Chronicles Of Measuring Champion Trees

Western Larch

The Girard Memorial Larch Grove is an old growth grove of Western Larch (Larix occidentalis) where the larch is the dominant species. The grove is located just outside the town Seely Lake in western Montana, and is one of the finest remaining stands of a species whose population have dwindled due to logging, fire management practices and a non-native insect that feeds on the tree’s needles. The grove was set aside in memory of Jim Girard, a pioneering Montana state forester known for his fondness of larches. One of his many professional accomplishments as a forester was the creation of the points system that we still use today to assess tree size.

After traveling 9 hours from Portland, Oregon we arrived at the grove lit by a full moon at approximately 4:30 AM. It was pristine; an untamed forest of old-growth, fire scarred Western Larch. Damp green mid-May grass grew thick in the open spaces between the trees, previous fires having burnt out the understory vegetation.

Upon waking the following morning, we were able to appreciate the full majesty of the grove. This grove is completely dominated by larches, with a few Lodgepole pines and Douglas firs trying to compete. Of all the orange-barked, fire-scared trunks one stood out as the obvious king of the grove, and indeed as the champion of the larches. It has been named the Seely Lake Giant. 

With the gear unpacked, we promptly set a line over the tree’s main leader near where a large co-dominant leader comes out of the trunk. We began to climb, keeping in mind the soft, brittle nature of larch wood. We proceeded slowly, not wanting to cause a disturbance by accidentally breaking the delicate branches, also very aware that we could imperil ourselves by tying into smaller or compromised branches. Up close we could see that the branch structure was similar to other old growth trees in the pine family, where trees become very open, with fewer branches supporting the foliage. These branches are generally very gnarled and complex, and are the result of centuries of breakouts and re-growth. The scarcity and structural complexity of branches made this climb challenging, but by late afternoon we reached the base of the dead top. We advanced through the uppermost foliage but met the threshold of safe climbing and stopped for fear of damaging the precariously balanced dead top.

The next day we decided to climb once more before heading back to Portland. After ascending the access line we had set the previous day, the weather abruptly changed from sunny and calm to rainy and very windy. The storm approached and we could feel the deep, slow motion of the giant larch swaying. We descended with a renewed appreciation for the strength and flexibility the trees we climb, even larches.

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