Saturday, 13 August 2016

A Drive to the North: Bandit Country, Redwoods, and Shelter Cove

For day 1, see here.

Our plan for the second day was to drive north from Covelo, taking the long dirt road that leads 50 miles northwards through truly empty country.

There is just one problem. The triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties account for a large part of California's marijuana production, worth billions of dollars. Nearly all of this is illegal, though enforcement is rare. The geography is perfect, with plenty of rain and plenty of empty places to hide in. The growers aren't in a big hurry to be discovered, so as a visitor the last thing you want to do is accidentally stumble across a plantation. They also aren't especially nice people. They do enormous damage to the environment, diverting streams, destroying forests and generally acting with no accountability. Legalisation, likely to happen later this year, will be a huge improvement, regardless of whether or not you use the stuff.

Violence is commonplace. Just two weeks before our visit, two growers right in Round Valley itself, no doubt stoned out of their minds, set upon each other. One is dead, his body found in a shallow grave, while the other fled to the other side of the country but has since been found. Our journey that day led through the tiny and oddly-named settlement of Kettenpom. If you look it up, the first couple of pages are all about a double murder, and double attempted murder, that happened there five years ago. The perpetrator, who was killed shortly afterwards in a car chase, had stolen money and dope from the victims.

But everyone we spoke to assured us that as long as we stayed on roads and didn't venture onto private driveways or hike into woods or fields, we'd be safe. The biggest danger, we were told, is the huge water tankers that zoom around blind bends way too fast - marijuana takes vast amounts of water, and we certainly saw plenty of those. We took bends very slowly, and way over to our own side of the road.

The first part of the drive was on the hardtop road through the Indian part of the Valley. There is absolutely nothing to distinguish this from the southern part - there is the same mixture of modest but well maintained houses, dilapidated shacks, and decrepit trailers surrounded by junk and rusting cars. Soon though the road changes, it starts to twist and climb and becomes a dirt road. It was well graded throughout and could easily be driven by any car, even my Audi TT.

There are "no trespassing" signs every few yards, nailed to trees and fenceposts. Many of them have a light green star as a background, exactly the same colour as the crop they are protecting. It really doesn't leave any doubt.

Middle Fork Eel River, from the only bridge that crosses it.
After many miles of twists and turns, the road descends a steep zigzag to a valley. And there, miles from anywhere in any direction, is a very impressive concrete bridge across one of the bits of the Eel River. It's the only place in the whole 35 mile or so length of this fork that a road comes near it, which gives an idea of just how empty this area is. Soon after, the road passes through what's left of the settlement of Mina. There's a nearby ranch, but that's all. Yet there was a post office - and presumably some people who wanted to use it - until 1938. What on earth did those people live on?

Next the road climbs to the top of a ridge, running along for several miles at over 3500 feet. The views in both directions are spectacular, tree covered valleys in the foreground, then successive mountain ranges behind them. And there is not a single sign of human habitation or existence in sight anywhere, in a few hundred square miles. It is very impressive.

The road becomes hardtop again exactly where it crosses the line into Trinity County. But the hardtop is in very poor shape, with many deep holes where it has disintegrated. Even in a normal car, the dirt road would be easier and a lot more pleasant to drive.

After 35 miles, the odd mailbox starts to appear, the first sign of any kind of civilization. One valley away is a smaller version of Round Valley, a tiny agricultural plain in the middle of the hills. It even has its own airport - private, but charted - with the odd name of Heller Highwater (CL45). I noticed it when I was flying over, but I doubt that they welcome visitors. It's very odd, the business of which private airports are charted and which aren't. In the backcountry there are numerous private strips, often shown on the USGS topological maps, but rarely shown on FAA charts. Which is a shame, because if the engine stops over the mountains, you need all the help you can get.

Shortly afterwards the road leads to the tiny hamlet of Kettenpom, with its general store. This gained notoriety in the double murder of 2011, when one of the non-victims raised the alarm by showing up there gushing blood from an attempt to slit her throat. The two non-victims were only involved because one of the actual victims had managed to make a 911 call before dying. But the nearest presence of the Trinity County Sheriff's Department is a couple of hours away over the kind of road we'd just driven. So they called the nearest neighbour (half a mile away) to "pop round and see if everything is OK". Which it seriously wasn't, and the already-double murderer made a serious effort at finishing them off too. The latest twist to the still unfinished saga is that the surviviors are now suing the Sheriff's Department. It's an exciting life out there in the middle of nowhere.

Kettenpom - sinister truck not in shot!
I like these country general stores, making a living on the needs of a few dozen local residents and the occasional tourist (extremely occasional on this road), filling their need for booze, tinned food, and expensive gas. We stopped to go inside, but just then a big black pickup arrived and two very sinister looking guys got out. The looks they gave us, as they spat on the ground and hushed the sullen pitbull that remained inside the truck, suggested that they were very interested to know who we were and why we were there, and anyway would much rather that we weren't. It seemed wise to oblige them, so I still haven't seen what's for sale in the Kettenpom General Store.

The end of the road is a few miles later at Zenia. The general store there has closed - maybe the competition from Kettenpom was too much. But amazingly there is still a post office, and it was even open - though we didn't have anything to post. And to prove what we had achieved, there was a sign showing the distance to Covelo as 51 miles. It had taken just under two hours, including stops.

Our next planned stop was the Avenue of the Giants, a stretch of road through the Eel River valley completely surrounded by Redwood forest. The road is the original two-lane US 101, now bypassed by a modern highway. The obvious way to get there was straight to Garberville then north on 101. But some studying of the road map and the topo map showed there was a more interesting way, with more dirt roads that would take us straight to the central part of the highway.

So, passing an intriguing looking car, loaded up to the gills and surrounded by way more Chinese people than should ever have been able to fit inside it (what on earth were they doing in the deeper wilds of Humboldt County?), we set off on yet another just-barely hardtop road. Our initial aiming point was Fort Seward, on the Eel River.

A word about the Eel River. Pretty much every stretch of water in Humboldt County is called the Eel River. My personal suspicion is that "eel" is a word in one of the local Indian languages meaning "river", just like the several River Avons in England ("avon" is a Celtic word for river). They are distinguished by modifiers like South Fork, North Fork, Middle Fork and various other Lesser Forks. Isabelle says it reminds her of all the Hounslow stations on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, of less than fond memory.

The old Northwestern Pacific main line passes through the Eel River valley. Mostly it is all by itself, with no accompanying road. Trains haven't run there since some natural disaster (a flood, I think) did tremendous damage in 1996. It must have been a magnificent line to travel, back in its day when it was the only way to get from San Francisco to Eureka. Before it was built, as late as 1914, the only way was by boat up the coast - what a pleasure that must have been during a Pacific storm.
Our picnic spot in the Eel River valley.

Fort Seward was a whistle stop on the railway. It started life in 1861 as a military fort, against the Indians, but the fort didn't survive its first winter. While the trains were running, it was a busy little place, with a sawmill and a post office. There isn't much left, though we didn't get a chance to look round since even the roads were marked with light green "no trespassing" signs.
View into Eel River valley.

We did manage to find a trail that led down to the river. That was where we ate our picnic, in complete tranquility, sitting on the vast gravel banks with our toes almost in the water, FJ happily standing guard over us. The Eel River (all of them) has tremendous variations in its flow - in the winter it completely fills the valley, but in summer it's relatively just a trickle - one one-hundredth of the flow. Occasionally it floods - in 1964 the flood left a huge trail of destruction, washing away whole towns.

Thus refreshed, we set out for the Avenue of the Giants. The road was the usual mixture of graded dirt and gravel, and past-its-best hardtop. The views down into the valley and across the hills were magnificent.
The drive through the redwoods is very impressive. They are... well, giant. The road has been threaded through them and you are always under their very dense canopy. Under them, the only thing that grows is ferns. There is an excellent visitor center with a very impressive display of the local wildlife.
From there we drove along a side valley to the "Giant Tree", which claims to be the biggest redwood alive. It's certainly pretty big, once you find it - it's on a long loop trail through the woods, which isn't really signposted. From there we had two choices to complete our journey to Shelter Cove. One was to continue along the same side valley, leading eventually to a dirt road down the coast. The alternative was to go back to 101 and take the much longer route through Garberville. But we'd had enough back roads for the day, so we went for 101. Even so we ended up on a long, just-barely hardtop road going past the airport in Garberville, where I'd been a couple of weeks earlier. On the map it looks like it would be reasonable to walk into town (if it wasn't 104ºF), but the reality is different - it involves a long descent down into the valley, then a long climb back up the other side.

It's a long, twisty road across the mountains to Shelter Cove. The mountains rise very abruptly from the sea, so the road drops 2000 feet in just the last couple of miles.

Shelter Cove is essentially a runway surrounded by houses. The runway was the first thing to be built, while the developer tried to sell the building lots around it - there's a picture in a bar showing the state of things in 1964, with just the runway. Before then, it was a tiny fishing port, with a sheltered beach forming a decent natural harbour - there is still quite a bit of fishing activity. It's still a tiny place, with a permanent population under 1000. It has several hotels but they're all small with maybe 50 rooms between them. We'd chosen ours, right on the beach, because it had a good restaurant - the only one there. Except it didn't - they'd told us the previous day that it was "temporarily" closed.

That left two choices, a bar and a take-out pizzeria. We visited the bar, which supposedly served food, but we didn't see any evidence of it. They did make a good margarita though. All the other customers were locals, fishermen for the most part. When we went to the bar, two guys who were having a very quiet conversation conspicuously moved out to the terrace. We would have liked to have our drinks there ourselves, but we didn't dare follow them.


There remained only the pizzeria, at the opposite end of the town. It was a bustling place, with people sitting at the few tables and a long line. It was a long wait for our pizza - long enough to go for a walk along the cliffs - but well worth it, with an excellent crisp base and perfect toppings as well. If there's only one place to eat in town, you really can't count on it being good - but luckily it was. We took our pizza back to our hotel room, and opened one of our bottles of Saracina Malbec to go with it. It was a very pleasant (and inexpensive) evening, and we didn't regret the hotel restaurant at all.

I'm still intrigued by the question of just who would own a home at Shelter Cove. The houses around the airport are big, but you'd have to be retired, or not need to work, to live there permanently. It really is a long way from anywhere else. It's a 5-6 hour drive from the Bay Area, too far for a weekend place. The only towns close enough are in the Eureka area, but that's not an especially wealthy area and anyway Shelter Cove would just be more of the same. Isabelle's theory is that it's a retreat for the growers and dealers from inland, but I'm not so sure.
For the next day, see here.

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