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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.

While Atkins crossed the creek to bushwhack up the slope, Taylor went to the
tree and began calculating the elevation of the base. Atkins eventually found
a window through the foliage and lay down to get the laser as steady as possible.
From that position, he shot the tree’s top. Then he began working his way back
to Taylor, adding and subtracting the elevations of intermediate targets along
the way. After all that, they wound up with a preliminary height–377.8
feet–that would make the tree the tallest living thing on earth.

Katzman, Southard, and I spent an hour struggling through a maze of brambles
and downed trees to reach our target grove. Then we labored farther to rise
above the redwoods, hoping that the clearcut would provide a good vantage point.
But it turns out that a 30-year-old clearcut in a rainforest isn’t a smart place
to go for visibility, or mobility. Amid the dense saplings and underbrush, we
quickly lost our bearings and momentum. We decided to head back down into the
old growth.

Our own cheap rangefinder was proving fickle, due partly to limitations of the
technology, and perhaps mostly to user inexperience. Trees that were obviously
well over 250 feet were showing up as 82 feet. The GPS, too, was useless. Under
the dense canopy, I could pick up only one satellite. I stowed the devices in
my pack, where they would stay for the rest of the trip.

Keeping the clearcut line a couple of hundred feet above us, we traversed the
mountainside, three humans dwarfed by the mind-boggling scale of the trees.
We thought we had been in big-tree country before, but as we walked farther
into the grove, we realized that we had now entered a new realm. All around
us, 20-foot-wide trunks rose in great grooved columns that stretched upward
for 200 feet before the lowest limbs appeared. Katzman tried to photograph one
particularly massive trunk, but he didn’t have a lens wide enough.

Despite the hard going, the environment was surprisingly hospitable. Once, falling
through a false floor of sticks and leaves, I landed softly on my back, cushioned
by a bed of spongy moss and pine needles. There were no biting or buzzing insects.
And, had we found ourselves in need of a dry and cozy bivouac, there were plenty
of accommodating caves that had been burned into the bottoms of living trees.

Under the shade of the immense trees, the ground vegetation thinned out and
the walking got easier. Occasional shafts of sunlight penetrated the canopy,
angling into the gallery like spotlights, illuminating lush beds of moss and
20-foot-high stumps whose charred tops formed jagged maws. The solitude and
the sense of timelessness were so complete that none of us would have been surprised
to get a tap on the shoulder from a brontosaur. It was, without reservation,
the most startlingly beautiful forest I have ever encountered.

AMONG THE FIRST PEOPLE Atkins and Taylor told of their discovery was their friend
Stephen C. Sillett, a professor of botany at Humboldt State. Sillett was the
first scientist to climb into the redwood canopy, and he is considered by many
to be the world’s foremost authority on the redwood forest.

When Taylor told Sillett that he and Atkins had found a tree that they estimated
to be higher than 378 feet, Sillett was floored. Having been out in the forest
many times with Atkins and Taylor, the botanist had total confidence in their
measurements. But, says Sillett, "nobody expected a tree that tall to be
growing that far up a mountainside, in conditions that were less than optimal."
It was, Sillett said, "the most significant discovery in tree height in
75 years."

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