On the morning I met Jeff Helmer, he’d already been up since 6 a.m., working on a faulty water line that feeds through a serene forest of redwood trees and ferns to an orchard and a few houses below.
Helmer’s backyard is the 406-acre Byrne-Milliron forest, protected by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz since 1984, and as the saying goes, he knows it like the back of his hand.
For the past 25 years, along with his recently-retired post at Antonelli’s Pond in Santa Cruz, Helmer has been care taking at the forest, which means visiting it almost every single day to maintain the 10 miles of trails and road—many of which he created himself.
Without Helmer, the trails would be overgrown, obstructed by fallen trees and invasive plant species, and washed out without proper drainage during the winter rains. So it makes sense that the friendly-faced, soft spoken Helmer is proud of the forest; in a way, it's his masterpiece.
At 67, Helmer is still spry, leading me down the "Three Bear" Trail at a brisk and sure-footed pace.
"I used to run this when I was younger, until I was about 50. Then I just stopped one day. It was like Forest Gump," said Helmer.
As we hike along the fern-covered banks of the stream, Helmer moves fallen branches off the trail and shows me the places where trees fell over the trail during earthquakes. He simply cut a segment away with his chain saw, leaving it as intact as possible.
We stop at an altar where he found a dead coyote, and where people have left all sorts of mementos for loved ones, and we pass a tree trunk where Helmer left his mother's ashes.
The ten miles of road and hiking trails includes the "Great White" trail, which winds its way to a 250-foot tall redwood tree of the same name, estimated to be around 1,000 years old. The tree is one of the few first-growth redwoods that survived the logging sweep at the turn of the century.
"Back then they burnt everything after they wiped it out, just to clean everything up," said Helmer, pointing to the blackened trunk of a massive redwood cut long ago.
We are on our way to Vista Point, a breathtaking opening in the trail which looks over the entire Pajaro Valley and bay beyond. When we arrive, there is a basket of apples he's left from the orchard, a water station for humans and dogs, and several hikers taking in the view.
"I lived here my whole life before I knew this was here," said one hiker, Julie Miller. "When a friend showed me and I couldn't believe what a great hike so close to home."
Sitting at a bench, Helmer cracks open a guest book which visitors sign, and we read a note to Helmer written in Spanish just the day before, thanking him for the work he does.
"I'm trying to get the latino population here, you don't see a lot hiking, but this is theirs," said Helmer, sweeping his hand across the view of the valley below.
The Byrne-Milliron forest is one of several lands protected by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz, and open to hikers who will respect it and enjoy it.
Visit the Land Trust website for more information on this or other protected lands, or email Jeff Helmer to set up a tour at email@example.com.