They stand like giant sentinels along Thunderbird Creek, just downhill from the popular Chugach State Park trail leading to the waterfall.
Girdled by thick and deeply grooved bark, these cottonwood trees have withstood the ravages of nature for nearly two centuries—some of the oldest deciduous trees that I believe exist in Southcentral Alaska.
When my sister and I first hiked into the area in the late 1950s, these trees were already more than three feet in diameter and rose at least 70 feet. Using a website tree-age calculator //www.cliftonparkopenspaces.org/treecalculator/ I determined that today these trees—several of them with diameters up to five feet—are at least 180 years old. I estimate the height of some of them to be about 120 feet.
I can imagine that these trees, adjacent to Thunderbird Creek and nourished by its steady subterranean flow, were just sprouting up during the Klondike and Alaska gold rushes at the turn of the 19th century.
For some, the Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) is a big seasonal annoyance, releasing its white cotton seeds so far and thick that it clings to everything and sometimes looks like snow.
Summer fun: As kids in Seward these trees—already much older than our parents—beckoned us every summer to climb up and reach for the sky. We had an ongoing contest to see who could carve their initials the highest and earn the title: “King of the Cottonwood.” Some of the neighborhood kids were braver than others. A few of them climbed up to where tree limbs were so thin that they swung in the breeze. Not nearly as bold, I cunningly devised a way to be cottonwood “King” without getting so precariously high. I crawled up with a saw, chopped off the top and signed my name in ink on the top of the remaining stub.
I recall that the reigning “King,” an older and significantly bigger boy, was quite incensed. For several weeks I made myself scarce when he was around. I don’t recall anyone ever getting their initials higher, because I craftily made it physically impossible.
Thunderbird Falls Trail: Mentioned in an earlier column, this very easy (two-mile round trip) hike is great for family outings. This “Class A” trail begins off the Glenn Highway near Eklutna at about Mile 25.2. Take the Thunderbird Falls Exit and in less than half a mile, you’ll see the parking area on the right. Along the way you’ll notice caution signs warning not to go off-trail to the cliff edge. Several people have fallen to their deaths after getting too close to the edge and slipping. Near the end of the trail where a boardwalk begins, a good trail to the left takes hikers down about half a mile to the creek bottom where the giant cottonwoods are located.
For me, the trees are like “old friends,” and even though their lower trunks might show signs of age, such as holes and missing bark, they are leafed out above and appear healthy. I think finding something in nature much older than ourselves offers great perspective. It certainly makes me feel a bit younger.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. To reach Frank, email: firstname.lastname@example.org