Editor’s note: Pacific NW magazine’s weekly Backstory provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the writer’s process or an extra tidbit that accompanies our cover story. This week’s cover story introduces readers to the Seattle forest ecologist who finds, climbs and illustrates our biggest trees.
WHILE SCRAMBLING UP a remote Northern California mountainside hunting for foxtail pine in late July, I began to understand what Robert Van Pelt of Seattle has endured searching for record-breaking arboreous delights.
Van Pelt, 64, has built a reputation as a preeminent big tree authority by bushwhacking deep into forests and scaling giants taller than the Statue of Liberty to study and sketch them.
The quantitative forest ecologist/artist has chased down impressive species in harsh conditions that left him depleted and soaked.
Jerry Franklin, a world-renowned University of Washington forest ecologist, says his former student’s passion for big trees knows no bounds. “He suffers all kinds of physical efforts to get to some of these things,” Franklin says.
Years ago, Van Pelt joined Cal Poly Humboldt botanist Stephen Sillett in Australia to study Eucalyptus regnans, then second only to coast redwoods as the tallest tree species. No one mentioned leeches on the first of many trips Down Under when Van Pelt wore his trademark short pants heading into the forest. He was bitten 15 times in a parcel north of Melbourne.
“I hate leeches,” Van Pelt says. “They sense movement. They are just sitting on a plant or a twig, waiting for something to walk by. They sometimes drop out of the trees onto your head.”
How do you say “yuck” in Australian?
Another time, the American scientists visited southern Tasmania to climb and measure what was then the world’s largest eucalyptus by volume. They arrived with cold rain, a condition Van Pelt often had experienced while tree hunting in the Pacific Northwest.
Despite the deluge, Sillett, Van Pelt and three others ascended the tree to begin their measurements. “We got our asses kicked, but we had to keep going,” says Sillett, a celebrated authority on redwood forest canopies.
Van Pelt, who prides himself on never getting cold, struggled the next day. “He was shivering and miserable,” says Sillett, who suffered for weeks from a spider bite during another Tasmanian trip with Van Pelt.
The expedition leader sent Van Pelt and two others down the tree while he finished the work with an assistant. “But my God, was it bad,” Sillett says.
Van Pelt loves trees too much to complain.
“Bob’s attitude was, ‘I am being paid to climb trees and learn everything I can about them,’ ” says friend Christopher Earle, a retired forest ecologist from Olympia: ” ‘How could I have a better job than this?’ ”