So I’m sitting on the end of fallen redwood six miles into the semi-wilds of Big Basin State Park (it’s far too popular with humans to be truly wild). I’m in a lush valley near a creek that burbles, roars and tumbles its way to the lower elevations. The waterfalls nearby are to die for.
I’m settling down to eat my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for lunch, thankful for a chance to take off my pack, which is stuffed with all the stuff of survival for overnight missions into woods such as these, when a question bursts forth to the front of my brain:
Did I remember to pack my tent poles?
It’s one of those questions your brain asks even though your brain — like you — knows the answer as soon as the question comes up: Of course you’ve forgotten the damn tent poles.
In the old days you’d just grab a couple broken branches to prop your tent up, but we do not live in these times. We live in the age of the Ultralight Backpacking Dome Tent, which is supported by ultralight aluminum poles that occupy a drawer in my closet back home, safe from the ravages of wind, rain and commando mosquitos. Next to them in the drawer is a collection of ultralight aluminum tent stakes, complete with ultralight nylon cords to tie up the ultralight nylon rain fly. My particular model of Ultralight Backpacking Dome Tent is a marvel of human ingenuity with only one small flaw: it’s practically worthless without its poles.
I have a 24-hour supply of food in a critter-proof canister. I have an inflatable sleeping pad and a comfy sleeping bag. I even have an inflatable pillow to keep my head properly aloft and separate from the hard ground. I also have the knowledge that people somehow managed to survive for a hundred thousand years before the invention of the Ultralight Backpacking Dome Tent. I also know that it’s midsummer in the Bay Area, which means no rain.
I decide to rough it. I hike up to my campsite, where a couple guys who camped there last night are packing their gear. One of ‘em tells me they slept under the stars the night before with no ill effects. "What about the bugs?" I ask him. "After about 10 they’re fine," he says.
It never occurred to me that mosquitos have a bedtime, but remarkably, they do. I tried going to sleep before their bedtime and about a half-dozen kept buzzing around my face, as if to say, nobody here sleeps before we sleep.
At one point I wrap myself up in my tent (poles are for sissies!) just to put a barrier between me and the bugs. It’s mostly screen anyway, so it works pretty well, but the netting next to the face takes some getting used to. I actually slept that way for an hour or so, then I woke up in total darkness and silence and realized: the camper guy was right, the bugs really do call it a night after 10. I disentangled myself from the tent and slept the rest of the night in the open air. The skeeters were up at dawn, which is to say, so was I.
On the trail back to the camp headquarters it occurred to me why human sleeping patterns evolved the way they did. If Saturday night in Big Basin told me anything, it’s that we didn’t pick these sleeping hours: hungry bugs chose them for us.
The point of this trip was to hike up to Big Basin’s Sunset Camp, which is near a string of three lovely waterfalls. I would wake at dawn and photograph the falls before the sun got too high in the sky. Last time I came here, most of my photos of the falls were overexposed because of all the noon-day sunlight bouncing off all the flowing water. A photographer at work told me I needed to shoot the falls at dawn or dusk.
With swarms of bugs as my alarm clock, the plan worked fine. The photographic highlights:
You come to Big Basin thinking "I’m just interested in the waterfalls" but you see these mind-bogglingly huge redwoods all around and the next thing you know, you’re taking pictures of them. It’s pointless to even think of getting the tops of these trees in the frame; they’re between 250 and 300 feet up. And these are merely old-growth Coast Redwoods, not the Giant Sequoia Redwoods that are so much more famous.
Many of the old trees are hollowed-out at the base, tempting shutterbugs to do silly things like sticking their camera into the hole, aiming the lens upward and seeing what the automatic flash and focus turn up. This one came out pretty cool.
Another cool feature of Big Basin trails: some have been sawed right through the trunks of fallen trees.
OK, Waterfall Shot No. 1. This one is from Saturday. The water was roaring here back in May when I visited the first time; it’s more tame now, but the pictures seem nicer: better visual contrast between the rocks and the flowing water.
Here’s where I slept at Sunset Camp.
I took this one lying flat on the ground. Many of these towering trees are not pines; they’re a kind of oak that has evolved by growing straight up for a hundred feet just like the pines do.
A few wildflowers survive into the heat of July.
Here’s a picture I took early Sunday morning. Pictures I took here Saturday afternoon were either full of shadows or overexposed but the shots taken in the early morning came out pretty nice.
This section of trail is just littered with giant dead trees.
The trail goes right next to one of the falls so you can stick your camera right over the edge of it.
Here’s the water flowing over the edge of Berry Creek Falls. I held my camera up as high as I could reach and clicked the shutter. Autofocus is such a cool thing.
Berry Creek Falls in the morning. I went to considerable trouble to be here at this time of day, but it sure seems like it was worth the effort.