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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.

When Hildebrant’s work schedule left little time for exploring forests, Atkins
teamed up with Michael Taylor, who shared his craving for fresh air and biological
extremes. Eventually, Atkins and Taylor blew $3,000 apiece on high-end laser
rangefinders. (Atkins described our rangefinder, which cost only $500, as "pretty
much useless.")

Prior to the advent of these devices, measuring a redwood could take all day–if
you could even manage to get surveying gear into position. The rangefinders
allowed Atkins and Taylor to focus their energies instead on the logistics of
getting deeper into the parks, to explore the patches of old growth hidden in
remote basins.

In the late 1990s, the pair decided to search the entire range of the coast
redwood, to document every living tree taller than 350 feet. When they began,
only about 25 such trees were identified. As of early 2007, Hildebrant’s database
contained 136 individual redwood trees exceeding that height–most of which
had been discovered by Atkins and/or Taylor. In 2000, Atkins made it into the
Guinness Book when he found the 369-foot Stratosphere Giant in Humboldt Redwoods
State Park.

"After the discovery," Atkins said, "Someone asked me if we might
ever find a taller one. I said the odds were pretty low. We thought we had pretty
well mopped it up."

Redwood National Park has no car-camping sites, and backcountry camping is allowed
only on gravel bars in Redwood Creek–not a good idea during rainy season.
So we bedded down at the Palm Motel, a seen-better-days place that’s one of
two lodging options in Orick. Owner Martha Peals, a Tennessean whose card introduces
her as "pie-maker, entertainer, bed tucker," said she hadn’t had "too
many up here looking for that tree, but I’ve had people from all over the world
come here to see Bigfoot."

Still, she offered to help. "I’ll tell the waitress in the morning,"
Peals said. "Her husband works for the park. Her name is Betsy." As
we headed to our rooms, she called out, "Don’t you worry. I’ll find out
where that tree is for ya."

The next morning dawned sunny and calm. As I sat at the counter in the Palm
Diner, Betsy came over with a coffeepot and met my hopeful eyes. "I wouldn’t
have a clue," she said. "And my husband doesn’t know, either. They
won’t tell him where it is."

I was halfway through my lumberjack omelet when Rohde called to say that his
knee, which he had tweaked yesterday, couldn’t take another day of bushwhacking.
He was staying home.

Indeed, our party had taken a few good hits. Katzman, recovering from rotator-cuff
surgery, had jerked his shoulder while hoisting himself over a behemoth log.
I had dislodged a waterlogged burl that was my foothold while climbing over
a downed tree, and fallen through a brittle web of branches, bruising my hip.
Only Southard was unscathed.

"I hope you boys find that tree," Martha Peals sang out to us as we
packed up the truck. "But it’d be even better if you ran into Bigfoot out
there. Then you could bring me lots of customers and make me lots of money."

We stopped by the park’s information center to grab a better map. Wheeler, who
was raising the American flag, saw us and shouted out. "Did you find the

I told him about the tree with the metal tag. Wheeler just smiled and said that
there are several trees tagged with numbers, identifying them as subjects of
various studies by experts at Humboldt State University.

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