Tree Geeks

Brian French and Will Koomjian are certified tree geeks. Beyond the arborist certification from the International Society of Arboriculture that allows them to care for the trees in your yard, they each have a passion for trees that runs so deep, one suspects they might be carriers of a rare tree gene. Trees are that essential to their being. They speak Tree Latin—Pseudotsuga menziesii often stands in for Douglas Fir in everyday conversation, Thuja plicata for Western Red Cedar. They argue about the origin of species. When asked about the decline of the Baker Cypress, Cupressus bakeri, the discussion went like this:

Writer: So whole groves have been lost since the tree was discovered in the 1940s?

French: Yeah.

Koomjian: No, no, no. Since this species was discovered.

French: Yeah. That was in the 1940s.

Koomjian: (talking over French) No it wasn’t. No it wasn’t.

French: (talking over Koomjian) Yes it was. Oliver Matthews discovered the species.

Koomjian: No. (now rolling his eyes) Oliver Matthews did not discover the species. He discovered that tree in that grove. The species was discovered in the 19th century.

French: I thought it was Matthews who got it.

Koomjian: No. That was the sub-species.

French: Oh, yeah, Right, right. Sorry about that.

Koomjian: We’re not talking about the sub-species. We’re talking about the whole species. And there are nine groves of the entire species.

When twenty-something  French and Koomjian aren’t deeply engaged in arboreal debate, they often find themselves in big—no, giant —trees. In 2007, it occurred to them that their tree climbing skills would allow them to venture into worlds that no one ever sees—the canopies of the biggest trees of each species, known as champion trees. They decided to explore the vertical unknown to discover the measurements, habitats and mysteries of these ancient organisms so others could experience their wonder. And besides, it would be a very cool thing to do.

Ascending the Giants was born. Since French and Koomjian’s first big tree climb in a Western Red Cedar, Thuja plicata, in the Mt. Hood National Forest, the Portland, Oregon-based, volunteer-run organization has measured over 100 trees, recording 38 national champions and 15 future champions in Oregon, California, Montana, Washington and Vancouver Island, B.C. Incidentally, they also happened to discover the active nests of both the marbled murrelet (considered endangered) and the elusive red tree vole (considered threatened) and a pair of clouded salamanders at a record-breaking height of 250’ in a 257’ tall Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii.

CLIMBING CHAMPIONS

Champion trees are the largest of their species worldwide. That doesn’t always mean that they are the biggest trees around. In fact, it is rare for a tree to reach above 150 feet. Ascending the Giants has climbed many champions that aren’t especially big. Then again, they have climbed many trees that are gigantic.

Big trees are natural candidates for champion status and French and Koomjian will often climb them to determine if they are, in fact, champions. Climbing big trees is nothing like swinging yourself up on the lowest branch of your backyard oak and enjoying the perspective of the garden from ten feet up. It is nothing like that. At all.

First, add 150 to 250 feet (read fifteen to twenty-five stories) to the height of that oak. Second, add the inchworm-style climb up the hundred-plus-foot giant on the rope that is rigged to a branch. Third, add all the gear that is needed to properly climb the tree without leaving a trace. ATG is adamant about using non-invasive methods of ascending trees in their attempt to leave each tree exactly as they found it.

Gear includes: a six-to-eight-foot long sling shot known as a Big Shot that shoots a tiny weighted pouch connected to fishing line to set the first rope over the highest possible branch; if that doesn’t work, there is the crossbow attached to a fishing reel that shoots a steel bolt high into the tree for the same reason; there are lots of reels, lots of fishing line, lots of throw balls and bolts because sometimes it takes a few tries to set the first line securely; hundreds of feet of throw line are needed to hoist up and over the first branch; next is the access line—a ten-millimeter wide static rope used for the initial climb into the tree; after the access line has been anchored, there are shorter climbing ropes that allow climbers to maneuver through the canopy; there is a cambium saver that sits between a rope and a branch so that the rope never rubs on the branch as it is climbed; a harness, carabineers and pulleys; and the measurement tools that include measuring tape, a GPS locator and a ten-foot-long, telescoping reach tool used to measure the tip top of the tree. All of this gear collectively weighs hundreds of pounds and climbers can feel like pack mules hauling it on their backs while bush whacking in search of giants.

Another factor that makes climbing big trees somewhat different than your average backyard adventure is the weather. For example, everyone knows that it rains in ATG’s home state of Oregon, but weather can go from sprinkles to a wind-whipping storm and back again in the course of half an hour.

On one expedition to count the number of big trees in one specific area, the spitting rain had not let up all day. French and volunteer climber Jason Brown climb a majestic Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii that stands 268-feet tall and measures almost nine feet in diameter in a remote old-growth forest. They ascend their ropes toward the upper canopy of the great-granddaddy tree estimated to be over 500-years-old. It takes one hour to climb 200 feet.

The rain relents a little, but French notices a knot of black clouds and a wind traveling toward him like an ocean wave on a sea of blue-green needles across the forest. “Check it out!” French yells to Brown and points to the oncoming storm blast, but already his voice gets lost in the thunder of thrashing branches.

French secures himself to a solid limb and feels the deep groan of the giant bending to the wind. The treetop to which their ropes are tethered will sway as much as ten feet in either direction and they will sway with it. It’s like rocking on the Titanic before it tips. Unable to secure himself in time, Brown dangles from his climbing rope as it glides in long arcs and he holds on like a tiny spider whose web-making has been interrupted by the elements.

It would be reasonable to want to return to the ground, but both men have secretly given in to what feels like the inevitable choice. Eyes round with Evil-Kenevil-derring-do, French yells to Brown, “Are you committed?” Brown lets out a whoop and yells back, “Let’s do it!” and the two men inch their way through the storm to the tenuous top to get their height measurement.

Dead or dying branches known as ‘widow-makers’ can unexpectedly snap and shoot like humongous javelins to the ground grabbing a tangle of other branches as they hurtle downward. Or, the tops of old giants can die. Some tops are then blown off in a storm, like the one French and Brown were climbing in. One cannot always tell from the ground if a top is ready to blow.

There was one giant that ATG planned to climb, but when they arrived at the tree they found that it was in a precarious state. A Sitka Spruce, Picea sitchensis, on Rector Ridge in the Oregon Coast Range lost its top which impaled itself in the ground over 100-feet away. The tree once stood 187-feet tall, but when ATG visited after the incident, they found that the tree now measured 111-feet tall (which they determined by climbing a neighbor tree). The erect, inverted treetop measured 55-feet leaving 21-feet of tree unaccounted for. French estimates some of that was smashed to bits on impact and the rest of the treetop was jammed deep into the earth making its own monument to itself.

No one wants to be attached to a treetop when it blows off.

French and Brown both privately considered possibilities such as these during their climb, but the chance to intimately know that grand-daddy tree was far more alluring than the outside chance of limb failure, even with winds upwards of 30 mile-per-hour. Such is the call of trees for some.

Needless to say, should you suspect that you have a champion tree in your backyard, do not try climbing at home. Call the big tree guys.

THE NATIONAL REGISTER of BIG TREES

Before there were national or state forests, forest schools or professional foresters, a tiny group of forest-lovers started the American Forestry Association in 1875 and, according to the group’s website AmericanForests.org, the conservancy movement was inaugurated. The group eventually changed its name to American Forests and has been instrumental in countless works of public education, forest advocacy and eco-tourism, like the Trail Riders of the Wilderness tour that launched its first horseback excursion in 1933 to Montana. The Flathead National Forest trip cost $43.75 for 6 days.

In 1940, the National Register of Big Trees was established. There are currently 733 champions and co-champions, 38 of which were measured by Ascending the Giants. The register on the American Forests website is chock full of fun facts like: there are 189 species without national champions, there are six states without champions (Delaware, Hawaii, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Wyoming) and the General Sherman Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, in Sequoia National Park in California is the world’s biggest tree and largest living thing standing 274.9 feet tall and 33 feet wide.

Every state has a big tree registry. When ATG contacted Oregon’s registry managed by the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy in Ashland, there was cause for celebration all round. The registry had languished at the agency due to budgetary constraints and the folks at NCCSP were thrilled that ATG wanted to contribute the findings from their first few climbs. French and Koomjian were equally thrilled when a list of Oregon’s previous national and state champions was passed on to them to update. The information included dates when the trees were last measured (most hadn’t been updated since the 1970s), the general location of each champion and all of the nomination forms and correspondence regarding the biggest trees in the state. Bingo. French and Koomjian became the go-to guys of big tree measuring in Oregon.

Champion trees are measured using the American Forests points system (AF points) which is calculated from the trunk circumference (measured in inches), the height (measured to the nearest foot) and the average crown spread, which is the length (measured in feet) of the greatest distance between any two points along the outermost leaves of the tree. Trunk Circumference + Height + Average Crown Spread = Total Points. The General Sherman Sequoia, for example, is 1,321 points.

Anyone can nominate a tree by sending a nomination form in to the state registry or the National Register of Big Trees. Once the nomination is received, fieldwork begins to confirm the tree’s size before it can be declared a champion. Big tree lovers are serious about their champions. ‘Dethroning’ a champion, for example, can be sticky business. People have been known to be very protective and if a new tree becomes a contender for the title, passionate groups have insisted on objective verification.

There is also heartbreak when a beloved tree falls. The 856-point Klootchy Creek Sitka SprucePicea sitchensi, was estimated to be approximately 750-years-old and had woven itself into the soul and history of Oregon. It was the first official Oregon Heritage Tree and the largest in the state. Over 100,000 people a year visited the tree that grew near the coast 65 miles outside of Portland. In its day, the Klootchy Creek spruce had been involved in what the press liked to call the “Sitka-Spruce Slug-out” which was a controversy over champion status with the Lake Quinault Sitka in Washington. Each state promotes their rationale for why their tree wins.

On December 2, 2007, however, there was a dramatic storm that pounded the Oregon coast with horizontal rains and violent, 130-mile-per-hour winds that ripped open an old lightening wound scar in the trunk and tore the Klootchy Creek spruce in half. The national news media picked up the story and word traveled fast. It was a profound, even emotional, loss. The ancient being had fallen. French and Koomjian wanted to honor the Klootchy Creek spruce by searching out and nominating Oregon’s next champion.

On December 22, permit in hand, ATG headed out to the Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint and National Wildlife Refuge on the coast about an hour south of Klootchy Creek. The ATG crew included French, Koomjian, photographer Sean O’Connorvideographer John Waller and condor researcher David Moen who was brought along to investigate trees with blown out tops that could serve as habitats for the pre-historic birds.

When they stepped out of the car, however, they were amazed by the devastation that surrounded them. The December 2nd storm wreaked havoc on the entire region. The trail was destroyed. Trees had fallen across the path like matchsticks and several lay with their root balls torn up from the earth. The skies were threatening and the crew debated calling off the climb altogether, but chose instead to ignore the increasing wind and rain.

With all the downed trees blocking the way, the five men had to take turns clearing branches, hoisting themselves onto the fallen logs and then passing the piles of heavy gear to one another before jumping down and repeating the process until they eventually made it to the Cape Meares Sitka Spruce, also known as the Cape Meares Giant.

The massive Sitka Spruce, Picea sitchensis, showed all the hallmarks of coastal life: vigorous growth and numerous breakouts. Its signature feature, a massive ‘arm’ that is attached almost halfway up, had its top half blown out in the same windstorm that took out the Klootchy Creek tree. The resulting structure was remarkably stout, and, because of this, appeared much shorter than its actual height of 144 feet.

The weather was getting worse and winds were whipping up to 40 miles-per-hour. Fat raindrops blew sideways making it hard to see. The crew could work, but as far as climbing a tree of that size, it was unsafe. 60-foot, dead branches were swinging back and forth from high inside the canopy. Deadwood in old trees becomes almost petrified with age since the grain has knitted so tightly. A falling branch would destroy everything in its path.

It had taken so much work to get to the tree and, they reasoned, if they didn’t climb that tree then, it probably wouldn’t happen. So, French, Koomjian and videographer Waller climbed, the latter with camera in tow. As they approached the top of the tree, each climber had to negotiate his way around the many large, hanging branches that had broken off of the top in the last few years. They could see that there was an extensive rot column in the main trunk compromising the branch collars. This caused the top to shed those branches, taking large strips of trunk wood with them. The center of the trunk was so decayed that French was able to stand up inside the top of the tree to take the height measurement. 144-feet. A new state champion.

As they reached the top of the Cape Meares Giant, the skies suddenly cleared and there was only dripping from the branches, sunshine spreading across the treetops and the vast Pacific Ocean spreading out as far as the eye could see.

FINDING CHAMPIONS

French and Koomjian know a champion when they see one. By the time they arrive at a champion tree, they have thoroughly researched the species, have most likely climbed that species a few times already and have a pretty good sense of what to expect. However, nothing completely prepares them for the moment when they first lay their eyes on one.

They usually have to hunt for the tree. In many cases, it has not been documented in forty years, so no one knows for sure if it is alive or dead or where, exactly, it is. It can take hours to find. But when they do, they know it immediately. There is the heart-pounding, deep breath, moment of awe and then wild running around.

“You see it and you know that’s it,” describes French. “You run up to it and yell, ‘Oh my god.’ Every time. ‘Oh my god. Holy s**t. F**k.’ Every word you can think of. ‘This is it! Whoa!’ That response has never changed.”

For Koomjian, the feeling is similar. “When you see that champion you finally know what that species is capable of. It is an astounding experience. We spend a good thirty minutes running around yelling, ‘Oh my god! Look at that! Dude! Did you see this?’ pointing out all the unique features of the tree.”

And then they climb. And, if they can, they spend all day soaking in the wonder.

Talking with French and Koomjian about trees is an odyssey. They are chock full of stories and tree facts. They alternately argue with the tenacity, familiarity and generosity of an old married couple and then can wax poetic about these magnificent creatures.

Koomjian’s favorite tree fact is this: According to the father of modern arboriculture, Alex Shigo, 95% of the sun’s energy that hits the earth is not absorbed by anything. But, 50% of the energy that is absorbed is absorbed by trees. The rest is split up among everything else. Trees are the number one producer of life-sustaining energy on the planet.

French’s favorite tree fact is this: C.O.D.I.T.—the compartmentalization of decay in trees. When you inflict a wound on a tree, there are walls set up to close off those areas. A vertical, inside and radial wall each chemically close off the area to stop further pathogens from entering. The 4th wall, called the ‘glass’ wall, is also called the healing wall. It closes off the area creating a ‘compartment’ that the rest of the tree then grows around. French loves the fact that every part of every cell of a tree is set up to defend itself against the outside world.

Despite the fact that each of these arborists is packed with forest facts and stories as wild as the trees they measure are tall, they can’t seem to get enough. No matter how much they know, they will always be exploring when they meet a new champion.  In early 2009, Will Koomjian set off on his own dime to continue tree measuring in Indonesia. French continued  measuring trees in the States until his partner returned. After all, there were still 189 species with no known champion.

When debating whether humans or trees were more complex beings, French and Koomjian agreed that it was an apples and oranges comparison, but one could make the case that a tree is more complex.

Koomjian said, “You could make the case for a tree when you consider everything that has ever happened in its entire life is still a part of that tree. General Sherman [a giant sequoia in the Sequoia National Park in California] has 2300-years of cells and their responses to thousands of external and internal organisms inside the trunk. Humans get rid of cells. We’re constantly shedding. We don’t have skin cells that are more than a few months old. Some trees have cells in their bodies that are 2000 years old—2000 years of reacting to the world outside. So, I think you could definitely make the case that trees are sufficiently complex.”

French added, “Think about it, with 45,000 square feet of living tissue, we are nothing compared to that.”

They sat together in a moment of awed silence and considered the possibility.