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June 2007

Above & Beyond

The world's tallest tree towers above a secret location deep within the lush, tangled backcountry of Redwood National Park. Determined to find this giant, our correspondent discovers something more incredible than he ever imagined.

Normally I wouldn’t let a few downed trees get in the way of a good bushwhack.
But as I surveyed the wall of redwood trunks lying across the creek that had
been my pathway into the mountains, I had to consider the possibility that I
had met my match. Each of these trees was at least 10 feet in diameter, and
more than 250 feet long. Piled up like pick-up sticks hurled by a livid giant,
the fallen trunks created a formidable barrier to further ascent.

My two companions and I sat down on mossy rocks to assess the situation. Going
over the wall of wood was likely impossible without climbing gear, which is
not allowed in the park. Going under might have worked, had we brought along
snorkels and wetsuits. Going around would entail a battle with head-high nettles
that ran up and down the 50 percent grade at creekside. From recent experience,
we knew that the climb could take hours, and several pints of our blood.

We had come to this remote basin in northern California’s Redwood National Park
to hunt for the world’s tallest living tree, a coast redwood nearly 380 feet
in height. Explorers had discovered it last summer, in a remnant stand of old
growth in the southern section of the park. Growing quietly on a mountainside
for centuries, the newly crowned giant is some 70 feet taller than the Statue
of Liberty, or about as tall as a 40-story building. Its discoverers christened
it Hyperion, after the Titan (of Greek mythology) who fathered the sun.

The news was followed, as these things must be nowadays, by a press release.
Emailed from the tourism people in Humboldt County, the message claimed that
Hyperion "is too far from any trail to visit." But, it consoled, "adventurers
piqued by the discovery have plenty of other opportunities to explore old-growth
redwood groves in Humboldt County, the tallest, largest and most pristine in
the world."

Having spent time in Humboldt, I knew the superlatives were well-deserved. But
among my several inveterate weaknesses is an attraction to extremes. I’m a sucker
for the biggest and tallest and fastest, the superjumbo jets and Everests and
top-fuel dragsters. I hit the reply button and typed a message to Richard Stenger,
author of the press release. "Why couldn’t an ambitious backpacker visit
Hyperion?" I asked.

A few minutes later, Stenger was on the phone. "I gotta tell you,"
he said, "this one is really off the beaten path. They say it’s on an incredibly
steep slope with thick underbrush that you’d have to bushwhack through, if you
knew where to go. But the park folks aren’t telling anyone where it is. Everyone
who knows anything about this tree is sworn to secrecy."All of which sounded,
to me, like a pretty good challenge. And so a few weeks later, I found myself
driving up the Redwood Highway with photographer Mark Katzman and photo assistant
Derek Southard. From San Francisco north to the Oregon border, California’s
coastal population thins out and the forests and fogs thicken. Lacking good
harbors, far-northern California had little to grip the roots of settlers. Fortune-seekers
came and moved on, following the boom-and-bust cycles of the gold rush and the
timber stampede.

We overnighted in Eureka, 225 miles north of San Francisco. There, in an Irish
pub, Katzman revealed that he was less than confident about our mission. "So
we’re just going to show up," he asked, "with no credentials and no
notice, and try to find this tree that no one wants us to find?"
That was essentially the plan–although I had put a call in to the park’s
interpretive specialist, Jim Wheeler. Chief ranger Pat Grediagin was supposedly
the only Park Service employee who knew the exact location of Hyperion. The
New Yorker
had quoted Grediagin as saying "there’s been a lot of talk
about this discovery. I’m just worried that someone will get a wild idea to
try to find this tree."

That would be us. But I reassured Wheeler, on a drizzly Thursday morning when
we met him at park headquarters in the town of Orick, that ours was a responsible
quest. If we managed to find the tree, I told Wheeler, we wouldn’t reveal its
location, either in print or in conversation. But Wheeler, and the other rangers
we would meet, didn’t seem overly concerned about our intentions.

"Mostly," Wheeler shrugged, "nobody around here thinks you have
any chance of finding it."

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