North Coast Series: A Forest Primeval

A 400-mile sea kayak voyage down California’s Pacific shore

Morning sun sends a shaft of light through foggy redwoods.

Morning sun sends a shaft of light through foggy redwoods.

By Paul McHugh

SEPT. 12, 2005 — As we paddled out over the Klamath River bar, and turned our course south to head away from the Yurok village at Requa we saw hillsides swathed in Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and coast redwoods soar up on our port side – just as they had on our route from Crescent City to the Klamath.

One thing was quite different, though. An element was smaller: the surf. Waves breaking across the bar were just a third the size they'd been two days earlier, when I'd spun over at the beach and snapped my new graphite paddle in half as we struggled to make landfall.

The Busted Paddle Blues

Now bandaged and splinted, that same paddle was in my hands as we slid past Oregos Rock, our boats scoring a boost from river current as we headed back to sea. The shaft flexed strangely in my hands as I dug deep to charge into the waves. Would my repair hold?

I crashed into the first swell, just to the left of John Weed, one of my two companions. Then crested over the second wave, and suddenly we were calmly afloat on an undulating Pacific below a cool grey sheet of high fog.

We'd made it through, but my paddle had seriously flunked its first test, and now made a droopy "U." I broke it down the rest of the way and pulled my spare blade out from its spot under the deck straps to draft it into service. Bo Barnes, the other member of our expedition trio, arrived. Stroking in unison, we voyaged south along the verdant shore.

"This is the forest primeval…" I was murmuring that line from the Longfellow poem like a mantra as we went.

Along the Ancient Trees

Among the sprawling slope of trees, dark and distinctive emerald spires of redwoods soared highest, as if straining to poke holes up into the veil of mist. Redwoods love cool sea fogs. Moisture combed from the sky drips from their needles to provide major summer precipitation, adding twenty inches or more to annual rainfall. This, I imagine, is a genuine Jurassic Park, a landscape from the age of the dinosaurs. We're fortunate that it survives in modern times.

Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) as a species are older than the Himalaya. In fact, they're nine times older than this 20 million year-old strip of shore that became their final refuge. It's only a patch on the grandeur they once displayed. To grasp that, imagine a scene like this one replicated around the entire globe.

A dozen species of redwood once formed much of the world's forest cover, while the great Pangea land mass gradually broke up into continents. New mountains rose, ice sheets descended, and the last three redwood species were chased into regions with north-south aligned mountain ranges, where the trees could migrate, depending on climate. They escaped by moving, step-by-step (or seed-by-seed, if you prefer) to ground that most nearly resembled ancient areas where they had evolved.

Where blocked by east-west aligned ranges, they were eliminated.

Even in this Northern California stronghold, they almost didn't make it – due to us, I'm afraid.

Before the European settlers arrived, this coast had some 20 million acres of virgin redwood forests. Local Indian tribes who crafted their dugout canoes and plank houses from fallen logs and driftwood didn't even make a dent in it. But once steel axes and saws, and then powered chainsaws came onto the scene, the pace of harvest really picked up.

A Refuge for Redwoods

Paul McHugh sets up his tent at Hidden Beach, on the north side of Redwood Creek

Paul McHugh sets up his tent at Hidden Beach, on the north side of Redwood Creek

Redwood makes beautiful lumber, it's soft and workable and stays resistant to insects and rot because of loads of tannin and aromatic phenols. It was harvested vigorously from 1850 onward. Today, just 3-4 percent of the virgin trees remain, saved in a few frantically designated parks and preserves.

Early on, it was seen as part of our commonwealth, but it was diverted into private hands through a variety of schemes and scams. There's a pungent irony in the fact that our government, fleeced of its redwoods more than a century ago, had to spend more than $1 billion in public funds to buy parts of the region back.

To soften the impact on communities that had become dependent on robust levels of timber harvest, proponents of the new Redwood National Park promised a fresh stream of revenue would derive from upwards of a million park visitors per year. Tourists who wandered through the tall trees were expected to lavish cash on lodging, food, gas and souvenirs. But this notion only partially panned out.

During my first year as the Chronicle's outdoor writer, 1985, I visited here by auto, and listened as park official Bob Belous lamented that half the park's budget had to be spent on reforestation projects and erosion response, instead of visitor outreach.

"Our absolute first job was damage control," Belous said. "Now, at least, we can put more into visitor service. I guess we'll reach our goal of a million visitor-days per year within the next few years."

But by the mid 1990's, Redwood Park visitation had still barely attained half that number. And since then, it's declined to around 400,000 in 2004.
(Author's note: visitation finally crested the one million mark in 2014.)

Y'all Come Real Soon, Y'hear?

During one of my scouting and research drives for this voyage, I spoke to Rick Nolan, the park's current chief of interpretation. He said he thinks this region lies just a few too many driving miles from the S.F. Bay Area and Sacramento (not to mention Greater L.A.) to be seen as a weekend destination.

"Legally, we're not allowed to spend money marketing ourselves," Nolan said. "All we can do is heal the forest, build visitor-serving facilities, create programs, and hope for the best. We do pass information on to the local chambers of commerce. They're the ones who have to put out the message."

All right, well, I will too. Here's that message.

These redwood state and national parks on the North Coast possess all the grandeur of a Yosemite, except for the famous big rocks. Um, I take that back. Stand atop a vista point on the coast bluffs, or view them from sea level as we are doing, and you should find the local geology around here impressive enough.

Anyway, the forest biome features natural splendor in abundance. Yosemite's tiny groves of another redwood species, the hardy mountain survivor Sequoia gigantea, may each extend a few hundred yards. But here, the russet colonnades of soaring redwoods go on for miles.

Besides that, in Yosemite it can easily take an hour to walk to anything like a wilderness experience. Here, a few minutes from most trailheads, you can wander into a natural cathedral where raven acolytes chant from the high lofts of limbs that sigh in cool ocean breeze.

The Ossagon Rocks

And as we are discovering on this voyage, the expanse of redwoods can also be appreciated from offshore.

Our marine scene also provides a few spectacles of its own. As I scouted near shore, Barnes and Weed swung outside a seam in the offshore current, where they drew close to a humpback whale and spotted pods of harbor porpoises.

Then we swung close to shore to take a gander at the Ossagon Rocks, also holy to the Yuroks, a natural Stonehenge of tall outcrops that jutted from sand at the north end of Gold Bluff Beach.

Our final vista of the day was a sprawling fleece of breakers at the mouth of Redwood Creek, near the town of Orick. From the National Park, we had purchased a special permit to camp at a spot called Hidden Beach on the creek's north bank. But before we could pitch our tents, we had to manage landfall there. This prospect made me a bit nervous, given my harsh landing two days before on the Klamath bar.

"Well, guess I'm the test dummy," I announced. I picked out a low swell and rode it all the way to the sand without incident. My companions also landed handily.

We had covered 21.4 miles in just over six hours, our best day of travel so far. We set up camp and cooked soup for dinner, as the seas mumbled and sighed onto the beach. Sunset light glowed on the landscape around us, reflecting from pale driftwood logs and tawny bluffs. As I sat in my tent to tap out this story on a keyboard, I heard my companions, a few yards away, picking out tunes on harmonica and guitar.

A Short History of the Salvation of Redwoods

Most large holdings in redwood country were put together via timber company manipulations of the Homestead Act (1862) and the Timber and Stone Act (1878). Commonly, settlers, laborers and sailors from coastal ports were paid nominal fees for acquiring their individual 160-acre patches, which were then linked up in huge swaths.

As the forests were sawn down, appeals were made to save major groves with parks in 1852 (by a California assemblyman), 1879 (a federal Secretary of the Interior), 1904 (Teddy Roosevelt) and 1908 (1,400 Eureka schoolchildren).

Save-the-Redwoods League, formed in 1918, then rode to the rescue, helping to establish four state parks in the 1920's. The federal government, prodded by the Sierra Club, finally swung into action in 1968, after the "tallest trees in the world" (upwards of 350 feet high) were located in a canyon of Redwood Creek. The first national park comprised 58,000 acres

But this long, skinny swatch of forest (nicknamed The Worm) was surrounded by steep hillsides where logging proceeded unabated. So, in 1978, a controversial park expansion took place. This, despite memorable protests that included a convoy of logging trucks driven to Washington D.C. carrying a log carved by chainsaws into the shape of a peanut.

The sardonic gift to President Carter was not accepted. Soon thereafter, 48,000 acres were added to the national park; 80 percent of which were logged-over acres in need of restoration.

In 1994, three state parks in the region (Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Redwoods, Prairie Creek) entered a joint operating agreement with the National Park Service.

The newest addition to the state parks is 25,000 acres of the Mill Creek drainage, an important, coho salmon-bearing tributary to the Smith River. It fills in a belt of park land to connect Smith and Del Norte parks. When that's accomplished, Redwood National and State Parks will be a unified 130,000-acre preserve, a sixth the size of Yosemite National Park.

— See all previous posts from the NORTH COAST SERIES

Ed. Note: Paul McHugh’s North Coast Series first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on S.F. Gate in 2005. The posts, edited and updated for this version, follow McHugh, John Weed and Bo Barnes on a 400-mile, sea kayak voyage along California’s shore. The stories will be posted on CanoeKayak.com almost daily as they appeared 11 years ago, following the crew from their launch on September 6th through their paddle under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 5th.