North Coast Series: Village by the Sea

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

The Victorian architecture and the beautiful natural setting make Mendocino a favorite of visitors
The Victorian architecture and the natural setting make Mendocino a favorite of visitors

By Paul McHugh

SEPT. 30, 2005 — 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

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…

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

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.

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.

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

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."

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.

— See all 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 16th.