North Coast Series: Devastation vs. Preservation

A 400-mile sea kayak voyage down California’s Pacific shore

The spectacular shoreline of the Sinkyone Wilderness.
The spectacular shoreline of the Sinkyone Wilderness.

By Paul McHugh

SEPT. 25, 2005 — 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.

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.

"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.

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

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.

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.

— See all previous posts from the NORTH COAST SERIES

Ed. Note: Paul McHugh's North Coast Series first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on S.F. Gate in 2005. The posts, edited and updated for this version, follow McHugh, John Weed and Bo Barnes on a 400-mile, sea kayak voyage along California's shore. The stories will be posted on CanoeKayak.com almost daily as they appeared 11 years ago, following the crew from their launch on September 6th through their paddle under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 5th.