North Coast Series: A Peaceful Town’s Turbulent Past

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

Leaving Westport and heading for the harbor at Fort Bragg.
Leaving Westport and heading for the harbor at Fort Bragg.

By Paul McHugh

SEPT. 22, 2005 — 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.

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.

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."

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?

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

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…

— 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.