The coastal redwoods were magnificent. Alas only 2% of the original 1.92 million acres (about 80,000 acres) are left – see map at right (hover your mouse over the map to magnify). Redwoods are remarkably fire-tolerant and long-lived; 500 years is an average life span, but some are more than 2,000 years old. Rising from massive trunks, they are the tallest trees in the world, some more than 300 feet tall.

Redwood, particularly old growth redwood, is prized. Redwood heartwood has grown-in resistance to decay and insects that is present throughout the lumber, not just on the surface. The wood exposed through sawing, boring or nailing is as decay-resistant as the surface. In old growth the first limbs are sometimes more than a 100 feet up, so there are no knots even in long boards. The grain is so straight you can lay a ruler on it.

Check out some pictures of these fantastic trees

Montgomery Woods State Reserve

Tallest trees in the world

High Climbers and Timber Fallers” by Jerry (Gerald F.) Beranek

Avenue of the Giants

Redwood has an open-celled structure and contains little or no pitch or resins. This enables redwood to absorb and retain all types of finishes extremely well. The Forest Products Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture states that, redwood has “less volumetric and tangential shrinkage than other common domestic softwoods”. In exterior use, this means redwood stays flat and straight with minimal warping, cupping or checking.

The greatest accumulation of plant mass ever recorded on earth was a redwood stand in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. This temperate rain forest has seven times the biomass (living and dead organic materials) of that found in a tropical rainforest.

Redwoods are so immense that they live in three climatic zones at once. The base of each tree is in one set of climatic conditions, the stem in another, and the crown in yet another. When you walk in a redwood stand you are in a semi-shaded moist environment. If you were up in the forest canopy you may well find it dry and windy. Look on the floor of a redwood forest and you will see two types of needles. The needles on most of the tree branches are broad and flat so that they can catch the available sunlight. The needles near the top however, have tight scale-like spikes which reduce evaporative surfaces for the drier conditions found there.

Redwoods need great amounts of moisture – 65 inches of rain a year average and summer fog. Redwoods help create their own microclimate through the transpiration of moisture from the leaves to the atmosphere. A very large redwood can release up to 500 gallons of water a day into the air.

After the 1906 Earthquake, much lumber was needed to rebuild San Francisco. People began arriving on the Mendocino Coast from all over the world to take jobs created by the logging industry. The towering redwood trees presented interesting problems for the newly arrived loggers.

The trunk of a redwood is larger, tougher and less desirable near the ground than a little higher up. In the “old days” scaffolds were used to raise the fallers up to where they avoided the problems with the base of the trunk.  Fallers, (the men who felled the trees) wedged springboards into the sides of the trunk to provide a place to stand and cut.

After a tree was felled, preferably uphill or into the river so the soft redwood wouldn’t split, a bucker cut off the limbs and cut the trunk into manageable lengths for the mill. Then a peeler went to work removing the bark from off  the log. Work was planned with the seasons so that the sap would be running in the trees when they were cut making the peeler’s job easier. Taking the bark off in the woods made it easier to pull the tree along the skid road to the mill. A sniper rounded the lead end of the log so it wouldn’t dig in as it was pulled.

At the Fort Bragg Town Hall there is a slice of one of the biggest redwoods felled in the area. Driving through the section of Route 128 closest to the coast you’ll pass through some young redwoods.  You’ll need to go north to Route 101 to Leggett (where you can drive your car through a giant redwood) and then north to the Avenue of the Giants to get some notion of what once used to cover the coastal hillsides. You can go to Montgomery Woods State Reserve (it’s between Comptche and Ukiah – where there is an old-growth stand and you can measure yourself against one of the tallest trees in the world.

“Big” is no joke. See for yourself in these photos.Makeup of a tree

Makeup of a tree

How a Redwood Grows

For all their size Redwoods grow in exactly the same way as other trees. This explanation is extracted from Bill Bryson’s book on his attempt to walk the 2,000 mile plus AppalachianTrail.

“For all its mass, a tree is a remarkably delicate thing. All of its internal life exists within three paper-thin layers of tissue – the phloem, xylem and cambium – just beneath the bark, which together form a moist sleeve around the dead heartwood. However tall it grows, a tree is just a few pounds of living cells thinly spread between the roots and the leaves. These diligent layers of cells perform all of the intricate science and engineering needed to keep a tree alive, and the efficiency with which they do it is one of the wonders of life.How a tree grows

How a tree grows

Without noise or fuss, every tree lifts massive volumes of water – several hundred gallons in the case of a large tree on a hot day – from its roots to its leaves, where it is returned to the atmosphere. Imagine the din and commotion, the clutter of machinery that would be needed for a fire department to raise a similar amount of water.

And lifting water is just one of the many jobs that the phloem, xylem and cambium perform. They also manufacture lignin and cellulose; regulate the storage and production of tannin, sap, gum, oils and resins; dole out minerals and nutrients; convert starches into sugars for future growth (which is where maple syrup comes into the picture); and goodness knows what else.Sections of a tree trunk

Sections of a tree trunk

But, because all this is happening in such a thin layer, it leaves the tree terribly vulnerable to invasive organisms. The reason a rubber tree seeps latex when it is cut is that is its way of saying, “Not tasty. Nothing here for you. Go away.” Trees can deter destructive creatures like caterpillars to look elsewhere. When infestations are particularly severe, some trees can communicate the fact. Some species of oak release a chemical that tells other oaks in the vicinity that an attack is under way. In response, the neighboring oaks step up their tannin production the better to withstand the coming onslaught.


Jerry (Gerald F.) Beranek’s is a local faller who took photos the whole time he worked in the woods. His book, “High Climbers and Timber Fallers (ISBN 0-9654167-2-0 Published in 2003), captures the essence of the modern old growth industry from the latter 1970’s up to the millennium. It’s a final record of what the industry, as a whole, experienced during the change to second growth management. Jerry’s coffee table book tells the reader of the end of a magnificent era of logging the giant redwoods in the Redwood Empire using real life stories and hundreds of color photographs. If you want to see the world from the top of a big old redwood, Gerry can make it happen … he has a business giving “tours”, including climbing to the tops of the few big old ones left.

Felling a Redwood was a mighty and dangerous job.