The Lost Coast is a study in opposites. So what happened should have been no surprise. The early April day Steve and I started our trip was warm and cloudless. In an area that's known for a hundred inches of rain a year and fog most of the rest of the time, this might have been a trigger for concern. We considered it luck. The ocean was a vast, restful horizontal. The mountains rose in abrupt verticals alongside, from sea level to 4000 feet, and so close to the shoreline that the tides had to be timed in order to pass many of the rock falls. Initially they were extremely steep open-faced hills, sensual and soft green, home to numerous hawks and even a nesting pair of golden eagles, but further along these gave way to dark, dense, slightly ominous forests of mixed timber. We saw none of the residents of the woods, only their evidence in footprints and scat. But we carried our food in bear canisters as required.
What we knew of the instability of the area was not evident on its face that day. Just off the Lost Coast many of California's most deadly fault lines converge and butt against each other. Earthquakes are frequent and the information board at the Petrolia trailhead warned of the tsunamis that can result. "Never turn your back on the ocean" the bulletin advised. Nor the cliffs, one could add, which are in constant threat of sliding into the sea from either the earthquakes or over saturation. Their angle is anything but reposeful. And of course the name...Lost Coast...must mean something. It certainly doesn't sound benign.
Our first night was spent on a bluff above the mouth of Sea Lion gulch where we drifted off to their barking, lowing and sometimes human-like crying sounds. The following day began sunny and mild. Our walk was sometimes along the waterline dodging the tide, and at others on a grassy path that meandered along the edge of the cliffs wherever the angle wasn't too steep. The second camp, at Hadley Creek, was tucked behind huge bleached driftwood logs at the creek's wide, rocky mouth from which we had a view, our first, straight up the vertical tree covered flank of King Peak, tallest in the range and its namesake. The afternoon had turned foggy, and over the mountain peeked the only patch of blue sky in the vast expanse of our view, and on its peak was shining the only sun. That night we had stove troubles which we put off repairing until morning. We awoke to fog that wanted to burn off but never did, and after temporarily fixing the stove (at least we managed a hot meal out of it) we packed and headed for Buck Creek and the Buck Creek trail that would take us up into the sunny mountains. We intended to layover a day at its mouth before the four mile 4000 foot climb.
As it happened, we missed Buck Creek and its trail sign. Our distraction at the time we passed it is a partial excuse. Immediately before the creek we encountered a fresh landslide composed of unstable mud, rocks, boulders and mangled full-grown trees. We were able to squeeze ourselves by at the water's edge, dodging the waves and avoiding the muck, our backpacks not becoming too badly snagged on the tree parts we had to climb over, under and among. Once past and looking up, the full awe of the slide hit us. It was a huge swath of land that had broken from the edge of the woods very high up the slope. The remaining scar was brown and slick and terrifying and the bodies of the trees brought down were crumpled at its base and strewn along the beach for a mile. Their leaves were still green, the spring buds still fresh, and their corpses were red as though still bleeding. Where the bark had been peeled, the trunks were as slick as ice. I shuddered, imagining the sound of their screams as they were broken like twigs. For a half mile on either side of the slide, the water was still murky and muddy and tree limbs were still lifting in the waves just offshore.
We were about a mile further than necessary before we accepted that we had probably gone too far and made camp at Gitchell Creek on the black sand below the cliffs under an overcast sky. We think we saw a river otter that evening. The stove behaved again and dinner was hot and good. The next morning was gorgeous: calm and sunny. Since Shelter Cove was so close that we could see the houses, we were sure we needed to walk back to find Buck Creek. The night before, a father and his young son arrived late and camped opposite us on the other side of the creek behind a mound of driftwood. After we re-crossed the creek and were starting our walk back, they approached us and the father asked that we take their picture. He then inquired where we were headed and asked about the weather. We knew nothing so he said that a surfer had told him yesterday that a big storm was expected starting that night. We didn't give it a second thought since we were well prepared for rainstorms. They were the last people we saw for three days.
Our mistake from the day before was revealed when we retraced our steps north to the next creek. In our defense, the trail sign was high up and not easily seen unless one was looking for it. We were thankful that we didn't have to go back over the slide area which was in view. It was still warm and calm so we relaxed; after pitching the tent, we bathed then napped. Gale force winds and quickly shifting sunshine and shadow awakened us. The sky was full of scudding clouds and the surf, which on our arrival had been tame and polite, leaving us plenty of beach on which to walk, was now pounding the base of the cliff walls. No one could walk the coast now.
We packed, added a gallon of water to our load since springs were scarce in the mountains, and hied ourselves up the trail to escape the unrelenting, exhausting wind. The silence and calm in the cover of the trees were a relief. Irises bloomed along the path and ferns were unfurling in the dappled sunshine deeper in the woods. The hike, although straight up, didn't feel too difficult, at least until we reached the ridge. Suddenly the temperature dropped, the sky became more overcast, and we felt pressed to find a campsite. None presented itself in the relentless climb until at last, at a turn in the ridge, the path leveled for a moment. We constructed a site there, just off the trail, our tent back against the steep slope and protected from the wind, with the door facing out on a spectacular view of the ocean, the lower half of the King Range, tiny Shelter Cove on its jutting promontory, and the sky...full of roiling, fast moving but still broken clouds. As darkness fell, the clouds thickened and were shot through with pastel pinks and oranges from the hidden setting sun. We watched the lights come on in the town then read to each other for a while.
The tick tick of rain on the fly awakened us briefly during the night; otherwise we slept long and hard. But in the morning, when I opened the tent door, we were dazzled by the winter wonderland of a landscape intricately etched in black and white. What we thought was rain had turned to snow at elevations above 2,000 feet, and we were at about 3,500 feet. The sky was everything — dark and light and fast moving and changing. Since we had worked hard yesterday, our scheduled layover day, we decided to designate this one a layover in its place and relax, enjoy the beauty and throw a few snowballs, figuring that the weather would change by tomorrow making continuing on easier.
We couldn't have been more wrong but also couldn't have known. At least one of the travel books we'd perused before our trip stated that snow was rare in the King Range. Later in the afternoon we decided to use a break in the snowfall, now a few inches on the ground, to pack and make some progress up the mountain. As soon as we put on our packs the respite ended and the snow began falling again...big, gentle, wet flakes that stuck to everything and soaked into warm bodies easily. After a mile, we pitched camp during a brief period of sunshine — not enough to dry anything, but just enough to lift our spirits for a moment. Although never tired of the beauty of the place, we were tired of the wet and cold and the long periods in the tent (the book we were reading to each other wasn't that good). And we were a bit worried should this continue. We revisited our decision, based on speculation about the weather, against retracing our steps to avoid having to hike past the landslide again even if the storm surf would allow us, to keep to our schedule, and to embrace our perhaps fatal sense of adventure. Over a hot dinner, we marveled at the contrasts and abrupt changes of this land. Our "luck" had been good...the weather broke whenever we set up or took down camp and it had given us times of rest when we needed them. It also lulled us into thinking it would hold and we could continue without fear.
That night was more difficult. We awoke frequently and each time had to "bang" the accumulated wet snow from the tent fly which sagged under the weight. I had snow camping experience and had bought the tent expressly for its all weather attributes. But wet snow sticks to nearly any surface and its weight is enormous. In fact, when we packed up that morning both the tent and fly were soaked and the weight our 45 lb starting packs had lost from our having eaten three days’ worth of food, was regained with interest in water. The clothes we had worn for the short hike yesterday were wet also, as were our boots and the socks. We decided to wear the wet things and any extra clothes, but keep one layer of dry clothing for when we crawled into our sleeping bags...inner and outer socks, long underwear pants and top, and a balaclava for me. Neither of us had gloves. To my wet ensemble I added a layer of plastic bags over my socks, since my boots leaked badly. The resulting effect, with the final layer of raingear, was not unlike a wetsuit...the cold water against the skin heated during exercise and kept us warm. But the instant we stopped, we froze. We also put all of our lunch nibbles into our outer pockets for easy access.
About 10am we set out. It was snowing enough while we packed up to ensure that everything became wet and there was a five inch cover on the ground. Our goal was Miller Camp, described on the map as "tent sites under a tree canopy by a spring". It sounded pleasant, somewhat protected and perhaps the snow would be over by the time we arrived. But it became heavier as we gained elevation, and deeper and the temperature dropped. On the open, treeless spine of the ridge just before we saw the turnoff sign for the camp, the wind was stiff. We were thankful to have seen the sign, and happy to be heading down into the woods, but in a short while our unease returned. The woods were dark, damp, oppressive — sinister. The campsites were rocky and sloping. We shook our heads, filled our water bottles in the stream, had a standing snack, and kept hiking. We now knew the meaning of "tulgey wood". Our backup destination was the Rattlesnake Trail junction which would take us down to the beach in 4.5 miles and was another four miles away.
We hiked about 8.5 miles that day. A lot of it is hazy in my mind. I recall a sense of urgency; a need to keep going no matter what. I remember the fear that we'd miss the next turnoff sign because it would be buried in snow. But the signage was good. Our one mistake was a short one and was of our own doing. We made a turn without seeing a sign. Suddenly, after a quick downhill hike, Steve exclaimed, "Look, footprints!" We were amazed that anyone else was out there – and of course no one else was. We'd gone in a circle and they were ours. We retraced our steps and found the signed turnoff. The snow was now 6-8 inches deep and was harder to hike through than the sand. I was in the lead when footprints appeared again seemingly from nowhere. A lot of them. We thought they might be a day old although they seemed very clear. About a mile further along, Steve, now in the lead, announced, "Those aren't human". For a moment my heart raced, then I thought, of course, they’re deer prints. After all we'd come up Buck Trail. During a traverse of a cliff on a narrow section of trail deep in the tulgey wood where the mountain rose vertically on our left and dropped perpendicularly on our right, they disappeared as abruptly and mysteriously as they'd come.
I also recall constantly climbing under or around trees that were so bowed by the weight of the snow that they nearly touched the trail. They slid a mound of snow down our backs as they sprang up, relieved. Or we would attempt to knock off their load first, hard, icy work which our hands resented. We commented several times to each other that we were missing the spectacular views we'd read about. And I remember repeating like a mantra, don't twist an ankle, don't slide off the edge. The trail was slippery and the rocks buried. Then there were the small avalanches on the steep parts of our traverse… Not reassuring.
Only once did we remove our packs, in an area that had burned recently and in which the new trees were still short. We knew from the map that we must be nearing the Rattlesnake trail turnoff but our backs, hips and feet needed a break. We struggled out of the packs, stretched, gobbled some snacks and Advil and drank water while the snow, nearly one foot deep, continued unabated. It was around three in the afternoon and becoming darker.
Fortified, we hurried on. I was beginning to wonder if we were going to have to camp on the snow and turned over in my mind what that would entail. We later wished we had. At least snow insulates and doesn't soak in like rain. It's also quiet. Then the trail turnoff sign appeared and with a yelp of short-lived relief, we headed steeply down. The snow on the ground became very slippery slush as we lost elevation, but despite the danger, we were happier. The aptly named trail, a series of vertical switchbacks that could give you whiplash, was littered with trees and branches which we clambered over, under and around. The mix of snow and rainfall was letting up when we stumbled into a camping area with a rock circle fire pit that was now under water and a sign for a spring nearby. It was 4:30pm. We had been hiking for seven hours and there was no way to know if there would be another camping opportunity before the beach, still four miles straight down. We were exhausted, soaked, and cold when we dropped our packs and quickly prepared an area on which to set up the tent.
The tent was up but before we had the fly on the icy rain began again in earnest. Our hands were frozen and useless and it seemed to take an eternity to cover the tent and anchor the fly with the large rocks we took from the fire pit. We then threw everything we needed for sleep into the shelter and stored the soggy remainder under the fly vestibule. Steve leaned forlornly against a nearby tree while I sat in the tent entry and struggled to peel off my soaked boots, the socks, the water logged plastic bags, then the rest of my clothing. He joined me and went through the ritual himself. We made an attempt to dry ourselves off before we donned our layer of dry clothes and crawled into our sleeping bags. But nothing was truly dry. The tent was soaked through so anything that touched the sides became wet in turn. The sodden clothes we had removed were in mounds at the foot of the tent and along the sides and there was no avoiding them. Dinner in the dark was a continuation of lunch — cold nibbles — with one addition, a sip for each from the whiskey flask.
We sank down, exhausted, and not a little apprehensive. I couldn't stop shaking even though we were as closely intertwined as possible. Cold, hunger and fear had me knotted and miserable. The storm grew louder and more violent by the moment. I tried making a pattern of the sound of the sleet hitting the fly but it was so loud, hard and fast that all I could conjure was machine gun fire. Not comforting. Then the wind picked up. It started low and deep coming up the canyon from the ocean like a fighter plane roaring towards us. The trees whined and cracked and the splatter of gunfire grew louder and louder. My gut tightened for the blow. Then it was upon us and the tent sagged on the side hit and I flinched. This continued for hours. Periodically we shined the flashlight about the interior looking for leaks and unfortunately found them. Our bags were getting wet.
Late in the night, we heard a new, higher pitched dripping sound. We thought perhaps the lake that had formed around the fire pit was rising and would reach under the tent. We shined the flashlight into the sleeting dark to convince ourselves that the fear was groundless. Then Steve voiced his fear of a bear ripping the tent in a frenzied search for the food. Shakily, I reassured him that any sane bear would still be hibernating in this weather, the while I withheld my most frightening vision, that a tree limb would be ripped off and fall on us. I pictured us soaked, shivering, and possibly injured, huddled in the freezing dark under the remains of the tent. Late at night, wrapped in my cocoon while the wilderness howled around me, I was startled by an unbidden thought — today was April 4th, the day, four years before, that my father had died. My feelings about his death were so tangled – fear? guilt? relief? — that I walled out the memory. But no matter how often I told myself it wouldn't be so bad, I froze at the thought of having to dress again in the morning in the icy wet clothes we'd worn the day before, which kept surging up like the bass line of a scary musical score. It was a long night. We dozed off and on and had disjointed frightening dreams.
Morning finally dawned — wet and overcast and still sleeting lightly. But the tent had held and our soggy bags were warm. We lay there for awhile, exhausted. It was a relief to have survived, and it slowly dawned on us that we'd make it to the beach soon. Eventually, I scrabbled about in the bear canisters and found us something for breakfast — cold, of course. We couldn't imagine the patience required to light the stove or how our hands could perform the simple task. After eating, and still in the tent, we packed everything we could and donned our wet gear, then very quickly dismantled the tent and threw our packs together. Not quickly enough. Our fingers were frozen to near uselessness, but at least the frenetic activity kept our cores warm. In a light snow we fumbled to find the trail which immediately led us out onto an open ridge.
To our left, behind the still angry sky, the sun had just risen. Even at that early hour, its warmth as it broke through for a moment was powerfully healing. To our right was the first view of the ocean in two days. From that height it appeared calm, but even more promising, the sky in that direction was less leaden; it seemed to be trying to clear. Hugely refreshed, we began the steep rattlesnaking, knee rattling downhill at a trot. The air warmed as we dropped elevation and my mind worked on a fantasy that I refused to share for fear of jinxing it. Twice we waded Rattlesnake Creek, now a river; we climbed over countless downed trees; and we walked through a "rainforest" in the rain in which bloomed columbines and exquisite star shaped flowers whose names I didn't know, where the ferns were lush and brilliant and the trees were dressed head to toe in two inch thick furry coats of bright green moss. And two hours later we debouched onto the flat grassy verge of the beach and stopped in a light drizzle at the trail sign we had passed three days before. It was 10am. We'd made it.
The sky gradually lightened as we retraced our route in the grass above the beach. By the time we stopped for lunch at Hadley Creek, where we had spent our second night and had our first glimpse of King Peak, the sun was out and we were warm. My fantasy was coming true. Our shoes and socks were first off. The quickly drying black sand was a comfort to our tired feet. Then off came our layers of wet clothes, one at a time. And finally, piece by piece, as we gained confidence that the sun would stay, all our wet things were pulled from their bags until we and our belongings were draped over the warm rocks and sand and logs, face to the sun and ocean, soaking in the drying, restoring heat, thrilled to be alive. Behind us, a thin half-mile away but four and a half miles up, King Peak was still scumbled in heavy black clouds. As they jostled and jockeyed for position there was a momentary flash of white. We'd come to expect the extreme contrasts. The instability, changeability and insouciance of the landscape were a good part of its beauty. In its presence one became acutely aware of the permeable space between happiness and misery, sun and storm, day and night, mind and body, and joy and despair that supported the curtain of air between life and death. All of which made our last night out, tucked between a peaceful ocean and the soft green treeless mountains, snuggled amongst the driftwood bones on Spanish Flat watching the golden eagles cruising for dinner, all the more poignant. We were ecstatic to be alive and sad to be leaving.