Putting Together a Paddling Team

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure

Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer

    For an expedition of this type, a team must be small enough to stay nimble, flexible and easy to supply. But it also must be big enough to have a full array of complimentary skills, and a decent amount of redundancy. Finally, temperaments must be compatible, with an ability to maintain humor, patience and perspective at moments of stress being of high value. I proved fortunate in deciding to invite two highly experienced paddlers to join me as companions and complete our team trio.

John Weed

John Weed.
John Weed. Photographer: John Weed

Age 52, born in San Rafael. Muscles on this tanned, lanky guy are not masked by an ounce of superfluous fat.

He’s a former high school and college track star, but Weed does limp when he walks. Understandable, because 33 years ago he got run over by a semi truck while out on a bicycle ride.

Stick him in any kayak, and he’s transformed into a swift and graceful paddler with lots of race ribbons to his name.

Victories include many wins at the Tsunami Rangers open ocean race, Eppie’s Triathlon in Sacramento, the Sea Trek Regatta in the Bay Area, the Yukon downriver race.

Weed was also a member of the U.S. wildwater team.

After years of running a group home for disadvantaged youth, Weed became a paddling instructor for Current Adventures in Coloma (El Dorado County) on the American River.

He spends winters conducting exploratory solo expeditions on the Sea of Cortez.

“I love to beachcomb and to go adventuring in new places,” Weed says. “It will be great to get to know the California shore better, and myself a little better as well.

“What draws me to adventure is that daily testing of survival skills.”

Bo Barnes

 Bo Barnes. Photographer: John Weed
Bo Barnes. Photographer: John Weed

Age 59, born in Kansas City but raised in the Bay Area. A popular outdoor sports guide and instructor, Barnes is instantly recognizable to thousands of former clients. He sports a shaggy mane of blond hair, and a boisterous laugh that resembles the klaxon of a diving submarine.

In high school and college, he lettered in track and swimming. In summers, he worked as a city lifeguard and surfed at Ocean Beach. After earning a degree in history, Barnes taught high school, but discovered his true metier as a co-founder of Outdoors Unlimited at UCSF. This volunteer-run program took students and members of the public on cooperative ski, kayak and backpack trips and the like for 30 years.

Barnes has long excelled at telemark skiing and snowboarding, as well as sea kayak races and expeditions. Marine exploits include voyages on the coast of Maine, Chesapeake Bay, British Columbia and Baja California. He kayak races only occasionally, but is a formidable and feared competitor whenever he shows up.

Barnes now works part-time as a kayak instructor with California Canoe & Kayak in Oakland.

“Hitting 60 is a great turning point,” Barnes said, “I need an epic of some sort to mark it. This trip fills the bill. Getting ourselves way the heck up and gone along the California coast will be a great challenge, an ultimate wilderness experience.”

Paul McHugh

Pauli McHugh. Photographer: Dawn Garcia
Paul McHugh. Photographer: Dawn Garcia

Age 54, born in Homestead near the Florida Everglades, I rode my motorcycle to California and moved here in 1973.

I went to seminary in Miami, intending to become a priest. After six years, at age 19, I left to finish college at Florida State, graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English poetry.

When I came to California, I focused on becoming a writer, a specialist in outdoor sport, resource use and environmental issues.

The Chronicle started its Outdoors Section in 1985, and I had put myself in the right place with the right background.
Of the three teammates, I am the only one currently married. I wed former investigative reporter Dawn Garcia (now deputy director of the Knight Fellowship at Stanford) in 1998.

I had been a canoeist in Florida, and began paddling whitewater kayaks in California in 1976. Soon, I added ocean surfing and sea kayak racing. I was on the U.S. Kayak Surfing Team when we won a world championship in Ireland in 1988. I often do well enough in sea kayak races to ribbon.

My voyages included two weeks off the coast of Chile, and a 150-mile, five-day descent of the Eel River from Ukiah to the sea.

For my 50th birthday, I paddled 270 miles of the Grand Canyon. I ran my first marathon at age 53.

Ancestral Home of the Yurok Nation

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 11, 2005

This is the last post of our first week along California’s North Coast (September 4th through the 11th). Stories of the adventure will be posted weekly until we paddle under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 5th.

When we came in from the sea Saturday afternoon, after a seven-hour paddle from Crescent City, we aimed for a beach by a tall rock near the Klamath River bar.

Oregos: She whom the Yuroks say has stood sentinel since the beginning of time.

Oregos, the sacred rock guarding the mouth of the Klamath, resembles a woman bearing a fish basket. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Oregos, the sacred rock guarding the mouth of the Klamath, resembles a woman bearing a fish basket. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Ten foot, fat ocean swells crashing onto a steep beach. Our landing was harsh. Bo Barnes and John Weed, my companions on this 400 mile-long sea kayak voyage from the Oregon border to San Francisco Bay, did well. I got spun and landed with less style, sporting a flooded cockpit and a busted paddle shaft.

But we had arrived in Yurok country.

Oregos (pronounced as “Or-RAY-gahs”) was a spirit who liked people. So, Wahpecwahmow the Creator let her choose this shape, as a woman with a baby-carrying basket on her back and a basket cap atop her head. Each year, Oregos swings her leg — a sandbar — to let salmon, eels, sturgeon ascend, bringing nourishment and happiness to the Yurok tribe.

Yurok fishermen were flinging small drift nets into “the chute,” where the Klamath rushes into the sea. Only a few nets held fish. Just 100 years ago, hundreds of thousands of salmon in six different runs clogged this river. Now those runs have shriveled, mainly due to catastrophic shifts in the upstream environment. Salmon have lost spawning habitat due to six upstream dams, and mining, logging and farming in the Klamath’s 11,000 square-mile watershed.

Traditional female garments, displayed at the new Yurok Tribe visitor center." Photo by Paul McHugh
Traditional female garments, displayed at the new Yurok Tribe visitor center. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Worse, they’ve lost water. A century ago, the Bureau of Reclamation (part of DOI) turned arid plains high in the watershed into farm country. Plots of land and promises of water were awarded to war veterans. But in 2001, there was a drought. Farmers complained. DOI rushed to the rescue, twisting open the tap for the farmers in 2002.

But that de-watered the Klamath. Returning chinook salmon encountered low, slow, hot flows that encouraged parasites and disease. More than 68,000 adult salmon died. Perhaps as many as 200,000 young juveniles, descending to make their way out to sea perished, as well. Had they lived, those young adults would be returning to the river now. Their absence is keenly felt.

If your ancestors haven’t lived on the natural bounty of one place for a long time, it may be hard to grasp how the Yuroks feel. Or, why they use a phrase, “salmon holocaust,” to describe what happened.

Yet the Yurok men still cast their nets. Even should they manage only to catch a few, they still will have something to pray over, something to dry and smoke in a traditional way, a gift of meat to bring a smile to the face of a tribal elder.

We made camp at Requa RV Park on tribal land, near the site of Requa, once a principal village. I walked uphill to a place where an old traditional redwood plank house sinks into a welter of brush and vines.

Nearby is a modern-looking structure. Here, Geneva Wiki awaits birth of her first child with her husband, a Maori named Renwiti Wiki. She’s due in less than a month. Until recently the tribe’s executive director, Wiki, 28, is a vibrant presence with striking, emerald eyes. She’s got a lot on her mind; much of it is tribal business.

Yurok Regalia-Holders

Yurok weaving is intricate and artistic. A traditional woman's basket cap. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Yurok weaving is intricate and artistic. A traditional woman’s basket cap. Photo by Paul McHugh.

It’s a task she was born to. Yuroks affairs have long been guided by regalia-holders — keepers of ceremonial outfits of carved shell, bead, buckskin and feathers. These are used in dances and other rituals of the tribe’s religious year. Regalia is also wealth that must be surrendered to compensate for any offense. Only the righteous can retain it. Her family has done so.

“I come from a long line of people active in our tribe,” Wiki told me. “My mom had a plan. I was sent off the reservation to get an education. But I always had to be home for the ceremonies.”

Wiki won a degree in Planning and Public Policy from the University of Oregon while also serving as student body president and an environmental activist.

“I returned to the tribe because my phone started ringing. I had made a good tool box of skills. I had to see what I could contribute, to unravel knots of dysfunction and despair here,” She says.

Loss of salmon isn’t the only problem. At 5,000 registered members, the Yuroks are California’s largest tribe, also one of its poorest. Seventy percent of the tribe has no access to telephones or electric service. Reasons wind into history. Ancestral ground of the Yurok people, “We-roy,” sprawled for some 518,000 acres. Present reservation boundaries include just 56,000 acres, a strip lining the Klamath from Requa to Weitchpec. However, less than 20 of that is now held by Yuroks and tribal trusts. The rest is owned by Simpson/Green Diamond timber company, Redwood State and National Parks and various private parties. The U.S. Government opened this reservation for homesteading for decades, allowing extensive acquisition by non-Yuroks.

There’s an ongoing dispute with the Hupa tribe upstream. Hupas were once lumped together with the Yuroks in the eyes of the government. When the tribes were divided again in 1988, the Hupas scored many of the best resources.

Recently, the Yuroks have fought to create local economic development. They’ve gone through three economic development directors in as many years. Now, the tribal council seeks to manage it by consensus. “Pey-mey,” their gas station on highway 101, does well. But the Requa RV Campground where our tents are pitched, though modern and well-equipped, had only two other campers. It would be jammed if Klamath salmon were numerous enough that sportsmen could angle for them.

Yurok Tribal Council

On an earlier visit, I chatted with Howard McConnell, the Yurok Tribal Council chairman, at the tribal headquarters building. McConnell says his tribe has a vision that includes regaining tribal land when possible. A new casino may be part of the finance plan, but it won’t be large or centrally located. Instead, the tribe wants to restore environment and wildlife in the region, built parks, campgrounds and trails, and finance a future through eco-tourism along the Klamath River.

“We could build a river trail from the river mouth up Blue Creek. Hook up with Karuk land, also enter wilderness areas and network with the Pacific Coast trail,” McConnell says. “We could make money with a guide service, and lodges. We could take visitors on boats and out to fish. Sell the products of traditional crafts. Hold salmon dinners. A huge sum of dollars may not be made that way, but everyone will get to survive.”

Laying groundwork for that requires battles by whole new type of warrior. One who can reach deep into the past for inspiration and identity, but into the future for strategy. A clue as to the type may be Wiki’s incoming replacement as tribal director: Dennis Puzz, a Yurok lawyer with long experience in tribal rights litigation.

Then there’s Wiki’s latest project. To fight the 68 percent high school dropout rate of Yurok youth, she’s launching a new charter school in spare rooms behind a little store near the tribal headquarters. Called the “Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods,” financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it already has 48 students enrolled for 9th and 10th grades.

On Sunday, Wiki gave us the grand tour. “You have to use your imagination,” she said.

Carpets were coated with sheetrock dust, doorways were still being framed. Opening day was a week away, but a cadre of volunteers, and the Yurok family that own the building, were laboring long shifts to get it ready.

“We’re working off a Chugash (Alaskan tribe) model for our school,” Wiki said. “Students must demonstrate proficiency to advance, not only in reading, writing, math and technology, but also personal and social health, cultural values and career development.

“They need to show they can work in both worlds, and be ready to be leaders in our community. At the end, they’ll have both a high school diploma and an AA degree.”

A buzz of tools came from the next room. In it was Allen Bate, 40, a member of the family that owned the building.

Broad-shouldered, covered with tattoos celebrating his tribal identity, Bate seemed cheerful and upbeat.

“This isn’t how I usually spend a Sunday afternoon,” he said. “But, it’s cool. You’ve got to be in it for the future. That’s what it’s all about.”

I asked if he had been fishing. His family had, but he would not go.

“Personally, I will not remove any salmon this year from the ones that need to go up to spawn,” Bate said.

Tale of a Yurok Warrior

High above the entrance to the Klamath, on an overlook managed by the National Park Service, I find an interpretive display holding sepia-tinged photos. One is a historic portrait of a Yurok woman with a direct gaze, who stands fully garbed in ceremonial regalia. This is Luana Brantner, a tribal crusader who helped fight the GO Road (a U.S. Forest Service project that would have bisected ancestral lands).

Down in a trailer park north of the river, during earlier research, I met Jim Proctor, Sr., 78, who is Brantner’s son. Proctor himself has never held any formal position of authority. But he’s a tribal elder, he’s seen and been through a lot, and must be listened to.

Born in Requa, Proctor holds memories of a turbulent tribal and personal past.

A traditional Yurok lodge, made of split redwood planks." Photo by Paul McHugh
A traditional Yurok lodge, made of split redwood planks.” Photo by Paul McHugh.

“My grandmom barely escaped a massacre,” he said. “The women were lured into a post with promises of blankets and food. Then soldiers attacked them. She got away by diving in the river, but she looked back and saw a baby being twirled on a bayonet. After the Yurok men found out what happened, they discovered where those soldiers were camped. They attacked by night. Killed them all.”

Proctor himself, with just one year of high school education, left the reservation at age 16. He had a few reasons. One was that his mother didn’t have enough food to feed two kids. Another was that Proctor was in big trouble; he’d busted a chair over another boy’s head, and so had to get out of town. After rattling around through blue collar jobs in L.A., he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, just in time to fight World War II. He still has a dent in his skull caused by a piece of shrapnel from an exploding Japanese plane he shot down with a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun while aboard the destroyer Bagley.

Interior of a Yurok Lodge. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Interior of a Yurok Lodge. Photo by Paul McHugh.

He came back home for long spells to work as a logger and heavy equipment operator for Simpson, then went away again for equally long periods whenever he got into trouble. The most serious problem occurred when he killed a man who had threatened him, by landing two strong punches during a bar fight. Because of the self-defense aspect, his sentence was a few years of probation.

“As soon as that time was up, I threw my sleeping bag, rifle and pistol into a pickup, and took off for Arizona,” Proctor said.

Speaking with Proctor leaves no doubt that he’s a warrior of some sort. And he certainly is tough. The fact he can chain-smoke with nary a cough, at his age, says that. His long life of hard work has left him lean and feisty; the big question is what his next battle should be. At this point in his life, he’s thinking more about the big issues facing his people, and his own legacy.

“I told our tribal council, I could dynamite the gates on Irongate dam, get us more water for the salmon,” Proctor said with a wolfish grin. He caresses a cigarette with nicotine-tanned fingers. “But they didn’t like that idea so well.”

Finally, he realized that silt and “trash fish” held behind the dam would only harm this river if released downstream. Now, he’s unsure what to do. Sometimes Proctor just wants to be left alone to fish in the old way without restriction. Sometimes he feels like selling everything, trailer, truck, boat and gear, and running off again, maybe this time to Costa Rica.

“Tribe’s got to wake up. We’re at the end of our string,” Proctor said. “We’re in a fight with real big outfits.

Government’s not really there to help anymore. If they want to look like they’re trying, they just hand us a little stick of gum. We need to toughen up. We need a lot less alcohol around this place, a lot more discipline. There’s not much logging left to do on tribal land. When we lose the last of our salmon, we’ve lost everything.”

The North Coast Series

San Francisco Chronicle, California North Coast Series
Paul McHugh, San Francisco Chronicle Outdoors Writer

A Sea Kayak Voyage along California’s Pacific Shore

400 miles in 40 days

September 4 through October 5.

Author’s Note: This series of stories made a dramatic highlight project during my two-decade career at the Chronicle. On its tenth anniversary, by prior agreement with the paper, I re-present the stories, including new photos and material.

Posted here are the first days between September 4th and 11th. The following days along the coast to our day of arrival at San Francisco will be posted weekly until our paddle under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 5th.


September 4 (two days prior to launch)

The Dangerous Beauty of the North Coast

A sinking sun silhouettes sea stacks near Crescent City off California’s North Coast, a mostly rugged 400-mile stretch of natural beauty and small-town culture.

Northcoast. Photographer: Michael Maloney
Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.

One must breathe deep, swing arms wide, then fully embrace adventure before launching a 400-mile sea kayak voyage down California’s North Coast. John Weed, Bo Barnes and I will do exactly that on Tuesday morning.

We plan to kayak along this region’s most remote reaches, sharing our discoveries with Chronicle readers, as we paddle from the Oregon border to San Francisco Bay.

The North Coast’s natural beauty is widely celebrated, but far from fully grasped. Driving through it is no way to do that. But creeping along under paddle power is a unique opportunity.

This region has a distinctive human topography too, blending new settlers with direct descendants of the pioneers, and Indian tribes crafting a path through the 21st century. The way these denizens settle resource and cultural issues may hold lessons for us all.

Besides, this is my 20th year of providing outdoor sport and environmental coverage for readers of The Chronicle. I love the drama of the North Coast’s rugged shoreline, deep forests, and the culture of the small towns up there. This is a chance to steep myself in those things to a fare- thee-well.

My team and I will make our journey along this occasionally quite wild shore in increments. We’ll cruise at a 3 mph pace under average conditions, perhaps exceed 5 mph if current, wind and wave combine in our favor — something offshore fishermen term “going downhill.”

Of course, should conditions turn adverse, we may have to find a cove where we can hole up or be forced to battle our way through.

Big waves, harsh wind, dense fog, rough rocks, mean sharks. But any hazards we meet still won’t match those that met pioneering travelers — such as Jedediah Strong Smith, California’s greatest overland explorer.

Sept-4-Coast-McHughx300
Photo by Paul McHugh.

As my companions and I set out Tuesday morning from the mouth of the Winchuck River in southern Oregon, we’ll feel that we stand pretty close to the moccasin tracks of Smith, who camped with his little band of fur traders on that exact site in 1828.

This plucky chap had to survive two strong attacks by American Indian tribes, assaults by grizzly bears, and bouts of near starvation to reach this point.

As we punch heavily laden sea kayaks out through surf at the river bar, we’ll reverse the land route that Smith blazed north from San Francisco (then known as Yerba Buena port) with his pack horses.

We hope that we can travel with just a smidge of the dauntless spirit and cultural openness of our hero, who left behind maps that proved invaluable to those who would follow, as well as a journal that recorded the observations of a keen and sympathetic eye.

Smith made primary reports on Indian tribes “before they were pulverized by advancing civilization,” wrote biographers Dale Morgan and Carl Wheat. “He described them with care and attention, and with a degree of compassion not common in his time.”

Virgin Forest. Sparkling Streams.

We can’t admire endless virgin forest, sparkling streams and abundant wildlife to anywhere near the degree that Smith did. But we will be able to traverse the most pristine areas left on our coast. We hope to take a measure of our times by exploring this gorgeous landscape, and many of the changes wrought between Smith’s pioneer era and our own.”

Coastal wilds Smith penetrated have grown wreathed with roads, dotted with towns, thick with settlers and their works.”

But tribes for whom Smith was the first contact — the Tolowa, Yurok and Wiyot — still live on parts of their ancestral ground. We can meet them, hear how they seek to reclaim old ways, even as they join all the rest of us in also striving to master challenges of the 21st century.”

The formerly easy harvests of lush forests and thronging fish have given way in our time to struggles to preserve remnants, to restore resources where possible, and to devise new economies where it’s not. And so we’ll also meet up with citizens of the newer communities, where the can-do spirit and self- reliance of the pioneers still surface in modern times, as they work to craft a life in isolated locales.”

Forage. Fish. Camp.

We’ll forage, fish and camp — and sample the culinary delights of the occasional waterfront village bistro. We figure about 40 days for the voyage, paddling up to Crissy Field beach in San Francisco on or around Oct. 16. The trip will include a few layover days, in the most attractive locales and hidden coves we can find.

About 72 miles of this coastline remain rough, remote and roadless. About 26 of them are along the reach famed as the Lost Coast, north of Shelter Cove — though it has certainly been “found” by hikers in recent times. The 16 miles south of Shelter Cove may be wilder now, as are bits like the 12-mile reach north of the mouth of the Klamath River, and an 8-mile stretch along the mouth of the Eel.

But we also look forward to making landfall in charming coastal towns such as Bodega Bay, Point Arena and Mendocino.”

So, let’s not kid ourselves here. Our trip should be an ongoing mix of the sublime and the Spartan.

Tale of the Tolowa

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 6

Prince Island, just north of the Smith River, was a final refuge for the Tolowa as they sought to survive massacres inflicted by settlers eager to seize the land. In hills above Yontocket Slough, on the Smith River’s south side, killings began in 1853, after the Tolowa gathered for a world-renewal ceremony, called Needosh. Men, women and children were slaughtered by the hundreds. Bodies were pitched into the slough until its waters were stained red. That was followed in 1855 by a similar bloodbath at Etculet, a major village on Lake Earl.

Tolowa Ancestral Ground

Rough ramparts of Prince Island offered a sanctuary of sorts for survivors, who numbered no more than 200. They did not seek to re-assemble a life on the mainland until around 1903. Their hard path finally improved when 600 descendants managed to get federal recognition in 1983, organizing as Smith River Rancheria. Now the Lucky 7 Casino, not far from Prince Island, has generated sufficient income that the Tolowa have been able to recolonize 100 more acres of their ancestral ground (for a total of 250 acres).

Candace Penney near Yontocket Slough. Photographer: Michael Maloney, San Francisco Chronicle.
Candace Penney near Yontocket Slough. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Candace Penney works as the casino’s marketing director. Her grandmother, mother and aunt are all buried at Yontocket, near the massacre site. Her uncle, Raleigh Grimes, was the last Tolowa to try to keep living there. Penney remembers coming there on Memorial Day, bending down to draw water from the slough, then feeling shocked and sorrowed to recall it had run red with blood of her people.

“I grew up not wanting to know anything,” Penney says. “I hated being Indian.”

She moved to Willits. “Now, that was a redneck town,” Penney says. “We got spat on, treated ugly. I moved to Louisiana, then Florida. Those weren’t much better.

“When my kids were young, my daughter asked, ‘Mom, what part of me is Indian?’ I thought, I’d better learn. So I got what I could from library books. Then I came back to the reservation with Michael, my Oglala Sioux husband, in 1991, and I could learn from elders.

“I learned to make baskets, medicine pouches. I used to be embarrassed to say anything in Indian. Now I can’t wait to learn more words.

“My name before was Wee-nancee, which just means tiny girl. Then my grandfather’s name became available. So, we had a special ceremony, and I took it — Chen-wahs-na.”

Tolowa Dunes State Park

The Yontocket site is now part of Tolowa Dunes State Park. On the back of a meditation bench built there, a butterfly design is carved. It is a motif from the woven baskets of Penney’s great-grandmother. She was one of the last Tolowa medicine women, and the butterfly was a symbol from her dreams.

Organic by the Ocean

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series

Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 06, Part II

Smith River. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Forks of the Smith River, 12 miles upstream from the estuary. Photo by Paul McHugh.

On our first day, we first touched shore in California in the sumptuous Smith River estuary, after a peaceful five-mile paddle down from Oregon’s Winchuck River on Tuesday.

Greeted by a river otter and harbor seals at the entrance, we were escorted further into the estuary by shorebirds and waterbirds, including a marsh hawk. Western sandpiper flocks scudding about in synchronized flying displays that would put the Blue Angels to shame.

The Wild Smith

The Smith is famed as California’s wildest, healthiest major stream. Despite all the critters in the estuary, most of that pristine area lies further upstream, beyond the highway 101 bridge. Below the bridge, where the Smith River floodplain spreads out in a broad triangle, two rather differing forms of agriculture butt heads.

On the river’s north bank, 450 acres of intensively farmed fields make the hamlet of Smith River the “Easter Lily Capitol of the World.” This achievement requires tons of pesticide use, to fight pests ranging from fungi to nematodes (roundworms). More than 12 million lily bulbs, worth $6-7 million are grown annually.

Meanwhile, sprawled across the south bank, the 2,500-acre dairy farm of Blake and Stephanie Alexandre has just achieved certification as a fully organic operation last year, after six years of laboring toward that goal.

The estuary was flat, shimmering silk. Our bows sliced smoothly through it as easily as knives.

I showed John Weed and Bo Barnes, my companions on this 400- mile, sea kayak voyage to San Francisco, our first rest stop – a quiet cove near a sandbar. Weed stayed to set up camp, while Bo and I glided further, to a spot where spotted heifers grazed on tall, vivid green grass. This was the Alexandres’ organic dairy.

Alexandre Photo by Michael Maloney / San Francisco Chronicle
Alexandre Family: Feeding pasture-raised chickens at the family’s organic farm on the south bank of the Smith River.
Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle

We landed on a riverbank, then reached Stephanie Alexandre by cellphone. We put in our order: 18 fresh eggs from hens raised by the Alexandres’ five kids. After Stephanie drove to the shore in a truck to deliver the goods, we paid $4 into the Alexandre kids college fund. Then she awarded us a bonus gift of two cold mason jars, one full of organic whole milk, and the other filled with a thick, purple, homemade berry kefir.

I took a swig of the milk, smiled, and handed the jar to Barnes.

“Can’t believe what I’m tasting!” he said. “This is milk? The stuff I’ve been buying all these years, that they call milk? Holy cow!”

Stephanie Alexandre, 40, a willowy woman who wears a Leatherman tool on her belt, flushed with pride.

“What you taste is the complex nutrients, a sweetness from all the proteins put in by cows that get to graze on organic fields,” she said. “I think it’s a tragedy that fresh milk like this is not more widely available to consumers.  Human bodies really respond to it, because they sense how good it is for them.”

The sheer thrill of chugging something with such unalloyed delight makes one eager to find out more about it.

The story of how the Alexandres brought this style of farming to a region unused to it began at Cal Poly’s ag department in San Luis Obispo, where they met and married. Blake had been raised at Ferndale on the Eel River (about 90 miles south). After a stint on a Southern California ranch, they brought organic technique to the Alexandre family’s Ferndale ranch in 1998. They helped inspire other members of the Humboldt Creamery coop to adopt the same philosophy. The Alexandres had already expanded horizons to the north, acquiring acres around the Smith through lease and purchase. They moved up to raise their family by the Smith in 1992.

Organic Along the Smith River

“Our interest in organics began as a pure business decision,” Blake Alexandre, 42, told me when I met him. He’s a tall, broadshouldered man with a black goatee and an easy grin.

“Giant, efficient dairy operationss can run 5,000 cows or more. We just can’t compete. We had to develop some sort of niche market, instead. Going organic made sense. It suits a cool coastal environment, where it’s easier to grow lush green grass and keep cows healthy.”

It may have begun as an economic choice, so they could score that higher margin organic producers enjoy. But by attending conferences with themes like, “Food is medicine, farmers are the healer,” the Alexandres soon came to adopting and acting upon a deep level of genuine belief.

“Food from modern industrial farms has lost much of its nutrition value,” says Blake.

“If you were to take an apple from 1910 you’d see it was packed with nutrients. The new one is mainly loaded with sugar; that’s about it. Many ingredients are missing,” asserts Stephanie.

Over on the north bank, lily farmers perceive many microbes and microfauna in the soil as enemies, who must be bombed with an alphabet soup of agri-chemicals, such as 2,3-Dihydro-2,2-dimethyl-7-benzofuranol methylcarbamate (“Rampart”) and metham sodium gas.

But on the south bank, Blake Alexandre says, “We try to see all the bacteria and bugs in the soil as little armies that work for us. They run the foundation of our biological system here. We try not to do things that harm them.”

As below, so above. Atop that dirt, the Alexandres encourage a broad mix of plant species for their cows to munch on, not just one particular grass or grain.

“A monocrop, having your field full of just one plant, that’s very vulnerable,” Blake says. “Something attacks it, you’re done. Growing a mix is healthier, more natural and durable.”

So his fields are now a melange of colors, heights, textures and fragrances. Stalks and leaves wave in cool coastal breeze above a soil naturally growing more loose, spongy and jammed with nutrients.

Crops aren’t the only thing they’re growing here. Stephanie Alexandre says, “We are blessed. Our kids seem to like farm life. We must have them totally brain-washed.”

The children — Savannah, 6, Dalton, 9, Vanessa, 11, Christian 13, and Joseph, 14 — all have chores. Savannah, the youngest, helps with the housework. Outdoors, she’s the sidekick for her siblings, but also assists in raking grass and feeding calves. The four eldest actually perform tractor work.

Now, this rural brood run their very own farm operation. They drag around a mobile barn so that free-range chickens can forage behind the grazing cows. The chickens scratch up insects and parasites, while working droppings into the soil, and aerating it.

The Alexandre Kids have already sold 30 dozen eggs from their 140 laying hens. Begun over the summer, their little egg business is clearly on a roll.

Stephanie Alexandre gives Paul McHugh (right) and fellow kayakers 18 fresh organic eggs and a half gallon of fresh organic milk. Photo by Michael Maloney. S. F. Chronicle.
Stephanie Alexandre gives Paul McHugh (right) and fellow kayakers 18 fresh organic eggs and a half gallon of fresh organic milk. Photo by Michael Maloney. S. F. Chronicle.

It sounds idyllic. But make no mistake, whatever our cultural pre-conceptions may be about organic farmers, no tie-dyed t-shirts, patchouli oil or Grateful Dead background music is involved in forging of this reality. This is mainstream, rural America taking a keen interest in nutrition.

Blake asserts that his basic political stance consists of patriotic, rock-ribbed, conservative Republican values. He counts Ronald Reagan and Ted Nugent among his heroes. The “Eco Cows” license tag on his flatbed truck hangs below a Bush/Cheney campaign sticker on the cab’s rear window.

However, their benign views about natural flora and fauna extend to all the wildlife in the estuary. The Alexandres are enlarging a farm pond to use as a small wildlife sanctuary. They are midway along toward restoring riparian forest habitat around a mid-field slough, and want to enhance coho salmon spawning areas in Morrison Creek, a waterway which bisects their property.

Blake Alexandre sometimes hears himself slandered as, “a bleeding-heart environmentalist.” He cops to the environmentalist part, while separating himself from “those protest fools, who don’t get the first thing about what it takes to build a road or a business, either one.”

“The organic path is the right game at the right time. Our heads are completely into it,” Blake says. “It’s fully consistent with true conservatism. I can build a business that lets me make payments on my land. And it’s truly sustainable. This way, we’ll be able to feed more people for a much longer time.”

We brought the jars of milk and kefir back to Weed, and he exclaimed over them too. But don’t worry. You’ll be able to get your taste. The Humboldt Creamery intends to market a super premium organic ice cream using milk from the Alexandres and other organic dairies in the fall.


A Mostly Clean and Pristine Stream

By Paul McHugh

Wilderness creek tributary delivers pure, cold water to the Smith River. Paul McHugh, Photographer.
Wilderness creek tributary delivers pure, cold water to the Smith River. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Named for explorer Jedediah Smith, the first Anglo to cross it (174 years ago), the Smith River has long been lauded as California’s most pristine and intact major stream. More than ten percent of its 3,100 undammed miles have federal Wild and Scenic status. Its forks glitter amid durable greenstone canyons and basalt hills that help stabilize its environmental health. Of 435,000 acres in the drainage, 305,000 acres enjoy special forestry rules, due to a National Recreation Area designation.

Angling the Smith River

Forests that cloak Smith River hills range from virgin redwood to Shasta red fir and even Port Orford cedar. Such primal verdure supports a healthy native bestiary. On a hike near the Siskiyou Wilderness in 1997, I once spotted a wolverine — almost the equivalent of a unicorn sighting. These huge, irascible weasels require a large and stable, old-growth forest environment to survive; they have been virtually extirpated elsewhere in California.

To the delight of anglers, the Smith also supports exceptionally healthy runs of steelhead trout, Chinook salmon and cutthroat trout. Even endangered coho salmon thrive in tributaries.

Breaking the Waves

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series

Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 07

Surrounded by fog and wary of the rough waters near shore, the three kayakers head farther out to sea — and encounter birds, dolphins and big swells before Crescent City

We hiked up the bluffs at the mouth of the Smith River at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday to take a look at the surf break on the bar and gain a read on our fate. Four- to six-foot-high swells were occasionally building up and breaking as waves all the way across the bar.

Heavy surf at Point St. George forced the paddlers far out to sea. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
Heavy surf at Point St. George forced the paddlers far out to sea. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle

“Now, I guess we’ll find out what kind of men we are,” said Bo Barnes, one of my companions on this 400-mile sea kayak voyage.

It was a bit of an exaggeration, but not far off. In our heavily laden small boats, getting out over the bar would indeed be a test.

Barnes and John Weed, paddling together, hit a lucky window of low swell and made it out without incident. I was not quite so fortunate. I took a pitching wave right in the chest. It poured a buffeting wake-up blast of cold saltwater over my head.

Then we were outside, powering over the rollers and plunging deeper into a thick mat of cold fog.

Only two days after Labor Day, suddenly it became winter.

Paddling Into Gray Gauze

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio had predicted heavier weather would arrive. As we paddled offshore into gray gauze, the swell strength increased to 8 feet. And these were long, sleek, fat seas, sent a long way from the disturbance farther west. I grew concerned about how much bad weather would be delivered to us over the course of the day.

Meanwhile, navigation was a concern. Chart and compass were useful, but my small, deck-mounted Global Positioning System became crucial in the fog, which reduced our world to a tiny globe of blue water and fuzzy mist.

We could hear the roar of the growing surf crashing on the beach to the east. That was one zone we did not want to get swept into, and we also had to be wary of “boomers” (near-shore rocks and reefs) that make large swells suddenly jack up and break. And we suspected that the rough rocks extending seaward from Point St. George, some 10 miles ahead, might be a zone of serious trouble.

So we set course 20 degrees farther west than I’d planned, to give ourselves plenty of seaway.

For a few hours of steady paddling, all went well — except for Barnes and Weed getting on my case for going too far out front without turning around to check on their position. True: I had expressed my inner tension by paddling too fast, simply assuming they would keep up. It was a lesson in team dynamics.

The ocean was giving us a show. Common murres, the deep-diving seabirds, appeared occasionally, drifting closer as we paddled. Some of the birds, fearless or curious or both, let us get within a few yards while they eyed us.

At 2 p.m., I rafted up with Weed, our kayaks alongside each other for stability and safety, while I made a radio check with Chronicle photographer Mike Maloney on shore. A pod of pygmy dolphins cruised by, the short black cutlasses of their fins arcing benignly through the water.

We were also treated to an aerial dogfight between a Caspian tern and a parasitic jaeger that sought to filch his lunch. Combat between two skilled fliers continued for nearly a minute, until the tern dropped its baitfish. The jaeger nailed it in one deft plunge and flew off in triumph.

Treadmill: Following Seas. Countervailing Wind.

But the swell continued to grow, reaching 10 feet. These were following seas, which was good news in a way, since they pushed us along, boosting our progress. However, a countervailing wind sprang up from the south, stalling us at the top of the crests.

My GPS revealed a speed of only 1-2 mph when we were stalled and a top speed of 7.5 mph when shooting down the largest swells.

“Feel like you’re on a treadmill?” Barnes yelled to me.

By 3 p.m., things were getting a tad serious. We had planned to be in Crescent City by then, but we were just approaching a line of breakers extending out from Point St. George for more than a mile. Visibility had improved, but the headwinds stalling our progress ensured we would be exposed out there for a lot longer than we’d planned.

Tired rom heavy exposure to wind and wave, Paul McHugh surfs into a beach near Crescent City. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
Tired from heavy exposure to wind and wave, Paul McHugh surfs into a beach near Crescent City. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle

If the swell grew any larger, it might start breaking on us in the open ocean. Since it was coming from behind, we wouldn’t be able to see a tumbler coming that could spill us.

But it wasn’t like we had a choice. We were committed. The only way to get out was by going ahead.

Hours later, we skirted the last of the large point rocks, then determined we could turn in ahead of the huge mound of Castle Island — where as many as 14,000 Aleutian geese roost during their annual migration.

Two men aboard a small fishing boat, bobbing in more sheltered waters, started at us incredulously as we paddled in from the open sea.

Abruptly, our crisis was over. We had “rounded the horn.” We were out of the swell, the wind had died down, and Crescent City’s smooth pebble beach extended in a long, calm swath before us. We made landfall.

I broke out some chunky peanut butter and Ryekrisp for a snack that was gobbled, and Barnes brought out a plastic bottle of Jim Beam for a few celebratory sips.

Paddling around the Battery Point light to enter the harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
Paddling around the Battery Point light to enter the harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle

Paddling through rock gardens, awash with small wind waves, was a delight compared with what we had just been through. We made it around the entrance to Crescent City harbor and into a small, sheltered cove on Whaler Island, where we’d been given special permission to camp, at 7 p.m. — about four hours later than I’d planned to arrive while I sat in my office in San Francisco a few months earlier.

Well, as the old saying goes: “Man proposes, God disposes.”
We were cold, wet, tired and hungry, but full of that odd elation that comes from surviving a hazard.

“Arghh. That was a long day, landlubbers,” Barnes said. “Man, when it gets gnarly like that, my paddling technique goes all to hell.”

“Me, too,” I said. “I grip that paddle shaft too tight, for too long.”

“Yep.”

“Great day,” Weed said. “I love it when the seas threaten to clobber you, then they back off from it just a bit.”

Wind Whistling Around Whaler Island

We slept deep and long that night. And woke up to hear wind whistling around the rocks of Whaler Island.

A man in a pickup pulled up nearby to talk with us. It was Steven McGhee, 44, a commercial fisherman aboard the Thumper — one of the men who had observed us rounding Point St. George.

“From that angle you were taking, we knew you weren’t just casual kayakers,” McGhee said. “We thought, where are these guys coming from? But we figured you looked like you knew what you were doing.”

Now, that may or may not be. But on Thursday, we knew what we weren’t doing — trying to paddle through a predicted gale all the way down to our next stop, the Klamath River.

Port’s Identity Crisis

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series

Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 08

After our long, cold paddle to Crescent City on Wednesday, we beached our kayaks on Whaler Islander at the breakwater. Thursday morning, I strolled to the harbormaster’s office. The port granted us rare permission to camp — I wanted to announced that we’d arrived.

Relaxing in camp on Whaler Island. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
Relaxing in camp on Whaler Island. Photo by Michael Maloney, S. F. Chronicle

Richard Young, 58, has been harbormaster since 2003. For much of his prior life, he was a commercial angler. From his office window, he pointed out a wooden-hulled 80-foor seiner, the City of Eureka, that he grew up shrimping on with his dad.

Now, it’s a live-aboard for someone else, sold during a federal buyout of trawlers because of declining fisheries. Two years ago, Crescent City’s fleet fell from 16 working trawlers to two.

North Coast Struggling Ports

That trajectory fairly well tracks Crescent City Harbor’s overall fortunes, Young had told me on an earlier visit as I was preparing for my 400-mile kayak trip. The problems he ticked off are familiar to many of the North Coast’s struggling ports.

Crescent City has a good harbor — its south-facing channel stays safely open in all but the most daunting storms — but its 500 slips for recreational boats go begging. That’s because the depletion of Klamath River salmon has caused restrictions on fishing.

Commercial salmon troll boats were hurt even worse; their presence in the port is now negligible.

Then, the state started cutting the budgets of special districts. The harbor got nicked for $120,000 out of its operations budget of $1 million for two straight years — which meant laying off a third of the maintenance crew and deferring upkeep.

Dredging the harbor has been particularly problematic. A tenant with an abalone farm at the port blamed a failure to dredge for the death of his stock and won a $1.1 million claim in arbitration.

The port can’t challenge the award. If insurance doesn’t cover it, bankruptcy may be the port’s only alternative, Young said. “We have to let that one go,” he said. “The harbor district just has to find a way to move forward.”

Richard Young, harbormaster at Crescent City. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Richard Young, harbormaster at Crescent City. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

I asked him if he feels like he stepped off one sinking ship straight onto the deck of another.

“More like, I walked off a dock into some very deep water,” Young said. “It’s been a bigger struggle than I would’ve thought. And yet, I see some wonderful opportunity, too. We’re crafting a new master plan, due in November.

“We need to keep fishing here as much as possible. But we must diversify, look at other activities. Like welcoming recreation and the tourist industry into this harbor.”

One traditional bright spot is the port’s shipyard, where Fashion Blacksmith remains a West Coast leading light at lengthening, widening or otherwise altering fishing boats.

Commercial Crab Fishery

Another: The cyclical Dungeness crab fishery aligned jackpots on its dial recently — ringing up numbers ($17 million in landings last year, $15 million the season before) not seen in a decade.

A new kind of bright spot, a possible harbinger of a new era, is found only a hop, skip and jump east of Young’s office. South Beach Outfitters, a surf gear and beach gift shop, sits perched above Crescent City’s gentle longboard break.

Back in 1990, that same sweet surf drew Bev and Rhynn Noll (ex-wife and son of big wave legend Greg Noll) to establish their shop, Noll Surf ‘n’ Skate, farther to the north downtown. In 1995, they launched the Noll Longboard Classic at the Crescent break. (That contest will be Oct. 1-2 this year.)

While observing one of those contests, Barry Baugh, 58, a disabled Vietnam vet, suddenly felt he should get back out riding waves himself, after a 30-year dry patch. He and wife Joni, 43, then jumped in with both feet.

They leased a dilapidated building from the port in 2003 and coaxed friends in the building trades to help them transform it into the cute seaside South Beach Outfitters.

“It’s worked out nice for both of us,” Joni Baugh told me on my earlier visit. “Barry gets to go surf, while I get to try to make us a living.”

“This port has real possibilities, if we redevelop it and market it the right way,” Young had told me. “Many cars go by on that highway. We need to give them a reason to stop and spend time with us.”

The new master plan includes museums, three restaurants, a strip of retail stores the surf shop will be invited to move into, and a three-story hotel overlooking the surf break.

Although Joni Baugh sees some stark, midwinter days when she can barely sell a bar of board wax, she subscribes to Young’s vision.

“All kinds of things should be out here,” Baugh said. “Kite shops, bike shops. People love to migrate toward water. It wouldn’t have to be overbuilt to serve them. Just nicely built.”

Abalone Farming

Chris Van Hook, 44, is the abalone farmer who won the arbitration case with the port.

He said he doubts there will be much of a future for Crescent City Harbor until much of the local scene and district management philosophy undergoes change.

A former harbor commissioner, Hook said, “They’ve already got three master plans on the shelf. In order to attract new investment, they’ve got to make people think they can treat businesses well and not play favorites.

“And if they don’t figure out a way to dredge and keep the harbor open, it’s only a matter of time before it silts in and this whole place folds up.”

On that key issue, Hook and Young see eye-to-eye, but they differ as to cause. Hook says the harbor allowed vital dredging permits to lapse. Young says the missing ingredient is federal assistance.

“The federal government used to help a lot to take care of it,” Young said as we looked out on the harbor. “But I don’t need to tell you about the demands on the federal budget now. Everything from New Orleans to Iraq subtracts money away from ongoing needs, like this one.”

Wreck of the SS Brother Jonathan

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series

Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 09

She was a fancy side-wheel steamer, a hybrid assisted by a square-rigged sails on two masts. The Brother Jonathan was built in New York in 1850 to serve East Coast passengers heading for the Gold Rush. Fifteen years later, under new owners, she was assigned to a run from San Francisco to Portland.

In July of 1865, she was tied up at a Frisco wharf, taking on so much cargo, that her new captain, Samuel DeWolf, objected. (Her previous captain had been shot amid an argument with a Confederate sympathizer.) Railroad equipment, hundreds of barrels of whiskey, hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold (to pay soldiers and pay off reservation Indians), even two camels for the Portland zoo were crammed aboard.

SS Brother Jonathan.
SS Brother Jonathan.

Captain DeWolf was informed he would be replaced if he didn’t shut up. Then a heavy, three-stamp ore crushing machine was lugged on and lashed to the deck.

Now mired in mud at the dock, the Brother Jonathan had to wait for high tide and a pull from a tugboat to get free and wallow off to sea.

On the morning of July 30, after exchanging some cargo in Crescent City, she set course for Portland at 9:30 a.m. By noon, she was battling high wind, and seas “running mountains high,” according to a survivor. DeWolf ordered her to put about. At 1:50 p.m. Jonathan ran hard onto an uncharted rock. She was doomed, caught between that anvil and the hammer of the pounding waves.

Hunks of broken keel bobbed up. Her foremast plunged down through the hull like a spear, only stopping when the main yard jammed atop her rails. The heavy ore crusher broke right through the deck.

Orders were given to abandon ship. But the first boat away capsized, the second to be lowered was bashed by waves and shattered. Only the third, a surfboat carrying the third mate, five women, three children and ten crew managed to get free — just in time to see the Jonathan go down by the bow.

Two hours later, that surfboat bearing the 19 survivors straggled into Crescent City. One might cast a cynical eye at the ratio of crew to passengers. But had there not been so many experienced sailors aboard, maybe no one would have made it. Rescue boats were speedily launched from the port, but forced to turn back by the harsh conditions.

Two days afterward, excited sailors reported seeing more survivors on Seal Rock, offshore. Another boat was launched. Would-be rescuers spent 12 hours rowing out and back, only to report that those “survivors” didn’t happen to be in any trouble at all — they were sea lions.

During the following week, corpses began to wash ashore, from Trinidad Head up into Oregon. One was the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, James Nisbet. As the ship sank, Nisbet had scribbled a will out in pencil, so his words would not wash away. He included a special note to Almira Hopkins (wife of a San Francisco insurance agent). He folded these missives into a pocket, then tied two life jackets on himself — heightening chances his body could be found.

Nisbet’s note reads: “My dear Almira, A thousand affectionate adieus. You spoke of my sailing on Friday — Hangman’s Day — and the unlucky Jonathan. Well here I am with death before me. My love to you all — to Caspar, to Dita, to Belle, to Mellie and little Myra — kiss her for me. Never forget Grandpa.”

Captain DeWolf, whose body was never found, went down with his new command.

Surfin’ on Radio Waves

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 16

Unlike original adventurers and explorers on the North Coast, I arrived bolstered by the aid of a few excellent electronic devices, which I’m not embarrassed to admit. The principal ones were a then-state-of-the-art, Garmin hand-held GPS with a color mapping screen, and a Motorola hand-held marine radio set up with weather channels.

Bad News Weather Radio. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Bad News on the weather radio. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

After we pitched camp on Woodley Island in Humboldt Bay, the Motorola informed us of our fate: We’d be stuck there for a few days, marooned by worsening weather. In planning this trip, I’d picked September as our main travel month, and did so to follow the sage advice of commercial fishermen. They’d told me it was usually the best time on the North Coast for flat seas, light winds and clear skies. However, this September was proving anything but usual. Less than two weeks in, we were getting dope-slapped by our second gale.

Winter in Autumn

“Y’know,” a fisherman at the Port of Eureka told us now, “this seems more like a December than any September I can remember.”

Finding good music on KHUM RM Radio. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.
Finding good music on KHUM RM Radio. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Well, just great. But luckily, while cold rain dripped off our tent flies and whipped the branches of trees above our heads, we could amuse ourselves in a variety of ways. One was listening to FM radio on John Weed’s battered portable receiver and headset. During my precious turn on the headphones, I homed in on KHUM, 104.7 and 104.3 on the radio dial.

Used to be, you could tell a lot about a small American town by listening to its radio stations. In the Eureka-Arcata region, you still can. Listening to KHUM is like hearing radio through a time warp – in particular, an FM station from the 1970s, back when local DJ’s were prince-potentates of  local airwaves.

Back then, the spontaneous, rambunctious art meant offering up rambling microphone “raps” with lots of local references, an easy tone of familiar intimacy with listeners. Music set lists were intricate air castles, contemporary gestalts, mortared together with inspired logic and oblique cultural references.

Listening to KHUM now is much like that. Music sets ricochet from bluegrass to jazz to rock, from Miles Davis to Bob Marley.

I’d met the station owner and manager Pat Cleary on an earlier research trip. So once Cleary had heard we’d – almost literally – blown into town, he dropped by our camp for a visit.

Rocking Out with a Station Owner

Station owner Cleary jams with Weed in camp. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Station owner Cleary jams with Weed in camp. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

He toted along his fancy Lebeda mandolin to pick out a few tunes with our paddling team’s lead (and only) guitarist, John Weed. Clearly was accompanied by station DJ Mike Dronkers, who had a tapedeck to record an interview with me about our trip.

Turned out, owner Pat Cleary was a relatively fresh convert to the gospel of old-time, local radio. Prior, he happened to be one of the Wall Street investment bankers who helped finance the empire of Clear Channel — the corporate behemoth that grew to control over 1200 radio stations. It also managed most of the live music venues in the U.S. and the content of nearly a million billboards.

Cleary, 47, a sandy-haired man with a round, pleasant face and a relaxed posture, seems like a guy who would never bother to wear a tie. But two decades ago, he was hardly glimpsed without one. That’s when he was a go-getter with a big gig at Chase Manhattan.

“I began to work the media realm in 1980.” Cleary said. “I helped finance the start of Fox. I primarily did start-up of TV stations, cable and radio. Mostly new stuff, not consolidation. Then I met Lowry Mays, who said, ‘I’m gonna be bigger than CBS.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, right.’”

But Mays, a former Air Force officer from Texas, who reportedly won his first radio station in a San Antonio poker game in 1972, was onto something.

“His particular genius was, Mays saw that if he got a station with reasonable revenue, then took expenses out of it by centralizing content, he could really ramp up its income,” Cleary said.

By 1995, Clear Channel had 43 radio stations; a year later, 49 more; 625 were under the umbrella by 1999.

“It’s all been amazing, economically,” said Cleary. “Yet, a curse that came right along with the growth was homogenization. Soul drained right out of the enterprise. You’d drive from town to town, and after 300 miles, you’d still be listening to exactly the same DJ. And that guy might not even know what he was saying, since computer programs cut and pasted his words together.”

Former Banker in Recovery

Cleary began to do a bit of soul-searching. “My original plan had been to stay in New York for two years. But I was stuck there for fifteen. After my first divorce, I began to think, okay Pat, what do you really want? I tried a couple of Outward Bound trips, to clear my head. While rafting on the Colorado, I met a woman named Jennifer who told me I really ought to come to take a look at Humboldt County.

“I went out to Patrick’s Point here, fell in love, stayed for a month. When I went back to New York, I realized that mentally, I had already left.”

Cleary, who now calls himself “a recovering banker,” first tried to establish a venture capital fund. “But when the tech bubble burst, I found, it’s easier to make an investment than get out of one.”

Next, he used his fiscal skills to ride to the rescue of the Arcata Co-op, a popular food store, that was overstaffed and way over budget. During the restructuring process, he got to know a local radio station, KHUM, that was creative and well-intentioned, but also in dire straits.

In 2000, he bought it. Music that had played in the background ever since his childhood piano lessons shot to the fore. Now Cleary plays both blues harmonica and keyboard, as well as a ton of bluegrass mandolin.

Shipping Out Good Vibrations

He has KHUM out on two signals, and KSLG airing contemporary rock aimed at Humboldt State University students. Station staff members are welcome to rise through the ranks as long as they understand the community, have a good line of patter, and a robust love for music.

The stations thrive on presenting local musicians (Cleary has just released his first CD of live station-studio performances). They sponsor six local concerts a year. He plans to release specialty shows, like the Frank Zappa hour, on streaming Internet audio, and bring KHUM to the globe.

But Cleary seemed equally pleased by the weekday morning community reports, rotating through North Coast villages from Garberville to McKinleyville, and the way his radio can cover breaking news on major local issues like a battle over a LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that his group of local stations did not begin to turn a profit until he acquired another call sign, KWPT, a classic rock station generated by a computer in a hall closet. He intends to keep that format, but install live local bodies on the mics as soon as he can.

“We used to be seen as ‘that hippy station.’ Now, I think people perceive us as a throwback to old-time community radio,” Cleary said. “Our main audience ranges from age 21 to 64, and is half female. Probably, everybody with a, ‘U.S. out of Humboldt County’ bumper sticker on their car or pickup listens to us.

“When I think about what I did for Clear Channel, well sometimes it’s hard to swallow. I won’t say I’m doing penance now. But I am doing something absolutely different.”

Grilling an Interviewer

DJ Dronkers works the mic at KHUM. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

DJ Dronkers works the mic at KHUM. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
DJ Dronkers works the mic at KHUM. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

After Mike Dronkers interviewed me on Friday, I turned the tables on him, and asked what it was like to work at KHUM over nine years, going all the way through the transition to Cleary’s ownership.

“He told our staff he planned to do local radio with dignity,” Dronkers replied. “He planned to start by cultivating a community right in our own building. We call it  ‘Radio Without Rules.’ He let us do what we wanted.” For Dronkers, that was particularly fortunate. “I’m unemployable in the real world,” he confided.

As I wrote this story up on my laptop, more rain drummed on the fly of my tent. That told me we’d be hanging out, probably listening to a bit more radio here.

Out Into a Wet Wilderness

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 18

A notion of the “will of heaven” is extremely useful. It can inform us a human presence is a grain of sand embedded on the vast cosmic beach, and that human preference is a sigh vented into the universal cyclone.

So it usually behooves us to fit our way to the will of heaven, rather than seek to combat it.

Launching off docks on Woodley Island at 4 a.m. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Launching off docks on Woodley Island at 4 a.m. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Practically, this meant our small party of sea kayakers arose on Woodley Island at 3 a.m. in order to launch at 4 a.m., and so catch and ride an ebb tide draining Humboldt Bay, rather than battle the next flood tide. And we had to do it rather than wait for the afternoon ebb, since we needed to force our way a few more miles down the coast before the next September gale hit.

According to NOAA weather radio, that next storm was indeed on the dance card. Didn’t seem like we could catch a break, as far as meteorology was concerned. Consequently, we had to make our own luck.

“Mother Nature, it would seem,” I informed my companions, “likes to have sex by screwing with us.” They nodded soberly.

I figured at minimum we could make it southward to the mouth of the Eel River, a reach of a mere eighteen miles or so from Woodley – which didn’t sound like much after our three days of lounging about and resting in camp.

Riding an ebb tide out past the jetties of Humboldt Bay. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Riding an ebb tide out past the jetties of Humboldt Bay. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

And so it proved. Winds were calm, seas were moderate – a mingled four-foot northwest swell and a three-foot south swell, creating a jumbled fleece of foam that sheeted across the Eel entrance bars. Still eager to prove to my companions that my crash on the Klamath bar had been a weird anomaly, I again volunteered as test dummy, and rode handily in to the spit of the Eel’s north bank.

“Nice line,” John Weed said laconically.

Another Gale Threatens

Once our entire trio was ashore by noon, I whipped out the Motorola to see how the forecast was developing. We were told the next storm would arrive the following morning. Discretion being the best part of valor (as per Falstaff), we decided to paddle over to the south spit and build a stout camp that would be sheltered amongst the dunes there.

Paul McHugh trying to reach Mike Maloney by radio. Photo by John Weed
Paul McHugh trying to reach Mike Maloney by radio. Photo by John Weed.

Next morning I awoke late, at 6:45 a.m., and wrapped an ear around the weather radio and found the predicted storm was delayed, and now was not slated to arrive until late afternoon. That meant we might be able to pull off a sprint around one of the wildest stretches of marine wilderness along our route, Cape Mendocino, but only if we truly hurried.

I’d like to say that’s what we did, yet it was 10:30 a.m. by the time we were fully packed and paddling out to challenge the Eel River bar. And what a bout that was. The incoming swell had risen, the breeze in our faces was stiff, and both those forces were bolstered by a four-knot flood tide. We chose to try to bust out anyway, since we had such a strong need to make up lost time and miles.

“How bad could it be?” Weed asked, one of his famously wry, oft-repeated lines.

The Fight to Cross a River Bar

Well, bad. He and I both tried to hug the tip of the south spit, and wound up hustling along aboard an aquatic treadmill. I paddled as hard as I could, at times even windmilling my blade in a race-speed sprint. Water fairly hissed past my hull, yet when I checked my progress vis-à-vis the shore, I realized I hadn’t advanced out to sea so much as a single yard.

Paul McHugh hauling out at the mouth of the Eel River. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Paul McHugh hauling out at the mouth of the Eel River. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

However, we noted that Barnes, heading along the north shore, was making reasonably good progress, so we ferried over and renewed our assault. I grew so overheated inside my dry suit that I ardently welcomed each cold wave that splashed my face or broke upon my head. We made it past the surf line and were finally bobbing in open water.

“Whew!” I wheezed. “Feels like I’ve just done a day’s worth of work in just forty-five minutes.”

But there was more labor to come.

Maritime Earthquake Bullseye

Tectonic uplift created mighty cliffs near the Mendocino Triple Junction. Photo by John Weed.
Tectonic uplift created mighty cliffs near the Mendocino Triple Junction. Photo by John Weed.

A troubled, undersea spot a few miles west of Cape Mendocino is one of the most seismically active places on earth, generating about eighty temblors a year, many of them mild, but occasionally something mighty. It’s the northern terminus of the fabled San Andreas Fault, the nexus where the Gorda, North America and Pacific tectonic plates ram together.

What this means for the shoreline is a lot of uplift that builds steep cliffs right out of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” – “beetling o’er their base into the sea.” What a coast like this means for paddlers is that, essentially, there’s not a single safe place to make landfall for many miles.

As we passed the tiny coastal burg of Centerville, rocky ramparts soared up along the shore. The escarpments were chiseled and striped, decorated by bands of strata that had been tilted and folded and flung upward by the region’s dynamic geology. We could hear a hollow “Whumpf!” from seas that smashed head-on into vertical rock.

The morning’s breeze had backed off in a literal calm before the storm, and the swells were sliding below our hulls, glassy and slick below a quilt of unmoving fog that hung about our heads. We steered by compass and GPS.

False Cape

The offshore monolith known as False Cape. Photo by John Weed.
The offshore monolith known as False Cape. Photo by John Weed.

Cape Mendocino is distinguished by a huge, cone-shaped monolith 323 feet in height, called the Sugar Loaf. This tall rock formed a major landmark for mariners for centuries. For example, sighting it was the welcome signal for the Manila galleons of the Spanish Empire to turn south and head for Mexico, after sailing east for months on the westerly trade winds from Japan.

However, about five nautical miles north of the cape another monolith reared up. This one, far lower and more boxy in shape, was dubbed False Cape. We came on it about 2:30 p.m., just as winds began to increase again, and they whisked that thick fog away as if had been feebly wrought of thin rags of grey silk.

We took our rest break in the lee of False Cape, swilling water, munching snacks, and pissing into Ziploc bags that we then dumped over the sides of our cockpits. Brown pelicans roosting on a quano-frosted ledge, seemed to take an inordinately keen interest in these proceedings.

With northwest wind shoving on our backs, we fairly scudded along toward Cape Mendocino, at speeds my GPS recorded at 5-6 mph. The sprawling cove where Bear River reached the ocean slid by to port, then the giant cone of the Sugar Loaf began to loom straight in front of us. We knew what we had to do before conditions worsened: get around that point tout suite, then seek a protected spot to land.

Safe Refuge Denied

Nearly every exposed ocean cape on the globe tends to be fraught with swirling winds and contradictory currents, and this one is no exception. Mix in opposing swells and strong wind, and you end up with a devil’s playground of shifting, heaving wave peaks that force a paddler to make swift bracing strokes at random moments with scant warning in order to prevent a capsize.

Coming to shore in the lee of the Sugar Loaf at Cape Mendocino. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Coming to shore in the lee of the Sugar Loaf at Cape Mendocino. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

We rounded the Sugar Loaf, and I glanced up to see an unusual vista, of a sort that’s only won during a bout of adventure travel. High on the rock’s west flank sat a ledge with a huge cave behind it that faced the open sea. A throne room suitable for Poseidon, I thought. Then we stroked downwind of the rock, and a stench of sea lion and seabird poop flooded into my nostrils, so acrid and rancid that it made my eyes water.

But my eyes did not fill so much that I failed to spot a beach paved with small rounded boulders just south of the big rock.

I pointed with my paddle. “That’s the most protected landing we’re likely to see!” I yelled. “Let’s go in!”

My companions agreed, and in succession, out hulls jolted to a halt on the cobbles. Elated, we bailed from our cockpits and bumped fists in triumph. I stripped off wet gear and hiked up a rough track to approach a nearby ranch house to secure permission to camp. The occupant, a caretaker for the landowner, turned us down. In fact, he told us, we had to vacate that beach immediately or face arrest.

While I was away, the wind had fortified to a steady blast that reached the predicted 25 knots, and a misty sun had begun to dive toward the horizon. Since I was on a mission for the Chronicle, I felt I could not afford to mar the voyage by a tiff with the locals or an embarrassing arrest that would undoubtedly be publicized and cause delay.

Grimly, we launched off the stony beach, straight into turbulent seas, then turned south to hunt down another safe landing. On a scouting trip, I had previously picked a bailout spot, a cove called Hells Gate located just past the next major landmark, a sea-stack called Steamboat Rock. I thought now that cove might provide us with a timely escape. I was wrong.

Magic Meeting with a Whale

A momentary yet miraculous bit of relief came after I reached deep water. I saw a whale’s spine lump up between the waves, then the whale’s head rose beside me in a spy-hop maneuver. The animal regarded me gravely with a round black eye, framed by a jumble of wrinkles. It had a jutting lower jaw and seemed to be either a small humpback or a grey whale, it was hard to be sure. But its look seemed to be one of pity or concern, as if to say, “You wacky land-ape, what are you doing out in nasty conditions like this?”

Then the whale slowly sank back down and disappeared. Whatever it might’ve had on its mind, I appreciated the expression of interest, anyhow.

We paddled past Steamboat to Hells Gate in toward shore. That is, Barnes and I did. Weed was dubious, and hovered offshore. Turned out, he was the wise one. On a road trip, I had scouted this cove at high tide. But now it was low, and the surf crashed violently onto reefs that barred passage to the short curve of sandy shore. This place had turned into a hydraulic nutcracker, a hazard to both man and boat.

“Outside!” I heard Barnes yell. I looked over my shoulder to see the biggest waves of the day churning toward us with feathering crests, each with faces steepening to more than ten feet. I turned and we sprinted straight at them, barely scratching over the tops. I even caught air off of the last one.

“Where’s Weed now?” I hollered.

“Way out. I see him!” Barnes exclaimed.

Push Comes to Shove

John Weed riding in to land on the north spit of the Eel River. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
John Weed riding in to land on the north spit of the Eel River. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

I proposed we check a more exposed cover, but perhaps one with a better approach, in the lee of Steamboat, further to the north. But, no dice. That one was also rockbound. I turned south again, and began paddling toward Weed. Barnes did not turn. He just kept powering on to the north.

I linked up with Weed. “Bo! Bo!” he yelled, blowing his whistle and waving his paddle. We tried to close the gap with him, struggling against the wind.

“No good,” I said. “We’ll never catch him. And if he ever turns to look at us, he’ll think we’re following him and keep going. But if we stop and turn around, when he looks he’ll see the gap widen. Then he should come to us.”

Weed then ventured that we should give up on trying to weave a way to shore any place through the rock gardens. Instead, we ought to cruise south with the wind, and make landfall on the first long beach we came to. With nightfall imminent, that sounded like terrific advice, and we took it, hoping against hope that eventually Barnes might note our absence, turn and follow.

Miracle Number Two

And then, right before sunset, as if God had flipped a switch, the wind stopped. The angle of the shore bent east, and the swell flattened. As the mountain philosopher John Muir had once remarked about his own escape off a sheer cliff, our deliverance could not have been more complete had an angel seized us by the hair to elevate us straight out of danger.

Celebratory fist-bump after a safe transit and landing. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Celebratory fist-bump after a safe transit and landing. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Weed and I glided in to make a surprisingly calm beach landing. About fifteen minutes later, Barnes appeared. He had indeed noticed that he was going north by himself, finally come about and traced our course.

Well, I cannot deny that a few recriminations were uttered by various parties about certain directions, navigational principles, and tactics. But in the end, we heartily toasted each other with cups of fermented agave juice.

Gaining refuge just before sunset. John Weed unloads his kayak. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Gaining refuge just before sunset. John Weed unloads his kayak. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

I cleared my throat and summed up. “Another fine day of paddling, lads.”

The sun dropped, the air turned clear and balmy. I unrolled my sleeping bag between mumble of the surf and the chirping of crickets in tall beach grass, lay down, put my hands behind my head, and waited for the full moon to rise.

Seeing Hard Sea Miles, Plus a Shark

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 21

Let’s stipulate that predicting weather on the North Coast during autumn can be a thankless task, even for highly trained meteorologists. That said, on this trip, I felt like I could chew up and swallow a few pages from the Farmers’ Almanac then puke up a more reliable weather report than most of those we’d been getting.

John Weed stretches out on the beach at Hells Gate. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
John Weed stretches out on the beach at Hells Gate. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

On Tuesday night, I went to sleep after hearing that the morning would bring 10-14 foot-high seas, and 25 mph winds from the northwest – conditions that would make our proposed run south to Big Flat on the Lost Coast unsafe and unworkable. I woke up at 3 a.m., ate a granola bar, and checked the weather radio at 4 a.m. to find the prediction remained the same.

Then quite abruptly, just after sunrise, it switched. The NOAA weatherman began calling for 7-9 foot seas, and a southwest wind of just 12 mph from the southwest, conditions that might last until late afternoon. And after that, what? Things could turn nightmarish, since another gale was slated to crash ashore and blow for days on end. Barometer readings had already begun to plummet.

A Tough Choice

I had asked that we all arise early and begin to pack up, just in case we saw a window of opportunity to launch, and my companions had complied. Now came time for a heart-to-heart. I serenaded them with a few Dylan lines, telling them to gather round, admit the waters around us had grown, a bone-drenching was on order, and that life-saving needed to be at the head of our agenda.

I got down to brass tacks. “Look, I think our only choice, if we decide to launch at all, is to blow off Big Flat as a destination and aim all the way for Shelter Cove. It will be the longest we’ve ever paddled in a day, by far, like 35 or 36 miles, and there’s a possibility conditions might turn totally sour along the way.

“Now, before we vote on whether or not we want to roll our dice and take a chance like that, I can say we do have a choice. I am willing to try to find a local who owns a flatbed truck, and hire him to load all our boats and gear onto it, then drive us on back roads down to Shelter Cove, where we can hole up through the next storm. That’s our safe and sane alternative. So, what’ll it be?”

Not only did these guys vote to shake, rattle and roll the dice and cast our fate out onto the waters, they did so with high enthusiasm.

Iacta Alia Est

Paul McHugh helps John Weed launch one of their heavily-laden kayaks. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Paul McHugh helps John Weed launch one of their heavily-laden kayaks. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Soon our watertight bags were stuffed in our kayaks, our bodies were stuffed into our cockpits. We punched out through the surf and set our sights on that aptly named distant refuge, the protected harbor and rural town of Shelter Cove.

On both big coastal bulges that we’d rounded thus far – Point St. George and Cape Mendocino – we’d barely dodged blows the weather had aimed at us. That was fortunate, because exposed promontories collect and exacerbate the most turbulent conditions the ocean can produce.

It also proved true at this day’s major challenge, Punta Gorda.

The main current flowing off the North Coast is the California Current, which courses along in a southerly direction, and had been awarding us a moderate boost throughout our voyage. However, a commercial fisherman had warned us that Punta Gorda had an odd counter-current, perhaps a massive eddy of some sort, pushing the opposite way. Another interesting effect was that we had northwest swells, and this opposing current shoved them up to a height of ten feet as we paddled along. If the strong winds happened to arrive early, we’d be in a hell of a fix.

Making tracks down the Lost Coast. Photo by John Weed.
Making tracks down the Lost Coast. Photo by John Weed.

But given the grand distance we had to cover, I thought it important to pace ourselves, and was lagging along at what I thought was a 3-4 mph pace. My GPS was switched off to conserve batteries. However, Barnes, who had his GPS switched on, began to chide me. “Look!” he said. “We might be paddling, but we’re not really getting anywhere. Our net speed is only 2 mph, because of the current. We’ve got to pick it up if we hope to might Shelter Cover before nightfall.”

IOff the Punta Gorda cape, we pass a startled salmon fisherman heading north. Photo by John Weed.
Off the Punta Gorda cape, we pass a startled salmon fisherman heading north. Photo by John Weed.

Well, he was right. I adopted a faster paddle rotation, and our trio powered around the point. As we did so, we encountered a commercial fisherman aboard a salmon troller heading north. We didn’t talk to him, but he did come out of his wheelhouse and stare at us as though he couldn’t believe his eyes.

Cruising the Lost Coast

Once past the point, we cruised in toward shore and paddled along the tall forested ridges and sudden hidden valleys and thin rough beaches of the fabled Lost Coast. In these near-shore waters we were largely out of the counter-current and could also pick up a shove from the following seas. Still, we raced the clock, feeling ourselves more than a beat behind.

That meant, after we passed Big Flat, it was smarter to head back out to sea instead of continuing along the shore, so we could chart a straight course between the horns of Big Flat and Shelter Cove. The sun was on its downward arc now, so our clock was ticking, but the gale had not begun to manifest. Yet.

Miles offshore, sea lions frolic around our kayaks. But they vanish when a huge great white shark appears. Photo by John Weed.
Miles offshore, sea lions frolic around our kayaks. But they vanish when a huge great white shark appears. Photo by John Weed.

A few miles offshore, we saw huge swarms of terns and gulls performing a “kettling” maneuver, which looks exactly the way it sounds. They made big bowl shapes in the sky as they spiraled around either a school of baitfish or some type of large marine kill, perhaps the floating carcass of a dead whale. They held steady over the same spot for a remarkably long while. As we came in under them, sea lions that had been playing around our boats abruptly vanished.

Wake-up Call from a Landlord

And then Weed pointed to a long, black straight line sticking up out of the sea, about forty yards away. “Hey, what do you think that is?” he asked. “A fencepost?”

Next that line twisted sideways and then I could see that it was not a stick, but a dorsal fin, one about four feet tall. It had no accompanying blowhole or spout, nor were there any other fins nearby.

“I think we’ve all got a fair notion what critter that is,” I said. “Let’s start paddling closer, side-by-side, so we look like something bigger.”

“And pick up our pace,” Barnes added.

Well, that had already happened. Sighting a giant great white shark did provide an extra incentive to motor the heck away from here and try to reach Shelter Cove before night.

Surfing the Darkness

But we didn’t make it. The sun sank, the lights of the town twinkled in the distance, and the luminous glow of dusk faded into inky darkness. We could only spot the breakers hitting cliffs and offshore rocks by their walls of glowing foam. Our sole edge would be the lit screen of my Garmin mapping GPS, which could show the southernmost rocks, the buoy, and our relative position. With it, we could make it around the corner. I switched it on. At the same time, I began to surf waves that humped up to starboard, trying to get a ride in, but hoping to turn off before they broke.

Weed and Barnes remonstrated with me, and I could see why. It was far too late and we were way too tired to try to deal with a rescue that might be needed if I happened to wreck on the reef. But I did not stop. I also had to keep stabbing at a button on the GPS to keep the nav-screen lit, since it kept turning itself off as a battery-saving measure. The combination of scouting, paddling, surfing, and button-pushing was the single most aggravating, arduous mess of multi-tasking I’ve ever attempted.

Shelter from the Storm

Then! Finally we made it past the reef and a breakwater, and I could see a tiny red light in the harbor aglow like an electric ruby. The sighting felt glorious, glamorous, exciting and reassuring all at once. Simultaneously, the blocked-off winds and waves all vanished. We glided in to our landing as if sliding on a smooth, oiled sheet of black steel.

The old Cape Mendocino light, now set up and shining at Shelter Cove. Photo by Paul McHugh.
The old Cape Mendocino light, now set up and shining at Shelter Cove. Photo by Paul McHugh.

We’d been thirteen hours in the saddle, paddling hard with no breaks. I tumbled out of the cockpit and staggered around on the sand. My butt hurt, of course, but so did my feet, from hours of pushing the rudder pedals. Shoulders, elbows and hands, also. Well, everything ached. My total energy level flickered, and spheres of bright color seemed to drift across my vision. I felt beyond famished. All I’d eaten during the voyage was a handful of snacks from my deck bag.

But I still had to take care of my homies. Wearing my drysuit and booties, I jogged up the steep access road to Mario’s Bar & Grill, got there a few minutes before the restaurant shut down for the night. I bought three hot dinners to go, and toted them back down the hill. Via that one tiny move, I managed to generate a huge amount of team happiness. Instead of collapsing on the beach, we brought everything up the road to the Beachcomber Inn.

A Forest Primeval

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure

Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 12

Paul McHugh offshore of Enderts Beach, south of Crescent City. A look at the the Yurok tribe and the Klamath River where the kayakers are camped after their Day 3 paddle from Crescent City to the mouth of the Klamath River. Rediscovering California's North Coast. A kayak voyage by Paul McHugh, Bo Barnes and John Weed. A paddle from the Oregon border to the SF bay. Photo taken on 1/24/05 in Klamath, CA by John Weed
Northcoast. Paul McHugh offshore of Enderts Beach. Photo by John Weed.

As we paddled out over the Klamath River bar, and turned our course south to head away from the Yurok village at Requa we saw hillsides swathed in Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and coast redwoods soar up on our port side – just as they had on our route from Crescent City to the Klamath.

One thing was quite different, though. An element was smaller: the surf. Waves breaking across the bar were just a third the size they’d been two days earlier, when I’d spun over at the beach and snapped my new graphite paddle in half as we struggled to make landfall.

The Busted Paddle Blues

Golden Bear guarding the bridge above the Klamath River. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Golden Bear guarding the bridge above the Klamath River. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Now bandaged and splinted, that same paddle was in my hands as we slid past Oregos Rock, our boats scoring a boost from river current as we headed back to sea. The shaft flexed strangely in my hands as I dug deep to charge into the waves. Would my repair hold?

I crashed into the first swell, just to the left of John Weed, one of my two companions. Then crested over the second wave, and suddenly we were calmly afloat on an undulating Pacific below a cool grey sheet of high fog.

We’d made it through, but my paddle had seriously flunked its first test, and now made a droopy “U.” I broke it down the rest of the way and pulled my spare blade out from its spot under the deck straps to draft it into service. Bo Barnes, the other member of our expedition trio, arrived. Stroking in unison, we voyaged south along the verdant shore.

“This is the forest primeval…” I was murmuring that line from the Longfellow poem like a mantra as we went.

Along the Ancient Trees

Cathedral Groves. Ancient Redwoods. Photo by Paul McHugh
Cathedral Groves. Ancient Redwoods. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Among the sprawling slope of trees, dark and distinctive emerald spires of redwoods soared highest, as if straining to poke holes up into the veil of mist. Redwoods love cool sea fogs. Moisture combed from the sky drips from their needles to provide major summer precipitation, adding twenty inches or more to annual rainfall. This, I imagine, is a genuine Jurassic Park, a landscape from the age of the dinosaurs. We’re fortunate that it survives in modern times.

Coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) as a species are older than the Himalaya. In fact, they’re nine times older than this 20 million year-old strip of shore that became their final refuge. It’s only a patch on the grandeur they once displayed. To grasp that, imagine a scene like this one replicated around the entire globe.

A dozen species of redwood once formed much of the world’s forest cover, while the great Pangea land mass gradually broke up into continents. New mountains rose, ice sheets descended, and the last three redwood species were chased into regions with north-south aligned mountain ranges, where the trees could migrate, depending on climate. They escaped by moving, step-by-step (or seed-by-seed, if you prefer) to ground that most nearly resembled ancient areas where they had evolved.

Where blocked by east-west aligned ranges, they were eliminated.

Even in this Northern California stronghold, they almost didn’t make it – due to us, I’m afraid.

Before the European settlers arrived, this coast
had some 20 million acres of virgin redwood forests. Local Indian tribes who crafted their dugout canoes and plank houses from fallen logs and driftwood didn’t even make a dent in it. But once steel axes and saws, and then powered chainsaws came onto the scene, the pace of harvest really picked up.

A Refuge for Redwoods

September 12 Redwoods. Photo by Paul McHugh
Fogbound redwood spires viewed through a burned-out stump. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Redwood makes beautiful lumber, it’s soft and workable and stays resistant to insects and rot because of loads of tannin and aromatic phenols. It was harvested vigorously from 1850 onward. Today, just 3-4 percent of the virgin trees remain, saved in a few frantically designated parks and preserves.

Early on, it was seen as part of our commonwealth, but it was diverted into private hands through a variety of schemes and scams. There’s a pungent irony in the fact that our government, fleeced of its redwoods more than a century ago, had to spend more than $1 billion in public funds to buy parts of the region back.

To soften the impact on communities that had become dependent on robust levels of timber harvest, proponents of the new Redwood National Park promised a fresh stream of revenue would derive from upwards of a million park visitors per year. Tourists who wandered through the tall trees were expected to lavish cash on lodging, food, gas and souvenirs. But this notion only partially panned out.

During my first year as the Chronicle’s outdoor writer, 1985, I visited here by auto, and listened as park official Bob Belous lamented that half the park’s budget had to be spent on reforestation projects and erosion response, instead of visitor outreach.

“Our absolute first job was damage control,” Belous said. “Now, at least, we can put more into visitor service. I guess we’ll reach our goal of a million visitor-days per year within the next few years.”

But by the mid 1990’s, Redwood Park visitation had still barely attained half that number. And since then, it’s declined to around 400,000 in 2004.
(Author’s note: visitation finally crested the one million mark in 2014.)

Y’all Come Real Soon, Y’hear?

During one of my scouting and research drives for this voyage, I spoke to Rick Nolan, the park’s current chief of interpretation. He said he thinks this region lies just a few too many driving miles from the S.F. Bay Area and Sacramento (not to mention Greater L.A.) to be seen as a weekend destination.

“Legally, we’re not allowed to spend money marketing ourselves,” Nolan said. “All we can do is heal the forest, build visitor-serving facilities, create programs, and hope for the best. We do pass information on to the local chambers of commerce. They’re the ones who have to put out the message.”

All right, well, I will too. Here’s that message.

These redwood state and national parks on the North Coast possess all the grandeur of a Yosemite, except for the famous big rocks. Um, I take that back. Stand atop a vista point on the coast bluffs, or view them from sea level as we are doing, and you should find the local geology around here impressive enough.

Anyway, the forest biome features natural splendor in abundance. Yosemite’s tiny groves of another redwood species, the hardy mountain survivor Sequoia gigantea, may each extend a few hundred yards. But here, the russet colonnades of soaring redwoods go on for miles.

Besides that, in Yosemite it can easily take an hour to walk to anything like a wilderness experience. Here, a few minutes from most trailheads, you can wander into a natural cathedral where raven acolytes chant from the high lofts of limbs that sigh in cool ocean breeze.

The Ossagon Rocks

And as we are discovering on this voyage, the expanse of redwoods can also be appreciated from offshore.

Our marine scene also provides a few spectacles of its own. As I scouted near shore, Barnes and Weed swung outside a seam in the offshore current, where they drew close to a humpback whale and spotted pods of harbor porpoises.

Then we swung close to shore to take a gander at the Ossagon Rocks, also holy to the Yuroks, a natural Stonehenge of tall outcrops that jutted from sand at the north end of Gold Bluff Beach.

Our final vista of the day was a sprawling fleece of breakers at the mouth of Redwood Creek, near the town of Orick. From the National Park, we had purchased a special permit to camp at a spot called Hidden Beach on the creek’s north bank. But before we could pitch our tents, we had to manage landfall there. This prospect made me a bit nervous, given my harsh landing two days before on the Klamath bar.

“Well, guess I’m the test dummy,” I announced. I picked out a low swell and rode it all the way to the sand without incident. My companions also landed handily.

We had covered 21.4 miles in just over six hours, our best day of travel so far. We set up camp and cooked soup for dinner, as the seas mumbled and sighed onto the beach. Sunset light glowed on the landscape around us, reflecting from pale driftwood logs and tawny bluffs. As I sat in my tent to tap out this story on a keyboard, I heard my companions, a few yards away, picking out tunes on harmonica and guitar.

A Short History of the Salvation of Redwoods

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure

Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 12

Most large holdings in redwood country were put together via timber company manipulations of the Homestead Act (1862) and the Timber and Stone Act (1878). Commonly, settlers, laborers and sailors from coastal ports were paid nominal fees for acquiring their individual 160-acre patches, which were then linked up in huge swaths.

As the forests were sawn down, appeals were made to save major groves with parks in 1852 (by a California assemblyman), 1879 (a federal Secretary of the Interior), 1904 (Teddy Roosevelt) and 1908 (1,400 Eureka schoolchildren).

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Home to Roosevelt Elk. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Home to Roosevelt Elk. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Save-the-Redwoods League, formed in 1918, then rode to the rescue, helping to establish four state parks in the 1920’s. The federal government, prodded by the Sierra Club, finally swung into action in 1968, after the “tallest trees in the world” (upwards of 350 feet high) were located in a canyon of Redwood Creek. The first national park comprised 58,000 acres

But this long, skinny swatch of forest (nicknamed The Worm) was surrounded by steep hillsides where logging proceeded unabated. So, in 1978, a controversial park expansion took place. This, despite memorable protests that included a convoy of logging trucks driven to Washington D.C. carrying a log carved by chainsaws into the shape of a peanut.

The sardonic gift to President Carter was not accepted. Soon thereafter, 48,000 acres were added to the national park; 80 percent of which were logged-over acres in need of restoration.

In 1994, three state parks in the region (Jedediah Smith, Del Norte Redwoods, Prairie Creek) entered a joint operating agreement with the National Park Service.

The newest addition to the state parks is 25,000 acres of the Mill Creek drainage, an important, coho salmon-bearing tributary to the Smith River. It fills in a belt of park land to connect Smith and Del Norte parks. When that’s accomplished, Redwood National and State Parks will be a unified 130,000-acre preserve, a sixth the size of Yosemite National Park.

Discovering the Secret of Humboldt Bay

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 15

If your goal is performing coastal exploration, a classic square-rigged sailing ship constitutes rather a blunt instrument. Such vessels are clumsy to steer, prey to the whims of strong current, wind and wave, and naturally lacking in modern navigational aids like radar and GPS, which rendered them relatively blind amid periods of darkness or heavy fog.

Humboldt Bay Nautical Chart.
Humboldt Bay Nautical Chart.

So most early explorers of the Pacific Coast stood well off from shore while they sailed, drawing in close only if the prospect of swift escape seemed assured. Instead, they sought to probe the shoreline by prudently launching smaller boats or by landing recon parties. Consequently, the grand estuary of San Francisco Bay – concealed behind the narrow, mile-and-a-half wide, rocky throat of the Golden Gate – went undiscovered for more than two hundred years. Cabrillo (1542), Drake (1579), Ceremeño (1595) and Vizcaino (1602), all cruised right on by without noticing it.

A Concealed Lagoon

It went quite similarly with Humboldt Bay – which is technically a giant lagoon, not a bay. This large lobe of seawater, 24 square miles in size at high tide (half that at low) was hidden by a 14 mile-long stretch of grassy dunes, broken only by a shifting channel that in summers might close off entirely. This made it an excellent refuge for wildlife and tribes like the Wiyot who called it home. But also made it undectable to Drake, Vizcaino, Bering, Vancouver, and others who breezed past it.

The splendid isolation enjoyed by the Wiyots came to an abrupt end in June of 1806, when crew off the sea-otter hunting ship O’Cain, skippered by Jonathan Winship, pursued their quarry over the sandbars and into the lagoon.

The O’Cain was a 280-ton, three-masted ship, 93 feet in length, built in New England as part of a fleet the Winship family built to exploit the dawning Pacific trade opportunities. She was named for her first captain, Joseph O’Cain, who retired after his highly successful first voyage, and her helm was taken by the 26 year-old Jonathan Winship III, who’d learned all the ropes while serving as first mate.

Voyage of the O’Cain

O’Cain himself had proven on his first voyage there was a fortune to be made selling sea otter pelts from the Pacific Northwest over in China, where this luxuriant honey-hued fur was prized as fancy trim for robes and hats. The trick lay in hunting down sufficient numbers of these elusive critters to make a long trans-ocean voyage worthwhile. Captain Winship solved this problem by borrowing talent from the Russians. Specifically, talented Aleut kayak hunters and Sun’aq tribesmen from Kodiak. Russian colonists had pressed them into service, and transported them from their headquarters base of New Archangel at Sitka as far down as the southern terminus of Russian America, the base at Fort Ross (located on the California coast, northwest of Santa Rosa). Winship made a deal with the Russian governor in Sitka to borrow the hunters and their baidarkas (sealskin-clad kayaks), in return for supplies of bulk food, firearms and other needed equipment. The Russian colonies were so poorly supported by the mother country, this Yankee trader’s offer was one the governor could not refuse.

Historical map of San Francisco Bay. In Russian.
Historical map of San Francisco Bay area. In Russian.

And so it came to pass that the O’Cain took aboard a force of about a hundred native hunters, a dozen women, and three Russian managers, as well as their flotilla of baidarkas. Crammed with that manifest, as well as the ship’s original crew of 21 sailors and kanakas (Hawaiians), the small ship worked southward, eventually anchoring and making landfall at Trinidad harbor – the same place where our kayaker group would hike up to the Seascape restaurant for our sumptuous breakfast some 200 years later.

A Force of Native Hunters

Captain Winship then launched the baidarkas and hunters to scour the local waters. Just to the south, they finally spotted Humboldt Bay, entered it over the sandbars and set about harvesting otters. However, after a few days they noticed that the local tribesmen not only were making threatening noises but also starting to gather in large numbers – which appeared even more threatening. The savvy Winship called the harvest good enough, brought his men back aboard, weighed anchor and took off.

Antique Print, Russia, Sibera, Okhotsk Sea.But the bay’s secret had been uncovered, its isolation fatally breached, and the Wiyots would enjoy only a few more years of solitude and their traditional lifestyle. Dr. Josiah Gregg’s nearly disastrous overland expedition to the bay in 1849 produced additional measurements and observations for the use of prospective settlers. Fort Humboldt was established in 1853. By 1856 there were seven sawmills raising smoke and dust as they carved up more than 2 million board-feet in redwood logs per month from the coastal hills. Meanwhile farms, dairies and new townships began to sprawl across the flats.

The indigenous Wiyots now stood athwart the road of industrial progress, development and private property rights – all extremely alien concepts to them. And they would suffer accordingly.

Gateway to Another Wild Zone

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 22

Heard enough stuff about nasty wind and thundering surf?

Paul McHugh makes the easiest landing of the voyage at Bear Harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Paul McHugh makes the easiest landing of the voyage at Bear Harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

We certainly had heard about – as well as endured – a bit much of those forces, ourselves. Then, good ol’ Mom Nature pitched us a change-up. The Pacific Ocean lived down to its name for once, becoming transfigured into a plain plane of gleaming sapphire. Skies turned balmy and clear. Instead of another desperately long pull, we had a mere 11 miles to paddle to reach our next camp, Bear Harbor, at the north end of the Sinkyone Wilderness.

This good-news scenario let us sleep in past sunrise, enjoy a leisurely breakfast at Mario’s Marina Restaurant, and even indulge in getting a late start onto the water. Sheer bliss!

Fair Winds and Following Seas

The few marine miles that lay before us got whisked away below our hulls almost before we knew it. We hooked around a promontory of sea stacks and rode waves that were not much more than ripples to land on a smooth and sandy beach. Hiked our gear across a creek to a shaded, ferny glen that featured picnic tables and our choice of tent sites. Could it get any better than this?

Yes, indeed. Locals began to drop by, including the camp hosts from Needle Rock House, a few miles to the north. They brought snacks, smiles, and conversation. So the rest of our day consisted of sitting around, visiting pleasantly, and yacking our heads off.

A commercial fisherman hikes into camp to share his wisdom. Photo by Michael Maloney, San Francisco Chronicle
A commercial fisherman hikes into camp to share his wisdom. Photo by Michael Maloney, San Francisco Chronicle

One visitor was a former commercial fisherman named Frank, who had hiked all the way down from his house in Whale Gulch. We told him about the three winter-like gales that had hounded us on our route down the coast. “When you’re at sea,” Frank mused, “one of the few powers you have is the power to accept whatever the weather decides to throw at you.”

“So what about navigation, then?” I asked.

“Then you try to navigate.” He smiled. “Acceptance comes first.”

Something similar might be said of life.

A Ravaged Land Renewed

The region all about us had been feverishly worked by settlers from 1850 onward to harvest tanoak and timber. That labor was aided by the customary practice of sending small-gauge rail lines up the canyons, and building wharves and chutes onshore to slid fresh product out onto the waiting doghole schooners. Harvests were aggressive, and by the late 1800s most of the easily accessible acreage was played out. This didn’t keep 20th Century lumber companies from picking over the shreds. But since much of the holdings were now uneconomic, that also set the stage for creation of a state park and designation of wilderness, a process accomplished in the period 1975-1986.

Locals from the area drop by our camp for a visit. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Locals from the area drop by our camp for a visit. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Today, an experienced forester could look around out here and easily spot many signs of the former industrial exploitation, including a sparse, even-aged and relatively youthful forest. Yet the sheer power of nature to regenerate wildlife habitat if left unmolested for a few decades is little short of astonishing. For example, on the meadows that extend from Needle Rock house south to Bear Harbor, a reintroduced herd of Roosevelt elk is thriving.

So, something else this phenomenon can generate is a re-greening of hope.

Settler Life Before the Park

Two others we met at our Bear Harbor camp Saturday were David White, 55 and his wife Donna, 45, from Laytonville.

David White’s uncle, Ed Mathison, ran a sheep ranch here at Bear Harbor, 1954-1964. Clocked by the 1955 and 1964 floods, and weary of three-month bouts of enforced isolation every winter, the Mathisons eventually gave up on ranching. They sold the place to another guy who then sold this acreage to the state.

“Winters were nasty. Summers were great,” David White remembered. “It stayed cool here, when it got hot inland. So, 60-70 family members would gather out here every Fourth of July. Some would camp with us for weeks.

“We’d fish for salmon out of Shelter Cove, play horseshoes, tell stories around the campfires. It was a blast. I couldn’t come back a while. The old farmhouse was rotting, in shambles. Depressing. But then I began to remember the good times. Now we walk here a couple times a year.”

Memories can go back further. Up at the Needle Rock House, visitor center for the Sinkyone, campground hosts have photo albums to show what went on before the ranching. Bear Harbor was another “doghole” port, where schooners turned around in a cove like a dog making a bed in tall grass. Then a chute or cable was lowered to deliver roughsawn lumber. Off the boat went to San Francisco.

The old photos show a Bear Harbor that is an industrial zone, with a barren landscape and a 500 foot-long pier that helped ship away the trees that held the land together.

My First Trip Out Here

Nearly 32 years before undertaking this epic sea kayak voyage, I wandered as a young man into California in the summer of ’73. I had taken months to cross this nation on my motorcycle, searching for the place I wanted to live. After an all-night run from Vegas, I reached Morro Bay at sunrise. As I putted north along the coast highway, spellbound by watching rosy fan light out across the rugged landscape of Big Sur, the hook was set. Part of the allure for me was I hoped to be in a place where the nature’s realm still seemed worth fighting for. By which I mean, a place where I might enjoy the prospect of doing some good. By 1976, I was dwelling in Mendocino and trying to launch a career as an outdoors writer and documentary producer, specializing in stories about resource use, the environment, sport and adventure.

One of the first stories I ever researched, wrote and sold was focused on a ragged band of hippies who were spontaneously working without pay to haul old logging debris out of the Albion River, so that coho and king salmon, and steelhead trout, could ascend again to their ancestral waters and spawn. Those people and their steady labor differed so radically from the popular concept of hippies, that I felt fascinated, and could not resist writing about them.

The Needle Rock Gathering

A small herd of Roosevelt elk now lives in the Sinkyone Wilderness. Photo by Paul McHugh.
A small herd of Roosevelt elk now lives in the Sinkyone Wilderness. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Later in the 70s, I was tipped off about a gathering of more back-to-the-land types at Needle Rock House, then an abandoned ranch house on an unknown stretch of the Lost Coast. I drove and hiked up there. About a hundred folks stayed camped out around the place for several days. They held seminars and workshops on fighting for environmental protections and improvements by day, and played music and cooked food on the open hearth fireplace at night. I met many individuals who would later become leading figures in establishing parks and preserves and policies for improved forestry practices and stream protections on that trip. For me, the event provided large doses of motivation, insight and inspiration that would last me a lifetime.

So now, this current voyage had brought me circling back onto a green scene. Over preceding decades, I had written features continuously about this area, to boost the protection process, and to keep it and other relevant issues before the public eye. So it felt gratifying to see the profound changes for the best in the ‘hood after all these years. At the north end of 7,500 acres designated as a coastal wilderness, Needle Rock House had been refurbished, and now served as the area’s visitor center. To lounge in a nearby camp, casting my mind back over all this interesting history felt like it made for a lovely bit of quality time.

Losing the Lost Coast

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 27

Navigation does not deal in absolutes. It always must include some accommodation, a bit of adjustment.

In planning this voyage, I began by unfurling coastal charts on my living room table at home several months earlier, then making color-coded lines with ruler and protractor to figure out compass bearings and ideal travel schedules.

Next, I hit California coastal highways and byways to do some “ground-proofing” – scouting along the actual shoreline sites we would pass. As I did so, I entered some major waypoints on my mapping GPS device for later use. Back home and working on the charts once again, I calculated some bail-out points: spots where we could make emergency landings on shore if the weather turned bad, or the voyage otherwise didn’t run according to any of my plans.

So far, so good.

Highway One bends out to the coast south of Rockport. Photo by John Weed.
Highway One bends out to the coast south of Rockport. Photo by John Weed.

We’d covered about half of our planned 400 miles, and I’d not made too many mistakes. Sure, a trio of unseasonable gales had sucker-punched my original schedule, which had called for us to achieve a sedate average of about ten miles of paddling per day. We’d indeed attained that average, but only by holing up in various ports for days on end, and then making long, arduous sprints amid our few open windows of reasonable weather.

A Cause for Regret

However, I discovered on the day that we paddled away from the Sinkyone Wilderness that my absolute worst navigational choice had been made l-o-n-g before our boats had even been launched. See, I had invited a pair of expert sea kayakers (Weed and Barnes) to accompany me on the trip, so that we could together constitute a strong team, with redundancy in skill-sets. In order to show these guys all the respect they deserved, I voluntarily offered up a single over-arching operational principle for our entire trip: that I’d not necessarily be the one in command. That each of us owned a vote. Consequently, the pair of them acting together could, if they wished, outvote me.

But then they proceeded to do exactly that and… I must admit, I didn’t like it much. A night in the woods was taken away from me. You see, I love wilderness, and hope to soak in it or a good long while at every chance I get.

 Paddling along a last stretch of the Lost Coast near Usal Cove. Photo by John Weed.
Paddling along a last stretch of the Lost Coast near Usal Cove.

And on our voyage away from our camp at Little Jackass Creek, another chance cropped up at Usal Beach just a couple miles south, and a last chance appeared at Rockport Beach, a few miles south of that. The swell wasn’t bad, just four feet at eleven seconds, but Usal Beach was steep and none of us were in a mood to take any sort of pounding. However, the Rockport litoral was far more sloping and sheltered. It looked like an ideal spot for us to land, as well as a refuge where I could absorb my final dose of relatively untrammeled nature.

I proposed we land and set up camp. Weeds and Barnes combined forces to outvote me. They were eager to push on to Westport, a place where Highway 1 rejoined the coast, and the noise of cars and trucks on a road would intrude on the rhythmic crash of waves and the unsteady sigh of wind that had been for days our uninterrupted companions.

To my chagrin, I found that I’d been outvoted. And so, our team paddled onward.

Cape Vizcaino, a Maritime Outpost

September27-Cape Vizcaino, Paul McHugh Photo
The rugged, isolated and wild Cape Vizcaino and its cave. Photo by Paul McHugh.

I consoled myself with a long paddle through a sea cave at Cape Vizcaino. This rocky offshore promontory was named for an early explorer of this shore. Huge, flat, Isolated, abundantly frosted with guano and fringed by moss and mussels, the cape likely looks just as it did centuries ago, when the great captain sailed by.

As the miles passed and the highway drew nigh, we experienced a thinning of sunlight accompanied by a swelling of fog. Skeins of mist drifted steadily down out of that fogbank in a cool, light rain that gradually permeated everything we wore. Amid folds of that loose grey curtain draped above the sea, I picked out the end of Westport Beach, on the north side of Wages Creek. A month earlier, I’d made a reservation so we could use camping spots at the RV park here. We coasted in, landed.

I exited the cockpit and soggily squelched up to the front office to pay our fees. My money might’ve been damp, but it was accepted with alacrity.

Suddenly we were linked back up to 21st Century reality in the forms of functioning credit cards, plug-in electricity, available flush toilets, plus a snack-on-rack that was conveniently located right next to a cash register.

Camp at Westport Beach

Chilled and dampened by heavy fog, Paul McHugh lands at Westport Beach. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Chilled and dampened by heavy fog, Paul McHugh lands at Westport Beach. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Weed and I elected to camp as remotely as possible, on a sliver of beach located up on the north side of the creek. A stiff breeze had sprung up, and we tilted up a solitary picnic table as a windbreak, to keep the rainflies on our tents from fluttering. Barnes elected to camp further inland, where he would have nearer access to a payphone.

(NB: This was in 2005, but even then payphones were rapidly growing more rare. Good cell phone signals in these lightly populated parts were also sparse. And Barnes had mentioned that he had a couple of romances to juggle. Do I suspect this situation bore some influence on his vote not to stay at Rockport? That he maybe had to make a few calls to sort out his women? Nah…)

After brewing up soup for dinner, I sat cross-legged in my tent. There, with only the faint glow of a candle lantern to illuminate my laptop’s keyboard, I wrote another report to file for The Chronicle. That accomplished, I flopped over onto my sleeping bag and swam quickly into slumber

Beating Downwind to Fort Bragg

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.

Salvaging a Salmon Stream

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 20

The Mattole River, upstream view. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.
The Mattole River, upstream view. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.

My original plan, after rounding the rhino horn of Cape Mendocino, called for making landfall at the mouth of the Mattole River. The story posted just prior to this vividly explains why that was a no-go. Attempting it would have meant landing on a steep beach in the dark. So we camped near Hells Gate, about seven miles short of the goal.

Never mind. We’d arrived alive, and that always takes priority. We hunkered down, chatted with local ranchers, and actually attained permission to camp on the site for one more day. On Wednesday, we planned a 33-mile dash to Shelter Cove before a gale swept in.

My Trek to Find a Computer

But to file my story on the Cape, I had to find an internet link. Such things happen to be rather sparse in that neighborhood. So out I went onto the Mattole Road and began to hike down it in sandals – only footgear I possessed other than my wetsuit booties. I flip-flopped at least four miles, heading to the rural village of Petrolia, and became fully resigned to beating my foot arches flatter than tortillas. However, a kindly housepainter from Eureka drove up and gave me a lift in his van. Once on the outskirts of Petrolia, I went to the offices of the Mattole Restoration Council (MRC) to borrow a computer.

Also, I connected with Chris Larson, director of MRC, whom I’d met during earlier coastal research. After I sent my text to the Chronicle, Larson plopped me in his Subaru for a little educational tour. We took off for the river mouth. It felt odd to be riding in cars again, after so many hours spent paddling a slow-moving kayak.

Chris Larson, of the Mattole Restoration Council, at the river estuary. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.
Chris Larson, of the Mattole Restoration Council, at the river estuary. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.

High on an overlook, we gazed down at the estuary.

“Does seem it’s already turning winter around here,” Larson said, commenting on the weather trouble we’d encountered. “Fog’s in a different pattern, reaching higher elevations. Water in the estuary has cooled. Trees have begun to slow their transpiration (water uptake), which puts more water back in the creeks, even without a rain.”

Water temperature, flow, coolness – these are topics of concern for a man struggling to heal a once-rich salmon stream.

A River of Ruin

To an untrained eye, the Mattole’s estuary may appear healthy. It is not.

Take that jumbled knot of logs, not far from the estuary beach. Looks like a natural tangle, providing shade and cover. But it’s the result of a $50,000 human project, a product of the Mattole Salmon Group, an ally of the Mattole Restoration Council (MRC). It’s a Leggo logjam, built of epoxy, cables and chains, as well as old-growth redwood logs and rootballs tugged out of a coast highway landslide.

This small improvement is one of a galaxy of projects launched by the MRC and its allies.

Around 1920, the Mattole still gushed deep, clear and cold through 304 square miles of old-growth forests of fir and redwood. The river supported runs of steelhead trout, chinook and coho salmon, all thrashing upstream in such profusion that they spooked horses as their riders urged them to cross at river fords.

Wild salmon are a totemic presence on the North Coast. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Wild salmon are a totemic presence on the North Coast. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Environmental mayhem then made fish runs plunge to a few scant survivors – a tale repeated up and down the coast. But the Mattole had a plot twist, due to intervention by a few new settlers. One leader of the movement was Freeman House, 67, a man with a combed mane of lank white hair, and a gentle yet regal presence, whom I’d met on earlier visits to the region. His award-winning book, “Totem Salmon,” published six years ago, is luminous with description of what it takes to try to save a stream once nearly written-off by government agencies.

How to Wrestle a Salmon

House tells of gripping the thick muscle of a female salmon’s tail, and struggling to hang on amid the windswept uproar and rushing currents of a winter storm, the magical feel of stirring a cold bucket of freshly fertilized roe with his fingers.

Larson, 27, his hair completely dark (but receding), followed to snatch up the torch. He began as an intern with the group four years ago. After two years, he was invited to hop into the boss’ swivel chair at MRC’s office. Not that he gets to sit in it much.

“The first big part of our job is to protect old growth forest,” Larson said, “which has fallen to only about nine percent of the original. The other is to restore logged-over lands. But you also must work on lots of small parts, like how residents in this drainage use water, what happens along roads. A watershed gathers effects from many causes.”

The Mattole River is the first place where a crusade to start community-based salmon restoration occurred. It didn’t take long for participants to realize that achieving their goals with fish eventually would entail healing an entire watershed.

A History of Decline

Thrashing of the Mattole had been swift. After World War II, new bulldozers and early models of chainsaw enabled assaults on hillside forests. Local landowners, struggling to get by on sheep ranching, suddenly hit an economic boom by letting loggers harvest virgin stands of old-growth trees. Taxes on timber also discouraged them from letting the trees stand.

Health of the watershed paid the ultimate price. Soft and erodible Franciscan Formation geology and heavy winter rains caused landslides and collapsed logging roads. Great floods of 1955 and 1964 dumped unsecured soil wholesale into what had been a cold, deep stream.

“This estuary was once a 40 foot-deep holding area for arriving salmon, and for juveniles before they headed out to sea,” Larson says. “Now a wedge of sand and rock extends all the way upstream to Honeydew. Some estimate that area holds 80 million cubic yards of fill.”

To put that figure in perspective, it’s nearly 18 times the mass of Hoover Dam.

In summer, the estuary forms a deathtrap for young salmonids, as sunlight heats the shallow water to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and hotter. Upstream, once-loose spawning gravels have been cemented into a damp sidewalk.

A Tale of Determined Hope

When Freeman House arrived here in 1978, part of the back-to-the-land movement, he bore a deep love and fascination for salmon from seven years as a commercial angler. Officials from the state Department of Fish and Game told House the Mattole was doomed as a salmon stream. But the fledgling group refused to accept it. By the early 1980s, a ragamuffin cadre of earnest volunteers harvested the paltry run of upstream migrants for the living gold of their eggs, thus ensuring continuation of the runs for another season.

Chris Larson inspects a road culvert that doubles as a fish ladder, enabling salmon to enter a creek. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.
Chris Larson inspects a road culvert that doubles as a fish ladder, enabling salmon to enter a creek. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.

Their outfit, the Mattole Watershed Salmon Support Group, continued its work with other projects, such as rearing ponds for juvenile salmonids. Meanwhile, in 1984, the Mattole Restoration Council was founded to try to address larger conservation issues in the watershed

From the start, there had been deep cultural divides between back-to-the-land “hippies” and the old guard, descendants of the area’s first Anglo settlers. That rancor was worsened by conflicts like the “Redwood Summer” demonstrations of 1990, that brought in a fresh influx of obstreperous outsiders.

But gradually, House said, newcomers learned to, “value those things about the watershed that the ranchers and loggers already knew. Also, some old guys who just discounted us as a big mob of welfare cheats, they’ve died off. Things are friendlier, and there’s more mutual acceptance. Younger inhabitants are better educated. They’ve grown up with us being around.”

The MRC now occupies a sizeable suite of offices in Petrolia, has a $1.3 million annual budget (half spent on contract restoration work in the drainage) two full-time and 15 part-time employees — which expands to 90 workers in the summer, as heavy equipment operators and hand laborers set about controlling erosion and fixing the forest. Ironically, MRC is now the valley’s biggest employer.

You can paint the struggle by numbers. Fifty years ago, the estimated spawning runs in the Mattole were 10,000 chinook salmon and 4,000 coho. By 1980, runs had plunged to 3,000 Chinook and just a trace of coho. Despite all the volunteer work, there were only 200 total spawners counted in 1990. But had it not been for the work, they might have vanished entirely.

Finally, numbers began to resurrect: 1,000 in 1996; then 3,000 chinook and 1,500 coho in 2004.

Though there remain occasional disagreements about specific measures, the state Fish and Game, and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management became valued allies and full partners in restoring the watershed.

Critics Following Suit

A rancher I spoke with during my research, Joe Zanone, who runs cattle near Cape Mendocino, says that in his opinion the MRC, “mainly, milks their position for everything they can get. But in general, they seem to be a force for good in the Mattole. They’ve learned to get along with us ranchers okay. With loggers, though, they’ve made things a lot harder than they need to be.”

However, Zanone and a few other landowners agreed to join in a project that sounds like the sincerest form of flattery. They’ve formed a group called the Bear River Restoration Council, to work on problems in the next major drainage to the north. They hope to improve instream conditions, and bring steelhead trout and salmon back to their ancestral home.

Our First Paddle Marathon

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 14

A half-day spent performing any sport is a bit much. You’d need to have true aficion – to use a Hemingway term – to play at it much longer than that. And I must say, hitting a total of more than nine hours of holding the same posture in a kayak cockpit while making stroke after stroke with your paddle would task the composure of any Zen master.

Michael Maloney gets afloat off Trinidad. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Michael Maloney gets afloat off Trinidad. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Our day began auspiciously enough, when we awakened in the calm shelter of College Cove, packed up in leisurely fashion, then paddled around Trinidad Head. We landed on another calm and protected beach, and proceeded to snarf up a full-on, carbo-load, total pig-out breakfast at the Seascape Restaurant, an aptly named and locally owned joint perched just above that beach. We were even joined by Chronicle photographer Michael Maloney, who had borrowed an old plastic whitewater kayak to paddle out a short way with us to snap a few additional shots from sea level.

Bloated on eggs, waffles, sausages and whatnot, we next wedged ourselves into our kayak cockpits, and re-launched at the hugely indulgent hour of 11 a.m. But, see, we only planned to paddle 7.5 miles on that day, crossing the bar of the Mad River and finding a campsite just inside its estuary.

Man proposes, God disposes – as my old religion teachers used to intone.

Big, Bad Breakers on the Mad River Bar

Paul McHugh decides the Mad River bar is no-go. Photo by John Weed.
Paul McHugh decides the Mad River bar is no-go. Photo by John Weed.

Once we were out and away from the shelter of Trinidad Head, we found that Poseidon was intent on landing another aquatic artillery barrage on another set of sandbars. According to my handheld weather radio, the day’s swell had supposedly dropped off, it now was only coming in four feet high at an interval of fifteen seconds. Yet it still produced a mighty thunder and rows of foam in a series of breaks at the mouth of the Mad. I studied the pattern they made, and announced that I’d determined a safe way in that could be won by zigging a series of surf rides back and forth.

My companions reacted to my proposal with utter scorn. Yeah, they said, but they’d listened to the same radio broadcast I had. They reminded me: waves and wind both were soon due to jump back up. It was all very well to get in over the bar today, but what about getting back out tomorrow? Waves any bigger than these, shoved by strong winds, would steepen fast, and be strong enough to pitch-pole our boats (smack them over end-for-end) when we attempted to paddle back out. This would not only scatter us and our gear in a maritime yard sale, the impacts could dislocate shoulders and so forth.

Forced into a Marathon

I admitted their remarks held both force and logic. However, I dreaded what our only alternative had to be: making a very late start on a paddle of 28 total miles down the coast and in to shelter at the Port of Eureka inside Humboldt Bay.

However it was our best option. Therefore, we had to do it.

Cruising past the mill at Samoa on the way to Humboldt Bay. Photo by John Weed.
Cruising past the mill at Samoa on the way to Humboldt Bay. Photo by John Weed.

I remember very little of our long approach to Humboldt, just the mind-numbing boredom of seeking for interminable hours to close in on and pass the great steaming stacks of the mill near the beach at Samoa. But I do recall entering the jetty-lined channel just as dark fell, surfing the swells that humped up and swept in at our sterns, and feeling a jolt of pleasure at discovering that we also were riding a flood tide into the Bay – without planning for that eventuality at all. It was just one of those moments when good fortune happened to befall us.

The Risks of Darkness

Camp at Woodley Island, Humboldt Bay. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F.Chronicle.
Camp at Woodley Island, Humboldt Bay. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F.Chronicle.

But we still needed to keep from getting run over by other traffic in the dark. I remember jury-rigging for safe night paddling amid this harbor’s boats and ships by sticking a white diver’s flashlight under the straps of my deck bag, while John Weed turned a red headlamp backwards on his hat. And then I vaguely recall following the lit screen of my mapping GPS to the east shore of Woodley Island, clambering out on the docks at 8 p.m., and barely having enough amperes of energy to pitch my tent and drag out my sleeping gear. Falling asleep that night was one of the easy moves I’ve ever made in my life.

In the Sea Lions’ Lair

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 13, 2005

Paul McHugh selecting a moment to launch from Hidden Beach. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle
Paul McHugh selecting a moment to launch from Hidden Beach. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.

Our launch off Hidden Beach was a study in patience. Onshore wind seemed weak, but the northwest swell was mighty, a robust ten feet high at a seventeen-second interval, similar to the pile-driving waves that had drilled me into sands of the Klamath Bar. Luckily, this beach’s lateral angle and the buffer of Redwood Creek’s offshore sandbars meant that the full power of that swell wasn’t being delivered here straight on, but more obliquely. That gave us a fighting chance to achieve a safe launch.

All one needed to do was drag the kayak to the high water mark of the last wave of a big set, jump in and snap the spray skirt on in a nautical equivalent of a Le Mans-style start, use the backwash of that wave to launch into a smaller set, and paddle like hell before the next big set arrived. If your timing was good, it was a piece of cake. (One must admit that, in kayaking, the line between a piece of cake and a piece of caca often seems rather thin.)

But in this instance, we all did well.

The Shifty Pacific

A heuristic for ocean kayaking grew in my awareness over course of this voyage. It runs as follows: the Pacific can change during every half-hour, and over the course of each half-mile. This navigational axiom comes geared up with corollaries. First, if conditions look bad, just wait. (Also true if conditions look good!) Another is, the best-laid plans of any navigator constitute, at optimum, some sort of mild and tiny suggestion to our cosmos. To insist on paddling your plan after a situation turns unwelcoming is like painting a bullseye around your rectum, then afixing a “Kick Me Hard!” Post-It to a lumbar vertebra.

Actually I’d planned this Tuesday as a short outing that ran just a few miles south to Big Lagoon. I figured we’d accomplish another beach landing, then go through the lagoon’s calm waters to a county park at the south end – where we possessed reservations – and camp in relative comfort. Perhaps even, I fantasized, we could fish for our dinner in the lagoon itself.

Ha.

It was not to be. That northwest swell dropped full frontal impact on the barrier beach of the lagoon. Hydraulic explosions ensued that flung gouts of spume into the sky with considerable enthusiasm. It only took about a two-second consultation with my companions to determine that we would skip trying to land on this beach. Instead, we’d paddle straight on to the next days’ finish line, the sheltered College Cove at Trinidad State Beach, where I’d also secured special permission to camp. This meant polishing off a route of some eighteen miles, but there was literally no sane alternative to attempting that.

Sea Lion Central Station

A graceful brown pelican soars over the shore. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle
A graceful brown pelican soars over the shore. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle

But soon I found we had an early pay-off. The zone between the Patrick’s Point headland and Trinidad Head was loaded with sea stacks – tall offshore rocks, some the size of small islands – that dissipated most of the power of the swell, while also providing shoreline condos for abundant sea life. We observed flights of brown pelicans and black cormorants, surf scoter ducks and marbled murrelets, even a pink-legged oystercatcher or two.  I threaded the rocks further inside than my companions, and found that zone formed a home for mob after mob of Steller sea lions, most hauled out on rock ledges, and many barking their one-note aria in an endless, unyielding cacophony.

Ork! Ork! Ork! Ork Ork! Ork! Ork! Ork! Ork! Ork… !

“Right, these dudes love to chat, they’re trying to express themselves,” I told John Weed. “I get that. But why’s it have to be always the same syllable? Think they’d try to invent a new one, after a few thousand years…”

We rounded Omenoku Point and rode swells into the cove. Here lay welcome shelter from wind and wave, crowned by a long and level arc of fluffy sand. As I approached my landing, I felt lulled into carelessness, jammed my paddle blade into the sand at an awkward angle while the weighty kayak glided in and a sudden twist of the shaft ripped open water-softened skin on my fingers. Damn! Hadn’t seen that coming. And with many more paddle days to come, it would likely not prove an easy wound to heal.

May I Borrow Some Water?

As a camp, this cove left a few things to be desired. Yes, we had a range of great places to pitch a tent, but as far as advantages were concerned, that was it. Since we’d grown rather low on drinking water, I volunteered to forage. Toting my biggest MSR bladder, I hiked up a trail, through the woods and out of a park. Finally I came to a suburban house and rapped on the door. No response. But I did spot a garden hose. Preparing a voluble array of excuses in my mind – all ready for me to spew out at the drop of a, “Hey you!” — I filled my bladder from the hose.

Impromptu beach concert. Trinidad Head. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.
Impromptu beach concert. Trinidad Head. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.

I was even prepared to offer the homeowners money, should they return. But no one appeared. So I thought, no harm, no foul, as I walked away with my sack of fresh H2O.

And back at camp, John Weed strummed guitar chords into the gathering night. I believe the tune was, “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” a perennial favorite. Barnes and I joined in on mouth harp.

Harvests of a Harbor Town

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 29

When three major timber companies Georgia-Pacific, Louisiana-Pacific and Masonite all yanked up stakes and fled Northern California, they left behind the sprawling, scrofulous fuzz of logged-over timber land, debris-clogged streams, idle lumber mills, idle loggers and idle mill-workers. As well as fuming local environmentalists. The groups were highly pissed-off, though for somewhat varying reasons.

G-P also left behind the legacy of a polluted yet potentially precious swath real estate where its mill once stood, a site on ocean bluffs at the west side of Fort Bragg. After G-P’s departure, there followed a  period of intense remedial effort, with its outcome yet hanging in the balance. If that acreage can be successfully cleansed, then tastefully developed, Fort Bragg may yet find itself reborn as a coastal tourism garden spot, a refuge to rival the allure of Mendocino to the south.

At the Caito Fisheries dock, workers unload groundfish from the icy hold of the trawler.
One of the few commercial “drag” boats still working out of Fort Bragg. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Another site, rich in history, local lore, and a chance for clever re-development is Noyo Harbor, the long estuary of the Noyo River. Here, on placid, dock-wreathed waters, Fort Bragg’s venerable commercial fishing industry seems to hang on by the fin-tips.

Smack-down of the Mosquito Fleet

When the Caitos — a San Francisco-based, Italian family — opened a fish-processing building on Noyo land they in 1975, a visitor could almost walk across the harbor on decks of boats tied up alongside one another during the vibrant months of salmon harvest. The working watercraft moored here numbered in the hundreds.

“Now, there’s probably only about 20 dedicated salmon boats that work out of Noyo,” Jim Caito told me. “Though a few guys from other ports come here once the season opens.”

Sunset fans color out over the entrance channel to Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg. Photo by Michael Maloney. S.F. Chronicle.
Sunset fans color out over the entrance channel to Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

The big problem commercial anglers faced was how long it took northern waters to open in 2005. Their season had been cut back to almost nothing. Salmon trollers couldn’t fish near Point Arena until July 4, or waters around Fort Bragg until September. Spring and summer had been utterly taken away. The key cause: that epic kill of adult spawning salmon and juvenile salmon on the Klamath River in 2002. That had been due to Bush Administration water policies that levered the profits of upstream farm irrigators far above every other consideration.

This imperiled survival of the Klamath runs. Hundreds of thousands of salmon from other streams, like the Sacramento, were swimming offshore, but fishermen couldn’t chase them. They had to ensure enough Klamath River fish remained uncaught to offer a bare minimum of 35,000 spawners a chance to return to the Klamath.

The fate of salmon has always been a subject of great interest to me. Not simply because I love to eat them – which I do! But also because I believe – along with many Native American tribes – that when our shared land and sea no longer stay ecologically healthy enough to support robust salmon runs, then a hard time for humankind is also drawing nigh.

Plus, I greatly admire those hardy, sun-burnt, brine-wrinkled, citizen seamen who crew and skipper the Mosquito Fleet. Usually, on small salmon boats, the ship’s whole complement consists of two men: a cap’n and the “puller.” (Calling the assistant a puller goes back more than a century, when he a guy working the oars, while the skipper was an eminence who could claim ownership of a twelve-foot dory.)

In their heyday Mosquito Fleeters operated small, double-ended wooden vessels of the venerable Monterey type, powered by muttering small-bore diesels that at full throttle might possibly achieve a speed of six knots. Even hit seven or eight, but only in the face of an emergency, such as an approaching storm or a severe lack of beer. These little boats were adept at navigating near-shore waters and using infinitesimal coves for shelter. Where some skill at such maneuvers was demonstrated by the doghole schooners of old, these pups excelled.

However, limited supplies of fish-bin ice chips and fuel they could tote meant Mosquito Fleet voyages tended to only last a few days. Consequently, skippers were forced to be shrewd about when, where and how they pursued salmon. Tight pals in the Mosquito Fleet would tell each other about current hot catch zones using code words broadcast over highly customized CB radios they called their “Mickey-Mouse” network. For instance, extremely large salmon were dubbed “suitcases”; if they were so busy fishing that they had to run the boat on auto-pilot, then “Iron Mike” would be steering; and if they puffed away on high-potency marijuana buds before figuring out where to fish next, they were deploying the “secret weapon.”

The trollers were rough-and-tumble, independent souls, fiercely devoted to their way of life and the health of the fishery that sustained them. When I lived in Mendocino, I enjoyed walking down to the cove that nestled in a curve of the headlands to watch their cluster of white anchor lights sway in a gentle swell as the blue dark of nightfall thickened on the sea.

Northern California Coastal Fishing Harbor. Photo by D.A. Levy.
Northern California Coastal Fishing Harbor. Photo by D.A. Levy.

When these guys showed up at California political meetings or public hearings that had to do with the health of rivers, restoration of salmon, or any matters of that ilk, they always made their points with high passion coupled with an amazing amount of scientific expertise.

But in the early 2000’s, they just could not seem to make themselves heard in Washington, D.C.

During the 2002 election, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) posed for a photo op with Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agricultural Secretary Ann Veneman as they yanked a wheel to run water back into irrigation canals serving Klamath Basin potato farmers. Shortly after, Indians along the lower Klamath were horrified by the “salmon holocaust” as 80,000 venerated adult salmon died in low, tepid, parasite-laden water, the mere trickle that had been released downstream. Uncountable juvenile, out-migrating salmon perished as well. Impacts of this event reverberated for years, and hit struggling ports like Noyo particularly hard in 2005, a year when those dead juveniles could have been finning around offshore as hefty, shimmering adults. The remaining North Coast salmon fishermen claimed an estimated $100 million loss for the 2005 season.

Urchin Fishermen Need to Show Spine

Across the harbor from the Caitos’ big, red fish processing building stands a big white building the Juntz brothers built for processing sea urchins. Bob Juntz, 47, seems like a pretty nice guy. He told us that if we needed another place to stay, we’d be welcome to haul our kayaks out on an old skid ramp on his property, then make camp next to an outdoor picnic table used for snacks and lunches by his employees. The reason he could offer that to us was that he didn’t have many employees eating out there anymore.

Bob Juntz is an Oakland native who went off to Oral Roberts University to earn a degree in New Testament theology. He was all set to be a preacher, but then veered off into work with an L.A.-area health food chain run by his college roomie. His younger brother Vernon and Bob sought local recreation by fishing with poles offshore. Then they realized learning scuba diving would enable them to hunt for fish, instead of waiting around for them to bite.

Roe, Roe, Roe Your Boat

Sea urchins are unloaded from the fishing boat "Chilly Willy." Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Francisco Chronicle
Sea urchins are unloaded from the fishing boat “Chilly Willy.” Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Francisco Chronicle.

After they became accomplished undersea hunters, diver scuttlebutt clued the Juntz brothers in to money that could be made in the then-dawning sea urchin fishery. This had begun in Southern California in 1971, but seriously took off after 1981, when 25 million pounds of whole urchins were landed. Their spines and shells were unusable, of course. But a custardy substance within each urchin was literally golden. This orange-yellow goo was called roe; but it actually was the critters’ gonads, or sex organs. The Japanese called it “uni,” and they paid top dollar to have it flown fresh and chilled across the Pacific to roll up in their sushi.

Then warm water of the 1982-1983 El Nino period put the kibosh on the Southern California urchin fishery. All eyes — including those of the Juntz brothers — turned to Northern California. The fishery up here was miniscule in the 1970s, but hit 1.9 million pounds of landings in 1985 and ballooned to 30.5 million pounds by 1988. The gold rush was on, and the Juntz boys were smack in the middle of it. They arrived in Noyo in 1984 with a 22-foot fiberglass boat, and began to dive on “blackout reefs” so thick with urchin you had to be careful where you touched the bottom.

They swiftly upgraded to a 34-foot boat, but lost it when an allegedly drunken pilot wrecked her on the Point Cabrillo reef. They then decided they’d do best if they quit diving personally, to concentrate on processing and wholesaling.

“We were in the right place at the right time to turn it into a huge business,” Bob Juntz recalls. “Demand for our product was just starting to peak, and we were pouncing on a virgin resource.”

Otters dine on sea urchins along California's coast.
Otters dine on sea urchins along California’s coast.

Their divers brought in up to 30,000 pounds per day. The Juntzes did well enough to buy a processing building right on the Point Arena waterfront in 1987, then the old Grader Fish Co. buildings on the north shore of Noyo in 1991. When the Grader facility burned down ten years later, they rolled with the punch. They trucked their employees down to their Point Arena unit, while they rebuilt in Fort Bragg with a big, new, white plant.

However,  nearly a decade later, a bunch of air has whistled out of the urchin economic balloon. The Japanese appetite for uni has fallen. What remains is being fed by a new supply from coastal Russia. Kelp forests, which supply urchins with food, have declined near Fort Bragg. New regulations keep the boats tied up more days per week. Many urchin boats have sailed back down south, where conditions are easier and stocks have improved.

Now the gleaming equipment sits idle more often than not. Juntz turns it all on just a few days a week, then processes half or less the roe he did back in the urchin heyday.

“It’s bad if your floor stays dry in a fish plant,” Bob Juntz jokes. “Don’t really want to see that.”

He pins some hope on a rise in domestic demand for uni, and a shift in Fish and Game regulations that could allow Northern California dive boats to voyage out more often if weather is good. But he’s also negotiating with the local Fish and Game personnel to lease his building and use it for their offices. Meanwhile, he keeps his morale and spirits up returning to his New Testament roots and attending services at the Foursquare Gospel Church.

Trawling Can Be a Drag

Across the harbor, Jim Caito sees his floor get wet a bit more often.

“We didn’t participate in the urchin boom,” Caito says. “Didn’t know much about it. We decided to stay with what we knew, work on crab and salmon and ground fish. That’s been shown to be a smart decision.”

Their Noyo operation is run by Jim, together with brothers Joe, John and sister Jenette. This particular set of Caitos has never owned any vessels themselves. Their living is made by processing a haul from 20 local groundfish trawlers, as well as about 35 crab boats and the 35 salmon trollers or so that remain in the harbor’s Mosquito Fleet.

Such diversification, Jim Caito says, “Is all that keeps us going.”

A small but steady, year-round flow of groundfish makes it possible for him to keep a processing crew on the floor all year. Then in winter, he ramps up to handle the harvest of male Dungeness crab. And generally, that season blends into the commercial salmon season — though there was a large-ish gap this year.

“Groundfish keep us alive. We usually make money off of crab. And if there’s a good salmon season, well, then we enjoy a great year,” Caito says.

A crewman sorts through the catch on a trawler in Noyo Harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
A crewman sorts through the catch on a trawler in Noyo Harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

However, overall decline of this commercial port still has him worried. Support businesses, like Noyo’s ice plant and fuel dock, are either on the block or threatening to shut down. Should that happen, the Caitos will need to get creative, like using their delivery van to bring block ice up from Modesto, crush it and then blow it into the holds of their client boats so the catch can be iced. Or coax fuel trucks down to the docks to gas up an array of boats simultaneously.

Another concern is the supply of fit, feisty and determined fishermen.

“People who run these boats, they’re an aging population,” Caito says. “Don’t see many young people get into the business. Look at the cost of operations and permits, hard and sometimes risky work, as well as uncertain harvests, and you can see why. But after these old-timers go, who will keep the fishing happening?”

Independent adventurers, prowling the open sea to take a living directly from the wild may be American archetypes, but they’re also an endangered species.

And current national policies, ranging from that water fiasco on the Klamath, to attempts to count hatchery fish the same as wild salmon, to the Bush administration’s recent announcement of support for a massive rise in industrial fish farming, can seem like a concerted effort to drive the last of these independent commercial fishermen into oblivion.

However, “I’m an optimist by nature,” Caito says. “Sure, we can only catch what’s out there. But everything goes in cycles. When conditions improve, then our catch can go up. As long as regulations keep pace.”

“Groundfish do seem to be coming back now,” says Juntz. “If can they fix it for salmon on the Klamath, that will go quite a way to helping things out here in Fort Bragg. The big key for any operator is to keep your debt and overhead low, put your head down, then try to get through. It’s a matter of how long you can hang on.”

Skipper of the Storm Bringer

Similar points are made by Carroll Johnson, 53, skipper of the Storm Bringer. He invited us aboard his 56-foot, steel-hulled trawler, or “drag boat.” Johnson has fished since he was 9, when his dad taught him. He bought his first vessel at age 19.

Skipper Carroll Johnson says there can be a “real glory” to the fishing life. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Skipper Carroll Johnson says there can be a “real glory” to the fishing life. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Johnson concedes “the ocean got hurt” in the 1980s, when government policies put too many trawlers on the water. A policy reversal, which cut the force of 90 trawlers on the West Coast by a third with a buyout, reduced the pressure, and conservation zones helped species rebound.

“I took that buyout. After a year, I had to buy back in,” Johnson said. “Discovered I’d taken this life for granted. Missed having a boat to check on. I love the freedom and beauty of this coast. I like to drift with the nets when the wind blows. Never had a boss over me. Now I know I can’t have one.”

“Fishing restrictions worked,” Johnson says. “Give Ma Nature half a chance, and she’ll produce. Our level of fish now is awesome. The ocean is rich. We’re coming off two of the best crab seasons ever.”

He also says, “We do need to get young guys involved. College of the Redwoods should offer a class. Skippers should be more willing to give greenhorn kids a chance. If all a kid hears is ‘no’ around the docks, he’ll give up.

“Wives don’t like this life much. It can be hard. But there’s a real glory to it.”

Please Lend a Hand, or Get Out of Our Way

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 4 

No, it doesn't exactly "bustle." Rush hour in downtown Point Arena. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
No, it doesn’t exactly “bustle.” Rush hour in downtown Point Arena. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Some people wander into the magnificent landscape of the North Coast as trust-fund vagabonds, some purposefully drive up as leisure-seekers fueled by bulging retirement accounts, a few are billionaires who  choose to slum in the countryside. But if you arrive as an ordinary joe, a simple working man or woman seeking to settle here while trying to earn a living, you’ll wind up wearing many hats – usually, more than one at a time.

So it was with Mitch McFarland. He not only managed the pier and harbor, he worked construction jobs he came across around town, and also ran his parent’s horse-breeding ranch on the mesa to the south. Plus, he’s performed formal and informal roles in local politics – a necessity in a town that holds only 500 citizens or so.

“We built up to a majority of what you might call Greens on our city council,” he told me, “even before Arcata did!” (Arcata being a famous enclave of hippy, back-to-the-land, and alternative technology types in a college town just north of Eureka.)

Forging a Fresh Alliance

“It was back in the late 1970s when us newcomers and the old-timers really got to know each other. We gradually found out that the rednecks and the hippies basically all came here for a similar reason, which was to stay self-reliant and to be left alone. Once the old-timers realized we were ready, willing and able to pick up that torch, we got along pretty well.”

It’s a classic way to forge a true community: Do what you must to take care of yourselves.

Service with a smile, at the Inwood Credit Union in Point Arena. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Service with a smile, at the Inwood Credit Union in Point Arena. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

In the eclectic community of Point Arena, a highly diverse array of players signed on for urban renewal, even Indians from a nearby reservation. After salvation projects for the lighthouse and the wharf got going, this impromptu alliance turned its attention to another dilapidated treasure: the 1920’s vintage downtown theater. By the early 80s, it had declined into a shabby, leaky box. After the big storms of ’83 ripped stucco off its west wall, sunlight leaked in past the main movie screen as liberally as rain leaked down through the roof. So the old John Wayne westerns that were the theater’s usual fare often had their images blotted out by desert heat mirages – whether that fit into the plot or not.

After this tottering structure was finally condemned, the family owning it suddenly roused themselves and displayed a clear desire to get out from under it. No shock there, eh?

Abracadabra! – A Derelict Becomes a Jewel

Seeing then seizing this opportunity, locals formed a non-profit corporation dubbed The Arena Renaissance Company, and its six principals cobbled together $390,000. They acquired the property in 1986. Not much was left to pay for reconstruction, but a ton of ready and willing energy from local volunteers was already on tap.

Two big players in the building’s reboot were Leslie Jones, an actress and alumna of the South Coast Repetory Theatre in Newport Beach, and Peter Reimuller, a local activist and entrepreneur. Reimuller and she had been students together way back when at U.C. Riverside. Over the intervening years, he says, “I kept her phone number in my little black book.” They teamed up again in Point Arena, and threw themselves into the work. She generated outreach and publicity, he managed design and construction.

Point Arena mayor Leslie Dahlhoff provides volunteer labor to restore a town building for the new credit union. Photo courtesy of Leslie Dahlhoff
Point Arena mayor Leslie Dahlhoff provides volunteer labor to restore a town building for the new credit union. Photo courtesy of Leslie Dahlhoff

They scraped that old box right down to its bones. Then they gave it some new bones, as well as muscle, skin, and make-up. A steel I-beam was put up to secured a new proscenium, local carpenters installed premium woodwork, copper ceiling tiles were hand-painted, refurbished theater seats were bolted to new hardwood floors. After a decade of effort, the old vaudeville stage and movie palace re-opened to great fanfare to showcase a new sci-fi feature, “Contact,” starring Jodie Foster. That debut has been followed by a years of a full menu of films and prestigious live acts, including blues god Charlie Musselwhite, the Dave Brubeck quartet, and singer/raconteur Utah Phillips.

It’s unusual for a town of 517 people to even possess a theater. It’s astounding to see one with a tidy art deco facade and ticket kiosk, a snack bar that’s a carpentry jewel box. Besides a big screen, there’s a dance floor for town celebrations and boogies, as well as a compact stage for the live shows.

Jones said, “What’s been amazing about our town is that when something on main street begins to look derelict, we decided to build something new, and it just comes roaring back like a phoenix. Utah Phillips told us from the stage that we should all feel proud, and I guess that’s true.”

But the town did not rest on Utah’s laurel wreath.

Need a Bank? Build One!

Another local problem had been the lack of a bank in town, or even a functioning ATM. Bank of America had yanked its branch from Point Arena a decade earlier. Its replacement, WestAmerica Bank, pulled its branch in 2003. Then the town was finally able to lure a credit union to open by purchasing another dilapidated building on main street, rehabilitating it thoroughly, and offering it as an office. Inwood Credit Union, based in Oakland, took Point Arena up on the deal.

Beatrice Brown, a potential new branch manager for Inwood, said her boss asked her if she’d be willing to make a move. “I came up to check it out, and thought Point Arena was just beautiful, so we rented a house and moved up. Now I love breathing fresh air, hearing the birds, being able to go out at night and see the stars – all of them! People are so friendly, if I’m out standing in my yard, everyone who drives by waves to me.”

Within a year, the branch had 619 members from the region and over six million dollars in deposits.  On the wall of the branch office is posted an intriguing photo of Point Arena’s mayor, Leslie Dahlhoff, wearing tattered work clothes and dust mask, crawling beneath the floor joists of the building as its reconstruction neared completion amid an epic, last-minute push. That image intrigued me, and made me wish to chat with the major.

Coffee with the Mayor

Early Tuesday morning, I took a hot shower at the fishermen’s bathroom on the wharf and buttoned on some items from my scant stash of clean clothes. As sun peeked over a ridge, I walked a mile up Port Road at the Dahlhoffs’ house. I rang her up the day before, and she’d invited me to come over this morning for coffee.

A modest house located on a town side street, the home of Mayor Leslie and her husband Eric is distinguished by Leslie’s intricate stained glass decorations, and a living room full of musical instruments, including a keyboard, piano, guitar and silver flute.

Mayor Dahlhoff and husband Eric make lovely music together at their home in Point Arena.
Mayor Dahlhoff and husband Eric make lovely music together at their home in Point Arena. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Leslie, 49, and Eric, 48, are immigrants to Point Arena, but swiftly adopted it as their home town. They met in the dawning high-tech neighborhood of the Bay Area, married in 1982, came up to the North Coast for their honeymoon. They decided that they desired to have many future honeymoons up this way. They quit their jobs and sold everything to make the move in 1989.

Down in crowded, Greater Bay Area, Leslie said, she’d had a feeling many development issues were beyond control, rocketing along at an incredible pace. Open space would simply vanish, apparently without much citizen input.

“When we moved,” she told me, “I just knew I needed to participate, try to have some effect on our community and our future.”

Over coffee, she explained further. “I got books on community planning from the bookmobile, and those seeds fell on good soil. I was in the right place at the right time. When I saw our town didn’t even have a general plan, in 1992, I helped organize groups to form one.

“You can’t be depressed about possibilities, when you take a say in what happens,” Dahlhoff said. “There’s never nothing you can do.”

And Now, Let’s Make a Library

For a further example of Point Arena’s can-do spirit, the town’s Mercantile store locked its doors in 1996. With goods still stocking the shelves, the place bid fair to become a mere ghost town exhibit, like the dusty pioneer shops of Bodie.

But those cobwebs were swept away in 2004 by another ad hoc civic group, The Friends of Coast Community Library. When formed in 1990, their original assets consisted of three boxes of books in the basement of a local church. But they proceeded to raise an astonishing $440,000 through coffees, bake sales, dances, dinner parties and bequests. They bought that Mercantile building and funded its restoration without a mortgage.

The new, volunteer-run Point Arena library is a major hang-out for both youth and adults.
The new, volunteer-run Point Arena library is a major hang-out for both youth and adults. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Peter Reimuller explained to me why he involved himself in this project, too. “In a place where getting everything done relies on networking, a good reputation becomes your most valuable possession. I just could not let that library be built in the store without letting our community know I also planned to participate.”

Now, a huge pot-bellied stove radiates warmth beside the old Mercantile safe, the old store display cases are being revamped for a museum nook, there’s a dollar shelf for recycled books, and six computers wired up to the Internet.

It’s become an after-school “hang” for the town’s youth, and adults as well. A conference room and table in front stays open for free use; a bridge club takes frequent advantage.

The place has just one, full-time, paid librarian. But around fifty volunteers make sure it stays open for more hours than any other public library in all of Mendocino County.

My Special Source of Mission Support

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 1

It’s been said that behind every successful man is a great woman.

However, I’d say that’s dead wrong.

If a man happens to win the good fortune of staying connected to a great woman, she’ll radiate her being out around him in every conceivable direction. Front, back, top, bottom and all sides, sometimes in ways and manners you’ll not even begin to perceive, let alone appreciate, until years after.

Skill at great nurture is like that.

Before the start – Paul McHugh at home prior to drive to the Winchuck
Before the start – Paul McHugh at home prior to drive to the Winchuck. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

Regardless of what Saint Paul (or the epistle writers who claimed to be him) might’ve been right or wrong about in other respects, he (or they) hit the nail on the head like a journeyman carpenter bashing a 16d sinker into a top plate with a 24 oz. framing hammer when he (or they) crafted the following lines: “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous, love is not boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Now, that’s truly speaking with the tongue of angels.

Up to the Winchuck with My Gal

And it makes a fine way for me to intro my paean to the astonishing level of support provided for this voyage by my partner and wife, Dawn E. Garcia.

It even started two months before we launched on that foggy morning from the mouth of the Winchuck River.

Now she wears two hats – Dawn Garcia embraces her husband Paul McHugh before the trip begins. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Francisco Chronicle.
Now she wears two hats – Dawn Garcia embraces her husband Paul McHugh before the trip begins. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

While I unrolled charts on our dining room table and began drafting possible course lines with a ruler and protractor, Dawn was in the kitchen stuffing sliced vegetables into a humming dehydrator. She knew that dried soup mixes would constitute most of my provisions, and she wanted to make sure I got enough fiber, minerals and vitamins. So she purchased a dehydrator, loaded it with organic veggies, and produced a buffet of Ziplocs crammed with broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, etc. etc… each proudly labeled with Sharpie drawings of little cartoon hearts.

Weed and McHugh paddle away from the Mendocino Headlands through surging seas. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Weed and McHugh paddle away from the Mendocino Headlands through surging seas. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Though logistics of this trip demanded I leave her alone at home for more than a month as I paddled south, she never complained about that. Instead, she threw herself into helping move all the gear, plus me and my companions up the coast, gave me a sweet and heartfelt send-off at the Winchuck, then drove home alone. She maintained a mood of stout optimism, even though long periods went by when she got no phone contact from me whatsoever, days when she knew I was struggling to face down hazards like scampering through gales, trying to land in harsh zones like the Klamath River bar or Cape Mendocino, or pull off that ultra-marathon paddle to Shelter Cove.

A Meet-up Near Mendocino

Finally, mid-voyage, we managed to conjure a conjugal visit. That was supposed to occur right after Weed and I arrived in Albion. However that didn’t go according to plan.

Stan Halvorsen leads us into Albion in flag-flapping style. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Stan Halvorsen leads us into Albion in flag-flapping style. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

After we paddled away from our sumptuous repast on Portagee Beach in Mendocino, Weed and I tipsily traveled through fog and surging seas to Albion. Here, as we rounded Albion Head, we spotted the cheery sight of Stan from the Lost Coast Rowing Club out in the channel, afloat in a Gordy Nash Whitehall dory with a big U.S. flag flapping from his mast. He’d come to escort us in, and he made a splendid show of it. We cruised in under the classic wooden bridge for Highway One, built atop Tinkertoy towers made of stout redwood timbers, and went up the estuary past Schooner’s Landing – where I’d planned to camp – to a second campground Stan knew well and vastly preferred. Well, he had taken the trouble to escort us in, so who was I to quibble?

A Tale of Two Campgrounds

John Weed always found a way to keep himself comfortable and entertained in camp. Photo by John Weed.
John Weed always found a way to keep himself comfortable and entertained in camp. Photo by John Weed.

Here we pitched tents, and I set about trying to complete my rendezvous with Dawn. I had told her to meet me at the campground, but did not specify which, not knowing there were two. Assuming she’d try Schooner’s Landing first, I borrowed Stan’s rowboat – just to be afloat in a different craft, for a change of pace – and rowed back out the estuary, calling her name. No answer. So I rowed back to camp, hopped out, and decided I should hike up out of the harbor and go to the Albion River Inn to check at the front desk. That was our fallback plan for communications, that we would leave notes for each other at the desk. (Cell phone signals were quite spotty along the North Coast in 2005 – and haven’t improved greatly since then.)

We’d made landfall at dusk, and since it was now early October, night was coming on fast. I strode up the estuary road to the house of the campground host, and asked him to drive me up to the Albion River Inn. He agreed, and we set off through the gate and up the road, where I saw walking all by herself in the gloaming, a woman carrying a blackberry pie that had been baked for me… my wife. She’d parked at Schooner’s Landing and been hiking around in the darkness and calling out my name, but hearing no reply except for the barks of distant dogs.

Needless to say, our reunion was joyful, though a few tears of sudden relief misted its start.

I transferred to Dawn’s red Subaru Forester and we motored up the road to a room she’d booked overlooking the sea. We admired the last scrap of sunset light, I took the first hot shower I’d savored since Shelter Cove, more than a week earlier. I ate a slice of pie – which she’d made from berries picked from bushes up on the shores of the Winchuck. And then we proceeded to enjoy the rest of our visit. I went away the next day with one bit of special knowledge reinforced in my mind: I had someone wonderful I could go home to. That made me feel even more determined to reach San Francisco promptly on time.

Just two-and-a-half more weeks of paddling (plus stints of reporting and writing) lay ahead.

Kayaking: A Pounding At The Bar

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure

Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 10

The gale blew itself out by midnight Friday, though we could still hear rain spatter on the roof of the steel building on Whaler Island where we’d taken refuge. Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio and www.weatherunderground.com, Bo Barnes’ favorite Web site, forecast falling winds and a reduced swell for Saturday.

So we rose at 5:30 a.m., gobbled a simple breakfast, then packed our boats under patchy fog and a light drizzle.

For the first time, I elected to wear my surfer’s full wetsuit as the day’s paddling garment for its extra warmth. Seven hours later, as we crashed across the Klamath River bar, I would be mighty glad I’d worn it.

The paddlers take a measure of gale-force winds on the jetty at Crescent City. Photo by Michael Maloney, S. F. Chronicle.
The paddlers take a measure of gale-force winds on the jetty at Crescent City. Photo by Michael Maloney, S. F. Chronicle.

A few miles south of Crescent City, we cruised past Nickel Creek. Then began the wildest stretch of shore imaginable: steep ramparts, with soaring, sea-washed monoliths, crowned by a dark green band of primal forest and wreathed with mist.

“That coast looks just as it did a thousand years ago,” I told John Weed. “Or two thousand years. Just about forever, anyhow.”

Weed nodded and grinned. “It’s what I love,” he said.

Our course of 150 degrees lined us up with The Sisters, a pair of massive sea stacks (offshore rocks), then the distant, fogbound Requa Overlook at the mouth of the Klamath River. So I didn’t even bother to switch on the GPS, just held to my bearing on the deck compass as those big rocks played hide and seek through banks of drifting sea mist.

Aftermath of Gale Winds

One thing worried me. The groundswell, thickened and invigorated by Friday’s gale winds, still coursed under our hulls to explode against those steep coastal bluffs. If it didn’t subside by time we made landfall, we could be in for a beating.

The Sisters drew steadily closer. But it sure didn’t seem that way.

“Those rocks have been only half an hour away from us for about two hours now,” Weed observed.

That’s the way it is with sea kayak voyages. If patience is a virtue, long-distance paddling must be its top school.

In the lee of the seaward Sister, we found a slick patch of water, sheltered from both the swell and wind chop, so I suggested we pause for snacks and raft up (lay the kayaks side-by-side for enhanced stability — a trick used since the heyday of the ancient Aleut paddlers, sometimes even to pass an entire night at sea).

After we resumed travel southward, Barnes felt moved to glance over his shoulder and saw a 7-foot wall of foam tumble through a rocky slot near where we had lunched. It was a warning shot across our sterns. That swell was not diminishing. We guessed it to be staying in the 9- to 10-foot range.

More beautiful stretches of wild shore slid by to port. But they commanded less and less attention. I can’t speak for the others, but my brain grew quite busy concocting scenarios for our landing at the Klamath River bar, and coming up with reminders about techniques for maneuvering in harsh surf.

False Klamath Cove

At False Klamath Cove — where Jedediah Smith’s expedition had first reached the Pacific Ocean in 1828, I swung in to scout a possible emergency landing site at the Wilson Creek bridge. That site looked tough, but do-able. With it as a bail-out option, we continued on course, around the final headland to the Klamath.

Long “V’s” of brown pelicans soared overhead, winging north. But they did not descend to glide in the troughs of the waves as they usually do — perhaps they did not like these wind-roughened big lumps any more than we.

We passed huge sea caves, marked by arched bands of purple rock, much like the Highway 101 tunnel into Marin County. Then there was an immense cliff, also faced with purple. We turned the corner, and sighted Oregos (Orr-RAY-gahs), the signature rock, sacred to the Yurok tribe, that stands sentinel at the mouth of the Klamath River.

“And now, for the piece de resistance,” Barnes said.

My mouth was dry. I kept taking small sips of water from the tube of my hydration pack.

The bluffs blocked the full impact of the north west swell, but not by much; the biggest waves were still wrapping in. Slowly, keeping a weather eye to sea, we sidled toward the beach and bar that blocked the river mouth, studying the explosions of foam ahead. It was one of those times when you feel supremely grateful to be paddling with experts; we positioned our kayaks and read the swell and noted each other’s body language in communication that was nearly telepathic.

John Weed paddles out against surf breaking on the Klamath bar." Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle
John Weed paddles out against surf breaking on the Klamath bar.” Photo by Michael Maloney, S. F. Chronicle.

Eventually, we were committed. We now had to pick the smaller swells to snatch rides on, in between sets of monsters. Weed went first, angling left. Barnes and I picked the same instant to go, seconds later. Then I had to concentrate fully on my own fate.

Our go-decision had been reasonable. I paddled furiously on the back of a small swell, casting one glance back over my shoulder. Now, there was motivation: Big waves were approaching. My bow touched sand. Yay!

But glee turned to horror as I felt my kayak being sucked backward by a potent undertow. I couldn’t stop from turning sideways. The curl of the next breaker reared up, amber-shaded by a load of sand sucked off the bottom.

I tried to brace into it, but the water was already rotating so hard the paddle blade was knocked over my head, and I and the boat were “window-shaded” (spun over) in a heartbeat; because my heart was pounding fairly hard, that means: very fast.

Dangerous, Difficult Shore Landing

I flinched, expecting my head and shoulders to bash into sand, but I spun clear in deep water — which shows how steep that beach actually was. However, I did feel a strong shock in my hands. When I tried to position for a roll, I discovered I had only half a paddle — its new carbon graphite shaft had snapped in two.

The Klamath River bar is a steep and dangerous bank of sand." Photo by Paul McHugh
The Klamath River bar is a steep and dangerous bank of sand.” Photo by Paul McHugh.

Time to get out. I couldn’t find the grab loop for my spray skirt, so I just pressed against the foot pegs and kicked free. My head came up into a maelstrom of foam. I grabbed the kayak cockpit rim with both hands and held it hard against my stomach. The next wave hit and drove the boat and me up on the beach. The undertow then sought to drag us out again. I dug in my heels and forced the hull down into gravel and sand. It stopped moving. Looked over my shoulder. Uh-oh. Big ‘un mounding up.

Kablam! Buried in turbulence and foam, the boat and I shot higher on the beach. This time, the cockpit was crammed with sand, small rocks and seawater, so the boat was easier to stabilize.

I saw Barnes, landed fully upright and in control just 30 yards away. I looked down the beach. There was Weed, on shore and already pumping water out of his boat. We had made it. However, my situation could do with some improvement.

Barnes vaulted from his cockpit, ran to my side, helped me turn the boat and drag it up. Every foot improved my clearance from those grabby seas.

We turned my kayak over, spilled out gallons of water, dragged it higher.

“Look for my paddle!” I yelled to him, as I wrestled with the boat.

“I see it!” Barnes ran into the wave wash and came back out with a piece of shaft and blade.

Well, we were home, though it had involved expense for me. Barnes had by far the most remarkable landing, involving a bow ender (the kayak standing on its nose in the sand) followed by a pirouette and three hard braces. My landing won only a distant third place.

Oh well. “Arrive alive” is goal No. 1. That, we had accomplished.

Barnes said. “In my 30 years of paddling, that was the most dangerous and difficult shore landing ever.”

Village by the Sea

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 30

Dark and early at 6 a.m., John Weed and I rolled from our sleeping bags in the waterfront shack of the Lost Coast Rowing Club that had provided us with a welcome refuge. Then we strolled outdoors and gazed out to sea through the Noyo harbor channel to read our proximate future.

Delights of Mendocino

Winter swells breaking on the bar outside Noyo Harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Winter swells breaking on the bar outside Noyo Harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Stout seas crashed heavily on the bar outside the channel’s rock jetties. These were major winter swells, nine feet high, whacking up huge piles of roiling foam. I rubbed my chin. Our hope was to be able to paddle south to Mendocino, land in a cove known to locals as Portagee Beach and eat lunch there, next head on down to the Albion River estuary, where Weed and I would camp. (Our expedition trio had been whittled down to a duo; Bo Barnes had left our trip to drive to the bay and deal with politics around a long-term project of his: the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail.)

But would prevailing conditions even allow Weed and I to exit the harbor? We watched fishing boats thrash their way out to sea. The skippers cannily picked a course vectoring to the northwest, which actually did seem to get them past the worst of the breakers. Looked like that might work for us, too, especially as a rising tide began to soften the swell.

So at 9 a.m., the Noyo rowers Dusty Dillon and Stan Halvorsen escorted us out, using their club’s classic Whitehall dory. Chronicle photographer Michael Maloney came aboard with them to snap a few photos as we paddled off.

Breaking News at Sea

Once beyond the breaker line, Weed and I “rafted up” – which meant clamping our kayak hulls together, to form a stable catamaran – and I hauled out my cell phone out of a waterproof case to perform a live radio interview with a station in Texas that had been curious about our voyage. That was fun, but I had to bring the live, on-air chat to an abrupt end as the swell drove us in rather too close to the shoreline cliffs. Otherwise, my sign-off from that show might’ve turned a bit too dramatic…

 Paul McHugh stroking along near the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Paul McHugh stroking along near the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. Photo by John Weed.

We resumed paddling to Mendocino, providing ourselves with a wide and healthy buffer zone between our boats and the shore. Still, we scored a fine view of the Point Cabrillo lighthouse, one of the great restored navigational fixtures on the coast. What I like best about Cabrillo is that its classic Fresnel lens, with its many prisms designed to focus and concentrate light beams, stands in a cupola fairly close to the ground, where it glitters like an immense gem on a sunny day.

The Cabrillo light was a familiar and welcoming sight for me, since I lived in this area for many years, a few decades prior to this voyage. Another welcome sight was the mesa occupied by the town of Mendocino itself, which now hove into view off our bows.

But Don’t Call It Quaint

Paddling home – Paul McHugh rounding the Mendocino Headlands. Photo by John Weed.
Paddling home – Paul McHugh rounding the Mendocino Headlands. Photo by John Weed.

Mendocino was founded in the 1850s as a port for the harvesters of coastal redwoods. Soon this broad mesa above Big River found itself decorated with Victorian chalets for timber executives and shacks for their serfs. Sawmills steamed away on the flats below. The rocky bluff above Portagee Beach held a chute that scooted lumber down to the decks of doghole schooners for transport to San Francisco.

Now, 160 years and many preservation battles later, Mendocino has won considerable renown as a movie-set-ready “quaint” coastal village. But don’t ever let the locals ever hear you say that adjective aloud; it always makes them wince, and it promptly will label you as an outsider. “Murder, She Wrote,” was filmed here, as well as too many movies and commercials to mention. The town regularly serves as a major getaway for romantic weekends for visitors from the greater Bay Area – and even from the East Coast and Europe.

But before it vaulted up again in both population and popularity, Mendocino needed to be re-discovered and re-vamped. After the initial timber boom, the town had doddered and subsided into a kind of genteel decay. Then its tarnished charms were recognized and cherished by sculptor and potter Bill Zacha who breezed up here in 1958 to found the Art Center. After that the town slowly began to flourish as a kind of Carmel North. In the 1960s, hippies followed the artists here; then in the 1970s, back-to-the-landers arrived, in a kind of third wave of counter-culture.

All of these immigrants found common cause by joining in a battle that enabled preservation of the town’s unique character.  Timber giant Boise-Cascade once owned much of the headlands, which were part of the real estate holdings bequeathed by an earlier logging firm. The corporation schemed to monetize this asset by developing an airstrip and condos in the 1960s. Artist Emmy Lou Packard and retiree Mildred Benioff led concerned locals who fought Boise to a standstill. The land became a state park in 1973. And ever since, locals have reined-in those who would over-exploit this village by the sea.

I made the scene not long after that initial struggle.

“Mendo,” My Alma Mater

In a series of small rooms, cabins and garrets in Mendocino and environs, from 1976 to 1983, I labored on a clattering electric typewriter, launching my career as a writer who focused on outdoor sport, resource use, environment, and adventure themes.

For recreation and exercise, I would also launch my plastic whitewater kayak off the beach. I taught myself to deal with ocean waves, even surf them, then spent many awestruck hours exploring sea caves and rock formations in the area. Those small expeditions constituted a precursor to this grand voyage, if you like.

To garner some warmth and social support amid foggy evenings (or even if it was not foggy), I’d commonly drop by major hangouts in town, such as The Well, The Casper Inn (we called it The Casbah), Toad Hall, The Oasis in Elk, and Mendocino’s premier B&B inn and bar, MacCallum House – which locals dubbed, “The Mac House.”

Now, some thirty years after my major Mendo heyday, going back there felt nearly like paddling home to me, as Weed and I rounded the headlands.  I’d wanted to treat Weed with a taste of my former digs, so before we left Noyo and Fort Bragg, I phoned up The Mac House and asked the staff to please prepare a couple of gourmet bag lunches. After we landed on the beach, I planned to jog up the bluff trail, go to the Mac and snag the bags and tote them back down for a picnic.

Picture my astonishment when we finally made a turn into calmer waters of the cove, and we beheld a table with a white tablecloth, covered dishes, and some men wearing white jackets standing nearby on the sand.

“Hey. Somebody holding a wedding down there?” John Weed wondered aloud.

Nope.

Paul McHugh makes landfall on Portagee Beach. Photo by John Weed.
Paul McHugh makes landfall on Portagee Beach. Photo by John Weed.

As we landed, I recognized the three people who were standing by the table: the two young owners of the MacCallum House Inn and Restaurant, Jed Ayers and Noah Sheppard, as well as the inn’s chef, Alan Kantor. They had put the kibosh on my modest scheme for bag lunches! They had decided to cater a four-course meal, bring it down and serve it to us right on the beach.

I felt equal amounts of disbelief and delight as they hauled Champagne out of silver ice bucket to pop the cork. Then we sat down to tuck into a fabulous lunch of broiled oysters, radicchio salad, wild mushroom risotto and duck confit. With a chocolate and macadamia nut torte and a few glasses of hearty red for dessert.

“You guys are awesome,” Sheppard enthused. “We’ve been closely following all your stories. We wanted to do something nice for you guys.”

Mission accomplished, I’d say.

The Mac House Saga

Sheppard, Ayers and Kantor were busily writing a fresh chapter in Mendocino lore. They felt determined to shape a future of the region’s tourism and visitation business for the better.

A surprise gourmet dinner, courtesy of MacCallum House. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
A surprise gourmet dinner, courtesy of MacCallum House. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

For young male locals to try to make it good in town as business professionals is as significant as it is unusual. Many youth here succumb to the lure of easy money that can be made by growing marijuana in the “Emerald Triangle” (of Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties). Others fall prey to the scourge of methamphetamine production and use.

But though they are as local as can be, Sheppard and Ayers seem to be of a far different breed.

Sheppard, 32, vibrant and dark-haired, sprang from an international romance. His mom, a Briton named Tinley Kent, met his dad, American traveler Gary Sheppard, in Bangalore, India, where Noah was born. By his second birthday, he was living at a commune called Table Mountain near Mendocino, where he grew up.

Ayers, 31, slimmer and sandy-haired, had musicians and teachers for parents. He was raised on an apple farm near Sheppard’s commune. At age 10, he toted apples and handpicked berries to sell to Kantor at a restaurant near Albion, a town south of Mendocino. Sheppard worked there as a dishwasher. The kids became friends.

A Different Breed

Mendocino in the 1970s and 1980s was not an easy place to grow up. Substance abuse was rife. Glassy-eyed kids were a common sight, shambling down Mendocino’s narrow streets, or sprawled on sidewalks and benches. How did Ayers and Sheppard escape? Both Kent and Kantor told me that even as boys, they focused on hard work.

They played sports such as track and football at Mendocino High School, with Ayers lettering in three sports, Sheppard in two. Ayers paid for a business degree at Sonoma State by running his own auto-detailing business at a fancy inn, earned a master’s in business administration at San Francisco State, then plunged into the Bay Area’s high-tech boom of the 1990s. Meanwhile, Sheppard learned construction and built his first house at age 20. Soon, he was buying distressed structures, fixing them up for sale.

Each generation forges its own rituals. For many youth in Mendocino, a traditional Thanksgiving meant having dinner with their families, but then driving into town to Dick’s Place, a classic old mainstreet bar that had once been popular with the loggers, for a little hang-out time with their pals.

Sheppard and Ayers hooked up again at Dicks’s Place in 2000. There they plotted to join forces on a new and intriguing project. The Mac House was up for sale. What if they tried to buy it?

Daisy’s Dreamhouse Renewed

 Noah Sheppard and Jed Ayers on the lawn at the MacCallum House inn. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Noah Sheppard and Jed Ayers on the lawn at the MacCallum House inn. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

This three-story Victorian with all the fancy, gingerbread trim outside and virgin redwood paneling inside was built near the center of old-town Mendocino as a wedding gift for Daisy Kelly MacCallum in  1882, by her timber baron dad. She died there, aged 94, in 1953. Her son Donald — who had lived with her and served as her chauffer — followed her into the grave in 1960.

The mansion sat empty and idle until Susan Carrell Norris and her husband snatched it up in 1974, and turned it into a West Coast version of New England’s ski area “pensions” — homey, European-style lodges. The MacCallum House became a trail-blazing entry in California’s bed-and-breakfast trend. The effort was boosted immeasurably Daisy’s legacy of antiques: sleigh beds, claw-footed tubs, brass fixtures, Morris chairs and Tiffany lamps.

“The Mac” remained a boisterous center of Mendocino life until Norris sold it in 1985. Then it entered a period of long, slow decline. Ayers and Sheppard scooped it up for $2.35 million in 2003. They celebrated with a barbecue for the whole town on the front lawn. With Shepherd’s construction skills and Ayer’s marketing savvy, they have restored the whole place to pre-eminence — and added luxury suites on a hill above and launched a limo wine tour into the bargain.

As I chomped away on that delicious lunch, I asked them how it all was going. Mac House occupancy 10 years ago had dipped below 37 percent.

“We’ve raised it up to 76 or 80 percent this month,” Sheppard said. “Five percent above last year. We’ve just had two articles on us in the Wine Spectator. It’s great.”

They concede that they’ve collided – at times with great force – into the town’s preservationist ethic. Locals have objected to sights and sounds of wedding event tents on the Mac’s lawn. Others complained when the duo sought to buy and transfer Art Center rights to artist housing units, so they could use a hillside property for more visitor lodging. There has long been abundant concern about the town’s housing shifting to vacation rentals of all types, crowding out residents.

“Actually, we did a study. Now it’s going the other way,” Ayers said. “More people are buying up vacation rentals and moving in.

“But the economic future of this town lies in serving visitors. We’ve created 85 jobs. We bring hundreds of thousands of dollars into this community each month,” he said. “We’re locals who’ve learned how to make a good and legit living here.”

Red and Purple sea urchins in California's coastal waters.
Red and Purple sea urchins growing on California’s coastal reefs are targeted by California’s recreational and commercial fisheries.

Weed and I thanked our hosts effusively, wiped our lips with ironed linen napkins, and launched off the beach. We were feeling a bit tipsy from the barrage of beverages, but not so much we were liable to tip over. Which was lucky, because while we’d dined, the fog had grown heavy, wind had come up. And we had six more rugged sea miles to navigate before we’d be able to make landfall in another estuary and pitch our tents in Albion.

A Peaceful Town’s Turbulent Past

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 22

A mesa pokes out from the west side of the Coast Range like an end table shoved up against the rumpled heap of all those steep coastal ridges. The level tabletop stands 140 feet above the sea, and its southern escarpment shields about five acres of ocean surface from northerly current, as well as prevailing northwest winds and seas. This topography reveals Shelter Cove’s name as perfectly apt.

NCOAST_SHELTERCOVE_157_MJM.jpg The kayakers head out past fishing boats moored in Shelter Cove. Today's paddle took the kayakers a short 9 miles from Shelter Cove to Bear Harbor in the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. Rediscovering California's North Coast. A kayak voyage by Paul McHugh, Bo Barnes and John Weed. A paddle from the Oregon border to the SF bay. Photo taken on 9/24/05 in Shelter Cove, CA by Michael Maloney / San Francisco Chronicle
The breakwater at Shelter Cove is much easier to see by day. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

The Sinkyone coastal tribe built a large village up here on the mesa. Likely, they used the natural harbor below the mesa’s 138 foot-high bluff for shellfish gathering, angling and other traditional pastimes. But on the North Coast of California, it all came to an end in the usual way.

In 1860, a government surveyor pronounced the mesa ripe for settlement and development. In 1884, timbermen built a wharf out into the cove and commenced chopping down trees and loading redwood lumber onto doghole schooners to supply San Francisco. Then, in 1889, a settler decided he wanted to run cattle on meadows in the region. It’s said a crew of white men from Fort Bragg sailed north, climbed the hills, and annihilated the last Sinkyone to fully subtract them from the landscape.

Given various other nefarious exploits of the settlers of Fort Bragg, this history doesn’t seem implausible.

A Long and Winding Road Out

The local coast was then cleared for rampant and robust settlement, accelerating well into the 20th Century. However the flat mesa remains encircled by steep and highly erosive hillsides. This situation prompted California’s highway planners to route highway 101 many miles to the east, and not bring coast highway 1 out there at all. Even now, the main road access to the village remains a narrow, two-lane track that writhes like an addled viper from Redway to Shelter Cove – a route that demands a great deal of patience to drive.

So the town is isolated between two long, relatively wild stretches of shore, the one to the south designated as the Sinkyone Wilderness, and that to the north, the Lost Coast. Consequently, much natural beauty remains preserved. The area’s tranquil and slow pace of life generates considerable appeal for a breed of people who prize such qualities above all else.

The Mario Machi Saga

In the 1930s, three young Italians answered to that description. They were Mario, Tony and Babe Machi, fishermen down in the San Francisco Bay Area. They loved spending their summers up in this remote village at the edge of the sea. In fact, when Mario went off to fight in the Pacific in World War II, got captured in the Philippines, was forced onto the Bataan Death March, then endured the notorious Bilibid POW camp, he says visions and memories of Shelter Cove gave him a degree of hope and kept him alive.

John Weed at the status of Mario Machi. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
John Weed at the statue of Mario Machi. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Mario Machi eventually returned to work as a teacher and school bus driver in a town over on Highway 101, so he could afford to buy his own patch of earth in Shelter Cove. That accomplished, he and his brothers moved there and cranked up a modest business renting rubber rafts to fishermen, selling bait, and operating a lodge. Mario passed away in 1999, but his family and their local involvement in local business endure. “Mario’s Marina Restaurant” up on the mesa is where I went to buy hot dinners for my fellow voyagers in 2005.

After the Machis revived this place as a harbor for recreational anglers and Mosquito Fleet sailors (small boat salmon fishermen) Shelter Cove ceased being a sliver of the Lost Coast and became a hunk of the Somewhat Found Coast. That discovery process accelerated in the 1960’s when a bunch of Southern California developers got their mitts on 5,000 acres of steep hillsides and flats, put in 40 miles of subdivision roads, carved it up into 4,400 lots and began to sell, sell and sell.

Developers on Crack

That process established Shelter Cove as a legal town. It also saddled Humboldt County with a problem. Half the lots were on ground so steep, nothing could be built. People bought them anyway, sight unseen – or at least, site unanalyzed.

Richard Culp, manager of the present Resort Improvement District, says. “Developers chopped this place into the smallest sites they could get away with, then got out of town.” Culp’s special services district now tries to organize home and business owners on the 500 best lots to establish reliable water, electricity and sewage, and bring new homeowners gradually into the fold as they figure out ways to get structures built.

Culp says it’s tough. “Some houses being built now, where slopes approach the 30-degree slope limit, are ‘mineshaft homes,’ vertical things on deep pilings. Some lots were so erodable they’re now nothing but airspace. At Black Sand Beach, some sites are just a two-inch water pipe sticking sideways out of the ground.”

A local becomes a big fan of the crew and our voyage. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
A local becomes a big fan of the crew and our voyage. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

As I strolled around Shelter Cove, I could see a current boom had made real estate signs crop up like mushrooms after a rain. Also, it’s led to some unbuildable lots being recycled through Internet scams.

Eric Goldsmith, of the local Sanctuary Forest land trust, told me. “People see this beautiful property on Ebay for an amazing price. They jump at it. Then they find out it’s unbuildable, stop paying taxes. The county gets it for back taxes. That lot goes to auction. Then, the cycle begins anew.

“The county scores back taxes from the sale, auctioneers get their cut and real estate agents get theirs,” Goldsmith said. “No one wants to grab the bull by the horns. Taking unbuildable lots off the market would be very expensive and difficult.”

Culp says the county tax collector probably considers this hassle as far more trouble than it’s worth. He thinks a serious and pricy topographic study that finally splits the good lots away from the bad, could also yank a deep thorn from the town’s side.

Then building an enduring community on stable land could occur at a methodical pace.

Reinhabiting the Landscape

“Shelter Cove is wonderful, magical,” Goldsmith said. “We can cluster building in the flat area, instead of dispersing it. Once they get a handle on sensible land-use planning, residents can establish a real sense of community.”

Who are the people now finding this refuge on the Lost Coast?

Would-be rock concert impresario Jake Weaver. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Would-be rock concert impresario Jake Weaver. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

One is Jake Weaver, 26, a waiter at Mario’s Marina Restaurant. A lover of jam rock music (Phish, String Cheese, The Dead), Weaver moved here from Colorado in July, rents a small cabin, and is waiting tables until he can launch his career as a music impresario by bringing a rock and reggae concert to the cove.

“I’ve always wanted to live in California. This state has the country’s most progressive mentality,” Weaver told me. We sat on a picnic table outside the restaurant, under a dome of pale blue sky. “I picked Shelter Cove because of its wealth of natural amenties. The ocean, this great geology, the old-growth forests and wildlife are all here, in one area.

“People that live in a place like this a long time can develop a deep spirituality, just by resonating with the natural beauty. Our world needs to change in a positive way. I think that change has to come from people who live in places like this.”

I also spoke with Lee Self, 58, who got his hands on 37 acres back in woods in 1973. Then, he was the idealist, a man who wanted to help found a commune. Now his work is driving a tractor down the steep ramp to the cove, to launch fishing boats off their trailers. He has vivid blue eyes, and a trimmed white skipper’s beard.

“I wanted to live out at the edge of the world, off the grid,” Self tells me. “I made the right choice coming here.”

He says Culp’s goal of 40 buildable lots coming into the fold each year is about as much growth as he can tolerate.

The approach of the Machis, as well as Weaver and Self, is gradual, sensitive, and appreciative. That sounds like the right way to sink roots into the soil out here. For those who only seek to grab and snatch, fate seems to provide considerable pushback.

Wreck of a Fantasy

The gale has passed, so below a clear sky, we sip out of Shelter Cove. Photo by Michael Maloney. S.F. Chronicle
The gale has passed, so below a clear sky, we slip out of Shelter Cove. Photo by Michael Maloney. S.F. Chronicle

In June of 1971, a resort and real estate development company, Sea Park Limited, flew its executives and sales staff to Shelter Cove on a chartered DC-3 aircraft, so they could figure out ways to boost sales of all their various lots and holdings. Mission accomplished, they prepared to take off. To prevent his parked plane from jostling around in stiff breezes off the sea, the pilot had secured its rudder and elevator with wind-locks. Unfortunately, he forgot to remove those locks. With 21 passengers and three crew members aboard, he revved up the engines and began to take off. He certainly managed to accelerate, but he could not maneuver. The plane bounced down the runway, clipped a building, went airborne and then off a cliff, diving into the ocean about 150 yards from land. Seventeen people perished; just seven managed to survive and return to shore. Whether or not they tried to stay in the Shelter Cove real estate business is unknown…

Devastation vs. Preservation

San Francisco Chronicle

California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
September 25

California boasts far more than one Lost Coast. Scouting for our 400-mile sea kayak voyage from Oregon to San Francisco bay, I’d say I located more than 70 miles of various shoreline segments that qualified by being remote, unpopulated, and relatively wild. But of all those reaches of coast, I’d call Sinkyone Wilderness State Park among the most appealing.

McHugh and Barnes tote a driftwood couch into camp. Photo by Michael Maloney / San Francisco Chronicle
McHugh and Barnes tote a driftwood couch into camp. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

It’s just as vertiginous and verdant as the Lost Coast part to the north of Shelter Cove. But this part to the south is broken up by more inlets and bays, and small draws and valleys that open to the east. One is the drainage of Little Jackass Creek, a tiny slice of backpackers’ paradise we reached by paddling a few miles south from Bear Harbor under calm and pleasant conditions.

Upon landing, we went through the familiar and welcome ritual of pitching our tents and setting up camp on a high bench of dry sand. This time, however, our set-up included hauling hunks of driftwood to build a stump table surrounded by benches. And upon this rude table, we played multiple hands of poker to win the invaluable booty of peanut M&Ms.

Joys of Backpacking

Into that camp strolled two new friends, a pair of lean guys in their 60’s whom we’d met at Bear Harbor. Dave Berg, 62, and his pal Bill Hickman, 67, had both begun to backpack as boy scouts, and they were now rediscovering its joys in retirement along the trail from Bear Harbor to Usal and back.

Backpackers Dave BErg and his pal Bill Hickman visit camp. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Backpackers Dave Berg and his pal Bill Hickman visit camp. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

“I’m impressed by physical beauty of this place, and its remoteness,” Berg said. “I love being able to hike along a coast like this. It’s not common.”

“I love the isolation, and all the wildlife we’re seeing. Wonderful,” Hickman said. “We lucked out. And the coastal vistas are so gorgeous, now that the fog has pulled out.”

The Tale of an Activist

How did the Sinkyone Wilderness evolve from being a heavily-logged timber zone and ranching region to a protected state park, where Hickman and Berg could enjoy their hike?

Via a long and difficult campaign run by coastal activists that only slowly managed to crank the attitude of locals around, from exploitation to conservation. One activist, Richard Gienger, was a mightily involved Whale Gulch back-to-the-lander. Back in the day, when I first began writing and reporting on North Coast environmental issues, no matter the topic of a public hearing – whether it was an appeal of a timber harvest plan, or a ban on spraying herbicides, or setting aside parkland, or restoring salmon habitat – it was pretty much a lock that Gienger would be there, wearing a moth-eaten sweater that reeked of wood smoke, with his long hair tied back and his bright eyes glowing. I’m exaggerating slightly, but not by much. Habitat preservation and public access were his main targets. He always radiated high idealism and bottomless energy as he made his polite, well-informed appeals.

All these many years later, meeting him at Bear Harbor, I found that Gienger still had the same ski-jump nose, but he looked a bit thicker physically and emotionally far more subdued. Not that his flame was out, but it seemed as though a considerable amount of heat had been expended. He told me he’d gotten divorced from a wife who had shared his homesteader, activist, environmental-restorer life in 1989. Because, he implied, those multiple missions had proved too much to share.

“The Sinkyone dominated my life from 1977 onward,” Gienger told me. “It was my answer to a question about why modern people couldn’t seem to live in a place and take care of it at the same time.’

“Saving the Sally Bell Grove was another part of the struggle. That took civil disobedience, legal action and finally work in the state legislature. I don’t want anyone to forget what it took to go this far.”

Well, I agree. I don’t think we ought to forget about that, either.

The Sally Bell Grove of Redwoods

As we sat on the sand and chatted, I told Berg and Hickman about Richard Gienger and his crusade for the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, especially his struggle to save Sally Bell Grove – an 80-acre site of virgin redwoods at the top of this very drainage at Little Jackass Creek. It had been a huge turning point. Some of the last timber company clearcuts in the region had run right up to the edge of the grove.

The last time I’d seen Gienger prior to our recent visit at Bear Harbor had been in 1995, when he lobbied the state Coastal Conservancy to return 3,900 acres of redwoods in the region to management by a consortium of ten local Native American tribes. The thing that made this designation of the first intertribal wilderness park a turning point was that the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors – which up until then had largely been a sinecure of the timber companies – voted in favor of it.

Sally Bell Grove of redwoods in the headwaters of Little Jackass Creek. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Sally Bell Grove of redwoods in the headwaters of Little Jackass Creek. Photo by Paul McHugh.

The two men listened soberly.

“I’d say, he did a great job,” Berg said. “We need more folks like him.”

“Thank you, Richard,” Hickman said, awarding him gratitude in absentia.

“Maybe we could do something like that,” Berg said.

“Y’know, I think some folks like you getting to work on designating a Richard Gienger Memorial Grove would be a wonderful thing,” I told them. And I wonder if they ever did.

After they hiked on, I worked my way up the south bank of Jackass Creek, bushwhacking through horsetails and stinging nettles until I reached the lowest portion of the Sally Bell Grove. I wandered a while, uphill through the patch of virgin redwoods, their tall columns of ocher bark thick with pale lichen. I found one tree with a fat thick root crawling across the duff like a wooden couch, surrounded by a carpet of green sorrel flecked with pale lavender blossoms. There, I sat still for a while, and meditated on the story of Sally Bell.

Sally Bell was one of the few survivors of the great massacre of the Sinkyones.

The Way She Lived

Before the great wave of Caucasian incursion and settlement, there were dozens of Sinkyone villages along southern branches of the Eel River, perhaps twenty more along what’s now called the Lost Coast. The Heyday book, “The Way We Lived,” says the Sinkyone numbered perhaps 4,000 before they were decimated by loss of land and resources, diseases, and slain by settler raids subsidized by the state. (This book says California put up a million dollars in 1851-52 to recompense expenses of the raiding parties.)

One of the final assaults took place near Needle Rock. Sally Bell remembered the morning the white men came. They killed her grandparents, her parents, her baby sister. They cut out her sister’s heart and flung it into the brush – as it happened, into the very spot where Sally was hiding. Crouching in terror, she cradled her sister’s heart in her palms until long after the settlers completed their bloody work. Then with a few other frightened survivors she hid in the woods, sleeping in hollow logs and foraging for food. After a few months, her brother who had also managed to live through the massacre, came and found her. He brought her to some more kindly settlers who renamed her, raised her, and let her live with them. She recounted this story in her old age.

I don’t know whether or not it was Gienger himself who named this last patch of virgin redwoods the Sally Bell Grove, but whoever did that, bestowing the name upon it was an inspired move.

Out In Timeless Wilderness

Weed, McHugh and Barnes play poker for peanut M&Ms. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle
Weed, McHugh and Barnes play poker for peanut M&Ms. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle

My fellow voyagers and I gave ourselves another full day to wallow in the pleasures of our wilderness camp. We watched a juvenile gull stalk the beach, waiting for its mom to return so it could beg for another regurgitated meal. I heard a redtail hawk call three times before I saw it cruise overhead. I found the track of a large coyote that had circled our camp in the late morning without any of us ever seeing it.

That night, John Weed pulled his small guitar out from its waterproof case, and played “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” with me inserting harmonica notes wherever I thought they might cause him the least trouble.

Paul McHugh prepares to launch from Bear Harbor Beach. Photo by John Weed.
Paul McHugh prepares to launch from Bear Harbor Beach. Photo by John Weed.

Then I strolled back to my tent. In a clear night sky, spiral arms of our Milky Way home galaxy shone completely unencumbered, as so rarely happens near a town. There was a storm far off to the north, and an occasional faint strobe of heat lightning swept over the cove. The only sounds I could hear as I fell asleep were light surf and faint wind, as well as shrill peeps from some unidentifiable night bird. Thunder didn’t reach this far.

Explore Every Charmed Nook and Cranny

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 2

Napoleon opined, “An army travels on its stomach.” Right there’s an ol’ boy who’d surely know everything ‘bout that. I mean, who else (besides Alexander and Julius) ever ordered armies to slog so many miserable miles? Amid the rout of his Grande Armee and retreat from Moscow back to France amid 1812’s harsh winter, I’m sure Napoleon watched his inspirational speeches grow highly irrelevant to the grunts. All those poor dudes straggling home on frost-bitten feet longed for was another pot of boiled shoe-leather soup.

Well, neither hunger nor disillusionment happened to be our problems.

Expedition Sea Kayak.
An expedition sea kayak ships out. Paul McHugh on the Albion. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

Nombre un, we had no lack of optimism for our mission. Deux, our guts had been delightfully crammed by the best of viands. A taste of our feast that day on the beach in Mendocino might no longer hover on our lips, but it had yet to fade from memory. Plus, my wife Dawn had come equipped with no less than two (count ‘em, two!) homemade pies baked with blackberries she’d picked on the banks of the Winchuck. Those savory slices not only made fine desserts but sublime snacks, as well as excellent barter items for other people we met in Albion. One customer was a local dory fisherman who smoked all his catch and was more than willing to swap a few hunks of tangy rockfish for a dose of fresh pie.

Another thing that posed no problem that morning was the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Gets Pacified

Kickin' it ...John Weed and Paul McHugh step out at the Albion River. Photo by Dawn Garcia.
Kickin’ it…John Weed and Paul McHugh step out at the Albion River. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

The boisterous winter swell sledging into the North Coast over the past three days had finally fallen off. Now we looked out at an open-ocean lump of six feet at twelve seconds – surf which at this point we had to call moderate. A sapphire sky was unflawed by cloud or fog, a sea-breeze sighed onshore at a rate rarely exceeding twelve knots, and our day’s goal lay a mere ten miles to our south, a wide band of beach below shoreline cliffs at the hamlet of Elk.

Put this all together, and it spelled h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s.

Dawn Garcia gives Paul McHugh the kiss-off, at the Albion River. Photo by John Weed.
Dawn Garcia gives Paul McHugh the kiss-off, at the Albion River. Photo by John Weed.

Weed and I showed this by locking arms and performing a few kicksteps in a routine much like the Rockettes, excepting that we were clad in olive-drab drysuits instead of spangled swimsuits.

Dawn gave me a smooch, then we hopped into our sea-kayak cockpits and paddled out under the high and skeletal understory of the Albion River bridge.

Our Secret Camping Beach

O Lord, your sea is so vast and our boats are so small – exiting the Albion River estuary.
O Lord, your sea is so vast and our boats are so small – exiting the Albion River estuary.

We rounded the rocky south horn at the harbor mouth and cruised past the Navarro River bar, and next one of the most picturesque bays along the California shore, one dotted by sea-stacks (tall, narrow islets of rock) of every shape and size – making it look like a place where elements of ocean geology gathered near shore to spawn.

We approached the beach at Elk, but since it was a sunny weekend afternoon, the place had gotten jammed by tourists and beach-combers. Too bad. My plan to spend the night at the south end of the beach had relied upon us remaining unnoticed, since I had not obtained special permission to camp there. Instead, I recommended to Weed that we double-back a few miles northward, to a nook called Cuffy’s Inlet.

Never did find out who Cuffy had been named after. Suspect the man might have been a pioneering settler who ran a loading chute down to doghole schooners from his blufftop land, high above the inlet.

The Steve Sinclair Saga

Paul McHugh explores the sea caves at Cuffy’s Inlet. Photo by John Weed.
Paul McHugh explores the sea caves at Cuffy’s Inlet. Photo by John Weed.

However, I did know Steve Sinclair, a buffed waterman who founded the Force Ten kayaking school and ocean guide-service in Elk in the 1980s. He was a L.A. lifeguard who’d visited the North Coast and fell in passionate love with its wilder waters. He founded his local shop, and won fame by designing a unique craft called the Odyssey surf-ski and paddling it out in winter storms of the utmost severity. Needless to say, Sinclair could lure few customers into taking a trip like that with him. (On rough days, he’d prefer to be alone out there, anyhow.) Instead, Force Ten’s bread-and-butter came to be guiding people in short paddles up to Cuffy’s Inlet during much, much milder weather, for stints of over-night beach camping.

So that’s where we went. Nestled in a cranny of rock, the inlet was a south-facing cove with a beach that formed dunes tall and dry enough at the upper end of its niche that we felt we’d have zero worries about high tide.

A Savory Barbecue Lunch

We seize sea shells by the sea shore. Photo by Paul McHugh.
We seize sea shells by the sea shore. Photo by Paul McHugh.

You’ve heard of the sea’s bounty, yes? Here’s one resonant example. As we made landfall, I spotted three abalone that had been flung by the previous day’s surf a few yards up onto the sand. When I went to inspect them, I found two of these large and tasty mollusks were deader than mackerels and already shriveling up. These, I didn’t want to take a chance on. Legend has it that one of Napoleon’s army chefs had invented mayonnaise as a dressing to disguise the taste of spoiled meat. Since there’s so much info about how politics operates in this myth of origin, it bears repeating, even if apocryphal.

Napoleon’s subsequent inspirational speech: “Yes men, you’re traveling on empty stomachs, but as you can see! I have provided mayonnaise for you. Bon appetit, mais oui?”

However the third abalone, the one nearest the water, was still alive. In rather serious trouble, though. An upside-down abalone can’t right himself and crawl back to water as a crab is able to.

Bad Luck for an Abalone

Paul McHugh measures an 8 inch abalone found near Cuffey's Cove just north of Point Arena. Photo by John Weed.
Paul McHugh measures an 8 inch abalone found near Cuffey’s Cove just north of Point Arena. Photo by John Weed.

On this trip, I’d brought along a fishing license, angling and “abbing” gear, but the weather had been so foul I’d not yet found any chance to use it. I dug out my ab measuring clamp, saw the live dude was legal. So I had a choice. Rescue him by tossing him back out to sea, or finish him off by thrusting him into our gullets? I decided that we should not display ingratitude to Poseidon by failing to opt for Plan B. As every mariner knows, Poseidon is one major guy you really don’t want to piss off.

Freshly barbecued and ready to join us for lunch! Care for a bite? Photo by John Weed.
Freshly barbecued and ready to join us for lunch! Care for a bite? Photo by John Weed.
The poor ab likely thought his problems could hardly get much worse. Yet, they did. I whipped out my tiny grill – a rectangle of steel mesh – propped it on two long rocks and built a driftwood fire underneath. By the time the wood became golden coals I had the abalone popped out of its shell, tenderized by pounding, then sliced into oblongs. These I barbecued with a drizzle of spices.

And our bodacious banquet by the seashore was able to continue for one more day.

A Bright Light in Point Arena

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 3

John Weed kneels in camp to spark up his stove. Photo by Michael Maloney, SF Chronicle.
John Weed kneels in camp to spark up his stove. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Poseidon had now blessed us with two sweet, easy days. We prayed that, in all the god’s seaweed-wreathed, guano-breathed providence, he might anoint us with the bounty of a few more.

Weed and I packed up at Cuffy’s Inlet and sea-horsed around, paddling in and out of the caves that wove through the cove’s headland. But, enough with all the dawdling! By 10 a.m. it was high time to set a course for Point Arena, a jump of about sixteen miles.

We put out to sea on a 180-degree bearing, to cut across the big curve the coast takes inland here. We also did that to ensure we’d collect an ample supply of leeway should both wind and wave kick up.

Sure, conditions seemed benign and steady, and my voyage-honed instincts said they should hold for a good while. But NOAA weather radio had called for the eventual onslaught of nine-foot seas, their crests feathered by twenty-knot winds.

As Falstaff famously pointed out amid a sword fight, “Discretion is the better part of valour.”  And as Reagan once said of the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify.”

Tallest Light in the West

After a few hours of steady paddling we reached a point about three miles offshore, where we acquired a useful visual on the slim shaft of the Point Arena lighthouse.

Rough waters off the coast of Noyo Harbor. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
Paul McHugh paddles past the light at Point Arena. Photo by John Weed.

Rising to a height of 115 feet, it’s the tallest navigational beacon on the West Coast. We shifted course to 165 degrees. Now, we were in great shape. If a northwest blow cranked up, it would come from astern and push us in, rather than cross over our quarter and make the boats wallow.

I switched on the mapping GPS to double-check our position.

“Hey. It tells me we’re way out in the ocean,” I informed Weed.

“Really?” he responded. “No foolin’?”

V-shaped flights of dark cormorants flapped across bright skies. Dorsal fins of harbor porpoises cut the sea all around us. Swimming common murres made their shivery cries. The fat, white, concrete finger of the lighthouse drew closer. The first gusts of rising wind began to flick at our paddle blades as we neared shore.

The cove and wharf at Point Arena. Weed and McHugh lodged in a tiny shack at upper left. Photo by Paul McHugh.
The cove and wharf at Point Arena. Weed and McHugh lodged in a tiny shack at upper left. Photo by Paul McHugh.

The Point Arena light has become a beacon in a way other than the obvious one. The Coast Guard wanted to lock it up and just leave a robot strobe on its balcony rail in the 1970s. But a cadre of locals fought a long battle to keep the light open to the public. A an ad hoc group dubbed Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers formed in 1982, won title to and stewardship of the light in 1996, and against long odds has kept it both operating and open to the public ever since. So now it’s an icon of volunteerism, a concrete symbol of a can-do civic spirit that continues to glow plentifully in the coast town nearby.

Landfall in Point Arena Cove

We glided on the rising swells into the harbor a few miles south of the light. I quickly spotted our prospective crash-pad: a small shack on the north side of the land end of the town’s commercial wharf. Bob Juntz, the friendly urchin processor I’d met up at Noyo Harbor, had once used the shack as his southern HQ, and granted us permission to unroll our sleeping bags in the now-musty and vacant space within.

An urchin harvest, dripping with brine, comes out of a hold at Point Arena’s wharf. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
An urchin harvest, dripping with brine, comes out of a hold at Point Arena’s wharf. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Weed and I made landfall on the shoreline’s round cobbles. We unloaded our boats and packed our drybags of gear up to the urchin shack, then hauled our boats onto its deck, tugging up bow and stern lines hand-over-hand. Since a big swell was scheduled to come crashing in later, leaving our kayaks down by the seawall to shift for themselves – no matter how well we tied them to pilings – simply was not in the cards. Next, I strolled out onto the wharf to greet harbormaster Mitch McFarland.

A tall and weathered man with ginger hair and beard, clad in a knit cap and lumberjack shirt, McFarland was a popular local eminence I’d met on an earlier research trip. He’d told me some of the wharf’s history. One of the first ever built on the North Coast, the pier’s wooden, 1866 edition had enabled quick and efficient movement of local produce onto doghole schooners. It proved much easier and safer than the sort of deliveries afforded by the coast’s steep and relatively flimsy cargo chutes; those could swiftly turn hazardous if stevedores lost control of a load.

Pursuit of a Perfect Pier

But even the stoutest wharf here will eventually grow ramshackle too, from heavy industrial use as well as repeated impact of ocean storms. The last wooden pier built here had been utterly demolished by a “hundred-year wave” during the epic winter of 1983. After that, the state’s department of Boating and Waterways joined the town in constructing a formidable platform of concrete and steel that rose 25 feet above the waves and extended more than a hundred yards out to sea. It was distinguished by a cargo crane, a sling hoist for boats, and – our favorite feature! – a bathroom with hot showers.

McFarland, who’d worked as a commercial seaman for twenty years before settling here, seemed inordinately proud of the facility. The wharf was now thirty years into its own commercial career and holding up well. He did shake his head over the heap of wrangling that townfolks, state agencies and private landowners had to go through to get the thing established and running. But it now can ably serve crab fishermen in winter, salmon trollers in summer and fall, urchin divers sporadically, and sport anglers – who either launch small boats with the sling hoist or stroll out on the pier to cast straight out over the railings – year-round.

Harbormaster Mitch McFarland stands near the foot of his wharf at Point Arena.
Harbormaster Mitch McFarland stands near the foot of his wharf at Point Arena. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Not that any of them did particularly well this year. The salmon catch, good in early September, had tapered off. Tuna never so much as made an appearance. Few urchin boats still even worked. Still, the wharf provided locals and visitors alike with an unending harvest of excellent views.

“It’s been a wonderful place for me to hang out,” McFarland said. “I’ve seen crazy sights, and caught some pretty remarkable ones as well. Migratory gray whales go past through the kelp beds right outside the cove buoy. Someone can stand out at the end of the pier all April and see a whale pass by about every ten minutes.”

A Word from the Wise

Acting in his official capacity as harbormaster and host, McFarland dipped a hand in his pocket and tilted his palm to slide me and Weed a cluster of brass tokens that would allow us to take as many hot showers as we wished. I thanked him for his hospitality, and allowed as how this wharf would make a particularly fine spot for us to utilize as a home base while I explored his town.

“Okay,” he said. “But whatever you do happen to end up writing about us, please don’t ever let yourself call Point Arena a, ‘quirky, charming, little town in paradise.’ I always hate that crap.”

No problem. I told McFarland I’d been warned off using that type of strong language by the Mendocino locals, and I aimed to stay polite.

A Peaceable Fortification

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh
October 8

The Russian Orthodox chapel with redwood “onion domes,” at Fort Ross State Historic Park. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.
The Russian Orthodox chapel with redwood “onion domes,” at Fort Ross State Historic Park. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Most folks first encounter Fort Ross after they drive past a set of hairpin turns on Coast Highway 1 in central Sonoma County. You steer around the last turn and bang, it suddenly appears: a startlingly realistic recreation of a colonial outpost of the Russian Czarist Empire.

The fort is managed by one of California’s most important state historic parks, with the aid of a host of ardent volunteers – many of them descendants of Russian emigrants. For them, in particular, an important ritual is attending a Russian Orthodox mass in the fort’s tiny chapel, with its approximation of traditional onion domes that have been formed from redwood planks.

Of all the ways to visit Fort Ross, I vastly prefer approaching from the sea. When you see these historic, rustic structures loom on a bluff above the surfline, you truly feel yourself twirling down a time tunnel, a portal to an earlier century.

A Fine Fleet of Native Kayakers

On a sea approach to Fort Ross; the protection of Sandy Cove lies just to the right. Photo by John Weed.
On a sea approach to Fort Ross; the protection of Sandy Cove lies just to the right. Photo by John Weed.

More than 100 Aleut hunters and their baidarka kayaks accompanied Ivan Kuskov, the wily Russian fur trader who established this fort in the spring of 1812. It was part of the furthest-south thrust of the Russian Empire, endgame of the czar’s conquests along the Pacific Rim — which had begun two centuries earlier.

As Russian traders and pioneers made initial contact with eight tribes on the Aleutian Islands in the mid-1700s, they inflicted a harsh regime. Many battles for dominance were fought, and gunpowder proved decisive. In addition to bloodshed, women and children were kidnapped to force male hunters to work in the fur trade. A telling anecdote relates the callous way a Russian freebooter demonstrated the power of his rifle: he did it by shooting into a line of a dozen Aleuts, with the bullet penetrating to the ninth man. This sort of brutality, coupled with the onslaught of European diseases, cut the Aleut population to perhaps a quarter of what it had been.

A Rough Rule Turns Benign

However, the Russian-American Company’s monopoly of the fur trade was subsumed by the Imperial Navy in 1818. That introduced a second wave of what we like to call “civilization.” Thereafter, Aleut hunters became paid employees, and no longer had to endure the bitter fate of forced conscription. Also, missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church arrived to bestow their more benevolent influence upon what had once been a lawless frontier.

By 1822, the distant enclave of Fort Ross had been wholly transformed into a peaceful, cooperative melange of Russian managers, hunters, farmers and craftsmen garnered from the Aleut population and local Kashaya Pomo tribes — as well as “creole” offspring of the Russians and these native associates. Miscegenation between these ethnic groups was not only tolerated, but encouraged, with marriages sanctified and offspring baptized by the church.

Paul McHugh fires off a round; and John Weed lives to tell the tale.
Paul McHugh fires off a round; and John Weed lives to tell the tale. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

What’s somewhat surprising is that the Spanish – who regarded the totality of California as their possession – pretty much left the Russkys unmolested up here. That might be due to the fact that the newcomers had demonstrated that the best offense can be a good defense. By erecting redwood blockhouses jammed with cannon right after making landfall, they convinced the Spanish authorities that trying to evict them from Alta California would be a costly proposition. So, this fort never had to fire a shot in anger. The Russians wound up only blasting away with their powder for target practice, or to salute an approaching or departing ship.

Raid on San Francisco Bay

Assistant artilleryman first-class, John Weed, performs a risky cannon inspection. Photo by Dawn Garcia.
Assistant artilleryman first-class, John Weed, performs a risky cannon inspection. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

Despite their precarious toehold, the Russians occasionally risked doing things that irritated the Spanish. Kuskov sailed the mother ship Kadiak laden with Aleut hunters and baidarkas to the coast south of Bodega. The hunters portaged their kayaks over the Marin Peninsula and into San Francisco Bay (probably using Miwok tribal trails to go from Tennessee Cove to Richardson Bay), snuck past Spanish soldiers who watched over the main entrance at the Golden Gate from the Presidio. After plundering the bay of sea otter pelts, the paddlers skedaddled back home.

But by 1820, the ready supply of sea otters was in serious decline. Fort Ross settlers sought to supplant this profitable enterprise with agriculture, a tannery, a brickyard, even created a shipyard at the cove. For a colonial outpost, all this was quite advanced. The first ship built in California (the beamy galiot Rumiantsev) was assembled at Fort Ross, as was this state’s first working windmill (for grinding grain).

A Cooperative and Collective Effort

Such advancements were paralleled by social improvements that also appeared substantial. The Aleuts built their traditional sod longhouses, “barabaras,” on the southwest side of the fort; the Russians had their own replica village on the north side; the Pomos — who purportedly had traded land for the fort site to Kuskov for blankets, axes, hoes, beads, and three pairs of trousers — were encamped to the east.

“They were like three friendly neighborhoods,” Sarah Gould, one of the park’s volunteer historic interpreters, told us. “They interacted peaceably, and each group was allowed to retain some of its own ethnic character.”

Kent Lightfoot, a UC Berkeley archaeologist who has led graduate students in excavation of sites here over the past 17 years, said, “We’ve found extensive record of daily practices. It seems this colony as a whole was peaceful and interethnic. Some places have evidence of native Alaskan men setting up a household with local native women.

Historical map of San Francisco Bay. In Russian.
Historical map of San Francisco Bay. In Russian.

“There’s truth to the charge that serious nastiness occurred when the Russians first contacted the Aleuts. Yet, by the time they reached Fort Ross, pretty clearly, all that had changed and evolved. Think of the location of these villages, right by the main stockade. Had there been issues and problems, those naturally would have been placed much further away.”

Native Hunters in the Fur Trade

Aleut paddlers were key to initial successes of the Russian-American Company. Their seamanship, their ability to craft sophisticated boats from primitive materials, their hunting skills, combined to permit gathering of sea otter pelts that were the company’s most profitable trade item. Some say invention of the three-cockpit baidarka occurred so Aleut paddlers could put a Russian hunter with a musket in the field. The truth is, that model was merely used to transport an administrator who could ride in the middle and refrain from any exertion with a paddle. The true hunts — for otter, sea lions, and even walrus and whales — were accomplished by Aleuts in a cluster of one- and two-hole kayaks. Hunters crept up on their prey, then tried their best shot with atlatl darts and harpoons.

Bone and ivory spear tips, dug up here by Lightfoot’s crews, are on display in the small, excellent museum at the fort, as are obsidian arrow points. In a storage area of the replica fort itself, there’s a sea otter pelt. By stroking its soft, luxurious fur, you also touch history. Suddenly you grasp why Chinese mandarins so avidly sought such pelts for trim on their robes, and lining inside brocade winter coats for the wealthy.

Bricks of Tea for Sea Otter Pelts

Among other displays are samovars, huge, tea-brewing Russian urns. Oddly enough, those samovars can help explain the aid slaughter of the furry otters. Russian visitors to Mongolian camps discovered the charms of black tea around 1640. Within decades, it became the Russian national beverage; within a century, samovars became the warm locus of hospitality in many a Russian home. To continue getting pressed bricks of China tea, Russians had to have items of value to trade. And so Aleut tribesmen were shanghaied, then hired to bolster trade with China, and otters began to die by the scores, then the hundreds, then thousands.

Faced with the loss of even the otter breeding population, the Russians instituted a ban on hunting the animals in 1834. It was too late. Other enterprises at Fort Ross were incapable of taking up the slack. Net losses here, 7,000 ruples in 1829, mushroomed to 51,000 ruples by 1841. Swiss entrepreneur John Sutter of Sacramento finally bought up assets of the place; Russians and their cohorts sailed away in 1842.

We enjoyed meeting the schoolkids at Fort Ross, and telling them of our voyage. Photo by Michael Maloney. S.F. Chronicle.
We enjoyed meeting the schoolkids at Fort Ross, and telling them of our voyage. Photo by Michael Maloney. S.F. Chronicle.

Gates of the now-restored stockade still swing open to admit visitors eager to sample and celebrate the past. Fort Ross’ Cultural Heritage Day, held on the last Saturday of July, regularly attracts hundreds of ad hoc re-enactors, including those garbed as Russian peasants, Mexican soldiers, and Pomo tribespeople, even itinerant Hudson Bay traders.

Paddling in the Hunters’ Wake

They’ve even started going to the waterfront to bestow blessings on home-built baidarkas, like the kayak made by Stephen Littlebear. He helped launch a festival on September 24, feast day of St. Peter the Aleut (a Russian Orthodox martyr); perhaps it shall become a new tradition.

The tiny flotilla that showed up for a blessing was just a small samplling of the vast fleets the Aleuts and Russians could field in their heyday — often 500 baidarkas, sometimes more than 700. Enough to intimidate warlike Tlingits on the mainland, at any rate.

Modern paddlers strive to perpetuate the romance of the kayak. For an Aleut, the process of learning to become a centaur of the sea, with the lower half of their body a skin boat instead of a horse, began around the age of six. Learning to build boats of driftwood, whalebone and hide was an art practiced through long, dark winters. By adulthood, a man’s kayak was a valued partner, a living entity in its own right. After making love to his woman, a hunter was obligated to show affection to his baidarka as well, lest it become jealous and fail him in a moment of need. When he died, his kayak was broken atop his grave, in an Aleut version of a Viking funeral.

Beside the custom boats of Littlebear and friends, our own hard plastic boats seem rather cold and technological. Still, they’ve served us well so far, and we do feel some affection for them.

Our camp on the beach in the cove at Fort Ross. Note the screen of stacked logs to protect our tents from wind gusts.
Our camp on the beach in the cove at Fort Ross. Note the screen of stacked logs to protect our tents from wind gusts. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

And somehow, down in the cove — where we’ve won special permission from State Parks to camp — we can’t help but feel nearer to California’s native pioneers of coastal paddling. The beach, protected and drifting back to nature, no longer rings with the blow of hammer on anvil, the rasp of saws, or shouts that must have blended a wondrous array of dialects. Now, sounds have subsided once more to the random screech of gulls, and the gentle and regular lap of waves.

Onward, O’er the Bounding Main

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series: A Kayak Adventure
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 5-6, 2005

I must confess, it felt a bit tough to say farewell to Point Arena. Weed and I both gained a high appreciation for this convivial town, and loved our snug digs up in the urchin shack by the pier. Also, out past the buoy, the sea was kicking up its heels again, displaying 8-9 foot-high swells and 20-knot winds.

Paul McHugh launches into Point Arena Cove from beneath the urchin shack.
Paul McHugh launches into Point Arena Cove from beneath the urchin shack. Photo by John Weed.

But! The date of our scheduled arrival in San Francisco was drawing ever nearer – and there was simply no way to get there without paddling the intervening miles.

So we hand-lined our kayaks back down off the deck, packed them with gear and launched ourselves once again into the foray – and the spray.

Billows That Bestow a Boost

As soon as we rounded the south horn of Point Arena Cove, we grew exposed to full force of the elements. The good part was, the blast of wind and shove of the swell arrived from a bearing almost directly astern. That meant it could easily boost acceleration and add to our forward progress.

We reached open water around 10 a.m. At first, just one wave in ten would pick us up and carry us onward. But by noon, every wave had become its own playground slide, and a few even broke over our sterns to swath us in thick quilts of tumbling foam. Consequently, our paddling adopted a fresh rhythm: throw a flurry of strokes to accelerate enough to catch a wave; then brace and rudder with a blade through the ride; then rotate through another flurry to catch the next swell.

“Aha, I see you’re getting your sprint training session in,” Weed commented.

True, that. But as much fun as it was to be flying southward as shoreline whisked by to our left, these strong conditions also provoked a sizable planning problem. We had some 42 ocean miles to cover before we’d be able to reach our one must-land port, the cove at Fort Ross. That spot was mandatory because I was supposed to meet with a grammar school class within a day or two, and I was also scheduled to file stories on the place. It was too far to paddle today, after we’d made such a late start. Not only that, but the longer we remained out in this rough stuff, the greater our chances of mishap. That’s just due to the law of averages; occasional bad timing while taking brace strokes is a fact of kayaking life.

In my overall planning for this voyage, I’d designated both primary goals for a day’s paddle, as well as bail-out points. Plus, exigencies of our trip thus far had taught me the virtue of being ready and willing to make spontaneous adjustments.

Or, as John Weed likes to put it, “Indecision is the key to flexibility.”

That Which Does Not Drown You, Makes You Wetter

Our most logical goal for this day would have been to make it to Stump Beach Cove at the north end of Salt Point State Park. That would slice a nice 8 miles or so off the total route to Fort Ross, and make for an easy day of completing that entire stretch on the morrow. However, the angle of the swell and direction of the wind meant that a lot of that marine power – besides boosting us along – also funneled straight in to impact Stump Beach. That made neither paddling there to make landfall or struggling back out again the next day a particularly appealing prospect.

As can often occur, circumstances proceeded to make a decision for us.

One must drink plenty of fluids to keep your muscles working. After swilling enough of them, you need to pee. Put it off as long as you can, then you’ll really, really need to pee. And that’s what happened to me. Just as we passed The Fish Rocks near Anchor Bay, the vital moment arrived for me to defuse an IED, i.e. release my close-to-exploding bladder. I called in Weed to raft up our kayaks side-by-side and hold on, popped open my sprayskirt, yanked open the lower zipper on my drysuit, and commenced to filling a baggie. I came within a whisker of getting the task done when a big wave broke over our sterns and poured a torrent of cold water over the rim of my cockpit and onto my crotch. I found this rather stimulating, but not in a good way. I shut my zipper (a top priority), seized my pump, and commenced pumping out – a task I hoped to complete before another big wave broke over us.

But… nope! I almost had the cockpit dry when another wave smashed down to fling more gallons back in my boat. This was nuts. We could either hang out off the Fish Rocks and repeat this cycle ad infinitum, or I could snap the sprayskirt back on and paddle my water-logged boat in for shelter within nearby Anchor Bay. I opted for the latter.

Curling up in a Doghole Port

My little home away from home. On the beach at Anchor Bay. . Photo by John Weed.
My little home away from home. On the beach at Anchor Bay. Photo by John Weed.

You can’t beat the Anchor Bay cove for shelter from a Northwester. In fact it had served for decades as yet another doghole port for schooners, equipped in pioneer days with an apron chute for loading on products like tanoak bark and redwood lumber. But whenever winter storms blustered ashore and the prevailing wind switched to southerlies, this bay stood utterly exposed. Nearly a dozen schooners wrecked here on the Fish Rocks in the period 1850-1900.

And I? Well, I did not wreck, oh my droogies. Instead, once within the north (and only!) horn of the cove, I safely pumped out. Then we paddled in to make landfall on the smooth beach of the Anchor Bay Campground – a tidy, family-owned, six-acre site that sits nestled in a bight of Coast Highway 1. Here we made camp, and – since we now had spare time – we walked inland to visit a tiny cluster of buildings that constitutes a village. To our delight, these included a Laundromat where we could wash and dry our moldering garments, before returning to our comfy camp.

And Then, Déjà Vu All Over Again

Conditions didn’t improve by much the following day. The swell did shrink a tad, dropping to 7 feet at 16 seconds, but the northwesterly wind still scudded along at some 20 knots. Once more, we simply had to take the conditions on, and try to make as many miles as we could. Again, navigation consisted of sliding precipitously down the faces of large waves, trying to avoid broaching (being forced sideways) at the bottom as the wave broke, then trying to catch the next one.

Oct6-Sea-Stack-WeedPhoto
We love the smell of guano in the morning. John Weed by an offshore sea stack. Photo by Paul McHugh.

As we paddled out past the white-frosted bulk of Fish Rocks, the stiff breeze blew the ripe stench of accumulated seabird poop straight into our faces. “Love the smell of guano in the morning,” I cracked to Weed. “It reminds me I’m back in my boat.”

Refuge Access Denied

After that, we didn’t speak much, just focused on our paddling, while the shoreside town of Gualala and then the vacation community of Sea Ranch slid past to port. But after about 5 hours of stroking away over some 19 miles, our goal of Stump Beach hove into view – and it looked every bit as bad as I’d feared. A large swell stuffed itself down the throat of the north-facing cove, producing a dull and steady thunder, fleecing the sea surface in turbulent foam, and sending a white fogbank of spume drifting vaguely through the air.
We discussed our options, then backtracked northward to inspect our only option for shelter, a tiny peninsula that hooked out to the west, with a thin line of rocky shore at its base.

“It does face the right way,” Weed said. “But see how wet the ledge at the base is, there? We might set up camp, only to get ourselves washed out later.”

I sought to recall what I’d seen while checking my tidebook that morning. “High tide should be just about now, or we’re here maybe an hour after,” I said. “I think that it peaked around 6 feet. The next high tide occurs around 3 a.m., and should be lower, like 4 feet. I’d say, if we build up that ledge a little bit, we should be good.”

“But what if we’re not?”

“Well, tie your kayak’s bowline to one ankle. If you feel it tug on you in the middle of the night, get up and go jump in your cockpit.”

“What about our tents?”

“Good point. So, after you get up, untie the line from your ankle, tie it onto the tent, then jump in your cockpit. Tow it away behind you.”

“Excellent plan,” Weed proclaimed, with a dollop of sarcasm.

A Marginal Bivouac Site

Now, imagine it at high tide – our emergency bivouac site. Photo by Paul McHugh.
Now, imagine it at high tide – our emergency bivouac site. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Our requisite bout of banter completed, we did proceed to gamble on making our camp right at that spot. We could’ve picked a better place, but there wasn’t one. So we landed, mounded up rock and driftwood and sand, then leveled out tent-sized pads atop the debris. We pitched our shelters right up against the low cliff, brewed up some stew and settled in for the night. And no, we didn’t tie the kayaks to our legs, but to some exposed roots in the cliff face. Of course, in such a setting, we also had to worry about loose rocks rumbling down from the friable cliffs. Fortunately, that did not happen. And when I awoke at 3 a.m. to shine my flashlight out the door of the tent, I could see the waves were only surging up to within about a yard of our tent pads. No big deal. By which I mean, I’ve seen worse.