DRENCHED TO THE BONE
Northern California's Lost Coast, USA
The first thing I did after leaving the trail head parking lot at Black Sands Beach was, ironically, to take off my pack, sit down on it—and then remove my hiking boots. The thought of feeling the sand between my toes was just too exquisite to pass up.
I watched the crashing waves for a few moments. Then I tied my boots to the outside of my pack, hoisted it onto my back and started up the beach. I was feeling invigorated and ready for adventure. The warm afternoon sun shone down upon my face, and hiking through the sand was like a free foot massage. My two-week backpacking trip on the King Range of Northern California’s Lost Coast was off to a perfect start.
I planned to hike north the first week about twenty miles, taking plenty of time out to enjoy the beautiful and dramatic scenery along the way. Then I would tramp more than 3,000 feet in elevation up the coastal range rising abruptly out of the ocean, and spend the second week hiking south along the ridge of the mountains back to my starting point.
Problem was, it was February. The Lost Coast can, on a wet year, see more than 200 inches of rainfall. It’s one of the wettest places in the country. So why did I decide to go in the middle of winter, at the peak of the rainy season? Because I like to tempt adversity. Because I had a gut feeling that it would stay warm and sunny. Mostly, I realize in retrospect, because I just wasn’t thinking.
The Lost Coast—including the King Range National Conservation Area and the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park—is the longest stretch of coastline in the continental United States without a road alongside it. Highways 1 and 101 both turn inland to avoid the Lost Coast, since they were unable to construct a highway over the rugged mountain range. This has kept it for the most part cut off from development, other than the small community of Shelter Cove.
When I finally arrived at Horse Creek five miles north of the trailhead, my calves were burning. Most of the hiking along the King Range is on the beach, since the steep cliffs near the ocean are too severe for a trail. It is advised to bring a tide-book along, since high tides can sometimes engulf the beach, leaving hikers either stranded on the rocks or else isolated somewhere along the coast.
Still barefoot and enjoying the sand, despite my sore legs, I unbuckled my pack, set it down on the beach and then leaned back against it and watched the waves for a while as the sun slowly sank into the ocean. It was one of those moments to cherish: sitting with my feet buried in the warm sand, watching the glowing sun sink into the ocean, the pristine beach stretching in both directions, jagged mountains rising behind me, and not another soul in sight. After the sun had set and the light began to fade, I set up my tent and got dinner started on my camp stove. Afterwards, I read by candlelight for a while, then fell thankfully into a state of blessed slumber.
The next day was, once again, gloriously sunny. Since I was in no hurry, I decided to spend the day giving my legs a rest, and hang out on the beach and soak up the sun. I read, went for a day hike up the coast, and even braved the frigid waters and did some cautious bodysurfing.
Later that evening, however, conditions changed. As I was sitting in the sand, reading my book and enjoying the sunshine, I looked up and noticed that a front of clouds was hovering over the ocean, moving in from the west. I did my best to ignore them. An hour later, however, an ominous fog descended onto the beach and engulfed me. It started to mist slightly. I crawled into my tent and continued reading, hoping it was just some light precipitation that would quickly pass. Little did I know, however, that I’d actually seen the last of the sun for the next week. I ate some cheese and crackers for dinner, rather than try to cook, as the mist developed into a steady sprinkle. I fell asleep to the soft sprinkling and the waves crashing nearby. I awoke the next morning to full-blown rain pelting my tent.
It didn’t occur to me at that point to turn back. I’d known, of course, that rain was a likely possibility. I was prepared for it—or so I thought. I had a waterproof tent and a rain jacket. That was all I’d ever needed while backpacking. But then, I’d never hiked and camped in constant downpour for days on end.
My quandary instead was whether to stay in my tent for the day and see if the storm passed, or else pack up and start hiking. Having taken the previous day off, I was ready to get moving. I packed up and started hiking north through the sand. My legs were back in full working order, and it felt good to put my muscles to the test.
Despite the steady downpour and low-lying clouds, the scenery was still breathtaking. The gray skies even intensified the contrast between the looming mountains and churning ocean. I saw a few seals playing in the waves, watching me curiously as I hiked along.
I hiked another five miles north, to the next camping area at Saddle Creek. Hiking was slow due to the sand and the intensifying storm. I had high hopes that things would dry out by the following day, since my tent was wet and my gear was also getting damp, since I didn’t have a waterproof cover for my pack. Also, my one pair of pants was soaked through, since I hadn’t brought rain paints.
But the next morning, eerily, little had changed. The rain seemed neither to have lessened nor increased from its steady downpour. I decided to hang out in my tent and read for the day, hoping the storm might pass that night.
But the rain didn’t let up the next day. Or the next. Or the next. After three days spent huddled inside my small, damp tent at Saddle Creek, reading, contemplating and listening to the ocean waves, I was bordering on stir-crazy. Rain or no rain, I needed to get moving.
I packed up my damp belongings, took down my soaked tent, and started hiking through the relentless storm. I slogged along the beach for a good eight hours; then pitched my tent at Big Flat.
The next day I continued through the rain; then camped by the beach where a thin trail seemed to go straight up the side of the steep coastal mountains. This was the point at which I would ascend the coastal mountain range, and turn south along the ridge for the rest of my adventure.
The next day was stormier than ever. It was the eighth day of my trip, and it had been raining for six days. I realized that I was in a bit of a predicament. My gear was dangerously wet, posing a serious threat of hypothermia if I didn’t manage to dry things out before the night. And the way things were looking, this day was going to be a real soaker.
I checked my map, and found a jeep road at the top of the ridge that led to a paved road, which I noted as an alternative route. Then I packed up and began hiking the steep grade away from the roar of the ocean, as the rain continued its ceaseless downpour.
I continued rising slowly but steadily above the ocean below, for what felt like forever. The rain increased into steady sheets, accompanied by gusts and gales of wind that seemed intent on lifting me right off the trail.
I hiked on and on. I stopped mid-day for a brief lunch. Then I continued up the trail one weary, sodden step at a time, along what was beginning to feel like a never-ending upwards climb. As I reached the top of each ridge, there was always another uphill stretch awaiting me.
Finally, after five or six hours, I reached the top of the ridge and the trail junction. This course would commit me to at least another four days of hiking. I was exhausted, soaking wet, my hands and face were chilled, and ironically I was now out of drinking water, despite that falling all around me. The steep angle of the grade had yielded no streams to refill my water bottle.
I unbuckled my backpack and threw it on the ground. Then I hiked down the trail to see how things looked over the first hill. As I rounded the hill, I was hit by a sudden blast of wind that almost threw me backwards. I took this as a sign not to attempt another four days of hiking through the downpour. Instead I would risk the jeep trail, that would hopefully lead me back to civilization and a warm, dry bed for the night. I double-checked my map, and guessed it was at least ten miles to the paved road. But I was now at the top of the ridge, and it would be mostly downhill from there.
I hiked on and on through the onslaught of rain. I went into a trance of sorts, in which I lost all measure of time or distance. I no longer felt my wet, tired legs, or the water dripping down my neck, soaking my shirt. I just hiked and hiked and hiked, praying that I was actually headed in the right direction. And finally, as the light of day was beginning to dim, I came to the paved road.
The problem now was that I was still a long ways from anywhere, and I wasn’t sure where the road led in either direction. With no time to think, I simply made a choice, and continued trudging along as evening fell.
Soon it was dark, and I was getting scared. I was on the brink of collapse, I could barely feel my legs, and I was soaked down to the bone. I was cold, although I hadn’t stopped moving in hours, and certain that everything in my pack was also fully soaked. I just kept hiking, having few other options, hoping for a car to come along so I could hitch a ride to the closest town of Garberville and get a hotel room.
Finally, a car came along. I put out my thumb—but it didn’t stop. Not a surprise. Even I would be hesitant to pick up a hitchhiker in the dark, in a driving rainstorm in the middle of nowhere.
Ten minutes later, another car came down the road. I waved my arms this time. It stopped, and the driver rolled down his window. I explained my sad state of affairs. But he said he was sorry, he was headed home just a few miles down the road, and couldn’t help me. I said thank you, he rolled up the window and the reassuring lights from the car faded into the distance.
I was now desperate. Having no apparent alternatives, I began looking off the road for somewhere to set up my tent. I just hoped that my sleeping bag wouldn’t be completely drenched. I knew that hypothermia was a real possibility at this point—if it wasn’t already setting in.
As my last thread of hope vanished, and I was about to stumble off into the dark woods, I saw another light in the distance and heard a vehicle approaching. As it came closer, I noticed it was a big pickup. I waved my arms as its headlights blinded me through the rain—and it stopped. I opened the side door of the rusty, beat-up truck, and sitting in the driver’s seat was a scraggly old man with a beer in his hand.
"Man, fellah, you looks like you must be wet…" he drawled, clearly drunk. He said it purely as an observation, as if he’d pulled over merely to take a look at me, having not yet hypothesized that I might need help.
"Uh, yes," I said, stuttering through cold lips, trying to speak clearly before he drove off and left me there to my doom. "You see, I’ve been camping on the Lost Coast, but I quit because of the rain. I just hiked all day, and I need to get to Garberville so that I can find a hotel for the night…"
"Garberville?" he said dubiously. "Shit, that’s thirty miles! Who you gonna find a ride with out here at this time of night?" He paused for a minute and took a sip of his beer, thinking, as if he were trying to drum up a ride for me. "Well, heck, if all you need is a place to stay, you can crash at my place…I mean, it’s messy, but at least it’s warm and I got satellite TV and a comfy couch…"
I’d climbed in, my pack on my lap, before he managed to finish his sentence. At that point I was hardly listening. I sensed that he meant to give me a hand—and I took it. That he was apparently drinking and driving wasn’t much of a concern at that point. I was safer with him than trying to spend the night in the woods.
We drove a few miles down the road, where he turned onto a dirt road and we drove for another mile. Finally, we came to a run-down, yet cozy-looking wooden cabin.
"Well, this is my home sweet home," he said. "Not much to brag about, but it does the job, ya know…"
It was plenty spacious inside, and he suggested that I lay my things out around the fire so they could dry overnight. I was struck with both horror and gratitude as I pulled out my sleeping bag—and it was literally dripping wet, completely soaked all the way through. I realized that I would have been lucky to see morning if I’d tried to sleep through the storm that night.
But as it was, I cooked up some instant soup, we watched satellite TV for a while, and then he loaned me some blankets. I slept warm, dry and content on the couch beside the crackling fire. The next morning, I packed up my dry clothes and sleeping bag, and the old man drove me a little further down the road. I thanked him profusely, then hitched from there to Highway 101—grateful to be alive, and resolving that the next time I ventured into the wilderness, I’d be more prepared for whatever circumstances might come my way.