Category

North Coast Series

North Coast Series Postlude

By | North Coast Series

Note from the Author – As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, when I took my buy-out from the Chronicle in 2007, I negotiated the right to re-post my North Coast stories. I thought the ten year anniversary of the voyage, occurring in fall of 2015, was a good time to accomplish that. Of course, this also gave me a chance to tell fuller stories, relate extra anecdotes, and post additional pictures.

The offshore waters of the North Coast come with a warning label. Photo by Paul McHugh.

The offshore waters of the North Coast come with a warning label. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Besides that, it bestowed an opportunity to improve greatly on the original text, sometimes replace it altogether. One of my professional maxims is that, “Any piece of writing can always be improved,” and that’s certainly true in this case. None of the stories above, dated September 6 through October 16, appears exactly as it was published in the paper. Many stories above are entirely new, and they paint-in aspects of the trip that have not been revealed before. So I thought that an extra bonus for those who have read this far – and thus proven themselves interested! – would be to present one story precisely as it appeared ten years ago.

So, here it is. The last one of the series, which ran in the paper the day after we made landfall. Interesting to compare it to my more creative account, posted just previously, eh?


The North Coast: A Kayak Adventure

400-mile reflection on respect for our coast.
Good to be home after memorable 41 days.

October 17, 2005

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Chronicle Outdoors Writer
October 17, 2005

My Swiss Army knife handle was clogged with old peanut butter – one of many signs it was time to put into port for repairs and resupply. So, on Friday evening, I was happy to see our kayaks perched on a beach just seaward of a major port: San Francisco.

Nothing brings a smile quite like making a safe landfall. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

Nothing brings a smile quite like making a safe landfall. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

We watched huge tankers, container ships, fishing vessels and even tour ferries, all splendidly lighted, drag wakes below the Golden Gate bridge while foghorns boomed and hooted.

Our 400-mile sea kayak voyage from the Winchuck River in Oregon to San Francisco Bay – begun by myself, Bo Barnes and John Weed on September 6 – was nearly at an end.

In a radio interview with KCBS by cell phone late that day, an announcer suggested we were awaiting better conditions before crossing the strait to make landfall at Crissy Field. Not entirely right, but close.

On Friday we had completed a third straight day of paddling in heavy fog. We’d made our transit from Bolinas to Point Bonita in under four hours, swathed in wet gauze the entire way, and hit marker buoys precisely. We could have made S.F. landfall right then.

But we didn’t want to. Not quite yet. Barnes and Weed planned to paddle on Saturday to the Sea Trek Regatta in Sausalito, the West Coast’s largest sea kayak race. I wanted to hang out all Saturday at Kirby Cove, one treasure of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area parks.

The conditions I hoped to improve were mental. I wished to savor this last moment in our expedition. I wanted to mull over the hazards and blessings, all we had seen, people and wildlife we’d encountered, and meditate upon meaning.

By Sunday, as we did shove off for the last time, that mental and emotional evaluation was well under way. I don’t suppose it will ever end. If any of you hope to change your life, go spend more than a month living simply while exploring a wilderness. Adventures awaken the soul.

But it’s also rather nice when they end. You return to your customary situation with an enhanced appreciation for it.

Never had the Golden Gate Bridge or the city of San Francisco seemed more lovely or appealing to me than they did as we paddled under that famous russet arch. My heart was beating hard under a stimulation that – for the first time in weeks – wasn’t stress.

My wife, Dawn Garcia, and The Chronicle had arranged a hearty welcome on the beach at Crissy Field. I kissed the sand, hugged my lass, gave handshakes all around, and made spontaneous comments into microphones.

These, I hope, do not sound like babble. But I was moved, elated, satisfied and relieved all at once. It was hard to sort out which feeling or thought ought to emerge from my mouth next.

Later, driving off with my trusty Pijon Kodiak kayak on a rack above me instead of rocking away beneath me, many images from our voyage flooded back. I did desperately want to be home. But I was already missing the sea.

I’ll miss sounds. The roar and mumble of surf, sigh of wind, calls of the shore and waterbirds, the sob of a remote whistle buoy. These have been constant companions and will haunt my dreams. The only one I want to forget is the bark of sea lions. How those guys can make endless conversations entirely of one syllable is beyond me. I’ll miss the vistas, the mystic light, the soaring cliffs and deep forests.

And smaller but no less gripping sights, like an umber checkerspot butterfly I saw miles out to sea near Mendocino. It rested lightly upon the water like a feather fallen on blue glass, beautiful and touching in its graceful death.

I’ll miss my companions, too

Bo Barnes invigorates any scene with his stentorian laughter and fathomless energy. At Kirby Cove, I had asked him to sum up his experience on our voyage.

Barnes said, “I never want to do an expedition this long again. Physically, everything worked fine. The beauty of the coast was quite memorable. All the capes and points were everything I thought they’d be, bogeymen that had to be wrestled down.

“Sometimes, if I seemed spaced out as I paddled, it’s because I thought about what I want to do over my next 30 years. I decided, it’s to be an ambassador for kayaking and water sports.”

The rhythmic crash and the sigh of surf are sounds that will linger in memory. Photo by John Weed.

The rhythmic crash and the sigh of surf are sounds that will linger in memory. Photo by John Weed.

John Weed proved that mastery can be both graceful and sly, not only in his paddle strokes, but also in his judgment and commentary.

“We found much of what I expected, beautiful, unusual rock formations and the dicey conditions,” Weed said. “The big capes especially were pretty cool, with all that lumpy water bumping us around. “In terms of self-discovery, it reaffirmed the value of patience.”

An experienced expeditionist, kayak instructor and guide, Weed did offer a tip to any kayakers who hope to follow our route. “Don’t bet your life on the weather forecast.”

To which I would add, bring a Gore-Tex drysuit. They added measurably to our warmth and safety in harsh conditions. And the mapping GPS units we used were invaluable, especially in heavy fog or darkness. Think of it as the mariners’ express card: Don’t leave port without it.

The primary land-based member of our party was Chronicle photographer Michael Maloney. Without his kindness and willingness to go the literal extra mile, our expedition might still have succeeded, but would not have been as pleasant.

Maloney supplied us with unfailing good cheer, many a reliable rendezvous, and occasionally, even pizza. (Additional fine Maloney photographs of the trip can be found at www.sfgate.com

I also have to say, I was blown away by the kindness and generosity of folks we met along the way, who felt excited or inspired by our trip. Undertake something that excites the imagination, and it’s amazing the kind of energy and support you’ll draw to your side.

One thing I’m happiest about is that this adventure was accomplished by three guys in their fifties. I hope other folks in their middle years can take inspiration from that.

Yes, you do have to fight for the strength and fitness you want to keep during the middle years. But there’s every reason to charge into that fray. Consider the alternative.

Finally, I’d like to say some things about California’s precious North Coast, this region that has captured my affection and imagination for so long that I just had to undertake a voyage that took me deeper into the region than I’d gone before.

It’s important to realize how much of our present prosperity in Northern California is built upon the graves of native peoples and swaths of ravaged environment. The most useful way to react is to honor the memory of what took place, and try to heal – not ignore – the wounds.

That’s why I spent so much time writing about the North Coast massacres, which are now so little recalled. And also, why I sought to explain and celebrate the efforts of those who have labored long to fix the rivers and forests that constitute this region’s true wealth.

The North Coast’s Charcter

Which brings up a key point about the North Coast’s character. This was one of the last frontiers, where the four-centuries-long mad dash to discover and exploit New World resources finally smacked into the Pacific Ocean. Suddenly, there was no more easy grabbing of land or wildlife or water or timber.

Here, beginning in the 1960s, began a wave of different thought and behavior. It now rebounds to the north, south and east.

It’s a notion that Peter Berg of the Planet Drum Foundation calls, “reinhabiting the landscape.” It’s what the activist Richard Gienger of Whale Gulch calls, “seeing if you can live in a spot and care about it at the same time.”

It’s about cherishing natural resources while using them carefully, with long-term sustainability for humans and all other creatures. Understanding the North Coast today means grasping this as a dominant vision for its future.

A frail gem, cast up from the sea. Photo by John Weed.

A frail gem, cast up from the sea. Photo by John Weed.

Appreciating the North Coast and all its natural splendor also means honoring crusaders who fought for shoreline zones and public access, redwood groves and wild and scenic rivers, wilderness and parks.

It means supporting the local, state and federal agencies that serve and preserve these areas.

If we truly regard these places as public treasures, it’s time we treated them as such. This is a huge, long-term problem, and requires much attention.

So, we should start on it yesterday.

Home are the Sailors, Home from the Sea

The North Coast Series

Home are the Sailors, Home from the Sea

By | North Coast Series

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 15-16

Our beach camp was threatened twice by high tide and large swells. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Our beach camp was threatened twice by high tide and large swells. Photo by Paul McHugh.

It was a fine problem to have.

After many weeks of wrestling Pacific storms, ripping up our navigation plans then taping them back together, we’d touched the bay’s golden threshold. The end of our trip loomed just ahead. However, we now were afflicted by a full day of spare time.

Our actual day of arrival was scheduled for tomorrow, Sunday, and it just wouldn’t do for us to try to sneak across our finish line early. Oh no, there was considerable hoopla out there that needed to be embraced… which I knew all too well, since I’d done my level best to stir it up.

Audition for an Audience

Our voyage might’ve been a highly personal adventure, yet it also had been orchestrated into a mass-media happening. We’d steadily appeared on the paper’s front page, been featured in reports broadcast over AM/FM radio and network TV. This North Coast voyage of exploration was the apogee of my two decades of writing at the Chronicle, and I desired to make as big a splash with it as I could.

Besides promoting it to media at large before we’d launched, I’d also persistently dunned local outlets while we traveled.

The net result: a small crowd of big fans of the trip would likely be on hand to welcome us when we made our predicted landfall – at Crissy Field Beach on the north side of San Francisco.

We couldn’t disappoint those folks by a failure to appear at the appointed hour. There’d also be TV cameras present, my bosses from the paper, and a strong coterie of family and friends.

Which posed a genuine problem.

What would I tell them all?

Groping for the Right Words

I needed to cook up some sweeping overview statements that could summarize the meaning of our trip w/o being pompous or presumptuous, plus stir in some inspirational comments that did not sound boastful or cocky.

Boy, did I ever have my work cut out for me.

So Weed and Barnes took off by themselves early on Saturday morning to head to Sausalito and take part in the Sea Trek Regatta – the West Coast’s oldest and biggest open-water paddle race. (I did not doubt that our training regimen of stroking along for hundreds of miles would let the lads acquit themselves with honor, then cover themselves with glory, ribbons, medals, honorable mentions or whatnot.) Meanwhile, I walked on the beach, hiked up into the valley, chewed on grass stems, twiddled my thumbs, gazed out over the water, and pondered what I might say.

That world-famed Golden Gate Bridge had put on quite a show for me this morning, first with a spectacular sun-up ablaze behind it, next as the sun rose higher, its towers performed a chiaroscuro fan-dance involving drifting wisps of fog.

Sourcing a Golden Gate

It prompted me to consider that the “Pathfinder” – Army captain John C. Fremont, a visionary explorer and resolute opportunist – did the world a great favor by calling this strait The Golden Gate, since that name suits the site just about perfectly. Some imagine he did so to respond to a gilt morning like this one, with peachy light rebounding from amber cliffs. Or that he did it to praise argonauts of the Gold Rush, who’d flooded through this strait to alter the landscape and its political and social future with such wanton profligacy. (Fremont had participated by linking his scouting regiment with the Bear Flag rebels in 1846; a move that put the ragtag coup over the top and helped usher California into the Union.) But, no. Fremont had named it in Greek, “Chrysopylae,” (Golden Gate), merely because it reminded him of images he’d seen of a harbor in Turkey called the Golden Horn (Chrysoceras).

Nevertheless, a Golden Gate cognomen makes a good caption for the dreams of many who sought this portal to refuge, who escaped violent storms to seek shelter in the bay’s anchorages, who fled vast and lonely seascapes for the harbor’s colorful bustle, who sailed from distant ports and risky north coast “dogholes,” gambling on the opulent rewards they’d win if only they were able to offload their cargos  on San Francisco wharves.

So, this strait has welcomed merchants and immigrants, refugees from everywhere, and soldiers returning from war. The act of making it into this harbor with your personal safety and your goods intact eventually turned grandly symbolic. Crossing the bar underscored the human hope of performing a quest that pays off. Hopes for peace, plans for prosperity, drove many over the bounding main and in through the Golden Gate.

Maybe I could talk about that.

A Species of Spectral Harvest

But I’d have to specify that my cargo manifest held only bundles of memory and discovery. I bore a harvest of ideas from the North Coast, principally this one: The region’s beauty isn’t solely a legacy of nature, but a bequest by citizen crusaders who fought long battles to preserve and protect the shoreline, and watersheds for miles inland. We owe it to them and our descendants to not only to save, but even to enhance this coast’s grand beaches, lush forests, pure streams and wild salmon. It’s one of the finest gifts our generation could ever bestow upon the future.

I also thought about celebrating the North Coast’s tradition of self-reliance and can-do activism. This pioneer mindset survives, even thrives, in most enclaves on the coast. I don’t claim that these communities face zero problems as a result! But while California and our nation seek to navigate a course to a sustainable future, we can take heart from this reminder that the tools of collective democracy and individual enterprise remain potent. Take them up, employ them locally; learn how they apply on a grand scale; and soon we might find ourselves dismantling difficulties, rather than watching them grow.

We should never let ourselves be paralyzed by the terror that comes from outside, or a fear of an error from within. The best part of our human spirit always strives to forge ahead, no matter the odds. True life can be lived in venturesome style if we fully embrace responsibility, appreciate blessings, solve problems whenever they crop up, and cope with hazards as they come.

OK, those would be my themes. But as far as use of specific language to parse them? Just have to let that well up in the moment, or I’d come across like a phony.

Barnes and Weed returned from the Regatta, buoyant with enthusiasm, and said that a number of the paddlers had promised they’d show up on Sunday morning and escort us in to our landing at Crissy Field.

Full Immersion in My Topic

As we polished off our grog, ambient lights took on a surreal aspect. Photo by John Weed.

As we polished off our grog, ambient lights took on a surreal aspect. Photo by John Weed.

As daylight faded, we proceeded to enjoy a celebratory dinner – I think we ate take-out burritos that Jim Irwin had purchased in San Rafael and brought down to us. That was fabulous, because our own hobo stews had worn out their welcome quite some time ago. As the sun sank and night fell with the speed and assurance of a boulder pitched off a cliff, we decided to lighten ship by swallowing all of our remaining grog and consuming whatever other party consumables we possessed in our stores.

Consequently, we were all many sheets to the wind (and I do not exclude a certain Chronicle photographer from the tipsy condition of our merry crew) while the tide came up and a swell even larger than that we’d seen on the previous night (11 feet at 13 seconds) began to rumble ashore. A line of wet, black sand crept inexorably toward our tents. I insisted we remain up and awake until it crested at 11 p.m., in case an evacuation proved necessary.

We wound up playing chicken with the onrushing scallops of cold water rinsing toward us across the slope of the beach. This meant lying face-down on the sand, and letting the edge of the seas almost touch our hands and heads. Suddenly I leapt up, under the impression I was about to get drenched. Barnes laughed and mocked me as perhaps a bit of a wuss.

“OK,” I said. “Fine.”

Rediscovering California's North Coast. width=

Paul McHugh just before he stripped and dove in the water. Photo by John Weed.

I peeled off my clothes, dropping them in a heap by my tent. And as a swell slid back, I ran stark naked right after it, splashing through its shallow backwash. As soon as I reached the steep edge of the beach, where deep and dark water coursed along on a rapid ingress to the bay, I dove forward.

I’d inhaled a big breath just prior to full immersion. I set my jaw to lock down that breath now and to help resist the shock of cold water as I sank, curled myself into a ball, clasped my arms around my knees, and just let myself bounce along on the bottom. I figured I had a couple seconds to soak before I’d get swept past the end of the beach – at which point I’d be deprived of any chance to return.

Time was up!

I straightened out, breast stroked twice, touched bottom, churned back up the sandy slope into air.

Barnes’ eyes were wide as I sprinted toward our group, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he’d just seen. “Did you go in? Did you put yourself all the way in?”

“Yep.”

He salaamed.

I jogged over to my clothes, thrust them back on as quickly as I could, crawled into my tent and sleeping bag, and proceeded to shiver for nearly an hour – while trying to assess the act I’d just performed. My judgment came as a pair of adjectives: it had been stupid, yet memorable. I smiled and went to sleep.

Our Big Trip’s Final Day

A gorgeous sunrise glimpsed from Kirby Cove. Photo by John Weed.

A gorgeous sunrise glimpsed from Kirby Cove. Photo by John Weed.

That Sunday morning dawned in mid-October with an uncanny resemblance to a spring day. Air temps were balmy, the breeze mild. We weren’t due to land at Crissy Field until 1 p.m., so I looked forward to a leisurely breakfast, followed by a methodical stint of packing up. But the kayak paddlers who wished to escort us in showed up way early, like 10 a.m., and Barnes and Weed both jittered with eagerness to get going. Finally I launched near 11:30 a.m., and we farted around for a while, weaving back and forth under the bridge and curving in toward the sea wall at Fort Point.

Our kayaks and escorts approach Crissy Field Beach. Photo by Michael Maloney.

Our kayaks and escorts approach Crissy Field Beach. Photo by Michael Maloney.

As we drew nigh to Crissy, even a few swimmers stroked out to greet us. Then I could see my wife’s broad grin, letters on a banner of welcome stretched between two poles, big cameras on tripods, many others handheld, and scores of waving, cheering people. Neat! I thought.

All ashore that’s going ashore. Photo by Michael Maloney.

All ashore that’s going ashore. Photo by Michael Maloney.

After I beached and clambered out of my kayak, I fell to my knees and kissed the soil of home (hey, if that maneuver’s good enough for the pope, it’s good enough for me) hugged and kissed Dawn, wrapped my lips around the neck of a bottle of champagne, slapped backs, shook hands, posed for photos, held still for interviews, shook more hands, accepted kudos from an impressive array of Chronicle editors, and uttered what I hoped were meaningful and coherent sentences.

Paul McHugh and Dawn Garcia enjoy a triumphant reunion. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Paul McHugh and Dawn Garcia enjoy a triumphant reunion. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

After about an hour or so, the tumult faded, and our team’s farewells were exchanged. I dressed in dry street clothes, stuck my sea kayak up on the roof of the car, strapped it down. Then it was over. I felt empty and full at the same time, elated and oddly melancholic. As I drove Dawn, myself, and the boat home, I marveled over the strangeness of steering a car, and having to deal with the onrush of auto and truck traffic rather than wind, current and waves.

Our Lessons Never End

Dawn Garcia, Paul McHugh, and Mom and Pop Garcia at Crissy Field Beach. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

Dawn Garcia, Paul McHugh, and Mom and Pop Garcia at Crissy Field Beach. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

I mulled over what I’d said into the cameras. I hoped I’d been able to accurately give my one memorized quote, a bit of the native wisdom of “Totem Salmon,” from the book by Freeman House. “Pay attention to the landscape, to what the animals are saying to you. Look to the long term… Be attentive; listen to what the planet is saying; it’s alive, all of it.”

And during that drive home I thought also on what I did not say. I regretted that I hadn’t so much as mentioned that nasty plume of brown air, the immense polluted exhalation I’d seen billow out from the Bay Area to spread across the sea. The omission made me feel some guilt, perhaps even a realization of faint-heartedness. So I’ll fix that flaw by bringing it up right now, at this bobbed tail of my re-creation of The North Coast Series – which I now render some ten years farther on.

Paul McHugh chats about nav equipment with fans of the voyage. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

Paul McHugh chats about nav equipment with fans of the voyage. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

An obvious if circumscribed adventure – like our long sea kayak voyage – can awaken, exhilarate and strengthen the soul. However, the only true and epic adventure is the whole great and grand adventure, which happens to be the one that we’re all on together. The challenge we face now is not simply preserving one building in a town, rescuing a species, or saving a patch of habitat. It is bringing succor to all environments, all creatures, and all of humanity. This we can only do if every one of us addresses our share in the production of that huge and noxious plume, and bends every thought and effort toward purifying our combined outputs as boldly and thoroughly as we can.

A banner headline for a winning team. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

A banner headline for a winning team. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

Steering toward home, I felt acutely aware of the stream of carbon that puffed from my own tailpipe. And I thought about what had been celebrated. And everything that had neither been recognized nor acknowledged, too. It’s tough to do it all justice.

Drawing Inside the Strait to a Golden Gate

North Coast Series Postlude

Drawing Inside the Strait to a Golden Gate

By | North Coast Series

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 13-14

Morning weather report: Fog. Heavy at times. Photo by John Weed.

Morning weather report: Fog. Heavy at times. Photo by John Weed.

Our ocean loop around Point Reyes the previous day had covered about 25 aquatic miles, but many of them had seemed featureless and surreal, as though we paddled within a spherical fog-globe, only a dot on a GPS screen to mark our position or progress. Today’s proposed route, from our Reyes nook to Bolinas, was a much shorter distance, about 18 miles, but any new landscape we’d pass would appear exactly the same –  a pudding of thick mist.

After a modicum, of good-natured grousing we gobbled some breakfast, packed up, and launched. Then something interesting happened: we lost Bo Barnes.

Hey, Where’d He Go?

One moment our three kayaks were bobbing around together, and I turned to talk to Weed. But when I looked back, Barnes was gone. Turned out he had glanced down at his deck to check on his own GPS, an imperceptible breeze had shoved us apart, and abruptly he’d gone invisible. Fog was that thick.

Paul McHugh paddling out from the wharf at Point Reyes. Photo by John Weed.

Know those small plastic whistles most kayakers wear for safety reasons? We got a chance to use ‘em. Repeated blasts echoing weirdly through the mist brought our trio back together. We set out, and after three hours passed the low clouds parted and we became able to glimpse the looming landmark of Double Point. All the fog was being shoved away now by a rare blast of easterly breeze. Looking far ahead in the direction of the Golden Gate, I caught a distant view: a huge wedge of brown, stained air emerged from the Bay Area to spread far out above the sea. It was a plume of pollution that constituted the conjoined exhalations of some five million humans, their vehicles and their industry.

The Task at Hand

The view disturbed me. However, there were much nearer phenomena that I needed to focus on. We bent our course southward to skirt the end of Duxbury Reef and slid in to make a beach landing at Bolinas on the faces of a mild swell.

Afloat o’er the foggy mystery of Drakes Bay. Photo by John Weed.

Afloat o’er the foggy mystery of Drakes Bay. Photo by John Weed.

Our day then was transformed into something that was not at all like adventurous coastal paddling. Barnes had a friend in Bolinas who’d previously agreed to rent us a comfortable house for a night; local personage Mark Frazier had arranged for us to stash our boats in a secure yard right by the beach so we didn’t have to haul them far; and Bolinas also boasted a bodacious boîte, the nearby Coast Café, ready, willing and able to ply us with juicy cheeseburgers and cold brews. Bonus: our rented house had a hot tub. Roughing it? Not hardly, not on this night. So we wound up in rather a good mood as we arose the next morning to make a quick dash down to Point Bonita and the entrance to the Golden Gate Strait.

How They Mist the Point

McHugh and Barnes give a paddle salute to the Point Bonita light. Photo by John Weed.

McHugh and Barnes give a paddle salute to the Point Bonita light. Photo by John Weed.

Except that fog had seeped back to sock in the shore with a vengeance, which felt somewhat daunting. That omnivorous blanket could hide more hazards the further south we went, due to commercial ship and recreational fishing boat (salmon season was now on) exiting and entering the bay through the Golden Gate. Very low “viz” meant a higher occurrence of problems. As it always has done.

A classic volume of local history, “Shipwrecks of the Golden Gate” (by James Delgado and Stephen Halter) observes that from the Gold Rush era well into modern times, nearly 100 vessels were lost within or near the strait. Perhaps twice that number of ships got stranded or rammed as well, yet somehow were rescued afterward.

Prior to man’s invention of electronic aids to navigation, such a robust casualty list was mainly due to a lack of visibility, unfamiliarity with the strait’s mighty tidal currents, fretful impatience on the part of ship captains, or an unholy alliance of all three elements. Economic imperatives of the time (Ross Perot’s “sucking sound” then boomed mightily out of California gold fields) drew so much sailing ship traffic that the fleet of incoming bowsprits seemed akin to a thicket of arrows aimed at the heart of San Francisco Bay. Yet once kedged or moored within, sailors and officers alike poured over ship gunnels the way lemmings do over a cartoon cliff, all determined to become rich as Croesus by shoveling, then sifting, infinite acres of mountain rock and mud in search of tiny glittering specks.

This development left hundreds, perhaps thousands, of empty ships jammed together, lashed side-by-side and bow-to-stern, along the “Frisco” waterfront – the famed Venice of Pine – and their proud, wave-carving hulls became converted to temporary warehouses, taverns, brothels or brigs, or – only occasionally and most happily for the owners – managed to be repopulated by a crew of fresh human dregs, shanghaied from the Barbary Coast. These unfortunates the captain sought to coerce out to sea well before they recovered from splitting hangovers or multiple instances of blunt force trauma to their thick skulls.

Ships abandoned on this waterfront would eventually burn, rot or be crushed under landfill as the city shoreline built outward and upward. Most such hulks remain anonymous to this day, until and unless their bones are disinterred when a basement or deep foundation gets carved out, to accommodate some new condo tower.

A Dramatic Beach Landfall

Ships that sank dramatically in or around the Golden Gate Strait, though, are remembered because each contributed a vivid page to maritime history.

Take the wreck of the S.S. Tennessee, whose name is now forever attached (much like her keel) to a rocky cove on the Marin County shore. Some of the arrows aimed at the mile-wide throat of the Golden Gate did, in fact, miss by a considerable margin. In 1853, this was the fate of the Tennessee, a new 1,275-ton wooden ship powered by both a side-wheel steam engine and a full complement of masts and sails. She was the pride of the Pacific Mail fleet, founded just five years before.

Her captain, eager to adhere to his delivery schedule, merrily steamed away through heavy fog when he spotted what he thought was Mile Rock, two miles to the westsouthwest of the Gate’s entry. Figuring himself almost home, Captain E. Mellus poured on more steam. However, an ebb current had pushed him five miles too far to the north. There was only about 60 feet of visibility at 9 a.m. on that March morning, and truth had been veiled to his eyes. What he’d really glimpsed was a knob at the end of a tall ridge on the Marin shore now known as Tennessee Point. And what he saw a few seconds later probably knitted his brows and put a lump in his throat.

Close-up view of Point Bonita’s light from the land side. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Close-up view of Point Bonita’s light from the land side. Photo by Paul McHugh.

He broke out through the fogbank to observe directly ahead no channel of open water, but a steep, sandy beach bordered by rocky bluffs. He was already trapped within the cove, with neither enough room to halt nor to come about. But credit that good captain with making a good and swift judgment. He compensated for his error by ordering full speed ahead, then rammed his ship right up onto the beach. Whereupon all passengers and crew evacuated over the bow in an orderly manner, without loss of a single life. All major goods, sacks of mail, chests of valuables, & etc. were safely off-loaded as well.

The ship herself? Not so fortunate. Before she could be dragged off by the SS Goliah and SS Thomas Hunt, sent to her rescue from San Francisco, heavy seas arrived to pound Tennessee into the sand, starting her seams, staving her ends, and sinking her. (Nowadays, at extreme low tides, the big rusty lump of her mighty engine can still be seen half-buried in the cove – presumably with a hunk of her keel pinned beneath.)

Going Straight for the Strait

Golden Gate Bridge, during the approach to Kirby Cove. Photo by John Weed.

Golden Gate Bridge, during the approach to Kirby Cove. Photo by John Weed.

As our trio of sea kayaks neared the Golden Gate, we achieved a level of visibility similar to that enjoyed by Captain Mellus. We could hear surf beating against Tennessee Point, then the offshore outcrop of Bird Island, but see neither of these prominent features. We approached a bell buoy that surged and clanged, riding the swell, then watched a pair of power boats charge at speed around it with bows high and pale wakes sweeping out from their sterns. Fortunately, their skippers spotted us (we hung closely together to make a more visible clump) and veered around us.

And next, like an aged ghost appearing on Elsinore’s crenellated battlement, a tiny lighthouse at the tip of Point Bonita floated from the mist, with the vivid white spark of the beacon flashing out from its lantern room.

Barnes and I clashed our paddle blades together in a spontaneous victory salute, while Weed snapped a photo.

But we had not safely made port ourselves, not quite yet.

Ayala’s Ebb Tide Treadmill

Out here at the mouth of the Golden Gate, a decent ebb tide (3.3 knots) was about to peak. Such ebb forces had bedeviled not only Captain Mellus, but also the very first skipper to ever seek to penetrate into the bay. That was Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala commanding a 58 foot-long, square-rigged packet boat, the San Carlos, back in June of 1775. In Ayala’s case, a maximum ebb tide (above 6 knots), draining the bay at a furious pace had shoved him off toward the Farallons. It took him a full twelve hours to tack back in – by which time, of course, the day’s second ebb had started.

Our small sea kayaks boasted a unique advantage, though: we could safely paddle close to the north side of the strait, heading for Point Diablo and the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, well outside the main thrust of the current.

Snug Harbor - our camp against the bluffs at Kirby Cove.

Snug Harbor – our camp against the bluffs at Kirby Cove. Photo by John Weed.

Barnes found an even bigger advantage. He’d paddled the Golden gate more often than Weed or I, so he knew that a strong eddy or counter-current rotated against the main force of the ebb, inside both Bonita Cove and Kirby Cove between Diablo and the bridge. So, although it seemed the long way ‘round, he found and rode on that secret stream, and shot out way ahead of the rest of us.

We made landfall on the brown sand of Kirby Cove, drew our boats up out of reach of the waves. I’d sought and won special permission from the Park Service to camp there, so I hiked up the steps to scout out the small, bowl-shaped valley and select a site. This had been an army artillery site, 1898-1934, then became re-jiggered and transfigured into a primitive Golden Gate Recreation Area campground. But the path was steep, our gear bags numerous and heavy, so – not for the first time – my partners mutinied.

And this time, they were right.

Selection of a Site on the Sand

Jewel box – night lights of a famed bridge, and the San Francisco skyline. Photo by John Weed.

Jewel box – night lights of a famed bridge, and the San Francisco skyline. Photo by John Weed.

I argued that my special access pass had been issued for the campground, not the beach, so we should stay up there. They riposted that if my permission was nearly as special as I’d claimed it was, it should apply anywhere. I went on to warn that, with a full moon scheduled to rise, the beach was looking at a pretty high tide, of plus 5.7 feet, combined with a good-sized lump of swell. Should we camp down on the sand, even close to the bluff, we might all get swept off into cold, wet darkness around 10 o’clock that night. OK they responded, when-and-if that looked near to happening, they’d both happily evacuate to higher ground – but why go to all that trouble before we absolutely needed to?

Our beach camp was threatened twice by high tides and large swells.

Our beach camp was threatened twice by high tides and large swells. Photo by Paul McHugh.

I hated to admit it, but it made sense. And so I acquiesced.

We wound up nestled at the edge of a maritime wilderness, on the threshold of one of the world’s grand ports, which featured the glow of an immense gilt bridge, twinkling lights of distant cities and, the prospect of a spectacular sunrise, all wreathed about by the random ebb and flow of swirling veils of cloud and mist. Soundtrack for this movie consisted of the hoot of foghorns, a steady suck and boom of swells rearing up to expire on the Kirby Cove beach, and – as it turned out – exactly zero human complaints.

Try to Go Past the Landlord’s Lair

Home are the Sailors, Home from the Sea

Try to Go Past the Landlord’s Lair

By | North Coast Series

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 11-12

Waves roll from distant Tomales Bay onto the beach at Bodega. Photo by John Weed.

Waves roll from distant Tomales Bay onto the beach at Bodega. Photo by John Weed.

We felt warmly welcomed by many folks at each port-of-call along our voyage – by fishermen, harbormasters, rangers, innkeepers, plus local folk of all descriptions in an amazing array of jobs. Staff I’d contacted at Point Reyes National Seashore proved especially kind in providing advice and permissions to ease our passage around their park.

However, one park biologist also offered a chilling warning. “You know, fall is breeding season for the elephant seals. So, great white sharks grow quite active at this time of year, around all the seal rookeries at Point Reyes.”

(For those unaccustomed to bureau-speak, I’ll offer a translation: “Active” equals “Bitey.”)

“So, you advise us not to paddle there?” I asked.

She hesitated. “I do not recommend it,” she said.

A Hint of the Presence of Sharks

Bottom half of a harbor seal – delivered courtesy of a great white shark. Photo by John Weed.

Bottom half of a harbor seal – delivered courtesy of a great white shark. Photo by John Weed.

Her warning got seconded in an unusual way. John Weed is an adept and accomplished beachcomber. Among other treasures, during our voyage he’d found a perfectly good Tilley hat, a nice fleece jacket, and a loose sea lion’s tooth. A minimal requirement for Weed’s art is seizing every chance to patrol a beach. On the morn before we departed from Bodega, he strolled the strand at low tide, and spotted an odd-looking lump. On closer inspection, he noted it was the tail and flippers of a harbor seal – a mammal recently sawed in half by the jaws of a great white.

A sobering view, but hopefully, not a prophetic one.

The mouth of Tomales Bay, where we planned to go next to make landfall on Point Reyes, is generally considered rather “sharky.” So are several beach areas around Point Reyes, like those below Chimney Rock. Hell, pretty much all of that area constitutes a hotspot of the infamous Red Triangle, where most of the Pacific Coast’s shark attacks occur.

Bo Barnes had rejoined us now, so our trio devised a policy of keeping the three kayaks close, and keeping our paddle strokes synchronized. With luck, that would make us appear too large and too machine-like an entity to draw much shark interest.

Ducking into a Beach

A narrow strip of sand for our tents at Duck Beach on Point Reyes. Photo by John Weed.

A narrow strip of sand for our tents at Duck Beach on Point Reyes. Photo by John Weed.

Since NOAA had predicted strong southwest winds for the afternoon, we set out early for the 9-mile sprint to Tomales Bay, and by 2:30 p.m. we were ensconced on the narrow band of sand at Duck Beach, on the northeast corner of the Point Reyes peninsula. It was a balmy spot, sheltered from the wind. After pitching his tent, Weed immediately fell asleep on his bag at the entrance. Meanwhile, a gently rising tide made the hulls of our kayaks start to bob at the spot where we had beached them. This gave me an excellent idea for a prank.

Barnes and I toted our boats up and placed them in front of our tents. John Weed’s boat, we carried up and placed behind his tent. Then Barnes and I laid ourselves down and pretended to take naps, too. After a bit, Weed roused himself, sat up, and looked out on the bay. He noticed us and our boats. His boat was nowhere in view. The obvious conclusion: his kayak had gotten loose, and floated away on the tide. In which case he was now marooned here, with no way to complete his voyage. Frowning, he slowly rose to his feet, then rotated his head multiple times as he gazed across the bay and up and down the beach. Finally, from the corner of one eye, he spotted his kayak’s stern poking out from behind his tent.

“Aha. Did you find your boat?” I asked.

“You bastard,” he said. He smiled. “But that’s OK. I deserved it.”

A tule elk traverses brush path on a ridge at Point Reyes. Photo by Paul McHugh.

A tule elk traverses brush path on a ridge at Point Reyes. Photo by Paul McHugh.

In the afternoon light that remained, Barnes hiked across the peninsula’s spine to scout out if we might shorten the next day’s route by paddling between the huge, offshore sea-stack of Bird Rock and the end of Tomales Point. His conclusion: Nope, too rough. I went by a different trail to see if I could get a photo of one of park’s tule elk. My results: Yep!

Onward through the Fog

The morning of Wednesday, October 12, dawned drenched by pearly grey light. The sun struggled to pierce a fog layer that hung low above Tomales Bay. I could only imagine how thick the fog might be on the sea-side of Point Reyes. Anticipating the need, I plugged fresh batteries into my Garmin mapping GPS.

Yet, once we got out to sea, it was even thicker than I’d been able to imagine. This fog went past pea-soup to plunge into clam-chowder territory. The enveloping quilt of grey was both spooky and mystic. Our entire world consisted of a circle holding three dim kayaks gliding about a paddle-length apart, bordered by featureless fuzz. Our sole aids to navigation were the tiny bright screen of the GPS, and the thunder of the surf that pounded onto Great Beach to our left.

While the triangular, serrated teeth of a big great white are rather memorable, truth is that the ragged fangs of rocky pinnacles have inflicted far more damage on humankind. Plenty of places along the Pacific Coast have been dubbed, “a graveyard of ships,” but Pt. Reyes really earned that moniker. From 1595 (when the Manila galleon San Augustin dragged her anchor in a November storm and wrecked in Drake’s Bay) until 1944 (when the Liberty ship Henry Bergh, overburdened with 1,300 soldiers sailing home from war in the South Pacific, smashed at full speed into a reef off the Farallons in heavy fog), more than 70 ships foundered and sank along a stretch of shore that extends from Tomales Point to Bolinas.

In the latter emergency, through dexterous use of lifeboats, a breeches buoy, and rescue craft sent out from San Francisco, the Henry Bergh lost not a man.

Wreck of the Sea Nymph

Paul McHugh paddles in heavy fog off the west shore of Point Reyes. Photo by John Weed.

Paul McHugh paddles in heavy fog off the west shore of Point Reyes. Photo by John Weed.

That was a lucky episode, but my absolute favorite rescue tale at Point Reyes occurred in 1861. The clipper ship Sea Nymph, flying under full sail as she rushed toward the Golden Gate – again, a very ill-advised speed to use amid dense fog at night – had slammed right up onto Great Beach. A Canadian cowboy, Carlisle S. Abbott, newly arrived on Point Reyes to help work his brother’s dairy ranch, heard the alarm cannons and saw the flares, and rode to the sailors’ rescue. He gathered lariats from several saddles, tied one around his waist and handed the end to onlookers. Then he waded into the seething seas, and lassoed hapless mariners as they abandoned ship and struggled toward shore. In the end, only a single life was lost.

As we paddled along, keeping the thunder of Great Beach at a steady level of decibels off to our port side, we remained very aware of the risk. But unlike the Henry Bergh or the Sea Nymph, we were in no special hurry. Steady as she goes should get ‘er done for us. Barnes had one heart-stopping moment when he plunged his paddle down and it thunked into something solid – but it turned out to just be an extremely large jellyfish. Weed had another when he spotted a jutting fin – that actually belonged to a mola-mola.

Foggiest, Windiest Place on Coast

Paddlers in the mist – we find a place to land and camp at the foot of a wharf. Photo by John Weed.

Paddlers in the mist – we find a place to land and camp at the foot of a wharf. Photo by John Weed.

By government records, Point Reyes is supposedly both the foggiest and windiest place on the whole Pacific Coast. On this day, it was able to live up to both reputations. About 1:30 p.m., wind sprang up – NOAA had predicted it would reach 25 knots – and it ripped the curtain of fog away from a rock promontory where the lighthouse stood, revealing it to our view. This light, a cone of cast iron erected in 1870 on a point a hundred yards above sea level, is an exact duplicate of the old Cape Mendocino light (now moved and put on display at Shelter Cove).

As exposed ocean capes are wont to do, Point Reyes stirred up a brew of clashing waves and swirling winds. We rode this tilt-a-whirl around the point itself, then bent our course eastward and surfed the oceanic pulse east toward Chimney Rock, admiring the way the fog would flow and tear over the ridges to the north, like creeping vapors from dry-ice.

Then abruptly, we were socked-in once more.

“That’s one helluva strip-tease!” I shouted to my paddling companions. “The lady’s putting it all back on!”

We rounded the horn of Chimney Rock, whereupon the wind smacked into us head-on from a fresh direction, pasting our faces with wet billows of fog. In another mile or so, by the time we made our pre-arranged campsite at a commercial pier owned by rancher George Nuñes, we were thoroughly drenched and chilled. The evening’s sole bright spots were the blue rings of fire that sputtered on our camp stoves as we brewed up dinner.

The Greening of Bodega Head

Drawing Inside the Strait to a Golden Gate

The Greening of Bodega Head

By | North Coast Series

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 10

Words are slippery. Yep, they truthfully inform, but can also be deployed to deceive. Amid the course of human events, warring parties often do battle via dueling narratives long before they get around to exchanging blows.

The ocean side of Bodega Head, southern anchor of the 17 mile-long Sonoma Coast State park.

The ocean side of Bodega Head, southern anchor of the 17 mile-long Sonoma Coast State park. Photo courtesy of California State Parks.

I’ll provide an example. In my site posting before this one, I suggested Bodega Bay might be so labeled since the place was used as an exchange site for trade goods by both the Russians and the Spanish. Such a place-name origin seems reasonable and even likely, since “bodega” was a word for a warehouse or other type of storage facility. You might buy that, if you did not know that a Spanish explorer, Captain Juan Francisco de Bodega y Cuadra discovered this bay and sailed into it in 1775, whereupon he proceeded to visit and trade with the local Seglogue tribelet of the Coast Miwok. So, it’s most likely the place was named after that adventurous skipper.

Hey, Got Your “Steam” Right Here, Pal

Another instance of the slippery nature of words is found in a claim by PG&E (Pacific Gas & Electric Company, the biggest utility in Northern California) made early in the 1960s, that they planned to build a benign-sounding “steam-electric” plant out at Bodega Bay on the headlands. But they left one big detail out of their pitch: that steam would be generated, not by some “ginormous” copper tea kettle, but by a nuclear reactor.

How that fact came to light, who shone a light on it, and the battle waged once truth was revealed, all constitutes one of the most seminal and inspirational tales of North Coast environmentalism.

I’ll initiate the telling of that tale with my launch off the beach at Doran Park on the crisp October morn after our arrival. I paddled around a jetty to the entrance of the bay proper. On the entry channel’s left side, I made landfall on a narrow beach where a band of silver water trickled over darkened sand.

The Hole-in-the-Head pond; once a site for a nuclear reactor, now a bird refuge. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

The Hole-in-the-Head pond; once a site for a nuclear reactor, now a bird refuge. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

This is a creek that runs down from a spring that fills a pond called Hole-in-the-Head, then courses over its brim to run into the bay. It’s a spring that made the area highly attractive to the Miwoks and the European sailors. A reason it bubbles up here is because the headland’s bedrock is deeply fractured, due to a location nearly atop the famed San Andreas earthquake fault.

You should also know that the Hole-in-the-Head pond is the precise spot where PG&E wished to plop a foundation for its nuclear reactor.

An Eco-Knight Emeritus

Environmental crusaders Bill and Lucy Kortum arrive at Bodega Head.. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Environmental crusaders Bill and Lucy Kortum arrive at Bodega Head.. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

After I made landfall and hauled up my boat to a safe mooring, I watched a new Prius hybrid car drive up. From it emerged a tall man with white hair, Bill Kortum, and a shorter, silver-haired woman, his wife Lucy, ages 78 and 77, respectively. Kortum, a veterinarian from Cotati, transformed himself into a coastal crusader, passionately devoted for many years to defeating the nuclear plant proposal.

Why? Let’s turn back the clock to his boyhood.

Raised in Paradise

“My family went back for generations in this area,” Kortum told me. “I grew up near Petaluma and Cotati when there was only a few thousand people living there. My dad was a poultry expert with a 22-acre breeding ranch. We could hike cross-country, fling lines into potholes in the streams and catch a fish in every one. We wandered all over with a huge sense of freedom. We’d go to the coast and take abalone out of almost every cove without having to wade in any deeper than our waists.

“I never thought the bounty of that California might vanish in my lifetime, but I’ve seen the powers-that-be work hard to rub it out. When I was a kid, the state wanted to put a highway right through our ranch and even knock down our house. I watched my father and older brother battle that project. It gave me a good sense of how to fight.”

After he graduated with the second class in veterinary medicine ever to go through U.C. Davis, Kortum became a large-animal vet, working on ranches throughout the region. He happened to see an article in the local paper that revealed the source of heat behind the “steam” planned for the Bodega Head plant, and his hackles shot up. He already knew a dairy farm in England downwind of a British nuclear plant had to cease production due to airborne contamination. Not only that, but PG&E’s prototype reactor up at Humboldt Bay was also steadily emitting radioactive isotopes – and the one planned for Bodega would be 15 times larger. Ruination of the “green and pleasant land” of Sonoma County seemed imminent.

Kortum published a letter detailing his health objections about the project in the San Francisco Chronicle, and the battle was joined.

An Eco Coalition is Born

One thing Kortum emphasized to me was that the struggle wasn’t his alone. “It was us.  The fight was won with the help of many people. Bodega Head was a defining moment in the environmental movement,” Kortum said. “People saw they could speak up, take on major institutions and win.”

The eco-crusaders included: Kortum and his brother Karl; Rose Gaffney, a feisty, elderly rancher whose holdings included 482 acres on the Bodega Head; Dave Pesonen, a young veteran of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement; plus their secret weapon, Hazel Mitchell, a smart-as-a-whip Texan ex-pat who happened to be a waitress at a Bodega waterfront restaurant called The Tides – a place where PG&E executives and engineers from the plant site often took lunch.

A nuclear facility had been on the drawing boards of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s engineering consultant Bechtel as early as 1955. When PG&E chose Bodega as its prime site for the “steam electric” project, Sonoma County’s political powers fully endorsed it, predicting a bonanza.

The Waitress Who Knew Too Much

“Yep. They said our streets would be paved with gold. Didn’t mention they’d also be radioactive,” Mitchell recalled when I visited her at home during a research trip. By then, she’d moved away from Bodega to live in a duplex in Santa Rosa. But she fondly recalled her five years of work at The Tides diner, 1958-1963. She’d struck up chats with Alfred Hitchcock and his movie crew when he came to Bodega to shoot, “The Birds,” in 1961. But she really remembered overhearing PG&E execs, drinking, dining, and boasting about their new power plant.

“I hit the ceiling, but I kept it to myself,” Mitchell told me. “I wasn’t about to see a place I loved get destroyed. You can’t take a beautiful, natural wonder like Bodega Head and turn it all industrial,” Mitchell told me. “Something like that just has to be a park.”

Mitchell took her hand-written petition of opposition to the local Fishermen’s Grange crabfeed and promptly acquired 300 signatures – a good start toward her eventual grand total of 1,300.

Her next move was creating a new Bodega chamber of commerce as a counterweight to all the other businessmen who had endorsed PG&E’s project.

Don’t Get a Cowgirl Mad

Meanwhile, Gaffney became infuriated when it seemed as if her headlands acreage could be condemned by eminent domain and transferred to the utility. Gaffney had originally made her way to Bodega by jumping freight cars, and lived in an old shack out on the headlands. She was famed for either chasing trespassers off her land with a baseball bat, or brandishing a .22-caliber rifle. She often demanded a dollar for the privilege of walking across the headlands to the sea. Consequently, she wouldn’t take an affront like PG&E’s lying down. She sued, then mounted a letter-writing campaign. She vowed, “I’ll fight them if it takes every cent I have in this world.”

Over in Cotati, Kortum, working his large-animal practice with the aid of two partners, continued to research the side-effects of nuclear power. He found that the facility in England had poisoned pastures and livestock by liberally sprinkling them with iodine-131, and something similar had happened on the pastures of Humboldt. Nearly all his agricultural clients were downwind of prevailing westerlies from Bodega, so he rallied Sonoma farmers to combat this new threat to their way of life.

We’ll Put Our Reactor on Ball Bearings

Pesonen, a forestry student and youthful member of the Sierra Club, overcame the reluctance of the old guard and coaxed the club into the fight. He and Doris Sloan, a Berkeley professor of environmental science, steadily brought criticism to bear until they finally turned up a bit of important fact that could deliver the coup de grace: the proximity of the San Andreas Fault. It ran straight down the entrance to Bodega Bay.

“PG&E just tried to laugh it off,” Kortum told me. “Their consultants said, ‘Oh, we can deal with that by just installing our reactor on roller bearings.’ ”

The state Public Utilities Commission didn’t like that joke. Didn’t even crack a smile.

Though the utility had sunk $3.9 million into a hole in the ground, en route to building a $60 million plant they hoped to have running by 1965, PG&E ended up selling all its Bodega holdings to the state Department of Parks and Recreation for a token $1.

Best “Birding” Spot in Sonoma County

Great Blue Heron resting between hunting ventures. Photo by D. A. Levy.

Great Blue Heron resting between hunting ventures at Bodega Bay. Photo by D. A. Levy.

Forty years in the past, the “Hole in the Head” was a concrete cylinder 90 feet across and 120 feet deep where PG&E planned the base of its containment vessel. Today, it’s a deep pond, lush with cattails and willows. It’s one of Sonoma County’s hottest birding spots.

Kortum went on to help found COAAST (Californians Organized to Acquire Access to State Tidelands), which developed Proposition 20 in 1972 — the Coastal Protection Act. Prop. 20 is now praised as the first major grassroots citizens’ initiative focused on the environment in the United States.

Within a decade, its provisions spawned an impressive legacy: the state Coastal Commission, which regulates shoreline development; the Coastal Conservancy, which funds environmental projects; the 1,200-mile California Coastal Trail, planned to run from Oregon to Mexico, now 60 percent complete; and provisions for public access including paths through Sea Ranch and a now-open gate at David Geffen’s Malibu estate.

It’s All About The Land

Hikers on a trail at Bodega Head. Photo courtest California State Parks.

Hikers on a trail at Bodega Head. Photo courtesy of California State Parks.

“It’s all about the landscape,” Kortum told me, out on the boardwalk leading to the Hole pond. “As a large animal vet, I was out on the land every day. I saw we have to fight for the landscape we want to keep. When we worked on the Coastal Initiative, a slogan we used was that each Californian owns only 2 inches of shore. It’s much less now, of course. So it all should be shared.”

That might’ve been the end of the nuke, but it wasn’t the end of the story.

“During the PG&E battle, I found out politics can be fun,” Mitchell said. She worked with a new group, the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association, to recall two county supervisors who had favored the nuclear plant. Hazen met local contractor Wes Mitchell in 1961, married him in 1963, and went on to become a real estate broker. The pair wound up favoring planned development in the area much more than Kortum did. After he was elected a county supervisor, they helped to recall him into the bargain. However, today, all parties speak amicably of each other.

Bill Kortum still lives on a Petaluma ranch, and runs five cows — to keep his hand in.

“To keep your moxie alive, work at it,” Kortum growls. “Democracy isn’t exercised enough, in my opinion. If you think you’re right, don’t be scared to stick your neck out.”

Who’ll Be The New Crusaders?

Mitchell, 87, moved with her husband Wes to that duplex in Santa Rosa. She’s confined to a wheelchair. A car wreck broke her back in 1982. Recently, she experienced a series of strokes. But she swears she’ll live to 90, if not 100.

“My doctor says I could, because I’m about that stubborn,” says Mitchell.

Mitchell’s advice sounds like Kortum’s. “If you’re interested an issue at all, just go ahead and get yourself involved. But don’t trust bureaucrats as far as you can throw ‘em.”

(NB: Bill Kortum passed away in 2014, nine years after I met him at Bodega Head; Hazel Mitchell died in 2008 – she did in fact make it to age 90. Their legacy endures.)

Sailin’ on South

Try to Go Past the Landlord’s Lair

Sailin’ on South

By | North Coast Series

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh
October 9

Lucky me! Dawn drove up from just south of San Francisco to share part of a day and evening with me on another gorgeous stretch of California’s North Coast. As long as you stay patient and flow with the rhythm of a curvy road, it’s a great drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and along Highway 1 to the north.

I feel happy and confident on the beach at Fort Ross; the end of our voyage is almost in sight.

I feel happy and confident on the beach at Fort Ross; the end of our voyage is almost in sight. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

Thanks to the benevolent intercession of Sarah Gould and the kindness of the park officials, we got to spend it in the commandant’s quarters, a candle-lit room on the upper floor of the fort’s Kuskov House – named for Ivan Kuskov, the fort’s founder and one-time right-hand of Alexander Baranov, the supreme boss of the Russian-American Company.

Lounging in Officer Country

After spending a comfortable and relaxing night up there, the light of a balmy and clear morning filtered in through the house windows. We exited and strolled down to the cove to share coffee and breakfast with John Weed.

Launching from Fort Ross. Nothing wakes you up faster than a snootful of cold seawater.

Launching from Fort Ross. Nothing wakes you up faster than a snootful of cold seawater. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

Then he and I packed up for a 21-mile sprint southward to Bodega Bay. A few fans of our voyage appeared on the beach to see us off, while Dawn recorded our departure for posterity with her camera.

Once outside the shelter of Little Ruminatsev (nee, “Sandy”) Cove, we finally could see the hand of cards the sea had dealt us today: a comparatively mild scenario of 7-foot seas with 13-seconds between crests, stroked by a mere 16-knot breeze.

“You want to go paddling today, even though it looks easy?” I asked Weed.

He shrugged.

Cruising Past the Russian River

Waving a farewell to the watchers on the shore. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

Waving a farewell to the watchers on the shore. Photo by Dawn Garcia.

So we went for it, hitting a steady, workmanlike pace all the way down the Sonoma County coast. We were fairly flying along by the time we passed the mouth of the Russian River with its distinctive landmark of Goat Rock. By now, I must say, both of us were quite fit. Not only physically conditioned to take hundreds of paddle strokes every hour, but thousands each day. And also able and willing to incorporate all the sea’s bumps and windy blasts into our forward progress as though they were no big deal. At this point it all just constituted another day at the office, so to speak.

Turning Down a Rescue

Weed and McHugh paddle on a windswept sea, past the headlands of Bodega Bay. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Weed and McHugh paddle on a windswept sea, past the headlands of Bodega Bay. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

So it was a bit amusing when a power boat pulled up alongside us just to the north of Bodega Head, and its skipper leaned over the rail to inquire if we needed his help.

I told him – a bit saucily – that we both were fine, we’d seen much worse conditions, and by the way, how was he doing? Did he need any help from us? Baffled, frowning, he leaned back and shoved his throttles forward and disappeared from our view.

We rounded the headlands and stroked in to the shore of the long sand spit that constitutes the main and southern portion of Sonoma’s Doran County Park, made landfall and proceeded to occupy the camp site that I’d reserved in advance weeks earlier, for exactly, as it turned out, this precise evening. I’m not claiming prescience, just indicated that after giant distortions in our schedule over the course of a month, we were solidly back to paddling the plan.

The campground on a sandy spit, Doran County Park at Bodega Bay. Photo by John Weed.

The campground on a sandy spit, Doran County Park at Bodega Bay. Photo by John Weed.

We pitched tents, we unfurled mats and sleeping bags. But we did not need to make dinner, because we had someone bringing it. Not just anyone, but Dianne Levy, a long-time Chronicle staffer who’d played many roles at the paper over her long tenure, had just retired from the paper’s marketing department, had moved to Bodega, and on weekends sold her excellent paintings and photographic prints to tourists from a set-up on her front yard. Dianne brought us wine, hot pizza, and her own cheery presence, so she was welcome three times over.

Camping is good. Camping in style is even better.

But after we crawled into our tents and sleeping bags to nod off, the quiet essence of Bodega Bay drifted to us in the form of a salty breeze and the gentle rhythm of waves that rinsed the sheltered beach from the south.

On the Site of an Ancient Village

“Bodega,” is the Spanish word for a pantry, a cellar or a warehouse, and the bay was certainly used that way by both the Spanish and Russians. It was a lush and sheltered spot, blessed with a spring that gushed cold fresh-water in the headlands. Before both sets of Europeans used the place to rendezvous for their illicit trade deals (vainly forbidden by authorities in distant Mexico), the bay was a stronghold of the Coast Miwok tribal culture, which had settled at least six villages around the bay’s perimeter. One of those villages, Tokau, existed fairly close to our present location. I had no idea at all what “Tokau,” meant, but as I fell asleep, I was dreaming that the surf might tell me.

A Peaceable Fortification

The Greening of Bodega Head

A Peaceable Fortification

By | North Coast Series

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.

A Russky Homecoming

Sailin’ on South

A Russky Homecoming

By | North Coast Series

San Francisco Chronicle
California North Coast Series
By Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer
October 7

We rolled out from our sleeping bags and unzipped the tents to gaze upon a new day, yet encountered a scene that closely resembled what we’d seen on the two previous mornings.

Out on the bounding main, amid a high swell and a stiff breeze. Photo by John Weed.

Out on the bounding main, amid a high swell and a stiff breeze. Photo by John Weed.

The big swell had fallen a bit and shortened its interval between crests, but the wind had kicked up to 26 knots, so the seascape remained a jumbled blue expanse, fretted and freckled with white. After brewing up coffee and breakfast, Weed and I consulted one another. Since our launch spot was sheltered and calm, and so was our prospective landing site at Fort Ross, we figured we could cover the 9 remaining miles in good order, no matter how rough they were.

“How bad could it be?” asked Weed. That’s one of his standard jokes, since you never gain your definitive answer until after you’ve committed to the run.

Obviously Not Experts!

Just before we launched, exploiting a rare burst of clarity in the coastal cell phone signal, I was able to contact our main resource at Fort Ross State Historic Park, one Sarah Gould, to tell her we were heading her way. I predicted our approximate time of arrival.

Gould laughed heartily. “Well, I just talked to a ranger, and he said if you guys were real experts, you would not even try to go sea kayaking in these conditions!”

After I rang off, I related this to Weed, and he laughed too.

Closing in on the bluff and mesa that holds Fort Ross. Photo by John Weed.

Closing in on the bluff and mesa that holds Fort Ross. Photo by John Weed.

But once we sprang free of our sheltered nook, I have to admit, it turned fairly rough. Luckily, most of the marine energy was again delivered to our sterns, but in a far more chaotic way than before. Constant pitch and yaw were themes of our open-ocean kayak dance. To move well, we needed to keep our lower backs and hips loose, and let our hulls move beneath us like living things, permitted to display wills of their own.

We saw a huge “V” of brown pelicans, more than 100, cruising southward gracefully on the winds. Weed said they were probably migrating to the Sea of Cortez. He’d often seen them nest on Baja isles.

A Petaluma class attending a Living History class at Fort Ross.

Grammar school kids from Petaluma attending a Living History class at Fort Ross. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

The nearer we got to Fort Ross, the more I thought of native Alaskan paddlers, the first kayakers to set blade in these waters, 200 years ago.

These Aleuts treated their kayaks as living beings, full partners in voyages and hunts. They built them with lashed frames of driftwood and sea lion hide covers. I’ve paddled modern versions of such “baidarkas” — they slither over seas in a more sensuous, responsive manner than modern kayaks, which are built of tougher but far stiffer types of plastic or fiberglass.

Arrival at Fort Ross

The kids fire a cannon salute to welcome our kayaks to port in the cove. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

The kids fire a cannon salute to welcome our kayaks to port in the cove. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Weed and I rounded the northern horn of Little Ruminatsev Cove (now also called Sandy Cove). A redwood stockade of the rebuilt fort loomed high on the bluff.

We heard a cannon boom. Blue smoke drifted above the sea. Tears came to my eyes. I thought of generations of voyagers welcomed to port by similar artillery salutes, and felt honored that we had been awarded a similar display.

But for a second, I had to wonder whether the year was 2005, or 1815.

We approach the beach as school kids walk down a path to greet us. Photo by John Weed.

We approach the beach as school kids walk down a path to greet us. Photo by John Weed.

As we paddled in to shore, we could see a horde of schoolchildren, fourth grade classes from McKinley Elementary in Petaluma, make their way down a path to the cove. They were present for a two-day educational event, part of the state park’s living history program. A “militia detail” among them had fired the gun.

Stephen Littlebear also stood there in traditional Aleutian paddling garb.

A Santa Rosa resident, Littlebear has for years worked with the Fort Ross Interpretive Association, a volunteer group that supports the park.

“Tovarisch!” he greeted me in Russian, calling me friend and offering a warm embrace.

Celebrating a Tradition

Stephen Littlebear, in traditional Aleut paddling garb, waits to extend a welcome. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Stephen Littlebear, in traditional Aleut paddling garb, waits to extend a welcome. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

We all trooped up to the fort for a bit more living history. Littlebear’s handmade baidarka sat displayed on a picnic table. The craft took him 13 months of painstaking work to build. Its willow ribs are dyed with ocher and oil, representing bloody ribs of a living being. Shaped blocks represent a pelvis near the stern. Images of bear and salmon, spirit helpers, are carved into the cockpit rim. A traditional hull wrapping of cured sea lion hides, however, was impossible to achieve – since they’re a protected species. Nylon, stained with coffee and tea to resemble tanned hide, had to do.

“As I hand-built this boat,” Littlebear told me, “I could feel a kinship with everyone who has ever built a kayak. You do something in the old way, gain insight into the way old-time people thought. How they solved problems, how they made a brilliant solution they could pass along.”

Littlebear was one of the instructors for a two-day Environmental Living Program for the schoolkids. After chatting with the kids, I thanked them (“Spaceba!”) for welcoming me and Weed ashore. Then, in their Russian peasant outfits, the kids left the fort.

Littlebear, his wife, Deborah, park historical interpreter Sarah Gould, Weed, I and a few others piled into the officer’s quarters for a repast: Deborah’s homemade borscht, wheat bread and dried fish.

Teaching the Old Ways

I asked Littlebear why he put so much energy into re-creating the ways of the Aleuts.

“Been a teacher all my life,” he said. “When I was a martial arts instructor, the kids’ program was most important.

“In building an artifact like my skin boat, one faces many of the same problems as the original native builders. As you solve those, you gain insight into how they thought and felt. That’s what I seek to share. I want to explain why you must ask Willow’s permission to take ribs from the streamside groves. I want to show how the men built the frame, singing songs that helped them remember each lashing, then women stitched the cover. It took a village to make a kayak,” Littlebear said.

Baidarkas. Image from the 1900s.

Baidarkas. Image from the 1900s.

“A good skin baidarka was the Porsche of the Aleutian islands,” he told me. “I love the lines of this boat, and I very much appreciate its engineering. As I hand-built it, I could feel a kinship. You do something in the old way, gain insight into the way old-time people thought. How they solved problems, how they made a brilliant solution they could pass along.”

Exploring traditional, animist ways has been part of Littlebear’s personal odyssey. He grew up in the Deep South, unaware of his family’s own American Indian strain. But repeated visions of bears drew him to keep a dream journal, then make contact with various tribes. Finally, his mother told him, “Your great-grandmother was a Choctaw. I guess that blood will out.”

Song for a Beloved Boat

Littlebear finished our feast by reciting an Inupiat song about the close relations between a hunter and his kayak.

“I sing to the seasI sing to my kayakIt is part of my body,

We fly upon the waves.

It is my companion, my brother,

It is my wife.

If I die on the sea, we die together.

If we go down together, we remain together.

If I die an old man it will rest upon my grave,

And still we go on together.

And still we remain together.”

Littlebear helps Weed beach his craft at Fort Ross. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Littlebear helps Weed beach his craft at Fort Ross. Photo by Michael Maloney, S.F. Chronicle.

Littlebear looked at me, and metaphorically drew a large circle that enclosed us all.

“One major thing I like to tell all the kids who come here is that history is far from dead. It lives on; it always is still being made. You and John are part of the new history of this place now,” Littlebear said.

Onward, O’er the Bounding Main

A Peaceable Fortification

Onward, O’er the Bounding Main

By | North Coast Series

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.

Please Lend a Hand, or Get Out of Our Way

A Russky Homecoming

Please Lend a Hand, or Get Out of Our Way

By | North Coast Series

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.

A Bright Light in Point Arena

Onward, O’er the Bounding Main

A Bright Light in Point Arena

By | North Coast Series

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.

Explore Every Charmed Nook and Cranny

Please Lend a Hand, or Get Out of Our Way

Explore Every Charmed Nook and Cranny

By | North Coast Series

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.

My Special Source of Mission Support

A Bright Light in Point Arena

My Special Source of Mission Support

By | North Coast Series

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.

Village by the Sea

Explore Every Charmed Nook and Cranny

Village by the Sea

By | North Coast Series

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.

Harvests of a Harbor Town

My Special Source of Mission Support

Harvests of a Harbor Town

By | North Coast Series

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.”

Beating Downwind to Fort Bragg

Village by the Sea

Beating Downwind to Fort Bragg

By | North Coast Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shunning the Boomers

Paddling toward fog and Fort Bragg.

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

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

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

Death by Shark

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

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

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

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

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

Timber Town Gone Bust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking Shelter

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

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

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

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

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

A Friend in Need

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

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

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

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

Losing the Lost Coast

Harvests of a Harbor Town

Losing the Lost Coast

By | North Coast Series

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

Devastation vs. Preservation

Beating Downwind to Fort Bragg

Devastation vs. Preservation

By | North Coast Series

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.

Gateway to Another Wild Zone

Losing the Lost Coast

Gateway to Another Wild Zone

By | North Coast Series

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.

A Peaceful Town’s Turbulent Past

Devastation vs. Preservation

A Peaceful Town’s Turbulent Past

By | North Coast Series

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…

Seeing Hard Sea Miles, Plus a Shark

Gateway to Another Wild Zone

Seeing Hard Sea Miles, Plus a Shark

By | North Coast Series

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.

Salvaging a Salmon Stream

A Peaceful Town’s Turbulent Past

Salvaging a Salmon Stream

By | North Coast Series

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.

Out Into a Wet Wilderness

Seeing Hard Sea Miles, Plus a Shark

Out Into a Wet Wilderness

By | North Coast Series

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.

Surfin’ on Radio Waves

Salvaging a Salmon Stream

Surfin’ on Radio Waves

By | North Coast Series

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.

Discovering the Secret of Humboldt Bay

Out Into a Wet Wilderness

Discovering the Secret of Humboldt Bay

By | North Coast Series

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.

Our First Paddle Marathon

Surfin’ on Radio Waves

Our First Paddle Marathon

By | North Coast Series

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

Discovering the Secret of Humboldt Bay

In the Sea Lions’ Lair

By | North Coast Series

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.

A Forest Primeval

Our First Paddle Marathon

A Forest Primeval

By | North Coast Series

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.

Ancestral Home of the Yurok Nation

In the Sea Lions’ Lair

Ancestral Home of the Yurok Nation

By | North Coast Series

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.”

Kayaking: A Pounding At The Bar

A Forest Primeval

Kayaking: A Pounding At The Bar

By | North Coast Series

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.”

Wreck of the SS Brother Jonathan

Ancestral Home of the Yurok Nation