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
MONTGOMERY WOODS STATE RESERVE, California -- Spoilers.
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.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Brazil World Cup stirs memories of '94

Story by Elliott Almond
Noelly Russo doesn’t remember it this way. 
But our first encounter was on the stairs at the Cotton Bowl two decades ago at the World Cup.
I was heading into the bowels of the vast, empty stadium on my way to meet the Bulgarian soccer team before its upcoming game against Nigeria. Coach Dimitar Penev agreed to let a Los Angeles Times reporter enter the locker room to talk to the team, including star striker Hristo Stoichkov.
The only other person in the stands that moment was a dark-haired beauty with a determined look on her face. Noelly was coming my way.
“Are you a Bulgarian official,” she asked when we crossed.
“No,” I said.
I was about to offer her the opportunity to join me for an exclusive interview with the Bulgarians because she looked so frazzled.
Before I extended the invitation Noelly summarily dismissed me with a wave of her hand.
A chance meeting ending like that usually doesn’t lead to an engagement four years later. But that’s how it started for us.
In 1994, I was sent to Dallas to cover FIFA, which set up its headquarters in the Big D. Hot, sticky, Cowboys-loving Dallas.
Most soccer writers were dispatched around the country following their teams. A few of us bunkered down in North Texas to write enterprise and news stories about the World Cup.
One of those reporters was Jorge Luiz Rodrigues, a young writer from O Globo in Rio de Janeiro. Even then Jorge was superb. He’s now one of Brazil’s pre-eminent sports journalists.
It didn’t take long for Jorge and I to become fast friends. Two days after meeting on the stairs, Noelly joined our small band. She worked at Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest paper and a rival of O Globo.  In her eyes, this is when we first met. Not on the stairwell. Not with a quick dismissal.
The Brazilians and I enjoyed the ensuing weeks covering the World Cup and exploring Dallas while enduring the oppressive summer heat.
Then the journalist roof came crashing down when the L.A. Times learned Argentine star Diego Maradona tested positive for ephedrine. My story sent the soccer world into a frenzy.
Argentina just happened to be in Dallas to play Bulgaria. After the game, I stood in the mixed zone where reporters can talk to players as they leave the field.
I couldn’t find Maradona as the dejected Argentines passed through the area after their stunning defeat. Then one of the players told me Maradona was speaking at a Dallas hotel.
I rushed through the media workroom with my computer bag and laptop while American reporters typed out their game stories. About 60,000 fans were leaving the Cotton Bowl causing L.A.- type congestion. But I happened into a taxi driven by an African. I offered him 40 bucks to get me to Maradona.
“Maradona?” he asked loudly. “I love Maradona.”
He drove around, through and over any barrier in the way.
As I reached the hotel lobby I found a teary Maradona in one of his Oscar performances. Noelly also was there, generously translating. She spoke five languages.
With Dallas two hours ahead of Los Angeles, I still had time to write a complete story. But these were the days before wireless connections. I had to return to my hotel to write and send the story.
Noelly gave me her car keys, and somehow got to my hotel later that night to retrieve her rental.
Four years later, she was going to join me in my beloved Seattle. Our friendship had grown into something more.
But the World Cup again would play a central role in our lives. Noelly wanted to cover the 1998 competition in France. I encouraged her to lobby for the assignment before moving to the Pacific Northwest.
The letter came postmarked from Paris that summer. Inside was a scribbled note by way of explanation, and my apartment key.
Noelly never contacted me again.
With the World Cup opening Thursday in her hometown, I can’t help but smile. I hope she’s happy and well in Sao Paulo. I hope this World Cup fosters as many good memories for her as it does for me.