Monday, April 24, 2017

Portola Redwoods State Park Earth Day hike into past

Don't say you weren't warned.
Stories and photos by Elliott Almond
LA HONDA, California --The original Earth Day unfolded on a lovely spring Thursday. I vividly remember the sunny April day because we had a track-and-field meet in which I was scheduled to run the mile. Our athletic director approached me before the race while clutching a spreadsheet. “You need to finish third for us to win the meet,” he said.
No pressure. I earned the needed points by etching out a third-place finish with a personal-best time. I’ve always attributed the result to the relaxed state I felt having attended a school assembly earlier that afternoon to pay tribute to Earth Day. It featured a real scientist who seemingly appeared straight from central casting with horn-rimmed glasses, flannel shirt and khaki pants.
Instead of fretting over the upcoming race I became spellbound by the presentation in which the young scientist proceeded to cast aspirations on the the planet’s chances of surviving. In 1970, the environmental movement was in an embryonic state leading scientists to try to jolt the public into action. Mostly, citizens ignored these outliers and their dire predictions about melting Arctic ice.
So, now, 47 years later, other than the dutifully entrenched deniers, we must deal with climate change and invent new ways to energize our gadget-dominated lives.
The first Earth Day talk still resonated with me when setting out this past weekend to mark the movement’s 2017 celebration by visiting one of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ most remote and magnificent redwood groves.

Peters Creek grove is a fairytale setting.

 Peters Creek’s tall trees are one of those sparkly little treasures found at the bottom of the chest, hidden behind a mountain of trinkets. The San Francisco Chronicle’s  Tom Stienstra likes to call the place “Bay Area’s Lost World.” The mountain’s third-largest old-growth redwood grove rarely is crowded because it takes a major commitment to reach it.   
Peters Creek is nestled deep in Portola Redwoods State Park, which only can be reached on a twisty drive off Alpine Road. Rangers tell visitors to set aside seven hours to complete the 13.5-mile trek to Peters Creek, which isn't as extensive as the groves at Big Basin and Henry Cowell state parks but equally as beautiful.
From park headquarters, hikers climb 1,000 feet to a ridge before eventually dropping 600 feet into Bear Creek Canyon. The big trees -- some have reached 300 feet in height -- are found at the confluence of Bear and Peters creeks.
One of the big ones right before the creek crossing.
Few trees in the Santa Cruz Mountains compare with the mammoths of Humboldt and Del Norte counties. None of them share the girth of those in the infamous Atlas Grove in Prairie Creek State Park or the Grove of the Titans in Jed Smith State Park. They would have to live in a perpetual rainforest to grow into champion trees.
Yet, the Peters Creek grove offers one of the best redwood experiences south of Montgomery Woods State Reserve in Mendocino County.
Fallen foliage means lots of bushwacking.
The understory is covered in redwood sorrel adding to the fairy tale-like aura of this quiet arena. I met only three other hikers during my journey despite a full parking lot by headquarters. The Portola park offers plenty of easier and family friendly trails. So, most bypass this demoralizing slog that includes two energy-zapping uphill climbs.  
I like to visit in autumn when afternoon light dances off the trees like a chorus line. The wind rustles the yellowish leaves as if the Headless Horseman has rushed past. But those going in fall need a morning start or carry headlamps because the light retreats into the dense forest by late afternoon.
Whereas the autumnal cycle denudes the landscape to its barest form, spring is a time of rebirth in the forest. Along the way, hikers trespass through tanoak ground cover, live oak, manzanita and Douglas fir. A few redwoods mingle with this diverse natural painting as a preview for what is to come.
Squishy mud greets spring hikers.
After such a wet winter, the trail has not been perfectly groomed. Some bushwhacking is required to circumnavigate fallen trees and thick brush. Many segments of the trail were a gooey quagmire leading to an unstable footing.
Then there is the poison oak. It simply cannot be avoided. I used to be immune to the itch-producing plant. Something changed in the past decade. Now, all it takes is one leaf to give me a look and I am afflicted. I took special precautions after having already suffered from the ill effects of poison oak this spring from a hike through Land of the Medicine Buddha. At this writing, I’m not sure what to expect after bathing twice with tecnu scrub wash. I know for sure I tramped through and over fields of poison oak that lined a super model-thin path.
But it was worth it.
The first signs of the creek’s magical kingdom appear as the steep descent passed two notch valleys where redwoods like to live. Suddenly a couple of nice specimens were found although high above Peters Creek. The beasts usually reside near creek beds with plentiful water supplies.
The trail looped along the far side of the creek as the redwoods grew bigger the deeper into the grove I went. Right before the creek crossing a couple of large redwoods stand sentry over the grove. They are to the right, just up from the banks of the creek. Although the park has not identified any of the trees, these appeared to be the grove’s largest. It’s almost impossible to estimate heights by eyeballing the trees. But a good-sized redwood will stand out.
Peters Creek still is running high because of the storms that battered these mountains this winter. I didn’t bother tiptoeing over the slippery rocks in an attempt to ford the creek. The other half of the loop isn’t as spectacular so why bother? Instead, I doubled back through the best part of the grove to soak it in.
I needed the inspiration knowing that a 16.5% grade awaited me on my way out.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Yosemite's Forgotten Land: Hetch Hetchy

We have dubbed this Rainbow Bridge.

Jody and Lucy cross one of the bridges at Wapama Falls.
Story and photos by Elliott Almond
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- Rugged and spectacular Hetch Hetchy is so far off the beaten path many outdoor enthusiasts have no idea about its important contributions to America’s national parks system.
Which is odd considering it’s tucked into the northwest corner of the park about an hour’s drive closer to the Bay Area than precious Yosemite Valley. Hetch Hetchy receives a scant percentage of the scores of visitors traveling to the Valley, a drive-by tourist playground to snap a pretty camera phone photo.  

As we traced ancient footsteps of the Miwoks, Paiutes and Washoes peoples on a recent all-day trek toward Rancheria Falls, I began to wonder if the careless destruction of Hetch Hetchy Valley in the early 1900s somehow has preserved its solitary state.
Jody and Lucy scramble up stone steps.
To be clear, local backpackers are attuned to the splendors of this granite-strewn arena judging by all of their parked cars on a recent Friday. But most of the 4 million-plus visitors jam their clammy bodies and sports utility vehicles into the Yosemite Valley floor 15 miles to the south to enjoy an outing as unremarkable as a backyard barbecue.
Might a similar scenario have unfolded had the Hetch Hetchy Valley been preserved by naturalist John Muir and others who tried to stop the damming of the free-flowing Tuolumne River from 1901 to 1913?
I’m not one to advocate that a massive engineering project in a national park is good natural resource management. But I just wonder what it would look like today under a preserved state when seeing families linger on 430-foot O’Shaughnessy Dam that created the eight-mile Hetch Hetchy Reservoir so San Francisco could get a nice glass of water.
Much has been written about the political struggle to save Hetch Hetchy, a name that is said to derive from the Miwok word “hetchetci,” or edible grasses. Muir’s forces eventually lost out to human greed in 1913 when Congress passed the Raker Act that allowed San Francisco to effectively blanket the glacial-carved valley with water.
It proved to be a defining moment in U.S. national park history. It helped spur the environmental movement as the Sierra Club gained political strength over the ensuing years. In 1968,  environmentalists used the destruction of Hetch Hetchy to help halt the building of 740-foot Hualapai Dam in an isolated section of the Grand Canyon.
In other words, the rival to Yosemite Valley might have been sacrificed for the future betterment of America’s most cherished natural wonders.
We’re left to let our imaginations run free while traversing Hetch Hetchy’s stone cathedrals.
Some have described the dam and reservoir as a “scar” on the national park system. I cannot find argument with their disdain. The Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River once flowed into the gentle valley. The reservoir dramatically altered the landscape.
Wapama Fallas from the east.
Lovely forests on the trail.
Granite dome called Kolana Rock
But our trio of hikers got past the disgust one, long day to explore what’s left. As those experienced backpackers can attest, Hetch Hetchy still has much to offer with waterfalls spilling over granite rock or seemingly flushing straight out of the mountain with a misty roar. Towering 2,000-foot granite dome Kolana Rock is perhaps the most prominent natural piece that rises above the water across the reservoir.
A majority of the day-use visitors stop along O’Shaughnessy’s concrete overpass to take a photo of the reservoir, or peer over the edge at the impressive dam walls and spurting water of the tamed Tuolumne. Many also make the rocky five-mile roundtrip hike to Wapama Falls, the swirling, gushing cascade of water that guarantees trespassers will get wet.  
My companions Lucy DiBianca and author Jody Berger (Misdiagnosed, One Woman's Tour of--And Escape From--Healthcareland) marveled at the continual sight of water and the changing biology of forests as we huffed our way up hundreds of feet after the low point at Wapama Falls.
The 13.2-mile round-trip path to Rancheria Falls hugs the mountain while climbing and dropping steeply above the reservoir.
We had agreed to a destination of Rancheria, which would take us deep into the Hetch Hetchy backcountry without breaking our backs or wills. It came with a caveat: We’d head back whenever it seemed right. The warrior mentality of having to complete a certain amount of miles is the antithesis of exploring nature on its terms. Author Bill Bryson got it right in his seminal book “A Walk in the Woods,” about hiking the Appalachian Trail. You don’t have to cover every inch of the 2,160-mile path to earn a Merit Badge. Just tread respectfully and appreciate the surroundings.
Spring hung in the dry air with meadows covered in blue dicks, buttercups, Indian paintbrush,  larkspur, poison oak and yarrow, among other species of beautiful flowers. We found a rock perch just before Wapama Falls to stop to nibble on the usual offerings of the Trailmix Gods. Cousin Lucy

Scenes of 8-mile Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that once was a beautiful valley.
 did her best elementary school teacher pitch to get us to sample a bag full of banana chips.

After refueling, we navigated a series of foot bridges underneath Wapama Falls while getting drenched in a freezing spray of water. Lucy, the Girl Scout, was smart enough to cross the threshold with a poncho. But it wasn’t so bad for Jody and I. The late spring sun helped dry our clothes quickly.
Afterward, when heading up for the more arduous section of trail it grew serenely quiet. No other day hikers encroached past the Wapama bridges.  Finally, two women backpackers from Bishop, California, caught us on the dusty trail. The older, presumably the mom to her slender teenage daughter, just got targeted by a local gang of bloodsuckers. The amenable woman seemed particularly sensitive to the native insects as the area just under her right eye began to puff into a dime-sized raspberry tart.  This was not a good sign for a twosome undertaking the adventurous Laurel/Veron/Rancheria 30-mile loop. They planned to spend two nights out in Yosemite’s northern wilderness.
I found some antiseptic pads in my emergency kit to apply to her face and some extra for the next round of mosquito assaults they might encounter over the coming three days. The exchange led to an informative discussion about hiking trails in the drop-dead gorgeous Eastern Sierra.
Lucy, our inquisitive companion, has a way of bringing out fascinating stories in people.
“Did you see the poop on the trail back there?”
Yes, the women saw it.
“Do you know what it is?” Lucy inquired.
They weren’t sure.  
It was big, and for whatever unknown reason I kept saying black bear scat is smaller. Something about some scat I once saw years ago hiking at Mt. Rainier National Park.
“Maybe it’s a mountain lion?” Jody asked.
By the time we shook hands and bid our adieus we decided the only creature capable of delivering such a healthy amount of disposal must be a bear, since confirmed by photos found in a Google search.  
The idea of black bears roaming the Hetch Hetchy seemed troublesome to the women. I couldn’t understand why because they indicated they had been climbing and hiking in the rugged Bishop area for some time.
This wasn’t a family outing so I didn’t have time to tell the women my bear story from my last visit to Hetch Hetchy.
That time four years earlier I was alone in the evening and under a time constraint to meet Lucy and some friends at White Wolf to began a weekend trip hiking Yosemite’s High Country.
I encountered a buck on the crumbly trail while returning toward the day-use parking area next to O'Shaughnessy Dam. Such a strange sight. The healthy buck stood frozen in the center of the trail, a wall of granite on one side and the reservoir on the other. The mighty deer looked at me. Then he looked behind him. He turned to face me yet again. I took off my cap and used it like a matador’s red cape.
“Come on, then,” I said. “This is your home.”
I stepped off the path as much as it was possible. The buck didn’t need a second invitation as he galloped past.
I continued in his direction because it was the only route to my car. As I came to a bend in the trail I could hear a commotion on the other side. For some reason, still unclear to this day, I thought it was another deer. Of course, that is absurdly ridiculous. Moments earlier a big buck decided it was safer to scurry past me rather than risk dealing with whatever was in the bush making the racket.
Yet, there I was thinking about sneaking up on the animal -- a deer -- to surprise it. Just as I stepped around the bend my better sense took hold. I pulled out my emergency whistle as the bear materialized no more than 100 feet away.  I blew a forceful tweet. Mr. Bear didn’t care. He continued his business of foraging in the woods between me and the path to my car.
The first twinges of dusk began to bathe the landscape in that unforgettable light. I had to do something. I began singing my go-to song, “I’ve been working on the railroad,” with the lyrics, “Dinah won’t you blow your horn.” OK, I cannot sing. But my audience of one black bear gave me not one notice no matter how long and loud I sang and blew the whistle.  This is a real problem in the wilderness when bears become habituated to humans. It ultimately endangers the animals.
Finally, this one scrambled back up the mountain from where he came, opening the path as I blew past like the buck.
I ran into a couple on the other side and warned them about the bear.
“Yeah,” they said in unison. “We heard your signing.”  

Monday, May 23, 2016

San Francisco Bay hiking: Sweeney Ridge

TOO often we overlook the bounty in our backyards. It’s probably the result of the natural cycle of life, getting so immersed into the routine that it becomes difficult to hit the pause button to glance around at the wonders beyond the porch.
My friend Don Carroll had the most potent antidote for the malady of routineness. He preached to his beloved wife Joyce and their children a simple, yet elegant, sermon: “Look how we get to live today.” Yeah, look at them mountain biking, surfing, snowboarding, creating a slice of paradise in their Santa Cruz Mountains home. To the end, Don constantly reminded his loved ones to grab hold and cherish everything near and dear.
We certainly enjoyed the precious moments of hiking and biking among the redwoods and mossy rocks and surfing along the craggy Central Coast.

I thought about all those fabulous times on a chilly late May day while embarking on a head-turning hike in the Sweeney Ridge section of the Golden Gate National Parks. The slender finger of scrub-covered wilderness points its windswept tip toward crowded Daly City and San Francisco in the near distance. But up here on the hilly ridges and ravines, it’s easy to ignore the teeming humanity that has covered the landscape to the north.
The network of trails here have one particularly quality: visitors get vistas of the San Francisco Bay to the east and the mighty Pacific to the west. This is as close to a manageable bay-to-sea hike as there is. Starting above SFO in San Bruno, I traipsed up the eastern rampart overlooking San Andreas Lake and the Diablo Range of the East Bay in the distance. Once at the summit take a short diversion trail to the south to visit the historical stone marker citing the location of the first-known view of the bay by the Portola Expedition. It’s called the San Francisco Bay Discovery site. The Ohlone People, however, might question the distinction as they knew about the massive bay for years and years before the Spaniards “discovered” it.

Heading north along the ridge the trail descends sharply after one mile into Pacifica’s Shelldance Orchid Gardens before crossing Highway 1 to the terminus at Mori Point.
The ridgeline is about 1,200 feet in elevation so don’t worry about oxygen deficit. But expect some thigh burners if Mori Point or the western park entrance is the turnaround destination. It’s an unrelenting climb back to the ridge along a shadeless, stony path.
The east-to-west trail ends at the sea, but it’s still some distance to Pacifica’s commercial areas to the north and to the south. So pack a lunch instead of planning to find a nice seaside cafe, as appetizing as it sounds.

San Andreas Lake

Pacifica Pier juts into the ocean just beyond Highway One.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Surfing at the Eddie big-wave contest in Hawaii

Dave Wassel (right) and Aussie Ross Clarke-Jones going for it.
Copyright WSL/Keoki

The attraction of big-wave surfing has as much to do with its rarity as its race-car thrill rides.

It takes some kind of natural turbulence in a far away body of water to create the kind of momentum needed for a huge groundswell by the time it collides with land masses in its way.
Grant Twiggy Baker of South Africa is captured in risky tumble on 45-foot wave.
Copyright WLS/Heff
This winter of El Nino weather patterns has offered one of the most memorable surfing seasons in a long while. It has brought a bountiful harvest to the famed big-wave locales, where fearless watermen and women dance across supercharged walls of water.
Two weeks after a successful run at Mavericks near Half Moon Bay, California, the granddaddy of big-wave contests unfolded at Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu.
The Eddie Aikau invitational went off for the first time in six years, and only the ninth occasion in its 31-year history of an event less a competition than a celebration.
Waimea is the original big-wave locale, but it takes just the right swell -- direction and size are integral factors in whether it's worthy -- before surfers paddle into the pit.
Thursday produced one of those epic days
It proved chaotic for the competitors who risked life and limb to charge into the watery forest. Like at Mavericks two weeks earlier, the event experienced its share of spills and chills, and eventually was won by the new generation surfer.
Hawaiian John John Florence, 23,  rode four big ones to collect a score of 301 points. He and runner-up Ross Clarke-Jones of Australia overtook Hawaiian legend Shane Dorian in the final heat. Dorian ended third whereas the Michael Jordan of surfing, Kelly Slater, finished fifth.
Legendary Kelly Slater on a clean monster at Waimea Bay.
Copyright WSL/Keoki
The fascinating aspect of big-wave surfing is the age disparity among competitors. Clyde Aikau, whose brother bears the contest's name, is 66.  Clyde was 20th out of 28 competitors. Australian Tom Carroll, 54, was 27th.
Clyde is a constant reminder of what big-wave surfing is all about, what his brother Eddie was all about: sharing the passion of the ocean lifestyle.
"We are humbled and privileged," Clyde Aikau told reporters afterward.
Eddie Aikau was known as a waterman's waterman. The Hawaiian lifeguard patrolled the shoreline of Oahu’s North Shore to keep others safe, then tested the boundaries by paddling into the biggest waves when Waimea awoke from its long hibernation.
In 1978, Aikau met his death on the high seas while trying to trace the 2,500-mile route of Polynesian ancestors from Hawaii to Tahiti paddling a hollowed out voyaging canoe. The canoe got a leak in one of its hulls and capsized in turbulent seas about 12 miles from the island of Molokai. Aikau, 31, mounted his surfboard to paddle for help. His body was never found. The rest of the crew, though, survived after getting rescued by the Coast Guard.
The big-wave contest began in 1984 to honor the Hawaiian legend. Surf clothier Quiksilver took it over in recent years to provide an ample prize purse for competitors. Florence won $75,000 for his four massive waves.
But everyone came away with a victory because no matter how big the purse is, no matter how much media attention the contest generates, its heart remains with Eddie Aikau.

Winner John John Florence takes off deep, with Mason Ho. Florence, 23, won the Eddie on Thursday.
Copyright WSL/Keoki

James O'Brien and Shane Dorian share the power.
Copyright WSL/Heff

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Secret Mendocino Tree and Montgomery Woods State Reserve

 Left, carving on a redwood; center, climbing ropes on 366-foot Norman J. Hendry tree; right, a behemoth in woods.
Photos and Story by Elliott Almond
This is not the space to discover the secret location of the Mendocino Tree, a 367 ½-foot redwood spire that rises out of this scenic forest like a head-turning monolith with a cute headdress. It’s in there, growing quietly in the same mound of spongy soil for at least a thousand years, if not many centuries more.
State park rangers and knowledgeable locals have made a pact to keep the natural skyscraper private in order to spare it from the hordes, who no doubt would trample over the delicate roots of this hidden California treasure to gawk upward at a wooden pole that seems like a stairway to the heavens.
We have empirical evidence showing just what would happen were the state to broadcast its exact location. This all but happened in 1998, two years after experts confirmed the tree as then the world’s tallest. A park ranger agreed to show a Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reporter the spot. The subsequent front-page story led to an overnight doubling of visitors although the woods are located off a remote, serpentine byway that traverses the golden mountains west of Ukiah.  The park has limited parking at its entrance off Orr Springs Road and one stinky outhouse. In other words, it’s not equipped to handle an invasion of curiosity seekers.
Fortunately, the newspaper story didn’t detail the tree’s exact whereabouts. It remains an elusive vision for most visitors. Redwood experts from Humboldt State University eventually discovered taller trees in the mid-2000s, downgrading the Mendocino to ninth on their list. The change in status has lessened the interest is such a remote stretch of woods. Most people have little reason to come here now, well, except for the wonderment of some splendid old-growth trees.
Furthermore, 367 feet doesn’t sound that impressive with five known coast redwoods rising to at least 370 feet, the tallest being 379-foot Hyperion in Redwood National Park east of Orick. Hyperion’s location is known to scant few as national park rangers guard its whereabouts to allow it to grow in relative solitude. Time and again bloggers boast about finding the big one because we humans are hardscrabble tree baggers like it or not.
Although most of the significant trees can be found in public parks, state and federal officials are justified in their policy to not advertise the locations. Firstly, redwoods’ root systems are fragile. For practical matters, we have to be careful about disturbing them by having thousands encroach the ground where they lie. Secondly, we can’t trust ourselves to leave the big trees be. Just look at the carvings in these forests. People are wont to deface nature by leaving a mark in what I call "peeing dog syndrome."
Alas, Montgomery Woods has more or less returned to a peaceful state since the “world’s
The Montgomery Giant at 360.5 feet
tallest” label ended. It now attracts weekenders and locals from Ukiah interested in a stroll through majestic redwoods. The park’s trail is no more than 3 miles even if ambitious hikers take an extension up a steep, narrow slotted canyon to a mixed forest of oak and chaparral.

One curious oddity. State officials have erected signs at the entrance bragging about the Mendocino Tree in something of a tease. They offer no explanation as to why they announce its presence or why they decline to reveal its location. It’s a bureaucratic conundrum. In the grove where the Mendocino resides another sign boasts that some of the world’s tallest trees are there for all to see, but leaves it at that. If the idea is to stop people from bagging big trees, why encourage them with signage?
I was attracted to the Montgomery forest for a handful of reasons, mostly because of its accessibility from my home. Equally interesting is the fact such tall redwoods could be found so far south of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, where a majority of the champion trees -- those reaching at least 350 feet in height -- are located. Furthermore, Montgomery's groves sit on the eastern edge of the redwood boundary, usually no more than 25 miles from the coast. The world’s best specimens, such as the Grove of the Titans and the Atlas Grove, are located much closer to the sea, thriving in rich, verdant rainforests. Montgomery Woods, on the other hand, is higher in elevation and in a much drier climate. As I negotiated the turns on Orr Springs Road while crossing the blond rolling hillside I wondered how a serious grove of redwoods could exist there.
But Montgomery’s trees have grown tall because of a narrow stream creating alluvial soil perfect to nurture big trees. The forest also is cooled by Mendocino coastal fog providing the temperate climate these ancient treasures need.
It doesn’t take much sweat to hike into the valley where glorious redwoods live. I spent four hours roaming the grove inspecting each giant to enjoy its splendor. Deep in Montgomery Flats where that second sign extols the virtues of this amazing forest, I found two significant trees. One caught my eye from a ridge. I wended my way to its base and upon inspection found climbing ropes and a numerical marker, indicating it was one of the trees redwood scientists had identified. That was the Norman J. Hendry tree, at 366 feet, the second tallest in the park. Further in the grove, I found another marker on a big tree. However, plenty of other giants seemingly as regal as the two marked trees were untouched, a reminder of just how difficult it is to measure the beasts without requisite expertise.
The problem with eyeballing supremely tall
trees from the base is they don’t look that special. The Titans are easier to find in that regard because of their remarkable girth. They are some of the largest by cubic feet, and not by height. But the tall ones don’t necessarily have 20-plus feet diameters from breast height, or DBH. Also, it’s all but impossible to sit underneath a giant and determine its height in the canopy. They all look huge.
For example, I stumbled upon a stroller from Ukiah who seemed rather unimpressed with his local wonder. He spoke rapturously of Muir Woods below Mount Tamalpais in Marin. Muir Woods is a lush, almost museum-like stand that gives San Francisco visitors a sample of what a redwood forest might be like. It’s pretty, to be sure. But none of its trees can match the beauties of Montgomery. Not by anyone’s imagination. It’s the reason the reserve remains so special. It has more than a dozen giants to enjoy. It’s never going to resemble fairy tale Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek State Park or the Stout Grove in Jed Smith. It lies too far inland to present jungle-like lushness.
Montgomery also suffered a tremendous blow in 2008 when a devastating fire scorched the arid landscape surrounding it. Six years later, the forest has returned to its natural state, but residue of the destruction is found deep in the woods with
blackened trunks.

Redwoods live so long because they are fire resistant and not prone to destructive insects. They also are efficient in regeneration. Their worst enemy has been loggers as 96 percent of old growth forests have been sawed into oblivion. In other words, virtually all the real champion trees, trees probably well beyond 400 feet, are part of the human fabric serving as tables and house frames. It is a major reason some visionaries set out to save the remaining forests, and why they deserve our vigilant protection.
Montgomery Giant
It’s the heart of my reasoning why I don’t mind the skullduggery in hiding the locations of such famed trees as the Mendocino.            

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Costa Rica: Rainforest hiking in snake country

The verdant rainforest of Refugio La Marta.

Story and photos by Elliott Almond

REFUGIO LA MARTA, Pejibaye, Costa Rica -- Walking in a slick rainforest can be challenging in the best of circumstances.
Gingerly stepping over gooey, chocolate mud-soaked paths on the western slopes of the Talamanca Mountains is terrifying when traveling alone.
Lurking behind tree roots, branches and emerald fallen leaves are perilous snakes called fer-de-lance. These fearless reptiles seem happy enough to sample human flesh just for the sake of it. Hikers must not only carefully traverse the gutted pathway to stay upright, but keep vigilant guard against aggressive serpents that grow up to six feet in length and blend into the terrain like a harmless twig.
Such is the aura of fear when communing among the epiphytes, mosses, lichens, bromeliads and orchids in the arbol wonderland of this 3,750-acre reserve that protects the La Marta, Atirro and Gato river basins.
Tucked into the deepest corner of the Orosi Valley, the cloud
forests cling to the wet, humid ridges that rise to the heavens some 6,400 feet above sea level. With 180 inches of annual rainfall, the lush, biodiverse forest attracts stately mammals such as jaguars, ocelots and pumas.
The jaguar sits atop the triangle as king of this jungle. Still, I’d much prefer staring down a jaguar than suffer a surprise attack from a fer-de-lance.
Experts say the pit viper is not aggressive, just defensive. That's splitting scales if you're the one bitten for simply interrupting its perceived solitude. The fer-de-lance is responsible for half the bites in the Americas. The damn thing can be found from southern Mexico to the verdant north of South America, and has migrated to human populations to feast on growing rat populations.
It’s a given the fertile jungles of the tropics are filled with snakes. Costa Rica alone has more than 120 varieties, 18 of which are venomous. None are as fearsome as Tericoplo, as Ticos call the fer-de-lance. The creature can open its deadly mouth 180 degrees before sinking inch-long fangs into its victims. Let's see Dracula try that.
The fer-de-lance is the centerpiece of terror in the jungle though I’m told everything in nature serves a purpose. Here are some unpleasant facts: The fer-de-lance -- French for spearhead -- injects on average 105 milligrams of venom in a single bite. A fatal dose for humans is about 50 milligrams. The snake rarely withholds its poison when striking whatever it has targeted. It’s the kind of animal that would join a crazy terrorist cult.
Victims don’t have much time to write their wills after an attack. The venom causes swelling and blisters as it flows through the blood cells, destroying tissue along its path. The area of the bite can become infected, leading to amputation and/or a coffin.
Fortunately, Costa Rican physicians are well-equipped to handle bites because they deal with them so frequently. But time is against a lone hiker, who would have little chance of surviving an attack in such a remote location as La Marta.
Perhaps that is why the ranger, Carlos, kept asking me for a cell phone number. I was the only visitor to the reserve one August midweek day. The lone ranger was feeling a little uneasy sending a foreigner into a death trap.
“Keep your eyes on the ground and always look ahead,” he advised.
OK. But it’s difficult enough to navigate the treacherous trail much less scanning 20 feet ahead simultaneously. After a while, I mastered the technique of eyeballing my surroundings with robotic consistency. Eyes side to side, down, ahead. Repeat.
It just seems so futile. Pit vipers can sense the approach of a warm-blooded mammal with a unfair detection system that senses a change in body temperature. It has ample time to prepare its ambush on an unsuspecting hiker who has no intention of harming or encountering the snake. The brown coloring also allows it to blend into the surrounding making it difficult to spot to prevent an attack.
The best defense, then, is luck.
Another snake to avoid is the bushmaster, the world's largest viper that grows up to 12 menacing feet. Here’s a cheery thought: According to some reports, 80 percent of bite victims die, including those receiving antivenom treatment. Alas, bushmasters seemingly try to avoid human contact while living in the remotest of jungle, and as a result, they are not nearly the threat of their predatory cousin fer-de-lance.
The deeper I walked into La Marta’s heart of darkness, the more
vulnerable I felt. By the time Carlos would realize I was in serious trouble it would already have been too late to carry me out on a stretcher and then fly me by helicopter to a San Jose hospital that has antivenom.
Then as if a light switch had been employed, I was splattered by rain, turning the already soggy turf into a squishy mess. It made the experience all the more nerve-racking. It doesn’t help matters knowing that failing to see a snake is no assurance of safety. Many other creepers silently cling to their small piece of real estate until suddenly disturbed.
Descending the slippery and steep rudimentary trails must be achieved without the benefit of bracing oneself on a welcoming tree. The first rule of the tropical rainforest is to never grab any handy limb or vine to help prevent a fall. The seemingly benign branch could be home to poisonous spiders, scorpions and camouflaged snakes patiently waiting for any life form to breach the sanctuary.
It becomes a particularly daunting exercise when encountering a branch hanging across the path like an overpass. Hikers must get down the steep pitch while ducking underneath the branch or, with room, bypassing it. Just never brush it aside as if hiking where plants are plants and animals don't look like tree bark while waiting to pounce.
Soloists face further disadvantages in a locale where the more eyes the better. One must always watch before stepping. But she or he also needs to peer upward, too. Firstly, wonderful animals silently live in the canopy. Hikers won't see the sloths and kinkajous with heads down, eyes scanning the horizon on snakewatch.
Secondly, it's important to know what’s above. Namely, a wasp's nest suspended 50 feet above. Those who talk too loud or linger too long below the nest will experience the full wrath of these armed-and-loaded bugs. They often are called deer wasps because of their Usain Bolt speed. They can chase down a galloping deer with weapons fully engaged.
Fortunately, my half day of cloud forest communion in La Marta proved tranquil all things considered. But upon my return, Carlos’ face suggested I had escaped some kind of peril.
He wore the look of relief.