Miniature Seas

“The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.”

– John Steinbeck

Salty air, thick with the scent of the sea, gently tickled my skin as Vince and I hopped across massive bone-white trunks that had come to rest on a dark, sandy beach. The morning sky was roiling with gray clouds that formed an ever-present band along the coast. Somewhere nearby, sunshine was already warming the bark of ancient redwood trees, but the shore was still blanketed in an angry mist that threatened to pour down rain at any moment.

This morning was me and Vince’s only chance to get to the coast at low tide, one of the two non-negotiable items on our Redwood itinerary. My excitement mounted as we balanced across the driftwood logs, picking our way toward a rocky outcropping we’d seen from a high point on the trail we took down to the beach. The rocks would be the perfect spot to search for sea creatures.

When we finally stepped off the log jam and onto the shore, we saw that we’d need to cross one more obstacle. A fast moving, but shallow river separated us from the looming sea stacks. Undeterred, Vince leapt across the flow with ease. I on the other hand, am still not able to jump like I could before I broke my leg last year. I backed up and ran toward the river, stopping just at the edge of the water in defeat. I couldn’t bring myself to attempt the leap. Slightly annoyed, I took off my hiking shoes and waded through the ankle-deep stream as Vince teased me good-naturedly. I rolled my eyes in response as I wiggled my now sandy feet back into my shoes.

My frustration was soon forgotten as we approached the jagged rocks. Thousands of little pools stretched before us, exposed by the receding tide. I gingerly stepped up onto a rock, careful to avoid crushing anything that might be alive under my feet, and looked down into the first of many shallow pools to find a brightly colored purple shore crab. Its carapace was a beautiful, deep red that immediately had me thinking about which paints I would mix to reproduce it.

A few more careful hops across rocks revealed many tiny hermit crabs, but I was most excited when we saw our first ochre sea star. For years, I’ve been wanting to go tide pooling in the Pacific Northwest specifically to see piles of ochre sea stars, and now that dream was finally a reality. At first, we saw only purple stars, but after walking further, we began to see more and more bright orange ones too.

The further we got from shore, the slimier our path became. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with having to try not to fall as I stepped on wet seaweed, but I did notice that I had become much more surefooted since last winter. I took a moment to marvel at the fact that just six months ago I was having an emotional crisis while trying to balance on some dry, grippy rocks in Joshua Tree. Now I was nimbly jumping across wet stone as though I never shattered my tibial plateau. It’s kind of amazing how your body can keep healing long after you’ve stopped noticing any progress. Even Vince noticed how well I was doing, which made me feel extra accomplished.

Vince was determined to go all the way out to the end of the rock pile where there was a large sea stack that he wanted to climb. The tide was still receding, but I kept a close eye on the ocean anyways, not wanting to fall victim to one of the “sneaker waves” that all of the Redwood brochures warn about. There was a large boulder about halfway out to the stack where a black oystercatcher was standing sentinel. The bird stayed put as we approached, allowing me to get the best look (and best photos) that I’ve ever gotten of an oystercatcher. I loved its comically long beak and bright orange eyes. I added it to my mental list of tide pool animals that I wanted to paint right under the crab and sea stars. Once all of the business of summer has calmed down, I want to paint a large tide pool scene from images I took on this excursion.

Ever so carefully, we approached the sea stack. The rocks had become increasingly slippery as went, but I made it all the way out without so much as slipping. Vince climbed the stack with ease, but I gave it a pass because it was covered in what looked like the excrement of a thousand shorebirds, and I’ve have enough adventures in shorebird excrement to last a lifetime.

When he returned, we got right back to gazing into pools in search of wildlife. Out here, there were large anemones mixed in with the sea stars, and we were extra careful not to step on any anemones that were attached to exposed rock.

I fished out my GoPro and stuck it underwater to get some images of a particularly large anemone. Crouched down at the edge of the tide pool, I suddenly felt my right foot lose its purchase on the slippery seaweed. I fell. It wasn’t a dramatic fall, in fact it was only a difference of a few inches. I basically went from crouching to sitting, which would have been fine except I felt my thigh brush against a rock that was covered in sharp barnacles. Within moments, blood was blossoming from a large, claw-like scrape across my thigh. Of course. It wouldn’t be a vacation if I came out of it completely unscathed.

I hammed up my injury for Vince’s benefit, and even though it wasn’t serious, it was bleeding an inconvenient amount. Luckily, Vince had a stash of napkins in his pocket (he has to be ready to blow his nose a lot due to his unrelenting allergies), and I had my mammal scat identification bandana in my pack. I covered the wound in a napkin, and tied the bandana around my leg to hold it in place.

Feeling mostly fine, if not slightly embarrassed, I collected myself and we began to head back shore, still stopping to look into tide pools along the way, each one like a miniature sea teeming with life. Eventually our feet were back on the coarse sand of the beach, and just when I thought our tide adventure was ending, I spotted a great blue heron fishing in between some large boulders as the ocean frothed and crashed in the background.

By the time we left the beach I felt like we’d seen much more than a day’s worth of wonderful things, but it wasn’t even noon yet. Our friends Jordi and Anthea would be joining us around dinner time, driving up from their place in Oakland to spend a day with us. That left us with plenty of time to tackle a six mile hike that a ranger had recommended me the previous day at the visitor center.

We drove back south to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, and covered some now-familiar ground to find the trailhead of Prairie Creek Trail. Almost immediately upon beginning our hike, I realized that this was even more beautiful than Lady Bird Johnson Grove had been. It felt more pristine and ancient, and the forest floor had a diverse range of lush plant life. It wasn’t hard to see why so many visitors to Redwood describe it as stepping into Jurassic Park. The redwood trees that towered overhead made me feel minuscule by comparison.

Prairie Creek Trail also had even more hollowed out trees to explore than we’d found yesterday, and in a couple of places, large cavities had been carved out of trees that had fallen over the trail to allow hikers to walk through. We would only be on the trail for three miles, but once again we took much longer than was strictly necessary to complete the exceedingly easy and flat hike. There were simply too many amazing downed logs that had to be investigated.

There were also different layers of the forest to examine. The forest floor was blanketed in ferns, but when we scanned the trunks of the redwoods upwards, we could see limbs the size of normal trees jutting outward and then turning up at a ninety degree angle to form a tree sticking out of a tree.

In one particularly beautiful section of the trail, the tall redwoods relented and smaller, twisted deciduous trees grew in their place. Wispy moss hung from their limbs, and they allowed for more sunlight to filter through their branches, causing the entire forest to glow in an ethereal atmosphere of soft green.

After about three miles, we crossed Prairie Creek, and found a giant log that was hollow from root to top. The roots towered tall next the trail, and when we peered inside the empty giant, we could see light peeking through from the other end, probably a hundred feet away. Without question, we scrambled into the tunnel, not even having to duck until the trunk narrowed about halfway through. From there, we crawled until we emerged on the other side, only to turn around and find that there was yet another tunnel in the same tree that we could take back.

Shortly after the tunnel tree, we veered westward to join up with the West Ridge Trail which would take us back to our car. There was a long section of bushwhacking through an overgrown trail with foliage up to our necks, then we were climbing the ridge.

The West Ridge Trail, while beautiful in its own right, lacked the mind-bogglingly large redwoods that we’d seen on Prairie Creek Trail. This was for the best though, because the hike was now steeper with more roots jutting up from the earth, and we could focus on the hike instead of craning our necks upward at the trees.

My favorite discovery on the West Ridge Trail was a decaying trunk that had tiny redwood cones scattered around it. I had been wondering for two days why we hadn’t seen any cones and here was my answer. They were impossibly small, no bigger than my thumbnail, so they didn’t stand out amongst the forest floor. Holding one in my hand, I lifted it to the trunk of a redwood in awe that such a tiny seed could produce such a behemoth of a tree.

When we finally emerged from the forest, we had worked up a healthy appetite, so we went to get dinner at the one restaurant in Klamath that we hadn’t tried yet, the Redwood Casino. We were able to get in contact with Jordi and Anthea with the casino’s wifi and found that we were on perfect track to meet up with them at our mini cabin after dinner.

They arrived at the cabin minutes after we returned from eating at the casino, and we spent some time catching up since we hadn’t been able to see them since they moved to California last summer. We recounted all of the things we’d done in Redwood so far, and asked if they wanted to go back and drive through the Tour Thru Tree with us, since I’d gotten such a kick out of that the previous day. They agreed, and we all got in the rental.

Two trips through the tree later (which brought me and Vince’s total to five), we decided to head to the beach to try to catch a sunset. We all had our doubts about this since the coast tends to be too cloudy for sunsets, but the sky was clear when we arrived at False Klamath Cove, and glowing a brilliant golden orange.

Oystercatchers flew out of our path as we walked to beach, our shadows long in the low-hanging sunlight. The foamy tide crashed in a loud roar, and we had to yell to hear each other above the sound of the waves. Every so often, we would see the head of a harbor seal poke up from a wave, only to disappear again into the dark water. I felt totally at peace as the cold waves curled around my feet. It had been another beautiful day in Redwood; our friends were here, and we’d be doing a hike that I’d been looking forward to all trip early the next morning. I couldn’t help but smile as the sun dipped below the horizon. The end of this day, meant another day of excitement would soon begin.

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