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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.

Moments later, a woman in the corner of the room caught my eye. She came over
and leaned close to my ear. "I work for the parks," she whispered.
"And I know too much to even talk to you."The next day, I sat down
to breakfast with Katzman, Southard, and Jerry Rohde, an educator and author
who’s written several hiking guides to redwood country with his wife, Gisela.
Thin, bearded, and bright-eyed, Rohde had agreed to accompany us on our tree
hunt, though he cheerfully warned us that the bushwhacking would be "brutal."

We pushed aside coffee mugs and plates of eggs, and laid out Rohde’s collection
of maps. Triangulating various rumors and hunches, we narrowed our focus down
to a few sections of old growth that flanked a couple of small streams that
empty into Redwood Creek.

We drove to a trailhead, then hiked down to Redwood Creek. The seasonal bridge
had been removed for the winter, so we pulled off boots and gaiters to wade
barefooted through the frigid water. On the other side, we put them back on
again–only to soak them almost immediately as we headed up a feeder

As we waded upstream, the trees on either side got larger, and the notch that
the creek had cut into the mountain got deeper. After an hour of sloshing, Katzman
spotted a small piece of orange loggers’ tape, attached to a bush. We scrambled
up the steep bank and found that the tape marked the beginning of a short trail,
still fairly fresh. It led through thick stands of rhododendron into a grove
of redwoods.

We were surrounded by tremendously tall, thick-trunked redwoods–trees
that you really have to see to believe. Though the bases were spread across
the hillside, the crowns were intertwined in a nearly unbroken canopy, starting
about 150 feet above our heads. From the ground, it was impossible to tell if
any one tree was taller than any other.

On one tree, Southard found a metal tag stamped with three digits. We had assumed
that Hyperion would have a tag on it, to mark it as a research specimen. This
trunk did seem fatter than the rest, but it was hard to tell whether it was
taller. I had brought along a laser rangefinder, which uses a laser beam to
calculate the height of a target object. But without a clear shot at the top
of the tree, the device was useless.

Rohde, who had heard there was a clearcut within a few hundred feet of Hyperion,
headed up the slope to try to find a vantage point. He returned and confirmed
that there was indeed a clearcut but that it offered no unobstructed sight line
to the tree.

Could we have found Hyperion? It seemed too easy. Would the researchers have
marked their path with something as obvious as loggers’ tape, visible from a
creek–even a creek as little-traveled as the one we were on? Probably
not, we concluded, as we hiked back to the trailhead.Chris Atkins, an amateur
naturalist who lives in Santa Rosa, first visited the redwoods in the 1980s.
"I was in awe of their size, their beauty, and their longevity," said
Atkins. He found himself drawn back to redwood country again and again, and
eventually he got in touch with a McKinleyville postal worker named Ron Hildebrant,
who kept a database of tall-tree measurements. (Jim Wheeler, the ranger, told
me that he once came across Hildebrant counting rings on a downed redwood, using
a magnifying glass. "He was up to 1,300 when I came along, and it wasn’t
an estimate. He was counting every single ring.")

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