On a chill night in January 1997, a mentally ill logger-turned-activist named Grant Hadwin swam naked across the Yakoun River in British Columbia's...

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“Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed”

by John Vaillant

Norton, 255 pp., $24.95

On a chill night in January 1997, a mentally ill logger-turned-activist named Grant Hadwin swam naked across the Yakoun River in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands, unpacked a chain saw, and cut down one of the world’s most famous trees, a 300-year-old mutant spruce whose needles were an odd, brilliant gold.

Hadwin announced that he had done so to protest the practice of lumber company Macmillan-Bloedel (now owned by Weyerhaeuser) of leaving small stands of trophy trees while clearcutting the rest of the province.

Less than two months later, he paid for a kayak with a credit card and insisted on paddling from the B.C. mainland to his Queen Charlotte court appearance, leaving in the teeth of a winter storm. He never made it, his kayak smashed on remote Mary Island.

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From the foundation of this bizarre story, Vancouver magazine journalist John Vaillant has erected his first book, a tale not just of an insane act of eco-terrorism, but of the history of the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Haida Indians and logging in the Pacific Northwest.

The result is a gracefully written, ambitiously researched and enthralling story of ecological majesty and human greed. It should enter that pantheon of memorable books that capture our region’s character: a page-turner of a debut.

Coming up

John Vaillant

The author of “Golden Spruce” will read at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the University Book Store (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

Vaillant chose a difficult subject. As a central character, Hadwin is in many ways an unsympathetic loser. He had disappeared — and was presumed dead — when research began. Hadwin’s story worked fine as the New Yorker magazine article Vaillant wrote, but it is thin to hang an entire book on.

So instead the central character of “Golden Spruce” becomes the Queen Charlottes, an offshore archipelago that (despite heavy logging) comes closest to reminding us what the Northwest once was. The fierce Haida were the region’s Vikings, and the glowing spruce was a part of native legend and British Columbian pride.

The result are extensive detours from Hadwin’s story that range from the sea-otter fur trade to the harvest of spruce for World War I airplanes, and from the bitter heroism of logging to Haida legends about the birth of the world. This structure is occasionally awkward but always swift and interesting. As a writer who has covered some of this same ground, I learned many new things.

Vaillant recounts the bloody battles the Indians fought with sea traders with a perspective intriguingly different from standard histories. His gruesome recounting of loggers literally impaled by falling on branch stubs they’d just trimmed is truly squirm-worthy. Again and again, the book brings the region’s backwoods culture to life.

Occasionally it suffers from the manly-man prose favored by magazines like “Outside” and “Men’s Journal” that Vaillant writes for, and the book publisher clearly hopes they’ve found a successor to other big outdoor names. Hadwin’s sad story is reminiscent of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild,” and Vaillant has some of the movie-star good looks of Sebastian Junger: The back cover is consumed by his portrait.

The book has an interesting collection of historical photographs, but the cover photograph of the golden spruce loses some authenticity because its color has been computer enchanced.

The author also gives Hadwin more sympathy than I think he deserves.

But the writing is so vivid that it will make you want to visit the Queen Charlotte Islands. The story is so heartbreaking that it will make you question anew where our civilization is going. There is even a note of hope: thanks to the cultivation of cuttings, tiny golden spruces are being exported around the world.

Bill Dietrich writes for the Seattle Times’ Pacific Northwest magazine.

His latest novel is “The Scourge of God.”