Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Week 37 : Westport To Dutchman's Flat

Amy and I set out from Westport knowing that the week ahead was going to be pivotal. During the last twelve months of our virtual journey there has been lots to virtually see. The detailed Google Earth photos have been brim-full of information : villages, towns, shops, and places of interest of all kinds. This week the Google Earth photos are brim-full of ... trees. Big trees and small trees and even more big trees. Mile after green mile of them. Don't get me wrong, they're lovely. Kind of majestic. Unchanging. Grand .......... (sorry I must have dozed off there) .... and just a tad boring.

"This week", I announced to Amy as we walked out of Westport, "we are making for Dutchman's Flat". She didn't ask me about our destination which was a good thing because I knew nothing about it. As far as I could gather it was nothing more than a couple of buildings in a clearing surrounded by ... trees. But we had the sea with us for the first part of the week and when you walk in sight of the coast there is always something to lift your spirits.

A few hours north of Westport we got to Wages Creek and went in search of something to lift our spirits. We found a campsite and a beach and, guess what, some trees. " Wages Creek Beach in Mendocino County, California is a really good place to spend some time" says a strange little website called Goingoutside.com. "Wages Creek Beach is a relaxing place and it sure is a nice beach. Among the things you can do near Wages Creek Beach are paddling, fishing, swimming, and boating, so there's no way to get bored". They certainly got most of that right although they forgot you could also throw pebbles into the water. And count trees. Anything but bored, Amy and I forced ourselves ever northwards.

Soon we reached Westport - Union Landing State Beach. There were fine coastal sunsets, lots of fish ... and trees. The main species of fish which can be caught around here are Day Smelt and Night Smelt. As you might imagine, the Day Smelt spawn during the day and the Night Smelt spawn at night. "Isn't that fascinating", I said to Amy, but she was otherwise engaged, chasing some fish through the surf.

After all that excitement, Amy and I settled into day after day of walking and trees. At times, the road left the coast and headed into the hills, but eventually it came back again. And then one day it didn't. We were about to leave the sea behind and cut inland. We were at the start of the Lost Coast.

I avoided telling Amy that we were at the start of the Lost Coast : she would only make silly jokes about how we had found it again. Instead we walked a few hundred metres away from the main road so that we could get a taste of, what is, one of the last coastal wildernesses in California. The 40 mile stretch of coast between Middle Rock in the south and Eureka in the north is so craggy and wild the normally robust Highway 1 has to skulk inland. It would have been adventurous and challenging to trek up the coast, but over recent months Amy and I had become addicted to Highway 1 and we were determined to follow it to its end.

So we headed inland. Into the trees. For a couple of days we saw nothing other than trees. I misquoted Ben Jonson to Amy : "I think that I will never see, anything other than a bloody tree". By the end of the week we reached Dutchman's Flat - or at least I think we did. There was a brief clearing in the forest, a barn, a house. It wasn't flat and there were no Dutchmen around. But for a precious few square yards there were no trees.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Week 36 : Fort Bragg to Westport

I'd like to see the Skunk before we leave", I said to Amy as we prepared to head north out of Fort Bragg, California. She looked slightly surprised, but nevertheless grateful. She was used to a hefty tug on the leash whenever she tried to investigate the local wildlife. She was used to being dragged past squirrels and hoisted over dormant door-mice. Now here was her guide, philosopher, feeder and owner actually suggesting they go in search of a local critter. She had never eaten skunk and she tried to imagine what it might taste like. Her train of thought was interrupted by a great hiss of escaping steam. Her train of thought was interrupted by a train of iron and steel.

The California Western Railroad (a.k.a. The Skunk Train), like almost everything on this part of the Californian coast, was a child of the booming nineteenth century logging industry. It was built in 1885 to move the massive redwood logs to the Mendocino Coast sawmills from the rugged back country. Steam passenger services were started in 1904 but discontinued in 1925. During the latter half of the twentieth century its decline matched the decline of the logging industry. Until the 1960s it was operated as a division of the Fort Bragg Logging Mill but was later taken over by the Arizona-based Kyle Railways. By the 1990s, the logging days were in the past and the main purpose of the 40 mile line was as a tourist attraction, In August 1996, a group comprising entirely of local Mendocino Coast investors took over the railway and it has been thriving ever since.

I explained all this to Amy who didn't seem particularly interested. Indeed, when a train steamed into the depot and caught her off her guard, she launched a vicious attack on it and we had to scurry away and go in search of a more gentle and serene location. We followed the signposts and headed for what has been described as one of the most unique beaches in the world - Glass Beach. The story of the beach is interesting, almost inspirational, and therefore I didn't need much prompting to explain it to my dog (which was fortunate because I didn't get much prompting). Beginning in 1949, the area around Glass Beach became a public dump for the town of Fort Bragg. People dumped all kinds of refuse straight into the ocean, including old cars, and their household garbage, which of course included lots of glass. By the early sixties, some attempts were made to control what was dumped, and dumping of any toxic items was banned. Finally in 1967, the North Coast Water Quality Board established a new dump away from the ocean. Now, some 40 years later, Mother Nature has reclaimed the beach. Years of pounding wave action have deposited tons of polished glass onto the beach. There were quite a few tourists around taking photographs of the shining glass pebbles and Amy and I joined in the game. You had to be a bit selective with your field of focus in order to avoid the bits of old car tyres which were also in the habit of being washed up. But the beach is a fine place and a monument to natural recycling. Amy did her bit for the recycling movement by appearing by my side with what looked like a bit of dead seal in her mouth. We hurried on.

Later that same day we waded across Pudding Creek on the seaward side of the recently rebuilt trestle bridge which carries the old Mackerricher State Park road over the estuary. Our old friend Highway 1 was a little to the east but I had decided to stick to the coast as far as possible this week. For the next few days we would be travelling the length of
Mackerricher State Park which, Amy was pleased to note, was one of the few dog-friendly State Parks in California. As we walked over the rocky headlands and across the numerous sandy coves, Amy was free to wander - as long as she kept within the legally required limit of a six foot leash. If the truth be told, at one stage, as we approached Lake Cleone, her leash extended to about six and a half feet for a few minutes and we spent the rest of the afternoon hiding behind bushes and living in dread of Governor Schwarzenegger swooping down on us in an helicopter gunship. The northern part of the Park is given over to the less than appropriately named Ten Mile Beach and Ten Mile Dunes. In fact they are seven miles in length from end to end : their name comes from the Ten Mile River which can be found at their northern end. The name of the river comes from the fact that it is ten miles north of the Noyo River which - quite appropriately this time - is ten miles to the south. As usual I explained all this to Amy and, as usual, she preferred to sniff things.

We could have crossed the river and kept our feet and paws dry if we had tracked about half a mile inland and crossed over the bridge that carries Highway 1 north. But Amy knew better and decided to risk wading across what she assumed was a shallow little stream : the result was that we got soaked and when we dripped and squelched into the tiny settlement of Seaside Creek we were a sorry site. The weather was kind, however, and we lay on the white sandy beach until we were dry. The sea and the land, nature and mankind all seemed to be in harmony on this delightful bit of coastline. I lectured Amy about this as we walked north, making several very valid points about love and universal friendship, harmony and mutual dependence. As the lecture drew to a close we approached a marble memorial stone which had been set adjacent to the road a few miles out of Seaside Creek. It celebrated the life of one Randy Fry, an enthusiastic diver and fisherman who died a few hundred yards west of this spot in August 2004. He was eaten by a Great White Shark!

We kept to the main highway as we travelled north and were eventually delivered to the beauty and tranquility of the
Pacific Star Winery. Wine barrels line the cliff tops, maturing casks of glorious wine are stored in sea caves within the sound of breaking surf. The tasting rooms are open almost every day of the year and you can sample up to ten different wines - all for free. There are even picnic tables available so you can drink your wine, enjoy a picnic and watch the whales swim by. This really is a little bit of paradise on the Pacific coast. Amy behaved herself and sat quietly and watched the sun set over the Pacific. I just sat quietly and got slowly pickled. If you are ever travelling through Northern California it is worth stopping off at the Winery. If you are not, if you are just driving to work on the A616 through Keighley, it is worth making a detour. We spent the night at the charming Howard Creek Ranch Inn, which was remarkable both for its old world charm and for the fact that dogs were welcome guests.

Our week came to an end in the little village of
Westport. A hundred years ago when lumber was king it had a population of over 20,000, now it is home to little more than 230 souls. It's a pleasant enough spot, but - as I suggested to Amy - one could easily get bored with so little to occupy yourself with. However she had spotted a poster advertising the village's famed annual chicken barbeque. She was smitten. If paradise for me had been that glorious winery a few miles down the road, paradise to Amy was a chicken barbeque. As our week came to an end we were searching the lists in Real Estate offices looking for a property midway between village and winery.