FURTHER AFIELD: Humboldt Hash

1. Side street splendor; Ferndale, California.

This Humboldt Hash is the product of a woman with an ever-curious mind wandering around a county called Humboldt with a camera. The sparsely populated northern California county contains dense coniferous forests, open shrublands, wide beaches, sand dunes, wetlands, and a few cities on the coast. Small towns dot a landscape given to dairy farms, livestock rangeland, and impressive Redwood forests. The county is also famous for cannabis. Its world-renowned marijuana business began with countless illegal operations run by hippies who headed for the hills in the 60s. Now, mainstream cannabis businesses struggle with the environmental impact problems and the complex regulations that followed California’s legalization of cannabis sales and cultivation in 2016. (Yes, there’s a double entendre in the title of this post).

But when we’re in Humboldt County our focus is on wide, empty beaches, magnificent Redwood forests, and any serendipity we may encounter. It might be a cowboy on horseback herding cattle across hills overlooking the ocean or something as quotidian as a local cemetery that reveals an offbeat slice of history. Or it might be a spontaneous conversation with someone who introduces us to their dog and recommends a little-known trail.

We stay in Ferndale, a town known for its well-preserved Victorian architecture and comfortable, small-town vibe. We always admire the charming homes and storefronts but this time we noticed a sprawling cemetery while walking through town. “Let’s inspect the gravestones”, we thought. The site climbs a steep hill so we enjoyed a mini-workout punctuated with headstone poems. Graves have always interested me and this cemetery proffered a surprise: a handful of picturesque, weedy gravesites accented with tchotchkes and plastic flowers left in remembrance long ago.

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We intended to explore a back road that winds through the Lost Coast Headlands on this trip – on our last visit, we drove far enough to thirst for more but ran out of time. Maps show Mattole Road looping through uplands, dipping down to empty beaches, passing through a tiny town or two, and terminating in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where it joins California’s famous US Route 101, aka “the 101.”

We tabled the decision on whether to do the entire, 66-miles plus another 33 miles on 101 to get back to Ferndale. Car-weary from two days of driving 670 miles from our home to Ferndale, we figured we’d see how we felt – we could always turn around. So we set out one morning, planning to at least make it to Petrolia, a town of about 400 souls scattered in the woods. After a tedious, bone-rattling hour on the twisting, rutted road, we reached Petrolia. Gratefully, we got out of the car to peruse its one store. Here, you can supply yourself with coffee, groceries, camping supplies, T-shirts emblazoned with the volunteer fire department logo, organic cookies made by a local man, and beer. Cash only. Outside the store, a bulletin board functions as the ad-hock community center. I hope the Porta-potty fund does well because they were in pretty bad shape (see photo below).

3. Resting, Petrolia.

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We had only covered 30 miles in our hour of tortuous travel. There was no way we were going to subject ourselves to another two hours of Mattole Road followed by a half-hour of highway to get back to Ferndale. But I noticed a road on my phone’s GPS (cell service? No way!). It dead-ended at a beach and looked doable. It was. Mattole Beach is a very remote spot where you can beach-comb, camp, or begin hiking the challenging, 25-mile Lost Coast Trail. There was only one person in the parking lot (who happened to be from Seattle), waiting to meet friends for a camping trip. After exchanging pleasantries we climbed a dune and were alone on the beach. We watched as fog lifted and settled and lifted again. Sensory input was stripped down to the crash and swish of waves, the sweet feeling of cool, damp air on our faces, and the minimalist views that revealed nothing but more fog, more sand, more waves. We reveled in the misty splendor.

I wondered how anyone living near this coast could be anxious or troubled; pounding surf seems to soothe every last twitch of nerves.

5. Fog; Mattole Beach, Lost Coast.

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7. Brown Pelicans; Mattole Beach.
8. The fog lifts; Mattole Beach. (iPhone photo).

The next day we forest-bathed at Rockefeller Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photographs don’t do justice to the sensation of standing among the massive trees whose tops are far out of sight. But we also saw Redwoods from another angle: one hundred feet up in the air. One morning we went to the Sequoia Park Zoo in Eureka to experience the Redwood Sky Walk. The series of platforms built around the tree trunks connected via swinging bridges was a treat. There’s nothing like getting up into the trees!

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9. A hundred feet above the forest floor.

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The zoo’s flock of flamingoes from Chile provided a welcome shock of peach-tinged pink on that foggy day. One afternoon, a handsome butterfly paused on a trail, injecting another dash of color into my photo files. Persistent fog banks only allowed the sun to peek in and out during our stay in Ferndale, which was fine with us. We weren’t there to sunbathe, we were there to experience a place far from home, with all our senses.

One day I saw a road on my cell phone map that led to what appeared to be an uninhabited island in the Eel River delta. We followed Cannibal Island Road (really?), turned left past hay fields, and crossed over a creaky bridge. We didn’t find much that day and I don’t think the fishermen we watched from the bridge had much luck either. A harbor seal kept a sharp eye on them, clearly hoping for a morsel of bait. No luck. The cormorant and egret barely visible through the fog probably did better. On the way back to Ferndale we passed an abandoned dairy in a less prosperous town and wondered aloud why one town did so well and the other faded into oblivion. I like the kind of travel that poses lots of unanswered questions. It keeps the wonder alive.

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11. Fishing on the Eel River.
12. Maybe someone will repurpose the old creamery building and give it new life.

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Back to the beach, the main ingredient in my Humboldt Hash. Artfully arranged strands of kelp, a perfectly intact Sea urchin shell, and skeins of pelicans melting into the fog all manifest the liminal space between land and water. In Humboldt County, the mountains of King Range plunge down to the sea in waves that end in sheltered coves and exposed cliffs. Thrown up on smooth, sand beaches, slammed against hulking, dark rocks, or sent into wide river estuaries, the surf sings and thunders.

Spirits refreshed, we turn back toward town. Evenings find us at the same friendly Mexican restaurant, mornings always begin with a stop at the Mind’s Eye Manufactory and Coffee Lounge, which is much more relaxed than it sounds. Traditional skin-on-frame kayaks are hand-built in the back, and dogs and their people relax in the front. Strolling down Main Street, we find a curious sign. “Go Away” it says, reminding us that soon we’ll have to climb back in the car for the long drive home. But on the other side, it says, “Welcome.”

We’ll be back.

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14. Sea urchin; Black Sand Beach, Lost Coast.
15. Weather-sculpted rock; Black Sand Beach, Lost Coast.
16. Fog, Centerville Beach, Ferndale.

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18. Fog over Black Sand Beach.
19. A Raven in the fog; Luffenholz Beach, Trinidad.

20. Trust me, the other side says “Welcome.”

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FURTHER AFIELD: Northern California in Color and Black & White

If you take the fastest route you can reach the little town of Ferndale, California in twelve hours from our house. Happily, we had time to spare so we took a longer route, avoiding Seattle traffic by taking a ferry to the Olympic peninsula and heading south along the scenic Hood Canal.

A ferry ride is a nice way to begin a road trip. On a cool September morning we watched two seals and a Great Blue heron fishing in the harbor while we waited for the next Coupeville – Port Townsend ferry. The heron’s successful catch was an auspicious sign for the start of our the trip.

1. Saturday, 8:45am. Coupeville ferry terminal

After disembarking from the ferry we drove through Washington and Oregon, stopping for the night in a small town off Route 5. The next day it rained off and on as we wound through southwest Oregon and into California via the Redwood Highway, finally arriving in Ferndale. The two long days on the road were a bit of a slog but we were in good spirits as we settled into one of our all-time favorite airbnb’s. The cottage was stocked with fresh eggs, home made muffins, local jam, coffee, tea, chocolate and wine – how could we not feel pampered? I woke up early Monday morning to fresh, cloud-dappled skies and a rainbow.

2. Monday, 5:58am. Ferndale
3. 7:12am. Ferndale

We had a leisurely breakfast, then headed into town. Ferndale is known for being a throwback kind of place where people cherish their old-fashioned, small town way of life. The atmosphere is such that movies have been made here and the entire town is a state historic landmark. The uniqueness could have gone to town’s collective head but residents go about their business in a low-key way, keeping the town a few degrees away from preciousness.

4. 9:25am. Ferndale

After wandering around town we drove up to Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This is dairy country so there was a slight delay as a herd of cows crossed the road.

5. 10:41am. Ferndale
6. 10:16am. Ferndale

At the Ma-le’l Dunes unit at Humboldt Bay NWR we hiked across an expanse of sand dunes out to the beach. It feels so good to be at the ocean when you haven’t seen it for months. I took off my shoes and socks and waded in the cold water, delighting in the small spectacle of foamy water swirling over rippled sand. All day the skies paraded towering cumulus clouds as the storm we came in on sailed out to sea.

7. 2:21pm. Ma-le’l Dunes, Humboldt Bay

9. 6:48pm. Near Ferndale

The next day we followed a road out of town to a place on the map marked “Centerville Beach.” It turned out to be a county park, the kind where kids meet up after dark for a bonfire, and people walk their dogs unleashed and drive their trucks on the hard sand beach. To the south we saw cliffs rising steeply to grassy, rolling hills dotted with evergreens. Curious, we began walking down the broad, deserted beach towards the cliffs. There were strange rock formations along the way, things that make you wish you had a geology guide tucked in your pocket, or a handy app to consult.

Way down the beach we found a big piece of driftwood that we simply had to have. It was water-logged and very heavy. How could we get it all the way back to the car? Eureka! I found a fresh length of Bullwhip kelp, we tied it to the driftwood, and dragged it over the sand. Worked like a charm. (You’re right, I was NOT the one doing the dragging.)

10. Tuesday, 9:21am. Centerville Beach

12. 10:11am. Centerville Beach

Centerville Road swings past the beach and uphill into the grasslands. We wondered what was up there. On the map there didn’t seem to be much, though we imagined the ocean views had to be spectacular. Up we went, following the narrow, pot-holed road around tight curves, past deep gullies, up hills and out onto open range land. A few herds of grazing cattle and widely-spaced ranches were the only signs of humanity until we arrived at a small parking lot and trail. We hesitated to take the trail all the way down to the beach, thinking about the steep climb back up, so we ambled along the winding dirt path for a half mile. The views were breathtaking. We admired golden grasses and lingering wildflowers and wondered about animal trails tunneling through the grass. A fist-sized hunk of fur had been left on the trail next to some scat. There are mountain lions in the area. Maybe this was the site of a kill.

13. 12:38pm. Lost Coast Headlands

14. 12:11pm. Guthrie Trail, Lost Coast Headlands

15. 12:19pm. Guthrie Trail

17. 12:14pm. Guthrie Trail

We spent the rest of the day exploring by car. Older wood frame homes dotted the countryside – some barely standing, others well kept. When I stopped to photograph one of them the neighbor from across the street approached us. Uh oh, I thought, here’s trouble. But no, he just wanted to offer us a few apples from his heirloom tree!

We drove through the town of Scotia, which we learned was built for loggers employed by the Pacific Lumber Company about 150 years ago. When a new owner took charge of the company in the 1980s, logging practices changed, clear-cutting for quick profit became common, and protests ensued. You may have heard about Julia Butterfly Hill’s two year sojourn living high in a 1500-year-old redwood tree to protest logging practices in the late 1990s. That tree was finally protected. During the 2008 recession the lumber company declared bankruptcy. Now the company, called Humboldt Redwood Company, is divesting itself of Scotia real estate. Logging isn’t as profitable as it once was, and running a company town no longer makes sense. What we saw was a depressed town, a busy lumber mill and an elaborate educational exhibit with live salmon, promoting the company’s efforts to preserve salmon habitat. Logging can pollute the streams where salmon reproduce; they and other animal and plant species may be threatened when timber is extracted haphazardly. On the surface the town of Scotia was calm, but protests at nearby logging sites continue.

18. 1:31pm. outside Ferndale

Wednesday morning we hiked at Headwaters Forest Reserve, a preserve comprising over 7,000 acres of redwood forest which was protected in 1999, thanks to over ten years of grass roots organizing to save one of the last intact old growth forest habitats from the saw. The land had been owned by the same lumber company that founded Scotia, the town we looked at the day before. For over 100 years the family-owned company provided an important, and probably sustainable livelihood for Humboldt County residents but a hostile takeover in 1985 put the company into the hands of an outside corporation that drastically increased the timber take and violated environmental regulations. Activists rallied together to stop the company, using legal actions, protests, road blockades and campaigns. Feelings on both sides were intense enough that one activist’s car was bombed. It took years to reach an agreement in which the company was paid to hand over 7,472 acres of forest land.

Previously logged forest is slowly being restored at the reserve, where you can still see evidence of logging. One intact old growth groves is open to anyone with the energy to hike 10.5 miles (17km). Alternately visitors can make advance arrangements for a tour to another old growth grove that’s only accessible with a guide. We hope to do that next time, but our walk through the surrounding, previously logged areas was delightful.

The weather was unsettled. Light rain interrupted us a few times but the forest is thick and we weren’t bothered. The woods had a magical look that morning, especially around the South Fork Elk River, where I concentrated on photographing the ever-changing reflections of foliage in the water. (Some of those photos are in the post “Transitory States.”)

20. Wednesday, 9:38am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

22. 9:42am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

23. 11:09am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

24. 11:09am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

25. 8:50am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

26. 10:53am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

27. 10:27am Headwaters Forest Reserve

We had time after hiking at Headwaters to return to the Lost Coast Headlands via another route, Mattole Road. This remote, scenic road is described here, on a “dangerous roads” website. We went as far as Steamboat Rock. We pulled over and wandered on the deserted beach, feeling like we were indeed on a lost coast. Interesting traces of ocean life and intricate rock formations were plentiful, but this time we only pocketed a few small shells and rocks. (The photo below of Ferndale was taken when we stopped for coffee before driving to the Lost Coast.)

29. 4:23pm. Steamboat Rock, Lost Coast

30. 3:12pm. Ferndale

Our time in Humboldt County went by way too fast. Thursday we had to be to another airbnb in Waldport, Oregon, before dark and it was 6 1/2 hours away. We planned to punctuate the drive by meeting Gunta for coffee in Gold Beach. That left an hour or so for one last stop to gape at California’s redwood giants. I chose a location in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park called Cal Barrel Road because it was on the way, easy to get to, and is home to some of the really big ones.

Steam poured off the tree trunks seventy feet over our heads as warm sunlight met cool, damp bark. It’s impossible to describe the experience of standing among these ancient beings and needless to say, photographs don’t do justice to 300-foot-tall, 1800-year-old trees. I hope you can see them someday for yourself.

31. 9:32am. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

32. 9:23am. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

33. 9:29am. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Perhaps I should have broken this post up into several shorter ones. If you read all the way to the end, thank you for your patience!

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FURTHER AFIELD: Northern California

“Let’s go back,” he said, back to Ferndale.

It’s a little town in northern California – more precisely, in Humboldt County, home of mammoth redwood trees, counter-culture cannabis growers, and (more prosaically, because everything shouldn’t be exciting) dairy and beef farms.

We liked Ferndale last time and we wanted to see the coast again, and the redwood forests so

we planned, we packed, and before we knew it

we were driving onto the Coupeville ferry and crossing over to the Olympic Peninsula. It’s a longer route, but so much prettier, and we avoided Seattle traffic. Heading south along the Hood Canal (it’s a fjord!) on a quiet two-lane road, we passed Hamma Hamma and Lilliwaup,

glimpsed a herd of elk grazing by the roadside

then merged onto the interstate (ugh). We powered past Portland and stopped in a town called Brownsville for the night. Google pointed us to a local joint called Kirk’s Ferry Trading Post for dinner. The food was OK but it was even better after we watched a vintage truck – the one we thought was part of the cool display of vintage tools and stuff out front – start with a groan

and a growl and slowly, very slowly, putter down the road. We noticed the truck owner’s wife scowl as she sped away in a separate vehicle. This is good, we thought!

1. Parked in front, the old Dodge blended into the scenery at Kirk’s Ferry Trading Post.

2. A single new wiper and a pair of sunglasses on the seat should have clued us in to the fact that this baby can still sputter. We assume local law enforcement officials look the other way when they see this vehicle.

The next day we crossed the Oregon/California border and sailed down a loopy mountain road in a downpour, finally arriving in peaceful little Ferndale at dusk. Early the following morning I wandered outside and watched a peaceful, pastoral scene unfold as the world was refreshed by September rains.

3. Rain, rain, rain on the scenic Redwood Highway, where we passed Broken Kettle Creek, Dead Horse Gulch, and Panther Flat but saw nothing but trees and water.
4. The clouds echoed the trees, or was it the other way ’round?

5. Cumulus clouds exploded over heaps of evergreen hills. This is a place where the built environment plays nicely with nature.

6. An almost full moon embellished the bucolic scene.

Contentment worked its way under our skin and deep into our bones as we strolled wide beaches, hiked emerald forests, and motored through rolling hills overlooking the empty Pacific far below. Daily coffee in a laid-back cafe with a workshop in back where kayaks are built by hand anchored us to Ferndale’s gentle rhythms.

We’re home now. I miss this exquisite corner of the world already.

Maybe you can see why.

7. The beach at Ma-l’el Dunes in Humboldt National Wildlife Refuge.

8. Wading in frigid water, exhaling deeply, flinging my arms wide: feeling good.

9. Another day, another beach: Centerville Beach, a county park that was almost deserted on a Tuesday morning.

10. What washes up here is more colorful than what I’m used to. I think this is Feather boa kelp (Egregia menziesii).

11. Dune grass improvises with wind and sand.

12. Looking south towards the Lost Coast from Centerville Beach.
13. Cliffs plunge to the sea at Lost Coast Headlands. Three geologic faults lie just off the shore here, making this area profoundly unstable.

14. High up on a hill overlooking the ocean a cowboy and his two dogs wrangled cattle.

We met a cast of friendly, eccentric characters on the trails, including a 94-year-old man intent on hiking a steep trail that connects grassland to the beach, a woman of a certain age hiking barefoot in the rain with two tiny dogs on leashes and a cat on her back, and a man who apparently went nowhere without his two cockatoos.

16. Along a trail in Headwaters Forest Reserve.

17. Reflections in Salmon Creek; Headwaters Forest Reserve.

18. A trail leads to an opening in the forest; Headwaters Forest Reserve.

19. The morning sparkled after rain showers at Headwaters Forest Reserve.

20. New growth on a Redwood at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

21. A visitor photographs steam emanating from a sunlit redwood tree named Demeter at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Nearby is “Iluvatar”, the world’s 16th largest tree. It has over 1 billion leaves and is over 1800 years old.
http://famousredwoods.com/iluvatar/

22. Neck stretching at the Cal Barrel Road redwood grove in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

23. Sword ferns thrive in the shade at the feet of redwood giants; Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

24. Deer fern fronds (Blechnum spicant) arch over a bed of Redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) at the base of a redwood tree; Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

On the way back home we spent two nights on the Oregon coast in the little town of Waldport. More on that later, but here is a view from the beach at low tide one morning:

25. Oregon Coast Moods

This trip went by too fast. I know I’m privileged to be able to spend any time at all at such spectacular places as California’s Redwood forests and its nearly deserted northern beaches. Breathtaking scenery awaits anywhere you look. Just let old habits drop away and look with new eyes.

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