Carson Canyon

Tuesday, August 22, 2000

Itís a perfect late summer day, temps in the high 70ís, sky clear and blue. I study my maps and decide to go to Little Carson Falls. Itís a fairly short walk and one of my favorite places. Iíve been there several times, but not in the last year or two. About a mile below the falls is the western end of a long tunnel, an unused portion of the water district supply system. Nathan and I found the sealed off eastern end several years ago at Happersberger Point, but Iíve never found the western end. On the topo I can see that the route is fairly steep and the contours pinch in close to the creek on either side. I decide to try to bushwhack down the canyon to the tunnel, then come back on the Kent Lake, Old Vee, and Oat Hill fire roads. The loop is nearly eight miles but should be doable in my time frame, assuming the canyon is navigable.

I load up and head out. After climbing a mile of steep fire road I enter an oak forest and soon come to the trail down to the falls. It sweeps down across a steep grassy meadow in several wide loops. The trail is narrow and slippery, especially covered in dead grass as it is this late in the season. At the bottom it enters a green shady area of large oaks and madrones, then emerges on a rocky outcropping that forms the upper edge of the falls. In the wet season the fall plunges from pool to pool, taking a half dozen steps to descend a hundred feet. At this season it is barely a trickle, though the pools are full. I climb out onto a blade of rock between the upper two pools and find a seat to admire the view.

The creek, about like a kitchen tap turned on part way, emerges from a tangle of bracken and drips about two meters across a dark and mossy opening into the top pool. I can hear a tinkle of water, but it is so dark and shady in there that it is hard to see from the bright glare where I sit. But one stream of drops passes through a narrow beam of light. For an instant each drop flashes like a diamond in the light. The drops are nearly continuous, and the effect is like a string of pearls being pulled quickly through the light.

The water drips from long strings of moss into the upper pool, about the size of a bathtub. The surface is partly covered with floating leaves and brilliant green algae. A ridge of rock separates this pool from the next, connected by a shallow channel. As I gaze into the depths, a black salamander swims languorously through the channel to hide beneath the floating leaves. I scan the other pools, and now I can make out a half dozen salamanders hanging motionless a few centimeters beneath the surface, their legs splayed out, looking like dead bodies floating in a pool.

From the second pool to the third, the water runs downs a mossy wall for three meters into a much larger pool directly below me. For a while I watch a blue-bellied lizard hunting on the vertical wall. Then a hummingbird whirs loudly past my head. He hovers at the lip of the top pool, his body motionless, his wings invisible, his hair-thin tongue darting into the lip of the falls. His back is a dark forest green with flashes of iridescent electric green as he moves. There is a whistling quality to the sound of his wings, and I realize it is the sound you hear when you swing a rope around your head. It is simply the speed of his wings slashing through the air.

He flashes away and darts down to the wall of moss and algae below the pool. Too quickly to see, he swings his tiny feet forward and suddenly alights on the vertical surface. How he remains there, I canít imagine, for itís as slick as glass and covered with a centimeter-thick layer of running water. He has no trouble, standing there and drinking from the stream. Then he raises his head, opens his wings, and presses his chest against the rock, his beak and head straight up the wall. His tapered head diverts the water over his back, and he is suddenly under water. He is very hard to see. His back and wings are exactly the color of the glistening wet moss. His streamlined body hardly disturbs the smooth laminar flow of water. The lizard seems as surprised as I do at the hummerís disappearance, for he scampers over for a closer look. The bird remains under water perhaps ten or twenty seconds, then he raises his head and reveals the circle of ruby under his throat. It catches the light, turning a fiery, coppery red, like a brilliant LED suddenly appearing among the green. I catch my breath, and he flashes and is gone in an instant.

I cross the creek above the falls and follow a precipitous deer track down a steep slope to the foot of the cliff. It is not a trail for the incautious or ill shod. There is so much loose rock on the trail that the footing is treacherous. There are a few anxious moments, then I am down. The trail is overgrown and difficult in places, but the route is clear enough, and for the next hour I make my way steeply downhill along the stream bank. The forest, mainly oak, buckeye, and bay, is open and dappled with light. The creek bed, mostly dry now, is huge car- and house-sized boulders, all carpeted with a soft green blanket of moss. Now and again I cross a sunny meadow through waist-high bracken. In the clearings I can look across at the slope beyond the foot of the canyon, covered thickly in redwoods and Douglas fir. It is so incredibly steep that the trees stand in single ranks, their canopies lined up in rows like spectators in a stadium. Somewhere down there, I know, lies Kent Lake, one of the largest reservoirs in the county but seldom seen because of its remote and trail-less location. A thousand feet above, the fog from the ocean side lays like a snowy tablecloth over the ridge top, with cottony fingers trailing down the deeper canyons.

Soon redwoods begin to appear and the woods darken. No light reaches the floor now. The ground is soft redwood duff, and I make no noise as my boots ski down the steep slopes. The massive boles around me tower up seventy meters or more, and I feel that I have shrunk down to the size of a rabbit or vole. There is no sound, not even birds or insects. A slither down one last slope and I come to a bridge over the creek made of a single redwood log three meters in diameter. The top has been sawn off to make a wide level path. There are even steps cut out of the same log at the far end.

When I step down into the forest on the far side it is darker than ever. The trees here are immense, rivaling those in Muir Woods just a few miles away. I wander among them feeling like the hobbits entering Mirkwood Forest. In a few minutes the similarity increases as I make out lights glowing in the darkness off the trail to my left. It is a soft green welcoming glow, just too far away to make out what it is between the numerous trunks. Like the hobbits, I cannot resist going to investigate. I edge between several immense trunks and emerge into a natural clearing in the midst of the redwoods. It is perhaps thirty meters across, covered with soft grass. In the exact center is a sawn section of redwood log lying flat, a perfect bench for admiring the scene. I take a seat, push my hat back on my head, and crane my head to look up. Surrounding the clearing are the biggest trees yet, several six meters or more in diameter. They are so tall that the sun does not shine down into the clearing, but lands twenty meters away among the bases and fallen logs of the trees. There the light supports a lush stand of horsetail ferns, a vibrant spring green against the black tree trunks. It is these ferns, glowing in the light, which have drawn me off the trail. In the shadows on either side I can see other ferns in a wide semicircular arc marking the motion of the clearingís life-giving light as the sun moves across the canyon. They are as tall as men, seen but dimly in silhouette, like actors waiting in the wings for their turn on the lighted stage.

I sit there on my pew and breathe in the silence. There is no one else for miles in any direction; the trees are silent and motionless around me. The temperature is perfect; I am neither hot nor cold, tired nor hungry, worried nor anxious. Above my head is a circle of clear blue sky, framed in the redwood canopy like a Christmas wreath. It strikes me that sitting here with my trusty walking stick and my battered old slouch hat, my lunch and my recorder in my pack, that this is happiness. Such a scene is not everyoneís joy, but for me personally, this is perfect. It is good to simply be alive.

I sit for a motionless half-hour, listening to the silence. I consider playing my recorder, but I dare not disturb the cathedral silence. But I have lingered longer than planned. If I am to pick Nathan up from camp on time I have to get moving. I still have four miles of steep uphill to get back to the car. I pick up my stick and push myself to my feet, taking one last look around. Before turning back to the trail, I just have to go see the biggest redwood of all. It is a mother tree, with one gigantic trunk in the center and six or eight slightly smaller offspring growing from the same massive base. I walk over to it, and for the first time since I found the clearing I hear a whisper of sound. I lean over one massive buttress. From directly beneath the tree, a spring of crystal water bubbles up and flows into a mat of moss and watercress. No wonder it is the biggest tree in the forest. I tip my hat to the giant tree and her children. Location is everything.

copyright 2000 by Brian K. Crawford