Don't call Oral Martin Whitlow Jr. a river pirate. He's no poacher either. This fourth-generation woodsman says he's in the redwood salvage business, when the opportunity presents itself.
And he would be happily salvaging a giant redwood on this day if park rangers didn't harbor the foolish notion that the towering trees in Humboldt Redwoods State Park belong to the state -- even after they topple into the Eel River and begin to float away.
"They'd have you in handcuffs and in the crowbar motel before you know it," Whitlow says. That's his way of explaining why he left his chain saw at home.
Still, Whitlow admires "a good little stick" when he spots one in the Eel. He angles his jet-powered river sled toward one resting on a gravel bar, expertly coming alongside the hulking trunk. His calloused hands run over the reddish bark to take its measure.
"See? No knots," he said. Clear, vertical grain. Five feet in diameter. His eyes close as he does some figuring. Milled right and sold on the right market, this slab of old-growth redwood could fetch $60,000.
"That's red gold," he said.
The gold rush for old-growth redwood is long past, of course. About 3 percent of California's native stands of giant redwoods remain, most of them protected in public parks and reserves such as this one.
Such protections make old-growth redwood all the more valuable -- and enticing -- not only to unemployed loggers in this chronically depressed region but to rural residents whose families have made a living from the forests for generations.
Park officials say the protected forests are under siege. Redwood National Park has documented dozens of incidents of redwood theft or vandalism in the past five years. One woodworker was convicted last fall of cutting down a redwood in an area where seven others had been cut down previously.
State park officials don't collect such records, but rangers play a continual round of cat and mouse with poachers trying to truck off parts of coastal redwoods, the tallest trees on Earth.
Poachers slip into the protected forests under the cover of darkness and fire up chain saws to cut off the toes or knobby knees of the giant redwoods. They are after the burls, the intricately whorled growths. The swirling grain of this wood, when carved into bowls, sculptures or tabletops, forms bird's-eye and other patterns.
The amputations don't usually kill the trees, but poachers are not above cutting down a tree to get a burl that is too high to reach from the ground. Two stout redwoods were felled recently in the heart of the park's primeval Rockefeller Forest. One, dated by its rings, had a history stretching back to the American Revolution. The other was a sapling before Christopher Columbus reached the New World.
The poachers got away but left without their prized burls. One of them, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, rests in the park's maintenance yard as confiscated evidence. Park officials estimate it would be worth about $4,000 to the redwood curio shops that ring the park.
Others fill their pickups with any parts of old-growth redwoods they can get because of the usually tight rings and hardiness of these trees, which have grown slowly over hundreds of years in the dense forest. The lumber from these trees is prized because it resists rot and holds up longer than other types of wood.
Thieves pound wedges into fallen tree trunks, splitting off pieces suitable for fence posts or rails.
Whitlow insisted that he would go after a park tree only after it had fallen into the river and was headed to the ocean. He has been rescuing trees from the river since the 1950s, he said, and has made thousands and thousands of dollars.
The problem is that state officials have declared all the park's trees off-limits. Trees that fall in the forest or drop into the Eel River, which flows through the park, play an important role in nature's cycle, ecologists say.
On land, they provide a reservoir of moisture and organic material that replenishes the forest floor. In the river, they create deep, cool crevices that help young salmon and trout survive hot summers.
"Let nature rule," said Steve Horvitz, superintendent of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. "That's what the parks are all about."
Each tree, he said, has value beyond the number of board feet it can supply. Every year, millions of visitors come to see the ancient coastal redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, which grow taller than the Statue of Liberty and live up to 2,000 years. Visitors tend to lower their voices when they approach a grove of ancient redwoods as though entering a cathedral. The fallen trees have the allure of ancient ruins.
Whitlow pulled his boat onto a gravel embankment near Founders Grove, a particularly breathtaking stand of giant trees named in honor of the pioneer preservationists who founded the Save the Redwoods League in 1918.
"This is a disaster waiting to happen," Whitlow said, becoming increasingly agitated as he walked amid the towering redwoods. He pointed a calloused finger at one ancient tree listing toward the park's central road, called Avenue of the Giants. "It should be taken out before it kills somebody."
He picked at the burned-out base of another tree, showing how fire has gnawed away one side. "We are standing in a very dangerous place. All of these trees are going to fall down," Whitlow said.
He sees what he calls mismanagement at every turn. "If they want to do something right, they would cut that tree before it falls and salvage it," he said. "It would create jobs for people, and the money could benefit the park."
"See all of this wood lying here," he said, pointing to trees knocked over by a big one like so many dominoes. "Beautiful sticks going to waste. When they hit the ground, they break into small pieces. It's a waste of material."
Whitlow knows these woods. He has lived all of his 69 years on a nearly 2,000-acre parcel of timberland that his great-great-grandfather acquired in 1869 -- long before the park existed.
Whitlow also knows the Eel River. During wet weather, it is the most accessible route to his riverfront land, about seven miles from the park boundary. He has helped the sheriff with river rescues and assisted friends salvaging logs.
Log salvage, as Whitlow describes it, is a dicey business best accomplished in the dead of night during a heavy rainstorm.
You wait for high water to erode the riverbank and undercut some redwoods, causing them to crash into the river and barrel downstream at 15 mph. Then the log rodeo begins.
The massive logs can twist and turn and even upend. "You can't pull a log, but you can push it," Whitlow said. "You don't want to get pinched between the tree and the bank. It will sink your boat and crush you."
Using boats and steel cables, Whitlow and others steer the tree trunks around river bends and gravel bars beyond the park boundaries toward the shore of a friendly landowner. There they cut the trees into sections and load them onto trucks or bring in a portable mill.
These scroungers have won the grudging respect of John D. O'Rourke, the head ranger who has been trying to stop them.
"These river pirates have skills," he said. "I'll give them that. It's manly, it's exciting, it's heroic to go wrestle logs in the river. It's also against the law."
The scofflaws have a worthy adversary in O'Rourke, a man who has literally immersed himself in his work. A former state lifeguard from Southern California, he began donning a wetsuit a few years ago and slipping into the river to sneak up on the pirates from the water.
"I jump up on the log and tell them that it's park property," he said. "They would be freaked. I'd write down the boat's number and then leave."
Park rangers don't believe the river scavengers are confining their activities to downed trees. With their shallow roots, redwoods are easily undermined by high water. But the natural process sometimes gets a helping hand. Along the banks of the Eel, rangers have found evidence of tree roots that have been chain-sawed and dynamited.
The rangers try to beat the scavengers to the logs and relocate the logs in the park where they can benefit nature. They have lashed some of the logs to riverbanks farther upstream to improve fish habitat.
All this makes no sense to Whitlow. "They don't want to use the trees, but they don't want anybody else to have them either," he said.
He is angriest when rangers claim a tree from salvagers and then allow the rising river to carry it away. "It's a total waste of valuable timber to let this go out to the ocean where nobody is going to get it," he said. "The state of California should be reprimanded for letting this happen."