|NATIONAL PARKS QUICKLINKS|
Backpacker Magazine – June 2007
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.
|This article is featured in The Best American Sports Writing 2008.|
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 tree?"
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.