Monday, May 27, 2013

Redwoods: Grove of the Titans

                                                                                                    Photos: Elliott Almond

El Viejo del Norte (in background) immediately caught my attention through the thicket.

I didn’t have to crawl on the damp forest floor to enter into the fictitious yet celebrated stand of giant redwoods known as Grove of the Titans, located in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park near the roof of California. I slipped and slid along wet roots. I muddied my jeans, bloodied my shin. But I did not crawl.
This is important only to followers of Richard Preston’s seminal book on redwood mythology called “The Wild Trees.” He uses two protagonists who claim to have discovered and named almost every significant known coast redwood tree. Their work advanced the study of these trees and is a major contribution to their preservation.
The story goes the two men crawled, clawed and otherwise bushwhacked some seven hours through dense, remote forestland 15 years ago when suddenly encountering the Titans grove with some of the world’s most noteworthy redwoods. One of the young men screamed after tumbling into the understory and then looking up to see a huge redwood. The tree became known as the Screaming Titans because it was two trees connected at an ample base.
I screeched the first time driving into the heart of Jed Smith. It was the morning of Nov. 4, 2008, a memorable day for the singular fact that Barack Obama won the presidential election. An early winter storm had brought a cascade of rain to the North Coast, slamming into the tall trees that lie some 10 miles from the Pacific. I stopped the car and jumped out, figuring no one was driving this muddy, one-lane road early on a weekday morning. The redwoods seemed otherworldly and impossibly big. Of course I screamed.

At the time I hadn’t read Preston’s tome and knew nothing about the naming of trees or the fact anyone was compelled to search for specific ones that have taken on mythic proportions. I just loved massive trees. I didn’t need someone telling me one tree was more important than the other, scientifically speaking, because all big ones are humbling.
Yet, by accident back then I stumbled onto the so-called Atlas Grove a good ways to the south of Jed Smith that has a central role in “The Wild Trees.” The experience has allowed me to better understand how to pass underneath many of the secret trees Humboldt State professor Steve Sillett and former cohort Michael Taylor identified and has since been romanticized by Preston’s book.
Those who study these groves or know their whereabouts guard their location to prevent the world’s best redwood specimens from being vandalized or trampled on. In the past two years scientists and/or park rangers have tried to remove signs that could signal the import of a tree. The exactly location of the tallest redwood, Hyperion in Redwood National Park, is one of the forest's big secrets.
Preston’s prose has illuminated the majesty of some of the special groves but it also has led to an unwelcomed side affect: more and more outdoor enthusiasts are attempting to “bag” a big tree. Now that the experts catalogued and measured the trees by cubic feet of wood – or girth --- as well as height it has created a checklist like climbing the 53 fourteeners in the Colorado Rockies.
         The dense forests of Jed Smith
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Jedediah Smith showcases one of America’s most primordial forests. The tangle of emerald green vegetation has collaborated to create an almost impenetrable jungle of old-growth forest that rivals some of the densest regions of South America. Except where the meandering Smith River cuts a wide swath through it the park is a complex ecosystem of creeks, gullies and rivulets flowing down fern-covered ravines and narrow notch valleys. In other words, it’s just the kind of place where coast redwoods have thrived for thousands of years.
Only about 4 percent of old-growth redwoods remain after unchecked logging decimated the world’s groves. The wanton cutting after the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco led to California’s state park system; the first area preserved was Big Basin in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A few old-growth giants still reside there. But almost all of the surviving trees dwell in a narrow corridor from Humboldt Redwoods State Park to Jed Smith. The forests of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and Jed Smith are as good as it gets.
Leaving Elk Creek tribal land I ascended a narrow road into the woods. Cresting a hill I looked down the slippery, unpaved roadway that was lined by magnificent redwoods like shimmering telephone poles. The grandeur of the trees along the road is enough to make the trip to Jed Smith agreeable.
But I also planned to visit the Titans grove. Then I met Nick and Natalie Miller of Portland, Ore., in a turnout off a dirt road. Nick wore a San Francisco Giants cap having lived in Humboldt where his dad once was a forester. Alas, he knew his way around the woods.

The one on the right might be the Screaming Titans -- the photo is too tight to be certain

“Are you going to see the Titans,” he asked.
We popped into the forest from a side entrance that included an ascent over slippery roots. We knew the Titans grove would be somewhere off to the side with hidden paths leading to it. We just weren’t sure where.
Upon reaching a drainage route Nick scampered up the notch valley that looked impassable. I didn’t notice any giant trees in the vicinity though all the trees surrounding us were remarkable in their own right. We backtracked out of the soaked ravine when finding no evidence of human footprints.
Not too much later we encountered what seemed to be some amazing trees. Nick thought one named the Lost Monarch – the largest known coast redwood -- was across the river. We spotted a giant on the other side and figured that was our marker. Then Natalie found another one off to the left. She proved to have a better eye than us. That tree was bigger with an incredible crown. According to Preston’s narrative the Lost Monarch rests among the other Titans. Either Nick’s intel was off or the author purposely obfuscated the truth, something he seemingly has done throughout his storytelling.
Coming around a bend we noticed a huge tree in the distance and stopped. None of us doubted we had encountered a Titan. We sidetracked into the grove on hidden footpaths and marveled at the trees. Based on other people’s photos on the Internet this was one called the “Fused Titan.”

Three images of the Fused Titan


Nick and Natalie had left their elderly chocolate lab in the car and were eager to get back. I bid them adieu as they planned to head to Prairie Creek to the south. I traveled deeper into the forest and suddenly felt guilty my new friends had to take leave. Within minutes it became apparent they had just had a glimpse of the enormity of the Grove of the Titans. El Viejo del Norte immediately caught my attention with a diameter of 23 feet and height of 323 feet. It is the fifth largest coast redwood.
Preston reports that in the late 1990s, Sillett and Taylor found a handful of significant trees in the grove, including Earendil and Elwing. In what Preston describes as a colonnade of trees lie El Viejo and the Lost Monarch just next to it. I lunched by those guys before exploring deeper into the backcountry along a brook that fed a stream and eventually led, like all these tributaries, to the Smith River.
Without corresponding photos I can’t identify every tree I encountered. But that didn’t diminish the sense of wonderment I felt about the natural world. Not one bit.

Some of the majestic redwoods in the fictitious Grove of the Titans. The last one is another Titan but I don't know its name whereas the third one resembles the Lost Monarch, the largest known redwood. They all have names but I don't have overwhelming evidence to identify them other to enjoy their splendor.