Tall tales about tall trees

tree3There can be up to half a million board feet of lumber in a single mature giant redwood. It seems sacrilegious to think of these natural wonders in woodshop terms, but they did provide our ancestors with the lumber to build entire cities. And it’s impossible to stand among them, if you’re the kind of person who owns a table saw, and not think about the massive amount of rich, red heartwood.

Oh, come on. It’s OK to just think about it.

Nowadays, most commercially available redwood is the result of planting. The virgin forests are off limits. While a few of the old-growth trees still standing are up to 2,000 years old, the average age is still an impressive 600. That’s a century before Columbus reached the Caribbean, which is a humbling thought.

Some 96 percent of the original coastal redwoods were logged in the last two centuries and just under half of the remaining trees live within the boundaries of Redwood National and State Parks. One of the easiest ways to experience these giants is to make your way to Crescent City, Calif., near the Oregon border. A mile south of town on U.S. 101, turn left onto Elk Valley Road and, after another mile, turn right on Howland Hill Road. This is a 10-mile stretch of gravel, barely wide enough in places for one car to pass, let alone two. It meanders through the forest in a breathtaking self-guided (and absolutely free) tour that takes about 45 minutes if you don’t stop.

tree2But you’ll stop. Several times.

If you’ve been to Rome or Mecca, Ranakpur, or perhaps the Old City of Jerusalem, you might have experienced a spiritual moment akin to standing among these forest giants. The bases of some of the trees are more than 20 feet in diameter and they are so tall (up to 350 feet) that they have two distinct climate zones. Up top, mists from the Pacific graze the crowns, while down on the forest floor the light is refracted, ephemeral and dappled. There is a stillness below that is at odds with the sheer volume of life all around — ferns, saplings, mosses, ivy, mushroom-like fungi and, of course, deer, birds and a panoply of insects. Stand with your feet splayed for balance and look up and up and up. There, scratching the underbelly of the clouds, is a bushy exuberance of foliage at the tip of each of these impossibly tall trunks. The boles themselves are almost naked — hardly a limb grew among them as they raced to daylight. Watch the sky skate by the crowns and the immense scale of your surroundings makes you feel the rotation of the planet.

This is an extraordinary place.

These are the tallest trees on Earth.

A few facts

The range of the giant redwoods is a narrow strip along the coast of California, less than 500 miles long and running from Big Sur to a little bit north of the Oregon border. The range extends inland a few miles for most of its length and is less than 50 miles at its widest. Howland Hill Road, which begins less than a mile from the coast, runs east-northeast and eventually makes its way to U.S. 199 near Hiouchi, where there is an interpretive center. (The park headquarters are back in Crescent City, at the junction of Second and K Streets, so there’s information available at either end of the road.) The entire drive is actually through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. All along it there are numerous pullouts and trailheads, including the Boy Scout Tree Trail and Stout Grove. Stop at any of these and wander through the trees and your thoughts will slide from deadlines and inventory to Frost and Whitman.

tree1The interpretive center has information on all of the local species, along with samples of the leaves/needles, cones, bark, a list of animal species, dioramas of the cycle of water through the trees and an interpretive center staff that can take you through the natural history of the forests and the political history of their stewardship. They’ll tell you about the marbled murrelet, a robin-sized seabird that nests in the crowns and commutes to the nearby ocean at 60 mph to go fishing. And they’ll show you a redwood cone that is only the size of an acorn, yet contains up to a hundred seeds. Each of these trees can produce 10 million seeds, but barely a handful will survive to maturity.

For woodworkers who really want to commune with the trees (and possibly some of the abundant Roosevelt elk), there are four campgrounds in Redwood National and State Parks and it’s just a $35 per night/per site fee to camp. Reservations can be made during the summer season by calling 800-444-7275. If you book May through August, you’ll see swaying hosts of tiger lilies bordering every road, path and forest trail. Dig through the duff (leaves and needles lying on the forest floor) and you have a chance of meeting some of the permanent residents in the redwood parks. These include salamanders, Northern red-legged frogs, hedge nettles and even wild ginger.

The family factor

If you bring your offspring — and they’re old enough to use Google — they’re going to bug you about “that tree you can drive through”. There are actually three of them, all on private land: Klamath Tour Thru Tree, Myers Flat Shrine Tree and Leggett Chandelier Tree. The road at the Klamath tree ($5, call 707-482-5971 for directions) runs through a 725-year-old living trunk, long scarred by lightning and carved as a tunnel in 1976. The Myers Flat tree (707-943-1975) has an upside-down V-shaped split in the trunk and there’s a $6 fee to drive through. And the Leggett Chandelier tree (also $5, 707-925-6464) tops out at 315 feet high with an enormous base that measures 21 feet in diameter. It has adjacent trails for hiking, a large duck pond, a gift shop and picnic tables in the shade.

In each of the drive-through trees, a woodworker can make out the pith, heartwood, sapwood, phloem and xylem layers and marvel at the unbelievable thickness of the bark. It takes a bit of time to stand there and examine the tree, so visit early in the morning before the tourists arrive.

Redwood National Park was dedicated back on Oct. 2, 1968. However, the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park dates to 1923, while Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park was established in 1925. The Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (where Howland Hill Road is) came into being in the summer of 1929. Combined, Redwood National and State Parks encompass 131,983 acres and, of those, about 38,982 acres are old growth. Yes, we’ve decimated their population, but almost 40,000 acres of preservation is still quite an achievement.

All along the coast, there are small sawmills — often just a backyard with a gas-driven band mill — that follow the somewhat-complicated rules about harvesting so they can legally offer slabs or boards or even blocks of old-growth redwood for sale. This wood can have the richest ruby coloring, streaked with purples and browns and girded in stark-white sapwood. Some of it is highly figured and most has straight-grain and some knots. To find sources, just Google “old growth redwood slabs”.

tree4What some visitors find surprising is that the giant sequoias (located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains) are actually larger in volume than the coastal redwoods. However, they are not taller. And age is another surprise: while some of the redwoods do date back to the time of Christ, there are Bristlecone pines all over the West that can be as old as 5,000 years.

Currently, the tallest known redwood is 379 feet tall. Assuming an average trunk of about 13 feet in diameter, that’s about 50,000 cubic feet (600,000 board feet) of volume. However, the General Sherman sequoia in Giant Forest, which is only 275 feet tall, might actually yield more lumber. Halfway up that particular specimen, the trunk is still a mind-boggling 17 feet in diameter. The National Park Service estimates that the General would yield 630,000 board feet of lumber. That’s enough, they say, “to build 120 average-sized houses. In fact, a single giant sequoia may contain more wood than is found on several acres of some of the finest virgin timberland in the Pacific Northwest. The trunk of General Sherman alone weighs nearly 1,400 tons. That is roughly equivalent to 15 adult blue whales, 10 diesel-electric train locomotives, or 25 military battle tanks!”

That’s enough lumber to persuade a woodworker to book next year’s vacation at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. In fact, an average mature giant sequoia tree adds enough wood each year to make a 60-foot tall, three-foot diameter oak tree.

The enormous size of the redwood trees is due to about a hundred inches of annual rainfall, summer fog that minimizes evaporation, mild temperatures, rich alluvial soil, few natural enemies other than man and extremely thick bark (about 12”) that provides a high degree of protection from the elements. 

For information on California’s giant redwoods, visit www.nps.gov/redw.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.

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