May 15th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 20
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
The Ents of Flumerfelt
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Flumerfelt cottonwods in fall
To the beeches of Neldoreth I came in the Autumn
Ah! the gold and the red and the sighing leaves in the Autumn in Taur-na-neldor!
It was more than my desire
J.R.R. Tolkien
So sang the giant Ent, Treebeard, the oldest being in Middle Earth, as he carried the hobbits Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck on his branches into the Fangorn forest. When I walk among the ancient cottonwoods here in Flumerfelt Park I feel like I am among Treebeard’s kin and that their creaking and moaning in the ever-present wind is in fact their whispers to each other. Stand at the ancient base of one, look up and imagine.

I grew up amongst these cottonwoods, climbed their gnarly old branches and slept under their massive shade on hot summer days. Back in 2005 as we all witnessed the unprecedented 9-11 September snowstorm that stripped our trees so ruthlessly, the old Ents of Flumerfelt stood their ground. The park looked like a bomb had gone off that Sunday morning. It was most disheartening back then but now, as always, the season of renewal has returned to this beloved place and it is good to see these embattled giants preparing to leaf out again. Old soldiers standing guard at the entrance to the Miner’s Path. There may very well be trees there well over a hundred years old.
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Fifteen kilometers south of Fernie, just north of the Morrissey Bridge on the east side of the Elk River one can find some of Canada’s oldest cottonwoods. Some have remained rooted in the same area for as long as 400 years and Michael Phillips, discoverer of the Crows Nest Pass, undoubtedly passed by them in 1873 on his way up Morrissey Creek.

There are younger versions of these Morrissey old-timers scattered throughout the Elk Valley and they have taken up residence all along the Elk River. Their Latin name is "populus trichocarpa" but we know them as black cottonwoods. You know, the ones that make it snow in June!

The ancient Morrissey cottonwoods are a remarkable bunch in that they have survived for so long. Anyone who has grown up around these trees knows that sooner or later wind and time takes them out. When an old cottonwood hits the ground it virtually disintegrates, as it is usually rotten in the middle. Somehow a small cathedral of these trees has endured the forces of nature for hundreds of years in spite of being right at the east edge of the Elk River.

Mary Louise Polzin from Baynes Lake can probably be considered a resident expert on these monsters. She completed her master’s thesis in 1998 entitled: “River and riparian dynamics and black cottonwoods in the Kootenay River Basin” which dealt with these amazing cottonwoods and amongst other things the impact the famous '95 flood had or didn't have on them. Mary Louise literally overwhelmed me with Latin names and subspecies descriptions of the populus family which is extremely complicated due to the fact that populus will hybridize at the drop of a hat.
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Tree coring for age of one of the largest trees out there by Polzin revealed that it had been around for at least 400 years, a conservative estimate she tells me considering its rotten core. It is 9.8 meters (32 feet) in circumference and will leave you shaking your head in amazement. While cottonwoods have been known to reach over 150 feet in height their heights versus their diameters generally don't relate. Big old cottonwood tops are repeatedly decapitated by lightning and wind, a fact that has kept the Morrissey giants from standing out visually amongst all the other secondary growth around them.

Trichocarpa is a member of the 'populus" family, one that also includes willows and alders. They are known as pioneer species, that is, the first to move in on new bare ground, something that shifting river courses are good at making.

According to Polzin black cottonwoods belong to a Section called “tachamahaca” (now there's a great word) and include black cottonwoods, balsam poplars, narrow-leaf cottonwoods and nine other species not found in North America. At one time they were classified as a subspecies of P. balsamifera (balsam poplar) a tree that was once one of the most widely distributed of the Canadian forest. They could be found coast to coast and as far north as the tundra.

When Alexander Mackenzie was exploring the upper reaches of the Peace River in 1793 he encountered a dozen or so different species of trees one of which he noted in his diary as a "liard". As a Highland Scot he was no doubt unfamiliar with the flora and relied on the French Canadian voyageurs travelling with him for its name. The tree he noted as liard was in fact a balsam poplar. In old French liard means grey (liard pears are grey). It could be that the tree was named so because the balsam turns grey as it matures.
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The barks of the Morrissey giants are almost white now and when sunlight filtering through the canopy hits them they light up in a spectacular and almost ethereal way. Historically the First Nation's people found a variety of uses for members of populus. Young saplings were made into sweathouses, their proximity to rivers and streams proving quite handy for that activity. Saplings were also woven into baskets and the white seed floss that we curse was used for stuffing bedding. The cambium layer of younger trees proved to have medicinal properties when chewed, the willow having the highest concentration of what is probably acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin).

According to Stewart Rood, a world renowned botanist and cottonwood expert at the University of Lethbridge, cottonwoods: “provide distinctive structural and habitat diversity in riparian woodlands.” Rood stated a few years ago in a Calgary Herald article that: “cottonwood forests are the richest wildlife habitats on the continent” and that: “three quarters of bird species in southern Alberta require cottonwood forests for some part of their life cycle.” It is my observation that arboreal birds like flickers and woodpeckers love them and it is not ususual to see a dozen nest holes in the blunted top of one.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) acquired the land where the Morrissey Ents stand in 2004. It is now part of the Elk Valley Heritage Conservation area, which is more than 25,000 acres that also includes Mt. Broadwood. When I walked the Morrissey grove in 2003 I was astounded at their size and stature. The bark’s thickness and texture is like nothing I have ever seen. It is actually sold to carvers as a good medium for things like: “tree spirits, whimsical houses or christmas decorations.” Like the giant Douglas Fir’s at Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island, the Morrissey cottonwoods stand magnificently against their mountain backdrop. It is a complex riparian environment they live in and support.
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Populus trichocarpa rarely live past 150 years so to be able to visit this isolated gem and study the riparian ecology they create was fascinating. It gave me an opportunity to connect with the natural values of that old growth riparian forest. Those values were for me beauty, strength, variety, wisdom, and a bridge that connects a natural history’s past to the present.

A quick call to Lesley Neilsen, NCC’s engagement and communications manager in Victoria, revealed that the trail around those neck straining wonders at Morrissey was closed last May because of hazards she referred to as “widow makers”. That is to say huge branches broken off and hanging up in these behemoths. There is also a lot of debris accumulated on the ground. So I guess if you are interested in visiting these brobdingnagians it will have to wait until the NCC finds a way to make the area safe again. Check NCC’s BC website for updates.

For now one can choose to walk amongst the Flumerfelt giants that train north through the park and up the Miner’s Path here in Coleman. As the path moves closer to and parallels Nez Perce Creek the cottonwoods give way to spectacular giant Douglas Fir’s that stand guard over this special trail. Many are well over 150 years old and as gnarly looking as a cottonwood. The trail’s ecology is significant enough that the University of Calgary conducted a study of its sheltered ecosystem flora years ago.

As you wend your way north to Rainbow Falls you will find the occasional dead or dying cottonwood with holes pounded into its now pithy interior. Unfortunately along the way you will find that the second bridge, which leads to the 102 stairs that my grandfather built so long ago, is closed. It seems the support timbers for its deck have decayed to the point where it is a safety hazard.

Ed Gregr enthusiasts might find their replacement a worthwhile project next month. The path is a rare piece of heritage and natural beauty combined that we need to protect and preserve.

Authors Note: Brobdingnagian is a rarely used word that comes from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and refers to human giants from Brobdingnag: “as tall as an ordinary spire steeple.”
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May 15th, 2019 ~ Vol. 89 No. 20
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