Magazine article American Forests

An Olympic Undertaking

Magazine article American Forests

An Olympic Undertaking

Article excerpt

In the holy grail of arborism, in search of a national champ.

My father often admonished, "Son, nothing worthwhile comes easily." Lottery winners might take exception to this dictum, but in the realm of big tree hunting, Dad's advice rings true. As I stood beneath the world's biggest subalpine fir, deep in Washington's Olympic Mountains, it was clear that my reward was more than just another big tree.

The place held the aura of a sacred archaeological site, a sort of holy grail of arborism. I felt the presence not only of the stately trees around me, but also that of the people who had come to this remote locale before. We share a brotherhood of spirit because this place is not reached on a mere whim. It is a destination.

The champion subalpine fir sits in the heart of the Olympic Peninsula, near a postcard-perfect mountain pond called Cream Lake. The surrounding wilderness is an alpine dreamscape: crevassed glaciers, glistening snowflelds, cragged peaks, steep mountainsides thick with timber, blue lakes, wildflower meadows, tumbling creeks, raging rivers-most painted in various shades of surreal green. This is the landscape I had struggled through over the course of two and a half days.

My route started in the Elwa River Valley along the northern edge of Olympic National Park. From here, a 13-mile, 4,000-vertical-foot slog up a beaten path brought me to an alpine bowl where a black bear spooked away at my scent.

On day two, the broad trail degenerated into a narrow footpath, and the hiking got serious. Traversing a 50-degree slope and near-vertical fins of rock, the vague trail offered virtually the only route of travel in the steep plant-covered world. Just as I began to revel in its relative ease, it stopped. A slide path of loose crumbling rock obliterated any sign of a trail.

I continued across the gully hoping the route might reappear and found myself clawing through a tangle of shrubby yellow cedar. Clearly, this was not the way. I turned and carefully edged my way back. The only other direction the route could have led was down. Ironically, this way was blocked by a small dead subalpine fir, its fallen prickly crown pointing at me like a bayonet. Casting off any thought that the tree was a sign I should turn back, I threw it out of the way and continued down. Within feet, I was no longer on any discernible route.

The suddenly disappearing trail rang eerily familiar, recalling the time I lost a trail in Idaho's Bitterroot Mountains. Darkness was falling along with the first flakes of an approaching storm. Tentless, I crawled under the tightly bunched boughs of a grand old subalpine fir in an open meadow. Its dark cave-like womb sheltered me from two inches of wet snow that fell overnight. The next morning I found the trail.

This time, despite my searching I could not find any route whatsoever. A tree-assisted descent ensued as I lowered myself ape-like from branch to branch down the steep slope. Progress slowed. Two hours of scary downclimbs and frustrating bushwhacks brought me to a pass in the wild mountains, where the game-traveled trail magically reappeared. By this point in the day I was pretty exhausted. It was 11 a.m.

This type of backcountry beat-down is par for reaching the champion subalpine fir. Renowned big tree hunter Robert Van Pelt, Washington state coordinator for the National Register of Big Trees, visited the Cream Lake tree in 1992. Attempting an out and back dash from their basecamp seven miles distant, Van Pelt and his partner underestimated the rigorous route and were forced to spend the night out, lacking so much as a sleeping bag. The next morning brought blinding fog.

"We could only see about 30 feet," Van Pelt recalls. The duo climbed nearby Mt. Ferry to ascertain their position in the soup and from there regained the route and made it back to camp and cherished shelter.

Inclement weather is the norm in this region and probably a big reason why Cream Lake grove such giants. …

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