Bushwhacking with a Big-Tree Hunter

A Walk on the Wild Side with Bob Van Pelt

Bob Van Pelt

Big-tree hunter Bob Van Pelt on location in Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Suited up, he looks like a red-bearded jolly green giant, wearing emerald overalls and bright orange boots. Ketzel Levine, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption Ketzel Levine, NPR News

Find the yellow raincoat in the left of the photo and you've found Ketzel Levine, at the base of a giant, fallen Douglas-fir. Bob Van Pelt hide caption

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itoggle caption Bob Van Pelt
'Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast' book cover

Forest Giants of the Pacific Coast hide caption

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It was the worst day of weather seen in Washington's Olympic Peninsula for months. Power lines were down and the rains were torrential. It just so happened it was also the day NPR's Ketzel Levine joined up with big-tree hunter Bob Van Pelt to head out into the wilderness tracking a giant Douglas-fir.

Van Pelt had caught a glimpse of the fir a couple of years earlier, when he was out with a group of fellow tree hunters looking for champion trees. To be a champion tree takes real girth; it means that tree is the biggest of its kind. Van Pelt has tracked, measured and bestowed champion status to a number of trees, including cedar, fir and spruce.

But on the day Van Pelt saw that one immense Douglas-fir near Lake Quinault, time was running short. The group he was with had already discovered previously unsung behemoths, and the light was getting dim. He let the big fir go, with a promise he'd return another day to measure it. He just never seemed to get the time, until the day he headed out with our reporter. After several hours of bushwhacking across streams and through neck high shrubs, he found it.

The tree was dead.

Such is the life of a big-tree hunter. In the several years since he'd first spotted it, the immense old fir had succumbed to the velvet-top fungus. Van Pelt took out his lasers, measuring tape and camera and took enough cursory measurements to determine that the great tree was indeed one of the world's largest — with a circumference of 42 feet-nine inches.

A big-tree hunter couldn't get up in the morning if it weren't for the promise of another find. Besides, it's not as if the forest is static. Trees are breaking, dying and growing all the time.

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