• Jeffrey Nytch

Day Two of Jeff's Old Growth Forest Expedition: Redwood State and National Parks

Updated: Jun 15, 2019

After a night of deep sleep – accompanied by the serenades of sea lions resting on a rock offshore – I set out yesterday to begin exploring the park(s). I started by visiting some of the coastal areas, moving north through the various lagoons and then taking a rugged road along the Gold Bluffs, which offered stunning views of the Pacific and the dramatic mouth of the Klamath River.

One of the things that has really struck me here is how forest and sea almost overlap each other. While I recognize there are many places in the world where forest touches sea, for some reason it’s not a combination I tend to think of. Perhaps that’s because my early experience was the coast was the Atlantic coast of the northeast U.S. – a region distinguished by commercial development and sand beaches, with forests (all of which are secondary growth) well removed inland. But here the forests plunge over bluffs right into the ocean, evoking not just great beauty but a sense of undisturbed nature, the sense that this is how it’s been for millennia. There aren’t very many places left that feel that way.

The mouth of the Klamath River boasts not only a spectacular sand bar sort of delta, but also provides a comfy sunning spot for sea lions!

I then turned back south into the heart of the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, which contains another one of these roads that winds its way through stunning groves of giants. There were many trails to choose from, but one in particular sort of called my name and so I spent the next several hours hiking it.

Once I was back in the forest, the camera was constantly out. Though I knew that photos would never do justice to the experience, I couldn’t help myself – the 50 or so pictures here have been dramatically culled! But each tree has its own character, its own personality, so it was difficult to not want to photograph every one. The first thing sacrificed with a photograph is that one loses a sense of scale: trees of this size are simply not in our normal realm of experience. We lack a frame of reference, despite my use of an extra hat (or a car) for comparison.

Nevertheless, the awe never wore off; at every turn of the trail I would see a new wonder: a burled base unlike any other, a curiously twisted trunk, a group of stems combined to produce a base almost beyond comprehension, or a group of particularly regal trees reaching upward like living pillars of a green cathedral. I lost count of the number of times I caught my breath and uttered an involuntary, “Oh, my god.”

What I wasn’t expecting was the amount of destruction found on the forest floor. Massive tree falls were everywhere, and since redwoods can take decades to decay, there was a huge variety of forms. With the fresher trunks it was easy to spot more or less the entire tree – though it was often broken in several lengths as it fell. Trunks that had been around for decades were gradually being overtaken by the forest, covered in ferns and bracken, and oftentimes, providing the substrate for a new sapling to emerge. As I went further up the trail I found more and more fallen trees, and I started to explore the wreckage more closely; the look of the roots, the giant holes once filled by the root ball, the many ways the forest reclaimed the wood once it was on the ground. Many trunks were charred, due to lightning I suppose. Some broke off mid-trunk, others toppled from the roots. I spent a lot of time trying to imagine the sound that must have been created by these enormous entities first fracturing and then crashing to the forest floor. There was one moment when I was looking at a tree that was particularly askew and wondering how long it had before it fell, and just then I heard a sharp crack from high above. I looked around frantically for what seemed like an eternity before a (small) branch landed on the trail about 30 feet ahead of me. So that was my adrenaline rush for the day.

We think of these trees as being timeless – certainly, in terms of our relationship with any other living beings on the planet, trees are as close to timeless as living things can get. And yet this forest offered another view, one of a forest constantly changing, constantly moving through the cycles of birth, growth, death, and rebirth. In viewing how these trees died we can see how even these timeless giants are mortal, even if their lifespan extends far beyond anything we can comprehend. The fallen giants reminded me that, while the ancient residents of the forest may evoke stillness and permanence, the forest is actually a highly dynamic place, filled with motion, sound, and destruction.

And in the midst of all that, constant renewal:

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