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Big tree hunter.

Imagine yourself on this business trip. You walk six to eight miles to see your "client." Your "briefcase" weighs about 60 pounds...strapped to your back. Your hotel for the night is a sleeping bag... tied to a tree. And the client? Well, you hope you'll see him, but there's always a chance you won't.

Welcome to the world of Big Tree hunter and documentarian Albin Dearing.

As the photographer for The Davey Tree Expert Company's National Register of BigTrees calendar, Dearing's six years of big tree hunting have led him from the swamps of Florida to the deserts of the Southwest.

Dearing is one of a small but dedicated band of big tree hunters, people who continually seek out the biggest trees of various species.You'll see many of their names sprinkled throughout the Register, but Dearing's name is not among them. Unlike the others, his goal is not to nominate new champs but to preserve for the rest of us the image of those record holders.

Finding these immobile objects should be relatively easy, right? Wrong. In fact, Dearing says, the champs can be so difficult to find that he usually only photographs one out of every three trees he's trying to find.

A trip to find the national champion noble fir took Dearing to Washington state's Mt. St. Helens. The 1980 eruption blew half the mountain away but left the other half virtually untouched. The Forest Service was studying tree population dynamics in the grove where the tree was located, and Dearing wandered amidst old-growth and tree tags looking for the tree.

"I spent hours in the forest looking at tags and trying to find the champion. I camped on the side of the mountain for a night while I hunted the tree. Finally, on the morning of the second day, I found the tree," Dearing remembers. "After raining all night, the rain stopped and beautiful light flowed into the forest, making a great shot. The moment of realization when you find the champion tree is always magical."

Walking among ancient trees left its imprint. "Many people believe trees are old souls and have an energy center," he says. "That's easy to believe in old-growth forests - everything is very peaceful and beautiful. Others say that when the trees are cut down they can be replaced, but I can't believe that's true. Those trees take hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to grow. Once they're gone, they're gone for a long time."

Sometimes the trees are easy to find; they're located near a major road or in someone's backyard. But often the trees are hidden within parks, back-country roads, or mountains. In those cases, Dearing relies on his feet to get him where he's going. And while he hikes, he carries photo and camping equipment weighing almost 60 pounds.

"There was this one trip in Idaho, where I had a six- to eight-mile hike to take the photo of the whitebark pine," Dearing says. "I took my truck as far as I could go, and then hiked with nay tent, stove, food, water, sleeping bag, clothes, tripod, my camera and film. It was a long hike, believe me. Then, once I got to the spot, a fire had burned the tree beyond recognition. So I hiked right past it the first time."

"When I photographed the Alaska-cedar, I had to hike five miles," he adds."But I got a late start and the terrain was so steep that I only made it halfway on the first day. I had to tie my sleeping bag to a tree so I wouldn't roll down the mountain during the night. I worried all night that, after all that, I wouldn't be able to get a good shot. But the tree was awesome and the shot was great. It was worth it in the end."

When he goes in search of these titleholders, Dearing gets detailed directions from either the state coordinator or the tree's nominator. Experience has taught him that these details can make the difference between finding a tree and coming up empty-handed.

But no amount of planning could have made it easier to find the limber pine, located in Uinta National Forest. "I had a detailed map and instructions from the park rangers. They told me that tree would be hard to miss. However, because vandals had torn down the trail signs, I hiked down the wrong trail."

When the trail led Dearing to the edge of this canyon, he realized his mistake. "I had wasted three hours hiking the wrong way. I had to turn around and hike back to the trailhead. Unfortunately, the trail to the limber pine was almost vertical. It was only one mile in length, but it rose almost 2,200 feet. I had to stop every couple feet and rest because the trail was so exhausting."

To add insult to injury, a pack of Boy Scouts ran past Dearing as he was hiking up the trail. "When I finally made it up to the top of the mountain, I had trouble finding the tree. I finally spotted the tree - it was literally growing out of solid rock. By this time, it was late in the day and the sun was setting. I quickly set up my camera and took the shot. If I had found the tree five minutes later, I would have missed the shot."

Good shots require patience. And getting the best shots often means getting up very early in the morning, which can lead to some bizarre situations."When I photographed the Rio Grande cottonwood, I got up early in the morning because I wanted a sunrise shot of the tree. So I got to the site before dawn, set up my camera, and then lay down in the tall grass to take a nap." He awoke to find a ring of cows staring down at him. Luckily the cows were camera-shy and ran off when Dearing jumped up.

Dearing wants his shots to look very natural, as if you've just walked up to the tree. But he insists most trees have a"good side" that he scopes out before he takes any photos. He uses a 4x5 Zone VI field camera made of wood and brass with no automatic parts.

"I often shoot the tree from the same angle over and over and just change the lighting a little bit. And after I take sheet after sheet of photos, I may have just one shot that's magical. And when you hit the button on the exact right moment - when the wind has stopped moving the leaves and a big fluffy cloud is right by it - you feel great. It's a sense of accomplishment that can't be equaled."

Jennifer Mathewes supervises employee publications at The Davey Tree Expert Company.
COPYRIGHT 1998 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:photographer for The Davey Tree Expert Co.'s National Register of Big Trees calendar Albin Dearing
Author:Mathewes, Jennifer
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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