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Greatest Show on Girth

The General Sherman is the biggest known tree, but Mike Law has long pursued one of higher rank. He wants to name it for his mentor.

September 20, 2004|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

SEQUOIA NATIONAL FOREST — 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.

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