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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Lewis and Clark in the Cretaceous

Redwoods and alders on Big River

Last weekend my buddy Al and I found ourselves in a Lewis-and-Clark drill, our obstacles posed by a forest that had existed a hundred million years before humans appeared on the scene to challenge it with their puny kayaks.

We had joined old friends of Al’s from his Mendocino days, Don and wife Petra, and were paddling the Big River, putting in 10 miles upstream of its joining Mendocino Bay at the coast. Nestled in a Coastal redwood forest, the north fork of the river here was relatively shallow and narrow, and the swift spring-swollen waters shoved us into Red alder thickets at each of the many bends in the stream, the trees eagerly reaching out to the sunshine mid-stream. We fought past the branches, though—until we saw the first fallen redwood tree spanning the water. The stream here was only 40 feet across, and the redwood was—well, a lot more than 40 feet long. Fortunately the bank to either side held the massive trunk above the water, so we were able to pass beneath it with no problem.

Just as we were congratulating ourselves, the next bend revealed another redwood across the stream, but this one was submerged on one side and rose only 2 feet or so above the water at its other side. Ever done the limbo in a kayak? Current pushing you as you lay back as flat as possible in your kayak, desperately trying to somehow maneuver you and your paddles through a 24-inch opening under a giant redwood? Three of the four of us managed to twist and turn under the redwood without capsizing their craft. Three of four. I found the water surprisingly balmy as I emerged from it, and avoided a chill by drying my clothes at the sunny gravel bar when we stopped for lunch. Petra had kindly snagged my hat as it floated past her.

After lunch, another redwood, this one completely blocking the creek. We beached the kayaks on one side and bull-dozed our way through thickets of alder around the huge root ball of the downed tree. No problem. Shades of Lewis and Clark. We even had a lone woman leading our expedition. Not a native-American Sacagawea, but the German-born Petra, whose light kayak and devotion to exercise and healthy eating resulted in her seeming to be always ahead of the rest of us.

Until we saw the last redwood, that is. This one was huge and, though submerged, rose out of the water to a height of some four feet--all the way across the stream. The banks thrust up precipitously steep on either side—no room to portage around this redwood. We and our kayaks pooled before the giant tree, silent. “Up and over, then!” announced our Sacagawea. Somehow she nudged her kayak against the tree, nimbly stood up perfectly balanced, and crawled onto the redwood, dragging her kayak up behind her. “Oh, another log on the other side!” she informed us brightly. She levered her kayak around atop the logs, lowered it on the other side, and neatly stepped back into the kayak and was soon on her way.

Al, Don and I looked at each other. This was bad. None of us could remotely match Petra’s balance and nimbleness. Plus Don and I were in kayaks considerably larger and heavier than Petra’s. I paddled over to the right side, where a logjam of flotsam and debris gathered upstream of the redwood. Raising myself by my arms from the kayak, I very gingerly stepped onto the surface of the jam. Everything bobbed and shifted position. I wavered, and shifted my weight ever so slowly to the largest piece of wood. It sank, but only a couple of inches into the water. Clutching the bow rope of my kayak in hand, I did an awkward sliding dance across the constantly shifting debris, and reached the redwood. Climbed onto it with a whimper of relief, dragged my kayak onto it, balanced the craft atop the log, swung it around, and lowered it into the water on the other side of the second log.

No way was I going to be able to lower myself into the kayak from the redwood without capsizing. One plunge a trip is my strict limit. I make no exceptions. There was more flotsam on the other side, so I cautiously did the same rolling, shuffling dance across it, bowline in hand, and finally reached a gravel bar, where I pulled my kayak up to me and got in.

I have no recollection of how Al and Don managed to get over the fallen redwood. My mind was elsewhere. Somehow, we all managed, and soon the river widened and deepened, and no further Lewis-and-Clarkisms were encountered.

We were all rather elated at having coped with the fallen redwoods. The sun was shining, and strange pulses of warm air blew across the water. We passed our second, and then our third pair of common mergansers, the male’s glossy green head appearing almost black, his pure white breast and sides giving him a tuxedo effect, beside which the female’s crested rust-red head seemed very stylish. Cormorants appeared, diving often for fish, and became common. As we drew nearer the bay, a grey harbor seal snoozed on a rock to our left, her two brownish adolescents casting wary eyes at us as we paddled by. Al spotted an osprey in a tree to our right.

Oh, the trees! Coastal redwoods to either side the whole ten miles, rising often above two hundred feet, it seemed, towering above the Red alders below them. Both species are ancient, their kind appearing in the planet’s northern hemispheres in the Cretaceous, 100 million years ago. Redwoods and sequoias were common then throughout the northern reaches of Asia and North America, forming the bulk of great temperate forests. As the climate became colder and drier in the north, the trees migrated south, as mountain ranges rose and continents drifted apart. Soon only three species of the redwood/sequoia group remained: these Redwood forests stretching along the California coast, the Giant sequoias in the Sierra Nevadas of California, and the “Dawn” redwoods in scattered groves deep within China’s Szechuan and Kansu provinces. Giant reminders of a flourishing past.

The Red alders forming the understory have a similarly noble history. They and other members of the Fagales order (oaks, beeches) were among the earliest flowering plants, attested by their continuing primitive reliance on wind (rather than insects) to spread their pollen. The alders have prospered for a hundred million years, though, assisted by their partnership with Frankia bacteria living in root nodules of the plant. The bacteria “fix” nitrogen from the air into chemical forms the plant can utilize (nitrates and nitrites)—free fertilizer! Well, not really free: the alders pass some of the sugars they photosynthesize on to the bacteria, completing the symbiotic relationship.

The symbiosis profits not just the Red alder trees, but the entire ecosystem; Red alder-Frankia stands add between 120 and 290 pounds of nitrogen per acre to the soil every year. The Sitka alder thickets John Muir bull-dozed his way through on the edge of Alaskan glaciers add 55 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year to the freshly-graveled moraines opened up by retreating glaciers, thus preparing the soil over the years for their eventual forests of spruce and cedar.

The other two components of the redwood forest to either side of us are even older. The abundant horsetails (Equisetum) at the water’s edge, and the lush ferns carpeting the slopes, originated in the late Paleozoic, some 250 million years ago. The seeds formed by redwoods and alders were unknown back then; spores are what these Paleozoic plants rely upon for reproduction, explaining their distribution near the water which transports the spores.

I was getting a little dizzy as Mendocino Bay appeared at the end of our ten-mile journey, but not from lack of food or water. It was the sense of jumbled, onrushing time around me that was disorienting. Six hours going under, around, and over giant trees blocking rivers, like Lewis and Clark two centuries ago. Six hours paddling along a corridor of redwoods and alders and Frankia bacteria, a forest existing a hundred million years ago. Horsetails and ferns pulsing green beside me the whole way, as they had in wet places for two hundred fifty million years.

What a spectacle. We four in kayaks, of a species shockingly new on the scene, but privileged to join our older compatriots in the ongoing saga. And enjoying every step—or paddle-surge—of the journey.

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