Ancient Survivor

We were driving home through the mountains recently when Rick suddenly swung the car around. “Look at that!!” he exclaimed, pointing.

“That” turned out to be the largest sugar pine either of us had ever seen, towering 150 to 200 feet in the air.

What a survivor! Rick estimates this ancient  tree at over 300 years old. That means it was already growing right here when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were being fired back east in 1776. It would have witnessed the early wagons heading for Jackson over the newly-graded Amador Wagon Road in the 1860s. And it greeted innumerable travelers over the various reincarnations of the road in the next 150 years.

Somehow this stately tree managed to avoid being converted into a campfire or a cabin during its early years. (Sugar pine wood makes marvelous shakes; Jacob Marklee, the founder of Markleeville, is said to have covered his entire cabin in 1861 with shingles made from sugar pine!)

Despite growing bigger and bigger with each passing decade, this giant tree also escaped the avaricious attention of loggers over the past century. (Modern lumberjacks are still eager to chop down huge trees like this. For woodsmen, a tree this size is an exciting challenge. But for those of us who love gigantic old trees, seeing them fall is infinitely sad. If you have a strong stomach, check out this YouTube video called “Jacking a Big Sugar Pine.”)

Whether from sheer good luck or perhaps respect for its obvious age, this gigantic sugar pine has now become a stately “Father of the Forest,” surrounded by a ring of its own strapping offspring.

A blaze mark, nearly grown over, shows evidence of ax marks and fire.

But the huge tree hasn’t been completely overlooked by man. Someone chopped a blaze mark in its trunk perhaps a century ago, a scar that’s now nearly grown over. Sometime after that, the tree must also have survived a brush with fire, as the inside of the scar is charred black.

The sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana) is not only the tallest of the pine trees, it also has the longest cone. Perhaps because of the tree’s giant size and long life, the species plays a part in at least one Native American creation myth. As the tree’s name implies, the sugar pine’s resin is sweet. The Washo Indians called this pine sugar “nanomba” and used it to sweeten their food.

Huge as this particular tree is, it’s by no means a world’s record. The tallest sugar pine ever recorded was discovered in Yosemite National Park only a few years ago — in 2015. That tree reportedly towers nearly 274 feet in height, taller than a 20-story building! Little wonder that naturalist John Muir dubbed the sugar pine “king of the conifers.”

Surrounded by its own strapping offspring, this “King of the Forest” still towers above!

We discovered this amazing tree off Highway 88, in Amador County. But we hope you’ll pardon us if we don’t tell you exactly how to find it. This towering tree is a survivor; we hope it stays that way.

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