Cottonwoods are not long lived as far as trees go. While an oak might live for a few centuries, cottonwoods (and their kin the poplars and aspens) do not fare as well. Fast growing and quick to establish, 60-80 years is a long life for them. Occasionally they live as long as a century or more, but this is fairly rare. At around 250 years of age, a cottonwood grove in Idaho was the world’s oldest examples of these trees until the early 2000’s. That’s when a grove of cottonwoods near Fernie was discovered, several of these trees as much as 400 years old. Ideal moisture, fertile soil, and protection from wind and fire seem to be the key factors that have kept them in good health for so very long.
I was aware of these trees for over a decade before finally venturing out to see them myself. On a lovely summer day in August, I drove west from my home in Lethbridge specifically to visit them. I wasn’t disappointed. These beautiful, ancient giants were easy to locate and their gorgeous riparian home feels holy and sacred. On this quiet summer day these trees in their sanctuary made me feel deeply connected with nature, and humbled at the things they have witnessed in their lifetime. They predate European colonization. They were present for the industrial revolution. They were alive and well when Shakespeare was writing his plays and Monet was painting. They saw the Ktunaxa First Nations peoples as they travelled to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains to hunt bison. How extraordinary that these living trees have been here this whole time, and perhaps even more extraordinary is that they have been preserved!
It is hard to believe something as immensely large as these trees could be so graceful and beautiful. These are the botanical equivalent of whales. They are enormous but elegant, and the wind sweeping through their canopies is as much of a song as anything you could wish for. Their gnarled bark and deeply corrugated trunks stand firm and steady while their dancing leaves create the most exquisite patterns on the forest floor as the light moves between them. What a thing to see and feel!
As a naturalist and a gardener, I have always felt a strong connection with trees. As a Canadian, I have also felt a deep connection with the land where I live. I think it is profound and wonderful that the oldest cottonwoods in the world can be found right here at home. I think it’s absolutely terrific that the city of Fernie—perhaps better known as an adventure destination and ski town—has such an outstanding and remarkable natural attraction such as this. I have made the Ancient Cottonwood Trail just down the highway from Fernie a “must stop” on any drive west that I do, and I have been pleased to encourage others to do the same.
The tranquil setting where the elderly cottonwoods live is also home to fall blooming asters, the beautiful (and rather unfriendly) devil’s club, and gorgeous carpets of oak fern. Lady ferns and mosses have seductively draped themselves over the fallen logs and branches and stepping in here feels like stepping into a forgotten world. What must Canada have been like when this forest was young and roads and railways did not yet connect through our great land? How did these immense trees remain hidden for so long, and how much longer will they survive? It’s a question even the botanists can’t answer, and in a world of instant gratification and immediate answers, it’s rather wonderful to stand in this secluded place listening to birds and pondering these things. It’s not an experience you can really have anywhere else- the cottonwoods of Fernie are definitely worth the drive.
In 2003, scientists confirmed the ages of the trees, putting the oldest at more than 400 years old. The cottonwood forest is part of the Nature Conservancy of Canada's Elk Valley Heritage Conservation Area.
16km drive west of Fernie off Highway 3. Turn onto Morrissey Road (easy to miss so look closely). Just a few hundred metres down the road, park past the bridge, that goes over the Elk River, past the train tracks. The trailhead is beside the bridge. This 1km trail is easy to walk.
Lyndon Penner is a landscape designer, gardener, and best selling author from Alberta. He is also a botanical interpretive guide in Waterton Lakes National Park and often teaches and lectures in colleges and universities in western Canada.