Wednesday, October 29, 2014

the Redwoods in October

My cousin and I walked with giants. For four days, we would walk with them, some of the tallest living things on earth- the Coastal Redwoods of Northern California. 

We registered with the rangers and received our backcountry permits as a heavy rain blew in from the Pacific. Fortunately, we found a sheltered picnic area to organize our gear. Blowing rain and minimal visibility must not make for desired picnicking in Northern California for the place was empty. Lucky for us, too, because evidently, we had no shortage of gear to organize. Again, and I guess this question is always there when backpacking, how would all this gear, a picnic table's worth of stuff, fit into a 50 liter pack? But it did, and just before 4 pm, we walked into Redwood National Forest.

Before long, we came to our first stream crossing- Redwood Creek. 

Jenny walked upstream in search of a more shallow crossing, but alas, our calves were not to remain dry. 

As we hiked, the rain came down, and so did the sun. We meant to camp on the gravel bar of Redwood Creek, but after almost five miles of drizzle and an encroaching darkness, we decided to take cover under two good-sized Redwoods on the trail. They provided enough of an umbrella for a fairly dry dinner of wine, crab chowder, and a chocolate bar before we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night and hoped the tents withstood the rain.

They did. And so did we! Note my super cool, homemade, Oregon pot cozy (as if you could miss it). We ate warm and well all trip because of this.

At one point during the night, I quit believing it would ever stop raining, but by the time we finished breakfast the next morning, moved our tents to the gravel bar, and rehung the bear bags, the sopping trees were glistening with sunshine. I do believe my cousin and I glistened too. Although our spirits weren't dampened by the rain- there's no bad weather, only bad gear- they were warmed by the sun, and drying out with the things of the forest made us feel like things of the forest ourselves. Certainly, we were beginning to look like like forest things. Less than 24 hours in the woods, and already the dirt was thick.

Dirt and all, we hiked the remainder of Redwood Creek Trail that day to Tall Trees Grove, where the world's one-time tallest tree, The Libbey Tree, lives. Other, taller Redwoods have since been discovered, but their location is kept secret to avoid a parade of tourists (including backpackers!) from stampeding the fragile ecosystem in which they live. Things have not gone well for the park's most popular trees. When the ground around these giants is continually trampled upon it becomes compacted, and it's no longer able to hold enough water to sustain such a large tree. A price must be paid for this lack of water, and it's the tree that pays. The Libbey Tree is a prime example. At more than 367 feet tall, she was crowned the world's tallest tree in 1963 and was cause for celebration. Roads were built, paths were cut, and the ground was flattened. Thirty years later, her crown was gone. More importantly, so were her top 10 feet. First they withered, then they died. Her root system was no longer able to get the water it needed from the soil around her. Thankfully, the National Park Service seemed to not only learn, but heed this lesson, and these days the world's tallest trees remain mostly anonymous. In terms of Tall Trees Grove, currently only a certain number of cars are allowed access each day. Furthermore, the 45 minute drive that includes six miles along a bumpy, and often, muddy logging road only gets you to the trailhead. A 1.3 mile walk with decent elevation to the grove also awaits. Or, you can skip all that and hike eight miles along Redwood Creek like we did. Needless to say, with the average American walking less than a mile and a half a week (Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods), we didn't have to share Tall Trees Grove with very many folk. 

In his book Travels with Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck wrote, "The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable." 

I agree with Steinbeck, and knew when we were out there that my photos weren't coming anywhere close to capturing what I was seeing, experiencing, or feeling (words wouldn't either), but I'm going to post my pictures anyway. Although not great, I like them. My cousin's photos are pretty great though.

( Jenny)

Jenny and I quickly realized the importance of having some other object in the photo to help show the enormity of these trees. We were also surprised to learn we often needed a flash, a really high ISO, or a slow shutter speed (something I didn't have control of on my point and shoot) to combat the low light even on a sunny afternoon. Big trees = big shade.

One of these trees is the Libbey Tree, but I'm not telling which one. Just kidding- it's the one on the left. 

A few more from where we had lunch.

A pretty nice spot to spend the afternoon.

Back on the gravel bar that night, we talked about how our setting reminded us both very much of Alaska in terms of look and feel. And the more we looked, the more we felt. The more we felt, the more we talked. Soon we were discussing the likelihood of a bear joining our tiny expedition. Never a good thing when camped on a river miles from the car, with no one else around. Spotting a big cat print right next to my tent earlier in the day likely didn't help things. However, the two of us kept our heads from wandering too far, and ultimately, had a great night's sleep. We were both woken sometime in the night to the magical sound of an elk bugling, and Jenny also heard an owl. I listened to a sad, soulful-sounding animal, a bird, I assume, calling out repeatedly to the night. Nothing ever answered its call, and eventually, it moved on or stopped. I'll never know.

The next day, we hiked out to the car for the second leg of the trip. But first, we had to climb a tree. Sometime, probably during the rainstorm Friday night, a Redwood fell across the out and back trail blocking our path. Here's a picture of me standing on its double trunk as I attempted to scramble over it. 

Five hiking miles later, plus a four mile drive (just long enough for the body to stiffen), we commenced our walk to the beach- seven miles through old growth Redwoods and Fern Canyon to camp at the foot of the Pacific Ocean. 

We started strong, excited to reach the beach. A couple of miles later, a hummus lunch under the big trees provided even more fuel. But by mile 5, I was beat. I needed a lift, and boy, if Fern Canyon didn't provide one. A sweet little canyon with ferns growing from its vertical walls, my cousin and I entered with glee. The creek, with its fallen trees, boulders, and many water crossings, was fun to navigate. I half expected an Indiana Jones movie to be filming, and wished briefly for a crumpled fedora and shoulder bag instead of my grungy backpack and bandana. 

Fern Canyon

We paused for a nip of Goldschlager, and a toast to the canyon and waves crashing in the distance.

Perhaps hard to believe from the picture below, but I only had one nip. Ok, maybe two. 
Sometimes we are reminded that we truly are our parents' children.  (picture by Jenny)

A mile later, we were at the beach. Well, kind of. We were at the parking lot for the beach. The actual beach still lay a good half mile of dune grass in front of us. The campground, on the other hand, was a mile and a half down the dirt road on which we stood. A decision was required. We could take the road and shave off a half mile, or we could walk the extra bit of distance out to the beach, avoid the road, and hike the last two miles of a 12 mile day in the sand with 30 pounds on our backs. My cousin wanted the road; I intended to finish on the beach. Walking roadside was not in my plans. I looked out at the dunes once more. "Forget it," I said, and we walked that last mile and a half down the road with zero regrets. You want a secret to life? Know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em. 

Plus, Gold Bluffs was waiting. 

And with a much more manageable walk to the beach too.

Not that we were up for much walking.

Recovery was quick though, and soon we had set up camp. We felt luxurious with bear boxes, toilets, and potable water less than a quarter mile away.

Just before sunset, I walked out to the beach to thank the trees, the mule deer I saw laying in the sun after the rain, Fern Canyon, this most amazing spot on the ocean beach, the sun, the rain, the warm breeze coming off the Pacific. In short, everything. Nothing new and nothing big. Just a little prayer for the natural world, I suppose.

I would have ended this post with that, but the next day on our hike back to the cars, a bird flew overhead. Distance and the need for a high ISO made for a poor picture, but here is my best shot of a barred owl, our trail magic for the day, on our last morning in the Redwoods. We watched until it took off, and then we took off too. Not that we wanted to.


  1. Ok Lisa, I have seen probably most of the pics of places you've been at, but this place hit my soul.

    I must visit them someday... MUST!

    Love you, mom

    1. It's true, Mom- you MUST! And I want to go with you!

  2. Thanks for the photo shout out....but boy did I miss my DSLR. Not that that could have captured the redwoods either. Also, thanks for leaving out my misfortunate bear bag attempt. I kept those photos to myself :)

    Funny you mention the average American walking 1.5 miles/week-just read that in the book!

    Loved this post, so nice to have it to look back on. It was an amazing trip and I'm so grateful we got to experience it together.

    1. Hey Cuz! Glad you liked the post, and the trip. Your mom emailed me about it, and I told her a day hasn't passed since getting home that I haven't thought about it. I loved being out there with you. Where to next? I want to see you throw that bear bag again. ;-)


  3. What a beautiful trip!! I've always dreamed of seeing the redwoods! I just can't get my head to imagine the enormous size... I need proof! haha What a great post!

    1. Thanks, Shy! I hope you get to see them soon. They are magnificent! And I know what you mean about their size- even having been there, I still can't get my head around how big they are.