Submitted by Katie Azevedo

If you happen to have similar interests as I do, you enjoy discovering the natural beauty that our land has to offer through the attentive ears of your best equine pal. That is my favorite aspect of endurance riding, if I had to pick just one. It’s the reason I bought my gelding Shrimp six years ago after falling in love with his stamina and animation. We both love the trail.

Renee and Barry take photos of each other. Photo by Barry Thorpe.

Shrimp and I reside in Northern California on the coast amongst the tallest living beings on earth. Fog is a redwood tree’s best friend, and we have lots of it. The local endurance club, Redwood Empire Endurance Riders (REER) organizes five AERC sanctioned rides each summer including the Redwood Rides in July and August. It was Shrimp’s and my first ride together in 2004, and was also our most recent one- August 7th 2010. This year the second ride in the redwoods was managed by Natalie Herman. It stages out of the fairgrounds in the small town of Orick that lies right on Highway 101. The entire ride is a magical journey through the moist and rich rainforest of the Redwood National Park (yes… national park!).

Towering Redwood.

On Saturday morning the riders ride out of camp on a levee that leads them to the entrance of this temperate rainforest. The climate changes to a more cool and humid feel. Huckleberry, thimbleberry, sword ferns, and other shrubs argue for space to grow and capture the light rays that enter between the sitka spruce and coast redwoods. The dirt path is the only spot where the ground is exposed.  It sure makes me feel small and insignificant when I realize that despite the thriving undergrowth, most of the vegetative mass is in the canopy way above me. One look to the sky will have me gaping in awe. It gets me every time!

Riders head for the forest.

The trail takes me up a slow but significant incline. I ride alongside Berit and Morgan who are riding their energetic mares. We are all smiles and laughs. As the trail starts to level out, the riders pass through groves of alders. The bright green colors are reviving and the air is crisp and fresh. After 6 miles or so, the single track trail opens into two parallel paths. I notice that laurels and tan oaks have joined in the mix. I advise Shrimp to let the mares push on and we set into a conservative trot behind a bay gelding named Little Bit and his rider Renee. They are riding alongside Michelle and her Rushcreek mare named Nikki. Shrimp and Little Bit conquered one of the 50’s at Bandit Springs together this year and Renee happens to be a great friend of mine, too. She is also a smart rider and good company on the trail. We end up riding the rest of the day together.

A skirt made of Redwood Sorrel.

Before long the flagging steers us right at an intersection. We are back on single track. The trail is windy and technical, going up and down and all around. The footing is nice soft dirt with some dips and undulations. The horses seem to love this type of rollercoaster trail and are plenty warmed up by now. Shrimp feels great and is minding the turns and the occasional root. We are also taken over several long bridges that bounce a bit when walked across. They are made of a composite plastic material. Fun!

Renee, Liitle Bit and a bouncing bridge.

This is deeper into the territory of some of the last-standing ancient old-growth redwoods since logging started here along with the gold rush in the mid 1800’s. It wasn’t until around 150 years later that Congress created this national park, and by then nearly all of the ancient trees were gone. Luckily our forefathers saved at least some of the enormous old growth- some around 2,000 years old. Redwoods contribute so much to their surroundings. They are a keystone species because of the way they create the localized climate and acidic soil that the rest of the unique ecosystem has evolved to rely on. Without them, this particular diverse network of flora and fauna wouldn’t have the means to thrive. Redwood National Park is just about the best bet for the preservation of this habitat, as the other parks, preserves, and logging lands are too small and fragmented to sustain the health of the whole eco region into the future. I notice rhododendrons, trilliums, and violets now and then as I ride through this trail. I hear plenty of birds conversing in song, too. It amuses me that these gigantic redwood trees are often skirted by a bed of tiny little redwood sorrel. The difference in the size of organism is remarkable! And oddly adorable… like a whale making friends with a group of plankton or something!

Shrimp gets his puse taken.

Both at the 15 minute hold and the 1 hour hold, there were no lines for the veterinarians. Ah… so amazing. I am also thankful for the volunteers that were making the ride happen! Shout out to Russell and Jefe for the extra help, too. The landing where the vet check was held is the most exposed area we ride into all day. Some sun feels nice and reassures me that the athletes aren’t as likely to cramp up. Once our time is up, it was back into the rainforest. Shaded, lush, yet still warm enough for me to prefer a tank top all afternoon.

Riders in the forest.

Riding back towards camp for the finish at 50 miles was the final highlight in the day. The horses know where they are headed and are as steady as ever. They kindly request to rip the trail up, but Renee and I have been rating them evenly all day. We joke about how Little Bit in particular would have liked to raced it. He just isn’t able to convince Renee yet. There are new exciting trail features like an uphill zig zag of tight hairpin turns… the trail version of Lumbard street. More beautiful creek crossings, a nice wooden bridge, more groves of redwoods followed by mixed deciduous groupings. It just doesn’t get better than this! There is a certain beauty and ambience about a forest with 250 foot tall, 15 foot diameter ancient giants that doesn’t begin to compare to a second growth redwood forest. When we emerge from the enthralling forest at 4 o’clock, the levee takes us to the finish line. We are greeted with smiling familiar faces. After vet through, Shrimp enjoys a nap in the sun (on his new HiTie, our favorite). I get to visit with friends a bit more, and relax the rest of the day at camp. I thank my wonderful horse for doing so much for me! Our horses are just astounding, aren’t they? Natalie and the ride crew did a great job today and I love my waterbottle with the RRII logo on it. I also thought it was great that Natalie gives awards to the last riders that come in- not just the first riders! That is refreshing for a change. Easycare had also donated some great prizes like Stowaway bags and E-Z ride stirrups. Wow!

Shrimp and me. Photo by Barry Thorpe.

If you have the means to visit this corner of the earth in Northern California, I think you should. It’s one of those rides that tends to stand out from the rest. You may find it the most beautiful ride you’ll ever do and perhaps understand why John Steinbeck wrote that even “the vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect”. I am grateful that REER has the opportunity host a ride in such a special area. REER rides in general have a relaxed and friendly feel to them- it’s a really welcoming crowd. They often have a 10-mile fun ride along with the 25 and 50 distances, too, like they did today. This distance is perfect for new riders and young horses just trying out what it would be like to ride LD’s or endurance.

Banana Slug crossing.

Do take one piece of advice along with you if you visit… offered from a Humboldt Coast native: it is worth it to steer around the banana slugs. Just in case you are faced with this instant dilemma, just go ahead and take my word for it. They won’t get out of the way, and they make for a gooey trailkill.

Katie and Bey Shrimp (RD Censashahnl)