Towering old-growth Douglas Firs pierced the sky above. We felt as if we’d stepped into an ancient grove of trees. In fact, we had, but we could still see our car parked just off the highway a short distance away. You might call it “nature express.”
Tourists wizz right past this spot every year on their way to Port Alberni and the coastal town of Tofino. Cathedral Grove, part of MacMillan Provincial Park, is little more than a pull-off adjacent to the highway. You pull off, get out of your car, and immediately find yourself on a nature trail that winds you through this ancient stand of trees.The giants are mostly Doug Fir and Western Red-Cedar. A short loop gives you an eyeful before you arrive back at your car. Halfway through the “hike” is a beaver pond fringed with skunk cabbage. There are benches on which to take a rest.
The forest’s understory is native and rich, carpeted with vanilla leaf, wild ginger, salal, lady fern and more. I noticed this right away because the understory in old growth forests are typically less dense and diverse. Why not here? The answer to this came later, when a local explained that about one-third of the forest’s trees were downed in a massive windstorm about 15 years ago. As those downed trees start the slow process of decay, they release nutrients back into the soil, amending it much like the compost we add to our garden soil. This allows new plant growth to thrive.
On our short hike I heard a Winter Wren singing, and American Robin scolding us because we were too near his nest, and a Swainson’s Thrush calling its ethereal song from the forest floor.