Ancient tree discovered near Vancouver Island

Oct 20, 2023, 12:39 PM | Updated: 1:28 pm

North of Washington off the west coast of Vancouver Island, a Canadian nature photographer and forest advocate recently located and documented one of the biggest and oldest trees in the Pacific Northwest.

Photographer T.J. Watt’s story of the big tree was recently reported by The Washington Post.

Watt grew up on Vancouver Island and works for the non-profit organization Ancient Forest Alliance. This group has been pushing the British Columbia government to protect what remains of the big trees in that province where, according to Watt, something like 90% of the ancient trees have already been logged.

And the 39-year-old Watt knows this better than anybody, since he’s been searching for and photographing big trees for two decades – or half his life. Watt found this gigantic specimen on Flores Island in Clayoquot Sound, on lands of the Ahousaht First Nation, just north of the community of Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

“The tree is absolutely enormous,” Watt told KIRO Newsradio. “It’s over 17 feet wide at its base, more than 150 feet tall. It’s in a remote location on the island out there.”

Flores Island, according to 19th century and early 20th century British Columbia place-name expert Captain John T. Walbran, was named in 1791 “by Lieutenant (Francisco de) Eliza, after Don Manuel Antonio Flores.”

The island’s namesake is “chiefly of interest,” writes Walbran, “in connection with the northwest coast because he despatched early in February, 1789, the expedition under the command of Estevan Jose Martinez from San Blas to Nootka, which led to the dispute between Great Britain and Spain regarding their respective rights on this northwest coast.”

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How did Watt locate the thousand-year-old Western red cedar of Flores Island? It’s not as if it’s small, exactly.

“I found it through, I guess, a little bit of luck,” Watt said. “But maybe my years of big tree hunting has helped hone my nose for where to find these things.”

T.J. Watt made the discovery in June 2022, but didn’t reveal it publicly until a few months ago. He wanted to thoroughly document it, and to work with Ahousaht First Nation on a strategy for protecting the ancient tree.

Along with the luck, Watt says, the hunt for this tree involved a fair amount of bushwhacking.

“We started to see some larger cedars appearing, and then all of a sudden that one appeared,” Watt said, describing that day of bushwhacking on Flores Island. “And truthfully, in my 20 years of doing this, no tree has blown me away more than this one.”

“It’s perhaps the most impressive tree in all of Canada, because not only is it over 17 feet wide at its base, but it actually gets wider as it grows taller,” Watt said. “That’s just unlike any tree I’ve ever seen before.”

Big, tall objects like trees don’t exactly lend themselves to amateur photography, as most smartphone shutterbugs have already discovered. Watt offered a few tips for those who do want to capture images of forest giants.

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The first thing to do, Watt says, is to track down some of the biggest trees on earth on – which you can find on Vancouver Island, other parts of British Columbia, and here in Washington, of course.

“From there, I find using a wide angle lens really helps,” Watt continued. “Shooting on overcast days, where the sun isn’t so harsh. And then having a person in there for scale. Often you’ll see me in my little red jacket beside a tree, and that really helps give a sense of just how gigantic these ancient trees can truly be.”

Sure enough, in looking closely at Watt’s photos of the giant Flores Island tree, it doesn’t take long to find him standing alongside the ancient trunk.

T.J. Watt says the British Columbia government is on the verge of adopting new policies to protect trees like this, and First Nations – the Indigenous people in Canada – are also working to protect them as well. Watt says the remnants of the ancient forests stretch from California to Alaska, and that the U.S. is actually further along than Canada in protecting those trees.

Watt says it’s “easy to forget what was once here, so definitely spending time in ancient forests where they do remain and remembering their importance and significance for the climate, for tourism, for endangered species or First Nations cultures, and then advocating for their protection is really important in this day and age.”

“If people want to speak up and get involved,” Watt continued, “I recommend they go to, where they can send a message to the government of British Columbia., even if you live outside of Canada.”

South of the 49th parallel, the group American Forests lists the 178-foot tall “Duncan Cedar” south of Forks on the Olympic Peninsula as a state of Washington “Champion Tree.” The previous champion was the “Quinault Cedar” north of Lake Quinault, also on the Olympic Peninsula, but it died and collapsed in 2016.

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Big trees like the Duncan Cedar are popular places for tourists, but Watt says there’s far more to old trees than just a “gee whiz” factor.

“I’m fascinated with that concept of deep time,” Watt said, clearly in awe of the long lives of the trees he finds and photographs. “And I think that it’s a truly humbling experience to stand before a living being that’s lived at least 10-times-plus the average longest lifetime of a human being.”

“It teaches us (about) our place in the universe, that we are just one but many living organisms on a much longer timeframe,” Watt continued. “And hopefully, that we should respect and take care of these landscapes around us, that they’re far more complex than we can possibly even imagine.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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Ancient tree discovered near Vancouver Island