The thing with trees is they keep on growing. I’m here to see the biggest ones. I’ve got the secret location of the tallest living thing on earth. My plan is to go bother it. It’s protected to stop people like me finding it. It also happens to be completely surrounded by other trees that are within a few feet of its height. There’s already a known younger tree that is predicted to beat it in a decade or so. (These races are slow for trees.)
I’m in one of the Redwood National Parks, bordering on a reservation. I have to go first to register and get a free permit. Daily numbers are closely monitored. They also need to keep track of who goes into the park to make sure they come out. “There are loads of bears and lions,” she tells me. “Stick to the path.” “Of course,” I tell her. This isn’t grizzly territory. And “lions” are basically cougars with a sexy name – they’re only still alive because they prefer not to eat humans. Anyway, they say this stuff because they have to, right?
I drive for miles up a long dirt track. Eventually I find the cast iron gate I’m looking for. I put the combination into the padlock and pull it open. It screams like a wounded teenager I drive through, and close and lock it behind me. Then down the dirt track into the park.
The parking area does have a few cars in it. Despite the isolation this is a known and frequented area. I hit the trail. It goes down hard, but only for a mile or two. And all around, these huge ancient trees. These titans. Many have fallen. Their husks lie where they fell, except for where people have come with chainsaws to free up the pathways for people to follow the trail.
I leave the path – of course I do – and I hit the creek. My notion is to cross the creek and head upstream a bit, then strike up a hill. But the creek is in full flood. There’s no easy crossing place. I cast around. I see a semi-dam of fallen logs a way down. Perhaps I can ford it there.
I head towards it, but there’s something there that hasn’t expected me. I startle it, and it startles me. SPLASH. Whatever it was leaps into the creek heavily. “A beaver!” I hope.
Then I hear the growl. My instincts beat my rational brain immediately. Millions of years know that sound in a remote area. The hairs go up on the back of my neck. My arms go above my head bent to make myself as tall and wide as possible without any real thought and I’m backing away gently and firmly even before I see her as she hauls out of the creek shouting.
I become acutely aware of the bag of jerky in my back pocket which might distract her if she runs at me. “I should record this,” says my social media brain and a hand almost snakes down to my pocket for my phone. No, Al. No. I’d sooner maximise the chances of not getting eviscerated by this wet bear here in this remote place. It’s just a black bear. I mostly get angry with people who are afraid of nature. But she’s growling low at me, and that sound is full of threat. I’ve surprised her, and she’s got wet, which is enough to piss her off. There might be cubs involved too…
I go backwards downstream, never taking my eye off her. She hasn’t run at me, nor away. I go backwards up the bank and turn when a tree blocks me. I return to the path. Phew.
I spend the rest of the day on the trail, surrounded by ancients in this valley. Peaceful giants, protected for the moment in this national park. Beautiful and serene and old. I’m glad I drove all this way. I don’t care that I didn’t get to see one tree, off the path, that someone recently worked out happens to be a few foot taller than the ones I did see. Let it be protected by the lack of paths, by the National Park, and by the bears. All I would’ve done is marvel at it, and trust me I have had plenty to marvel at already in the last few days…