Thursday, February 12, 2015

One of my favorite rides


I haven't posted anything interesting for awhile, which is not to say this will be either, but I was pleased with the way it turned out.
This is a piece about the Lost Coast of California that was published 13 years ago in
Motorcycle Tour & Cruiser magazine, which later mutated into RoadBike magazine.


The golden eagle came at me head-on, the California morning sun glinting yellow in his right eye as he pierced me with his gaze.
Framed by ancient oak trees that overarched the empty two-lane blacktop, his brown wings extended a full seven feet as he held a motionless glide about 10 feet above the pavement.
A moment earlier I had glimpsed a large shadow flash across my path from the right as I leaned into a gentle right turn among brown grassy hills. Glancing up and left, I saw nothing but blue sky.
But now, there he was, squarely in front of me. Regarding me sternly with his golden eye, the eagle welcomed this wayfarer to his wild domain with a magnificent show of confidence and authority.
I cut the throttle and pulled in the clutch, then held my breath as our shared momentum drew us together. He flashed over my helmeted head and was gone.
I smiled as I re-engaged the engine of my ’91 BMW K100RS.
The Mattole and Silkyone Indians who once peopled this wildest stretch of California’s north coast regarded the eagle as a bearer of messages from spirit to man. They would have seen my encounter as a very good omen.
I considered myself officially welcomed to the Lost Coast.
This rugged place where 4,000-foot peaks meet the Pacific 160 miles north of San Francisco is the least-visited segment of the more than 800 miles of California coastline. Here the mountainous terrain so intimidated the road builders that they swung California Highway 1 and U.S. 101 inland just south of Eureka to penetrate the redwood forests rather than force a route through the King Range. Much of the Lost Coast lies within Humboldt County where, even with the communities of Eureka and Arcata, the population density is just 34 persons per square mile. By comparison, the state of California averages more than 212 people per square mile.
I live in Indiana but I visit Northern California almost every summer as a happy consequence of having a son on the West Coast. Over the years, I’d wondered what adventure I was missing by taking the redwood route south and skirting the mysteriously named Lost Coast.
A little research revealed at least one good streetbike road into the area. The route from Ferndale down to Shelter Cove is mainly two-lane chip-and-seal blacktop, although Marilyn Machi, who took my reservation for a room at the Beachcomber Inn at Shelter Cove warned “there’s one place that’s unpaved, but you ought to be able to make it.”
Fresh from a good night’s sleep at the Eureka KOA, I struck camp in the foggy darkness, wolfed down a quick McDonald’s breakfast and rode south to pick up the road to the Lost Coast in Ferndale.
A worthy destination in its own right, the Ferndale is five miles off the beaten path of U.S. 101 and a century behind most California architecture. Its elegant Victorian main street and residential facades are a legacy of a prosperous dairy industry that made Ferndale a melting pot of Scandinavian, Swiss-Italian and Portuguese cultures.
I marveled at these ornate “butterfat palaces” as I idled through town. The road to the Lost Coast awaited me at the south edge of Ferndale, snaking up a fog-shrouded hillside and marked by a sign pointing to Petrolia and Honeydew.
It’s a nondescript little road. Without the sign, it might be mistaken for someone’s driveway. Fog and rough pavement kept me in second gear as I steadily climbed through the misty forest, gaining about 2,000 feet of elevation in the four-mile ascent to Bear River Ridge. The fog that told of the nearby ocean was heavy with moisture, forcing me to wipe my visor with a gloved finger every few minutes.
Finally, near the crest, I broke into bright sunshine. A tongue of marine fog filled a valley to my left with billowy white, transformed into glorious white cloud tops by the morning sun.
I kept a wary eye out for deer and other wildlife. I’d read in that morning’s Eureka newspaper about a small commuter plane hitting a deer at the local airport. An airport official said deer have become so accustomed to aircraft, people and machinery that they remain on the runway while pilots try to land.
Descending toward the coast, I was in treeless grassy hills now and presently the sunlit sky yielded again to fog. A sharp right turn and I caught sight of a line of surf pounding a misty beach, marked by a massive rock, barely visible a few hundred yards offshore. A switchback down and left and I was riding south along the shoreline, looking for a place to pull over.
A bronze plaque informed me this was Cape Mendocino, once the site of a 422-foot-tall lighthouse that guided mariners from 1868 through 1951. Despite the navigational aid, the offshore rocks claimed nine ships over those years. The lighthouse has been dismantled and now sits in pieces down at Shelter Cove, awaiting restoration.

lostcoast1This six-mile stretch, devoid of human habitation, is the only part of the 80-mile ride from Ferndale to Shelter Cove with an ocean view. Pressing on south, I soon discovered I was not alone. A herd of cattle fanned out across the steep hillside to my left, some eyeing me, some gazing out to sea like cud-chewing sentinels. I overtook three of their number on my side of the fence, strolling along the road and looking perplexed with their newfound freedom.
All too soon, the road bent left, back up into the coastal hills and a few foggy miles on I found myself in Petrolia. This crossroads village is so named because California’s first oil wells were drilled about 3 miles east of here on the north fork of the Mattole River. A dog barked at a passing cable company truck as I read how the Union Mattole Oil Co. made its first shipment to a San Francisco refinery from here in 1865.
By now, the road surface had improved to the point where I was routinely managing fourth and fifth gear and 50 mph. I made quick work of the 24 miles to Honeydew, pausing once to accommodate a road resurfacing crew and again to chuckle at a homemade sign warning of “Road Cows.”
It was just north of Honeydew that I received the golden eagle’s benediction. Golden eagles are common here, favoring rugged terrain that creates abundant updrafts for soaring.
As the road wound past ranches and farms, I noticed a large number of “No Trespassing” signs. I thought, “These folks sure like their privacy.”
The route isn’t well marked and there were several junctions where I stayed on track only because one road choice looked slightly better traveled than the other. Even so, I made one false move. Taking what looked like the most promising route, I found myself dead-ended a few hundred yards later in a barnlot.
The village of Honeydew offered me the option of continuing southeast in search of Shelter Cove or taking the twisty Bull Creek Road to the north. This narrow paved road climbs about 2,000 feet over the ridge to Humboldt Redwoods State Park and continues for about 23 miles through old-growth redwood forests east to U.S. 101. I decided to save that ride for another day.
A few miles south of Honeydew, I found the unpaved section – a rough washboard stretch of perhaps a half-mile, full of steep 180-degree uphill switchbacks that called for first gear and lots of concentration. I was grateful it was an uphill run because I suspect I would have felt my ABS kick in had this been a downhill ride. The official Bureau of Land Management map warns, “This Section Not Recommended for Travel Trailers.”
I stopped about 11:30 a.m., three hours into my ride, to check my maps at a crossroads offering a choice between Ettersburg and Briceland. The road bearing to the left looked slightly better maintained and I chose it in the hope it would lead to the Shelter Cove Road before it turned to dirt or worse. I later learned I’d chosen well. Turning right would have taken me down the challenging and unpaved Kings Peak Road. As it was, I had good pavement the 11.5 miles to the road junction that pointed the way west to Shelter Cove.
By noon, I was poised at Paradise Ridge, the last mountainous rampart before the road slaloms down nearly 2,200 feet to Shelter Cove. The seven-mile descent to the coast is marked with dire warnings to RV drivers about fatal crashes over the last decade.
“We’ve had quite a few tragic accidents,” said Carol Sullivan, who lives in Shelter Cove and works for the Bureau of Land Management. “In fact, there’s even a t-shirt that says, `I survived the Shelter Cove Road,’ with a picture of an RV with its brakes on fire.”
Shelter Cove, built on a grassy marine terrace overlooking the Pacific and flanked by mountains on three sides, is a picturesque fishing village that is home to about 200 permanent residents. Much of the town’s economy is based on charter fishing and tourism, with eco-tourists representing the latest wave of visitors. Shelter Cove offers several headlands, bluffs and beaches that make the place an ideal vantage point to watch for the flukes and spray signaling the spring and fall migrations of the California Gray Whale. You can also pass countless hours watching the birds, seals and sea lions. Deer are a common sight throughout the town and Roosevelt elk occasionally wander in from a nearby meadow called Hidden Valley.
lostcoast2Many visitors to Shelter Cove arrive by light plane, using the 3,400-foot-long airstrip that forms a kind of centerpiece for the town. Some come to hike or fish and others fly in for a day of golf on the course that wraps around the asphalt runway.
I followed the convenient signs at the north edge of town and easily found the Beachcomber Inn where Marilyn Machi checked me in and advised me that, this being a Tuesday, the only restaurant open was the deli at the nearby campground and RV park. After unloading my bike, I cruised the short distance down to the deli. In no time, I was relaxing on the patio with a tasty lunch of clam strips and chips under the covetous gaze of a dozen or so noisy seagulls.
lost3The patio affords a spectacular 220-degree panoramic view of the ocean and I could hear sea lions barking as I watched charter fishing boats bobbing on the gentle swells offshore. While I dined, four other motorcyclists rode into town and cruised past.
I caught up to them later over a mocha latte at Cheryl’s Coffee House. Riding a mix of touring bikes and cruisers, these four friends were up from the San Francisco Bay area for a couple of days and had ridden down from Ferndale about 90 minutes behind me.
One of them, who had been down this road before, observed that the “No Trespassing” signs we’d passed suggested some of the locals might be marijuana farmers. This, after all, is Humboldt County – one of the prime pot-growing counties in all of California and the United States and we were there at harvest time. They said they noticed folks smoking dope in their yards as they rode through Honeydew that morning.
“People here are very independent and private,” said Carol Sullivan later, but she wasn’t eager to brand all of her Lost Coast neighbors as dope-growers. “It’s very common for people who live close to public land to keep up signage. Mostly, it’s a liability issue and they’re concerned about people getting hurt while on their property.”
Sullivan, who grew up in southern California, fell in love with this remote area while studying natural resources at nearby Humboldt State University in Arcata and moved to Shelter Cove about three years ago.
“I like the fact that it remains pretty wild and untamed. The forces of nature haven’t been completely conquered by human beings here,” she said. “The King Range is one of the fastest rising mountain ranges in North America. A lot of mountain chains uplift maybe 10 feet in 1,000 years. Our uplift rate is considerably higher: the King Range rose three feet in a matter of seconds in the 1992 Petrolia earthquake.”
While some maps show Chemise Mountain Road and Usal Road winding south from Shelter Cove to link with the Pacific Coast Highway north of Fort Bragg, it’s no through-route for street bikes.
Usal Road is a narrow, winding remote dirt road that gets minimal maintenance, Carol said. “That means it is passable to high clearance vehicles in the summer when it is dry, but usually quite bumpy due to erosion caused by the wet season. There are usually some really deep ruts, lots of washboarding and many times downed trees block the road for a few days at a time… there are no services in the area.”
lost4I spent the afternoon exploring Shelter Cove and walking on Black Sand Beach at the north edge of town. Dinner was a burger and fries at the deli.
Returning to the Beachcomber, I was drawn into conversation with a pleasant young couple from Marin County who were overnighting at the inn after a couple of days down at Mendocino. They shared conversation, cheese and champagne with me on the patio outside their room as night fell.
I awoke the next morning smelling eucalyptus from the grove outside my window. Loading my bike in the soft misty light of morning, I could hear the barking of sea lions as they greeted the day from the rocks offshore. Their voices, a strange delight to my midwestern ears, carried clearly through the moisture-laden air.
Even though I had a full day’s ride ahead of me, with plans to ride down through San Francisco to Big Sur, I was in no hurry to leave this remote pocket of serenity.
I rode my loaded bike down to the deli, bought a styrofoam cup of coffee and walked over to the launching ramp to watch the charter fishing captains ease their boats into the cove for another day on the water. Squadrons of gulls kept an expectant vigil from nearby rooftop perches.
On my way back to the bike, I exchanged morning greetings with Tom, a cell phone sales rep from San Francisco, and his friend Ray, a Shelter Cove resident. Noticing I was about to ride out of town, they regaled me with their favorite Shelter Cove Road story: A local couple, the story goes, were involved in a romantic interlude in a pickup truck, parked in a turnoff somewhere this side of Paradise Ridge. Somehow, the parking brake got released and the truck rolled forward, launching off of the cliff.
“They were topping trees on the way down,” Ray recalled. He added that the man was killed and the woman survived with serious injuries, draining most of the humor out of the situation.
So, mindful of runaway pickup trucks, I saddled up and took the only streetbike road out of town, climbing the ridge and savoring the 24 miles of redwoods and twisties to Garberville and the U.S. 101 freeway. I was sorry to see Shelter Cove and the Lost Coast recede in my mirrors, but something tells me I’ll be back.
Shelter Cove Resources
Here are some handy names and numbers if you visit the Lost Coast:
Bureau of Land Management King Range Project Office – 768 Shelter Cove Road, Whitethorn, CA 95589 707-986-5400
Shelter Cove Information Bureau – 707-986-7069
The Tides Inn – Spacious oceanfront rooms and suites just a short walk from the day use airstrip, golf links, restaurants and local services, 59 Surf Point, Shelter Cove, CA 95589 707-986-7900, Beachcomber Inn – Six rooms and a hillside ocean view, 412 Machi Road, Shelter Cove, CA 95589 800-718-4789
Mario’s Marina Motel – Rooms and bungalows close to the beach, 533 Machi Road, Shelter Cove, CA 95589 707-986-7595
Oceanfront Inn – Suites on the beach, 26 Seal Court, Shelter Cove, CA 95589 707-986-7002
The Lighthouse – One luxury suite, 62 Seal Court, Shelter Cove, CA 95589 707-986-7002
Shelter Cove Motor Inn – Spectacular cliffside ocean view, 205 Wave Drive, Shelter Cove, CA 95589 888-570-9676
Shelter Cove Ocean Inn Bed & Breakfast – Four suites with excellent ocean views, 148 Dolphin, Shelter Cove, CA 95589 707-986-7161
Shelter Cove RV Park, Campground & Deli – Tourist information, cold deli foods, a grill and steam table, the market has a variety of drinks, 492 Machi Road, Shelter Cove, CA 95589 707-986-7474
The Cove Restaurant – Fresh seafood, steaks, pasta, vegetarian specials, 210 Wave Drive, Shelter Cove, CA 95589 707-986- 1197

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