The search for the Chilliwack Giant

It was the largest grand fir ever recorded—then it disappeared for 20 years

It was the perfect specimen: the Chilliwack Giant. A grand fir that lived up to its name, its top towering above an old-growth rainforest canopy.

And then it disappeared.

Sean O’Rourke was determined to find it.

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O’Rourke had first come to the Chilliwack River Valley in the spring of 2020. It had been a difficult beginning to the year. On top of the pandemic everyone was becoming acquainted with, a break-up had added to the stress.

So he did what came natural to him: he headed outdoors, into the forest and started looking for a legendary tree.

Specifically, he sought out the Chilliwack Giant, a tree in a remote part of the Chilliwack River Valley. It was the height of a 23-storey building. Its trunk was seven feet in diameter. It had about 78 cubic metres of wood: enough to fill six or seven dump trucks. The last recorded sighting was two decades prior.

And ORourke just could not find the thing.

Sean O’Rourke has catalogued large trees of various species across the Fraser Valley and Fraser Canyon. 📷 BC Big Tree Registry

The hunter

O’rourke had largely grown up in the Prairies, studied archeology, and then went to work in the Arctic. A subsequent move to northern BC for university plunked him down near the province’s inland rainforest, where trees can grow to immense heights.

He found himself fascinated by the living towers. He also learned he wasn’t the only one. British Columbia has a small but passionate group of big-tree hunters who, with the support of the University of British Columbia’s forestry program, have made it their hobby and passion to catalogue the province’s largest and most spectacular trees.

O’Rourke was living in Vancouver when the pandemic hit and so he drove his car east into the soggy spring forests of the Chilliwack River Valley.

Most of those who venture in the valley end up no further than Chilliwack Lake. But O’Rourke’s quarry lay beyond the lake, down a gravel road that wrapped around the water and took him to the Chilliwack River Ecological Reserve—a patch of valley bottom squeezed between Chilliwack Lake and the US border.

The Chilliwack River Ecological preserves boasts massive trees in a rare valley-bottom setting. 📷 Jon Blais

Immediately across the border, North Cascades Provincial Park preserves a massive expanse of rich, old-growth forests and craggy alpine peaks. But in Canada, a much smaller slice of land is protected: combined, the ecological preserve and adjacent Chilliwack Lake Provincial Park are one-twentieth the size of the neighbouring American park.

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Nevertheless, the valley protects a crucial slice of Canadian wilderness that has long been known to harbour some of the Lower Mainland’s largest trees. While logging has claimed some of those, the ecological reserve’s towering trees continue to stand tall.

The legend

As he climbed out of his car, O’Rourke was following in the steps of Randy Stoltmann, a legendary pioneer of BC big-tree hunting.

Stoltmann grew up in the Vancouver area. According to one account, he was only 18 when he and his brother began venturing into the surrounding mountains and parks specifically looking for trees that might set a record of some sort. That year, Stoltmann ventured around Stanley Park, recording all of that site’s big trees. Stoltmann’s list, which was turned over to the Vancouver Park Board, set the stage for what would be the BC Big Tree Registry just six years later.

Over the next decade or so, Stoltmann became a key figure in conservation efforts, especially on Vancouver Island. In 1985, still just 23, Stoltmann wrote about the need to protect four “heritage forests” with spectacular stands of old-growth trees.

Randy Stoltmann is credited with pioneering big-tree searching in British Columbia. 📷

Stoltmann had walked and hiked those forests, measuring massive, mind-blowing trees that up to 16 feet in diameter and 200 feet tall. In the Carmanah Valley on Vancouver Island, he had spotted a grove of giant Sitka spruce. Stoltmann shared his knowledge and passion for the trees in a report for the Wilderness Committee, and asked his readers to join him to ask the federal government to protect the Carmanah trees and three other ‘heritage forests’

“Their recreational and scientific value to future generations is worth far more than the lumber value of their cut trees,” Stoltmann wrote.

Stoltmann and other Wilderness Committee activists built trails in the Carmanah Valley to try to draw attention to the trees that existed in the area and the threat to them posed by logging. One of the trees was measured at more than 300 feet high. The goal was to showcase the beauty and importance of the huge, ancient trees. The strategy worked, and in 1990, Carmanah Pacific Provincial Park (now called Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park) was created to protect the forests.

Cataloguing big trees, for Stoltmann and contemporaries like Ralf Kelman, wasn’t just about finding a large natural object; the idea is that recording such trees demonstratest that they have an intangible value that makes them worth preserving.

Stoltmann died in an avalanche while skiing in 1994. At 31, he had already left a massive legacy. A pivotal protector of BC’s trees, and a grove of towering trees in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park was named after him, and his colleagues at the Wilderness Committee nicknamed a patch of mountainous terrain in Squamish in honour of their fallen friend.

Stoltmann also left dozens of roadmaps for likeminded souls to follow. As a chronicler of BC old-growth forests, Stoltmann had penned three hiking books to help others find joy in the woods where he spent so much of his life. They came complete with directions for others to find the same forest towers that he had spent so much time gazing up at.

Then there was the Big Tree Registry, his list of massive trees. In 1986, the BC Forestry Association used Stoltmann’s work to create a formal registry of big trees. After Stoltmann died, that registry found itself in limbo for more than a decade. But in 2010, Stoltmann’s files, maps, and photographs found a new home with the University of British Columbia’s forestry faculty. They—along with trees found by colleagues like Ralf Kelman—now form the core of a new online registry that anyone can browse. Stoltmann’s work also provided a template for a new generation of big-tree-seeking aficionados to follow as they sought out other giant trees and advocated for their protection.

Amanda Lewis 📷 Submitted

The writer

Before O’Rourke ever tried to find the giant, Amanda Lewis had a plan.

Lewis had recently moved back to southwest BC after nearly a decade in Toronto. She had missed BC and its mega-trees. And in Stoltmann’s books and history and passions, she found what many people sometimes need: an excuse and a reason to get off the couch, out of the car, and into the woods.

In the same way mountaineers try to scale the tallest peaks in their province, country, continent, or planet, Lewis looked at the big tree registry as both a challenge and an inspiration to explore a province and forests with which she was only passingly familiar.

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Lewis decided to try to find all of BC’s “champion trees”— the largest recorded trees of each species in British Columbia. And that was how Lewis found herself pushing through bush in the Chilliwack River Valley.

The tree Lewis had come to find was BC’s largest recorded grand fir. Twenty years earlier, Stoltmann had hiked into the Chilliwack River Ecological Reserve and come across glades of massive old-growth trees. And among them, a single tree stood above its neighbours: a grand fir Stoltmann named the “Chilliwack Giant.”

Grand firs are, as their name suggests, a particularly grand species, growing symmetrically in massive organic columns. They don’t twist and turn. They just go straight up. As trees go, grand firs don’t live particularly long—only a couple hundred years at most. But despite that short lifespan and the relatively narrow breadth of their trunks, grand firs can reach tremendous heights as they seek out sunlight above.

Stoltmann had calculated that the Chilliwack Giant was the largest grand fir ever recorded in the province. It was a tree to be admired and he included a section on the ecological preserve in his book, Hiking Guide to the Big Trees of Southwest BC.

Describing the ecological reserve as “one of the finest areas of virgin forest remaining in the Lower Mainland,” Stoltmann took readers into the forest and to a grove of “slender” pacific silver firs that stood more than 200 feet tall. Nearby giant western red cedars were nearly as tall. Beneath then, devil’s club thrived in large quantities.

“The monarch of this grove,” Stoltmann wrote, “is the largest grand fir on record,” Stoltmann writes. He calculated it to be 71.3 metres tall and two metres in diameter.

Stoltmann continued on to describe the rest of the trail and its surrounding trees. But he left more than words. Next to his description of the grove of trees, Stoltmann included a hand-drawn map—with the general location of key points and spectacular trees for any reader looking to follow him.

Stoltmann’s map, as it appeared in his book, Hiking guide to the Big trees of Southwestern British Columbia. 📷 Wilderness Committee

In 1997, another big-tree admirer and author, Robert Van Pelt, followed Stoltmann’s map to see the tree for itself.

“The Chilliwack Giant is unmistakable,” he wrote. “Yet knowing the impressive dimensions doesn’t prepare one for the moment when the perfectly formed gray shaft is spied 20 yards off the trail.”

The tree wasn’t just exceptional for BC. Its “full base and slow-tapering trunk” meant that it was probably the largest by volume recorded anywhere in the world, Van Pelt wrote.

Two decades later, Lewis followed in Stoltmann and Van Pelt’s footsteps and ventured to the ecological preserve.

Lewis’s idea to seek out BC’s biggest trees had become a full-blown literary project. Lewis was going to write a book about her hikes, the trees she saw, and the meaning they gave her.

But the Chilliwack Giant proved irritatingly elusive for a tree that had been so unmistakable two decades earlier.

The first time Lewis tried to visit the valley, a thick coat of ice coated the access road, blocking her path. On the way back, Lewis and her friend took a break next to Chilliwack Lake, posing for photos.

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“To find the tree, you must become the tree,” her friend said.

But Lewis could do neither.

The second time she returned to the valley, she joined up with Dick Clegg, a friend and Chilliwack area vet. They tried to follow Stoltmann’s map, but couldn’t find the giant. Among the landmarks Stoltmann provided were sandbars that likely moved over the past two decades.

Lewis would return yet again, this time accompanied by Dick, his son Steve—a well-known Chilliwack arborist, environmentalist and woodworker—and another friend.

“We walked all over that place and couldn’t find it,” she told The Current recently. “We thought, it’s probably fallen. That happens with trees. They’re mortal. They die.”

At one point, Lewis was walking along a fallen log, as one does in a dense forest, and had an uncanny thought: Could the tree she was searching for be underfoot?

The friends wanted to know what happened to the tree. Did they miss it? Was it lying on the ground while they were gazing at the canopy? Were they just unable to spot the biggest tree in the entire forest?

It would take another big-tree hunter to answer those questions


When O’Rourke embarked on his search, he came as someone who enjoyed a good tree hunt and spending inordinate amounts of time alone in remote forests. And the Chilliwack Giant was worth it. Not only was it a great mystery, and a tree with a terrific backstory but the majestic towering grand fir was one of O’Rourke’s favourite species.

Still, he wasn’t quite prepared for just how hard it would be to find a single tree or how annoyed he would end up feeling.

O’Rourke was a “professional finder,” as Lewis would later describe him. As an archeologist, he has specialized training and experience finding things that have been lost for hundreds or thousands of years.

So O’Rourke used those skills. He took Stoltmann’s old map and uploaded it to a computer, compared it to other maps for the area and determined approximate GPS co-ordinates for the locations identified. The process is called “georeferencing” and while it’s a rough science, it can help provide a searcher with a concrete location to start their query.

As O’Rourke arrived at the reserve, left his car and ventured into the forest, he had GPS co-ordinates for the approximate location of the tree, along with Stoltmann’s original map.

He started with the co-ordinates and, using techniques familiar to any archeologist, he found the general location in question and began walking “transects”—straight lines that allow one to carefully and systematically scrutinize an area.

“I started applying the similar field reconnaissance methods that we use in archeology,” he later told The Current. But they weren’t working.

“I was so annoyed that I couldn’t figure out what happened to this tree. The biggest grand fir ever and it was just lost.”

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O’Rourke became “obsessed.” Over and over again, he would drive to the forest, walk his transects, journey down paths, and leave no closer to his quarry. The process was made harder because the trail Stoltmann had walked down—and referenced in his map—had fallen out of use and the land had become incredibly swampy.

He looked through the spring. He returned during the summer. In October, the leaves in the forest were changing colour, and O’Rourke was still looking.

Finally, he decided his GPS co-ordinates were faulty and returned to Stoltmann’s treasure map.

The path depicted on the map had become overgrown. In one area that O’Rourke knew well, he had to cross a specific log to access the swampy valley bottom. O’Rourke bushwhacked through the undergrowth. He had been in the area before. He had seen all the trees. But on this October day, he looked at them differently. In particular, he looked at a tree that had been broken in half. It was a “snag”: a still-standing dead tree. But it was still massive.

In addition to the map and co-ordinates, O’Rourke had brought along Van Pelt’s book, which included a photo of the tree. He pulled out the book and gazed at the photo, then the snag in front of him. Then he eyed the branches of a large maple tree visible in the book’s photo. The maple looked similar.

The size of the snag’s trunk—it was more than two metres in diameter—certainly suggested the fallen tree had been massive. A measurement confirmed that the tree was likely the giant.

Holy shit, O’Rourke thought.

O’Rourke realized that he had walked by the tree several times, but hadn’t noticed it because it was a snag.

His obsession and months spent searching had more than paid off; the effort making discovery even more exhilarating, he later said.

“The more work it takes, the more rewarding of an experience it is.”

In his car on his way home, revelling in the feeling that came with solving a puzzle that had defied him for months, he realized he had to make one more stop.

O’Rourke pulled off the road and bought a small bottle of champagne for when he got home. The quest was over.

When the Chilliwack Giant fell it left behind a massive snag. Its trunk was calculated at more than two metres in diameter. 📷 Sean O’Rourke

Eulogy for a tree

Big trees live and big trees die.

Grand firs can grow incredibly quickly; on Vancouver Island, one tree hit a height of 43 metres in just 50 years—an average growth rate of seven centimetres each month. But they also die relatively young, for a tree.

Author Stephen Arno writes that, historically, grand fir could live for up to 280 years. These days, though, grand fir in modern stands often die within 100 years.

The Chilliwack Giant likely exceeded that when it died. But whatever the case, death was inevitable, as it is for all living organisms.

For trees, fungi can enter grand firs with dead branch stubs or scrapes from nearby falling trees, Arno writes. The fungi eat away at a tree, both directly damaging it, and making it more susceptible to external forces like rain and nearby falling trees.

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We don’t know what forces killed the Chilliwack Giant, but its death isn’t shocking. When the biggest trees are also the oldest trees, the title of “champion” is always going to be temporary and transitory.

So one day in the last two decades, the Chilliwack Giant started to sway. It leaned this way. It leaned that way. Each sway would have stressed on the tree’s roots, base, and lower trunk. Gravity exerted its force on the top of the tree. The stress on the tree increased. Its roots held firm in the valley bottom’s soil. But hundreds of years of growth had probably left the tree too tall for its own good.

Every time the tree leaned, gravity pulled its top toward the forest floor. The tree’s trunk had been strong enough to counteract this pull for decades. Every time the tree had flexed, its top had rebounded back skyward. Until one day it didn’t. The strength of its trunk may have been compromised by fungi or age. Snow or ice could have increased the weight of its branches. But one day, the tree leaned too far and flexed too much.

And its trunk snapped. Whether anyone was around or not, the sound must have been incredible. A deep crack, followed by a tremendous thud.

The Chilliwack Giant had fallen.

Years later, O’Rourke would find that fallen trunk: a “beautiful, straight, huge column of wood.”

It was covered in moss and slowly disappearing into the forest floor.

“There are some big ones left out there,” O’Rourke reflected. “But I’ve never seen one like the Chilliwack Giant.”


This story references several books. Both Van Pelt and Stoltmann’s original books are out of print. Used versions of both are available online. Van Pelt’s costs more than $100. Stoltmann’s are cheaper.)

This spring, Lewis published her book, Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest. Our account of her visit mostly comes from our interview with Lewis, but her book also includes a detailed account of her search for the tree. It’s available here. You can read a fascinating interview with Lewis about other topics here.

The latest edition of Stephen Arno’s book, Northwest Trees: Identifying and Understanding the Region's Native Trees, was published in 2020. It’s available here.

Arno and Lewis’s books are also both available through the Fraser Valley Regional Library.

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