The Majesties of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks


The park ranger held it up between her thumb and forefinger. It was a mere two inches long.

“This is a sequoia cone.”

Sequoia cone on forest floor

Behind us was a colossus, the General Grant sequoia, the second largest in the world and located in Kings Canyon National Park, standing at a prodigious 268 feet in height. That a seed from a cone can produce one of these giants is one of nature’s wonders. 

General Grant tree, Kings Canyon National Park

The word majestic doesn’t enter into my vocabulary often. I seem to use it when I travel because of amazing things I see. It’s even more rare for me to apply it to a living thing. The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is one of them, a tree so massive and tall that on first sight you’re likely to be left speechless, in awe. Today, they are endemic only to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas in California.

The ranger continued to describe additional interesting facts about the tree as well as its historical and political importance. The sequoia isn’t the tallest tree. That distinction belongs to its cousin, the coastal redwood (S. sempervirens), though the sequoia’s height is no slouch, mature specimens reaching 250ft or more. But by the sheer volume of its height and massive, slowly tapering trunk bottom-to-top that can reach 20 feet in diameter, it is earth’s biggest tree. When looking straight up from the base, I was unable to appreciate its relative size.

However, on the Giant Forest Loop, I got to see just how big it is in relation to us mere humans.

There’s another impressive attribute. At Sequoia National Park’s General Sherman Tree, I pondered its extreme age, estimated to be 2,100 years old, earth’s largest living organism. At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it would’ve been 1,850 years old. When it was just a sapling, Caesar would’ve uttered his mortified words to Brutus. These trees are some of the oldest living things on earth. There’s no telling how long they can exist if left unmolested. Some are estimated to be over 3,000 years old. (BTW, if that age astonishes you, the oldest living bristlecone pine, also found in California as well as Utah and Nevada, is estimated to be more than 5,000 years old, making it more ancient than The Great Pyramid of Giza.)

Here’s a curious fact. The longer a sequoia lives, the better it’s able to defend itself against intruders. Tannins will foil bugs and fungi and the thick bark and resin-free sapwood will hinder fires. Lightning can scorch the tree, blackening the exterior and core, but the sequoia remarkably heals itself. I should be so tough in my golden years.

Sequoia is resistant to fire and insects

For all its hardiness, the sequoia is defenseless against humans. Some very large specimens were cut down in the latter half of the nineteenth century. What it took for a tree to grow in excess of a thousand years was undone in three weeks by two-man saw and axe. Even in the age of Manifest Destiny, people were outraged that trees much older than Methuselah were destroyed. Many stumps can still be seen along the Big Stump Trail in Kings Canyon.

USNPS ranger hat (image from askaranger.blogspot.com)

The fight to save the sequoia was so seminal to the conservation movement and establishment of our national park system that the ranger I mentioned above informed us the sequoia cone symbol appears on every Park Service ranger’s hat band. I will be sure to look for it when I visit the next national park.

 

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Fall Colors of Sequoia National Park


To say that I was privileged to see fall colors at Sequoia National Park is an understatement. This gift was totally unexpected. The plan was simply to experience the giant sequoias. While the ancient trees lived up to expectation, it was a bonus that the dogwoods, maples, aspens, cottonwoods, oaks and willows were changing color to give the forest understory a radiance, a shimmering glow of yellows, oranges and reds. Serendipity doesn’t strike often.

Sequoia National Park’s Other Attraction, Moro Rock


It’s a breathless exercise to climb the roughly 350 steps to the top of Moro Rock, which summits at 6,725 ft ASL. No, this is not the Morro Rock along the California coast but a granite monolith in Sequoia National Park. The effort to complete the climb of 300 feet is worth it for the views. If you’re prone to acrophobia, it’s likely you’ll not get very far, because the stairway winds tightly around the granite rock’s contours, one side sometimes facing the dropoff of a thousand or more feet, and the passageway occasionally is wide enough for only one person to pass.

All along the ascent, every view was more splendid than the last.

Looking westward toward the San Joaquin Valley

At the summit, I was rewarded with a spectacular vista of the Sierra Nevadas’ Great Western Divide.

The catwalk at the summit (image from nps.gov)

Panoramic view of the Great Western Divide atop Moro Rock

Granite domes like Moro Rock are common in the Sierras (think Half Dome in Yosemite), shaped over eons by a process called exfoliation where sheets of rock get shed (spalled) because of upward expansion. There are several more in the park that are relatively easily accessible.

This amazing rock-cut and concrete stairway construction is not recent, but another formidable achievement of the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was built in 1931 and extends almost 800 feet bottom to top. Why weren’t similar public works projects launched after The Great Recession of 2008?

Moro Rock is not as popular as other attractions, maybe because it’s located just inside the park’s southern entrance and visitors are anxious to see the giant sequoia trees. Still, it should be on everyone’s list of things to do, just be sure there isn’t a lightning storm before the climb.

Suck It To ‘Em


So what’s a giant sequoia supposed to do when a huge boulder gets in its way? Why, suck it up, of course.

There’s Something Shrimpy About Fresno’s Don Pepe Taqueria


I had my doubts that I could find a shrimp dish to equal the ones from Fumi’s Shrimp Truck in Kahuku. Their shrimp is reason enough to trek out to the North Shore of Oahu. My favored combination of garlic, butter and sriracha (optional) sauce is a heaven-sent recipe.

That was before I found Don Pepe Taqueria, an institution in Fresno since 1995. You could order standard Mexican fare (tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas) but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you passed on their specialty: shrimp. The location on N Blackstone has drawn so many loyal customers over the years that two more outlets opened to satisfy growing popularity. Pick any day of the week, any hour, and you’re likely to find the place packed. To be heard over the noise inside, you may have to shout out your order at the counter. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll feel rushed to decide when people line up behind you. If dining in, you might have to wait for a table to free up. But service is fast and you’ll be eating soon enough.

At the top of the seafood menu is Shrimp Botana, served ‘regular’ or spicy. A full dozen poached crustaceans, butterflied along the underside and in-shell, are piled on top of a cabbage-avocado-tomato slaw. There’s no way to eat these gracefully; it’s best to use your fingers. Besides, you’ll not want to waste time with decorum in getting these babies in your mouth.

I ordered mine spicy (top image). The shrimp were smothered in a glorious, bright reddish-orange hot sauce, reminding me in no small way of Fumi’s. The shells pulled off easily if messily. After polishing off the meat, I sucked on the shells to vacuum up every last drop of sauce, using a ton of napkins to wipe mouth and hands.

My wife’s Tostada Ceviche was unusual in the sense that the topping was a minced paste of raw fish, lime juice and cilantro, topped with two poached shrimp and avocado. Both fish and shrimp were very fresh. This too was an excellent dish.

I personally know of no other place that serves ice cold bottled beer with rim flecked with salt and plugged with shrimp and lime. A very nice touch.

Other ways to enjoy their shrimp are the tacos, burritos and shrimp cocktail.

I have relatives who live in Fresno. For you, Don Pepe is reason enough to stop.

Related post

Don Pepe Taqueria (original location)
4582 N Blackstone Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 224-1431

Don Pepe Taqueria
4950 N Woodrow Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 292-3188

Don Pepe Taqueria
7029 N Ingram Ave #108
Fresno, CA 93650
(559) 261-9744

Fog Lifting Over Pasture


Fall is in the air. In the Northwest we get foggy days early in the season. I was taking back roads in the morning around Eugene, Oregon, when lifting fog was lending its mysterious beauty over the landscape.

Paradise Lost, Paradise Burning


Not to be smart-alecky, but wild fires in the West are now a hot topic.

I haven’t personally seen one, but they’ve affected my life here in the Pacific Northwest, enough to make me worry about the future. A year ago, I was looking forward to spending some time again at Whistler in British Columbia. Fresh air. Unparalleled mountain scenery. Beautiful forests. While the area is famous for its winter sports, there is a different experience altogether after snow melt. I’d only been there once before (in July 2011) when wildflowers were everywhere and miles of hiking trails were open. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, Whistler-Blackcomb is a spectacular part of Cascadia, roughly a two-hour drive north of Vancouver.

It was a bummer therefore that last September, in all our time at Whistler, the skies were shrouded in smoke from wild fires burning in British Columbia. It started out as brown haze on the horizon but visibility got progressively worse each day. It was not unlike fog where objects not more than 100 feet away appeared hazy, except the air had a brownish tint and the temperatures were warm. After the first day, my wife and I couldn’t take hikes to higher elevations because of health warnings.

That summer of 2017, wild fires in California were making headlines. Washington and Oregon had their share, including the Eagle Creek fire that devastated the Columbia River Gorge (top image from katu.com). Seattle for the first time I can remember suffered under smoky skies for the better part of August and into September.

In August of this year, when we went to Lake Chelan to visit friends, a pall of unhealthy, stagnant air hung over the glacial lake. Smoke from a local forest fire was to blame.

After I got back home from Chelan, I never saw blue sky for two weeks. Local health advisories were issued to stay indoors if possible, avoid physical activity outside. Two consecutive summers of polluted air might be seen as the beginning of a trend. The consensus is that fires of immense scale and their resulting dirty air are the ‘new normal.’ For many days this summer, Seattle’s air quality was routinely worse than Beijing’s, the AQI as much as five times more severe. Global warming is taking its toll here as elsewhere on the planet. Normally thought of as a wet, verdant corner of the U.S., Washington is becoming hotter and drier. For four consecutive summers that I can recollect, we’ve hardly had a rainy day from May through September, shocking when compared to when I moved here in 1979. Those days recall Mark Twain’s alleged quip, “The pleasantest winter I ever spent was one summer on Puget Sound.” The precipitation in the ’80s was more like endless days of drizzle, now superseded by heavier rains funneled into fewer months. The difference between then and now, a span of nearly thirty years, is dramatic. Snow today is practically a no-show.

On my own property, I’ve noticed telltale changes. Two Western hemlock trees died this year because of prolonged drought over the years. Western red cedar, in my mind the more iconic conifer in the Northwest than Douglas fir, is struggling. Under ideal conditions, they can live over a thousand years. For several years in a row, they’ve shown signs of exhaustion. On every branch, one or more sprays die, not only on my specimens but everywhere I look. With current trends and repeated stress, is it any wonder I think they’ll be lucky to make it another ten years or so?

By late summer, a high fire danger was declared on 95 percent of Washington state. In the past, this was unheard of. So instead of rejoicing in the splendor of our vast, green forests, I now worry that in the not-too-distant future, climate change will turn them into gigantic kindling that will fuel ever larger, more uncontrollable fires and forever change the paradise that I’ve come to love and cherish. Summertime in the Northwest has always been something to looked forward to, but nowadays it fills me with a little dread.

Update (11-19-2018): I’m speechless about the how the title of this post seems to refer to the Paradise fires that are currently burning in California. I hope readers didn’t expect any coverage about this tragic event that underscores the fear implicit in my writing. And if this weren’t accidental enough, only a week before the fire started, my wife and I were in Oroville, only 20 miles south of Paradise. When I was fueling up my car in Chico, which is even closer to Paradise, a young man noticed my Washington State plates, wondered if it was raining there and rued how dry it was in Chico. Now, I feel even worse.