The Grandfather Tree

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This is the largest Douglas-fir tree I have ever seen (in Humboldt County). And I have never seen such ridiculous limbs. The limbs themselves are like 4′ feet in diameter and 80′ tall! The fact that it can support all that weight is a testament to the structural integrity of Douglas-fir.

What causes that swelling of limbs at the base? In general we find that tree structure is strongly correlated to its environment. Open grown trees photosynthesize more allowing for larger, more frequent limbs. And it is not uncommon to find these old, wolfy trees throughout the region with large limbs near the base. Often times these trees are hidden in younger forests that have emerged more recently, as is the case with the Grandfather Tree.

Many forests in Humboldt where previously woodlands, dotted with the occasional Douglas-fir. Prior to 1920, the forests were mostly white oak, black oak and grasslands. Of course all forests have minor smatterings of other species. All waiting for their moment. When the light or climate conditions change they may get a chance to turn the tide.

When fire was removed from the system, new forests quickly emerged. The new forests grew up in single regeneration events, so their structure tends to be uniform. Because they grow up so dense, they crowd each other out. Many die and the trees that win drop their lower limbs early, stretching upwards to out compete their neighbors.

But that is only part of the story. Genetics ultimately are the major player in tree structure, however it can be harder to notice to the casual observer. The Douglas-fir genome is very complex and after a few hours of reading about it online, I needed to take some advil! In short, conifer genomes are long and extremely complex. A product of being hundreds of millions of years old. In general the variation is subtle and difficult to notice, but occasionally you can find pockets of trees that all share some common characteristic such as sweep or taper.

All of these trees share genes that favor larger than average limbs. But it is rare to find trees with the kind of structure as the Grandfather Tree. Not surprisingly, there is a definite cohort of trees with large lower branches scattered in the surrounding forest for hundreds of acres around this tree.

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Take a look in the bottom right corner of the picture. See the smaller tree with the large limbs? Another grandkid tree.

In forests that have been intensively managed, logged and replanted many times, genes like this are on the decline. Much research has gone into developing Douglas-fir seedlings that will grow straight, tall trees with little taper. While this is good for wood production, it may not be the best for the trees long term strategy, which is to persist in a variety of climates and micro-sites. Not to mention the obvious value complex crown structure provides to wildlife, which has evolved along side these genetically diverse forests. Something to think about as we walk around these forests we call home.

Mad River Rocks!

What the? Thats what I thought when I had the incredible fortune to pass through some rare country in the Middle Mad River. Out of no where this rock shoots up from the river.

What the? Thats what I thought when I had the incredible fortune to pass through some rare country in the Middle Mad River. Out of nowhere this rock shoots up from the river.

No Name. At least no white man name on the map. It barley appears on the map, and grossly underestimates its prominence.  I made a gross estimate with my laser; 285 ft from the top to the bottom.

No Name. At least no white man name on the map. In fact it barley appears on the map, and grossly underestimates its prominence. I made a gross estimate with my laser; 285 ft from the top to the bottom.

I am wondering if that white spot is a nest. Or whitewash from a nest above it. This is excellent peregrine falcon habitat.

I am wondering if that white spot is a nest. Or whitewash from a nest above it. This is excellent peregrine falcon habitat.

Of course I had terrible light (as usual). If Im lucky Ill have a second chance! But you just dont get the full feeling without the stiched version.

Of course I had terrible light (as usual). If Im lucky Ill have a second chance! But you just dont get the full feeling without the stiched version.

Return to the Chasm of Death

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I love this spot – a beautiful yet dangerous perch. I was fortunate enough to return last month to plant some trees in a near-by logging unit. Of course being near this area, I had to take a quick hike to this spot to look down on the Mad River. As I took these pictures though, I could hear a horrible cry echoing up from the canyon. Im pretty sure it was a cow, who had either wandered down too far and gotten stuck on a cliff – or had slipped to the bottom and some how survived. I could not see where it was, but it was down at the bottom for sure, and tragically that spelled certain doom for the poor animal. After seeing this area from below during summer steelhead surveys, I can tell you there is no way to get up, without swimming down the river to a better spot – and that is all but impossible in the winter.

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Terrain like this reminds us of the stark realities of life and death. As humans we somehow find beauty in this chaos. This is what pushes us to hike to inhospitable locations, climb mountains and cliffs, and visit harsh environments. I certainly had empathy for the suffering animal, but also could acknowledge the boon to other creatures that would inevitably benefit from its demise.

How Rugged?

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Our coastal hills can be extremely rugged. The lower Eel especially within the sandstone bluff formations. Away from the cliffs on the beach… are more cliffs. You just cant see them because they are covered in a think jungle of trees and brush. The mountains behind Ferndale and Centerville have some of the most rugged forests in the county.

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One interesting feature that I encounter in the lower Eel River areas are extremely steep ridges that are surprisingly narrow. Here above Ferndale a ridge gradually rises; a sheer sandstone bluff to the south and a steep hillside to the north. The ridge is 3-5 feet wide, which is actually somewhat nerve-wracking, being that the bluff is at least 200 feet vertical. And the other side is not much better. The ridge also had a unique, windblown micro environment. These nooks and crannies are where bio-diversity is going to be highest is a forest. And sure enough, manzanita in a spruce forest!

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Old Growth Live Oak

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One of the neat things about working as a forester is passing through the hard to get to places. Not just off the path, but on rock faces, landslides, stream canyons, etc. Topography and geology can create a impressive diversity of habitats within a forest. This chaotic assemblage of micro sites is one of Humboldt Counties trademarks.

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Old growth live oak stands like this one are not uncommon in our region, at least where access is difficult. These trees can cling to these rock outcrops for centuries. These places tend to be very harsh. Poor soils and exposure to high winds can stunt tree growth and beat a tree down. They can persist, but will never grow very large. Occasionally there are sheltered that are sheltered from such effects and you can find huge live oaks that almost defy imagination.

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Here is another one. This tree is just ridiculous. There were a few more like it nearby, but this one had the perfect crown. Its like a plasma globe of branches reaching out for the power of the sun. Nooks and Crannies!

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Water’s Up – But For How Long?

Bug Creek.

Bug Creek.

Water’s up, but for how long? These creeks are flashy by nature and will rise and fall with the rain. The million dollar question right now is what these streams will look like in September. Here is what the Mad at Arcata looks like right now:


You might notice the variation in flow – notably the 3000 cfs increase in the past 12 hours. Impressive. And that is nothing compared to what the Eel is doing: Its off the charts! Yes that is a 45,000 cfs increase in flow over a 12 hour period. Fortunately it does not tend to drop off as fast, however you can see how over the month, especially for the Mad River, the rivers are still way below where they normally are for this time of year.

Grizzly Creek

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Here are some pictures from way up near the headwaters of Grizzly Creek. The forest is right on the redwood transition areas where redwood and coastal Douglas-fir and oak woodlands collide. The combination of good soils, heavy rain, and persistent fog make these areas very productive for trees.

These mountain streams may look small, but once the rains start they really pick up. Most of the headwater areas transition to open grasslands, and as result the peak flows into these streams is enormous. Flows tend to be flashy and can be very intense right after big rains.

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This particular forest came with an interesting story. Most of the surrounding areas where logged in the 1960s. Apparently as they moved into this stand, there was a horrible accident, costing one of the loggers their life. The crew backed out after the accident, leaving this area unlogged. And so it has stood until now. And so it will remain, now that a northern spotted owl has found its home here.

Island Diversity

As you travel east and into higher elevations, the forests begin to transition to a mixed conifer type, which is generally defined as Douglas-fir and/or true fir with pine and various hardwoods. Mixed conifer forests are pretty complex and can vary widely across the interior of the state, but thats another story.

Diversity. This forest has it all; Douglas-fir, pondersosa pine, incense cedar, Oregon white oak, live oak, tan oak and madrone.

Serious Diversity. This forest has it all; Douglas-fir, pondersosa pine, incense cedar, Oregon white oak, live oak, tan oak and madrone.

Only the eastern and more remote portions of Humboldt county have these types of forests, though occasionally you may find islands of habitats that resemble mixed conifer and form unique areas on the landscape. (e.g. willow creek, south fork mountain, etc.) This place is near the pilot drainage and is nestled within a thousand acre oak woodland, where just about 10 acres have developed into this unique forest island.

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Here is another example of what I would say was natural encroachment of oak woodlands, or better put, succession. There are a few aged white oak trees, but they are in severe decline. Most of the woody debris on the ground and standing snags are white oak, a last testament of what was there a few hundred years ago. This forest obviously developed with fire as all the trees have layers of fire scars, including this madrone.

Did I say madrone?

Did I say madrone?

This tree is massive. Its crown is at least 50' feet in diameter.

This tree is massive. Its crown is at least 100′ feet in diameter.

Final Stages of Encroachment

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Here is a good view of a stand that has almost fully transitioned from a black oak forest to a Douglas-fir stand. Encroachment began in this stand in the 1960s and finally the last of the taller oaks are reaching the end of their lives. Over then next ten or so years the oak stems will loose all of their limbs and begin to feel the pull of gravity as their root masses die. Many species of insects and fungus will invade these trees and speed up the fall. Once on the ground, the boles will persist for decades as the forest recyclers slowly and consistently do their work.

Meanwhile the Douglas-fir canopy will close in around the space previously occupied by the oaks and the little remaining areas of filtered light on the forest floor will become dark. This will also effect the shrub and ground cover component of the forest, severely limiting what can grow there in the absence of light.

Its interesting how the full encroachment cycle changes the bio-diversity of stand over time. It would seem that during the last phases of transition, like in the photo, the diversity is highest. This is in part due to the vertical structure offered by the overstory conifer, the decaying oak trees in the mid canopy, and the collection of downed wood on the forest floor. There are also pockets of shrubs that still receive light where the fir canopy has not closed in. Oak snags make potential cavities for numerous birds and mammals. The fallen trees become home to hosts of insects that in turn are feasted on by many of the locals.

While I generally speak of this encroachment as a negative, there is certainly a positive, or at least productive element to this process from a forest health prospective. In a truly “natural” setting, there would be recruitment of oak woodlands somewhere near-by while this process was occurring, creating the balance of habitats over the landscape. However in our fire starved environment, Douglas-fir encroachment is occurring much more frequently than the rate oak stands are developing. In fact, very little oak stands are developing at all in Humboldt County. This is why, I believe, that there is an urgency to prevent encroachment into woodlands.

Moonstone: Behind the Scenes

Leave it to children to be able to find neat places that you would otherwise never see. How often are you at a place like Moosntone Beach and have the desire to go crawl through the brush just to see whats in there? I used to have that urge, and while I do crawl through the brush at work, its the last thing I want to do when Im not working. But its hard to turn down your kid, so adventure it is. Lead on boy!

He had been going on and on about this so-called “sand slide”. Essentially Moonstone Rock is a sandstone bluff, almost completely covered with a mat of English ivy. Animal paths have been expanded by kids and make a maze of tunnels to explore. Once I got in there I remembered exploring these ivy tunnels as a teenager.


Although this is an exotic, invasive species – it sure is pretty looking. Who doesnt like to look at a ivy covered castle or brick wall? And ivy caves make for wonderful adventures. Once they really dominate an area like this, there is certainly habitat for many birds and mammals.

East Fork Willow Creek

Old Growth in East Fork Willow Creek.

Old Growth in East Fork Willow Creek.

I have wanted to hike around this forest for years. You can see this area from the highway and can access it pretty easily from the East Fork Camp ground when its open. I happened to have some extra time last month and hiked up into the forest a little west of the camp ground from the 299.

This is one of the largest pacific yew trees I have ever seen. I find it impressive that it is living right off the highway turnout.

This is one of the largest pacific yew trees I have ever seen. I find it impressive that it is living right off the highway turnout.

This forest has it all. Douglas-fir, tanoak, madrone, golden chinquapin, and more. The understory has the same species where light allows, as well as the occasional pacific yew. Sword fern and huckleberry make up the bulk of the ground cover. Eventually I saw a huge tree that appeared to be the biggest in the area.

After tromping around for a bit, one tree caught my eye.

After tromping around for a bit, one tree caught my eye.

I only has a few hours, and Id like to get in here someday and explore a little more thoroughly. The campground looks like a nice escape from a hot summer and even in this dry summer we are gearing up for, I bet the East Fork will keep water.

Forest Panorama

Forest Panorama

Blake Mountain, Humboldt County


I have promised myself for years to check out a few of the peaks that are right on Route 1 when I had the time. I finally did last December and stopped to check out Blake Mountain.

The view from 'lower' Blake. This spot is on a broad ridge with dense forest, and as such does not provide for much visibility.

The view from ‘lower’ Blake. This spot is on a broad ridge with dense forest and does not provide for much visibility.

Next I went over to Blake Spring Campground or at least what is left of it. An old jeep road runs down to the spring, but there is not much of a camp there. There is little flat ground, and it appears that camping on the ridge would be more comfortable. Perhaps the road used to go further past the spring to a more suitable spot, but if there is a road it is completely over grown past the spring.

Blake Spring. Yes its frozen!

Blake Spring

The view from the so-called Blake Spring Camp.

The view from the so-called Blake Spring Camp.

Just to the north of the camp is the high spot on Blake Mountain. A jeep trail traverses the ridge and the bench mark was easy to find.

Blake Mountain bench mark; 5,905 ft above sea level.

Blake Mountain bench mark; 5,905 ft above sea level.

Looking north east into Trinity County from Blake Mountain.

Looking north east into Trinity County from Blake Mountain.

From there you can check out the “South Fork” bench mark, a little further to the north. I would like to know how this spot got its name, as the ‘real’ South Fork Mountain peak is many miles to the south. Regardless, this is a neat spot, and perhaps the most interesting of the three bench marks on Blake.

Unlike the other two spots, the topogrophy really drops away from the top allowing for some spectacular views of the Middle Mad River.

Unlike the other two spots, the topogrophy really drops away from the top allowing for some spectacular views of the Middle Mad River.

2013 – Year in Pictures

So 2013 has come and gone. Happy New Year! I put up my 2013 gallery page and had a real hard time finding my favorite picture of the year. Looking back, I think my hike up to Blue Rock was the coolest thing I did, with the Mad River steelhead dive coming in close second. Here is the view from Blue Rock:

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Be sure to look though the 2013 page now added to the top of the blog.

Old Growth Live Oak

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Quercus chrysolepis. It is not uncommon to find old growth live oak in Humboldt County. Because it tends to grow in places that are not easy to get to, it has been largely unaffected by past management.

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These trees are known to be long-lived and may reach ages exceeding 300 years. If you ever come across exceptionally large live oak, you can start pondering the past several hundred years and what these trees have witnessed.

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Want to find big live-oaks? Look near rock outcrops and poor soils. The biggest live-oaks I tend to find in hard to get places, often in steep canyons and bluffs.

Oak Woodlands: The Last of the Great Old Growth Forests

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When we think of old growth, we tend to think of the redwoods or the great Douglas-fir forests of the north west. You probably do not think of oak woodlands of when you hear the term old growth. They do not have the spotted owl or marbled murrelet to enshrine them into the sacred. But perhaps they should. Oak woodlands are known for their biodiversity, and support a huge array of plants and animals – all – year long, including foraging habitat for rare and important animals like the pacific fisher and the northern goshawk.

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These larger trees are several hundred years old. In this healthy woodland, we see a forest comprised of all ages, so hopefully there will be ongoing recruitment of larger oaks as the older trees reach the end of their lifespans. In Humboldt County, we are concerned that many stands of oaks have been lost to encroachment and regeneration of oaks may be in trouble because of our fire policies.

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In the past, old growth has been at risk from development and timber harvesting. This was true of most areas of the north west, and still is in many parts of the world. In the case of woodland, ironically harvesting may be the savior of the oak. Conifer forests have made a significant recovery since society began to care and conserve for older aged forests on the landscape. Woodlands have been generally overlooked however, and we are only beginning to understand the consequences of the loss of oak stands. The time is now to start aggressively reclaiming these woodlands and preventing encroachment from destroying some of the last remaining old forests in northern California.

Stuck on a Airplane

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When I returned from my recent trip to southern California, I had the pleasure of being held on the plane circling for an hour before being sent back to Sacramento. As beautiful as it was in 90% of the county, apparently there was heavy fog at the Aracta airport – and well, you all know the drill around here. At least I got some awesome views of our county. This is over the central-east portion of Humboldt. If you note the savannah-grasslands above the wing, you can see Indian Creek, which is in between the two open ridges. From this vantage you can really see how isolated the oak and savannah types are becoming, as they continue to be rapidly encroached by Douglas-fir.

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When I took this picture, the plane was right over McClellan Mountain. The Van Duzen River cuts through the melange geology here. You can still see the grey scars remnant from the 1964 flood. The strange formation in the center of the picture is the Eaton Roughs. I have written about the roughs previously here:

Pickens Canyon

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In a recent trip, I visited the southern California town of my youth, La Crescenta. Although it was a short trip, I had to take a quick morning hike up into Pickens Canyon, where I spent many teenage days and nights exploring some of LA’s hidden open spaces.

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This creek at one time was the principle water supply for the rural community below, which eventually became La Crescenta and Montrose. If you look carefully in the pictures you might see the old water pipes that were installed near the turn of the century. We used to use them as supports, climbing along them to get higher up into the canyon.

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A wonderful coast live oak here in all its fire adapted glory. There was a fire in this canyon in 2009 which has substantially altered the vegetation from when I was last there – over 15 years ago. And while I did note some tree mortality, most of the mature trees, particularly the ones hanging on the canyon walls have survived. I also saw the canyon live oak and the California scrub oak, as well as maple, alder, and willow species.

Another observation was of the apparent debris torrent that has scoured the stream channel in places and deposited sediments in low gradient areas. These mountain streams are very incised and have many narrow, steep side channels making their watershed areas larger than you would think – the result is a huge peak flow result, especially after fires have burned most of the understory vegetation in the upper portions of the watershed. Here is a video I found of the recent floods, taken about 1 mile down from where my pictures were taken:

Wow, and that was nothing compared to what happened in the infamous flood of 1934:

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A view out of the canyon. Bye-bye LA. Hopefully next time I will get to spend some time in up in the Angles Crest.