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July 27, 2006

Vacation Report, Part 2: Big Trees

OK, one more post about last week’s vacation, then it’s back to business as usual. But just to clarify one point that apparently stood out from the last post – yes, I really did TiVo the World Series of Darts when I was gone, and I really did watch it when I came back. The unintentional comedy of that show is simply off the charts. I’m also following VH1’s World Series of Pop Culture, and with the World Series of Poker currently underway, I’m at risk of developing a World Series of Bedsores on my backside from spending so much time on the couch.

Anyway, back to the running. The second location I ran in was Calaveras Big Trees State Park, at the relatively low altitude of 5000’.

The sequoias here are the largest living things ever created upon the Earth. The park today stands as a monument to the majesty of nature, and the wonder of these breathtaking trees. Unfortunately, it also bears witness to the colossal damage that humans inflicted upon the trees before they became protected by early conservationists such as John Muir and Robert Johnson in the late 1800s. So running through the main grove elicits some conflicting feelings, as I’ll describe later.

From where we were staying, it was less than a half-mile to a fire road that provides a side entrance to the park. The fire road stretches for another mile into the heart of Big Trees Park, before connecting with a single track that stretches between the two primary sequoia groves.

I took one branch of the trail for about one and a half miles to the North Grove, which is the main visitor destination of the park. But in the dawn of early morning, I was the only person there. Everything around me was silent, except for the whistle of a light breeze in the high treetops.

It’s impossible to portray with words exactly how imposing the giant sequoias are. The dimensions they reach are simply mind-boggling: many of them grow over 300 feet tall, and stretch more than 30 feet across their diameter. Many of them still have a 16’ diameter as high as 50 feet above the base of the tree. They would be roughly the same height and weight as an ocean freighter standing on its nose. One signpost on the trail points out a fallen branch lying in the brush – the branch alone is as big as the trunk of a full-grown oak tree.

Even pictures don’t do nearly enough justice to the enormous stature of these trees. Unfortunately, the most telling examples come from human misconduct through the years. Some of the destruction was rooted in good intentions, while other damage was merely negligent.

The centerpiece of the North Grove is known simply as the Big Stump. It is the remains of the first giant sequoia to be discovered in this forest. A bear hunter named Augustus Dowd encountered the tree while tracking a grizzly bear in 1852, and word soon spread about the grove of “monster trees” high in the Sierras. Although Dowd argued for preservation of the tree, less than one year later it was felled by speculators.

Perhaps the best depiction of the size of this tree was what happened after its demise. At various times over the years since 1853, the stump was used as a dance floor, and a bowling alley and bar were built on top of the fallen trunk. Today - 170 years too late - the stump and trunk are left to rest in peace.

Many people have seen pictures of cars passing through a carved out tree. In the 1880s, the Wawona Tree Tunnel was carved from a tree in Yosemite National Park. Shortly thereafter, the caretakers of Big Trees Park created a similar tree to attract attention (and tourist interest) further north to this area.

This tree was selected because it already had a huge fire scar at its base, and the tunnel was cut through it. And while it’s very cool to run through the middle of a tree, the publicity stunt came at a steep price: the tree can no longer support growth in its upper half, and the hollowing leaves it especially vulnerable to fire.

The most graphic illustration of negligent destruction to a tree lies further up the trail, at a sequoia known as the Mother of the Forest. In 1854, speculators stripped the bark off the trunk, and reassembled the bark at various conventions and fairs in the eastern United States to demonstrate the size of the fabled giants to skeptics.

Unable to transport nutrients and without its natural defenses, the tree deteriorated for many years, and fell victim to fire in 1908. Today a blackened remnant is all that remains from the once majestic tree – and if you look closely, you can still see the horizontal scars from the chainsaws that were used to remove the bark.

Knowing the stories of these trees adds a somber component to running in this particular forest, but it’s not an overwhelming sensation. Despite the visible reminders of human foolishness, hundreds more sequoias remain on over 6000 acres of park land. Instead of sadness, as I made my way around the tourist trail and back home on the single track, my mood was one of humility, respect, and joy.

Humility, in that there is no way to set foot in this place without feeling extremely small. In addition to their sheer size, most of these trees will live to be 3000 years old. They were here long before humans laid eyes on them, and they’ll remain for centuries after we’re gone. That fallen trunk from the Big Stump will lie in place for another 1000 years before it decomposes back into the soil. Considering these timelines, a human life span is a relative blink of an eye, and the 90 minutes I spent running here seems infinitesimal.

Respect, because despite the travesties that some of these trees have suffered, they clearly are in the hands of loving caretakers today – and it’s not just the employees of the park. Almost every runner and hiker, every camper and every family who sets foot here comes away with a sense of reverence for these majestic creations. The trees are forever protected as much as our laws will allow, ensuring that the sequoias will continue to inspire and amaze many future generations.

Joy, for in one morning, I was able to do one of the activities I love amidst one of the most beautiful backdrops imaginable. During those 90 minutes, I had this park and these trees all to myself - there was nowhere else I wanted to be, and nothing else I wanted to be doing. I can’t think of a much better way to spend an early morning.


Sarah 7/27/06, 11:02 AM  

I can't imagine a better way to spend a morning, either. You're making this former Califonia girl nostalgic!

Fe-lady 7/27/06, 11:04 AM  

Thanks for the tree stories and the photos. I have always loved trees-climbed to the top of almost every single one in my yard when I was a kid. (And we had some tall trees..but nothing like what you just saw!)
Now, in Arizona, I am watering the hell out of two large trees in my yard that I planted 20 years ago...I don't care what my water bill is, these trees are going to out-live this drought!

Deene 7/27/06, 12:02 PM  

thanks for sharing. places like this in nature keep a person humble.

susie 7/27/06, 12:40 PM  

What a lovley, lovely place to run, walk, or just think.

robtherunner 7/27/06, 3:50 PM  

As a kid I used to drive through the Redwoods each year on the way to San Francisco to visit my great grandparents. It was one of the highlights of the year for me and I hope to bring my kids back there real soon. Thanks for the memories.

Anne 7/27/06, 4:21 PM  

I had a good time reading about this run in the woods. It made me even more eager to someday do the Avenue of the Giants race, even though it won't provide the solitude you enjoyed. You are quite right about the humbling experience when just standing among these trees.

Mike 7/27/06, 11:43 PM  

Thanks for sharing Donald...well said regarding the sequoias...they are beautiful and left me speechless first time I encountered them up in NorCal...I even drove my 67 VW bus thru the drive-thru tree in that area....

backofpack 7/28/06, 5:30 AM  

I've been racking my brain trying to remember which park we were in just a few years ago. It was absolutely gorgeous and peaceful. We went in October - Eric ran in Portland, we worked our way down the Oregon coast and into Northern California, ending at the park. Thanks for sharing!

Dharma Bum 8/9/06, 10:14 PM  

Wow, sounds like a great run. I will be staying near Big Trees state park this weekend. We'll be staying in our friends' cabin just up highway 4 from Big Tree Village. So I am now curious about this side fire road that gets you into the state park. Care to enlighten me.


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