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The Road Not (Yet) Taken 

A tour of the Eel River Estuary Preserve

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Photo by Ken Burton.

In case you hadn't noticed, there's a veritable tsunami of public-access improvements sweeping Humboldt County: the Arcata Ridge, Humboldt Bay and Hikshari' trails; the McKay Tract; the Eel River Estuary Preserve — wait, the what?

The delta of the Eel River, extending from Table Bluff to Loleta, Fernbridge and Centerville, is a subtly beautiful agricultural landscape incised by a maze of streams and tide channels. Except for the waterways themselves, nearly all of it is privately owned and has been off limits to the public for a long time. A new kid on the block, the Wildlands Conservancy, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Southern California, is quietly but doggedly working to facilitate public use of a large chunk of the Ferndale Bottoms while maintaining most of the site's traditional uses and restoring damaged habitats.

In 2008 and 2009, the Wildlands Conservancy purchased the 1,100-acre Connick Ranch, situated north and east of Centerville Beach, and established the Eel River Estuary Preserve (EREP). Mostly diked pastureland, the preserve, now encompassing 1,200 acres, also contains 300 acres of salt marsh, the lower reaches of Russ Creek and Cutoff Slough and some freshwater wetlands. It also includes 4 miles of beach and dunes on the south spit of the Eel that were owned by Pacific Lumber and used to collect timber that had drifted down the river and out the mouth. The conservancy is leasing the pasture to a local organic dairy to maintain it as grassland (and generate revenue) and managing a historic waterfowl hunting club that has used the site for years.

The Wildlands Conservancy has big plans for the preserve. After more than a century of tidal wetland reclamation and grazing, the site is sorely in need of rehabilitation. Stream channels are clogged with sediment, salt marshes are overrun with invasive cordgrass and the dunes are covered with European beach grass. The nonprofit is seeking funding to restore some historic tidal action, eradicate invasive species and create spawning grounds for coho and chinook salmon.

The organization's dual mission is conservation and education and its intended uses of the preserve include picnicking, hiking, wildlife viewing, nature study, academic research, equestrian use, photography, outdoor education, bicycling and boating. There are already 3 miles of multi-use trail and another couple of miles of primitive trail. A 2-mile kayak route is planned.

Although public access is by reservation only (for now), the Eel River Estuary Preserve got onto the radar of birders statewide this year thanks to a gyrfalcon — an Arctic bird seldom seen in California — that was there from December to February feasting on ducks and shorebirds (sometimes stolen from peregrine falcons). Birders flocked to the preserve from hundreds of miles around to appreciate the "gyr" as well as other locally uncommon raptors, including a golden eagle, prairie falcon, crested caracara and several rough-legged hawks. In fact, the preserve is proving to be one of the best winter raptor locations in the region.

After checking in at the new office building at the preserve entrance, you head out, on foot, to the north on a gravel road. Cattle graze peacefully on both sides and several historic barns dot the distant landscape. The first thing that strikes you is how vast it feels. Few other places in our region are so flat and open, and you can be excused for wondering if you took a wrong turn somewhere and wound up on the Texas coast. The road bends to the northwest and runs between pastures and sloughs; from fall to spring, the latter harbor waterfowl and shorebirds.

A little over a mile out, you reach a levee that makes a 2-mile circuit of a tidal marsh, excellent for birding and with good views of the surrounding area. A left turn here gives you a choice: head out to an old barn and over the dunes to the ocean or, at low tide, make your way north up the lee side of the dunes on a network of obscure old ranch roads to a low bluff overlooking the Eel River. The latter passes an impressive and incongruous redwood stump probably deposited by the 1964 flood. From there you can continue to the river's mouth, a wild and seldom-visited place where the river and ocean meet in a tumult of waves and foam — take care not to disturb the resting seals. The roundtrip hike from the office to the river mouth, bypassing the marsh loop, is about 9 miles. Another option would be to arrange a car shuttle and walk south down the beach to Centerville Beach. The open terrain and lack of formal trails allow for spontaneous meandering to your heart's content.

To visit the Eel River Estuary Preserve, phone the preserve's manager, Dave Erickson, at 672-4725 to make a reservation. He'll provide directions and check-in instructions. Trail maps are available at the office.

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Ken Burton

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