The Mountains which we passed to day much worst than yesterday the
last excessively bad & thickly Strowed with falling timber
& Pine Spruce fur Hackmatak & Tamerack.
-- William Clark
Struggling through the thick forests near Lolo Pass,
Lewis and Clark didn't always appreciate the majestic
trees that dripped snow and blocked their path. But
Lewis still noted the arbor vitae, or western red cedar,
and imagined turning them into long and elegant boats.
Private Joseph Whitehouse also saw them along the Lochsa
River and wrote of "Some tall Strait [cypress]
or white ceedar." As the explorers descended down
the Columbia toward the ocean, the cedars grew larger
and more prominent.
By the time they reached Fort Clatsop at the Pacific,
the captains came to see the fragrant tree as the centerpiece
of a complex culture. The Chinook Indians incorporated
it into almost every aspect of their lives, from wooden
bowls to bedding and clothing made of bark. Other tribes
carved totem poles and canoes from the massive trunks.
As the explorers noticed, the cedars flourish along the Pacific
Northwest coast where there is plenty of moisture and rich
soil. They grow in mixed stands with Douglas fir and western
hemlock, providing habitat for many forest species. Near the
coast, Roosevelt elk eat young shoots and saplings; further
inland Rocky Mountain elk eat the leaves in the winter. Black
bears den in large hollow trunks.
One of the tallest evergreens, western red cedars can typically
reach 175 feet in height and 8 feet in diameter. They are
shadowed only by giant sequoias, redwoods, and the occasional
Douglas fir. Undisturbed, western red cedars can grow to be
nearly 3,000 years old. Ancient stands of red cedar are particularly
important for animals dependent on old growth, like the northern
spotted owl and Vaux's swifts. In the modern Pacific Northwest,
however, most of the ancient red cedar groves are gone.