We sat in The Palace as the fog rolled in. A couple of leather-booted, camo-wrapped farm boys clanked the pucks on the shuffleboard. Mounted bear, mountain lion and trophy elk heads stared down from the walls. A 16-ounce Pabst dripped condensation on the bar top.
“You’re going to the Lost Coast?” the mustached bartender asked. “Be careful out there. It’s harvest season.”
We added irate ganja farmers to the long list of things that would keep us from scoring the fabled perfect waves on the remote stretch of beach. Rattlesnakes, bears, fog, wind and a triple murder suspect on the loose in the area also made the list.
Scoring a perfect swell in Northern California is always unlikely. Because the coastline is so exposed, conditions are often too rough or too windy. But supposedly, there’s a nameless break on the Lost Coast that lines up a few times a year. This is where we were headed.
There were six of us: Mikaela Bianchi, a circus performer, Dan Jacobson, a ski area accountant, Jamey Tebay, a Tahoe gear shop guy, Sammie Stern, a graduate student, Michael Mullady, a documentary photographer, and me. What we lacked in ultra-light gear, we made up for in naivety, back strength and campfire whiskey.
We left The Palace in the sleepy dairy town of Ferndale for the Lost Coast trailhead an hour away. We had boards, backpacks, coffee and a small bag of Humboldt County’s best, um, apples. We would hike 16 miles to the spot, surf one day and hike back.
The 80-mile Lost Coast is the longest stretch of pristine coastline in the continental United States. It is rugged and beautiful. Bears, bobcats, rattlesnakes, deer, elk and mountain lions wander the steep mountains and undeveloped shoreline. With waves bashing on steep cliffs, parts of the trail are completely impassable at high tide.
As we walked, the trail fell away from the beach and ran up onto a grassy bluff. We followed it past the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse and rocky bays with kelp heads bobbing in the tide. Near sunset we dropped down again onto an ankle-snapping pebble beach. One at a time, we sprinted through a passage where foamy whitewater sloshed on the rocks.
The surf lore of the Lost Coast goes back decades. From National Geographic to Kem Nunn’s surf noir, the area has been chalked up to legend. But very few of the stories end with surfers scoring perfect waves there. I guess we just wanted to do something different.
The sun lit up our view for miles. A light wind ran offshore. Green waves broke on the black crags and poured onto the gray beach. We pulled into one of the tiny coves, carved by a creek running through the King Range, and set down our packs for the night. With conditions this good, we were sure we’d find waves peeling around a massive point just a few more bends ahead.
The next day would be an 11-mile miscalculation. The soft sand and varying terrain worked our joints. But the weather maintained. Two sunny days in a row on the Humboldt Coast is almost unheard of. We trekked on until sunset, arriving at the nameless spot in the dark.
In the morning, we woke and went straight to the beach, a few hundred yards away. Small swells broke easily over the rocky bottom. It was not perfect. We wondered if it was worth a 16-mile hike. We pulled on our suits and marched down the freshwater creek to the ocean.
Instantly, we knew the waves weren’t amazing. They weren’t hollow and spitting, or giant and frothing. They were small and playful. But there was something special about them. They made me wonder why I like surfing. What about the sport really draws people to it?
We caught wave after wave, dipping in the creek to freshen up before lunch, then back out again. Seaweed wrapped around our fins and bodies as the tide dropped. It was like wrestling an octopus. We sat out there until it was too dark to see the rocks on the beach. It wasn’t exactly what we’d hoped for, but we’d earned it.
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