Magazine article Sunset

The Lost Coast

Magazine article Sunset

The Lost Coast

Article excerpt

"Really?" I said, mostly ignoring her as I pulled on a waterproof jacket and neoprene booties. "I hope I get to see that."

"Well, the females can be very hormonal and protective," she said. "You can stare down the males, but the females don't go for that. They'll kick you to death with their front legs."

I stood upright and looked from Powell to the lagoon, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. This was day one of my road down the the far northern coast of Cahfornia, that remote 200-plus-mile stretch (80 miles of which is called the Lost Coast) betwee the Oregon border and the logging town of Fort Bragg. It's where rain-soaked forest and rugged mountains hide mysterious little towns, wild beaches, calm lagoons, rogue marijuana farms, and apparently homicidal elk. This is untamed California at its best.

The drive, on U.S. 101, takes about 4 1/2 hours. But because the road swerves inland for some of the most dramatic stretches, I'd planned a meandering and exploratory approach, beginning with this kayak trip across Stone Lagoon.

I paddled a half-mile to the far side of the lagoon, where Ryan's Cove Campground lay hidden in the dense forest and brush, then pulled the kayak ashore and carried supplies to a campsite on a little promontory. Humboldt Lagoons State Park protects three big estuaries--small bays, in essence, separated from one another by rocky headlands and from the rough ocean by long sandbars. Looking out from my campsite, I could see black cormorants flying over the glassy water and Sitka spruces rising into the coastal mountains beyond.

That night I grilled grass-fed steaks over a wood fire and drank good local Sangiovese, tapered off with creamy local Humboldt Fog cheese. I slept well under the stars and got up before dawn. Three ducks came swimming across the lagoon in triangle formation, one ahead and two following--except they weren't ducks at all. Only as they grew closer did I realize that I was seeing a family of river otters in search of breakfast, hunting steelhead.

MANY PEOPLE KNOW that Redwood National Park protects the tallest trees on Earth, including Hyperion--named in 2006 the world's tallest known living organism, at 379.3 feet. Some people even know that the nearby Lindsey Creek Giant tree was the most massive single-stem organism of any kind before it toppled during a 1903 storm. But few realize how difficult it is to find these trees. Nobody will tell you the exact location of Hyperion or any other exemplary redwood. Those trees are the number one reason travelers come here, true wonders of nature recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and yet not even the rangers will give you the slightest clue where to look.

Get lucky like me, however, and you'll wander into the woods only to hear a woman's voice saying, "You do know which tree you're looking at, don't you?"

There was a rustling in the ferns, then she emerged: silver hair, round eyes full of exhilarated awe. Her name was Deb Scott and she'd come all the way from Missoula, Montana, to see these trees. "But I still didn't know how to find them," she said. "So I was in the campground and I saw this young man and I had a feeling that he knew and I said to myself, Be bold, be bold. I walked up to him and said, 'I just drove 900 miles to see the great trees and I would so love it if you could tell me how to find them.' He looked at me and smiled, and then he just told me."

Scott turned to face back in the direction from which she'd come. "That's Iluvatar," she said. "It's one of the largest."

I looked up and still farther up and then up a little more, and I struggled to make sense of what I saw. That tree seemed to go on forever, like a living god hidden in plain sight, and that's how I discovered something else you may not know, if you're anything like me: Standing below one of these gigantic coastal redwoods, allowing your mind the time and quiet to absorb its vastness, can be emotionally overwhelming. …

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