Winter Redwood Harvest: Off-trail in the secret canyons of Mt. Tamalpais

  • It’s January on Mt. Tamalpais. Hall, Obi, Tom, and a handful of Juniper Ridge staff and friends are spending the next two days on the mountain, exploring its forgotten trails and secret canyons, camping, hiking, and gathering ingredients for our Winter Redwood Backpacker's Cologne. The seasonal perfume is a love song to this misty wilderness, located about an hour north of San Francisco.

    Within minutes of leaving the trailhead, we stumble on a pile of recently cut Douglas Fir branches. We can't believe our luck. The Forest Service is thinning the abundant natives to make sure they don’t choke out their slower-growing neighbors.

    Out come the pruning shears and knives. We trim the tender tips from the branches, and Hall unleashes a stream of bright, citrusy sap from the blisters on the bark, then rubs some of it on the back of his neck, smiling.

    "This is real wilderness perfume."

    When we get back into cell phone range, we'll call the Forest Service so Juniper Ridge can come collect the branches (which the Forest Service would otherwise burn). Tom, though, has become very attached to a particularly juicy Doug Fir log. It's four feet long and weighs at least 30 pounds, and Tom has his heart set on distilling it that night.

    Hall and Obi try to talk Tom into leaving it on the ridge, but he’s adamant. So, with Tom using the log like a giant walking stick, we all set out again, dropping down into the shade of the canyon.

    It's a different world down here—cool and wet—and the air is spicy-sweet with Bay Laurel. We hike on in companionable silence, stopping to smell plants and shrubs along the way. Eventually, we arrive at the Steep Ravine campgrounds—an ocean-side Eden south of Stinson Beach where we'll be sleeping tonight.

    We fire up the converted whiskey still next to our Field Lab Van to steam some oils from the trimmings we gathered that afternoon. Tom also packs leaves and Redwood cambium into round tins, prepping them for a campfire distillation.

    The rest of us journey up the coast in search of Sage. When we arrive at our harvesting location, the sun is setting, and we just stand there grinning for a full minute, draped in that buttery California light.

    Back at camp, steamy puffs of that day's hike emanate from the still. We devour dinner, then retire to the campfire for some Redwood-infused Old Fashioneds, a (very) short-lived dance party, and a bunch of horrible jokes before dropping off to sleep.


    The next day, we're in the Redwoods of Kent Canyon. This is the sister canyon to the famous Muir Woods, but we're totally alone here.

    "In any other state," explains Hall, "this canyon would be a tourist mecca. Here, it's barely even on the map."

    Many of the Redwoods in the canyon are old-growth, spared from logging back in the 1800s because they were too small to be worth harvesting. Now they're 200 feet tall—a neck-craning, awe-inspiring presence. Barring an apocalypse, most of these trees will still be alive in 3014. It's a little hard to wrap your head around.

    We scramble over downed tree trunks, and amble past enormous Western Shield Ferns, following the creek that guides winter rains (and our crew of wilderness perfumers) all the way down to Muir Beach.


    We eat lunch on the beach. We're trying to figure out how to sneak the smell of the Pacific into the Winter Redwood fragrance.

    "What makes the ocean smell like the ocean?" Hall asks.

    "It sounds like a simple question, but it's actually pretty tough. Is it salt water? Kelp? We tried distilling mussel shells to see if that might be it." Hall laughs. "The smell made everyone gag."

    Tom, though, has a hunch about how to pull it off. On our drive home, we pull over at a cove and collect some sea grass from the Pacific, dropping it into an alcohol-filled bottle. The process is called "tincturing," and it's one of the best ways to extract fragrances from delicate plants.

    We load the sea grass into the Field Lab Van, and head back to our Oakland workshop. Tom now faces the tough job of distilling everything we've collected into an aromatic snapshot of these two beautiful days on Mt. Tam.

    If he pulls it off, the Winter Redwood cologne will carry notes of Bay Laurel, Sage, and Redwood. It'll have hints of ocean mist and wood smoke. But it will also contain that coastal sunset, the quiet beauty of the Redwoods, and the easy laughter of friends around a campfire, staying warm on the Western, wintry edge of a continent.

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