Way to the giant forests

Way to the giant forests

Way to the giant forests

Authors put their characters into landscapes and readers then search landscapes for them. The arid desert, horses in paddocks, scrubby bushes, rocky gullies and low hills made us look out for Lucky Luke, the cowboy from the comics!

Driving up the Sierra Nevada range from the west, the landscape changed from scrubby deserts to trees and the humidity increased. Soon we reached the Ash Mountain entrance to the Sequoia National Park in California. Once we paid and had the sticker on our windshield, we were on the General’s Highway, headed to the Foothills Visitor Centre. We collected maps and information, and realised that cellphones would not work well from now onwards.

Moist air turned to fine drizzle as visibility decreased. Tree shapes morphed into conifers. Following the wet ribbon of a road flanked by tall, thick-trunked trees, we climbed rapidly. I craned my neck to see the tree-tops. When the sign read ‘Giant Forest Museum’, we were at last among the sequoias.

Land of the giants

The dampness and chill of early May hit us. We were now at about 6,400 feet altitude. The indoor museum was closed, but the outdoor museum of sequoias was ours to explore. The tall sentinels were all around. Called the ‘Big Tree’ because of their volume, sequoias are the largest living things on earth. Some of these were more than 3,000 years old — just imagine the tales they could tell of native Indians, Europeans, the Californian gold rush, decimation of native population by European-brought-smallpox, environmentalists, loggers and even gawking tourists like us.

The Giant Forest was named so in 1875, by the conservationist John Muir. The only reason we had picked California for a visit were these magnificent trees and to think that in the late 1800s people thought the existence of these giant trees was a ‘California Hoax’!

Ironically, this magnificent tree makes for brittle timber. When millions of acres were logged in the 1800-1900s, all that was made from the wood were pencils, grape-stakes and matchsticks. The base of the logged tree was so large that there were instances of them being used for Sunday school, and even a dance floor. Environmentalists have fought developers to create and protect these parks. Today, 20 of the world’s largest sequoias grow in this National Park.

Driving through Tunnel Log, carved out of a fallen sequoia, gave us a feel of how massive these trees were. We walked among the giants until we stood by General Sherman, the world’s largest tree by volume. It was about 2,000-2,500 years old and real broad at the base. If you are approximately five feet tall each, you would need about seven-and-a-half humans holding hands to cover the entire base. I could not even take a picture of the entire tree in a single frame. Broad and tall — what a magnificent tree it was!

After a comfortable night in our cabin at the Grant Grove village, we hit the walking trail. The meadows were still soggy and not yet ready for the summer rush of picnickers. We stopped at the ‘Fallen Monarch’, a fallen sequoia, with a photograph alongside, of the same tree from 1900, showing troops and horses, which sheltered inside. As we walked through the main trunk, I realised that the tallest people too had room to spare over their heads and there was hardly any deterioration in 113 years.

The fire scar on the General Grant tree made us marvel at the tree’s ability to survive. The approximately two-feet thick tannin-rich-bark protects sequoias from forest fires and insect attacks. Growing as tall as 310 ft (imagine a 30-floored building), their life begins as a tiny cone 1.5 inches long. Fires clear leaf-litter, allowing in sunlight, and pop seeds out of cones, completing the circle of life.

When we hit the Mojave desert on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, there was no sign of the primeval forest we had left behind. Had nature sequestered the sequoias high atop the Sierra Nevada surrounded by desert, or had it all been the California Hoax?

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