Northern California's wilderness is a land of extremes; coast redwoods tower 325 feet or more above the Russian River, while their 80-year-old pygmy cousins will only reach five feet in height and a quarter-inch in diameter. Douglas firs shoot their reiterated trunks in all directions 175 feet up, but the coast live oaks spread their limbs only a few dozen feet above the fertile soil.
And in the middle of everything is Sam "Oak" Johnson, our host and guide for a week of high-climbing adventure.
Our northern California adventure had actually started in northeast Florida, where Joe of the Jungle and I met up with David "Hunabku" Obi. We flew out of Jacksonville International Airport before dawn on Wednesday, Sept. 2, aboard an American Airlines Boeing 757 passenger jet. We changed planes in Dallas-Fort Worth and three hours later touched down in San Francisco.
It was a rare day in the City By The Bay because the fog had lifted long enough for us to hike out onto the Golden Gate Bridge for a peek at the huge twin towers of San Francisco's signature landmark.
"I'm pretty sure I can get a line over that tower with the Sidewinder", Joe said. He took one look at the dozens of National Park Service police officers who were cruising the bridge on their high-tech bicycles - suicide intervention bags strapped to the handlebars - and decided the effort would be futile. About 200 people a year attempt to jump off the huge bridge into the frigid current below, but very few of them try to climb the soaring towers.
We spent the first night at Hunabku's sister's apartment on the northeast slope of Nob Hill, with the huge bay stretched out below us; the water lit up by the navigational lights on hundreds of small boats and large ships. Alcatraz Island, much smaller than expected, was in the middle distance. Michelle Obi was an excellent hostess.
The next morning, before rush hour could slow us down, we headed north in a rental car across the bridge into Marin County and quickly turned west onto California 1, the coast highway that hugs the 200-foot cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The twisting two-lane highway was almost deserted and we cruised north through forests of Bishop and shore pines, and the occasional eucalyptus groves. The scenery was spectacular.
We finally crossed into Sonoma County and turned east into the coastal range of mountains that were covered with the first large redwoods of our trip. A half dozen miles into the mountains, just north of the little town of Occidental, we found Sam "Oak" Johnson at Westminster Woods. This is the camp where he works as an outdoor education specialist and ropes-course facilitator for part of each year.
Even though all of us had communicated with Sam through the Canopy Chatter message board, wed never had a face-to-face meeting. He turned out to be one of the most pleasantly casual tree climbers we'd ever met - dressed in old hiking shoes, cut-off shorts, a tee shirt that'd seen better days, and a tan baseball cap that kept the California sunshine out of his eyes.
We were expecting to spend the next five nights in the typical camp-style cabins with a dozen bunk beds squeezed into a few square feet, and a hike down the trail to the shower house. Instead, Sam had arranged for us to use a thoroughly modern home on the camp property with three bedrooms, two baths, a large living room and fully equipped kitchen. This was definitely a lot more luxury than we'd planned on!
Even better, the entire camp staff welcomed us with great news: "We've got several hundred acres so if you see a tree you like, just climb it ; it's okay."
Sam still had work to do, so the three of us drove north a dozen or so miles to hike through a popular California state forest that had some of the biggest coastal redwoods in the area - a lot of them were taller than 300 feet.
We got back to camp just minutes before Dr. Pete Lahanas and his twin brother Nick arrived. Those climbers who've taken part in one or more of the annual Republic of Panama Rainforest Tree Climbing Expeditions will know that Pete is director of the biological research station (ITEC) at Boca del Drago near the border between Panama and Costa Rica. Nick, who also has various biology-related college degrees, is a farmer and construction contractor in Oregon.
That evening, about three miles from camp, we discovered one of those "Tree Climber Finds." This turned out to be a thoroughly decrepit but wonderful old bar on the south bank of the Russian River called "The Pink Elephant." The owner/bartender served the most honest drinks and hamburgers anywhere, and the old hippies who hung out in the place were veritable fountains of knowledge about the nearby countryside.
After breakfast Friday morning, Sam guided us into the fog-shrouded mountains for about a dozen miles to a ranch owned by friends. We parked, strapped on our climbing backpacks and headed into the woods in search of a monstrous redwood called the "Fusion Giant." When we found it a half hour later on the eastern slope of a ridgeline, it was instantly obvious that the tree was completely worthy of its name.
The "Fusion Giant" is more than huge. We didn't measure the base but it's obvious that the trunk circumference is greater -- maybe much greater -- than 60 feet. The main leaders begin to spread apart about 40 feet above ground and fuse back together several times as the tree climbs toward the northern California sky. About 130 feet up, some of Sam's friends have installed a large cargo net that serves as a welcome rest stop before continuing to the peak of the tree.
We climbed on past the 200-foot mark, a first for several of us, and eventually reached the nearly flat top of the Fusion Giant. The view was awesome - to the east were the grape orchards of California's central valley, to the west was the foggy Pacific coast, to the north and south were the forested peaks of the coastal range. It was so quiet we could actually hear ocean waves crashing onto the narrow shoreline. Eagles, hawks and more than a few vultures soared over our heads.
We arrived back at camp in mid-afternoon and found Jessie Uehling and Erin Sara Beach-Garcia waiting for us. Jessie is a senior at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., and Erin is a senior at Evergreen State College in Washington State. Both ladies had learned tree climbing last summer from Joe, while doing their field research assignments in Panama at ITEC.
The main purpose of our California trip started early Saturday. Sam is a highly experienced climber with excellent DRT and SRT skills, and he is equally experienced as a facilitator on high ropes courses He is also an experienced rock climber, whitewater guide and mountaineer.
Sam wanted facilitator training for tree climbing and we were happy to oblige. Over the weekend we - Joe and I, while Hunabku led the rest of the group on several climbs in Douglas firs within short hiking distances of the camp - put Sam and two other camp staffers through a very thorough 18-hour course. At the end of it, they had to set up and run a two-hour group climb (other staffers and Hunabku's sister Michelle were the guinea pigs) that was a complete success.
Sunday evening, after the course ended, we drove up the mountain on the west side of the camp in an old four-wheel-drive Ford Bronco and climbed a 130-foot redwood on the ridgeline that Sam had nicknamed "Raven." Both Jessie and Erin Sara broke their old height records.
Monday started with a group climb in a huge Douglas fir near the camp mess hall that got almost everybody above 180 feet. Hunabku's sister, Michelle, made her first ever SRT climb on a yo-yo system and reached 160 feet (we won't dwell on the fact that Hunabku forgot to teach her how to come down on the system before sending her up the tree, but Joe did a great job of instructing her on the fine art of SRT descent).
Monday evening, our last night at Westminster Woods, ended with an awe-inspiring climb in a Douglas fir with several reiterated trunks that we named "Elephant Twilight." The West Coast sunsets are beautiful, even in a tree in dense forest that's anchored on a 45-degree slope. We hiked back to camp in the dark and surprised several western black-tail deer along the trail.
Sam had to work on Tuesday, so we said our good-byes at breakfast and headed north into the wilds of Mendocino County. It was a fortunate direction, and we ended up striking what could be called "Tree Climbers' Gold."
We were cruising up a twisting mountain road with almost no other traffic when we spotted a county roadside park with one picnic table, one bear-proof garbage can, one small outhouse - and about 200 acres of the biggest and baddest redwoods and Douglas firs we'd seen on the whole trip.
There was nobody -- absolutely nobody -- around.
It took more than four hours of sweaty and extremely dirty climbing in a technically difficult tree, but we managed to reach the 200-foot-plus peak of a gigantic Douglas fir that we named "Mother Faulkner." The origin of this name, and the location of the tree and roadside park will remain a closely guarded secret. It might have been in "Arkansas"!
Readers of this article can be assured: We WILL return to this place!
We eventually cruised on down the west slope of the coastal range and found a drab motel room in a drab little shorefront community. We dined on over-priced seafood at a marina restaurant that had a faux atmosphere that seemed to attract a crowd of faux yuppie types, and then we slept the sleep of thoroughly exhausted tree climbers.
Wednesday, our last full day in northern California, started with a twisting route through the mountains. A roadside sign about a "Pygmy Forest" caught our attention. A few minutes later we were wandering between tiny but full-grown trees in a stunted forest that was caused by extremely acidic and nutritionally poor soil. A sub-specie called the Mendocino Pygmy Cypress grew to only about a quarter-inch in diameter and five feet in height in 80 years; researchers had actually counted the growth rings.
We eventually reached the U.S 101 expressway and headed south for two hours to the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. We continued through town and farther south for about 90 minutes to the surfer's paradise at Half Moon Bay.
There, about 300 yards from the seafront, was a 20-acre park filled with huge eucalyptus trees. Hunabku had never climbed this species, so he quickly grabbed his gear and headed into the park for a huge tree near the local playground.
It took him a half-dozen throws but Hunabku finally managed to anchor on a great limb near the treetop. Joe and I stood in the parking area a hundred yards away and pretended we didn't know him. Dozens of park-goers stopped to watch.
Hunabku finally descended, packed his rope and walked back to the parking lot. One local woman, waiting for the family dogs to "do their thing" in the park, asked Hunabku what he was doing.
"I saw this rope up in the tree," he lied while holding up a short piece of rotted line, "and I thought it'd be great to get it out of there before it hurt the tree."
The woman gave him a huge smile: "You're a real hero, aren't you!"
About 36 hours later, after an unscheduled overnight stop in Dallas-Fort Worth, we were back in Jacksonville. We grabbed a canoe and kayak at Hunabku's house and headed to the familiar blackwater swamp along nearby Durbin Creek. A few minutes later we were nearly 100 feet up in a huge baldcypress. The 2009 California tree-climbing expedition was over.