A Walk Among the Giants

 

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We opted to spend our first night in the southern portion of Sequoia National Park known as Mineral King. You turn off before the main park entrance and drive an hour and half up and into the area. Unlike the roads of yesterday which drew you up to speed and then threatened you with sudden death hairpins, this route in just requires an absolute adherence to a speed of about 15 miles an hour. You can never take your eyes off the road and there is no straight in it. It is about 1 1/2 cars wide but folks we met (two) were exceedingly courteous and appeared perfectly willing to notify the authorities should we tumble over the edge. We didn’t, and in fact, enjoyed the drive. Something about having to just go slow causes you to absorb a little more of what is happening. What is happening is a steady preparation for the impact of an up close view of a living thing that is over 2,000 years old. You see a giant sequoia immediately on the roadside just before you enter the park proper. It stopped our breath. Collectively.

We are camped in the Atwell Grove of giant sequoias. This is an area once owned by a lumber company who intended to harvest and sell the lumber. The cost, it turns out, of cutting and transporting the trees on the road I discuss above, was not economical. It also was wrecking the marriages and the undershorts of the truck drivers. Arriving home late, drunk and soiled is now way to go through life. There are stumps in the campground as testament to the will to try to make a go of it, but ultimately, the land was sold to the park service and joined to Sequoia National Park. Sitting amongst the trees and looking at the stumps I have to say it is easy, with the eyes and mind of a society of plenty, to feel violated by the idea of felling these trees. But certainly if you back the clock up several decades and look at them with the eyes of need and opportunity, you can understand the thrill of conquest that greeted the entrepreneur of the day. The amount of wood for a booming country, the fact you get so much with one tree…

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Anyway, we pitched camp and took off on a hike down the Atwell Hocket trail in search of trout water. We found it in the East Fork of the Kaweah River. Or at least in a nice deep plunge pool below one of its falls. We had to practically belay down to it from the trail, but once there, we found a nice deep section, tailing out across a riffle before disappearing again in a falls. Nothing feeding and no hatch, so a bead-head nymph first. Six or so casts and drifts, with me fumbling on the bank for something in the pack, my son caught his first wild trout on a fly. No instruction, no help, no interference. Some of you can begin to know what that moment was like for both us. Some of you are happy for us, but have no idea. I am insufficiently skilled to effectively write it. A hatch broke out as luck would have it and he went on to hook and land another three fish on dry flies, and have the thrill of missing at least six others. We stopped counting and just stood in the river fishing the same deep pool for two hours.

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The fishing slowed and we decided to rest the fish and hike back up for a nap before dinner. Along the way we walked within 10 feet of a pair of deer who never winded us and weren’t spooked since we were walking in the woods not discussing the day’s events. We stopped and looked at them and they looked at us and we each quietly went on our way. We stopped periodically, as we did on the way down, by particularly huge sequoias to touch them and strain our necks to see their tops, but we didn’t talk much. Until we stopped at the biggest of the ones we passed and decided that these trees didn’t get like this by accident. As my son said, “it’s not just that they are thousands of years old, for me what’s wild is that that are thousands of years old in the same spot.“ It took me a minute, but I got it. Right here, right in this spot, while all around the earth was changing, shifting, burning, melting, flooding, cooling, heating, whatever, this tree grew and still grows. It is helped by the economic weakness of the wood itself — not good for much — and by the difficulty in harvesting the near vertical terrain; and it is helped by folks who recognize the importance of its protection. But, you get the distinct impression when you stand next to one that these trees have seen worse. They have seen it hotter and colder, they have seen species both helpful and harmful come and go. They have struggled through lean years and swelled through fat ones. It is, to me anyway, somehow the height of arrogance for us to pretend to be their caretakers. Don’t mistake me — I believe they should be protected — it’s just not totally clear to me that they need it.

In fact, sitting here amongst them, watching my son sleep in a hammock tied between two young ones after catching his first wild trout on a fly, it seems like they may actually be protecting us.

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