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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Bull elk and Dutch Ovens on the Lost Coast

California's Lost Coast: 66 miles of wilderness

My buddy Al was busy shooting sunset-in-the-ocean photos from our camp in California’s Lost Coast Wilderness a week ago when I whispered, “Look left. Slowly.” He looked, and muttered “Aw, hell.” There, fifteen feet away, was 900 pounds of bull elk. It is rutting season currently, and this bull’s already massive five point antlers had—believe it or not—some six feet of iron chain wrapped around the left antler.

We backed slowly off the Lost Coast Trail, running just below our camp. The bull eyed us all the way, evidently deciding whether trampling and goring us was going to be worth the effort. He decided it wasn’t, and with a stately gait continued on the trail past us and into the next ravine, where he bounded up the other side and out of sight.

Al and I were on another “back roads and nature preserves of California” trip (see May 8, 2013 entry), this one to the north-central coastal region. The first day out we had driven through the Van Duzen River valley, just before the Van Duzen joins the Eel River and thence the Pacific Ocean south of Humboldt Bay. Huge stumps marked the former Redwood forest that had once lined the river valley. But now it was dairy cattle that crowded the valley, instead, placidly grazing amongst the logged remains of the forest, which still stump-sprouted redwood growth a hundred years later.

That night we camped in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, on the edge of the largest intact old-growth redwood forest remaining, the 9,335-acre Rockefeller Forest. (Yes, purchased in 1931 thanks to the generosity of that Rockefeller not long after he and his family had been treated to a picnic in the midst of the redwoods by the Save the Redwoods League.) Would you believe a campfire dessert of piping-hot cornbread topped with huckleberry jam? Al is a master at Dutch oven cookery over a fire, and he put on a seminar for me, with exquisitely edible results. (Two nights later, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it would be apple dumplings emerging from the cast-iron pots.)

We hiked across and along the south fork of the Eel River, which runs the length of the park paralleling Hwy 101, “The Avenue of the Giants.” The redwoods were very tall and impressive, but we were most charmed by a singular structure designed by early-twentieth-century San Francisco architect Julia Morgan (who also designed the Hearst Castle further south, in Big Sur). Morgan’s “Hearthstone” features a quartet of hearths in the California Federation of Women’s Clubs grove, dedicated in1931. Each hearth faces one of the four directions, and is set up to hang a pot from the iron support provided, plenty of room for a fire below. Al and I had immediate visions of peach cobbler dancing in our heads for a future visit.

Late that afternoon and 40 miles to the southwest, we were cautiously negotiating a muddy, winding one-lane road into the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, the southern half of The Lost Coast. This California coastal area is “lost” due to its deep, rugged canyons, which dissuaded road-builders from attempting any state highways or even paved roads here. For 66 miles of coast, development is minimal and wildness is given more leeway than anywhere west of the Sierra Nevada crest.

The Sinkyone native-Americans resided happily here for 6,000 years, living abundantly off the acorns, elk, and salmon the land freely offered them. Euro-Americans coveted the land when they saw it in the middle 1800’s, rounded up the native-Americans, and moved them to the Round Valley Indian Reserve some 30 miles inland. The baffled native-Americans promptly returned to their ancient homelands, interfering with the farms, ranches, and lumbering of the newcomers. So the U.S. Army was given the job of eliminating the native-Americans from the area, which task they executed with brutal efficiency, including the killing of men, women, and children. Problem solved.

(The knowledge of our forebears' treatment of the native-Americans is something we all must somehow come to grips with, whether we live in California or Georgia or anywhere in between. But that is another topic for another day—easy to put off, eh?)

Meanwhile, Al and I found ourselves in the midst of the Lost Coast wilderness: coastal prairie and scrub, dense woodlands of Douglas Fir, tanbark oak, and Sitka spruce rising behind us, and below us the Pacific Ocean crashing against the coastal bluffs. The Sinkyone Wilderness has a couple dozen “primitive campsites” (fire rings, but no potable water, only occasional pit toilets) and exactly one ancient barn—the latter of which we scored for our two nights here, and happily shared with the bats and rodents.

In addition to the native-Americans, the early Euro-American settlers had also eliminated the abundant Roosevelt elk of the area. But within the past several decades elk from Prairie Creek Redwood State Park up north had been introduced here, and we heard tales in particular of one formidable bull who, in the process of thrashing his antlers about to remove the “velvet” covering, had enmeshed a chain around one antler. As described above, we had a closer-than-comfortable encounter with said bull the next day. To my eyes, the old fellow seemed not the least bit bothered by the chain. When you weight 900 or so pounds and are mainly muscle, a measly 8 feet of iron chain is no big deal, evidently.

Our full day at Sinkyone was spent hiking up the Lost Coast Trail nearly to the boundary with King Range National Conservation Area, the northern half of the Lost Coast. The trail follows the bluffs and dips down and up the various canyons formed by streams flowing into the ocean. These canyons are richly inhabited by Red alders, and upon several occasions we noticed patches where the white/gray bark had been rubbed off by bull elk doing their antler thing, revealing the rich, rusty red wood which gives the tree its common name.

Whale Gulch was the longest of these canyons, and we hiked along its linear, incised valley for quite a ways, the series of sag ponds there marking it as a fault landform, and reminding us that the “Mendocino Triple Junction” of the Pacific, North American, and Gorda fault lines converged at the north edge of the Lost Coast.

The trail was narrow and often muddy; little Redwood sorrel flowers bloomed pink along the sides, along with abundant sword ferns and five-finger ferns, and of course the alders. As we crossed Whale Gulch Creek finally and began a steep ascent on the other side, these moist-habitat plants gave way to large madrone trees, tanbark oaks, and some of the largest Douglas firs I’ve seen. Halfway to the ridge above the creek, we were abruptly reminded that today’s wilderness area had been crawling with settlers a hundred years ago: beside the trail were stacked two forty-foot long redwood slabs, four inches thick and four feet wide! Their presence in the middle of what was now “wilderness” seemed jarring and unaccountable. Being redwood, they had easily sat there for a century without appreciable decomposition. Al and I decided that oxen must have dragged them along the trail with never-materialized plans to contribute to an all-weather bridge over Whale Gulch Creek just below, long before the road which we had driven along had been thought of.

On our way back to the Sacramento Valley the next day, we stopped in at the Heath Angelo Coast Range Reserve, a 7,000 acre chunk of old-growth Douglas Fir forest within the University of California Natural Reserve System. Our old friend the south fork of the Eel River begins not too far above the preserve, and we again hiked along the south fork, with towering redwoods and Douglas firs on both sides.

The grandson of Heath Angelou, who owned the land two generations ago, met us in an hour and we chatted. Peter recounted how his grandfather loved the forest but was faced with a cruel decision when lumber interests persuaded congress in the early 1950s to tax forest land not on the cost of the land to purchase, but rather on the value of the timber on it were the trees to be cut and sent to the mills of the timber industry. As it was designed to do, this piece of chicanery forced landowners to cut their trees to pay the taxes—and the lumber mills boomed for two decades. Fortunately, Peter’s grandfather could not bear to cut his beloved redwood and Douglas fir forests, and was financially able to sell the land to The Nature Conservancy, which in time gifted it to the UC’s system of nature reserves. Peter now serves as the Reserve manager.

All in all, a good trip: long hikes replete with bluffs along the Pacific ocean, redwoods, Douglas firs, and bull elks (an even larger specimen of which we saw on the drive out of Sinkyone). In addition to Dutch Oven treats. Several days ago, another legacy of the hikes showed up: poison oak blisters scattered up my right arm, within the typical days-to-weeks latency period. No problem. As my daughter-number-two, Holly, used to say: “If you don’t get poison oak occasionally, you just haven’t been outdoors enough.” She was right, God bless her.

Coming next month (Nov. 6, 2013). China's Darwinist, Part One: Ye Duzhuang's Turbulent Life

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