose lower branches touched the water during high tide, thanking this beautiful tree for sheltering us. Under its fragrant, cone laden boughs, we watched the seagulls and eagles fly over the estuary.

Our hearts were set on seeing the infamous Avatar Grove, as well as Big lonely Doug, and nearby Eden grove, however, with no car we knew that it would be a long walk to get there. First, we decided to warm ourselves up with some walks into the bush, to see if we could stumble into the little known “mossome grove”, a remnant of old growth riparian rainforest, a little ways up the San Juan. We had only a rough idea of where this grove might be, at the intersection of an old growth management area and the San Juan Estuary Ecological Reserve. On the first full day of sunshine, Des and I parted ways to go on walks, she was called to beach comb, while I took to walking up the road beside the San Juan. I met a man outside of a beautiful house near the river, that I’d admired the day before, he was watching the river, observing the passing schools of salmon, going to spawn further upstream. Taking him to be familiar with the ins and outs of the river, I greeted him and asked if he knew of any more shallow stretches, that I may wade across to see more of the estuary and its towering spruce trees. He told me he wasn’t sure of many good places to ford the river, and then to my delighted surprise, he kindly offered to lend me his canoe! So that I could explore and enjoy the river with ease, my heart exploded with gratitude at this stranger’s generosity! I came to know him as Kevin, and that he’d lived part time in this cottage for a long while. He showed me his maps of the river, extolling its beauty and urging me to try to canoe up to the log jam and back, before the tides changed…

Canoeing up this river filled me with joy, perhaps I only canoed a mere 1 kilometer or so upriver, for i was so taken by the beauty on the surrounding banks. The sublime surroundings frequently compelled me to land on the many sandy beaches lining the riverbank, walk a few meters into the forest, and enjoy the immense biodiversity of the riparian area, where the river’s seasonal flooding deposits nutrients and moisture into the soil, which lets the plants here (and the trees) thrive. I had my eyes peeled on the riverbank for the Tooth leaved monkey flower (Erythranthe dentata), a rare plant whose presence spurred the creation of this ecological reserve. As well as looking for some of the Forest’s larger residents, such as Roosevelt Elk, Black bears, and of course, the elusive old growth Spruce and Bigleaf Maples that still exist in some scattered pristine patches of rainforest… Though I didn’t get close to the area that I thought may contain the Mossome Grove. I did get to mindfully immerse myself in and deeply enjoy, this biodiverse temperate jungle that the San Juan River supports, below are some of the pictures from that little canoe trip, of the magical river and the trees it gives life to.

The symbiotic relationship the forest and the ocean share here allows for an abundance of life to thrive, on the water, and on land. The water's of the San Juan teem with salmon and steelhead, even the rare giant, Green Sturgeon, has been documented here... The abundance of fish and other Crustaceans supports river otters, bald eagles, and black bears who are known to fish in the river during autumn salmon runs. The dense forest surrounding the estuary is a sanctuary for Roosevelt Elk, Cougar, Black-tailed Deer, and Black Bears.

The limbs of the trees are draped in mosses and bearded lichen. On bigger branches, Ferns grow on top of the moss beds, these plants growing on the trees away from the ground are known as epiphytes, and are an important and enchanting part of this temperate rainforest ecosystem.

A sitka spruce tree covered in Old Man's Beard (Usnea Longissima). Bearded lichens, like other lichen's, are extremely sensitive to toxins in the air, their bodies are easily poisoned by air pollution. This makes them a good indicator species for air quality and the overall health of an ecosystem. The way the sun pours through the lichen covered trees of the San Juan is very beautiful.

The tree trunks are little ecosystems themselves, everything in the rainforest is interconnected, and in such a biodiverse place, species have evolved and specialized to fill every surface with brilliant shades of green.

Returning Kevin's canoe, my mind calmed by the slow flowing river, I felt embraced by this land and its sweet friendly people! Kevin was thrilled that I had such a great time upriver.. He then told me about a logging protest, blockading the building of roads into the pristine Fairy Creek rainforest, I had heard of this protest and was eager to visit and pay my respects to those protecting these lands from destruction.. So my eyes lit up with joy when Kevin told me he had been helping get supplies to the protestors, and offered to give us a ride up to one of the blockades! He told me he would come and check on us in a few days, when he was planning to go up next, to see if we'd still join him.. After talking some more about the river and forests, I let him get back to his day.. Thanking him for giving me such amazing opportunities, helping me enjoy Port Renfrew! Canoeing the San Juan made me all the more excited to go for a walk around the Fairy lake area the next day, seeing if we could penetrate the old growth management area near the river, to look for the mysterious "Mossome Grove"

If you'd like to read about our big rainforest walk, see our next post here !

San Juan River pt II; Bushwack up the river

-The San Juan is an exceptionally beautiful and magnetic river. I feel drawn back to its cool clear black waters... it's incredible lowland riparian rainforests... record breaking trees like the red creek Fir (the biggest Douglas fir in the world), the San Juan Spruce, and the remaining groves of old growth like Chester's grove, that we have yet to see... I am certain we will return to keep on enjoying these wonders of life -

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