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Heather Greenwood-Davis, Freedom in California's Fern Canyon
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Chelsea Hotel, Toronto

Published in National Geographic Traveler, June 20, 2016 

Freedom in California's Fern Canyon

The most breathtaking escape in California is the great outdoors.

My son Cameron, 11, is and has always been a mover.

If there’s a log, he’ll jump on it; a couch, he’ll climb it; a puddle, he’ll be happy to splash around.

In our suburban neighborhood the opportunities for that are fewer than they were when I was a kid. While recess offers a bit of an outlet for all that tween energy, it never seems to be enough. So you can imagine the joy that flooded Cameron’s face when I set him free during a trip to Redwood National and State Parks in California.

From the start the trip into the woods was a compromise.

Cameron would sleep on a rock if I would let him; I prefer soft linens. Elk Meadow Cabins was our happy medium. The seven well-appointed cabins (six were originally built to house sawmill workers) are set on a section of the parkland that a herd of Roosevelt elk calls home. We knew we’d picked the right place when we awoke to find about a dozen elk ambling in the grass outside our front door.

And I had barely pulled the car into the driveway when Cameron begged to get out and beelined for a family of guests gathered around a campfire.

But if freedom to run and elk for neighbors was the cake of our Humboldt County experience, Redwood Adventures guide Justin Legge was the serendipitous icing.

Legge is based at the cabins and readily piled us into his truck, handed out some loaner rubber boots, and headed for Fern Canyon.

Much has been made in the news lately about Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, the Japanese idea that our mostly city-centered lives are in need of some serious forest time, and full immersion in the free-growing green stuff is literally what the doctor ordered.

That kids need more outdoor play is no surprise either. Every Kid in a Park, the initiative launched by the White House in 2015 offering every fourth-grade student a national park pass, is only the latest in an effort to combat obesity in a generation that often seems more likely to be found on a couch or in front of a screen.

Our trip into Fern Canyon made it clear that all you really need to do to get your kids moving is offer up the space and freedom for them to do so. The fact that I couldn’t tell the difference between a Sitka spruce and a coast redwood meant Legge’s value was immediately appreciated.

When Cameron said he’d never seen trees this tall, Legge countered with kid-friendly facts. (“Did you know the oldest bristlecone pine tree is some 5,000 years old in [California’s] White Mountains?”)

An offhand question was asked about rainfall, and we learned that hundreds of gallons of water run along the trunk of a redwood each day.

Legge told us the story of Alice Algae and Freddie Fungus and how they took a “lichen” to each other. We groaned but we laughed too.

As we walked in our squeaking boots, crossing gravel bars and moving up pathways squishy from recent rain, Legge slowed us down. Instead of marching through the mile-long loop and looking ahead, he suggested we look down, up, and around. We kept an eye out for elk among the white cow parsnips and stopped to squeeze spruce cones to listen for the “frying bacon” sound. Legge pointed and helped us imagine what the canyon looked like when filled with the dinosaurs used in the filming of The Lost World: Jurassic Park “just over there.”

When the thickest part of Fern Canyon revealed itself, it stopped us in our tracks. Much like the formation of the Grand Canyon, waters have carved out this gorge to depths of up to a hundred feet, resulting in “walls” that are actually seafloor. As a result, the ferns have planted their roots and spores in the sedimentary rock throughout. It’s lush and green, dripping with moss and, with the sun beaming in, almost iridescent.

One look and Cameron was off to explore, at one instant obsessed with the yellow banana slugs at his feet, at another climbing high up and over the giant trees, then splashing in Home Creek, then running around the corner ahead of us, eager to see what lay ahead.

There was a moment when I thought I’d lost him, only to look up and find him high above me sitting in the cradle of an overturned tree, Legge at his side pointing out birds overhead.

From my vantage point they looked like the lost boys from Peter Pan: happy and free.

PUBLISHED June 20, 2016


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