By Tyler Williams; All photos by Tyler Williams
I AWOKE TO THE UNMISTAKABLE SOUND of a tree falling in the woods. First, there was the creak, increasing in tone, volume and tempo, building with urgency into an explosion of snaps, cracks and pops, then an impending heavy silence. I peered out of my sleeping bag cocoon right then, gaining full consciousness just in time to hear the dull booming thud of a big tree hitting the ground.
Sleeping at the base of a 200-foot-tall sequoia, it took some minutes for me to put to rest the fear of being crushed by a falling trunk, to accept the fact that I was in a rationally chosen location, to remember that I was a mere pixel among an entire canvas of forest. And, if a tree fell on me in my sleep, that’s just the way it was.
The view above helped calm my anxieties. A giant at my side soared in majestic half-moon light, while slender piercing red firs arranged like spokes on a wheel, all pointing to an open circle of night sky dazzled with stars. I’d come here, to the Eden Creek Grove, because it was just the kind of place where a tree might fall in the woods with no one to hear it. The grove piqued my interest in Dwight Willard’s “A Guide to the Sequoia Groves of California,” when he mentioned things like “extensive stands of old growth…one of the least visited forest ‘Edens’ in the Sierra.” At the end of his grove synopsis he warns, “the National Park Service does not encourage grove exploration by the average visitor.”
That was the final tease. I was going.
EDEN CREEK is one of 67 recognized sequoia groves in the world. This might sound like an especially finite number, and in some respects, it is. Sequoiadendron giganteum only exists within the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and the vast majority of groves — 59 of them — are located in a 70-mile belt directly south of the Kings River Canyon. Globally speaking, this is a small area. Within that belt, however, there are innumerable ridges, canyons, gullies, bowls, slopes and peaks, with sequoia trees lurking throughout. In sequoia country, the term “grove” is a little misleading.
Scientist Philip Rundel produced the first official grove list in 1972, with a grand total of 75 groves. It was a good start, but when logging of non-sequoia conifers began taking place within some groves during the 1980s, further documentation was needed. That’s where citizen scientist Dwight Willard sprang to action.
An attorney during the week, Willard undertook his own exploration and documentation of all 75 sequoia groves, and after years of back roads, bushwhacks and big tree discoveries, Willard produced a list of 67 groves, not 75. The different totals did not reflect fewer groves of trees necessarily, just a more consistent criteria for defining a grove. Rundel’s original list included some historical grove names that gave multiple titles to single groves. Willard applied a slightly more objective analysis. Still, both sequoia explorers are quick to point out that their lists are hardly definitive.
“The concept of the grove has little biological reality,” says Rundel; “any list,” says Willard, “is partially subjective.”
Indeed, sequoia “groves” are broadly defined, often containing multiple clusters of sequoia trees that might be separated by cliffs, creeks, canyons and a whole lot of non-sequoias. If sequoia groves were defined in smaller units, like what most of us would call a “grove,” — five, 10 or 20 trees — Willard’s list of 67 would grow exponentially, probably totaling several hundred something groves. That’s a lot of big trees.
The species’ continued existence owes mostly to the rugged terrain in which they grow. Unlike the coast redwoods, the sequoias were too difficult to log, extricate from the mountains and still turn a profit once they were made into finished lumber. Some timber speculators still tried, and roughly 30 percent of the giant trees fell at the hands of man. But just as the logging of sequoias gained momentum in the late-1800s, the sequoia preservation movement also got traction. John Muir played a significant role in that effort, and he undertook the first holistic survey of the sequoias in the autumn of 1875.
Over the course of two months, Muir traveled southward through the Sierra, attempting to traverse the 6,500-foot elevation contour most favorable to sequoias. Traveling uncharacteristically with a pack mule, he left Yosemite in late August, crossed Kings Canyon by mid-September and arrived in today’s Sequoia National Park and the Giant Forest — a title he coined — by early October. Even by Muir standards the route was impressive: “I led and dragged and shoved my patient, much-enduring mule through miles and miles of gardens and brush, fording innumerable streams, crossing savage rock slopes and taluses, scrambling and sliding through gulches and gorges…”
The most “savage” portion of his trek came within the East Fork of the Kaweah Canyon, home of Eden Creek. “Way making here seemed to become more difficult,” he writes, “making only two or three miles a day.”
IT’S DOUBTFUL that Muir passed directly through the Eden Creek Grove. The natural route would’ve led him across the East Fork farther upstream. Still, his “two or three miles a day” gave me pause, and in planning the trip, I labored over several different possible approaches to the grove. There was a 6,000-foot vertical up-and-over from the South Fork Canyon, or a 20-mile walk on old logging roads followed by an off-trail descent. Dwight Willard suggested using a 14-mile trail before going cross-country through open conifer forest. Or, I could punch straight toward the trees from the Mineral King Road, directly up Eden Creek, less than five miles. I’ve spent my life canyoneering and whitewater kayaking. I’m comfortable in gorges. And, I’m impatient. Shortest sounded best.
Skirting waterfalls and tracing bear trails, my direct route was working fine by mid-afternoon of day two, and I was happy with my choice. As I hopped upon a silver log to avoid a tangle of spiny currant, I gloated to myself: “I’ll be in the big trees within the hour.”
I didn’t even know I was falling until I heard the crack of my chin make impact with the log. Launching into mid-air over the steep slope, I instinctively tried to get my feet under me, but this only produced my next discernible sensation, that of my left ankle rolling unnaturally beyond its bounds, as if the joint were made of a malleable rubber. Before my pack even stopped my tumble down the slope, I was already thinking, “I wonder if I just broke my leg?”
I felt my chin for blood. There was none. Next, I moved my ankle. It seemed intact. I sat there for a few seconds pondering my isolation, and thought about returning toward the road. But, it would be dark before I got very far. The nearest flat spots for camping were still above me, and I was full of adrenaline. I ate some ibuprofen and started taping my ankle.
Hobbling along with dead fir branches as hiking poles, I spotted sequoia crowns furtively peering out of the canopy to the west. Gimpy ankle or not, they drew me in, and as afternoon faded to evening, I dropped my pack beneath a large tree growing out of a soft pile of detritus. Soft was good, because my air-filled sleeping pad had gone flat on night one. Tonight, I’d be luxuriating on a bed of foliage, à la Muir.
Raking my bed site with fingers, I removed all cones and sharp sticks, crumbling the mat of decomposed needles — sequoia, white fir and sugar pine — into an unconsolidated mix before letting it fall back down as a spongy, perfectly tolerable smooth soft place to rest my wracked body.
I’D BEEN ASLEEP for a few hours before being rousted by the falling tree. Between that and my wipe-out, at dawn I was in a low-grade fight-or-flight mentality. I packed up and started moving. Where was I going? I wasn’t sure, perhaps toward the trail a few miles east and on toward the road. It didn’t really matter, I simply had to keep moving, to escape. But something stopped me in my tracks.
The first rays of sunlight brushed across the burned weathered crown of an old sequoia, and another tree sat on a ridge, posed for the spotlight as illuminating beams crawled down its auburn trunk. I was compelled to pause and watch the show. Sitting there in the majesty of the showy giants, it occurred to me that I should slow my incessant pace, chill out, just stop. My ankle, although working well enough to travel, was sore. A dunk in icy cold spring water and some rest was the best medicine for it. And really, where else would I rather be, than right here among the healing calm of magical trees?
The east fork of Eden Creek offered the perfect spot. Fallen red fir trunks criss-crossed the creek above me, forming natural bridges over a copse of dogwood and fern. Living Abies magnifica soared over the scene with moss encrusted trunks of lime green. Back-lit insects danced and tumbled between the trees, and the creek gurgled quietly. Sweeps of sun penetrated to different places along the creek at different times, sending me crawling from one spot to the next to catch the warm rays while I soaked my foot.
Occasionally, the labors of nearby bears could be heard by the crunch of rolling logs. Black bears were plentiful in the grove. Just minutes before my fall, a large Ursus americanus the size of a small grizzly sauntered through the woods 50 feet away, unaware of my presence. Later, a small blackie came rambling along on the same trail I was using, putting us on a collision course. I stopped and said “hello.” It made a hasty retreat running across and then down the hillside, covering a tenth of a mile in under 10 seconds. I was envious.
As afternoon wore on and the sun dipped behind the tall trees, I wrapped my ankle and laced my high-top shoes tightly. Ascending with slow, careful steps, I crept to the upper limit of the Eden Creek sequoias, about 7,500 feet. Just across the canyon of the Kaweah on a south-facing ridge are the highest elevation sequoias, at 8,800 feet, while the lowest wild sequoia lives in the next canyon south, a flood distributed outlier at 2,700 feet. Clearly, this is the heart of their range.
But, the heart of the Eden Creek Grove, the biggest trees, I felt, had eluded me. That impression changed when I rounded a broad ridge into a basin I thought I’d passed before, but this time a massive sequoia presented itself with a notable burl, something I’d have surely noticed had I passed it earlier.
Had I been here before? My confusion spoke to the disorienting effect big trees can have. The trees themselves create topography in these woods, warping one’s sense of actual ground contours. Aerial photos, too, don’t penetrate a canopy of 250 feet, so topographic maps, like grove boundaries, are to be taken as generalities. When some familiar weathered incense-cedars came into view, I again knew where I was. Somehow, I’d missed the burl tree on my first pass. The biggest trees in the world can hide without ever moving, in broad daylight.
I sat with the burled giant until twilight forced me to search for camp. A perfect hollow revealed itself beside a fork of Eden Creek, with two elder sequoias looming stoically from the hillside above. Surrounding my bed were younger, more slender trees that soared perfectly to 200 feet. Awaking among these titans was soothing and thrilling all at once. I reflected on being rousted by the crash of the falling tree, far different than the purple calm dawn this morning. In either case, coming to consciousness beneath the big trees felt transcendent, reminding me of my infinitesimal place in the universe, illustrating my insignificant stature among the awesome, stupefying, enduring giants.
Tyler Williams is the author of “Big Tree Hikes of the Coast: A Guide to the Giants.” To learn more, visit his website www.funhogpress.com.