JEDEDIAH SMITH SP
Intermezzo - Last Run Down the Coast
By 7:30 a.m. I hitch up the 5th wheel and I’m carefully threading my way through the narrow interior roads that make up the campgrounds of Bullard’s Beach, eager, as always when I settle in behind the steering wheel, to hit the road. It’s only 113 miles down the coast to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, which is situated at the most northern tip of California.
I’ve been too harsh in my judgment of Bullard’s Beach. At first, following my stay in the enchanted forest at Beverly Beach, Bullard’s Beach seemed prosaic and uninspiring. But the longer I stayed, the more activities I discovered and it turns out the Bullard’s Beach is a perfect staging area for many adventures.
I intend to take my time driving south, stopping at some of the many scenic viewpoints and state parks along the way. Fog, however, intervenes. Sometimes it’s thick and impenetrable as gray gauze. When I stop, I can hear the pounding surf below the cliffs, but can’t see it; sometimes the fog sends wispy tendrils inland from the sea, tumbling in pinwheels as it moves like the delicate hair of a baby’s head. Other times fog hovers overhead, a heavy leaden lid that blocks the sun, or, teasingly, retreats offshore in a distant fog bank, ready to make another assault on the coast.
Only a few stops along the way afford me the chance to see the surf and the ocean beyond. I linger at these and often climb down the paths that lead from the viewpoints 200 feet above. I wander freely over the expanse of sand, marveling at how different each beach is from the others, yet how the same. One, called Arizona Beach, has black sand, unusual if not unique for Oregon. It’s a small crescent beach about a quarter mile long, anchored on each end by a bulwark of cliffs. You would not want to be stranded on a beach like this with an unusually high tide rolling in.
The southern part of Oregon’s coast is much more rugged than farther north, and the small villages less frequent. The forest thickens and the trees rise taller; the mountains reach right down to the shore, the surf sometimes smashing directly into their bare, rocky roots causing huge plumes of spray to shoot skyward. The coast highway is chiseled into the mountain flanks, curving left and right, up and down, as the topography dictates.
Finally the road turns away from the coast. Jedediah Smith State Park is located in an old-growth grove some six or eight miles inland from the beach. The narrow highway to it snakes among prodigious redwoods, some rising eight feet wide directly from the edge of the pavement. They wouldn’t register even a shiver if a vehicle missed a curve and smashed into one, so massive are they. A few soar to over 300 feet; the average mature tree is over 250.
You would think trees of this size would be visible, but no, it’s not always so. At my new campsite I attempt again to shoehorn the trailer into location that was designed, I think, by an avid tent camper. With no one to spot for me I get out of the truck and try to memorize what’s behind me and which way the trailer must point as I back it. I back very slowly, getting in and out of the truck to spot many times. As I roll back the last few inches I feel a slight hesitation, as though a tire was running over a small rock.
Nope. I have backed directly into a tree big as a house, the protruding bicycle rack hanging on the trailer’s ladder making just enough contact to bend the ladder inward about 3 inches. I pull forward a couple of feet and call it good enough, pissed at myself for making these stupid mistakes. A good spotter is invaluable when maneuvering a big rig like this. Luckily I have a six foot length of 2×4 in the truck bed; I use to pry the ladder back into position. When I finish, I can’t see that any harm was done. I’ve been pulling this trailer for eight years without making a mark on it, so what’s up? Two hits on the trip so far and I’m only at the half-way point.
I go to the fireside program in the amphitheater at 8:00 p.m. to listen to a talk called “Old Growth.” From the title, I expect it to be about me. To my disappointment, however, it’s about old growth forests.
After the program I chat with Ranger Debi, the evening’s speaker, about various trails in the park. The subject of plantar fasciitis comes up, along with my lack of trekking poles. She generously offers to bring hers in tomorrow so I can borrow them for a couple of days. Offer graciously accepted.
I’m off to a slow start this morning since Ranger Debi doesn’t go on duty until 10:00 a.m. At ten o’clock I’m at her door; she hands me the poles and I’m off for a hike on the Mill Creek Trail.
Actually, it isn’t so much ahike as it is a stroll. The easy path runs 2.8 miles through old-growth timber to intersect Howland Hill Road, a one lane packed-earth road that winds through the heart of the woods, ending in Crescent City, ten miles away. I say it was a stroll because I take it at a slow pace, marveling every step of the way at the forest and stopping frequently to take pictures and/or change camera lenses. Reaching Howland Hill Road, I loop back via the road to the Stout grove near the campground. About 5.5 miles in all.
Decent pictures are technically difficult to take because of the intense chiaroscuro of light and shadow in the forest. Nor do other photos I’ve taken fail so utterly to convey the sense of scale necessary to appreciate the size of these trees. In photographs, the trees could be in almost any forest. In person, they’re colossal to the point of disbelief. I may have overstated the forest at Beverly Beach, but there’s no overstating this one. It puts the “prime” back in primeval.
Dozens of fern species carpet the forest floor, along with patches of redwood sorrel. Then, among the Douglas fir and white oak at the mid-story, the titans rise up, up—straight as soldiers. The most ancient are around 1500 years old and 325 feet tall. They each consume about 500 gallons of water every day, which takes a month to be pumped from the roots up to the crown of the tree. The ranger says there’s more biomass per acre (about 2,000 tons) in this temperate rain forest than there is in the deepest reaches of the Amazon jungle.
My plan for tomorrow, my heel permitting, is to hike to Boy Scout Tree. At 30 feet in diameter (not circumference!) it’s one of the largest trees in the park—and therefore the world.
Boy Scout Tree
There's a photograph dating from the 1920s that depicts a troop of Boy Scouts, neatly dressed in their uniforms, standing in front of this tree. Hence the name: Boy Scout Tree. The Boy Scout Tree Trail begins about halfway down the Howland Hill road, so narrow in places my truck’s mirrors nearly scrape giant redwoods standing across from each other.
The trail is 2.8 miles long and leads deeper into the forest than did the Mill Creek Trail. It’s also somewhat hillier, but otherwise virtually indistinguishable from Mill Creek. At 8:30 a.m., I’m the first person in the parking pullout at the trail head. I strike out on the path, which runs uphill at the beginning. Notwithstanding the initial ascent, it’s an easy trail; about half of it is smooth-packed dirt and the rest is partly rocky or rough because of protruding roots.
Slowed once again because of my painful heel, I wind for about an hour through the verdant ferns, mosses and tangled understory, and among numberless great redwoods before reaching the tree for which the trail is named.
And it is huge. It stands out among its giant brethren, an unmistakable behemoth. I take a few pictures of the tree, aware that they can’t possibly convey its size. I even try a couple of self-portraits by balancing my camera on a log and running to the tree while its timer ticks down.
Then, finding a place to sit, I simply remain motionless awhile. There is almost no sound in the forest. No chirping of birds or skittering of little creatures on the forest floor. All I hear is the hooting complaint of a distant owl, no doubt upset because I’ve disturbed his domain so early in the day. Soon he falls silent too, and all that remains is quietude so absolute it muffles my ears unnaturally, as if they had cotton balls stuffed in them. Nothing, not even the most delicate frond bowing to a breeze, moves. Perfect stillness.
After a while—I couldn’t count it in minutes—another hiker appears and the quiet is broken. The usual trail chatter ensues: where ya from, how long ya been here, where ya headed, blah, blah, etc. Unlike anywhere elsewhere, I find it easy to make conversation with fellow travellers, whether in camp or on the trail. It’s a big part of why I love this lifestyle: because, well—it makes me feel normal. Nobody here wants to talk about sports scores, who’s been traded to what team, the latest scandal in Washington, which celebrity is married to whom, or who’s winning American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. None of that.
Among the peculiarities I notice along the way are burls, nurse logs, and iterations. Burls are growths, often massive, that sometimes form on a tree where it’s been injured, perhaps by lightning or a collision with a fallen neighbor. They are similar to benign tumors and can take on any shape; some people see faces in them, or animals, like one sometimes sees in clouds. Nurse logs are fallen redwoods that have begun to decay. Because for centuries they’ve been sucking up an concentrating nutrients from the soil, they’re an ideal medium for supporting newly sprouted seeds from many species that inhabit the forest. And iterations, perhaps the strangest of all, are differing species whose seeds have somehow found a resting place way up on the side of a tree, where they sprout and become trees themselves. Typically an iteration will grow straight out from its host tree for a foot or so, then turn 90 degrees upward, reaching for the sun. There can be iterations upon iterations; up to eight have been counted by scientists who study them.
My new friend leaves after about 20 minutes. I give him a respectful head start and turn back down the trail myself, at a strolling pace, not hiking. By the time I reach my truck it’s approaching mid-afternoon. I drive the second half of Howland Hill Road to its end in Crescent City, by the sea. Stopping at McDonald’s, I try to catch up my last two or three blogs, but their wifi is unbearably slow so I give up. At Safeway I stock up on more fresh produce; I haven’t opened a can since I started the trip. Camping with a fully stocked refrigerator is quite the luxury.
NOTE: Sunday morning I'll start the two-day drive to Burning Man. Unfortunately, I’m unlikely to have any internet access for the next week, so I’ll be incommunicado until I reach Lake Tahoe. Thanks for coming along…
A Cry for Help
This is a day I spend in the campground just puttering around in the forest. It’s memorable for one incident, however. As I’m riding my bike through the little-used picnic area, which is somewhat removed from the camping area, I suddenly hear the sound of a person running on the road somewhere behind me, screaming hysterically, “Help, help! Oh please help! Help me!” There is the sound of sheer terror in the voice.
Wanting to help, of course, but nevertheless apprehensive about what kind of situation I might find myself in, I make U-turn in the road and ride back toward the voice. It’s a boy, who can barely get the words “I’m lost” out of his mouth as he continues to scream, tears running down his face. “Help me, please, help me! Oh, my mom’s gonna kill me!”
I try to calm him down by saying, “Don’t worry. We’ll find find your mom. I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you.” I ask if he knows his campsite number, and fortunately he does. “It’s 96,” he manages to say between great heaving sobs.
Just looking at him I think, by his size, he must be about 14 years old—a little too old to be carrying on this way. Later I figure he’s just large for his age, obese as well as tall. Maybe he’s 9 or 10. I get off my bike and start walking toward the ranger station with him, asking his name.
“Jonathan,” he sobs.
“Where you from, Jonathan?”
“N-n-n-nome, Alaska,” he stutters between sobs. He looks like he’s of Eskimo heritage.
“Wow, that’s a long way. Ever been here before?”
“N-no, I’ve never been anywhere before. Th-this has never happened to me before.” He’s still sobbing heavily and crying.
I tell him not to worry, we’ll just get a map from the ranger station and take you right to your camp.
Only after we’ve talked to the ranger and she’s marked his campsite on the map does Jonathan begin to calm down. He even explains that he was sent through the woods to his aunt’s campsite to get some diapers for his baby sister. (Now I see that what he’s clutching in his hand are tiny diapers. Before, I thought they were feminine hygiene pads and didn’t want to ask….)
I say, “Look, we’re right here,” pointing to our position on the map.
He takes the map from my hand, turning it this way and that. Then he says, pointing, “We go that way.” Using the map he guides us all the way to his campsite, where there’s a tearful reunion with his mom.
It was a harrowing experience for Jonathan and an unnerving one for me. But I ride away feeling I’ve accomplished something today.