Engaging Journeys, Engaged Journalism

Into the Woods

It’s not as if there are no redwoods before you get to Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. Stranded stands of coast redwoods can be found along the Central Coast, in protected, wetter areas as far as the southernmost reaches of Big Sur. But here, along the North Coast, is where the tribe truly thrives. They once numbered an estimated two million, but even here the native population of coastal redwood trees has been reduced through logging and agricultural clearing to isolated groves of virgin trees. The tallest trees in the state but only the fourth oldest, survivors of the species Sequoia sempervirens are nonetheless ancient. Well established here when dinosaurs roamed the earth, redwood predecessors flourished throughout the Northern Hemisphere 60 million years ago. Redwoods made their last stand in California, isolated from the rest of their kind by thick ice sheets a million years ago. Here in northeastern California is where they still stand.

The Trees That Live Forever

Elders among today’s coastal redwoods are at least 2,200 years old. These trees thrive in low, foggy areas protected from fierce offshore winds. Vulnerable both to wind and soil erosion, shallow-rooted redwoods tend to topple over during severe storms. These giants have no need for deep taproots. During dry seasons fog collects on their needle-like leaves, then drips down the trunk or directly onto the ground, where the fog-equivalent of up to 50 inches of rainfall annually is absorbed by hundreds of square feet of surface roots. That’s in addition to seasonal rainfall, which can be substantial.

Unlike the stately, individualistic Sierra big trees or Sequoiadendron giganteum, comparatively scrawny coastal redwoods (still, some are truly huge) reach up to the sky in dense, dark-green clusters—creating living, breathing cathedrals lit by filtered flames of sun or shrouded in fog. The north coast’s native peoples religiously avoided inner forest areas, the abode of spirits (some ancestral). But in the modern world, the sacred has become profane. A single coast redwood provides enough lumber for hundreds of hot tubs, patio decks, and wine vats, or a couple of dozen family cabins, or a hefty school complex. Aside from its attractive reddish color, pungent fragrance, and water- and fire-resistance, redwood is also decay-, insect-, and fungus-resistant—making it all the more attractive for human purposes.

On the Boy Scout Tree Trail, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (photo by Miguel Vieira)

On the Boy Scout Tree Trail, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (photo by Miguel Vieira)

Trees may be “harvested” and then trucked off to sawmills, but coast redwoods never really die. Left to their own devices, redwoods are capable of regenerating themselves without seeds. New young trees shoot up from stumps or from roots around the base of the old tree, forming gigantic woodland fairy rings in second- or third-growth forests. And each of these trees, when mature, can generate its own genetically identical offspring. Sometimes a large, straight limb from a fallen tree will sprout, sending up a straight line of trees. In heavily logged or otherwise traumatized forest areas, tiny winged redwood seeds find room to take root, sprout, and eventually flourish, blending into a forest with stump-regenerated trees.

Head to Humboldt Redwoods State Park and Redwood National Park to learn more about California’s amazing coast redwoods.

Surviving on Shaky Ground

Even survivors as ingenious as coast redwoods can be brought down by unexpected trouble, of course—just like north coast settlements, which also tend to sprout up in valleys and other inland areas protected from the gale-force storms that pound the western edge of the continent.

But some of these areas, including those near the Eel, Garcia, and Mad Rivers, parallel major northwesterly earthquake fault zones. As it turns out, even the redwoods, those gentle giants of the North Coast, stand on shaky ground. The seismically active San Andreas Fault (responsible for San Francisco’s devastating earthquake and fire in 1906 and again in 1989) runs north from the Bay Area on the seaward side of the mountains before veering back out to sea at Point Arena. Other faults related to the 1992 Eureka-area quake cluster farther north.

According to recent geologic speculations, a massive earthquake is likely somewhere along the Pacific Northwest’s offshore Cascadia subduction zone within the next 50-150 years. Such a quake, expected to register as high as 9.5 on the “energy magnitude” scale (considered more accurate than the Richter scale for major quakes), could occur anywhere from Vancouver Island in British Columbia to Mendocino in California. This event would be more powerful than any earthquake the San Andreas Fault could generate, much more powerful than any quake ever measured in the mainland U.S., and roughly equal in destructive force to Chile’s 1960 earthquake (the 20th century’s most devastating).

The James Irvine Trail (photo by Justin Kern)

The James Irvine Trail (photo by Justin Kern)

Before arriving at this ominous conclusion, Humboldt State University geologists studied the Little Salmon Fault near Eureka. Their preliminary findings, announced in 1987 at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, suggest that the fault slipped 30-33 feet in separate earthquakes occurring roughly every 500 years during the past half-million years—facts pointing to quakes of “awesome, incomprehensible” power.


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