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There is a mystery about big trees

There is majesty residing in a big tree. With girth wider than a Wal-Mart aisle, an ancient Douglas fir leans against the Pacific winds on a craggy San Juan Island demanding respect. The huge Mountain Hemlocks around Wanless Lake in the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness illustrate the power of a unique climate - inland temperate rain forest - to nourish giants. The gargantuan Western Red Cedars protected by the USFS at Ross Creek give a glimpse of a pre-1910 forest community. The unbelievably immense Sequoia and the colossal coastal Redwoods are the Himalayas of trees.

There is a mystery about big trees. What secrets can they reveal about repelling insects, surviving fire, outwitting browsers? How have the trees used water and sunlight to such an advantage? How has the particular site promoted such growth? Answering these mysteries can teach us much about our own backyards.

A history lingers around big trees. What knowledge lies in their growth patterns? Dendrochronology, the skill of interpreting tree rings, is not only a tool for foresters; climatologists and anthropologists also use the information. Studying annual growth rings tells more than the tree’s age; it can show fire episodes, wet seasons, droughts, volcanism, and probably even the soil composition. With enough background knowledge, it would be possible to understand the conditions that created and nourished a giant for 1,000 years.

Taxus brevifolia, Pacific Yew, is present throughout the Northwest. It has shiny, flat short needles with sharp tips and around here grows like a sprawling evergreen shrub. It thrives in a wet, shady and moist habitat. Cedar and queens’ cup beadlily are its companions. Until recently, when the bark of Yew was discovered to hold a drug capable of halting certain cancers, taxol, the USFS treated it as a weed species. It was dozed into piles and burned. Occasionally, rarely, an unknown set of circumstances allows a Yew to become a really large tree.

Two very majestic and mysterious groves of large Yews grow in the two deepest canyons in the U.S. Hells Canyon, dug by the Snake River, holds one grove. The second deepest canyon, carved by the Salmon River, shelters another grove of these curiously located trees. The Idaho rivers that formed these canyons flow through near desert. Chuckars, big horn sheep and marmots, animals adapted to dry, rocky, extremely steep county, thrive here.

Indicative of the hot, dry climate, only scrub brush grows on the south-facing slope. On the north-facing side of the river, stands of totally burned, slightly scorched, or yet-to-be burned ponderosa pine climb the hill. A far view to the south reveals a jigsaw pattern of standing blackened snags from older fires, bright green grass covering last year’s burn, and stands of large pines.

Our second day on the river we were caught in a thunderous, heavy rainstorm. Sometime during the third night, the river’s waters changed hue from clear green to milky chocolate. By that afternoon, the water was bitter chocolate with inky undertones. Water visibility dropped to inches, white water became muddy, ashes defined the jet boats’ wakes on the sand, and a smell of wet campfire permeated the air. Rainstorm erosion occurring on recently burned slopes along the Middle Fork was our group’s accurate guess. A portion of this hot, dry region burns every season. Early settlers fought, and lived with fires

Yet in this rocky region, along an ankle-deep side stream, is a grove of Yews. Nearly 40 feet tall, practically a yard across, the trees are a remarkable sight. They should not be here in a Sahara setting. After the amazement of touching the purple bark of these elders, I realized the creek habitat was not desert-dry. We had bent a few pathfinders whose white undersides marked our circles around the trunks. The heart-shaped leaves of wild ginger were getting a lot of water, as were the 7-foot circumference Douglas fir that reached for light where the canyon widened.

A few of the elders had scorched lower needles, and at least one small Yew had been killed in a 2007 blaze. Last fall, a friend drilled the dead, 8-inch diameter breast-high Yew and counted 60 years of growth. A trained forester, however, she noted that since Yews propagate by sprouts and layering, this age probably is not accurate. She wonders if the Yews are relics of a wetter period. The huge Yews are estimated to be 500 years old.

Ancient peoples attributed magical qualities to unusually large trees, and some groves were considered sacred. A new age type religion believes this particular Yew grove is a spiritual place.

Walking back to the river, we clearly heard voices. We expected to soon meet another party on the trail, and were surprised when no one hiked by. Reaching the beach, we shrugged to see that no other rafts were tied by ours. Maybe the Yews are magical.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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