by Keili Bartlett, Squamish Chief
Not far from Paradise Valley Road stands a giant more than 850 years old.
The cedar, however, is not alone. The area was last clear-cut around
100 years ago and has nearby neighbours — perhaps relatives — that have
likewise resided there for centuries.
There's the 750-year-old tree and another likely around 600 years old.
Ses'emay (Aura Lewis), an assistant cultural worker at the Cheakamus Centre and
a member of the Metis Nation, helps facilitate the Squamish Nation
elders with their Indigenous education component at the centre. She
lives in the valley, and walks the trails between the trees nearly every
While unsure why the tree was left uncut, Lewis ventures a guess
that the density of its trunk was too difficult for the two-person
handsaws that would have been used during the last clearcut of the area
around a century ago. Looking at its 11-metre circumference, there
aren't the tell-tale slots that loggers cut in the base of trees to
insert planks and cut higher above the ground — they didn't even attempt
to cut this cedar, Lewis says.
The tree was carbon dated in the late 1990s, revealing it could be up to 900 years old.
"It's pretty crazy to think that this was a seedling in the 12th century," Lewis said. "It's almost mindblowing."
For the kids who visit the centre, Lewis said, seeing the tree is "a
chance to understand where they fall in history. It gives you a better
perspective on how old it is. I think for the older students, we really
like to talk about environmental sustainability, what it means to
protect a tree of this age or a forest of this age.
"I like the idea too, to think about it in the scope of where this
tree is just a small blip," Lewis said, adding that cedars only came to
the Lower Mainland around 7,000 years ago. In 500 years' time, they
became 50% of the foliage and fauna in the area. (Now it's closer to
In that context, she said, cedars are relative newcomers to the area.
While the Nature Conservancy of Canada began its conservation
covenant on these lands in 1997, Siýámken (Matthew Williams), the
cultural education facilitator for Cheakamus Centre, said in an emailed
statement that "This place is one of learning and spiritual significance
since time immemorial."
The day The Chief visited the tree, Siýámken was teaching students
at one of the schools in North Vancouver. He grew up immersed in
Skwxwú7mesh ways and now shares knowledge about cedars, also known as
the tree of life, with people of all ages.
"The cedar gifted us many things including: canoes, building
materials, and regalia. These practices continue today using both
traditional and contemporary methods," Siýámken wrote.
On one side of the tree, there is some exposed bark between swaths
of the moss-covered surface. The scratched strip, Lewis said, is from
wildlife seeking shelter in the cedar's high branches. She calls it the
The protection the tree offers isn't limited to critters — its
far-reaching root system acts as a communication network between it and
"A mother cedar, or a mother tree, would send extra nutrients to its
own offspring and it would even go so far as to choke out or make life
difficult for cedars that are growing that aren't their own offspring,"
Lewis said. "There's this wonderful secret life underneath the ground of
an information highway network, basically, on their root systems."
The tree has also been known to communicate with humans. When some
Japanese tourists visited the tree, Lewis recalls two women leaning in
close and excitedly whispering. Through an interpreter, Lewis learned
they were speaking with the tree. Their giggling was because the tree
considers itself youthful, despite being the oldest in the area — it's
still young at heart.
The tree sits on private property, and can only be viewed under the guidance of the Cheakamus Centre
staff to make sure both the sensitive ecological reserve and its
visitors stay safe. While school groups often visit the site, it's also
open on the first Sunday of every month with the Friends of Cheakamus
The public can join programs of different themes and explore the trails.
Next month's program, on March 1, is a cedar theme led by biologist
Edith Tobe of the Squamish River Watershed Society.