Oregon's biggest tree: a Sitka spruce with its own promoter

SEASIDE, Ore. - Tour buses stop by it, a greeting card once featured it, and a retired Salem barber reveres it.

But look on most maps or ask most people what the Klootchy Creek Giant is, and you are likely to come up empty.

"Is this like the Loch Ness Monster?" asked Doug Heiken of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, an environmental group dedicated to protecting old-growth forests from logging.

For the record, the Klootchy Creek Giant - aka the Seaside Spruce - is a Sitka spruce that stands 216 feet tall, measures 56 feet in circumference at breast height, and has a crown that spreads 93 feet. That makes it the biggest tree in Oregon and the biggest Sitka spruce in the country, under a formula used by the American Forestry Association.

Unlike the biggest tree in the nation - a giant Sequoia in California's Sierras known as the General Sherman Tree, which inspired the creation of 386,800-acre Sequoia National Park around it in 1890 - the Klootchy Creek Giant is just off Oregon Highway 26 in the Coast Range a few miles east of the junction with U.S. Highway 101 in Klootchy Creek County Park, which covers about 10 acres and was created in 1988.

Tree's promoter

Big-tree hunter Maynard Drawson, a retired barber from Salem who has a meatloaf named after him in a restaurant there, has known and loved the Klootchy Creek Giant for 50 years and is its biggest promoter.

"You know who said the Seaside Spruce was the biggest tree in Oregon? I did," Drawson said. "You think any forester in the state of Oregon would have the guts to say anything was the biggest tree in Oregon? No. Because they're afraid somebody would refute them. I have yet to be refuted."

"Usually you would find a red cedar that would be bigger, but they don't have red cedars that big anymore."

The giant towers above the sword fern and young Sitka spruce around it, surrounded by second-growth timberland once owned by Crown Zellerbach, which donated the park to Clatsop County in 1988.

Just why the giant was spared the fate of the trees it grew up with is lost in the mists of time.

"Nobody knows, but rumors abound," said Jeffrey Birmingham, Clatsop County parks supervisor.

"I like to think it is the one that says some of the early-day loggers might have felt a tree of that stature was worth preserving. They recognized, maybe, that it was worthwhile or meaningful to save some singular reflective remnant of how the forests once were."

Then again, it might have just been too big to handle, he said.

Or might it be protected by a sort of mummy's curse?

A granite monument at the park tells how Klootchy Creek was named for Antoine Cloutrie, Seaside's first resort hotelier, who was found dead in 1899, along with four timber cruisers he was leading through the area. Nothing says they planned to cut the giant, but they died from ptomaine poisoning after eating a can of beans.

`Oregon's ambassador'

Back in the 1960s, Drawson fought off a bid by fans of a Sitka spruce in Quinault, Wash., to get the American Forestry Association to recognize theirs as the biggest of the species Picea Sitchensis.

He also got the giant named Oregon's first Heritage Tree, a program started in 1995 that recognizes 15 trees for their connection to Oregon history.

"I call it Oregon's ambassador to the world," said Drawson. "People come and they stand in awe. We look at it and say, `That's a big tree.' "

Though Oregon's state tree is the Douglas fir, Sitka spruce were once a major source of lumber, and its straight grain, light weight, and high strength made it ideal for building early airplanes.

When Seattle timber baron William Boeing started building airplanes for World War I, he used Sitka spruce.

However, the wood did not go into the famous Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes' leviathan seaplane being restored at an air museum scheduled to open later this year in McMinnville, just 70 miles southwest of the giant. The Spruce Goose was built with birch.

A pair of 200-foot, 7-foot-diameter Sitka spruce logs did go into the seagoing canoe Hawai'iloa, built to prove the reliability of ancient Polynesian navigation techniques.

96,000 visitors

About 96,000 people a year pull off Highway 26 to gaze at the giant, said Birmingham. They spend about 10 minutes with the tree and go on their way. Just 2 percent of the visitors are locals.

To protect the roots and make the tree wheelchair-accessible, Clatsop County built a wooden ramp and deck, which also protects the giant from man's need to leave his mark in the bark.

The one big scar in the tree, a gash down the trunk, was made by lighting and has been there as long as Drawson can remember.

Birmingham figures the giant is about 750 years old, though no one has ever bored it to count the rings.

"That's probably the most-often asked question, how old it is," said Birmingham. "If you tell them it is 750 years old, they're happy. If you tell them you think it started as a seedling shortly after the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, that takes them further.

"We people have a hard time appreciating natural resources for their own innate value of themselves."