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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Flow of Time and Tides

Sea arch in Russian Gulch bay south of Mendocino

My buddy Al and I kayaked the Mendocino coast in mid-September, leaving the day after his Saturday stint at the local Farmer’s market. Down the Sacramento Valley, turning west to traverse Clear Lake’s north shore, through Anderson Valley (formerly famous for its apple orchards, now brimming with vineyards) and arriving at Mendocino in the afternoon. Knowing my interest in things Chinese, Al had arranged for Lorraine Hee-Chorley (author of The Chinese in Mendocino County) to meet us on the porch of the newly restored Taoist Temple two streets back from the main drag.

The Kwan Tai Temple dates from 1882, honoring the post-Han Dynasty warrior whose exploits are recounted in one of China’s most beloved tales, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The little red and green temple’s presence reflects the considerable numbers of Chinese immigrants in Mendocino in the late 19th century, perhaps explaining its being one of the few Northern California cities that didn’t expel its Chinese in the 1870s and 1880s.

Lorraine’s great-grandfather had set forth from southern China shortly after the discovery of gold in 1848, one of a flotilla of 7 boats bravely (foolishly?) headed for Gold Mountain. Only one actually made it to the North American coast, and they struggled ashore not in San Francisco but near Mendocino.

Alarmed by the influx of Chinese, many California counties and cities forbade Chinese from gold mining, so the immigrants turned to laundry, cooking, gardening, and the most dangerous jobs in the logging and mining industries. In 1854 the California Legislature added Chinese to the list of “Indians” and “Negroes” prohibited from testifying for or against a Caucasian in a court of law. Lorraine’s father and German-Irish mother had to travel to Vancouver to marry, since Caucasians were forbidden to marry Chinese in the California of 1941. In spite of discrimination and persecution, the Chinese persisted and eventually flourished by virtue of toughness, hard work and intelligence, as recounted in the tales and photos in Lorraine’s book.

We camped in Russian Gulch State Park just north of Mendocino that night, beside a creek under the canopy of a Red Alder doing a great job of imitating the awesome form and spread of the area’s Coastal Live Oak. We couldn’t restrain ourselves from launching our kayaks onto the relatively-calm bay that Russian Gulch Creek empties into.

How glorious to be on the ocean, exploring the rocky formations that ring the bay. We shot through an archway in one bluff, cruising not ten feet past a Great Blue Heron too startled to take wing from his rocky perch. A deep sea-cave beckoned us to explore its dark, wave-tossed recesses. Should we risk it? This was Al’s first ocean outing in his new ultra-lightweight Hornbeck from the Adirondak Lakes of New York, and I had forgotten my life-vest back in Chico. Unusual for us, we decided to live to kayak another day.

That other day dawned the next morning, also unusual in having only a high fog, which soon burned off. After breakfast at a Mendocino diner, and renting a life-vest for Ray, we launched onto the Big River just south of the Mendocino headlands at half past nine, riding the 11:40 high tide upstream. The river is some 50 or 60 yards wide, and certainly deeper than Elkhorn Slough (see an earlier posting). Near its mouth are the old pilings of the last of a series of lumber mills, on the Mendocino side of the river.

On the river’s far side is the Stanford Inn, a picturesque lodging that stands where extensive Chinese gardens sat a hundred years ago, an apple and a plum tree from the old days still standing on the grounds. The Chinese reportedly brought kale seeds with them, which became a staple for Mendocino’s early residents and even today, growing wild, dominate the brush on the Mendocino headlands. Al collected a couple of dozen seeds from the plants there, which later germinated robustly in his greenhouse.

Soon we left the river’s mouth behind and were rowing between forests on either side, here mainly Bishop pine and Noble fir trees. Cormorants and Kingfishers were our companions on the silent river, which flowed calm and greenish-blue around us, the incoming tide helping us upriver. We passed three collections of old wood pilings extending from the bank into the river, remnants of 27 “booms” the loggers had constructed across the river during the Redwood clear-cutting days. Each boom functioned as a dam behind which great floating log piles gathered to await their final transport to the mill below. One boom still had its dozens of strengthening steel rods within it.

The Redwoods were actually one of the last resources of the North Coast extracted by the Euro-American immigrants. The first to arrive were the Russian and then the American fur traders (Jedediah Smith, for one), who succeeded in driving the sea otters along the entire coast to functional extinction, only a few pockets remaining further south.

On their first trip, the trappers describe rivers choked with abundant salmon runs, and impressive native-American villages with hundreds of dwellings comfortably housing the area’s aboriginal people, whose kind had sustainably lived off the land here for six to eight thousand years. But the trappers exposed the Indians to a microbe, probably smallpox or cholera, so that on the very next year’s visit they encountered ravaged villages, dead and dying bodies strewn about from the epidemic’s onslaught, the shattered Indian society stunned by the holocaust that had obliterated their world.

It is these post-holocaust native-Americans that the gold-seekers encounter several decades later, and judge to be only marginally human. When homesteaders flood into the Northern California coast, the Indians lack the strength, organization, or military experience to resist. As the settlers decimate the local game and clear the forests to plant their introduced grains, the Indians resort to stealing horses and hunting the new “game”—the newcomers’ cattle and feral pigs. The settlers react, and a cycle of killings ensue. Of course, the new arrivals have strength of numbers and weapons. Soon the last native-Americans have been killed—including women and children—or, a few, relocated to reservations and utterly dependent on the welfare of their new masters.

Tanbark oaks were the next resource to come to the attention of the homesteaders, a common and widespread oak-relative in the coastal forests, whose bark contained tannins necessary for tanning the hides of animals. In the 1850s and ‘60s the plentiful trees were downed apace, stripped of their bark, and the bark heated in huge cauldrons to extract the tanning agents. Soon there were no more of these trees to cut, and the industry died.

Meanwhile, the building boom in San Francisco led to the notice of the remaining forests, predominantly of redwood. Originally, in the 1870s through 90s, the immense size of the trees restricted logging to the vicinity of rivers and railroads. The trees would be downed, cut into 32 foot lengths, and dragged by teams of oxen down the hillsides to the rivers.

Through the late 1800s and early 1900s logging continued, but owing to the brutally difficult nature of the task, the great forests were barely dented. Mechanization of the process increased the pace of logging, however. “Steam donkeys” harnessed steam power to drag the logs. In the 1930s the appearance of caterpillar bulldozers meant that roads could be carved into any remote area and the “Cats” could drag the downed trees to trucks providing transport to the mills. The 1930s to the 1950s was the holocaust for redwoods now, a population of creatures that had persisted for millions of years being destroyed for short-term profit.

The sheer scope of forest destruction ruined the creeks and streams as well, clogging them with branches, debris and, soon, soil eroded from the now-bare slopes above. The gravel spawning grounds of salmon disappeared, and the ancient migrations of the huge fish shrank to a mere shadow of what they had been for millennia—or disappeared altogether.

For what it is worth, far-seeing individuals stepped in and by sheer dint of perseverance and the gathering of financial resources managed to save a few pockets of the old forests. They stand today up and down the northern California coast, a reminder of ancient glory—or of the heedless greed of humans, depending on your point of view.

The clear-cut redwood forests regrew into second growth, and the continuing urban demand for housing material meant the Douglas firs, overlooked initially, were now valuable. In the 1960s through 80s, the local lumber colossus, Georgia Pacific, cut whatever Doug fir and second-growth redwoods they could find, and sold the ravaged forest land to the state, which safeguarded the land in a series of state parks where third- or fourth-growth forests could begin to emerge, as they were to either side of us today.

We paddled past a lone Harbor seal several miles upriver, lounging gracefully on a redwood log in the middle of the water. Like the Great Blue heron the day before, he wasn’t spooked by us or our kayaks as we silently passed. Two of his colleagues swam by us a mile or so upstream, inspecting us curiously before resuming their journey. Now we began to see more redwoods to either side, not plentiful but standing amongst young Douglas Firs.

The ecological diversity and complexity of the original forest—soil, bacteria, worms, fungi, birds, mammals, humans, trees—was long gone, possibly lost irreversibly, but the forest was beginning its long, patient quest to restore whatever bits of the old web of life might emerge.

We rested our paddles across our kayak bows under the overhanging redwoods and ate our sandwiches and Bartlett pears from Anderson valley, enjoying the quiet and the majesty of river and forest as we contemplated all the changes that had rushed over this part of the world in the past century and a half. Much had changed, changed completely and forever, both for humans and for other creatures.

But some things persisted. Sea caves, the tide surging in and out with nutrients for the starfish and anemones. The Big River, flowing from the reaches of the Coastal Range down to the ocean, though with few salmon in it and its tributaries. Seals, though no more otters, resting on logs in the water; cormorants on the water, and kingfishers along the shore. Humans enjoying the river and forest scene, light-skinned now rather than bronzed. Much death and destruction, to be sure. And then life, forging ahead, taking all the changes in stride, and getting on with things in whatever way open to it.

The tide turned, and we turned our kayaks with it and paddled for the ocean.

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