Humbling trees

Posted: Friday, December 04, 2009

Even after 45 years of living in Alaska, the trees still amaze me when I visit Washington state, where I was born and raised.

As I write this, I'm in my son's house in Anacortes, looking out a window at towering fir and cedar trees, vastly different from the trees of the Kenai Peninsula lowlands. The scraggly black spruces so prevalent on the peninsula's lowlands seldom grow taller than 100 feet, with a rare specimen reaching to 150 feet. The white spruce, another tree common in the Kenai-Soldotna and surrounding areas, rarely exceeds a height over 125 feet. In western Washington, 200-foot-tall Douglas-firs are common. The tallest well-documented example measured an awe-inspiring 393 feet, almost 100 feet longer than a football field. The western hemlock, Washington's "state tree," has a trunk diameter of up to 8 feet.

Washington's trees, impressive now, were far more impressive in the past. Conservationist John Muir once found a Douglas-fir in Washington that measured 12 feet in diameter at a height of 5 feet above the ground. When I was a tadpole, in the Skagit Valley of the 1940s, a log truck rumbling through town with a three-log load didn't merit a second look. Nowadays, the landowners and timber companies aren't patient enough to wait for tress to grow that large. Yesterday, I saw a truck with a load of at least 50 logs, none more than a foot in diameter at the butt end.

During windstorms, the tops sometimes break from Washington's towering trees and come crashing to the ground. These tops, alone, are much larger than most whole trees in my neighborhood in Sterling.

They don't call Washington "The Evergreen State" for nothing. The western red cedar, nonexistent on the Kenai Peninsula, grows like a weed in western Washington. Valuable for use as shakes, shingles, siding and fencing, it grows higher than 200 feet. Large cedar trees are so valuable, they are sometimes poached. A pickup truck load of cedar blocks can bring as much as $1,000 at a sawmill, if the poacher can find a mill that will buy illegally cut wood.

The stately Pacific madrone, or madrona, is another tree common to the Washington coast but unknown to the Kenai Peninsula. A broad-leafed evergreen that constantly sheds its red bark, it grows to 75 feet high.

My father, who spent most of his life in Skagit Valley, once showed me a group of first-growth Douglas firs in a remote part of the valley. These giants had somehow escaped the logging operations that in less than 100 years had clear-cut most of the densely treed first-growth forest on the Pacific side of the Cascade Mountains. They were more than 100 years old by the late 1870s, when the first sawmill was built in Skagit Valley. Truly awe-inspiring, they were 8 feet in diameter at a height of 5 feet from the ground.

"I come here when I need to feel humble," Dad said.

Being used to the spindly trees in my Sterling neighborhood, it doesn't take a 200-foot-tall tree to humble me, but those certainly did.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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