COVER STORY - OCTOBER 1995
by Marie Gravelle
A PLACE WHERE LAND AND sea meet with a vengeance. That is the essence of the King Range.
One way to look at the area is on a 3-D map. Plastic mountains pop up from nowhere along the Southern Humboldt coast. The big bumps drop off just as quickly onto a smooth ocean plane. Gentle slopes? There are none.
Along such a line of demarcation, you find Mother Nature performing her greatest tricks.
A balmy 85-degree day becomes a drizzly 45-degree fog bank in minutes. The wind picks up without notice and hikers trekking the 24-mile Lost Coast Trail huddle against cliffs. They're lucky if it doesn't rain -- 200 inches drop on the King Range each year.
The ocean also pounds this coast, leaving, on average, one person dead each year. Dangerous, yes, but it's also a surfing mecca. Surfers from all over the world flock to Big Flat, Dead Man's Gulch, No Pass and other hot spots.
This month, the King Range celebrates 25 years as the nation's first national conservation area. Its ruggedness translates to a remarkable beauty, one that was appreciated by Congress as long ago as 1920, but it wasn't until 1970 that it was designated a "conservation area." Unlike a national park, there are multiple uses like grazing, timber harvesting and mineral extraction allowed -- though not necessarily available.
To date, nearly half the designated 60,000-acre King Range is public land. The rest is private property. These "inholding" parcels are private properties within federally designated public areas. The public areas in the King Range are managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Like any neighborhood, there are disputes over land uses. While the private neighbors feel effects of King Range land policies and can be vocal critics, they also reap the greatest benefits -- increasing land values and a backyard to beat the Joneses.
Times are changing. The bureau has gotten more "people friendly." Fears that BLM would purchase the entire area have proven unfounded.
"Congress never intended the federal government to take over every square inch of it," said Charlotte Hawks, BLM's real estate specialist. "And we're not." BLM officials are concentrating on managing what lands they now hold in the King Range.
The conservation area, on paper anyway, covers a 35-mile strip along the coast, moving inland over the King Range peaks from one to six miles. It runs from the mouth of the Mattole River near Petrolia to Four Corners, a few miles south of Shelter Cove. It includes more than 100 miles of trails and several campgrounds serving an estimated 80,000 visitors each year.
Within this zone are the people of the Lost Coast, a mix of old-timers and newcomers, vacationers, ranching families from the Petrolia area north of the King Range, and retirees and yuppies who live in the growing community of Shelter Cove -- the largest inholding -- at the south end of the King Range area.
There are unique characters, like 81-year-old Mario Machi, who settled in Shelter Cove in 1946. Operating a fishing port, restaurant and now a motel, Machi also managed to write several books, raise a family and watch the area grow. Thirteen Machis now live in the Cove.
Close to the elements at his post on Point Delgada at the southern tip of Shelter Cove, Machi has seen it all. In his book, "Gem of the Lost Coast," Machi recounts sea rescues, plane crashes and hiking mishaps.
The pioneer still operates his fish-cleaning machine at the marina, chatting with sports fishermen who flock to the cove in the summer. The commercial fishing industry he once relied upon, however, has seen severe restrictions and fading fish populations.
In the meantime, Machi has seen the King Range go from a nonentity known only to a handful of surfers to a major tourist attraction.
"It used to be we'd go weeks without seeing a car," Machi said. Not that the area is overrun with people now, but a trip to the cove on Fourth of July suggests it's been more than discovered.
At the other end of the King Range is another old-timer, Rex Rathbun, who at 75 has lived near the mouth of the Mattole River for years.
"The biologists are great," said Rathbun, referring to his neighbors, the BLM. The strong-minded environmentalist sometimes bickers with BLM rangers, but he has found the agency helpful in fisheries restoration projects and forest protection.
Rathbun was instrumental in getting Mill Creek forest, an old-growth forest at the northern tip of the King Range, into public ownership.
The 500-acre forest acquisition/exchange is the latest addition to the King Range. This ingenious land exchange allowed the predominant owners, Eel River Sawmills Inc., to get a guaranteed timber supply from other federal and state lands. For its part, the public received an old-growth forest, with protected wildlife, overlooking the mouth of the Mattole River.
In between Rathbun and Machi along the Lost Coast are settlers whose families date back to the late 1800s. Their descendents still use two beach cabin getaways, and one inholder actually built a home and landing strip about halfway down the Lost Coast at Big Flat.
There are no Native American inholders in the area, but evidence of a previous lifestyle exists. There are more than 20 archeological sites along the King Range, primarily mounds of shells or middens discarded by Sinkyone and Mattole Indians. Both tribes gathered in this area in the spring and summer months to harvest shellfish, seals and other food provided by the sea. The Mattole Indians were said to number about 1,200 when white men first made contact in the mid-1880s. Within just a few years, their numbers were down to 200. Within 20 years, there were less than 50 Mattole Indians left.
"There's a presence you can feel," said Bob Wick, a BLM wilderness specialist who hikes the Lost Coast trail each year.
But the presence today is that of a government agency and its neighbors, beginning to develop a symbiotic relationship.
Tourists patronize the tiny stores in the area on their way to climb the mountains or hike the beach. And BLM brochures provide free advertising to local ventures.
Things are getting so cozy down there that the King Range's 25th birthday party will be held in Shelter Cove on Oct. 21, with many local residents helping to sponsor a barbecue.
"They pump a lot of money into the local economy," one resident said of the BLM and its King Range.
This symbiosis may surprise some environmentalists, timber industry officials, ranchers, developers and off-road enthusiasts.
"Back in the good old days," an area real estate agent said, you could do whatever you wanted with your land in and around the King Range. "Guys used to be able to take their dune buggies right up the beach," he said. Timber companies harvested federal timber. Abalone divers and surfers drove right down to the coast.
But with growing numbers of vacationers using the area, there have been policy changes. To keep the Lost Coast somewhat lost, BLM is intent on providing a "primitive" experience. This means vehicles are no longer allowed on the beach north of Gitchell Creek. Timber harvesting has ceased. Roads have been closed and a fence is being built to keep back those abalone divers and surfers who insist on getting their rigs to the beach.
"That ticked people off," the real estate agent said, but he added that BLM's fire personnel and maintenance crews are an asset to the area.
BLM managers provide a park-like experience in the King Range, but multiple use is apparent. About 10,000 acres are leased to sheep ranchers for grazing, and long hunting seasons for bear, quail and black-tailed deer coexist with miles of nature trails.
Sometimes it's hard to reconcile new visitors to the area with those few who own land along the Lost Coast. At times, BLM must walk a thin line.
While 4x4's and ORVs aren't allowed on much of the Lost Coast, those who own summer cabins have beach access through private gates. The public can get used to these few inholder properties, but BLM officials say other intrusions are more difficult.
"Pot growers" are the biggest problem in the King Range, according to BLM managers. Rat poison, fencing and water lines disturb the natural environment. Growers threaten hikers. But it's nothing new, the area is so rugged and remote that marijuana growers have used it for years. Drug laws -- and many other laws -- are difficult to enforce in the wilderness.
There was one huge attempt to eradicate the weed. Called "Operation Green Sweep," a 1990 federal raid on the King Range was planned from Washington, D.C. Local BLM officials were as surprised as anyone when 200 federal agents, helicopters, jeeps and submachine guns took over the Hidden Valley Campground above Shelter Cove.
Netting a paltry 1,200 plants, the raid resulted in a lawsuit against the BLM and led to years of bad feelings.
"The operation was a dismal failure from almost every point of view," said Ed Den-son, a member of the Civil Liberties Monitoring Project still embroiled in a court battle over Operation Green Sweep.
According to Denson, the whole plan was a public relations stunt aimed at boosting morale and preparing for the Gulf War.
"We've discovered there were plans for President Bush to wade onshore at Shelter Cove," Denson said, quoting court documents.
The court has so far favored the federal government, but a case charging environmental damage is moving forward. Although the BLM is named in the suit, Denson said it's not really aimed at that agency. "We sued every agency," he said. But when it came down to designating which federal agency was to take the heat, "It turned out to be the hapless BLM."
Green Sweep was something of a minor glitch in the development of relations between Southern Humboldters and BLM.
Most people seem to appreciate the agency's presence in the remote land. There are still complaints over law enforcement, but the coming "block party" at Shelter Cove will be evidence that neighbors can get along.
Issues that once caused disharmony have fallen to the wayside. The agency's management plan once called for 5 million board-feet of timber to be harvested each year. Some thought it was too much, others wanted a greater harvest. In the end, wildlife concerns and a lack of timber shut down the range to harvesting.
In fact, BLM is restoring old logging roads to their natural contour, expecting horses and hikers, not logging trucks.
The amount of federally designated "wilderness" is another issue that caused some concern. Both the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society rate the area as a top priority for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 acres are set for wilderness study, but Congress has yet to act.
The King Range would probably be a very different place today if Congress hadn't set the area apart so many years ago. Called the Lost Coast because of its remoteness and lack of development -- it's now the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the lower 48 states.
Nature's forces also did their work to protect the area. One of the major factors affecting the topography is also a geologist's dream: Three tectonic "plates" meet in a "triple junction" region slightly north of the King Range near Cape Mendocino. Then there's the nearby southern tip of a gigantic subduction zone off the Northern California coast.
Between these factors, the coastal mountain range is being pushed out of the ground as you read this.
"The King Range is very young and actively growing," said Gary Carver, geology professor at Humboldt State University and tectonic expert.
Uplifting at a rate of about 4 millimeters a year, the mountains average about an inch of growth every 20 years, Carver said.
"That's a rapid rate geologically," he said. "But it's not continuous. It does nothing for some time and then jumps up in the air during a big earthquake.
"It jumps about every couple hundred years."
But it's not all moving up. Crouch, with wobbly knees, and you can look over the edge of Kaluna Cliff high above Shelter Cove. This massive landslide drops 1,200 feet to the ocean.
Rumor has it that this Southern Humboldt coastline and its surrounding peaks were first seen by Hawaiian natives who paddled canoes from their islands to the mainland. From far out at sea, they saw the tallest peak, and in deference to their leader, King Kaluna, they called it King's Peak. A slightly smaller mountain to its right was promptly named Queen's Peak.
But there's no Sky God Peak or Oollapoolla Ridge. By the time white settlers moved in, they'd opted for the boring, the convenient. Some of North America's most stunning mountain peaks are called Telegraph Peak and Fire Hill, not to mention Saddle Mountain, Horse Mountain, Brush Mountain, Shubrick Peak and Hadley Peak.
While the names don't do them justice, the mountains continue to act like a gate, protecting California's jewel from the ravages of coastal development. Decades ago, man and his machines took a detour when they reached the King Range. The closest major highway is 20 miles from the southern edge of the King Range, and from there it's a long, windy drive to the sea.
Like a gate, the mountains have also kept their secrets hidden. Only the curious and hardy dare explore the Lost Coast. There's not a person who's hiked the area and come back without a wild tale.
"The college interns talk about spending their summers on this coast and they talk about it as a life-changing experience," Wick said. "It's a powerful place."
Backpackers usually take one of two routes. They follow the ocean or climb King's Peak. Either way, it's long, lonely and astounding.
Hiking along the beach from Mattole to Shelter Cove takes about three days. You pass the abandoned yet restored Punta Gorda Lighthouse, and then stroll along the beach, battling wind and sand. It gets exciting when the tide comes up and you have to cross one of the many points of land that intrude into the ocean.
"You never know if you're going to have to run 10 yards or 100 yards" to keep dry, Wick said.
And don't run out of food. One hiker told of pesky raccoons who raided her camp. Instead of a leisurely stroll along the beach, hunger necessitated a 10-mile dash.
Then there are those who go for the peak.
"The Lightning Trail is the shortest route to the summit," wrote Blue Lake lawyer Richard Platz after a hike to the top of King's Peak. "I soon discovered that the trail hadn't earned its name for speed, but because it zig-zagged straight down out of the sky."
There are even carvings on the trail head warning would-be hikers they may not make it back alive.
According to Dan Averill with BLM, plans are underway to provide a horse trail through the mountains and the agency is building a visitor's center on the Shelter Cove Road.
But those mountainous gates aren't going anywhere, and the sheer ruggedness of the Lost Coast will always make it a challenge to find.
The BLM, along with property owners and information bureau officials, will hold a party in Shelter Cove on Oct. 21. The public is invited to listen to speeches, enjoy a BBQ and get a free commemorative poster. For more information, call 825-2300.
Also this month on Oct. 7 the Humboldt State University Natural History Museum is leading a field trip to the Lost Coast. The cost is $20 for a marine biologist-guided tour to the beach near Petrolia. For ages 18 to adult. Call 826-4479.
SHELTER COVE IS a soft spot along the rugged Lost Coast. Its flat meadowland contrasts sharply with the pinnacle-like peaks hugging the coast both north and south.
The meadows -- which are increasingly being dotted with upscale, Malibu-style homes -- are not easy to reach. You can fly in by small plane, or you can drive a tortuously windy, steep road an hour out of Redway. If it's summer, it may be sweltering.
But once there, you find paradise.
The history of development in Shelter Cove is reminiscent of this drive. The end result is awesome, but the road there was long, hot and fraught with disastrous potholes.
It all began hundreds of years ago with the Sinkyone tribe, whose members used the flat land as a spring and summer camp. Life was easy, salmon and steelhead were plentiful in the creeks that ran to the coast. Sea lions rested offshore and deer were abundant.
It was the meadows, a rare find in this area, that contributed to the Indians' demise.
White men, sailing along the North Coast in the 1800s, saw the land around Shelter Cove, and found it perfect for cattle grazing. After settling in, ranchers claimed cattle were disappearing. The Sinkyone were blamed and a raiding party of white men from Fort Bragg reportedly snuck up the coast one night and slaughtered Indians camped in a spot they called the Willows.
What followed was a complete takeover of the area by white settlers, who even camped in the same sheltered spot the Indians had found hospitable.
At the same time, Spanish and Russian ships plied the jagged Lost Coast. Shipwrecks were common.
One Indian legend held that a Spanish, or Russian, ship ran aground and all on board were lost. A group of Indians gathered gold off the boat, giving some coins to their children for toys. The rest of the gold they hid in a cave, which later collapsed on itself during an earthquake.
"People still come here looking for that treasure," said Mario Machi, who has lived at the cove since the 1930s.
With white settlers came a bustling port, and between 1865 and 1920 Shelter Cove boasted an 840-foot pier. Then, the entire wharf was destroyed in an earthquake and sea trade dropped off.
In 1946 the Machi brothers bought land near the harbor. Mario, Babe and Tony operated a fishing business for many years, and Mario still caters to the sports fishing crowd, and owns a motel and restaurant at the marina.
Real development came in the mid 1960s when the Shelter Cove Development Co. bought 2,500 acres from rancher and early settler Keith Etter. The company built 48 miles of roads, created more than 4,000 lots, paved an existing airstrip and laid out a nine-hole golf course.
But land use dilemmas, combined with a disastrous fire and a plane crash, delayed further development for more than 20 years.
It was just a few years into the project when the development company flew real estate agents in to the Shelter Cove airstrip. As they were leaving, one plane skidded off the runway and crashed off the cliffs into the Pacific Ocean, killing 17 people. Seven survived.
After the plane crash came the Finley Creek Fire. More than 13,000 acres burned, leaving the resort with a burned out backdrop. You can still see the white snags of burned trees, but young trees and shrubs have since covered the scorched earth.
There were also problems with actual building. Those who purchased lots ended up suing the California Coastal Commission over building permits. The commission was wrestling with many who believed the area too pristine for development at all.
Ralph Nader wrote a scathing article on Shelter Cove, the largest development in the state at the time. A University of California at Berkeley report did the same, blasting developers for damaging the landscape with roads.
Finally, in 1985, the property owners won their case against the Coastal Commission and the development company paid a settlement to Humboldt County for road and drainage problems. At issue was a concern over open space, but that was solved when the Bureau of Land Management purchased 25 ocean lots now used for open space and beach access.
Billed as a $50 million development that would house 10,000 people, only 300 homes exist today.
Since settling with the Coastal Commission and the county, the development has realized a mini-building boom.
"Right now I know of 10 houses under construction," said Frances Aldridge, a long-time cove resident.
There are four active real estate businesses in an area that hosts one seasonal restaurant, one year-round eatery, three motels, a bed and breakfast inn, a campground and deli, coffee shop and a general store.
Making a living in Shelter Cove is nearly impossible, or as residents put it, "you have to be very creative."
But two-income families from Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles are being enticed to purchase weekend homes in this paradise.
And the price of paradise keeps going up. Just six or seven years ago, you could buy a hilly lot in the cove for $5,000. That lot now sells for $15,000 to $30,000 and beach front lots along the bluffs go for more than $100,000.
Comments? E-mail the Journal: email@example.com
The North Coast Journal Table of Contents