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A Day of Discovery

Seeking out the largest living things on earth

by Richard Preston

Published in the March/April 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph by Thomas Dunklin, used with permission

The rainforest in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is exceptionally dense—among the densest rainforests anywhere on Earth. The interior of the park is a warren of tiny, steep notch canyons and gullies. The forest understory consists of virtually impassable thickets of huckleberry bushes and salmonberry canes and ferns and small trees. The salmonberry canes are covered with prickles, which over hours of scraping can turn a person’s exposed skin into an ooze of blood. Visibility in Jed Smith can be poor to near zero.

One day in early May 1998, Steve Sillett, a botanist and professor of redwood forest ecology at Humboldt State University, called Michael Taylor, a naturalist and longtime friend, and said, “Let’s go out and try to find some champion trees.” They decided to go to Jed Smith, a California state park that lies along the Smith River, twenty miles south of the Oregon border. They were intrigued by a complex of small valleys that appears on the U.S. Geological Survey’s topographic maps just to the south of Route 199, inside the park. No trails led into the valleys, and the terrain was a clog of redwood jungle.

An evergreen conifer and a member of the cypress family, the coast redwood grows in valleys and on mountains along the central and northern coast of California, mostly within ten miles of the sea. It is the tallest species of tree on Earth. Its scientific name is Sequoia sempervirens. Sometimes it is called the California redwood, but most often it is simply referred to as the redwood.

About a month earlier, and about a mile and a half up one of the valleys, Taylor and Sillett had discovered a giant redwood that they named New Hope; they had given it this name because they felt that it gave them hope of finding more titans there. The oldest and most massive redwoods are called titans—not the tallest ones, but the biggest. Botanists make a distinction between the height of a tree and its overall size, which is measured by the volume of wood in the tree. The tallest redwoods are nearly 380 feet tall; titans are typically more than 300 feet tall, but they can contain four to five times more wood mass than the tallest redwoods. Redwood titans are among the largest individual living organisms in nature.

Now Taylor and Sillett planned to push deeper into Jed Smith, beyond New Hope Tree, to try to explore valleys where they had never gone before. It seemed unlikely that anyone had gone there in many years, and they would discover, once they got into the valleys, that the U.S. government maps of the area were inaccurate and could not be used for guidance. For all practical purposes, the center of Jed Smith was a blank spot on the map of North America.

They decided to make the trip on May 11. It was a Monday, and Taylor was supposed to work at Radio Shack that day, but he called in sick. Sillett picked him up at his Arcata apartment early in the morning and they drove north. They didn’t bring any food with them, or warm clothing, because they assumed that they would be home by the afternoon. They also didn’t bring a GPS locator device, since GPS devices typically don’t work in redwood forests. They didn’t bring cell phones, either, because cell phones also rarely work in redwood forests. They parked in a turnout along Route 199 and went into the forest, pushing southward and upward along a creek toward New Hope Tree.

For the first quarter of a mile, they had to crawl through underbrush on their hands and knees, sometimes lying flat on their stomachs and belly-crawling. They wormed under tight masses of huckleberry bushes, or they turned their bodies sideways and rammed through them. Taylor was holding a laser range finder—a device he uses to estimate the heights of redwood trees—in one hand, trying to keep it from getting wet, and Sillett was carrying another in a knapsack.

After an hour and a half of clawing up the stream, they had gone about a mile. They regarded this as very rapid progress. They arrived at a fork in the creek, and both drainages headed up into notch valleys, one leading toward the west, the other toward the east. They followed the west fork. Sillett was wearing long sleeves, but Taylor was wearing only a t-shirt, and his arms began to bleed. The valley narrowed, blocked by fallen redwood trunks. They climbed over and around them, and arrived at New Hope Tree. It had taken them two hours to cover a mile and a half of known terrain. They rested underneath New Hope, drank some water, and consulted the map.

The map showed a knoll or peak about a mile above New Hope Tree, in the middle of a warren of tiny valleys. They decided to make their objective the peak, where they might get a view, and then turn around and go home.

They began pushing into unknown terrain. Two hours later, they had gone just three-quarters of a mile farther up the gorge, which opened into a basin full of Douglas firs mixed with redwoods. It was getting on toward noon. Both of them were tired and hungry, Taylor particularly so. He weighed 220 pounds, and his knees were beginning to hurt. They stopped and debated whether to turn back, then consulted the map. The USGS topographic map showed the knoll, or peak, right where they were. But there was no peak. Instead of a peak, the land went down and formed a basin.

USGS topographic maps are constructed by means of aerial photographs. In some cases, the area is not also surveyed on the ground. It would be exceedingly difficult to survey the terrain in Jed Smith, because visibility in the forest is exceptionally poor. Aerial photographs can reveal the shape of the top surface of the canopy, but they can’t reveal the underlying terrain. In a redwood forest, the landforms can differ dramatically from the shape of the top of the canopy.

Taylor, in his explorations of other forests, had often seen small marks on redwoods—cuts in the bark, splashes of faded paint—that had been left by timber cruisers, men looking for trees to cut. Timber cruisers were early explorers of the redwood forest (after the Indians), and they went through the forests mostly during the twentieth century. Timber cruisers’ marks persist for more than a hundred years, but this basin, Taylor noticed, had no timber-cruiser marks on the trees. “I honestly don’t think any people had been in that place in a very long time,” he said to me. “I sometimes wonder if people had been in there at any time after the discovery of the New World by Europeans.”

Taylor and Sillett put their map away, since it wasn’t doing them any good, and crossed the basin in search of higher ground. Some two hours later, they reached the edge of the basin. They wanted to turn around and go back the way they had come, but there were no landmarks, the map was useless, and they didn’t know exactly where they were. Instead, they went upslope, deeper into the center of the park. “We need to find an exit creek that will take us out of here,” Sillett said to Taylor.

They began crossing a rugged, up-and-down plateau clad with rainforest. It dropped down into another small basin that didn’t appear on the map, and they came to a saddle between two ridges. It was now afternoon, and they had been going for seven hours. They began to zigzag back and forth, trying to find some feature of the land that was on the map.

Michael Taylor was beginning to get scared. Steve Sillett was in better physical condition than he was. The air temperature was in the fifties, and he was wearing only his cotton t-shirt. If it got dark and began to rain, the temperature could drop into the forties and they would be soaked. In that kind of weather, a person wearing wet cotton clothing can get hypothermia, which is a very serious matter. They were seven hours of hard bushwacking from any sort of help—but they didn’t know exactly in which direction to go. They hadn’t eaten in many hours, yet they had been burning up large amounts of energy moving through the underbrush.

Sillett became worried about Taylor. He noticed that Taylor had a crazy and potentially dangerous way of moving through redwood jungle. When he came to a big redwood log, he would climb up onto it and sit there, and then he would fall off the log, disappearing on the far side with a crash. You’re going to break your leg, he told Taylor, and Taylor answered that you have to let your body go limp as you fall, and then you won’t break anything. Sillett called the move the Taylor Flop. Even though Taylor was in worse shape physically, he kept moving ahead of Sillett, doing flops and crashes over logs. He seemed unstoppable.

They arrived at a waterless gully, a slot chasm choked with underbrush and blanketed in forest. They pushed down into the slot and came to a huge Douglas fir. When they measured the tree with their lasers and a tape line, they discovered that it was the largest Douglas fir in California. They named it Ol’ Jed. The discovery lifted their spirits momentarily.

The chasm continued downward beyond the tree, and they kept following it, hoping that it would come out somewhere, but it was a trap. They were mostly crawling through bushes, or sliding over boulders, or climbing over piles of huge redwood logs. The gully didn’t seem to be going anywhere useful. “I suggest we call it Ruthlor Gulch,” Sillett said to Taylor. “This describes its ruthless and unforgiving nature.”

An hour into Ruthlor Gulch, Taylor, whose knees were beginning to swell up, sat down and refused to go any farther. “We should go back,” he said. “None of this matches what’s on the map. I don’t want to have to sleep underneath a log.” They hadn’t brought a flashlight.

“We’ll never find our way back,” Sillett said.

“I’m turning back anyway.”

“Dude! We can’t turn back. We’re committed to a heinous bushwhack.”

At this point, Taylor blew up. He called Sillett a fucking tree fanatic. Sillett told him to speak for himself. They began yelling at each other.

Eventually, they calmed down and agreed that they had better behave like gentlemen or they were truly going to be hosed. “Look, we have to come out somewhere,” Sillett said.

They didn’t. Ruthlor Gulch just went on and on, for three hours. During that time they covered about a mile. It was a mile of worming, crawling, bleeding, sliding, Taylor-flopping, and cursing. Taylor began to have more difficulty walking as his swollen knees became more painful. Finally, the gulch came out into a nameless creek jammed with boulders and logs, flowing in an uncertain direction. They began to crawl in the water, since the creek was too choked with brush to stand up in.

An hour later, they were still crawling in the creek. They began referring to it as Cocksmoker Creek. The sun began to set, and the air became chilled. They were soaked. Taylor got the shakes from exposure to the cold water. It was apparent that a cold night was coming on. They weren’t carrying any matches. Sillett and Taylor had decided long ago that they would never light a fire in a redwood forest under any circumstances.

Taylor, who was leading the way, came to a fallen redwood trunk that bridged the creek. When he climbed onto it and stood up, he saw that the creek had come out onto level ground. Directly in front of him was a curving wall of wood that blocked his view. It was the largest redwood trunk he had seen in all his years of exploring the North Coast.

Aieeeee!” he screamed.

Sillett wondered if Taylor had finally broken his leg, but then he saw the titan. They circled around it. It turned out to be, in fact, two monumental redwoods joined at the base—a twin tree—with a combined diameter of thirty feet. It has since been named the Screaming Titans by Steve Sillett.

They thought they had made a fine discovery, but the discovery had just begun. When they walked past the twin titans they emerged into a grassy glade. Patches of open sky were visible, and pools of water shimmered. Around the edges of the glade stood a ring-shaped colonnade of undiscovered redwood titans.

The hair was standing up on the back of Taylor’s neck. He and Sillett didn’t know what to say to each other. They felt as if they had walked into a dream. The stars were beginning to come out, and Venus was up. The trees were outlined against a deep-blue dusk. Near the Screaming Titans they encountered two monstrous redwoods, which Sillett would later name Eärendil and Elwing. They waded through the pools of water and approached the row of titans growing on the far side of the colonnade. They ran Taylor’s measuring tape around the nearest one. It proved to be one of the largest redwoods ever to have been found; they would name it El Viejo del Norte (The Old Man of the North). Next to it grows a redwood that they named the Lost Monarch.

In 2003, Sillett completed a scientific mapping project of the Lost Monarch and found that it was the largest living redwood in the world. The Lost Monarch contains at least forty thousand cubic feet of wood. Its trunk is thirty feet across near the base—wider than the General Sherman, the giant sequoia in the Sierra Nevada that is the world’s largest tree in terms of volume and mass. The General Sherman is bigger than the Lost Monarch because its trunk has a cylindrical shape, like a stovepipe, while the Lost Monarch’s trunk tapers slightly as it rises.

A redwood titan that was later given the name Stalagmight grows near the Lost Monarch, and there is Aragorn, Sacajawea, and Aldebaran. There are others. They are, collectively, the largest redwood trees on the planet.

The Grove of Titans exists at the bottom of a hidden, notchlike valley deep in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. It was previously unknown to park officials and biologists. The trees in the grove had undoubtedly been looked at once in a while over the years by the occasional bushwhacker, or earlier by timber cruisers looking for trees to cut, but nobody had understood how enormous they are. A number of trails were surveyed and constructed inside Jed Smith during the 1930s by the park service, but none of the trails entered the Grove of Titans.

As he walked through the grove for the first time, Taylor began crying.

The date of Taylor and Sillett’s discovery of the Grove of Titans—May 11, 1998—is known to some botanists as the Day of Discovery.

When biologists visit the grove today, they vary their approach paths, so that their footsteps won’t create a visible trail on the forest floor. The exact location of the grove is known only to a handful of biologists, who climb the trees and study the ecology of the grove. They guard the knowledge of its location with the jealousy of a prospector who has found a mother lode.

Officially, the “largest” redwood in Jedediah Smith state park has been the Stout Tree, which grows in the center of the Stout Grove, near the Smith River, close to a road and a parking lot. On weekends in summer, dozens of people can be seen walking around the Stout Tree, looking at it and taking pictures of it. “The Stout Tree isn’t even among the top fifty largest redwoods at Jed Smith,” Michael Taylor once said to me.

He and Sillett eventually did get out of the woods that day, and they bummed a ride from a man whom they found photographing the Stout Tree. He kindly drove them back to their car. At nine o’clock at night on the Day of Discovery, they were stuffing themselves with cheeseburgers at a Carl’s Jr. in Crescent City. It occurred to Taylor, as he wolfed down his second double cheeseburger, that he was eating too much. When he finished his dinner, he made a vow to honor the discovery of the Grove of Titans by going on a diet. Taylor soon lost fifty pounds, and became a trim, fit man with well-developed muscles and no visible fat. In addition to being possibly the leading discoverer of giant trees in the history of botany, Michael Taylor is also the discoverer of the Taylor Diet. “It’s simple,” he explained to me. “I realized I was eating a lot. So I stopped eating a lot.”

Robert Van Pelt, a scientist who had been climbing and studying trees with Steve Sillett, is in his own right one of the leading discoverers of giant trees. He is the author of Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast, a book that describes some of the largest known trees of various species, including redwoods. One day I was driving along the California Coast Highway with Van Pelt—we were going to look at some redwoods together—and he said, in an offhand way, “In the history of botany in the twentieth century, there was never a day like the Day of Discovery, and there will never be a day like it again.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because there is nothing on Earth like those trees left to be found,” he said.

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Excerpted from The Wild Trees by Richard Preston. Copyright (c) 2007 by Richard Preston. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

Richard Preston is the author of seven books, including The Hot Zone. His article in this issue is excerpted from The Wild Trees, published this spring by Random House and used here by permission. He lives in New Jersey.

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