The thick fog north of Black Sands Beach quickly masks the hikers I had met the day before as they pass by, heading south. Like myself, they had started the Lost Coast Trail at Mattole Beach, some 25 miles north.
For most, this journey is about the solitude and beauty of the Lost Coast, the rugged stretch of coastal lands devoid of highway that begin where U.S. Highway 101 turns inland near Fernbridge in Humboldt County, and stretches until State Route 1's asphalt reaches the coast just north of Fort Bragg in Mendocino County.
Backpackers usually treat this as a one-way trip, leaving a car at each end, before covering the Humboldt section of trail in the King Range National Conservation area from Mattole Beach to Black Sands Beach. I, on the other hand, having just reached Black Sands Beach, turn around to hike the opposite direction, a "yo-yo" in hiker terminology.
This particular morning I'm waiting for a figure to emerge from the fog, a man I had only spoken to briefly on the phone a week before. I'd contacted the Bureau of Land Management offices in Arcata to find information about the Lost Coast Trail, curious to see what was going on out there: conservation efforts, trail-specific issues, biological field studies. I'm interested in that sort of thing. Through a chain of emails, I connected with Paul Sever, the King Range's wilderness ranger. I had hiked the trail southbound the previous three days and was set to meet Sever and accompany him north on his patrol. "I'll be carrying a shovel," he had said on the phone. I pack my camp near split rock and keep watch for a man with a shovel.
That shovel, I would come to find, is arguably the most important tool in Sever's kit, the runner up being his notebook. Wiry with a light complexion and narrow features, Sever is a 29-year-old graduate of Humboldt State University's resources management program and has worked as a wilderness ranger with BLM since 2009. We hike on, chatting for a short while before Sever trails off toward an area I had seen illuminated by campfire and headlamps the night before. He explains that his two main duties while patrolling are to speak with users to encourage leave-no-trace ethics and collect information. In casual conversation, he asks key questions: "Do you have a bear canister? Did you fill out a wilderness permit? Do you know where to dispose of solid human waste?" This is a quest for information — Sever wants to know where users come from (mostly the Bay Area) and gauge bear canister compliance rates. After each contact, Sever records stats in his notebook. The third question, it turns out, has a lot to do with the shovel.
Sever dismantles the smaller — and newer — of the two fire rings at the abandoned campsite. I assist him in scattering the sticks, stones and ash, and he covers the remnants of the pit in soil.
"This is a wilderness area, really you are supposed to use the existing campfire rings when one is available and camp in areas that have already been impacted," Sever explains. I stand back to appreciate the work, with Sever now off in the tall grass a few feet away. "Yeah, we got an ETB, make that two," he says. From my vantage, I can see him working the shovel,
"A what?" I ask.
"Oh yeah, ETB, Exposed Turd Burial," he explains. It turns out, Paul gets a lot of these.
If you are ever asked, "Do you know where to dispose of solid human waste on the Lost Coast Trail?" the correct answer is, you dig a hole 6- to 8-inches deep, 200 feet from the trail, campsites and water sources. In most cases, this means you dig in wet sand below the high tide line on the beach. The LCT follows a narrow stretch of land, with the Pacific on one side and steep hillsides and cliffs on the other. With few exceptions, areas fit for camping are closer to water sources than is ideal. If solid waste disposal were left entirely to suitable camping areas, every tent would rest within inches of excrement, and every stream fit for water collection would be contaminated.
Sever performs ETBs because some people aren't considerate enough to do it themselves. Beyond the obvious reasons of protecting water safety and keeping a fly from inspecting human feces and then landing in your freeze-dried beef stroganoff, Sever buries turds so we can experience an area of "Designated Wilderness" as intended. "Big W, wilderness," as they're often referred to by those who work on and manage the lands, are areas designated by Congress as having stellar capacities for outdoor recreation. Designated Wilderness lands have special rules and are managed to ensure certain criteria are met. The opportunity for solitude is paramount. In short, Sever buries feces, hauls out garbage and dismantles excessive fire rings to ensure that anyone looking to have a wilderness experience on the Lost Coast can enjoy the area in its full primal splendor.
By the end of the first day, Sever has made contact with 100 trail users. Hiking north against the flow is a very different experience. The impression of solitude and communion with the elements seems somewhat of a stretch, partly because we are hiking during spring break, opposite throngs of exuberant young people in bright colors, and partly because I'm seeing the area through Sever's eyes. It is becoming apparent that much of the wilderness experience in this part of the King Range is the hard work of Paul Sever.
That night we make camp at Miller Flat. "This is one of the problem spots," Sever explains. Eight miles north of Black Sands Beach, Miller and Big flats are an easy enough hike with a surfboard. This is possibly the only place where surfing in a wilderness area is possible. Unlike backpackers traditionally traveling south for many more miles before reaching the area, surfers have a shorter hike. And, as their primary endeavor is surfing, they aren't necessarily as geared for the particulars of backpacking.
I follow Sever through a meadow to a brushy thicket where he reveals a pile of items: a butane stove and empty canisters, heavy duty plastic tarps, multiple sauce pans, surf fins, a framing hammer and a full-size pillow, among other odd bits. It isn't apparent if this is carelessness, or if the items have been left behind for the next visit or the next visitor, but it represents a cultural difference in the users of this particular area, and a clash of expectations. In this instance, one is in violation of the law. Sever's official enforcement capacity is limited to education, however.
"Usually if I encounter someone who isn't following the rules, just [by] explaining to them, you can sort of see when someone gets why it's important to have a bear canister, or to pick up after himself," he says. Sever views this as a process. A culture change will have to occur and, he expects, over time more educated users will follow and promote best practices. One area has already started to show proof that change is possible. Sever leads me to a thicket of alders with names carved into their branches and trunks, and tents erected below their spring foliage. "It's looking pretty good in here," he says. In previous years, he and volunteer groups had cut down countless ropes and maritime floats that had been found on the beach and tied up in the branches. After a few seasons they stopped appearing. One float encourages more, Sever says, and the name of the game is to eliminate the problem while it's small, before adding to the mess becomes a trend.
As we eat dinner, discussion turns toward bears and we share tales of encounters. The canisters, he explains, have transformed the bears in the area. Bears can smell maybe seven times better than a bloodhound, and are more scavengers than hunters. Really, they just want an easy meal.
One night here at Miller Flat, Sever recalls, a group of volunteers had their food canisters in a row at the other end of the meadow. At some point in the night, Sever awoke to a sound. Looking out of the tent he could see a large bear by moonlight in the distance. "It went from canister to canister," he recalls, and the bear knew the canisters were a waste of time, and eventually just left in search of an easier meal. With few exceptions, there are no trees on the LCT, so canisters are the only safe food storage. As they say, "a fed bear is a dead bear." Food-habituated bears see humans as a source of an easy meal, which leads to dangerous encounters for people, though they are more often deadly for the animal. Under normal circumstances, bears avoid humans, which is better for everyone.
The following day, Sever and I visit more sites, clean fire pits and take care of a few more ETBs. Over all, day two is about the perks of the job. We encounter fewer people and share some unique wildlife experiences: A pod of grey whales in the distance, traveling north from their wintering grounds in Baja, spout mist into the air; seals and sealions watch us from the surf; and we see bear tracks in the sand. As we traverse a section of trail following the San Andreas Fault, Sever points to interesting geologic features. "See this twisted, crazy-looking layer? This is the Franciscan Assemblage. Look up there," he says, pointing to basketball-sized, rounded stones atop a twisted layer. The stones are identical to what we are walking on — large, round rocks that sit underwater at high tide. This whole place is dynamic, with the forces of wind and water constantly shaping the Earth's surface. More sporadic, however, are tectonic shifts. Uplifts have moved stones from the surf to edges of crumbly cliffs 15 feet above, evidence that the shoreline has moved and lurched, sometimes multiple times in a small area.
We round a corner, 50 yards south of an area impassible at high tide, and see a whale carcass that has washed ashore. It was there when I passed days earlier. Now, however, its color has changed to a dingy brown and it has begun to swell in the sun. Gulls and ravens crowd the shore, waiting for larger animals or possibly time to break through the whale's thick skin so they may partake. The strong winds keep the smell to minimum and we are able to inspect the goliath up close. A group of hikers passing south stops too, and Sever checks in with them, asking the three important questions. For a time, the five of us admire the beast together.
Sever and I continue on to Sealion Gulch, camping above in a high windy meadow that's sharply slanted. Offshore, large protrusions of rock host dozens of sealions. Jockeying for position, their calls and belches offer a disgruntled serenade that's strangely comforting through the evening and into the night.
We finish the remainder of the hike the following day, making our way to Mattole Beach by mid afternoon. In all, we packed out 21 pounds of garbage, including a rusty machete, a dozen beer bottles and a pair of boots. Sever recorded five ETBs and six CRDs (campfire rings destroyed), among other stats. As I walk to my truck to drop off my pack, Sever stops to talk to a guy starting off at the trailhead. I can see he has a machete strapped to his pack. Listening in, I can hear Sever explaining the importance of a bear canister and telling the gentleman that he can rent one from the Petrolia general store, just 15 minutes away. Paul Sever is too polite to say it, so I'll say it here: Hey man, you don't need that machete, but the bear canister, that's important.
There are no roads on the Lost Coast, no significant ones anyway. To get there from the north, one must part ways with U.S. Highway 101, pass through Ferndale, and follow 35 miles of narrow, twisting and often crumbling asphalt through open rangeland. The 35-mile drive takes at least an hour and a half, provided cattle refrain from blocking traffic. The southern approach is even longer. Splitting from Highway 101 in Garberville, one should expect a more than two-hour drive to cover the 50 miles to Mattole Beach and the Lost Coast trailhead.
Only burn sticks and branches you can break by hand
Save weight, opt for freeze-dried or dehydrated foods
"Cotton kills," so avoid cotton clothing, which can be slow to dry and lead to hypothermia
Invest in strong sunblock
Wear long pants or gaiters to protect you from poison oak and keep sand out of your boots
Keep dry with a raincoat and a pack cover
Leave a car at each end of the trail or arrange for shuttle service:
Sherri Luallin, Lost Coast Shuttle Service, 986-7437 or 223-1547
Blu Graham, Lost Coast Adventure Tours, 986-9895 or 502-7514
Carry a current tide table and map, as some areas are dangerous and impassable at high tide
Don't turn your back on the ocean, "sneaker waves" can be deadly
Food must be kept in a bear canister (they can be rented at the BLM offices in Whitethorn and Arcata, from the general stores in Shelter Cove and Petrolia and through HSU Center Activities)
Fill out and display a wilderness permit for each group
Check for seasonal fire and ignition restrictions
Dispose of human waste and food scraps safely (bury them in a 6- to 9-inch-deep hole, 200 feet from camp areas, trails, and water sources)
Respect private land parcels and cabins along the trail
If you pack it, in pack it out
Double check camp areas for left-behind items
Camp in already impacted areas
Use existing fire rings
Disperse unburned firewood
Douse campfire with water and stir ashes
Be conscientious of other people
Do not build or contribute to driftwood forts and windbreaks
King Range National Conservation Area's website: www.blm.gov/ca/st/en/fo/arcata/kingrange/index.html
Wilderness Ranger Paul Sever's blog: www.lostcoastranger.blogspot.com