North Coast Series: Discovering the Secret of Humboldt Bay

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

Calm conditions and sultry light
Calm conditions and sultry light.

By Paul McHugh

SEPT. 15, 2005 — 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.

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.

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.

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.

— 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.