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Originally published September 4, 2011 at 9:00 PM | Page modified September 4, 2011 at 9:14 PM

Restless Native

Giant logged long ago but not forgotten

I just wanted to touch the stump. It sounds silly, sort of macabre; like rooting around in the brush for the combat boots of a fallen soldier.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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MAPLE FALLS, Whatcom County — I just wanted to touch the stump.

It sounds silly, sort of macabre; like rooting around in the brush for the combat boots of a fallen soldier.

But a native Northwesterner steeped in the lore of old-growth trees can draw strange inspiration from recent historical reports of a forgotten, long-ago-logged Douglas fir that might have been the tallest tree ever found, anywhere.

This minor obsession began this spring, after a trip to Northern California to seek out some of the last remaining giant coast redwoods, one of which, at 379 feet, is believed to be the tallest living tree in the world.

That experience made me wonder: Given the Olympic Peninsula's wealth of other old-growth giants, isn't it likely that trees even taller than the current record coast redwoods once lived in the Northwest, before most were wiped out by clear-cutting? Some quick online research revealed that I wasn't the first to ask the question.

The answer: Yes, but: The biggest of the big trees might not have been on the coast at all, but literally right under our feet, growing to scarcely believable sizes in the lush lowlands of the Puget Sound basin.

This came as a surprise to me, and also to Micah Ewers, 25, an amateur big-tree researcher from Portland I recently encountered in several big-tree forums. Ewers, a lifelong outdoorsman, has been using decidedly indoor technology — search engines such as Google Books — to find historical accounts of the region's lost giants.

He found repeated references to trees 350 feet or taller that had been felled, mostly between 1890 and 1920, in what now are the most heavily populated sites of the Northwest. Among his findings were a slew of Douglas firs, many of current-world-record height, logged on the present sites of downtown Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. — and at the ends of many river valleys in between.

From one of those valleys came the most startling account: Newspaper reports of a 465-foot fir, logged in 1897 at Loop's Ranch, an early homestead in the lower North Fork Nooksack River valley, between Mount Baker and present-day Bellingham.

The Nooksack Giant, as we'll call it here, was unceremoniously felled with crosscut saws, then cut into massive sections and yarded a short distance across the valley floor to rail cars, which hauled the logs west to New Whatcom, now Bellingham.

There, one cross-section was displayed on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street, bearing a sign noting the tale of the tape: 465 feet in height, with 220 feet of clear stalk between the ground and the first branch.

The tree was nearly 11 feet in diameter, 34 feet in circumference, and provided more than 96,000 board feet of lumber — enough to construct eight large, two-story houses. A count of its rings indicated an age of at least 480 years — young, by giant tree standards, and obviously still growing.

If those measurements are accurate, the Nooksack Giant likely was one of the tallest trees, of any kind, ever found. It would have been 50 feet taller than a contemporaneous well-documented giant fir, logged in the Lynn Valley, north of Vancouver, B.C., in 1902.

Other trees, living and dead, are known to be much older, and certainly much more stout, than this Nooksack fir.

But this tree would have been unparalleled in height — six stories taller than what is widely considered the tallest "officially" recorded Douglas fir, the now-fallen "Mineral Tree" from Washington's Wind River drainage. (The tallest living Douglas firs today are in the 320-foot range, mostly in Southwest Oregon. Many of the largest by volume live near Lake Quinault.)

Some skepticism, of course, is warranted. The era of Northwest mega-logging was replete with big-tree fish tales. And it's very possible that taller trees were felled and never measured in old-growth havens such as the Olympic Peninsula, or Vancouver Island.

But Ewers points out that even a measuring error by as much as 50 feet would leave the Nooksack tree as the tallest fir ever. And he believes strength lies in the numbers.

"If this was just a freak occurrence, I would write it off," he says. "But I've collected 90 to 100 reports of 300- to 400-foot Douglas firs. A hundred years ago, trees rivaling the height of the redwoods were fairly common. The whole Puget Sound was just filled with giant trees."

That this tree was tape-measured on the ground — not exactly rocket science — lends additional credibility to the news reports. And the tree does fall within — barely — the upper range that some scientists believe a Douglas fir, given optimal growing conditions, might reach.

With all that information in tow, I headed up the Nooksack Valley last week, determined to unearth any lingering evidence of the giant fir. I knew that even a minor brush with antiquity was a longshot, given the passage of time. Most stumps of the era were long ago dynamited, burned, or both, to clear the land.

The former Loop's Ranch is now Alpenglow Farm near Maple Falls, on the Mount Baker Highway. Its owner since 1971, Bill Devine, said yes, he had seen the historical tree accounts, and even knew approximately where the big stump was.

Emphasis on "was." Probably because it was out of the way, down by the river, the former property owners had not cleared the stump. But the Nooksack had. Devine says a raging flood in 2003 claimed it, surrounding stumps, some other standing trees — and most of his blueberry bushes.

I was eight years too late. Standing on the riverbank there atop another dead, hulking tree — a spruce also toppled by the river, Devine looks upstream and shakes his head, trying to imagine the immensity of the giant fir. The tallest trees on this section of the floor of the valley, where logging continues today on both walls, are well shy of 100 feet.

Picturing a fir standing nearly 50 stories tall on the valley floor is unimaginable. And it leaves you with a gut-punch sense of loss.

Even a century ago, more effete Americans on the far right coast were condemning those on the far left for dispatching the tree, which The New York Times on March 7, 1897, referred to as the "most magnificent fir tree ever beheld by human eyes." The disgusted writer branded the Whatcom tree cutters "callous Philistines."

With the benefit of hindsight, and the subsequent loss of most of this giant's brethren, it's even easier to judge, and ask: What were those people thinking?

But to Northwest settlers, a single Douglas fir of any size must have seemed a teardrop in an endless sea of old-growth. And the act of vanquishing big trees, which grew in impenetrable thickets right down to the water lines, must have provided some small reassurance in an ongoing man-vs.-nature battle which, in the minds of people of that era, could easily have gone either way.

I get all that.

But walking away from the place where the Nooksack Giant stretched into the heavens, I still feel cheated. Couldn't our forebears have left one, just one, of these 400-foot lowland trees, to inspire their grandchildren? How tall would that tree, assuming it survived the very river that fueled its massive growth, stand today?

Old-growth trees are the closest living things around us to being forever. And, as the Nooksack Giant illustrates, once they come down, all the memories, photos and accounts quickly fade, rot and wash away, like some forgotten stump along a tireless river.

Gone, like they never existed.

There is comfort, at least, in knowing that we've evolved the Philistine out of our blood lines; that we're much smarter about passing on, unspoiled, all the natural treasures surrounding us, right here, today.

Right?

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