Armed with a detailed topographical map, a seven dollar compass, bear mace and a lot of unfounded optimism, David and Josh made a two hour drive to Jedediah State Park early one Saturday morning. Isabel had decided not to come, given the extreme difficulty of cutting one’s way through a rain forest as described by Preston.
They had selected a target location which seemed close enough to fit their requirements, especially the “confluence of two valleys” description. From the Stout Grove parking lot, they headed south about a mile on the Mill Creek Trail until they reached the point where they would leave the southbound trail and head west into the pristine forest.
The trees rose invitingly on either side of the gully like a Doric colonnade, but around their base a seemingly impassible thatch of man-high sword ferns, huckleberry, blackberry and salmonberry bushes, and dense thickets of laurel, alder and maple trees united to defend the forest against all intruders. They forced their way in, ducking to prevent clinging branch-ends from poking their eyes, forcing one foot ahead of the other as the ground began to climb.
They had gone about a hundred feet before they realized the true challenge of the forest. David looked down, and was shocked to see water gurgling down the gully five feet below him. He suddenly realized he was not standing on the forest floor. At that moment, he heard a crash behind him, and turned around to see Josh standing neck deep in a mesh of ferns, rotting branches and every kind of forest debris imaginable. Josh had found the real forest floor.
This was their first experience of a phenomenon that would plague their quest of discovery to the very end—the fake forest floor. In a redwood rain forest, the understory grows so densely that fallen logs and branches do not always hit the forest floor. They can lay thickly five or even ten feet up, forming a dam which traps other fallen logs, branches and twigs, until soil collects. On top of all this, ferns grow in such abundance that to the inexperienced hiker, the whole mess can look like the forest floor. Until he makes a wrong move and falls in. A solitary hiker might tumble into one of these traps, disappear and never be heard from again.
They pressed on more cautiously. After two hours of pushing, pulling, jumping, climbing and crawling up the ravine, scratched, bruised and covered in debris, they finally reached the top of the pass. As a final barrier, a huge redwood had fallen directly in front of them. The giant must have been fifteen feet wide standing up, and now formed an impenetrable wall between them and their goal.
David noticed a narrow gap underneath it. Determining that taking the easiest way was more important than dignity at the present moment, he got down on his belly and began to crawl. Worming his way through a fern thicket beneath the hundred ton fallen giant, he was halfway through when he heard a loud hissing noise. Suddenly his leg began to burn. Panicked, he crawled the rest of the way through and leapt up on the other side, then looked down at his leg. A red mist and a sharp burn struck him, and he began to choke.
“What happened,” came Josh’s anxious call from behind the wall of wood.
“Bear mace. Safety came off. Choking.”
Fifty face washes in a nearby pool later, he could open his eyes again, but the burning continued the rest of the day. Josh rolled up the rope David had tossed over the log, laughing quietly to himself, then took the lead down the other side of the slope. David’s leg began to burn where the mace had touched it.
“Bear Mace Gully. That’s what we’ll call it,” said Josh.
Seven hours later they were back on Mill Creek Trail a quarter mile north of where they’d started, covered in debris so thick anyone who saw them might have mistaken them for a pair of sasquatches. They had seen beautiful trees, including some impressively large giants which rivaled the Stout Tree. They had taken the worst the forest could throw at them and lived to tell the tale.
But they had not found the Grove of Titans.