by Robin Esrock
Green is the colour of envy, and the world is envious of Canada’s abundant forests. We have an estimated nine percent of all forests on the planet, sprawling across 38% of the entire country. Russia and Brazil might have more trees, but let’s face it, Canadian forests are a lot more accessible to nature enthusiasts. Since every outdoor adventure will immerse us among the trees, let’s tuck into this fascinating ecosystem, the healthiest green of all.
Explore the west coast, the Rockies, or the Canadian Shield, and you’ll quickly recognize a diversity of trees. Canada has eight distinct forest regions covering 3.6 million square kilometres. Boreal forests, which ring around the planet’s higher latitudes, are perfectly adapted for long winters and represent the largest pool of living biomass on Earth. Here you’ll find spruces and jack pine, birch, willow, and trembling aspen. The Great Lakes-St Lawrence Forest blankets central Canada with white pine, sugar maple, yellow birch and eastern hemlock. Thirty species of trees make up the distinct Acadian forests of the Maritimes, while southwestern Ontario’s Carolinian forests are home to one-third of Canada’s at-risk species. Giant western red cedars, hemlock, and Douglas-fir are synonymous with BC’s Coastal Forest, interspersed with other tree species in BC’s Columbia Forest. Western Canada also has Montane Forest and Sub-Alpine Forest, with iconic trees like lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, and subalpine fir. Of course, there’s a lot more going on here than just trees.
Forests are the lungs of the planet, absorbing carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen, purifying the atmosphere, and putting a cap on rising temperatures. Forests prevent soil runoff and act as vital water filters for underground aquifers, impacting humidity and rainfall. As an ecosystem, it supports the richest biodiversity on Earth, home to all manner of flora and fauna across tropical, temperate, and boreal climates. Forests also have a massive economic impact on food cultivation and healthcare, with an estimated 25% of the medicine we use derived from rainforest plants. We harvest wood and gums for countless products and uses, and forests factor heavily in eco-tourism too. Beyond the practical uses of lumber or the endless beauty of the taiga, something else is going on beyond the fact and figures.
In the 1980s, a Japanese concept emerged called shinrin-yoku, translated as “forest bathing” or “feeling the forest atmosphere.” One definitely feels something when immersed in a forest, typically a sense of peace and well-being. In contrast to the high-paced, screen-intensive modern world, hiking or cycling through a forest feels like turning off a switch and dialling down the sensory overload. Eco-therapy ideas like forest bathing resonate worldwide because it supports the idea of a healthy mind and body. Even a short walk in the woods leaves one feeling undeniably lighter. In colour therapy, green is the hue of renewal and energy, a source of healing that can calm anxiety, depression, and nerves. Green is also said to be the most relaxing colour to the human eye, and you won’t find more shades of green than in a forest. Turns out that a forest absorbs stress just as surely as it absorbs CO2.
In 2012, the United Nations proclaimed March 21st the International Day of Forests, an opportunity to appreciate, celebrate and protect the planet’s forests. Drive into parts of Vancouver Island or Northern BC, and it looks like a giant has taken shears to the mountains, leaving utter devastation in his wake. Visit Big Lonely Doug on Vancouver Island, a single tall Douglas-fir and all that remains of an old-growth stand flattened for lumber, and you’ll feel our impact on nature acutely. Football fields of tropical jungle in the Amazon are flattened every day to make way for palm plantations and cattle fields. Big trees continue to fall in BC despite pledges and progress to protect the estimated eight percent of old-growth forest (a contested figure depending on whom you talk to) that remains in the province.
Modernization and climate change continue to wreak havoc on nature, and forests around the world are particularly under threat. Illegal and non-sustainable logging, urban development, huge mining projects and out-of-control wildfires continue to decimate this immense ecosystem and all the biodiversity benefits it brings. Still, there is hope. Thanks to growing cultural awareness, international conservation initiatives are making substantial inroads. The Canadian government’s 2 Billion Trees program is investing over $3 billion to plant saplings that will restore forest habitat, reforest areas impacted by wildfire or human activities, and create new forest cover across the country. The UN’s 30x30 initiative has widespread international support to designate and protect 30% of Earth’s land and ocean areas by 2030.
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from; everyone enjoys time well spent in the woods. Even those world leaders, green with envy, will benefit from an inspiring bathe in a Canadian forest.
Fun Forest Facts:
Canada’s Largest Tree: The Cheewhat Giant is a western red cedar in Pacific Rim National Park. It soars 55.5m high, with a 6.1m diameter, and was only discovered in 1988.
Canada’s Oldest Tree: There are various contenders: an eastern white cedar growing in Ontario’s Lion’s Head Provincial Park is believed to be 1335 years old; a larch in Manning Provincial Park, BC, has been dated at over 1900 years old. In 1980, a yellow cedar tree on BC’s Sunshine Coast was cut down dated 1835 years old. Its tourism value would have been worth so much more than lumber.
Canada’s Tallest Tree: The Red Creek Tree is a contender, a towering Douglas-fir located along the San Juan River near Port Renfrew, BC, laser measured at 73.80m tall. The current title belongs to the Sitka Spruce, 96 metres high and roughly 600 years old, in the Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island.
Hiking Among Giants: There are two accessible stands of spectacular old-growth trees on Vancouver Island. Cathedral Grove, located on the road to Tofino, allows visitors to walk among 800-year-old Douglas fir, western hemlocks, grand firs and western red-cedar trees. It inspired the forest moon of Endor, and scenes were filmed here for the Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi. Off a logging road outside of Port Renfrew is Avatar Grove. The Ancient Forest Alliance, an organization dedicated to protecting old-growth trees in BC, has built boardwalks through a grove of massive trees that are so striking they appear to be the stuff of fantasy.
Robin Esrock is a renowned travel journalist and the bestselling author of the Great Canadian Bucket List.