Park employees tell tales about history, loop animal life
BIG BASIN- The ancient giants of Big Basin Redwood State Park have many secrets to share, if the right person is there to tell their stories.
Susan Blake is an interpreter at the park. The seven-year veteran said as much with her arms and hands as she does with her voice. “I speak redwood, banana slug, oak, raccoon,” Blake said before starting the Redwood Loop Walk. The half-mile walk takes about 60 to 90 minutes because there is so much history and science to learn. But with Blake, there isn’t a single dull moment.
At the start of the tour, she explained that Big Basin is the oldest state park in California. Established in 1902, it originally spanned about 3,500 acres. The park now extends to across 18,000 acres and boasts the “largest continuous stand of ancient coast redwoods south of San Francisco,” according to the park’s website.
Ancient coast redwoods are the tallest species of redwoods, achieving heights of more than 200 feet.
As the path from the parking lot winds into the trees, one oak can be seen with a small lamp jutting out of its side. Blake said the fixture is all that remains of a picnic ground from when the park was a resort in the first half of the 20th century.
The park was originally founded by photographer Andrew P. Hill. Hill had come to the Santa Cruz redwoods to photograph a fire that had been doused with wine from a local winery. The property owner found him and said he would either have to pay to take photos or get off his land. Blake said the incident so incensed Hill that he decided to start a group to save the redwoods. After an intense letter writing campaign, California Gov. Henry Gage established the park.
The desire to preserve nature was unusual at the turn of the century. “At the time, nature was really seen as something to conquer, to use, that the resources would be unlimited,” Blake said.
The first stop on the loop walk-which is usually led by volunteer- demonstrated the tenacity of the redwoods. Blake hopped the fence and placed her feet in the middle of a wide circular opening within the trees. She directed her attention to skinny, needled, red and green twigs sticking out of the ground just next to one of the larger trees on the edge of the ring. “Those are the babies,” she said, “and this is the teenager.” She pointed to a taller tree that is about a foot wide.
The “babies” and “teenagers” are new trees growing out of the roots of the older, more established trees. Blake explained that older trees damaged by fire sometimes send out a hormone, or a chemical signal, to start sprouting new trees from its roots. “This is one of the many adaptations of the redwoods,” Blake said.
And when the original parent tree dies and falls down, it allows the smaller baby trees to get enough sunlight to grow tall and wide, leading to the circular pattern known as the fairy ring.
Deeper into the forest, the fresh, chilly air feels slightly damp. It carried a scent like a mixture of a hardware store and pine only not so pungent. In the distance an acorn woodpecker knocked softly. Just next to the path is a downed redwood, its height somehow more imposing now that it’s parallel to the ground. Blake explained the reason there’s no moss on this tree, or any of the redwoods, is because their bark is full of tannins, the same acids that give Cabernet Sauvignon its lingering bite.
The tannins repel moss and the “FBI,” a term that Blake used for a host of fungi, bacteria and invertebrates. But as the bark slowly breaks down, the tree begins to release its nutrients onto the forest floor, which are processed by the microscopic critters in the soil. The nutrients, in turn, make the soil fertile for future redwoods to grow.
Blake explained that a downed tree is critically important to the health of the ecosystem of the forest. As the tree decomposes – which can take 1,000 years or more – it functions as a home for host of animals large and small. “I like to think of a decomposing tree as a time-release vitamin,” Blake said.
Eventually the path winds around to a tree that has a gash twisting up its side. The tree can fit at least three adults within its embrace. At the top there is a perfectly circular opening toward the sky. It’s like standing inside a giant spyglass.
This tree, aptly named the Chimney tree, is “vibrantly alive,” Blake said. The tree, although hollow, still has its layer of living tissue, called the cambium layer intact. Blake also noted that in time, the bark will grow around the tree to close up the hole in its side. But the heartwood, the dead core of wood inside the tree that fives it its strength, will never regrow. Blake stands within the tree and says “in 1,000 years, I would be standing inside a hollow tree.”
-By Cynthia McKelvey- Santa Cruz Sentinel- Bay Area News Group- Wednesday, February 12, 2014