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Down on the Delta 

It’s a whole ’nother world out Loleta way

Looking toward Pedrazzini Park from Cock Robin Island. Photos by Hank Sims.

You think of the great Humboldt County outdoors and first you think of one of two things: deep dark redwood forests or stark, windswept beaches. Afterward, you think of the mountains, the oak-and-madrone scrub to our east and south. Then the bay. Dunes. Rivers. Bottoms. Valleys. Lakes.

You can keep going down the list, working your way through all 3,572 square miles of the Humboldt County landscape, and chances are it’ll take you quite a while before you get to “swamp.” But swamp — or “marsh” or “wetlands,” if you prefer — was once one of the defining features of the area all around Humboldt Bay. Early European settlers bogged down in it and cursed it, even as they unknowingly profited from the richness of its biota. They diked it and drained it as quickly as they could.

But Humboldt County swampland survives, and not just in man-made wetland theme parks like the Arcata Marsh. Get down to the mouth of the Eel sometime, out west of Loleta down Cannibal Road. Take a trip over the bridge out to Cock Robin Island, out there in the middle of the river, on a rainy winter day. Look out over the swollen estuary and squint your eyes. Let your mind drift with the water. Except for the temperature, you might as well be standing somewhere in backwoods Louisiana or in the Everglades.

“You feel that Delta feeling — all the channels, wending around the island,” says Hawk Martin, owner of the waterborne expedition outfit known as Humboats. “You expect to see a tupelo gum tree out there.”

Acre for acre, there’s few places in the county as rich in natural beauty as the area around Loleta, and it’s densely packed with gorgeous and remarkably underutilized public facilities. Get out a map and draw a rectangle upon it, with the south shore of Humboldt Bay and the Eel River estuary to north and south, the Pacific Ocean and Highway 101 to west and east. Inside the rectangle, you’ll find the bay hiking trails and kayak put-ins at Hookton Slough. You’ll find the public hunting and hiking land on Cock Robin Island. You’ll find Crab Park, the strange, beautiful beach at the mouth of the Eel. And you’ll find the South Spit — the massive wild dunes that separate the bay from the ocean.

Crab Park, at the mouth of the Eel.

On Tuesday, the county of Humboldt and the California Department of Boating and Waterways launched yet another public access point — Pedrazzini Park, a boat launch and parking area across the channel from Cock Robin Island. Five years in the making, the Pedrazzini boat lauch — named for the late Charlie Pedrazzini, who donated the land for the project — will serve as the primary put-in spot for fishermen and recreational boaters on the Eel River estuary.

“It’s the gateway to the estuary, and just every imaginable natural resource,” said Supervisor Jimmy Smith on Monday, the day before he was to emcee the official launch of Pedrazzini Park down in the district he represents. Plenty of boaters like to put in for the fall Eel River salmon run, but that’s not the only thing going. Duck hunting season just opened, and some hunters go waterborne in search of fowl.

Kayakers can put in at Pedrazzini, too. It’s a convenient spot to embark on a tour around Cock Robin Island, which is one tour that Humboats offers. Hawk Martin said that the current can be strong in the estuary, especially after the first rains have hit, so it’s not necessarily a spot for a family paddle. But strong kayakers can have a great time out there.

Will the Pedrazzini boat launch help give the Loleta swamp-slough-dunes rectangle its due as a unique Humboldt County natural attraction? It should. And unlike most natural attractions around here, it’s even better in the winter. The river delta — melancholy, like all river deltas — is even more emotionally powerful when it’s flowing strong. In February or so, the Aleutian geese return in force, peeving farmers somewhat but providing a can’t-miss spectacle. “Just listen to the sky, with thousands of those guys flying around out there,” said Jimmy Smith, wistfully, on Monday.

Final note: When visiting the Loleta rectangle, don’t forget to pay a visit to Loleta itself — a gorgeous, unassuming bottoms town. Loleta keeps it real. Loleta is to Ferndale as Trinidad is to Mendocino. If out with the kids, time your trip so you that you can pay a visit to the Loleta Cheese Factory. If going solo, hit up the local bar, the Gilded Rose, for a post-hike hot toddy. There’s nothing else around quite like it.

The Hole in the Hammond isn’t quite filled yet — something about a pedestrian bridge not quite ready for showtime — but this is the weekend to celebrate the now nearly complete pedestrian and bike trail from the Arcata Bottom through McKinleyville and to Clam Beach.

They’re throwing a hoedown at Roger’s Market to celebrate. Roger’s — 791 School Rd., McK — is a natural waypoint on the Hammond, a place to stop for coffee and snacks, so it’s only natural that the market would host this community celebration, which was organized by the Friends of the Hammond Trail.

It’s on Saturday, Oct. 27, from 1 p.m to 5 p.m. There’ll be bands, barbecue, hay rides and other kids activities, as well as tons of info on the Hammond and all the birdwatching and other nature activities you can do on the trail. Come on out and celebrate.

As for the trail itself, insiders are saying that the 1/4-mile Hole in the Hammond should be completely plugged by next month at the latest. Look for another official announcement in the coming weeks.

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Hank Sims

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