North Coast Series: Gateway to Another Wild Zone

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

Afternoon light shafts over a ridge, into a canyon of the Lost Coast.
Afternoon light shafts over a ridge, into a canyon of the Lost Coast.

By Paul McHugh

SEPT. 24, 2005 — Heard enough stuff about nasty wind and thundering surf?

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.

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.

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

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.

— 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.