Central Oregon's old growth forests provide views and sleeping quarters for novice climbers.
Rob Miron fits a harness around my waist and legs, and we ease our way down an embankment to the base of a Douglas fir alongside an old pioneer trail northeast of Eugene, Ore.
I look up. Way, way up. I can't even see the top, but it's about 250 feet above me. The diameter at breast height (that's DBH to arborists) is eight feet, so the tree is about 25 feet in circumference. I'll be the first one up the ropes that Rob and his partner, Jason Seppa, have shot over a branch with a compound bow.
My first move, he explains, is to sit back in my harness seat and pull my left-hand ascender—a clamp that grips the rope and connects to my foot straps, which are connected to my harness—up to eye level. Then I stand in the foot straps, pushing my right-hand ascender as high up the rope as I can. And so on. Within a few minutes, I’m up . . . about a yard. After a few hundred of these I figure, squinting upward, I’ll have passed the first limbs at 125 feet and reached the spot where we’ll meet for lunch before heading even higher, and where, later, I will sleep in a tree boat. The dinghy-shaped, fiberglass-framed canvas hammock floats in the trees, tied at the broad end to the trunk, with the narrower end, where my head will be, jutting out like a limb.
For centuries, the canopies of the biggest trees were off limits to botanists. Redwoods, which can be bare of limbs below 250 feet, and Douglas firs were essentially unscalable, and their tops remained shrouded in mystery. It boggles the mind to consider that humans had touched the surface of the moon before botanists began to fully explore the treetop world. In the early 1970s William Denison, a naturalist at Oregon State University, started jerry-rigging mountaineering ropes and bolts hammered into the trunks to get up into the canopy of Douglas firs and collect samples of fungi and lichen. “It seems almost a miracle that none of these people got killed,” wrote Richard Preston in his 2007 book, The Wild Trees, “given how sketchy the equipment was.” By the late 1980s, aided by arborists’ ropes, a number of young botanist-climbers were scampering around the canopies of the great trees.
What a world they discovered. As many as half of all species found on the planet, scientists now believe, can be found in the canopies of the earth’s forests. A redwood can host currant and elderberry bushes (bearing fruit!), rhododendrons (blooming! at 150 feet!), and huckleberry bushes—airborne gardens bursting from soil lodged in the elbows of branches. What’s more, the great trees are also home to wandering salamanders, tiny crustaceans, and earthworms that spend their entire lives above the forest floor. To grow to such heights, redwoods and Douglas firs have capillary systems capable of bringing groundwater up 30 stories. In any given hectare of big-tree forest canopy there can be 6,600 to 13,000 gallons of water, veritable aquifers in the sky that support these astonishing ecosystems.
Happily for me, Teresa Damron, a partner in Sperry Tree Care in Eugene and the mother of my climbing guide, cofounded Pacific Tree Climbing Institute almost seven years ago after her own maiden climb up a giant Douglas fir. “Nearly 100 feet up,” she told me, “I saw a red tree vole’s nest. It had taken the creatures countless generations to build it. I was overwhelmed with my incredible good fortune to be where I was in that moment of time.” Teresa found herself thinking: If the decision makers who determine the fate of our remaining old-growth forests allowed themselves to experience them as she had, perhaps they would view them with more respect. “Making this experience possible for others motivated me to open the Institute,” she said. Hers became the first business permitted to take novice climbers on guided tours into the old-growth trees of the Pacific Northwest, using methods that have a minimal impact on the trees.
It takes me about 45 minutes to reach 200 feet. The climbing, extreme as it sounds, does not require triathlon training, though being somewhat fit helps. “Relax,” I hear Rob, who can tree-frog his way up this trunk in under 10 minutes, telling Kristin, one of five climbers coming up below me on their own ropes. She had admitted earlier to some fear of heights. “Sit back, look around. There’s no competition.” If someone reaches a “personal ceiling” that feels scary, he says, they should stop and get comfortable, then push beyond the ceiling. Use logic, he says: Ropes are tying us in, and we can’t fall out.
I’m not scared at all. Until, that is, it’s time for me to find a footing in the crotch of the tree and move from my rope across the limbs to a tree boat. I get a sudden sick, liquid feeling in my knuckles, toes, and wherever else adrenaline goes. I’m still attached, but the rope is slack, and the freedom feels dangerous. Hugging the tree, I inch around to the other side of the trunk. Suddenly, I can’t see anyone. Just the South Santiam River, glinting in the valley 500 feet below.
When I sit in the tree boat a few minutes later I’m almost euphoric with security. We eat the lunches that Jason’s wife packed; we don’t, however, drink much water. Needing the loo presents problems, though not insurmountable ones.
After a couple of peaceful hours in our boats, it is time to head down. Rob attaches a descender to my line, which acts as a brake, and then I’m scooting down, occasionally touching foot to trunk, controlling my speed through a whirl of leaves and sun, as delighted with gravity—and with myself—as I’ve been in years. We hike back to the campsite, where some of the climbers will sleep, and sit around a fire eating ravioli with homemade marinara sauce, followed by Oregon wild berry pie.
In the dusk, Rob, Jason, Kristin, and I return to the tree. I’m pretty exhausted this second time up. I make slow progress, and Rob, climbing next to me, holds his hand against my back so my alignment—as important as strength—allows me some purchase on the rope.
Eventually, we get up to 150 feet. Jason zips me into two sleeping bags in my tree boat, harness still attached. It’s dark, and when I turn my headlamp off all I see beyond the branches are stars. Instead of feeling cramped from lying in one position, I feel incredibly cozy. Instead of vulnerable, I feel safe. I think about this tree, born here more than 500 years ago, before Europeans came to America. I think about the lost continents in the canopies of big trees—ecosystems that take centuries to evolve—and wonder how anyone could believe that they could simply replace old-growth trees with new ones.
Soon I fall asleep, stirring dreamily a couple of times in 10 hours. When it’s light, I wake to birdsong from the branches above. I hear a voice on the radio, and a few minutes later Jason scrambles over with a backpack and hands me a hot washcloth. New definition of luxury: washing my face with a clean, fragrant, hot towel, served to me after a long sleep in a tree boat, nearly two hundred feet up an ancient tree I climbed myself. —Jamie Stringfellow
Photography by David H. Collier
The Tallest Trees in the West
The Douglas fir, named for the great Scottish botanist David Douglas, isn’t a fir, isn’t from Scotland, and, like any gigantic tree, isn’t easy to measure, which is why three American states and one Canadian province constantly bicker over who has the “biggest.” The tallest living specimen at the moment appears to be the Doerner Fir, in the Oregon Coast Range, at 329 feet(although its last several feet are as dead as tinder, which ignites controversy); the most voluminous Doug alive is the Red Creek Fir on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. But wait! Washington state’s Olympic National Park claims the Queets Fir, which, after the death of California’s Ol’ Jed in 2009, now tops American Forests’ National Register of Big Trees as the species’ largest in the United States, according to a point system that sums a tree’s circumference, height, and one quarter of the spread of its canopy. Even governors have sparred over the tall tree title: Albert Rosellini of Washington telegraphed Mark Hatfield of Oregon in 1962 to crow that the death of Oregon’s massive Clatsop Fir (about 310 feet tall) returned the title to the Evergreen State. Replied Hatfield, “Your champion’s crown must perforce rest uneasy in view of the obviously more favorable habitat for growth of large trees in Oregon.” Talk about an axe-sharp retort. —Brian Doyle
This article was first published in May 2010 and updated in March 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.