In Search of Champions Pt. I

copyright 2008 Brandon Bondehagen.

Trees. Four days in a Volkswagen ‘Eurovan’ traveling the state of Oregon will put you in contact with copious amounts of trees. In fact, over half of the state is comprised of forests* and the topography is draped with at least 30 different species**. As those facts mentally process, imagine you were sent on a journey to find five particular, individual, exceptional trees in that proverbial haystack of timber. The last time these trees’ general locations, sizes, and existences had been recorded was over 30 years ago. 30 years. A whole lot of things could happen in that span of time: Land ownership and property lines can change, once well known paths can be washed away in new born streams, and the trees themselves could die or be martyred in order to warm a farmer’s cottage on a cold winter day. This particular story about a search for specific trees demonstrates the effects of time and spotlights the people who are passionate about collecting information that many others are unfamiliar with. Treks like this one need to be made because science is progressive and field data needs to be updated from time to time. Plus, a good chunk of healthy information can bring awareness and attention to otherwise obliviousness.

Myself, alongside Brian French, co founder of Ascending the Giants (ATG) -an on going series of expeditions to measure the largest tree of each species- his wife Rachel, and Bill Price, a conservationist and Oregon savant, set out with the said 30 year old data and bits of wrinkled pieces of paper covered with word of mouth scribblings to find five special trees that were said to live in the state of Oregon. These five trees had gained our attention due to a series of events that involve the Oregon Department of Forestry and the people who had discovered these trees and observed something special about their earthly footprint . The trees demonstrate the pinnacle of what a species can be; they are called ‘Champion’ trees.

On a thursday night we left Portland heading east towards Joseph, a small town seated in a valley of picturesque mountains that relies on the tourist snow recreational activities for subsistence. A few miles outside of the town, Hell’s Canyon, a more apt name is unlikely, swallows the road extinguishing the tree strewn open landscape replacing it with steep, rocky cliffs. Situated in that claustrophobia is a farm where our first tree, a water birch, was said to be living. Our directions were simple: “Pass the old country store and you’ll see a foot bridge off to the right that crosses over a creek leading to the tree.” As we drove along the road searching for our landmarks, snow began to fall, blanketing the road and making our “footbridge” all the more difficult to find.

I need to talk about the weather for a second. Throughout the entire trip the temperature was bitingly cold and the wind relentlessly blew until my fingers and lips shriveled and hardened like a thousand year old mummies’ skin. My inexperience with Oregon’s fall climate and topography, plus my timidness when asking to borrow outdoors gear I don’t own, left me in an interesting predicament. Knowing that we would be camping each night but not wanting to pack too much gear, I asked my boss if I could borrow a solo tent to protect from the unknown elements I would face. He responded by handing me a Tree Boat and stating, “take this, tie it between two trees and you’ll be fine. You’ll love it.”

copyright 2008 Brandon Bondehagen

For all the non-arborists or agoraphobic out there, a tree boat is nothing more than a glorified hammock made of canvas and straps. There is a thick pelt material covering the bottom of the boat that keeps your warmth insulated and a canopy made out of a tent-like material that covers the top half and protects from rain, small falling branches, and other nuisances. They really are quite nice to sleep in and after that weekend I would have to say that I could only discover one serious flaw in the design: a tree boat must be tethered to two adjacent trees in order to function properly.

Here’s where the irony arrives–We were on an expedition searching for trees and at each sleeping spot I was unable to find two trees close enough to string a tree boat from. The first night (and last of my sleeping in a tree boat mind you) we pulled into a gravel parking lot somewhere deep inside the heart of Hell’s Canyon and set up camp. In the pitch blackness and absence of trees I opted to setup the tree boat in such a fashion as to lay it flat on the gravel and rig the canopy so my sleeping bag and I could slip inside the apparatus with just enough clearance (about 2 inches) between the canopy and my body. As I tried to rid my thoughts of all of the hellish creatures crawling and slivering out there on that cold night in search nice warm place like my sleeping bag to tiptoe into, I discovered that the canopy had fallen on top of me becoming just another layer of fabric helping to keep me warm. The rain came around four that morning. The sound of it hitting the canopy and seeping through until it came in contact with my face was enough. The remainder of the nights I slept in a fetal position on the five foot long bench in the back of the Eurovan.

In hindsight we probably drove past the birch three or four times, our sights searching for the said country store, before we began to rationalize that the building was likely long gone and with it any sign of a footbridge or path that would graciously lead us to our tree. It was now up to Brian to identify tree species from the road through snow flurries and foggy windows. Outside in the now white rolling hills and pastures occasional abandoned bits of machinery, oil drums, and fencing would fall into view and then suddenly streak away. There was a creek running parallel to the road where quite a few trees were living. The tree we sought had the word ‘water’ in its common name so deductively, we found what from the road appeared to be the appropriate species and pulled off onto a private gravel drive. It’s always a good idea to ask permission before climbing over barbed wire fences with a camera in hand, trekking across a stranger’s land but on this trip for whatever reason, humanity was sparse; we were stressed to ever find people to ask permission from.

Technically trespassing, the snow falling harder now, Brian and I began walking towards the creek. Bill and Rachel drove on to find anybody at home or working in the area. At the bank we found sunken remnants of land that were once crossable but some time ago had fallen victim to erosion. Across the creek from where we were standing was a dead tree that had been split down the middle of the trunk. Some kind of small red chopping machine similar to a ‘Roto-Rooter’ was behind it next to a pile of branches slated for the next meal. Standing there in the cold snow, Brian looks at me then looks back to the pyre and in a compressed, resolute voice says, “I think that’s our tree.”

For ATG, this situation happens more often than they would like it to. Two out of the five trees we set out to measure that weekend were headed for or already in the wood pile by the time we arrived. Like a bad ‘end-of-the-world’ movie, you feel like time’s running out. If only we could hack some media mainframe and broadcast our pleas and explanations to the people involved….. we might make a difference.

When a tree recognized for it’s grandeur dies, it leaves (no pun here) an heir for organizations like ATG to discover. Standing looking at the remnants of the champion water birch of Oregon, Brian explains that sometimes the best place to look for a new champion is in the same area where the predecessor once stood. So right there, on that piece of trespassed land, a new search began.

According to the Oregon Big Tree Registry and the ATG website, a champion tree is the largest tree of a species. The trees are measured using the American Forest Points system–a calculation based on the tree’s height, trunk circumference, and crown spread. These trees can be measured by anyone and there are adequate instructions on how to do so, including nomination forms on the ATG website.

end of part one

*Oregon Department of Forestry

**OSU College of Forestry

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