Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Humboldt Redwoods: Trip back in time

HUMBOLDT REDWOODS STATE PARK, Calif. -- The Dyerville Giant slumbers on a rich and verdant forest floor near a bend in the Eel River where it lived perhaps 1,600 years. Although no more than a half mile from an old stretch of U.S. 101 known as Avenue of the Giants, the redwood stood undisturbed for centuries in what is now called the Founders Grove.

In 1966, a UC-Berkeley scientist by the name of Paul Zinke discovered the Dyerville Giant with the help of a graduate student. Their reward was to give the tree its name. They chose the village of Dyerville, about a mile away, as the namesake.

At the time of its death 20 years ago the 370-foot giant was estimated to be world’s tallest tree. Botanists now know the designation is dubious at best after incredible discoveries of taller trees in the past 15 years. For example, scientists only will describe Hyperion, a regal redwood tucked somewhere in a remote notch valley in Redwoods National Park 90 miles north of here, as possibly the world’s tallest tree at a height of 379 feet.

The folks who greatly contributed to the science of redwoods with their inspiring discoveries just aren’t sure if anyone has actually encountered the tallest yet. Despite a landscape part of this world, the ancient, tangled redwood forests of Northern California feel other worldly, and vast stretches of raw wilderness remain uncombed by experts who have the know-how to identify a champion tree, a redwood at least 350 feet high.

Although downgraded from status as the world’s tallest, the Dyerville Giant was a magnificent tree during a long life that came to an end one morning in March of 1991 with a sudden thump in the forest.

Pacific storms had battered the Humboldt redwoods with the ferocity of 15-car pileup. Gale-force winds often accompany spring storms with heavy rain, a particularly perilous combination for big trees. The Founders Grove area took the brunt of the storm and four old trees tumbled, leaving the Dyerville Giant exposed and vulnerable.

Redwoods are like mountain climbers attached to ropes: The trees depend on each other’s stability and safety through a latticework of shallow roots that do not clench deep into the bowels of the earth for anchorage. Instead they look something like crochet welcome mats spread across the forest floor. If one tree falls the entire structure is weakened.

When the Dyerville Giant suddenly lost the protection of the others to block the wind and keep it stable underneath, it fell, leaving a gaping hole in the spongy earth below. The dead tree can be found on an easy, self-guided, half-mile tour at the Founders Grove. It’s a great place to get acclimated to the park and learn about the complicated ecosystem.

Rare Trees

The tall trees exist in a relatively narrow swath of coastland from southern Oregon to the northern fringes of the Big Sur. They stand within 40 miles of the Pacific, thriving on heavy annual rainfall and thick, coastal summertime fog. However, only a fraction of the old-growth forests survived the onslaught of 20th century logging. In an apt but depressing analogy, old-growth redwoods have gone the way of the buffalo, living unharmed among native peoples for hundreds of years before succumbing to a mechanized world within generations.

Officials estimate only 5 percent of California’s old-growth redwoods remain. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is home to 10,000 acres in what is termed the world’s largest contiguous ancient redwood forest.

I wanted to get into the backcountry to perhaps pass some of the less recognized giants and even encounter a champion memorialized in Richard Preston’s book, “The Wild Trees,” a pièce de résistance for the science of forestry. According to the National Geographic, 130 of the 180 known champion trees reside in Humboldt Redwoods. Only a couple of them are identified with official park signs.

When the annual “false spring” unfolded this month, it brought clear, unusually warm conditions perfect for hiking into the heart of the Humboldt forest. The time to drive north had arrived. I chose Humboldt because of its proximity to the Bay Area. My favorite forests are located 100 miles north in Prairie Creek State Park and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

Humboldt was close enough to get a half day hike on the drive up and an all-day trek the next day before returning home in time for a late dinner.

The Johnson Trail Camp path is almost 13 miles round trip and takes hikers deep into the Rockefeller Forest, the largest remaining groves of old-growth redwoods in the world.

The five-mile drive on Mattole Road to Albee Creek Campground provides enough stunning views to satisfy any tree lover. One of the disquieting aspects of California coastal redwood -- Sequoia sempervirens -- is how accessible they are.

Tree hunters searching for behemoths don’t need to leave their cars to enjoy the view. It’s almost counterintuitive. Anyone who has visited North Cascades National Park knows scenic vistas don’t come easy, including the grueling hike over the inappropriately named Easy Pass. To get a glimpse of the big, jagged peaks takes a major undertaking and miles of hoofing along thigh-burning switchbacks.

Redwoods are unlike mountains. The really big ones grow in low-lying alluvial flats: gullies, notch valleys and creek beds, wherever it is richly moist with fertile soil; always wet and usually dark under a thick canopy. Sometimes, like the Dyerville Giant, they stand not too far from the beaten path. Other times, they remain hidden deep in a rainforest so jumbled it takes a circus performer to traverse the landscape.

The uninitiated like me wouldn’t know any better.

Hidden tree

Another fallen giant called Teleperion stood just a mile from Dyerville Giant on the north side of Bull Creek in what probably is the densest section of the Rockefeller Forest. It presumably still is lying there since falling in 1994, somewhere perhaps not far off Mattole Road. While Preston glamorizes the trees he describes, he does not reveal their exact locations in an effort to perhaps keep something in this world mystical.

The lack of transparency doesn’t bother me. I saw enough carvings of names on a few fallen trees to know that visitors would turn these ancient organisms into another roadside attraction. Botanists also worry too much human traffic could damage the shallow roots.

The few who identified and know the champion redwoods have worked to safeguard their privacy. It’s possible, though not probable, to walk past one called the Stratosphere Giant, a 370-foot champion that is believed to be Humboldt redwoods’ tallest. It’s probably in the Rockefeller Forest, though I cannot be certain.

It didn’t really matter while striding past trees reaching heights of 280 feet or more. My head spun from craning the neck to see the leafy crowns where weathered arms and legs of the trees branch out. The majesty of some decent-sized trees provided more than enough satisfaction without having to identify it.

Temperatures hovered at 40 degrees in the morning as a smoky line of coastal fog caressed the mountains above the Eel. But the day would turn clear and bright and warm, though temperatures never rose above 48 in the robust forest along the south side of Bull Creek. The winter sun has little chance to penetrate the canopy.

As the trail ascended a ridge in the heart of the park the forest gave way to Douglas fir, big-leaf maple, pepperwood and madrone, resembling much of the second growth found at Big Basin or Forest of Nisene Marks in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But the trail intersects with all sorts of narrow, descending gullies where suddenly the primeval forest returns. As enticing as it might have been to bushwhack down one of these streams in search of large trees, it proved sounder to stay the course.

I didn’t encounter anyone during my long day among the redwoods, and thankfully that included mountain lions and black bears.

I just bared witness to the trees. Big trees, bold trees, lots of beautiful trees.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Maverick's update

Competitors of the Jay at Maverick’s Big Wave Invitational voted Thursday, Jan. 20, against holding the contest this weekend because a promising Pacific swell isn’t expected to bring big enough surf to the Central Coast.

The prestigious event, held near Half Moon Bay, requires a minimum of 20-foot waves but forecasters are expecting a swell in the range of 12 feet to 15 feet. Still tasty, just not epic. Further scuttling plans are the king tides around the Bay Area. The next extreme tides are expected Feb. 16-18 so it's doubtful the contestants would want to hold their event then, either.

The Eddie at Wiamea also was postponed Thursday because of inconsistent surf. It had looked promising for the Eddie with 20-foot swells from the blast from Indonesia. But the swell just never held up.

"What we see in conditions like this is just one or two true 'Eddie'-size waves in the period of a heat," said George Downing, contest director. "That is not the kind of playing field we need for quality, fair competition.

"It's very easy to get caught up in the excitement when those huge waves come through. But what keeps this event the greatest big wave event in the world is never relaxing those standards. Eddie (Aikau) never did."

Both Mavericks and the Eddie must be held by Feb. 28. What had been a promising winter still hasn't produced the giants of previous years. The chargers still are waiting.