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Madera's 'Bull Buck': The Buddha of Big Trees : The world's second-largest tree is far from the madding crowd in Nelder Grove.

February 23, 1992|STEPHEN ALTSCHULER | Altschuler is an Oakland-based free-lance writer and photographer. and

SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST, Calif. — The approach to the world's second-largest tree is a quiet one. There are no crowds pressing to be first in line. There are no cars within a mile of it, and even then just a scant few. There are no rangers herding people along, nor are there restraints around the giant tree preventing a closer approach. No, you can walk right up and hug "Bull Buck"--that's what it's called--like you would your Uncle Bill. There's one other tree taller, but it's not as wide at the base. Bull Buck has a circumference at ground level of 99 feet.

Go see the largest tree, the General Sherman Tree, in Sequoia National Park, if you like--that is, if you can squeeze past the other tourists. But if you want a more meditative experience, if you want to remember an event for the rest of your life and perhaps conjure up the image from time to time to gain some peace of mind, then go to Nelder Grove in Sierra National Forest, just five miles south of the entrance to Yosemite National Park.

A few miles off California 41--about 50 miles north of Fresno and just north of the town of Oakhurst--weave your way on Sky Ranch Road (Road 632) to the grove. You'll enter Sierra National Forest along the way. Follow the signs to the picnic area at the Bull Buck trail head, park, and begin a mile walk into eternity.

The hike is easy enough that even young children can come along. The trail starts to the left of the parking area, weaving through a forest of second-growth pine, fir and incense cedar, with 106 mature sequoia gigantea scattered throughout. Most of the grove's redwoods were harvested in the 19th Century after its original owner, John Nelder, died. Nelder was a Forty-Niner who failed at mining and retreated to this land to become a hermit. He did, however, guide John Muir through the grove when the great naturalist traveled south of Yosemite, a fact mentioned in Muir's writings.

The sight of Bull Buck after about a mile of gentle ups and downs through a dense, mostly evergreen forest has to be one of the most downplayed natural wonders in existence. This behemoth is not treated as if it were a museum piece or tourist attraction, but remains an integral part of the forest. In fact, I wasn't sure at first if it were the right tree because I didn't have a sign directing me. But its unusual size marked it as the probable tree, and a wooden sign and plaque nearby confirmed it.

I had to view the tree from a distance to grasp its stature and size. Then I approached slowly, letting in the fact that it is 2,700 years old. Twenty-seven hundred years, I said to my friend, and then proceeded to name some of the major names and events that happened since that time, like Christ and Buddha and the Battle of Hastings and Mozart and Jefferson and Gettysburg and Little Bighorn and Gorbachev.

The thoughts were a bit overwhelming, so as a kind of reality check, I went up and touched the surprisingly soft and springy bark--bark that helps the sequoia survive fire because of its thickness. I strained my neck to take in all of its 247.31 feet and its 70.69 feet of spread at its crown.

As for photography, no combination of lenses seemed sufficient to capture the grandeur of this tree. From 35- to 200-millimeter, I knew the pictures were doomed to mediocrity, and would not come close to conveying the spirit of Bull Buck.

Nelder Grove also has a self-guided, milelong interpretive walk called "The Shadow of the Giants Trail," starting from nearby Sugar Pine Road. The trail follows Nelder Creek as signs explain the natural history of the giant sequoias and the surrounding environment. You can get more history of the area from Marge and John Hawksworth, volunteer rangers who have lived in the grove for many summers and are usually available to answer questions.

Bull Buck Tree typifies Madera County, which is filled with hidden treasures, somewhat lost in the grandeur of Yosemite. If you're willing to backpack about 10 miles in, for example, you can see an awesome mini-Grand Canyon as the San Joaquin River cuts a deep gorge, guarded by a group of sharp peaks called the Minarets.

If driving is more to your liking, try one of only three roads in California that meander through national forests and have a scenic byway designation. The Sierra Vista Scenic Byway loops from State 41 north of Oakhurst (the same road that leads to Nelder Grove) to North Fork, covering 92 miles of sometimes spectacular forest and mountain scenery. From different vantage points you can view the Minarets and much of the Ansel Adams Wilderness; 13,157-foot Mt. Ritter; a natural wonder called Globe Rock, propped up like a huge bowling ball near the road; Mammoth Pool Reservoir, and the San Joaquin River. Much of this can be seen from Mile High Vista, about 14 miles from North Fork.

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