Brian French and Will Koomjian

Brian French and Will Koomjian

If you want to understand what it’s like to be a tree, spend some time in its canopy.

All big tree hunters love being outdoors and spending time with trees. Big tree hunters that are also professional tree climbers like to spend time with trees in a unique way. Such is the case with Brian French and Will Koomjian, co-founders of Ascending the Giants, an Oregon-based nonprofit that produces an ongoing series of expeditions dedicated to climbing and documenting all aspects of champion trees. “Ascending the Giants was founded as an organization to measure, sometimes climb, document and archive information about Oregon’s largest trees,” says Brian French, who is also the state coordinator for Oregon’s Champion Tree Program.

Ascending the Giants members Damien Carré, August Schilling and Brian  French

Left to right: Ascending the Giants members Damien Carré, August Schilling and Brian French; Credit: Jerry Black

Both certified arborists, Brian and Will have scaled some of the world’s tallest trees, including the Doerner Fir, formerly known as the Brummit Fir, the tallest Douglas-fir, standing at 327 feet tall. They have climbed everything from a red meranti in Borneo and eucalyptus in Australia to a baobab tree in Madagascar and giant camphor in China. When asked what it’s like to be in the tree tops, Brian and Will say, “Besides the height, epic views and exposure to winds, there is always a sense of discovery. We are used to seeing trees from the perspective of looking up, but when in the crown of a tree, your perspective changes to a 360-degree view and the ability to go anywhere. Through modern methods of climbing, we have overcome many limitations that would restrict access to the upper and outermost parts of a tree’s crown.”

Champion ponderosa pine

Champion ponderosa pine

Oregon has 40 national champion trees and members of Ascending the Giants have measured all of them, from the 773-point Port-Orford-cedar to the 44-point California hazel. The collaborative effort of the arborists and volunteers to nominate and measure champion trees is remarkable. Climbing a tree and doing a tape drop is not only one of the best ways to verify a tree’s measurements, it also gives the climbers an opportunity to “explore the crowns of these trees, take other measurements, assess the structure and health of the tree and make note of habitat and critical species associated with champion trees.” Brian and Will are on-call wildlife climbers for the Audubon Society of Portland, where they use their tree climbing skills to return rehabilitated birds to the canopy and rescue injure birds.

Oregon’s big tree program was established in 1941 and has kept a significant number of champions on the national list, such as the 1945 ponderosa pine, one of Brian’s favorite champions. After storms had ripped away its top branches in the 1990s, the tree was thought to be dying until, Brian and Damien Carre’ climbed it in 2013 and found green foliage and a healthy amount of cones. Brian notes, “Unfortunately, it’s one of many remnant trees whose runner-up is less than formidable in size, but is a great specimen to gaze at and puzzle over its timeless presence.”

Champion Pacific dogwood

Champion Pacific dogwood

Asked to name one of his favorite national champs, Will says, “Probably the Pacific dogwood national champion in Portland. It’s near my house and one of my favorite species.” An impressive specimen to be growing near a fence in a yard, the champion Pacific dogwood has a circumference of 150 inches, a height of 61 feet and an average crown spread of 57 feet, giving it a total of 225 points.

What’s next for Ascending the Giants? Well, they have already crossed state lines to continue their work to find and document the biggest trees. Ascending the Giants is now doing the same fieldwork in Washington under state coordinator Dr. Robert Van Pelt.

To learn more about Oregon’s champions and read about the tree climbing adventures of Ascending the Giants, visit www.ascendingthegiants.com.