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by David Yearsley, July 30, 2014
We approach the twentieth anniversary of the wilderness trek of the two greatest radical journalists of our time: the late Alexander Cockburn and Bruce Anderson, editor and publisher of America’s Last Newspaper—Anderson Valley Advertiser. In September of 1994 Alexander and Bruce, along with the chair of the Counterpunch board, Joe Paff and his wife Karen hiked from the mouth of the Mattole River in Humboldt County in Northern California twenty-five miles south to Black Sands Beach at Shelter Cove, along a magnificent stretch of California’s Lost Coast in the shadow of the rugged King Range. King Peak, the highest summit of the range, rises to 4,000 feet just two miles from tidewater. So difficult is the terrain that the makers of California’s Highway 1 did not dare continue their work along the coast, but were forced inland, skirting what would become the Sinkyone Wilderness and King Range National Conservation Area. The Lost Coast walk along beach and bluffs is the longest and arguably most beautiful oceanside hike in the Lower Forty-Eight.
That 1994 adventure is described with classic Cockburnian humor in The Golden Age is in Us, much of the entry detailing the culinary delights enjoyed along the way: “roast chicken and roast beef, Karen’s pane forte, cheese, smoked albacore, three types of jerky, smoked oysters, sardines, etc. etc.” The Editor—as Bruce is referred to in the account— supplies two bottles of whisky. Various critters prowl the group’s campsites along the way: there are rodents displeased with the jerky and a Mountain Lion that leaves behind only his prints in the sand after a moonlight patrol. Presumably, all slept well with the aid of the whisky and were not spooked by these nocturnal visitations.
Bruce had long praised the Lost Coast hike to me and finally this summer I decided to do it with my wife, Annette Richards, and one of our teenage daughters, Cecilia. As it was our daughter’s first overnight hiking trip I figured the gourmet provisioning might be a bit of a tough sell: even though our young charge is a good sport when it comes to expeditions of all kinds, I could hear the precision-targeted complaints about schlepping hunks of prosciutto and cans of fish over miles calf-straining sand and slick rocks.
My first mistake, though, was to head to the cavernous outdoor section of Sports Basement near Crissy Field in San Francisco. Aside from being by seduced by some new irresistible gear, we went for the organic freeze-dried food, the qualities of these overpriced meals extolled by our sales assistant, a surfer on his way to a freshman year at UC Santa Barbara. As we stacked up the Red Pesto Pasta and Pueblo Stew eco-packs I was sure I heard Cockburn guffawing from somewhere amongst the forty dangling display models of sleeping bags.
Since 1994 dietary standards have been tightened on the Lost Coast. The King Range Conservation Area is run by the BLM—the Bureau of Land Mismanagement, as Edward Abbey called it. On our way to the trailhead at the Black Sands Beach parking lot we registered at the BLM station where hikers can rent plastic bear cans for five dollars a week. These cumbersome contraptions are now mandatory for Lost Coast hikers, though some continue to hang up their food on lines, apparently not having seen the dramatic photos in the BLM pamphlet showing black bears shimmying along these ropes to their prospective dinner. The BLM lays out a strict dietary regime: “Bring dried foods, not fresh. Fragrant foods like tuna or bacon are irresistible to bears.” I don’t doubt that securing our granola bars, nuts, and freeze-dried concoctions in these blasted cans was overkill—a bit like keeping cod liver oil under lock and key so the kids can't have their fill when mom and dad are away.
At Shelter Cove we were taken back to the Mattole by the Lost Coast Shuttle. Our driver regaled us with stories of the astounding proliferation of marijuana grows in the region and the popular herb’s insatiable thirst for the waters of the drought-plagued Mattole River. While the popular imagination might picture surfer-yeoman farmers in their hillside hideaways, she painted a rather different picture of ruthless East European planters laden with guns and cash.
After being deposited at the Mattole dunes we started walking south with the wind at our backs: the vast majority of parties hike from the north to gain the additional push of the prevailing north breeze and to avoid sand in the face. We made our first stop at the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse, last in operation in 1951 and now given over to the elements. A wandering philosopher has painted an irrefutable truth on the threshold to the whitewashed, salt-eaten structure “Nature Wins.” This law applies equally to the handful of in-holdings with their irksome No Trespassing warnings, encountered as reminders of the wrecked cabins of the pioneers and, at journey’s end, the sprawling development of Shelter Cove with its profusion of For Sale signs and dismal, largely uninhabited cul-de-sacs.
Bruce’s most alarming admission about the Anderson-Cockburn-Paff trek was that they had forgotten to bring along a tide table, and were therefore forced into some dangerous moments of skirting rock outcroppings at the wrong time. Fortunately, we had our chart and a teenager reading them who was armed with a healthy fear of the inexorable motions of the sea.
After being turned back by powerful waves smashing into the cliffs just short of our planned first night camp at Cooskie Creek, we retreated to the bluffs near a collapsed farmstead guarded by an ancient horse-drawn mower. Rousted in the pre-dawn fog by the crescendo of surf we made it around the harrowing stretch just passable even a few hours before high tide. Our intrepid teenager whipped us around the treacherous point and into the wide Cooskie Valley just beyond.
Having over the years suffered heat stroke in the Grand Canyon and having been reduced to wringing my wool socks for water picked up from wet heather on the flanks of distant North Cascade peaks, I was amazed at, and thankful for, the many creeks still vigorous in drought. Every mile or so they course down the cliffs and steep valleys of the King Range, so that all one needs for the hike is a water filter and a liter bottle or maybe two.
After restocking our water supply in Cooskie Creek and with the tide rolling in, we made for the bluffs and hiked along wide Spanish Flat with its inspiring views of the coast and up to the looming mountains, as well as to the beach below. At Miller Flat we avoided the rattlesnakes made much of in the BLM guide.
After thirteen enjoyable miles on day two of our outing we followed the 1994 party’s example and laid up for our second night at Shipman Creek with its natural infinity pool, and pleasant campsites just above the beach and in the valley above. Towards sunset a grey whale swam by off shore beyond the heads of the harbor seals and sea lions nearer to shore.
We were left with half-dozen miles of Lost Coast walking for the next morning, most of it on the beach. A couple of miles along at Buck Creek we encountered the worst of the unwise use—lots of litter left by the off-roaders allowed to this point on the beach by the BLM. These visions were happily erased by wide Black Sands Beach and an invigorating plunge into the powerful surf before the drive back to Petrolia for couple of nights at the magical Lost Coast Tower in Petrolia, built by Alexander Cockburn and now run by his daughter Daisy.
Many famous walks have been retraced and written about, among these John Muir’s thousand-mile trek from Ohio to the Florida Keys in 1867 and Patrick Leigh Fermour’s 1932-3 journey on foot from Amsterdam to Constantinople. To be sure, the Lost Coast is much less challenging than these epics, and I hope to return many more times to the Lost Coast. Perhaps one should not only retrace the great radical writers’ steps, but also reenact the expedition, taking the parts of the various participants and duplicating the menus and vintage gear, right down to the Editor’s Etonic running shoes. No modern freeze-dried food or lightweight, high-tech equipment: vintage kit, gourmet meals, and no tide table. Hardest—indeed impossible—to approach in quality and range would be the spirited trail talk of these legends of the Lost Coast. But even that is something to aspire to.