Growing up in timber country

A writer returns to the old-growth forest of her youth.

 

Moss and lichen ornament the living branches and decomposing trunks of trees in the Valley of the Giants in Oregon.
Mike Scofield

This winter, at home for the holidays, I talked an old high school friend into visiting one of our favorite stomping grounds. The Valley of the Giants is a small public-land inholding hidden amid the carved-up timber country of western Oregon, a patch of old-growth forest that offered an escape from my home just outside of Dallas, Oregon. An awkwardly sized town, big enough for a Wal-Mart but surrounded by farmland, Dallas lies 15 miles west of Salem and doesn’t offer many reasons to visit. I had not seen the giants in eight years, but I had thought about the area often over the last few months. So I asked CJ Drake, a friend who was also in town, to come with me, because it was tricky getting around out there, and because he, too, loved the valley. We had gone to high school and college together in Oregon, and he was now in forestry school. And we both had begun to understand our roots in timber country in a different way, pushing past the teenage angst of small-town living and coming to see our hometown as part of a much larger picture.

The day was already getting on by the time we arrived at the trailhead. The winter sun had finally started to shine through the fog, and the thick trees on either side of the road cast deep shadows. It was chillier than I thought it would be, and my fingers began to turn red as we stood there on the gravel, the only noise the distant rumble of the North Fork of the Siletz River.

Fortified with a pre-hike snack of homemade Christmas cookies and fruit leather, we started down the narrow path, heading toward the river. On the drive to the trailhead, we had passed the signs of Oregon’s timber industry — semis filled with long logs and machines moving felled Douglas firs with giant claws, arched necks swiveling, windshields reflecting the cold sky. But here the woods were different. Life thrust through the soft forest floor. Fir saplings sprouted from downed logs, joined by the odd oily mushroom or bracket fungus. Lichen crept along the branches of hemlocks and firs above our heads. The 51-acre protected area, an island of Bureau of Land Management territory surrounded by timber companies, gets more than 180 inches of rain a year. The result is constant growth. CJ, the pragmatic one in our group of friends, had his own take. “A lot of death and a lot of time, that’s basically what created this,” he said, as he walked down the path ahead of me.

After a few twists and turns in the trail, we encountered our first giant, one of the huge trees for which the place is named: a Douglas fir, so tall that we couldn’t even see its first branch and so wide it would take at least five people to wrap their arms around it. Its furrowed bark, thick and old, was filled with moss, its base covered in a mound of its own dead needles.

 

On my first visit to Valley of the Giants, I was a junior at Dallas High School. That year, 2008, Barack Obama was elected president on a wave of hope, even as the countdown began on the lumber mill in town. The mill, which was founded in 1905, had survived the Great Depression and two world wars. By 1955, when Willamette Industries added the plywood mill, 440 people worked there. In 2002, it endured a hostile takeover by Weyerhaeuser, and by the fall of 2008, it had already gone through several rounds of layoffs. The mill would close altogether a few months after Obama’s inauguration, firing its last 78 employees amid a recession that fueled anger and resentment in my town — towards regulation, sagging markets, joblessness, and, in general, a changing world.

I was part of a small group that saw many of our peers as small-minded, or backwards. My friends and I wanted up and out. We’d read Ginsberg and Kerouac, Thoreau and Emerson, and thought we knew all about howling at the moon, about transcendent self-reliance. We took to exploring the network of logging roads that wound through the hills and valleys of the Coast Range, west and north of town — short drives to wild places. Sometimes we took day trips, sometimes we went camping, but it was always just us — me, CJ, a few others — suspicious of any other cars we saw that far out in nowhere. Some roads we followed to dead ends; on others, we’d drive through a sylvan spiral, up and down logged-over mountains, until we got bored, or tired. These gravel roads were nothing special, but sometimes they led us to a stream or a river or a scenic vantage point, and always they took us toward a kind of peace: an absence of other people, a quietude that we filled with a campfire, whiskey, and a bit of music, laughter and teenage ruckus.

The Valley of the Giants gave us the chance to explore a realm that seemed mostly untouched, saved from the voraciousness of industry. But in those days, I didn’t connect the giants to their surroundings. I was simply in awe of the size of the trees left standing, some nearly 200 feet high and up to 450 years old. I imagined what the forest might have looked like centuries ago, but back then I never really thought about its place in the modern world.

 

CJ and I continued down the path, where on both sides of the trail trees had fallen and were fading into the duff-covered ground, as new growth reached for sunlight. Snapped-off snags jutted skyward, and tall firs that had tipped over were caught in the canopy. Some trees had crashed to the ground long ago, leaving craters where massive root balls hung suspended. As we walked through the tangle, I thought how easily you could get lost in here, without the river as a reference point. The area is only lightly maintained, and the path winds around and over downed trees, creating a verdant labyrinth.

Hidden throughout, I knew, were the various flora and fauna that rely on this mysterious ecosystem. In June, for example, threatened marbled murrelets fly in from the Pacific Ocean to roost in the high branches of the giants, one of the dwindled old-growth stands left in the Coast Range. Creamy white trillium flowers open up along the forest floor, and wood sorrel runs rampant.

After the first big trees, we crossed a steel footbridge over the Siletz River, wide and shallow in this section, with white rapids crashing against smooth boulders. I paused in the center of the bridge to watch the cold water run toward the ocean. Downriver, I caught a glimpse of two small creatures pulling themselves out of the water, gray coats against gray rocks, sleek and silent river otters that had made this place their home. I looked back to tell CJ, but he had gone on ahead, across the bridge and into the tree cover. The otters disappeared behind a boulder, leaving nothing behind but the rumble of the river on the rocks. I gleefully skated over ice patches on the bridge to catch up with my friend.

About halfway through the loop, we came upon Big Guy, a fallen 600-year-old-plus Douglas fir that was once famous for being the second-tallest tree in Oregon. Big Guy fell in 1981, at 230 feet tall, and was eventually sawed in half for the trail, so that visitors could walk through the narrow passage made by the cut. I stood in the trail between the two massive halves of the tree, as though in a corridor. The first time I came here, standing in that spot felt impressive. But it didn’t feel the same today. It felt better to stand next to the living giants, not one that had been cut in half, and with clumsy initials carved into its rotting heart.

As we made the loop and circled back to the car, we passed a soaked wooden picnic bench, a manmade anomaly in a damp silence. We took our time, stopping to watch moisture drip from lichen that hung like tinsel from the firs, or the fog as it drifted through the woods, or the sunlight that backlit the trees, giving the whole forest a sense of holiness.

Driving back, we stopped at the site of the abandoned town of Valsetz, looking for remnants of the former logging community owned and operated by Boise Cascade, a company that still exists today. Established in 1920, the town once had a school, a store and its own newspaper (run by a 9-year-old, who proudly proclaimed, “We believe in hemlock, fir, kindness and Republicans”). In 1984, the corporation drained the millpond, and pushed out the residents. Finally, as if for metaphorical effect, the old mill was burned down. All that was left today was a swamp filled with skinny alders. It felt ghostly, haunted by the memory of the loggers who toiled away here, whose work slowly ate away at the old-growth stands, nearly destroying them — before the town itself disappeared. I used to think it was backwards for people to cling to a known way of life, to what feels safe. But in the end, the people here were as exploited by outside forces as the trees themselves.

When I first explored the Valley of the Giants, it felt apart from everything — a hidden place to be discovered, an escape unconnected to the mill closures, the recession and the anger of my town. It seemed like a place untouched by time or politics, an old-growth sanctum of murrelets and otters. But seeing it again, years later, I understood the forest as one small piece of a confusing whole, as vulnerable to human foibles as any other part. From the West’s economically depressed towns, to the shining halls of its state capitols, the Valley of the Giants rests somewhere in there, too, an ancient patch of land that has somehow kept its secrets.

Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at HCN and has spent most of her life in Oregon and Washington, where the evergreens meet the Pacific.