They say that when threatened by fire, one should head towards water. If that’s the case, then hiking five days along the ocean shore was the best thing I could have done while a swarm of fifty forest fires wreaked havoc among the peaks of the Northern California Coast Range.
After contending with multiple highway closures and valleys clogged with smoke, I escaped the blazing forests and drove to the mouth of the Mattole River where the fifty-three-mile Lost Coast Trail began. I had always wanted to backpack along this remote and rugged coastline. Four-thousand-foot mountains rose straight out of the ocean here, steep enough to defy the ambitions of the nation’s best road builders and developers. Highway 1 had to be constructed twenty miles inland because of the challenging terrain, and this rerouting preserved what is now the most primitive segment of the entire California coast.
The dunes near the trailhead were too soft for easy travel, so I began my journey at the ocean’s edge, on the ever-shifting border between sand and foam. The damp sediments were firm enough to support a human with a forty-pound backpack, which increased my speed significantly. But I always had to be wary of the waves. I was forced to play an endless game of tag with the surf… a one-sided version where I was always the chased, never the chaser, and getting tagged would have left me with a pair of wet boots for the rest of the night.
When a trail along the bluffs emerged, I abandoned the beach for a while, though I still had to look out for diminutive tendrils of poison oak that hid among the grasses. These branches, with their blister-inducing oils, were like the hall monitors of the Lost Coast. They kept me focused on my present route so I didn’t get distracted by scenery and accidentally slip off the path. One misstep, and the fall down to the beach would be a fate far worse than detention.
Offshore, dozens of picturesque outcroppings pierced the surface of the shallow sea. A pod of whales could have been breaching in their midst, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to distinguish the creatures from the rocks. The relentless force of the waves should have eroded these outcroppings down to sea level long ago, but the unique geology of this region causes the land and seabed to rise after nearly every earthquake. Three tectonic plates grind against each other at the Lost Coast, and the shoreline has uplifted sixty-six feet in the last six thousand years – a whiplash-inducing rate by the standards of the geologic timescale. A single earthquake in 1992 raised part of the coastline over three feet, so it’s unsurprising that modern development of the area has proven to be problematic...