Way up at the top of Northern California is a little piece of wilderness called The Lost Coast. It’s too rugged to build on, meaning it’s the last coastline here that’s unspoiled. It’s also dangerous, as you can see in this picture. Especially in winter, during a storm. Let’s go backpacking!
“I’m from here! I grew up here! Go home!” Let’s call him Man Tits, and boy was he angry. Driving up the 101, Ty’d passed him in a passing zone and thought nothing more of it. But, here he was half an hour later, all red in the face. Turning down the road to Shelter Cove, he was right behind us in his white Escalade. Lights off, riding our arse.
I have to commend Ty at this point for his level headedness. He pulled over, rolled down his window, smiled and said, “What’s up?”
Man Tits: “You put my family in danger!”
Man Tits: “You passed me bro!”
Man Tits: “Come at me bro!”
Guess Man Tits has his family ducking down inside the car in case of gunfire. Not really sure how that thought process went or why he was so angry, but man, his jowls were aquiver. He kept backing up as if to park, get out of the car and fight us, but also kept realising that was a fight he was going to lose and would pull back up and yell at us some more. Finally, Ty just said “Sorry dude,” and the dude tore off at high speed, through the neighbourhood he’d apparently grown up in.
Now typically this is just your average road rage. Too much estrogen in hamburgers these days or something. But we were on our way to park Ty’s brand-new-to-him Jetta Sportwagen in a remote parking lot for a week. A place where, just as an example, a fat angry man leased to his ample gills in an Escalade could easily slash our tires or do something equally annoying.
So onto Plan B. It was about midnight, five days before Christmas, and it was raining hard. Looking at the map, we gave up on the idea of hiking the whole way up the beach and figured we’d instead park at Saddle Mountain Trailhead, 18km up an unmaintained dirt road in the mountains and remote enough we were confident Man Tits wouldn’t be able to find our car.
18km on dirt roads in a Jetta takes a while, so we pulled into camp sometime after 1am, with the rain still coming down hard. Ty and I cracked beers, sighed in relief and let the dogs out of the car. Not 10 seconds later it was evident they’d found something to get excited about.
Neither Wiley (a 38kg mutt) or Sansho (a 30kg Karelian Bear Dog) are the kind of dogs you have to worry about, so more out of curiosity we went to see what was up. They were tearing around in the bushes, barking up a storm. I was walking 3m behind Ty and, just as he got near the dogs, a big ol’ black bear tore across the road in front of him, both dogs hot on his heels. We called them and they came back. Guess that bear had been hanging around, sniffing out campers’ food. We were barely at the jumping off point and this trip was already off to a hell of a start.
The next morning, we took down our tents in the pouring rain and shoved them into our packs soaking wet. Ick. There were a few extra things we decided we’d want with us, so we ran down to town to hit the general store, ate some microwaved bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, then headed back up into the mountains to finally start hiking.
The most breathable fully-waterproof shell on the market, the Westcomb Apoc (red) kept any part of me it covered bone dry throughout the trip while standing up to repeated abuse like being dragged through the branches of this downed tree.
Ty and I both started out pretty solidly ultralight. I had my cuben fibre backpack, 709g tent and that fancy Big Agnes sleep system. So, my base weight with clothes but before food, water and whisky was just 7.7kg. Not bad for a winter trip on which we expected bad weather. But, Ty used to be a professional sushi chef so responded with “I can’t eat that shit” when I asked him what flavour of freeze dried backpacking food he wanted. So my pack was easily 23kg at the start of the hike thanks to pots, pans, a couple shopping bags’ worth of Trader Joe’s and a pint of Pappy. Luckily the first day was all down hill.
The Lost Coast is the only area in California where the terrain was too rugged and too seismically active to build Highway 1. So, that diverts inland, leaving a huge swath of mountains and coastline utterly unspoiled. It’s popular with surfers — Brent tells me this is where the mythical “Point Break” is, from the movie — and in summer months, backpackers like to visit, parking at the north, hiking down the beach for a couple days to Shelter Cove, then hitching a $US200 shuttle back to their car. But we didn’t visit during the summer.
This was the week after that huge storm dubbed a “Pineapple Express” rolled through Northern California, delivering something like 38cm of rain over a couple of days. That system was just clearing out and it looked like we might have a few days of good weather up to Christmas, when we’d made tentative plans to hike out.
Trees were down everywhere and the whole forest was just soaking wet. We spent most of that day hiking through a cloud and it was only good clothes that kept us mostly dry. I’d been telling Ty about that camping trip with Bear Grylls so, while picking our way through one tree fall, I tried to give him my best Bear impression (above). It’s not the most accurate facial recreation ever, but you get the idea. Making TV is making TV and it’s pretty funny seeing that process in real life. Wiley is panicking in this photo by the way, worried he won’t be able to squeeze through and that we’ll leave him behind. His greatest fear in life is not getting to play with the big kids. This trip was a present for his 2nd birthday.
By the time we’d hiked down Buck Creek to the ocean, we were beat. Ty destroyed his right ACL a few months back when I loaned him a bike that was too big for him and hiking 1200m down a mountain in just 8km was torture. On top of the last cliff, we took a break and watched the waves for a minute. That’s when I started noticing the Cormorants were behaving oddly. That last storm must have been a brutal one, because the entire coastline was full of injured birds; wings and legs broken from being blown or swept against rocks.
Sansho decided they were good sport and chased one into the breakers before snapping its neck. He was bred to be a hunting dog and can’t fight those instincts; if there’s animals, he wants to murder them. Wiley couldn’t figure out what the game was and just ran around being excited that Sansho was excited. A broken neck is a more humane death than starvation, but Ty was worried one of the long beaks might eventually put his dog’s eye out, so put him on an piece of kelp (standing in for a leash) from then on out. We passed a dozen or more injured and starving birds just that afternoon.
We also passed mussel beds on our way up the beach. Our visit coincided with some very high tides (+7.26 being the highest) and with an 8m swell, some big seas. So there wasn’t much of a beach to walk on even during low tide, but the sea did fall enough that it exposed a couple decent mussel colonies and we set about harvesting them for dinner.
Still loving this Vulture Cholera knife. It’s just so strong you don’t have to worry about its tip, even while prying mussels loose from rocks.
That night we’d reach our destination at Big Flat at around sundown, then sauté the mussels with sausage, white wine, shallots and garlic. They were incredible. Eating something that fresh, eating something you harvest yourself and eating something in its wild, non-farmed state all contribute to good meals on their own; it’s safe to say these were the best mussels we’ll ever eat in our lives. They were the size of baseballs inside their shells, easily giving us 6 oz of meat or more per animal.
At some point during the afternoon, our friend Matt was supposed to park at the region’s northern tip, then hike down and rendezvous with us after dark. Matt’s a marathon runner and endurance swimmer, so he’s tough, but relatively inexperienced in the outdoors. He was at least smart enough to take one look at the swollen white water in the creek that divides Big Flat and decide to spend the night on its north side, saving the crossing for daylight. That was a good call. In the morning, I sat and watched as he waded across. Matt’s 6’5″ and the gushing water came up to his chest.
We got high and spent the day messing around the local area. Ty wanted to improve the campsite by clearing rubble and making thrones for all three of us out of driftwood. I wanted to find more dry firewood — no small task following the storm — and dry my stuff out. Matt had brought a dive mask and hood and wanted to mess around in the water, looking for uni. We all wanted more mussels.
Won’t lie, Matt’s a special person.
It was the best day of the trip. I stayed dry, Matt got wet, the dogs stayed out of trouble and we didn’t have anywhere to be or anything to get done. For dinner, we threw three giant ribeye steaks straight on the coals then chased them with barbecued mussels. Carrying all that food, the pots and pans and the Klean Kanteen full of white wine was totally worth it, the food was just that good.
The next morning, I woke up in a dry sleeping bag in a dry tent next to a dry dog. Then proceeded to walk a hundred yards, strip down to just my pants and attempt the creek crossing. My plan was to get my pack across, then come back for Wiley and I figured I could keep my boots and the rest of my stuff dry because the bed was mostly sand, not sharp, slippery rocks. I was halfway across when an unexpected wave swept in and knocked my feet out from under me. I managed to keep my pack and boots above my head and dragged myself out the other side only to see a very wet, very proud dog dancing around waiting for me. I have no idea how he got across and Matt and Ty were still packing their stuff up back in camp so didn’t see it either. Wiley hates getting wet, but I guess he can swim whitewater if he needs to.
That’s a Snow Peak Mini Hozuki Lantern keeping the campsite lit up. Note Ty’s throne facing the camera.
The reason that Ty and Matt didn’t bother stripping down is that they have been here before and knew we’d have to cross that same creek and a couple of feeders four more times on the way up Rattlesnake Ridge. If you know you have to get wet, you just resign yourself to it and ford ahead. We developed a nice little routine of helping each other cross, then passing the dogs through the water between us or up and down the little cliffs on either side.
After those river crossings, it was time to climb 1200m up to the ridgeline by King’s Peak. The trail accomplishes that with no subtlety, just switchbacks spaced 100 yards apart all the way up. Carrying a pack, it was brutal. Both dogs had begun to look a bit worse for wear by this point, their paws having been cut and bruised by the sharp rocks and barnacles in the waves.
At the top, Ty and Matt wanted to summit the peak to watch the sunset, but I was worn out and decided to take the dogs on down to the campsite at Miller Spring and try to get a fire going. We’d lucked out discovering a supply of fat wood down at the beach, but up here in the sodden forest, there was no such luck.
We started the day breaking down camp just to the left of where that creek meets the ocean.
A while back, we made a little How To video on starting a fire with a knife. The basic premise of wilderness fire making is that, even in the worst weather, you may be able to find dry wood in the very depths of upright, but dead trees. You just have to get to it, hence the knife. So, I proceeded to chop down a dead pine tree that was about 1.2m in diameter, then split it up into firewood. Half an hour into it, I realised that even the wood in the middle of the log was damp, but kept at it. Two hours after we’d last seen each other, Ty and Matt entered camp after dark and shouted “Fire!” I’d kept the thing ablaze out of shear force of will, but never managed to get anything larger than pencil size to burn. It was with a strong sense of defeat that I told them there’d be no campfire that night; it was constant work splitting that log down to pencils just to keep a two-inch high flame burning and nothing more was possible. Ty cooked us curry for dinner on the stove.
The previous night, we’d spent a solid hour laughing at Matt’s pitiful excuse for a shelter — one of those bullshit tarp tent contraptions that’s little more than a piece of plastic and some rope. On the beach, we’d rigged it into a lean-to for him and he slept alright on his slow-punctured air mattress. I suppose it was too late to tell him it was a bad idea to strap that to the outside of his bag, unprotected. Tonight, with rain clouds gathering, we convinced him to sleep in the MSR with Ty and Sansho for company.
The MSR Hubba Hubba NX 2P was the star item of gear on the trip. It’s not the lightest tent out there, but makes up for it with solid liveability and strong materials. It stayed dry inside during storms, dried out quickly after them and, one night, slept two guys and this dog in comfort, with enough room for all their gear in its twin vestibules.
Sometime around 3 or 4 am it began to rain. We groaned a bunch and ran around in our underwear, scooping our stuff into out tent vestibules, then passed out again. By first light, it had only gotten stronger. We shoved some hot cocoa powder into lukewarm coffee, made some half-assed jokes about mochas, then proceeded to shove wet gear into wet packs and hit the trail. That’s when the storm really let loose.
From Miller Camp to the trail is maybe an 800m climb, but when we got to the top, Ty and I looked at each other and knew it was time to call it quits. Not only was it raining harder than either of us had ever seen before, but up here on the ridge the wind was blowing at 60 or 70 mph and the temperature was rapidly plummeting towards freezing. We could have done another night in it, but it’d have been a wet, cold, miserable night. The idea was to have fun, not prove anything, so we pulled out the map and started to figure out what the shortest route back to civilisation was.
There’s a little T junction in the middle of nowhere called Honeydew that has a general store. It was Christmas Eve and we had no idea if it was open, but we figured trying to hitch a ride from there had to be less miserable than spending a night in a bad storm, so started walking. Along the way, we noticed Sansho was missing.
Remember where I said he was a hunting dog and those instincts run strong? If he gets a good scent, he follows it. Sometimes for days. Fuck.
We were standing at the intersection of two trails. One way led to Honeydew and the other north, up the coast and eventually to Matt’s car. Standing there, getting soaked and starting to get very cold, it somehow made sense for Matt to ditch his pack with us and hightail it the 25km to his car. With an unquantifiable dog search delay hanging over our heads, combined with a strong desire to sleep inside that night, we made the decision to split up the group and all rendezvous either at that general store, or for Matt to drive up the fire road if we weren’t sitting there. We really did think he’d be that far in front of us. Did I mention he runs marathons?
It only took Ty, Wiley and I half an hour to find Sansho. Then we were left with the task of dividing Matt’s stuff up between us — there’s still a tarp tent up there if anyone wants one — and embark on the 16km hike to the store. Which was miserable, thanks for asking.
We got there, it was open. They had a freezer with burritos in it, a microwave and some week-old motor oil masquerading as coffee. It was heaven. We set up camp on the porch and waited for Matt. He couldn’t be more than an hour or two, right?
What heaven looks like.
Several beers, most of the store’s supply of junk food and five hours later, the lady was closing up shop and Ty and I were chatting with a local guy named Wren. He mentioned there were some rental cabins up the road a bit and I asked him to give me a ride up there to see if they were open. We slowed down and looked at the few cars that passed us in the opposite direction to see if any were Matt; none were.
By the time we’d figured out the cabins were closed, I was really beginning to worry. Wren’s a volunteer firefighter and was very much on the helping people bandwagon, so we decided to make the 45-minute drive to the parking lot where Matt’s car was to see if he was there. It was 9pm and he wasn’t there.
“If you want to pull the ripcord, I’ll back that decision,” Wren told me. I decided to do that and we went and got the fire chief out of bed. On Christmas Eve.
We all eventually made it to the firehouse where we marked up maps and they started pulling equipment. I was informed the weather was too bad to put a chopper in the air, and quad bikes shouldn’t go out until daylight, but that they’d set out on foot and at least examine the obvious places where Matt might be holed up, provided he hadn’t been washed out to sea. Which they also informed me was a likely outcome.
I didn’t think that would have happened, but for a big, fit dude like Matt to be so many hours behind his estimated timing, I also feared something serious must have gone wrong. And he was out there in a terrible storm, in temperatures just above freezing, with little to no gear. All by himself.
I told the fire chief that Ty (sitting back in Honeydew with no idea this was happening) and I would be there right alongside him for any search and that we intended to pull our weight on his team. We could ride quads, drive a truck, man radios, whatever he needed. He just looked at me and laughed. It was embarrassing to have to do this, but I figured the time to call SAR was when our friend might still be alive.
So, we mounted up and drove out to the parking lot to begin the search. And guess who comes walking out of the woods? Matt, of course. Wet to the bone and in the beginning stages of hypothermia, but he was alive and in one piece. I’ll let him tell you about it in another story, it’s a good one. The fire chief was ecstatic, gave me a big hug and went home with a smile on his face, having put one more successful rescue in the books for 2014.
That night, we eventually found a Best Western, a hot shower and a microwaved meal at a bar in some town back on the 101. Best Christmas present ever.
Want to backpack the Lost Coast yourself? It can be pretty easy. Most visitors park at the trailhead in Mattole and hike south along the beach to Shelter Cove with the wind at their backs, then hitch the $US200 shuttle back to their car. The Lost Coast is five hours north of San Francisco and a long ways from anywhere, so allow at least three days on the trail to enjoy yourself. A fit, experienced backpacker could likely complete the trek in a single day, if it weren’t for the tides.
As you can see in the top shot, many points along the coast are impassible at anything but low tide (pictured). So, you’ll need to consult a tide chart and plan your movements accordingly. Start hiking as the tide is moving out, aiming to complete any beach sections before it’s moved in for more than an hour or two, and watch those big plus tides. Treat the ocean here with respect, it is capable of killing you.
As our experience demonstrates, weather here is unpredictable. Pack clothing and gear that can keep you dry and comfortable in torrential rain, even if you’re hiking during summer months. Summer being a better time to visit for most people. Bears are lousy up here and bear canisters are required. Keep your dogs leashed unless you’re comfortable with their ability to handle large predators. Bears do come out on the beach.
More adventurous hikers will enjoy exploring the unspoiled mountains above the coast and, if you don’t want to take the shuttle, you can plan a loop or figure-eight hike taking in the best of the scenery. Be warned: poison oak is everywhere once you’re in the forest. Learn what it looks like and don’t touch it. Also be aware that it can transfer its oil to your pants and boots, then onto your hands. Take precautions to prevent it spreading to other parts of your body.
Crossing moving water can be dangerous, even if it’s fairly shallow. After rainfall, many water crossings here are not shallow. Leave your boots on, unclip your backpack’s belt (so you can get out of it if you fall) and face upstream. Side-step your way across, being careful not the cross your legs and feeling for good footing before you commit to a step. A walking stick helps. Beware slippery rocks. Assess the water’s depth and the strength of its current before you step in and don’t be tempted to try and jump between slippery rocks or balance yourself on a wet log. Don’t get in over your head, figuratively, when you’re a long ways from help.
The maps they will sell you for the hike are total bullshit, more akin to a map of Disneyland’s attractions than substantial data on topography, distances and locations. If you’re just hiking down the coast, one of those will be fine but, if you’re doing anything more of if you know how to use a real map, we’d suggest building your own on CalTopo and printing it out before you go.
We’ve got a lot of guidance around backpacking if you’re new to it or coming back after a prolonged absence. Read that stuff, take appropriate gear, mind the tides, try to visit during summer and you’ll enjoy your trip.
Pictures: Ty Brookhart