in the company of giants

A view from the Hoh River
(photo by leah)

On the western half of Olympic National Park there are trees that shoot up 250 feet or more from the sodden earth, their massive trunks enrobed in mosses and lichens, their closely-spaced crowns all but invisible from the forest floor. These trees may not be the tallest on earth, but they are among the stoutest. Some of these girthy giants are Douglas firs; the fattest of which, called the “Queets Fir” after the river it resides by, is almost 16 feet in diameter. Some are Western red cedar, a species whose immensity is often cited in terms of wood volume, or cubic feet.  The largest red cedar grows near Lake Quinault on the peninsula, and it contains almost 18,000 cubic feet of wood, enough to build 70 three-bedroom houses. Rounding out this titanic trio is the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), whose trunks seldom attain either the height or girth of its compeers, but whose growth rate on the peninsula outpaces almost any conifer tree, anywhere.

Sitka is the largest of the 35 spruce species, and is one of only five tree species that grow to heights over 300 feet. The “Carmanah Giant” on Vancouver Island is the tallest living Sitka spruce at 315 feet; the largest, in terms of volume, is a tree growing along the Queets River—a mile or so downstream from the “Queets Fir”—that boasts almost 12,000 cubic feet of wood to its 248-foot-frame. This “Queets Spruce” is estimated to be between 350 and 450 years old (Sitka spruce can live to 800 years) and puts on more than three cubic feet of wood a year, adding about a foot and a half to its height.

How do these trees grow so rapidly on the peninsula? In a quintessentially Washington word: rain. Parts of the park’s western half receive more than twelve feet of precipitation annually, and this deluge, taken with the spruce’s tolerance of shade (rain and cloudcover in the region are rarely uncoupled) results in prodigious growth by the trees. The peninsula’s Noachian rainfall is a product of orthographic lift, in which the moisture-laden air blown over from the Pacific coast is pushed westward across the rugged peaks of the Olympic Mountains. The air cools as it climbs, condensing the moisture to form clouds that billow and swell with mounting humidity. Once maximum saturation is reached, the clouds let loose their cargo over the land, watering a vast temperate rainforest and producing the heaviest rainfalls in the continental United States.

Sitka spruce constitute much of the park’s biomass west of the Olympics; they are often found in mixed stands with Douglas fir, Western hemlock, Pacific silver fir, Western red cedar, red alder, and big-leaf maple. It is in riverine valleys and alluvial plains—areas flat and low-lying, with well-drained soils—that spruce reach their full Brobdingnagian splendor. They are distinguished by their thin, gray, shingled bark and needle-like evergreen leaves, which, when squeezed, poke back rather painfully. One of the more famous Sitkas was the “Golden Spruce” growing near the Yakoun River in British Columbia, its life duly commemorated in an excellent, eponymous book by David Vaillant. Due to a rare genetic mutation that inhibited its production of chlorophyll, this spruce had bright yellow needles year-round and stood out from its neighbors like a Christmas tree.  The native Haida peoples called it “Kiidk’yaas”, or “Ancient Tree”, and its fate was not unlike that of countless other Pacific Northwest conifers in the last century and a half: felled by a logger, a white man, though the backstory of this particular tree is certainly worth a read.

Recently I had the great fortune to find myself hiking along the Hoh River Trail on a brilliant summer day, gazing up at the magnificent trees. It seemed every quarter-mile yielded another gargantuan trunk to gawk at, and by the end of my visit I could scarcely tilt my head back for the aching in my neck. It was both awe-inspiring and humbling to be amidst such stately company, their improbable size a mute testament to torrential rains, impenetrable fog and slate-gray skies.

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