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NatureSpeak Articles

Five trees to go around

Grizzled old locals have one cardinal rule about skiing or boarding in trees – go around them. Darwin built a theory on why grizzled old locals who ignore this rule are rare.

At the risk of getting all Oprah on you, I must share that I harbour dark emotions towards people who regard trees solely as obstacles to go around. Only slightly better are those who lump all our trees as "pines." These are often the same people who can distinguish this year’s Salomons from last year’s at 50 paces.

They’re not just trees, I tell you! They have names! (Cut to Oprah’s empathetic smile. Fade in the understanding murmurs of the studio audience.) And if you focus on trees growing on the upper half of the mountain where most of the tree skiing is found, there are only five you need to know.

1) Subalpine fir is by far the most common, especially near treeline, and its distinctive conical shape is perfectly adapted to shedding heavy snowloads. A sure-fire way to identify subalpine fir (and its lower-elevation relative, amabilis fir) is the upward-pointing cones. The little mushroom-shaped twigs at the top of subalpine firs, easily visible from a chairlift, are the insides of cones whose seeds have shed or have been removed by squirrels.

2) Engelmann spruce looks a bit like subalpine fir but is much less common. Both have a stout, erect top (which shows how much the tree grew last summer), but spruce cones point downwards. Other distinguishing features are a spruce’s grey bark and more flared base. The best places to see spruces are mid-mountain on Blackcomb.

3) Mountain hemlock looks quite different from the first two species. Its top is narrower and tends to droop a little, its bark is generally darker and deeply furrowed, and its downward-pointing cones are smaller. Mountain hemlock is the high-elevation version of the much droopier-topped western hemlock.

4) Alaska yellow-cedar looks like a red cedar except for its whitish, extremely shaggy bark. It looks like it just got out of the shower because its scale-like leaves hang so limply down. Yellow-cedars never get too large in our mountains, but can be more than 2 metres in diameter and approach 2000 years of age in prime growing conditions closer to the coast.

5) Whitebark pine is the only one of the five species which could be mistaken for an overgrown broccoli. These five-needled pines can seemingly grow out of bare rock, like the ones on the cliff beside the Glacier Express chairlift on Blackcomb. They’re also scattered throughout the forest on Seventh Heaven and around Kaleidoscope Ridge on Whistler. Sadly, many of these charismatic trees are dying from the effects of a fungus called white pine blister rust, the same disease which kills western white pines down in the valley.

That’s a quick introduction to the trees you’re likely to run into (so to speak) next time you’re tree skiing. But one safety tip: identifying trees while you’re blasting through them may not be as safe as looking at them from the chairlift. It doesn’t make a tree any softer when you know its name.

Upcoming Events

Thursday, March 21st: Volcanoes (cool mountains with a hot past). Join us at MY Place at 7:30 p.m. for the first of our monthly series of speakers, Jack Souther. Jack is a well-known local geologist and naturalist who will present slides on volcanoes throughout B.C., including a number in the Whistler area. Watch this column for more details in coming weeks.

Written by: Bob Brett


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