Hiking with Giants

The trail to Fragrance Lake started out steep from a small parking area along the Chuckanut Road in northwestern Washington. Early morning fog, coming in from Puget Sound, blocked the rising sun. Fresh coastal air, with a hint of salt and seaweed, mixed with the scent of the forest as we climbed the trail.
We were about as far from the Mississippi Gulf Coast as one could drive in the Continental United States. For the last two nights, we had camped along the Pacific coast at Larrabee State Park, just south of the Canadian border and the funky progressive towns of Bellingham and Fairhaven. This is an area known for Dungeness crab, microbreweries, drop-dead gorgeous sunsets, bicycle commuters, cannabis, and rich coffee; the hippie culture’s last holdout.
The initial climb gave way, and the trail leveled off near a dry stream bed. We were surrounded by massive Douglas-fir and western red-cedar trees. The forest floor was covered with evenly spaced western sword ferns with long straight fronds, arching in all directions. Rust-colored cedar logs, which take decades to rot, littered the ground and added contrast to the light green ferns.
The first giant we came across was a Douglas-fir with a base diameter of over eight feet. It was impossible to gauge its height while standing under its bows, but the crown seemed to stretch to the sky over a hundred feet above us. The corky bark was deeply furrowed and scarred by fire. Common Douglas-fir, ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest, can grow up to 325 feet tall and is an essential commercial tree for lumber and pulp. The soft needles and rapid growth make it an ideal Christmas tree.
The trail started to climb again with switchbacks up a steep slope strewn with granite boulders. We came across several cedar stumps, 8-10 feet tall, and slowly being reclaimed by the forest. The area had been logged over 100 years ago, and the remnant stumps were still standing. On some of the bases, we could even see the notches the loggers had cut to insert a plank on which to stand as they felled the tree.
Western red-cedar, also known as giant arborvitae – the tree of life – was so important to Native Americans in this region that some tribes referred to themselves as “people of the red-cedar.” The wood was used for dugout canoes, totem poles, and tools. The fibrous bark was woven into baskets, ropes, and mats.
Standing before us was a massive red-cedar tree over 200 years old. The 10-foot diameter base flared out in ribs, reminiscent of gothic flying buttresses. The bark was smooth and fibrous, peeling off in large strips to reveal brighter red new layers. A charred “fairy hole,” large enough for a man to enter on one side of the base, told of an ancient lightning strike that failed to kill this giant tree. The canopy of dark green scale-like leaves spread out over an acre and robbed the forest floor of sunlight. This tree, truly the “king of the forest,” somehow escaped the logger’s ax.
The clear, peaceful water of Fragrance Lake made an ideal lunch spot. But the real highlight of the trail was hiking among the massive Douglas-fir and red-cedar trees.

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