The Disappearing Tree

Astra Lincoln is a freelance essayist who teaches creative writing workshops with the Juneau Icefield Research Program and Write Around Portland.

ATLIN, British Columbia — Catharine White was the first to see the mystery tree. It had windswept limbs, all crammed together on the leeward side of its trunk. Its needles looked soft and were spread out like a bottlebrush. It looked nothing like the subalpine fir that surrounded it. There was no way this was where it belonged.

The year was 2016. It was an overcast summer day in northwest British Columbia. White was trudging up the leftover loose rock and debris that comprised the lateral moraine of the receding Llewellyn Glacier. Only a few decades earlier, the ridge White walked across, now called Red Mountain, would have been under dozens of feet of ice. Now, it was barren and crumbly, dotted in green. 

White, an ecologist, was eager to see what vegetation had sprung up on Red Mountain since the glacier’s retreat. After several summers spent in southeast Alaska and northwest B.C., White knew the landscape as well as one might know the creases on the back of their lover’s hand.

With the trip’s safety staffer Annika Ord, at her side, White ascended the mountain to get a closer look at the mystery tree — crawling through walls of underbrush and tugging at alder with both hands to keep from falling. As they climbed closer, White realized they were looking at a cluster of trees, not just a single pine. 

The copse stood out from the surrounding forest of mostly subalpine fir. Subalpine firs have powdered-looking, stubby needles and cluttered branches that droop. Standing straight as soldiers with bushy, densely needled branches — they’re the canonical Christmas Tree. 

These scraggly weirdos with their long, spindly needles weren’t subalpine fir or lodgepole pines or spruce. They looked like whitebark pines, but the closest known habitat was roughly 400 miles away; to find one here would be a scientific breakthrough that could unsettle our understanding of how well forests might survive climate change. 

The U.S. government has been investing millions of dollars into whitebark conservation, including extensively mapping out its real and potential habitats, in response to a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study that determined that whitebarks could practically go extinct within 100 years. How could a stand of whitebarks live undetected here, so far from where they belonged?

A whitebark pine, still partially alive in the Wenatchee National Forest of Washington. (Walter Siegmund/Wikimedia)

Species On The Brink

The whitebark pine, or Pinus albicaulis, is a conifer endemic to North America’s western mountain ranges. They’re most at home at treeline in areas with deep snowpacks and dry summers like the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades, although they can be found as far south as California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. 

It is not a stately tree. Because they grow in harsh environments, whitebark pines are almost always naturally bonsaied by persistent mountain winds that leave them bowed over, their branches pushed toward prevailing winds. The candelabra-like spread of their canopies can delay snowmelt, helping to regulate runoff and mitigate spring flooding or summer drought. 

The freaky, twisted little trees are a keystone species, meaning the ecosystems they grow within hinge upon their presence. Without whitebarks, the high country across western North America could quickly become unrecognizable. And yet, they’re dying at rates that defy comprehension. In 2016, the U.S. Forest Service found that over half of all whitebark pines in America are dead.

Whether or not whitebarks go extinct depends on several overlapping factors. One of those is the mountain pine beetle. Native to the U.S., the beetle bores past the tree’s outer bark, mating and nesting inside the tree where the larvae eat the tree’s nutrient-dense tissue. These insects used to reliably die off during extended periods of sub-freezing temperatures. Only a few would awaken during summer to build new hives, ravaging the weak trees they targeted. In a healthy forest, this would help thin it, hastening natural regeneration processes. 

But during a warm spell from 2004 to 2007, there was no major die-off of beetles. The population exploded. The bugs went wild. High Country News reported that in 2009, a particularly pernicious outbreak of bark beetles killed more than 3,000 square miles of whitebark forest in a single summer. Since then, The U.S. Forest Service has found that 80% of a forest can be destroyed in as little as three to four years once the beetles have taken hold. Over the last two decades, beetles have killed more than 60 million acres of western North America’s forests. 

“To find [a whitebark] here would be a scientific breakthrough that could unsettle our understanding of how well forests might survive climate change.”

And then there’s an invasive fungus, called blister rust, that has been creeping across the country for the last century. The rust impacts pines of all ages, causing widespread seedling mortality. After more than a century of efforts, scientists still haven’t figured out how to contain it. Now more than 80% of whitebarks in parts of the northern Rockies have died from blister rust. In places like Glacier National Park, in Montana, entire mountainsides have become “ghost forests,” haunted by the skeletal, standing dead.

To naturally regenerate, whitebark pines require low-level fires to reduce their competition with more fire-intolerant species like spruces and firs — but a century of fire suppression efforts has disrupted this process. Plus, the seeds are less likely to germinate and become seedlings when it’s warm out. The above-average winter temperatures across the contiguous U.S. over the last decade mean whitebark communities experiencing mass mortality events from beetles and fungi have limited new growth to replace what’s been lost. The pines die, and then that’s it: the whitebarks are gone forever. 

There are efforts underway to turn the tide. For example, researchers in the Rockies are rushing to identify the up to roughly 5% of whitebarks estimated to be genetically resistant to rust in order to collect their seeds and replant them in areas that have experienced these mass mortality events. Still, doing so is complicated, time-consuming and costs between $1,200 and $1,800 a pop. It takes 30 years for a whitebark to mature enough to produce a single cone — and up to 200 years to produce nut crops large enough to play a functional role in the ecosystem. 

Despite all this, the whitebark wasn’t listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act until 2022. (It was listed as Endangered under Canada’s Species At Risk Act in 2012. The International Union for Conservation of Nature first listed it as “vulnerable” in 1998, then as endangered in 2011). 

The U.S. declaration has led to a huge surge in conservation funding, even as scientists remain uncertain whether their efforts will succeed. 

Even the best-tested measures require incredible endurance to achieve. For many critically endangered species, survival requires constant human interventions — replanting or assisting in an animal’s breeding. For many species, survival means these interventions will need to continue every year, for the rest of time. 

In this way, whitebark conservation is a paragon of all climate change adaptation work: a way of acting out our conscious and unconscious notions of who deserves to survive. In committing to conservation, our present-day ideas about who we want to exist are superimposed upon the landscape, taking root alongside the chaos and infinite variability that otherwise governs life.

Scientists making these calculations also must face the reality that the viable habitat for whitebarks is shifting. As temperatures warm, areas previously too cold for whitebarks are becoming more favorable. The population is shifting farther north and into higher altitudes — moving what ecologists call the species “leading edge.” But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has warned that the pines, which already live at high elevations, are finding less habitat to migrate toward as temperatures warm. For the species to survive, the rate of habitat expansion along this leading edge must compensate for the rate of loss along its “failing edge” in the newly too-hot southern, low-elevation areas. But with a rapidly advancing failing edge, massive die-off along the leading edge, and limited new growth, the balance for the whitebarks looks bad. 

For a whitebark to be found around the Alaska-British Columbia border would mean its leading edge habitat was about 350 miles north of Fort St. James, British Columbia — currently understood as roughly its upper limit. To find one here would be the scientific equivalent of a miracle. It would mean the species had found a way to evade the blister rust and beetles; maybe it had a fighting chance to survive.

With no cell reception or guidebook, it was impossible to know whether the mystery trees were whitebark pines. All White could say for certain was that these trees were unlike the others.

A soil ecologist by training, White’s expertise was in bacteria and fungus. She knew a lot about the alpine flowers quick to take root where a glacier recedes and that was what she’d expected to see — not these gangly trees. Intrigued as White and Ord were, they were also in a hurry. They still had more than eight miles to hike out that afternoon, down the mountain and across a swamp, skis strapped to their gigantic packs, to the lakeshore where a dinghy would pick them up and ferry them to town the next day.

“How could a stand of whitebarks live undetected here, so far from where they belonged?”

White took a photo of the trees from about 10 feet away, too far for those who would inspect the photo in the years to come to be able to determine if the needles were growing in clumps of five or not — a key signifier that they were some kind of white pine. Then she spun around to take in the view. Below them, the forest of scraggly, stunted pines was knitted in with dense alder. Beyond that, the cracked tongue of the glacier slid into a green-blue lake. White snapped another photo, then they got on with their day.

The original photo of the mystery tree, taken in 2016, that inspired the expedition. (Catharine White/Noema Magazine)

The Making Of A Mission

On a July night in 2023, a group of scientists and an expedition medic gathered in the backyard of a log cabin-style AirBnB. The next morning, the group would fly from Juneau to the middle of the Juneau Icefield. Jeremy Littell was late to the party. When he finally joined the others, he had a sparkle in his eyes like somebody with a secret to spill. 

Littell, a climate impact research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center, is not your stereotypical lab coat-toting scientist. While the rest of the expedition team spent their last day in town drinking beer on the beach, Littell whipped up multiple reports and then unwound by running for several hours up a mountain trail. Finally standing by the fire with the others, Littell bobbed from one foot to another like an energetic puppy. Beaming, he lifted one eyebrow and announced: “I’m going to try to find a tree,” before taking a long swig of his beer for dramatic effect.

Littell first heard about the mystery trees on Red Mountain in 2018 when he and White were on a Zoom call with other faculty members planning the curriculum for that summer’s Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP). JIRP is designed to “teach, train, and inspire the scientific leaders of tomorrow,” a sterile motto for what’s essentially a science summer camp on steroids. 

In the program, a group of about 30 mostly college-aged students spend eight weeks ski-traversing an icefield that’s bigger than Rhode Island, crossing massive crevasses and scaling mountains as they go, stopping at a series of base camps along the way where they station to take up mountaineering expeditions and field research opportunities with cutting-edge scientists helicoptered into camps for one- or two-week stints.

White sent Littell the photos of the alleged whitebarks and asked what he thought about going on a mini-expedition to verify what she had seen. Littell was in. “It would be fabulous,” Littell said, to discover something so monumental with a group of students, most of whom were only beginning to open the doors to their fully realized, grown-up lives. 

At first, White suggested they skip the ski traverse and canoe across the 305-square-mile Atlin Lake before hiking the eight miles in from there, just for fun. But they dropped that plan as unnecessarily cumbersome. They decided to simply ski traverse in, though it was still a logistical nightmare. The trip was delayed and then canceled due to the pandemic. It would take seven years from the initial discovery for the stars, and Littell’s schedule, to align.

The ‘Treeple’

JIRP’s Director of Operations, Annie Boucher, met with Littell and the other faculty the day before they flew into the icefield to join the students. She rattled off information about flight logistics and helicopter safety, then turned to Littell with a sly smile. Six JIRP students had been selected to join the whitebark expedition and they had named themselves “the treeple.” Jeremy sighed, “Oh, boy,” before breaking into a grin.

For some of the treeple, the terrain on Red Mountain, and not the whitebark, was what felt the most exciting about the mission. One of the mission’s members, Keeya Beausoleil, then 19, studied geophysics, not forestry. She liked forests, but was careful not to like them too much; where she lived in Alberta, Canada, knowing anything about trees meant you might get funneled into a logging-adjacent career. For Beausoleil, the excitement was about getting out of her ski boots, which had left her toes bloodied and blistered for weeks. She was eager to spend time on more familiar ice-free mountain terrain, where she wouldn’t fall constantly and it wouldn’t hurt as much if she did.

“Without whitebarks, the high country across western North America could quickly become unrecognizable. And yet, they’re dying at rates that defy comprehension.”

And then there was Quynn Greco, perhaps the most outwardly excited member of the group. Greco, then 25, had had previous love affairs with pine trees. They owned a five-foot golden ghost Japanese pine, a tree they had first fallen for while working at a plant nursery before joining JIRP. After several months of ogling, Greco had brought the golden pine home from the nursery and put it in a pot in their backyard in upstate New York. They were carried away by the complications that go into caring for something well: tracking the light conditions, the water uptake, the soil’s acidity and nutrient load. Under Greco’s obsessive tending, the pine grew its first cones. 

Later, on a mid-summer, made-up holiday known as “JIRPmas,” Greco’s Secret Santa gave them a terrarium created out of a cleaned-out peanut butter jar, full of moss, crowberries and flowers. Then Greco got to obsess over that, too. They carried the terrarium with them for weeks, hauling it in their backpack during ski traverse days, managing to keep almost all of the little plants alive.

Greco remembers when Boucher told the students about Littell’s plans to look for the whitebark pine, during one of their first few overwhelming days on the icefield. Boucher had framed it as a type of treasure hunt. The only clues were a single photo and a story; if they were lucky, the treasure at the end could help save a species from going extinct. It was the mission Greco had been waiting for, “like a real-life chance to live out a Dungeons and Dragons quest,” they said. “It felt like the foot in the door that I’d been waiting for.”

Like many of the students that make it onto the expedition, JIRP caught Greco at a moment when they were ready to have their life changed. After a “nightmarish” time in college, Greco had picked up a job as an optical technician, where they’d put on a bunny suit and a face mask and then be locked inside of an atmosphere-controlled lab all day. Everything about the job felt breathtakingly mediated, and Greco was at a stage in their life when all they wanted was some latitude to experiment. It didn’t take long for them to realize the lab was not the place to figure out who they were supposed to be. They eventually quit. 

Greco was hungry for something, but anytime they tried to paint a mental picture, all they could think about was JIRP. It was a risky thing to want that badly: JIRP’s acceptance rate is less than one in three, akin to the U.S.’s top two most competitive colleges. 

Three years after initially applying, Greco finally made it in. For months after their acceptance, preparing for the expedition felt like a full-time job, learning what items on the long list of required gear were, and then figuring out where to cheaply buy them. 

Arriving in Atlin, Greco took the required orientation and then a week-long safety course on the icefield. Many students had never climbed a mountain, been on a rope team, rescued someone from a crevasse, or cooked dinner for 60 people. Many of them would need to learn how to ski for the first time on funky telemark skis with grippy scales on their bottoms — the preferred ski for glaciologists, but one that is particularly difficult to master — in the freezing wind and rain.

Several thousand-foot tall rock escarpments, still streaked with last season’s snow, rose from either side of the valley. In the distance was a faint sound like a roiling ocean from the glacier moving and breaking apart. They had made it. 

For the next six weeks, the students took courses, perfected their ski turns, and told and retold each other the story of the mystery whitebark pine that awaited them at the end of the icefield.

When Littell arrived on the icefield, he outlined the mission’s logistics with his crew of students. It was only then that the gravity of their project, its scientific and career implications, started to become real. Whether or not the tree was there was only the beginning. 

Assuming they found it, everyone wanted to know how it got here. Perhaps it was a remnant of some pre-Ice Age population and the rest had succumbed to encroaching glaciers several centuries ago. The terrain between Alaska and southern British Columbia was mostly roadless, extremely rugged, and therefore mostly unknown — it was possible that whitebarks could have persisted throughout the Coast Range unseen.  

“In this way, whitebark conservation is a paragon of all climate change adaptation work: a way of acting out our conscious and unconscious notions of who deserves to survive.”

Or maybe the trees were new, the aftermath of some bird’s mistake. Whitebark pines are symbiotic with the Clark’s nutcracker bird; neither species can thrive without the other. Wherever there are whitebarks, the forest is full of the Clark’s awkward squawks, sounding like a teenaged crow caught between octaves, if that was how a crow’s vocal anatomy worked. 

For the seeds in a whitebark cone to disperse, a nutcracker must first clobber open the cone. The only bird in North America with a sublingual pouch, the birds fly around with this stretchy pocket full of seeds beneath their tongue, eating some and burying the remainder in various caches to return to throughout the year. These seeds are their primary food source; an individual bird will bury as many as 100,000 seeds in a summer and subsequently relocate nine out of 10. The idea that these trees had arrived in Alaska via a particularly ambitious Clark’s nutcracker was charming, although Clarks are not known to fly more than 20 miles to forage seeds. But what if that was wrong?

Students on the Juneau Icefield. (United States Geological Survey/Jeremy Littell)
Students traverse the Juneau Icefield before arriving at Red Mountain. (Jackson Page-Roth/Noema Magazine)

Return To Red Mountain

The day after Littell landed, the treeple left on their quest. They skied dozens of miles across the glacier, past waterfalls and through shallow surface pools, hiking for miles along foot-wide ridges of ice, flanked by several hundred-foot-deep crevasses on either side. When one ice ridge ended, the treeple would jump onto the next one, sometimes hopping two- or three-foot expanses, unroped and carrying 50-pound backpacks full of supplies. Eventually, they down-climbed off the glacier onto its lateral moraine, Red Mountain. Then the real search began. 

“It felt mythical until the moment that we got there,” Beausoleil told me. “And then we were like, wait, there are so many trees.” The southeastern face of Red Mountain where the alleged whitebark pines had been spotted was 3,000 feet tall and over a mile wide. The base was composed of loose glacial debris that gave way to a mess of alders and shrubby spruce. But much of the mountain’s upper sections were completely covered in trees. Beausoleil remembers arriving and thinking, “This is just a forest on a mountainside. How do we even begin to look at it?” 

White had not taken a GPS point in 2016, and her photo had not been automatically geotagged. Littell had a pretty good sense of which part of the mountain they were aiming for based on how the ridgeline looked in one of the photos White had snapped. Beyond that, the mission’s success hinged on a single low-resolution photo of one of the trees. 

To adequately prepare for the mission, Littell had needed to act as though the tree was there — easy enough because he was pretty optimistic it would be. Based on the available evidence, it made the most sense.

In the months prior, Littell had asked himself: What did the team need to be prepared to do if they found the whitebarks, assuming this was their only chance to learn everything they wanted? He had stuffed his paper-thin mountaineering backpack with a high-caliber GPS device, temperature sensors, a saw to harvest specimen branches and little containers full of desiccant to store and dry needles that would be sent to a genetic testing lab.

Another view from Red Mountain, looking down onto the terminus of the Llewellyn Glacier. (Sicely Sohn/Noema Magazine)

After the treeple set up camp, Littell explained what a whitebark looked like. Not all the students knew the difference between conifer types, and there had not been an opportunity to teach them; after two months on the icefield, Red Mountain was home to the first trees that they had seen. Littell handed out pictures of whitebarks at different ages, explaining how to differentiate between fir, spruce and pine.

As the afternoon faded into evening, the treeple scampered around the lowest aspects of the mountain, getting their bearings and poking around. Seven years in the making, the search for the whitebarks had finally begun. The treeple had two full days. There would be no second chances.

“It hadn’t felt like a given that we’d find it until I met Jeremy,” Greco said. Littell had a boundless and contagious enthusiasm for his work. Littell’s giddy confidence in their plans had unintentionally convinced nearly everyone on the icefield that the whitebark was as good as found. 

But as the days passed, no one outside of the treeple mission knew whether or not they had. While the treeple scoured the mountainside, the other JIRPers had trekked off the icefield, ferrying across Atlin Lake into town where they nervously awaited news.

“It [w]as a type of treasure hunt. The only clues were a single photo and a story; if they were lucky, the treasure at the end could help save a species from going extinct.”

On the afternoon of their scheduled arrival, I stood with about a dozen students at the lake shore. In the distance, a speck of gray grew steadily bigger. Somebody was wringing their hands. Another repeated, “Oh my god, oh my god,” in a stage whisper. As the treeple’s boat pulled into the dock, the students descended onto the sidewalk and a chorus of voices asked what had come of their quest to find the trees. 

The students looked just as you’d expect after seven weeks without a shower — tired and slightly feral — but their expressions gave nothing away. Greco stepped off the boat, looking as cheerful as ever. But then they started to shake their head. 

“We didn’t find them.”

Beyond The Edges Of The Map

For two days, the treeple had scrambled through seven-foot-tall alders, bushwacking through branches so dense that no one could see anyone else. “I didn’t know if there were bears nearby. My feet weren’t even touching the ground, suspended on baby spruces,” Greco said. 

The treeple wormed through the brush, burst onto a rock face, then scaled and descended boulders perched above several-hundred-foot drops as they zigzagged up and down the mountain. Occasionally, someone would shout, “This pine is not like those pines!” But none of the trees looked like the ones in the photo.

Eventually, the team stumbled across a stand of about a dozen funny-looking trees. They had two- and three-needle clumps, which looked a little like the interior lodgepoles or jackpines common in other parts of southeast Alaska or northern B.C. But neither species had been found here before, Littell told me, and neither species was a perfect match for what was in front of them. 

In the 1980s, Littell said, forest ecologists speculated that a population of lodgepole pines existed in the area, that they had been trapped during the last glacial maximum. It was possible that this was that population, or that it was a hybrid of lodgepole and something else. Littell couldn’t be sure without taking a core sample for genetic testing. But he didn’t have that equipment, and this was not the tree they had come for.

The treeple scoured the mountainside. By the end of the second day, it felt like they had looked at every possible tree. None of them were whitebarks. The mystery trees had not been found.

After the JIRP season ended, Littell spent weeks exploring the ranges between Atlin and where he lived in Anchorage. Before the season, he had scoured maps, trying to identify areas along his route with the right aspect and elevation to be candidates for whitebark habitat. He planned to visit every spot far enough off the beaten track that something unusual could remain undiscovered. 

Abandoning the equipment he had lugged onto the icefield, Littell set out to cover as much ground as he could on foot, hugging a topography line as he contoured, mostly off-trail. He ran about 20 miles a day for weeks. Once again, he came up empty-handed. There were no whitebarks to be found.

The Unknown Unknowns

It’s almost impossible to scientifically prove that something does not exist. It’s not like anyone could prove that the photo wasn’t of a whitebark pine. When Littell returned to the photo after the summer had ended and finally zoomed all the way in on the pinecones, he realized that they were a little pointy, whereas a whitebark’s cones would be rounded at the tip. This isn’t the first thing anyone would go by if they were identifying a whitebark; the trees in the photo had all the other, more obvious signs. It was at the right elevation and on the right aspect; the needles appeared to grow in clumps of five. This felt good enough to build the myth, and mission, around. Everyone wanted it to be a whitebark. So when they looked at the photo, that’s what everyone saw. “It’s retroactively humorous that this [photo] was all we had,” Littell later said.

In this era of high-powered satellites and drones, which can sometimes make it seem like every inch of the planet has already been mapped, there is still a tremendous amount of uncertainty around what species exist and where. What the treeple proved was that the world was just as it had been before the mission embarked: a place full of unknowns and things yet to be discovered.

“Seven years in the making, the search for the whitebarks had finally begun … There would be no second chances.”

No one who was part of the treeple mission is mad that they came up mostly empty-handed. The team did find some anomalous deadwood above treeline; Littell has continued to meet with the students regularly to co-develop an ongoing research plan to figure out what it means.  

“It’s hard to be disappointed when there’s so much that Jeremy has offered us,” Greco told me. More than the career bump of a possible future peer-reviewed paper, Greco and the others were satisfied by the absurd joy and beauty of looking for life amid a disappearing icefield. Perhaps there really were whitebarks there, hidden just beyond our view, Greco noted. Perhaps there will be whitebarks there in the future. After all, Littell told me that some whitebark conservation scientists have scouted the area as a potential assisted migration site amid climate change.

The search for the whitebarks stands out as a particularly imaginative endeavor when scientists are rushing to identify ways to adapt to a more nuanced, more complicated, more technological world. “The catch is, it can’t just be a science defined by a certain set of people with a set of predetermined boundaries on their imaginations based on who they are and where they’re from,” Littell said. The scientific method can be made adaptable to the changing circumstances of the earth by expanding the people who have access to it. 

If the whitebarks had been real, it wouldn’t have been because someone was in the right spot at the right time, it was because that someone was in the wrong spot, at a totally random time. 

“It harkens back to an earlier era of science when people were still figuring out where things were, and why, and what factors allowed that to be true,” Littell mused when we talked by phone a few months after the summer had ended. The mission had been a reminder that science was once motivated by things other than disaster mitigation, arms races or financial gain. It used to be driven by wonder and awe; in the West, at least, what we now call science was initially a way of making sense of the majesty that had previously been called God. 

Whether someone still thinks there are whitebark pines on Red Mountain is less a matter of science than one of personal faith. We are living at the fulcrum of tremendous and unpredictable planetary change. For some, there may be comfort in imagining that we are on the cusp of mapping out every possible variable. But for others, it is preferable to think that an abundance of confounding, mysterious factors remains beyond our comprehension. Either framework could lead you to a future different from what you expected.