On May 11, 1998, two big-tree enthusiasts bushwhacked into the woods of Northern California, and came upon the largest redwood anyone had ever seen, growing in a pristine, ancient grove. This so-called Day of Discovery inspired others, such as Mario Vaden, to become redwoods explorers, sparking an entire Era of Discovery, which is still going strong.
On May 10 of this year, Vaden announced the latest exciting find on his website: “Sounds like there’s another 27 ft. to 28 ft. coast redwood ... another potential diameter record.”
Credit for this discovery belonged to John Montague of Humboldt, California. But often it has been Vaden himself — a Beaverton arborist and photographer who travels to Redwood National and State Parks about every six weeks to hunt for redwood titans — making the news.
For example, there was the amazing tree he co-discovered with Chris Atkins in 2014. Until a researcher can climb and study it, Vaden won’t know if it’s the largest redwood on record so far. But he is convinced it’s in the same league, at least, as the largest tree in the National Big Tree Register — the General Sherman sequoia growing in Sequoia National Park.
The largeness of a tree is calculated by a variety of factors, including trunk diameter, height and total volume. Number-crunchers use a formula to assign trees a point rating.
Vaden’s prize conifer should score somewhere in the 1,298 to 1,306 range, while the General is listed as 1,321 points.
In seven years of hunting for the largest of the large, Vaden has seen as many rare redwoods — 24-foot diameters and/or 370 feet tall — as anyone else, yet these giants of the rain forest still thrill him.
“I’m never ho-hum, because it’s paradise anywhere in the redwoods,” he says — words to inspire your hunt for a record breaker.
Where to Look
If someone wants to find titans, “they could literally go into the forest anywhere and head in as far as time allows,” Vaden says, adding that the biggest trees do not necessarily grow near creeks or flats, as was once believed.
Of course, if you are walking on a trail or bushwhacking from an easy entry point, you will probably not be the first person to notice the big daddy up ahead that looks twice as large as any tree around it.
“A new discovery will require more than a brief waltz into the forest,” says Vaden, who advises all would-be explorers to “get their mind ready for an all-day, in-and-out adventure.”
You won’t need a permit for big-tree hunting in Redwood National and State Parks, unless you are bringing measuring equipment, which is where officials draw the line between typical activity and data gathering.
As a condition of Vaden’s permit, he must not disclose the location of “any tall or unique trees to the public.” However, a group called the Tall Trees Club keeps track of the findings, and serious hunters do share information about their discoveries, routes taken and areas covered.
“When we find something particularly noteworthy or grand, we most often take each other to it in person, not often emailing GPS coordinates,” Vaden notes.
In general, areas around the Tall Trees Grove — southeast of Orick, California — and in Redwood National Park proper are “the epicenter” of his most recent discoveries.
“This is where I learned that new giants can be on a hill or anywhere, with no brook or creek,” he says.
What to Bring
Vaden once got lost while exploring — after dropping 1,000 feet into Del Norte Redwoods State Park without a compass. Although he could still hear traffic, and his disorientation lasted only an hour, it was enough to emphasize the importance of always carrying two navigation devices with him: either two compasses or a compass and GPS.
“Because if one breaks, it’s bad news to have nothing,” he explains.
Some basic first-aid supplies are another essential, because if you bushwhack, you will bleed.
“Salmonberry bushes make my arms look like I fought with a cat,” says Vaden, adding there’s nothing quite like the pain of jabbing your kneecap into a hidden point of wood on a fallen log under ferns.
Bringing measuring equipment bumps you into the category of data gatherer, thus requiring that permit. So you might want to hold off until you get really serious about exploring.
Vaden packs a 100-ft. tape for measuring diameter — a standard household measuring tape won’t loop around the 18- to 24-foot trunks that really wow explorers. In addition, Vaden takes a laser device with tripod and prisms to measure height — the package costing around $2,500.
How to Get Good at it
Many people love redwoods, but Vaden knows only about a dozen enthusiasts who return again and again to hunt for big trees, and even fewer who can measure a tree “accurately and with insight.”
You need to be in good shape to venture off-trail, and you need keen eyesight to assess a dense, uneven and often foggy landscape. And would you be able to recognize a potential record-breaker among a crowd of candidates on a distant hillside?
According to Vaden, those who have a feel for the forest have “paid attention to trees for a long time,” learning to “really slow down” and notice what’s around them.
There is plenty of work to be done if you have the right stuff. The exploration goal of combing redwood country in its entirety is nowhere near completion.
“The parks look small on maps,” Vaden notes, but that impression changes once you are on the ground and pushing through the thick underbrush, typically at a banana-slug pace of 300 feet in 20 minutes.
“Each new hunt goes farther and deeper from trail or road,” he says. “It’s still going to take years.”
Vaden’s website (www.mdvaden.com) will bring you up to date with the most important recent discoveries, while educating about the history of redwoods exploring. You will also find a sampling of Vaden’s redwoods photography there.
His prints hang in the Crescent Harbor Art Gallery, in Crescent City, California, where he will be artist of the month in June 2015.
Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at email@example.com.