Greatest Show on Girth

Times Staff Writer

Mike Law barges through punishing underbrush, angling for a closer look.

"Oh, my God, this thing is enormous. Look at that trunk," he says. "I don't know if it's the one, but it'll definitely make our list."

Law is on the hunt for an elusive quarry: the world's biggest tree.

He is one of a rare breed who have spent decades searching trackless corners of the Sierra Nevada, hunting a monolith that would surpass the giant of the giant sequoias, the General Sherman. The longtime title holder stands neatly fenced off in nearby Sequoia National Park, with a paved road to its doorstep delivering a steady stream of gawking tourists.

At 274.9 feet, the Sherman is not the tallest tree on the planet. That honor belongs to a leggy 367-foot coastal redwood near Ukiah named the Mendocino. But the Sherman is the world's biggest in volume. Weighing 2.7 million pounds, it last measured 52,508 cubic feet -- that's counting all the wood -- and is still growing. It has reigned supreme since surveyors settled a fierce rivalry between Fresno and Tulare counties in the 1920s over exactly whose big tree was the biggest. Tulare won.

Ever since, rumors have abounded of a giant larger than the Sherman, like a landlocked Moby-Dick lurking in a sea of green.

Summer after summer, hunters doggedly tackle remote corners of the 70-odd groves of giant sequoias that dot the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. They come with measuring tape, an old photo or topographical map -- and in recent years, surveyors' equipment and laser scopes. Their quest is unwavering -- and probably pointless.

"In the southern Sequoia, especially, you have to be a masochist to be out there and thoroughly explore them," says Nate Stephenson, forester for Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. "There is a small possibility there could be a very big sequoia lurking out there ... less than a 1% chance. I don't ever want to say, 'There's no tree larger than the Sherman,' though. If I do, the next day someone will find it."

No one has hunted harder than Mike Law and Wendell Flint. For 33 years, the two friends drove, hiked and thwacked their way through hundreds of miles of cragged Sierra forest in search of Sequoiadendron giganteum. As for Flint, "he's been doing it for 15 years prior to that," says Law, an apple-cheeked wall-design painter from Temple City.

Law often speaks as if Flint were still alive, scoping out a new specimen around the next bend. He died of diabetes complications two years ago, on a day he and Law were planning to take a trip into the national parks' Giant Forest grove once more. Flint was 82 and blind.

"He couldn't see the trees," Law says, "but he could smell 'em."

Flint and Law never did find the Big One, but they painstakingly measured 61 other giants, putting them on "the list."

Law's quest this year in the Sequoia National Forest is as much about a lost companion as a phantom tree. He wants to discover one more giant, and name it for his old friend. Wendell Flint would take his place on the list alongside Old Job, Chief Sequoyah and the others.

"I think if anyone deserves a tree, it's him," says Law, 63.

He's got a hot prospect, judging from aerial photos taken by an 87-year-old Sierra Club veteran named Martin Litton, and a decades-old photo of Litton's wife, Esther, standing at the base of a large tree. Litton knows where it is, he promises; he just never measured it.

The week after the Fourth of July, Law meets up with Litton and a dozen others to head into the mountains to find it.

They make camp the night before at the same Redwood Meadow site where Law met Flint as a boy on a family camping trip.

Flint, a young World War II veteran trying to forget the Dachau concentration camp he helped liberate, had spent relaxed evenings around the campfire talking to Law's father about his quest for the big tree.

Two decades later, Law, now a Vietnam War veteran, was in the Sierra with his own children when he stumbled upon a giant sequoia. Wondering just how giant it really was, he remembered his boyhood encounter with the one man who surely could tell. With the guile of a private detective, Law tracked down Flint in Coalinga, where he was teaching high school calculus. They talked about Flint's hunt for the Big One, which he was about to abandon out of loneliness. Law decided to join him. That was in 1967.

They spent three decades' worth of weekends and summer vacations tackling the back country, following tips from fishermen and loggers, and their own off-road hunches.

"It was a symbiotic relationship. They were meant to meet," says Flint's nephew, Robert Bergen. Law, 21 years shy of his partner, would haul in the heavy surveyor's gear, take photos, lay out tapes and pins, and shout the numbers to Flint. In dense forest, it is no easy feat to track down and measure a large tree.

Flint spent hours hunched over graph paper, pencil in hand, devising formulas to accurately determine ground perimeter, diameters and total cubic footage.

Together they discovered Genesis, the Diamond, Three-Fingered Jack -- all mighty, but none the biggest.

"Everyone needs a hobby," Law says, explaining their persistence. "I don't like standing around watching soccer games."

There are only two tree species that measure up for him: the giant sequoia and the coastal redwood. Law plays favorites.

"I prefer the sequoias to the redwoods," he says. "They're majestic. The limbs, the tops are all different. They have more character."

Law is still old-school. On this foray, a mattress wedged among sugar pines under the stars is his bed; a can of cold corn will be lunch on the trail. For dinner, he heats up a batch of "mountain mess": canned chili stirred into a can of stew.

Law and his tree-hunting friends spend the evening swapping bad jokes, beers and tales of high school drag racing. After most of the others have crawled into their sleeping bags, Law muses by the campfire.

"Of course it could be out there," he says of the elusive Big One. "It would have to be in a canyon, partially protected from wind so it doesn't have its top blown off. Good root drainage, that's essential."

The next day's prospect in the Tule River watershed looks like a perfect candidate.

"I've got a feeling. With my 36 years of looking, I don't think I'll be wrong," he says. "From the aerial photos, it looks very promising."

According to Flint's own hand, the grove where they are headed has great potential.

"Offhand, I think the Tule River watershed is the best place to track down a new champion -- if one exists," Flint wrote before his death in "To Find the Biggest Tree," a bible among hunters of giant sequoias.

Law and his friends set off shortly after 8:30 a.m., shimmying in their all-wheel drives and pickup trucks up lumpy dirt roads to a metal gate blocking an old logging path. They descend on foot into patchwork hardwoods strewn with fading purple lupine and fire-red penstemon.

"This trail is what I call 'upindicular,' " says Law as they plod through dusty soil and across rotting logs, keeping an eye peeled for timber rattlers.

"Wendell and I used to do foot races through woods like these. I was bigger then, but he could still beat me."

Litton leads the way. The retired Grand Canyon rafting guide first saw this land when he and noted environmentalist David Brower, an old friend, were brought here in the 1980s by a local woman dismayed about clear-cut logging of white and red fir, ponderosa and incense cedar.

"Look at that," says Litton, pointing to a sickly stand of ponderosa pine replanted where tall trees once stood. "Forest Service with one of their damn plantations."

The sequoias were mostly untouched. Their cross-grained wood shatters like a glass bottle when it hits the ground, and is not good for much more than grapevine stakes or roof shingles.

After several miles, several hours and a 1,000-foot drop in altitude, a smoggy vista of the Central Valley opens up.

"Fresno is out there somewhere," says Ara Mooranian of the Sequoia Forest Keeper conservation group.

Two graceful sequoias stand sentinel in the foreground.

"Those are nice, but they're just average giants," Law says. Unless a specimen sprouted when Rome was the world's superpower, it doesn't begin to measure up.

"I'll tell you what Wendell and I do. If something looks really big -- say 20, 21 feet in diameter -- then we get a shadow measurement." Measuring the shadow's width "can be accurate to within an inch," he says.

The ragtag trail ends in an abrupt mess of "mountain misery": nonnative buckthorn brush that runs rampant on logged land.

The team struggles through, energy flagging. Litton slips and tumbles into a morass of boulder and gooseberry. He looks like a mountain Methuselah with white whiskers and suspenders -- bleeding from both arms and an earlobe.

Law is up ahead, his spirits soaring.

"Now they are looking very, very good," he says.

He spies a really big one through the tangle. It rises from a steep slope, just like the photos. It has the right look: a gnarled, wooly top, like a mutant broccoli spear, and a massive cinnamon trunk.

"Like a Grecian pillar," he exults. "Goes straight up."He thrashes down toward it. "That may be his tree.... I still can't see enough of it to make heads or tails of it," he says. "Once I see the ground, I'll know."

He emerges onto a scarred slope.

"This is it. This is our tree."

It is impossible to comprehend the size of a truly giant sequoia, 3,000 years old or so, until you are underneath -- head thrown back, gazing at a tree larger than the Statue of Liberty. The bark alone is 30 inches thick.

Each aging behemoth assumes its own shape, a grizzled totem sculpted by gales, lightning and wildfire. Law eyes the new specimen like a jeweler appraising a rough-cut diamond.

"That middle trunk certainly packs a volume," he says. "It's not a particularly tall tree. About 200 feet."

He takes a few steps closer.

"I don't know what it looks like in the back. It's very impressive, though, very stout. Robert?" he hollers to Flint's nephew, along for the hunt. "Has it got a downhill buttress?"

A buttress, a lower section of trunk that swells when a tree anchors itself into steep slope, adds considerably to its bulk -- and record-setting potential.

Bergen disappears into the tree's enormous shadow, then hollers back, "No!"

Law slumps. He hobbles around the lower side.

"This isn't it," he says in a flat voice. "This is a very large tree, but it's certainly no competition to the Sherman." There is no point even naming it or putting it on the list, Law says, appraising it soberly. The hike back is hot and grueling. The crew gives Litton a standing ovation when he makes it, seven hours after they set out that morning.

Law hides it pretty well, but he is deeply disappointed.

"I'm too old to do this," he says, nursing a knee the size of a grapefruit. "It's just not the same since Wendell's gone."

That night, he reaches inside his truck and pulls out a sheaf of well-thumbed 8 1/2 - by-11 papers. It's "the list," carefully typed by Flint. Precise measurements fill page after page:

Sherman, Giant Forest; Rank 1, volume 52508 ... year measured 81.

Washington, Giant Forest; Rank 2, volume 47850 ... year measured 76, 80

Grant, Grant Grove, Rank 3, volume 46608, year measured 76 ...

"We had a good run," Law says, fingering the prized possession. To others' eyes, it is a jumble of ciphers.

Not to Law. He sees an old friend in every entry. He sees giants.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The hunt for giants

Searchers continue to brave the steep, rough terain of the Sierra Nevada in search of the world's most voluminous tree, a title currently held by the giant sequoia named General Sherman. About 70 groves of the mammoth trees, some of them thousands of years old, dot the mountainsides around Sequoia National Park.

Largest giant sequoias

*--* Rank Tree Volume Height Perimeter 1. Gen. Sherman 52,508 cu.ft. 274.9 ft. 102.6 ft. 2. Washington 47,850 254.7 101.1 3. General Grant 46,608 267.4 107.5 4. President 45,481 240.9 93.0 5. Lincoln 44,471 255.8 98.3 6. Stagg 42,557 243.0 109.0 7. Genesis 42,484 257.5 85.3 8. Boole 42,472 268.8 113.0 9. KG 41,932 248.1 105.0 10. Franklin 41,280 223.8 94.8

*--*

Sources: Wendell Flint; Mike Law

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