Gaye LeBaron: Great Redwood Trail proposal a worthy idea

The past is a sometime thing. Some dismiss it most of the time, others part of the time - or part of the past. Let’s face it, some live in it. As one who reads, writes and muses on the past, I float amongst all the above.

Certainly there are things I would rather not dwell upon. Others I revisit so often that friends and family run screaming from the room.

I try, as with good fortune I grow older, to limit the nostalgia to appropriate occasions. Mike McGuire’s proposal for a Great Redwood Trail is such an occasion.

State Sen. McGuire, D-Healdsburg, whose district includes the proposed 300-mile route of the trail, can get almost poetic talking about the beauty of it.

“I have to say,” he told me last week, “this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity … so few times in our lifetimes do we have a chance to see such a thing happen.”


“LIFETIME” IS too brief to describe how long it’s been. The Redwood Trail proposal comes as another great idea. The first one, which has made all the difference, is the Save the Redwoods League. The League is celebrating its 100th year, an anniversary that honors the foresight of a group of “busybody” women in a lumber town, and five VIMs - Very Important Men - who heard their plea.

It was 1917 and the members of the Eureka Women’s Club were worried the “timber rush” occasioned by a fast-growing Bay Area would mean the loss of the spectacular redwoods that would make the long-promised highway connecting Humboldt County to the wider world one of the most beautiful drives in the nation.

But the club members recognized they had neither the necessary money nor the political clout.

Their congressman, Rep. William Kent of Marin, a friend of John Muir and very familiar with redwoods having owned a grove (now Muir Woods) on the side of Mount Tamalpais for a decade, stepped up.

He gathered a band of early conservationists including UC Berkeley professor John C. Merriam (later president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C.); naturalist Madison Grant, secretary of the New York Zoological Society; Henry Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History, New York; and Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.

Several of them had never seen a redwood tree, but this “A-list” donated $20 each (that’s right, just one zero) as “seed money” to confirm their intentions. Then they took the long trip up dirt roads to look at the Humboldt redwoods.

The “ladies of the club” had found their allies. And those $20 bills from the nation’s leading conservationists were parlayed over the years that followed into $75 million to save more than 50,000 acres of redwood forest.


IF THESE men had not been bent on their very productive sightseeing, they could have reached Eureka more comfortably by a 4-year-old rail line - the Northwestern Pacific - which followed the Eel River north from Willits. Built in 1914 to carry lumber from the northern mills through ruggedly beautiful country east of the chosen highway route, it had the distinction of being one of the most, if not the most, expensive railroad lines per mile in the West.

That’s how remote and rugged the terrain was - and still is. There was passenger as well as freight service into the early 1960s, interrupted frequently by floods and slides and fallen trees. Then, in 1998, a fire in the milelong Island Mountain Tunnel closed the line. This time, forever.

The current owner, the North Coast Railroad Authority, runs freight now from Willits south. The route of the proposed trail would be the right-of-way for those rusting tracks, through lands that are near-wilderness with large ranches stretching eastward. You may have read last month about the proposed sale of the Dean Witter Ranch that has more than 16 miles of river frontage along that track.

The Redwood Trail legislation, as McGuire proposes, would end the railroad authority, shift the Willits-south freight line to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit and create a shorter, less daunting echo of the Pacific Crest Trail with a kayak option as well.


I BEG for a nostalgia break here to remember my first trip on that train. It was 1942. World War II and gas rationing were new - effectively stopping traffic on the Redwood Highway.

It was an overnight trip (a “red-eye,” we would call it today) and the creaky old Northwestern Pacific was filled with new soldiers in ill-fitting wool uniforms. It was hot and stuffy and dimly lit and an adventure that stamped that train trip indelibly on my memory.

I made other trips on that train, more comfortable, more excursion than necessity. The speed never increased - those tracks were very difficult to maintain. Stops to clear the tracks of a limb or a toppled tree were frequent.

But the slow pace offered opportunities to count the salmon in the clear waters of the Eel, watch the elk on the east shore watching us and, on a long curve, see a bear hotfooting it up the tracks ahead of the train whistle.


MY EARLY years in Humboldt are that past I was talking about at the start, and brought to mind when I read about Sen. McGuire’s good idea.

I know there are multiple places on the northern portion of that 300-mile trail that are accessible from old Highway 101, known now, since the floods of the 1960s produced a freeway, as a tourist byway called the Avenue of the Giants.

I have more than a passing acquaintance with the area.

I am just returned from a trip along the Redwood Highway - through my childhood, you might say, since I was born there and lived the first 14 years of my life in those “saved” redwood forests along the Eel River.

When I go north for any reason I eschew I-5 in favor of the more leisurely 101. And, if I am the driver, there is always that detour to the original Redwood Highway.

The Avenue is the pathway to my past, to the sites of towns swept away in the floodwaters of 1964, well after I became a Sonoma County resident.

Last week, as I drove south from Oregon, I notched in my memory cord the spots along the way where a Redwood Trail hiker might easily connect to the shadier, less rugged Avenue.

On this trip my reflections had a new perspective. Driving what was once the main street of Weott, I ticked off the list of the “used-to-be” business district: four motels, three restaurants, two bars, two markets - one of them the iconic Johnson’s Store selling everything from clothing and hardware to lamb chops and ice cream cones - with the post office in the middle.

As always, I drove slowly, remembering where the movie theater and the soda fountain were, and the tiny women’s clothing shop and the big auto (and truck) repair shop.

But this time, looking to the brushy land where an apple orchard and our house used to be, I wasn’t thinking about floodwaters. I was thinking about wildfires -– about how nature’s dramatic events change lives and memories, and about what happens to our concept of the past.


IT ISN’T only nature that produces drama. Some of the more recent but equally dramatic changes along that highway are economic. Consider: I think I saw just two logging trucks on the freeways on this trip. There was a time when the 20-mile ride to Scotia, the old Pacific Lumber Company town, would be in a small car sandwiched between two loaded trucks hauling giant logs that seemed precariously anchored on the tight turns.

This, too, spoke to change. If the river took my childhood, it was the changing times that took away the trucks and the whole timber industry they represented.

The Redwood Trail proposal not only acknowledges that loss but offers what can be a new chapter.

McGuire is clear that his trail proposal is not just for nature lovers and exercise addicts.

“There is an important economic element,” he said and added “this could be a big part of a conversion from a timber economy to recreation,” reminding me that outdoor recreation is currently closing in on being a $100 billion portion of California’s economy.

The senator is a smart young man, with the emphasis on the word “young.” He has time on his side - and some kernels of ancient wisdom as well. This is the start of a multidecade project and, he says, “We have to do it right. Not fast.”

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