National Geographic : 2003 Feb
iftheW CO ast of British Columbia's Vancouver Island, Van Pelt tramp ead across a smaller isle named Meares. We were in woods as old, quiet, green, and wet as a forest can be. Even the air felt soaked. It was hard to tell how much of the moisture came from the chilly rain, how much was fog, and how much was steam rising off the burly figure of a bearded Van Pelt, also known as Big Tree Bob. "I'm hot," he said with a shrug. "Big trees energize me." When we reached a giant that the locals call Big Mother, Van Pelt, a researcher from the University of Washington College of Forest Resources, took precise measurements with a laser and announced that this western red cedar would probably rank among the ten largest known on the continent. A true ancient, 60 feet around at the base, the cedar had a grove of full size hemlock trees growing out of her sides and shrublands of huckleberry, salal, and false aza lea arising from clefts in her bark high overhead. Thick epaulets of moss padded Big Mother's great limbs. Liverworts and ferns piled out of the mosses, and lichens coated and colored everything in between. She was a forest com munity all by herself, an organic apartment tower, and the closest thing I had ever seen to the fabled tree of life. You can try to understand the living world with your head, but sometimes the heart is a truer field guide. Here in Vancouver Island's Clayoquot Sound, a million-acre natural amphi theater where mountainsides embrace a fjord fingered, island-strewn reach of the sea, you don't have to choose, for every way of knowing nature seems to come into play. One day I put on scuba gear to descend into another hushed tangle of green not far from Big Tree Bob's Big Mother. I'd been watching mink along the shore, intrigued by the way they swam 110 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * FEBRUARY 2003 Hook-jawed and determined, a male sockeye salmon in the upperKennedy River wards off rivals as it waits for the adjacent female, foreground, to spawn. Since they need cold, clear rivers to reproduce,salmon aregood indicatorsof watershed health. Only five pristine coastal watershedsgreater than 12,000 acres remain on Vancouver Island. Three are in Clayoquot Sound.