When we woke in the morning, Simone still wasn’t feeling any better but there was barely time to dwell on snot or strep throat. The trilliums were amassed in diffuse colors, the colossal redwoods stretched up around us, and the eerie echo of a Pileated was somewhere in the vicinity. The air had the perfume of healthy decay you only experience in the best of forests.
Driving back into the Stout Grove we marveled at the houses along the Smith River. Perched upon the both jagged and water worn banks of the river, with some of the largest Redwoods in the world in their backyard, it was hard not to feel the twinge of jealousy. The sunlight arrowed through the tall trees as we traveled back up the dirt road from the night before.
When I enter old growth I feel immensely humbled and I think that’s what a lot of people are looking for there. In fact I believe it’s the most appropriate of reactions. You are supposed to feel dwarfed, feel outnumbered, and helpless in the midst of giants destined to be eons older than yourself. To marvel at the natural world is to realize that the earth doesn’t revolve around your tepid life and that although you can do great things, you aren’t Atlas and you can’t rock the boat. That’s how I felt when we took a stroll through the Stout Grove. With the Varied Thrush whistling all about and poison oak vines snaking up the trees in the morning radiance it was hard to imagine coming into this place and seeing only board feet.
This also brought to mind a story my father told me about coming to the redwoods with his brother Johnny who lives in Australia like most of his side of the family. Apparently when my parent’s were living in Los Angeles before I was born, Johnny came to visit and they wanted to show him something special. Heading into the redwoods, they thought, would be a great treat. But apparently he refused to camp in the forests upon arrival because he figured if the trees were that large, then Bigfoot had to be too large to want to encounter. Despite the fact that he worked and still does work with hundreds of exotic ways to get killed in Australia, the thought of a mythical creature was enough to deter him. And I’m silly for being afraid of Tiger Snakes?
We wound through the rest of the drive relaxed as can be. In places the truck barely squeezed through the trees on either side of the road. Other revelers passed, often at a loss for words, only nodding slack jawed as we came close. However, before we knew it, 101 loomed ahead and we were heading south.
Having gotten word that Gray Whales were at the Kalamath River outlet, we drove to an overlook to see if we could glimpse a few. In no time we were seeing breaching blowholes of young whales and their mothers, resting in the calm shallow waters below. I helped some people from Minnesota, who announced: “We don’t have whales in the Midwest” take a look at their first through my scope. The ease of observing the whales makes them seem somewhat mundane but these animals were halfway through a lengthy voyage from far to the south and would end up in the seas around Alaska, many with young. Can you comprehend a many thousand-mile journey with a toddler using only your natural means of transportation? Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of standing atop Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon coast as a child and watching distant sprays from traveling pods. It always made me wish for a Yellow Submarine so that I could join them.
Once again filled with a passion and curiosity for the natural world we moved on. The next stop was the old Coastal Highway. This road was once the old way of travel along the coast and though we were assured that Model-T Fords had once traveled this way, I had an astringent time imagining it as the truck rattled up the road in low gear. It sounded like a buffalo dying inside the hood.
Spring was truly in full swing as we bounced along. Between stops to survey the calm Pacific (living up to its name), we found some great wildflowers including a new species of trillium for both of us. The views were astounding, making you feel like you were going to slip off into the turquoise water down slope without even realizing.
Relieved to be off the potholed road, we were back on a scenic route through Redwood National Park en route to Prarie Creek State Park (a sub region of the giant park complex). Again the road narrowed, giving precedence to the towering redwoods and we seemed to be solitary in some shaded mythical land. Snapping back into reality we reached the Prairie Creek Visitor Center, entering again the full sunlight and a large meadow with signs warning not to approach Elk. Although typically these signs are for the most absurd tourist, it wasn’t too terrible of a reminder for Simone and I. We perused the extensive book collection and museum at the visitor center, resisting the urge to spend the money we’d soon be making on field guides. After seeing a picture of the Gold Bluffs and Fern Canyon in the museum, it was an easy choice to stay down on the beach.
Quickly finding a camping spot at the Gold Bluffs with a direct view of the reflective pacific, we found ourselves at the entrance to Fern Canyon. It’s hard to describe the extreme beauty of this deep cut into the hillside. For 50 feet on either side, a least six species of fern grew on moist, vertical walls. The debris of floods and landslides clogged some areas, while some openings were nothing but creek bed and chartreuse walls of vegetation.
Despite its sublime beauty this isn’t a natural canyon at all. Formed by early mining for gold along the beach, miners apparently used water canons to wash away topsoil in their pursuit of wealth. Home Creek – the natural vein of water in the canyon also helped to continue to erode away the canyon but the sheer walls are artifacts of human disturbance. At least now you can’t even tell.
There are no real paths up the canyon and in many places you have to search out crossings. In some places I didn’t have the patience to walk until I found one. On the way back I decided to start cutting corners by jumping some expanses of creek.
“Watch this,” I said to Simone, indicating my intent to span the wide creek ahead of me.
She looked as me as if to suggest I was explaining calculus, “You can’t make that”
“Sure I can – watch me”
Knowing this was going to be worth having on film, Simone readied the camera.
I didn’t make it.
Feet wet, tired from the long day of exploration, we retired back to camp. After a quick dinner we walked the beach in search of dead birds (seriously) but unsuccessful, found ourselves back at camp again. Although it seemed a shame to turn in right at sunset (I’ll be damned if I didn’t miss photographing that last bit of light before the sun dipped below the horizon), we were both ragged from the road.