Beating Downwind to Fort Bragg

By September 28, 2005North Coast Series

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 28

Like a DUI driver jugged in the tank, we always appreciate getting some small chance to dry out. When Wednesday morning dawned clear, sunny and still, I draped my soaked rainfly over the picnic table we’d tilted up for a windbreak, then did my best to subtract moisture from my other gear.

Drying gear at dawn before packing up to launch. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Drying gear at dawn before packing up to launch. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Noyo Harbor down in Fort Bragg was our goal for the day. While up in Shelter Cove, I’d received an e-mail from an inn owner on the Noyo waterfront, inviting us to stay at his place. I fantasized those gratis accommodations might include a washer and dryer, so I wasn’t too fussy about stuffing my sandy and damp clothes into duffles. I figured I’d have it all laundered before it could sprout black mold.

The surf beating a slow tattoo on the sand at Westport was mild, so we had an easy launch. But once at sea, we noticed that a white fleece of fog was once again rolling in. (When seen from the sides or top on a sunny day, a fogbank looks white; only once you’re immersed in its shadow does it seem grey.)

“Don’t like seeing that stuff come in,” John Weed said. “It’ll make all the boomers practically invisible.”

Shunning the Boomers

Paddling toward fog and Fort Bragg.

Paddling toward fog and Fort Bragg. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

A boomer is a submarine rock with its top a few feet below the surface. Small waves glide over it, giving off no sign of its presence. However, a larger swell can suck all the water off the crest of the rock and then crash down onto it – producing the boom that gives such features their name. If a kayak is in that extremely wrong spot at that wrong time, it can make for an unpleasant experience. Such rocks are found up and down the coast, of course, but the stretch north of Fort Bragg seems to boast an oversupply of them.

“I’ll switch on my mapping GPS if the fog gets thick,” I told him. “That should tell us where most of the marked rocks are. If we hold our course outside that line, we should be good.”

Death by Shark

Our paddle down the coat from Westport to Fort Bragg was not as great in miles (about 18) as it was in cultural significance. On this sea leg, we began again voyage along a shore broadly and decisively altered by human settlement. We now could both see and hear steady auto traffic zooming along Coast Highway 1. Even so, beneath our hulls, the world still flowed wet and wild. A bit of evidence to that fact of life was the landmark Kibesillah Rock, where marine conservationist Randy Fry was killed by a great white shark the previous year. An avid abalone diver, Fry was bending into pike position to go down on a breathhold dive after the tasty mollusks, when the shark rocketed past, got Fry’s head in its mouth, and abruptly decapitated him – a decidedly gruesome, yet mercifully swift end.

After more than 200 miles, the team compares paddling blisters and calluses.

After more than 200 miles, the team compares paddling blisters and calluses. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

shark can frequently be glimpsed cruising in this area. We did see the rock; we didn’t spot a shark.

Next we saw shimmering dunes of Ten Mile Beach. The boomer rocks were periodically going off around us, but I hit on a counter-intuitive scheme to say away from them by aiming straight at them. This is to say, when I saw an explosion of foam at a distance, I pointed my kayak’s bow toward it. Then, as I paddled, I could see whenever a large wave broke on that particular boomer again. After a few of these episodes, I knew right where it was located, and then I could go around it, and on to the next.

Timber Town Gone Bust

Finally, we neared the high, level bluffs of the old lumber town of Fort Bragg. Up ahead, I spotted a distinctive pyramid of stacked rocks jutting up from land formerly owned by the Georgia-Pacific timber company. That triangular pile indicates that one is drawing closer to the Noyo Harbor entrance and jetty. As I saw it, I recalled that a salmon troller named Nat Bingham had mentioned this “landmark tit” to me years before, when I’d first moved to Mendocino, and began there my research on commercial fishing, timber harvest, coastal ranching and other regional economic activities.

I also cast my mind back to thinking about those who’d tried to make a life here before the fisherman, loggers and ranchers arrived.

Washington sculpture of "flying" artillery team, a concept invented by Gen. Braxton Bragg, after whom Fort Bragg is named.

Washington sculpture of “flying” artillery team, a concept invented by Gen. Braxton Bragg, after whom Fort Bragg is named.

Two hundred years ago, the She-bal-na and Kal-il-na bands of the Pomo tribe called these grassy bluffs home. In 1856, they were herded into a 25,000-acre army post established here and named for Captain Braxton Bragg. (Inventor of the “flying artillery” horse-drawn battery, he later became one of the Confederate Army’s top generals).

In 1866, the Pomos were gathered up and driven northeast to a new reservation in Round Valley. In the same period, the first sawmills were established at the mouth of the Noyo River.

Then visionary industrialist C. R. Johnson came on the scene, bought up all the holdings, built his mill on the headlands, laid out his company own of Fort Bragg, then became its first mayor. Johnson’s Union Lumber held sway until 1969, when it was bought by Boise-Cascade. The next corporate owner, Georgia-Pacific, ran things until 2003, when it shut down its mill and began trying to sell off the land.

I lived in the area in 70s and early 80s, and recall quite well many public meetings where new-age foresters and environmentalists warned that G-P was over-cutting its lands at a swift and unsustainable pace, and soon would have no option but to close and lay off area loggers and mill workers. Which they refused to believe, and so angrily shouted their critics down. Yet that’s precisely what came to pass.

Seeking Shelter

Beyond the slopes where this town of 7,000 residents live, we could see the mowed-over hills as we rounded the jetty and entered the harbor.

The rowing club shack on the north shore at Noyo, where we slept. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

The rowing club shack on the north shore at Noyo, where we slept. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

The fog had withdrawn and the sun beat straight down through the still air in the harbor. I was growing fairly hot in my Kokotat drysuit, even with its neck and main zipper open, so I was eager to find the inn where we’d been invited to stay and get out of my boat. As we passed under the Highway One bridge, I noticed a barrel-chested man making sweeping arm gestures at us, indicating that we ought to pull in to a low dock on the north side. But I was in a hurry, so I just waved a “hello” in reply, and kept moving up the Noyo so I could find our lodging. Once we got there, I went to collect our room keys – and found out our genial host had indeed invited us to stay there, but at a full-freight cost of $130 per person per night. Fully impressed, I declined.

Now, I had a problem. Where would I lodge my crew?

A Friend in Need

Luckily, the arm-waving man we’d seen at the harbor entrance had the solution. He reappeared on another dock, and we went over to meet him and score his advice. And actually, found out that he could do much better than advise us. Stan Halvorsen, 63, was a long-time Bay Area recreational rower who had retired to Fort Bragg. There, with his friend Dusty, he founded a rowing club in the harbor, and also a Lost Coast chapter of the Traditional Small Craft Association. Stan invited us to stay for free in their tiny wooden clubhouse, just above the dock where he’d first waved to us.

Stan (left) and Dusty, and one of their traditional small boats. Photo by Michael Maloney, S. F. Chronicle.

Stan (left) and Dusty, and one of their traditional small boats. Photo by Michael Maloney, S. F. Chronicle.

Excellent. Nothing like scoring a little support from a fellow mariner. Stan was one of the people who avidly followed the stories of our voyage running in the Chronicle, who cheerfully and generously offered us aid when we most needed it and least expected it. Like the paddling club that had served us a salmon dinner on the lawn at Woodley Island in Eureka, and like the angler who shared his supply of smoked rockfish with us in Albion.

Losing the Lost Coast

Harvests of a Harbor Town