of the Redwood Coast
On a road trip to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, I compare Oregonian and Californian views on public lands.
Reedsport to Brooking
ew monuments to Oregon’s south coast history exist. Perhaps this coast, stretching 140 miles from Reedsport, Oregon to the California border, can be summed up in the wreck of the Mary D. Hume, a steamer built locally in Gold Beach in 1881.
By the 1970’s, the Mary D. Hume had been afloat longer than any other vessel on the west coast of North America, and served as a cannery vessel, an Arctic whaler, a commercial halibut and salmon fishing boat, a tugboat and cargo hauler.
After supporting coastal Cascadian industries for nearly a hundred years and along almost the entire North American coast, the Mary D. Hume sank where she was initially built with white cedars cut from the banks of the Rogue River.
In the 1980’s, locals decided to preserve the Mary D. Hume as a museum, but in the attempt to tow her to shore, the slings carrying her broke and she slid into the muddy banks of the Rogue, rotting as a derelict ghost.
The South Oregon coast sits in the middle of what is perhaps the most vibrant regional economy in the world, and yet, like the Mary D. Hume, is in a perpetual aged and deteriorated state. The population of Gold Beach is just over 2,000. Brookings, the bigger city on the southern border, is just 6,500. These are remarkably low numbers for the same coast which hosts some of the largest cities in the Americas.
That derelict feeling is not imaginary: the south coast’s industries have declined dramatically: fish stocks have plummeted and the timber boom is long past. There are few opportunities for the young outside of the molasses-like tourism sector. The largest employer is Pelican Bay prison across the border.
We are headed south, following my wife’s dream to show our eleven-year old son the coastal redwoods of Northern California. For twelve straight miles south of Gold Beach, the coastline is locked up and protected as the Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor.
This designation itself is telling about this place in particular and Oregon in general.
In the 1930’s when national park fever had hit the nation, this same stretch of coast was also to become the Oregon Coast National Park, a designation which surely would have altered the economic history of this region forever and guaranteed a national tourism interest.
But World War II broke out, and interest in new national parks fizzled. Rather than a national park, this coast remains relatively unknown. There are pullouts and parking lots, but the main features of the scenic corridor are tucked away, inaccessible and sometimes intentionally hidden.
hile sweeping views of the coast can be seen from the road, there are few established trails, and there are no public directions on accessing a number of serene, magical beaches.
Tonight, I’ve followed footpaths down a steep seaside cliff to view what is considered the most beautiful coastline view on the entire west coast of North America. The downhill scramble has a treacherous quality to it. The wrong slip is certain death.
If this were a national park, this view would require a fifty car parking lot, a wide set of concrete stairs, buttressed by impossible supporting columns, protective handrails and gazebos with interpretive displays—-god bless them all.
Nobody should really be allowed to walk this treacherous walk, not only is it dangerous, but the varied footpaths to these views erode a fragile coast.
In the end though, the way Oregon has protected its landscapes, by underplaying their value, is precisely what upholds their value. This Pacific Wonderland is all enter at your own risk, and that’s the way more wild land should be.
I make it to the bottom of the steep grade, my heart pumping from my incurable fear of heights, and I am crawling, not walking, along one of seven natural bridges.
As I stare out at the ocean, three more make their way down. One, a well-known professional photographer, and two more—-Instragram-era photographers. In all my years behind the camera, I’ve always looked forward to these certain landscapes which attract photographers. What kind of tripod do they use? What does their backpack look like? Are they wearing hiking boots or trail runners?
And, are they here to take a photo of themselves, their back facing the camera, their arms out in the air, taking in the wonder?
Indirectly, I bring this up, and I say that the age of Instagram has altered global trends in photography. “The direction is that the photo is about where the photographer has been. The photo is really there to serve the purpose of the photographer being the hero.”
“But maybe this is a trend that is already dying,” says the professional photographer. “We’ve reached full saturation of that sort of thing, and it may be on its way out.”
One of the instagrammers says, “All these stories about people falling to their death for a photo, and just last week, there was a story about a street in Paris where locals are starting to fight back against the Instragrammers.”
“It’s not the medium,” I say. “It’s that we aren’t really demanding more from those who are using the medium.”
I tell them the story of my friend who noticed a lady at his gym who, every morning, shared pictures of herself working out. But she never did the workout. She was there just for the photos.
The other instagrammer says, “I think we need to tell more of a story about the places we are visiting. What if we actually told our audience the significance of the place we are visiting. What if our photos could help us make each other smarter!”
Two of the photographers left, which frightened me, because I am still shaking from my fear of heights.
The photographer turns to me and says. “Do you mind taking a picture of me. All you have to do is push the button here.”
“Of course,” I say. He walks out onto the natural bridge, and crouches in a triumphant, awestruck pose.
Brookings to Crescent City
hen you cross from Oregon to California on the coast, you’d expect something to change. In the rearview mirror, I see this realization in my son’s eyes.
One thing actually does change: it’s not the enchanting coast itself, thousands of sea stacks and islets and emerald bays are on both sides of the border. It’s not the trees and plants: the botanical biodiversity is nearly uniform from Northern California to Southern Alaska.
But what is it? I’ve lived my entire adult life between the two states; as an outsider to the west, I’m forever attuned to how these states refer to each other. When we pass Pelican Bay State Prison, I am reminded of Jane telling me stories from the Ear Hustle podcast; how this supermax prison is for the most violent offenders, while San Quentin, near San Francisco, is desired by inmates throughout the state for its exclusive benefits.
That suddently reminds me of the possible difference between Oregonians and Californians. In California, there is this ubiquitous obsession with the idea of exclusivity. In almost all of California’s large urban areas, the desire to have something that others don’t; to be able to lock yourself behind a gate, to get into a club, to be VIP, to have a special parking spot, is everpresent in conversation.
Oregon’s beaches are entirely public, the result of a political process which consumed the state for much of the twentieth century. The two politicians who fought hardest for Oregon’s public coast, Democratic governor Oswald West and Republican governor Tom McCall, are today among the most recognized political names in the state.
The concept of a public coast in Oregon is a complete one. You can truly access the coast anywhere, and nobody can stop you. Public access to beaches is mandatory. In a few places, such as Ecola State Park, there is a five dollar parking fee, and along the thirty-six mile walk from Bandon to Port Orford, where endangered Snowy Plovers nest, there are seasonal restrictions for the 500 or so people who make the trek: don’t walk in the dry sand where they nest. Beyond these reasonable restrictions, the coast is yours.
As we enter California, public access to beaches doesn’t change. California has its own public coast laws 10 years after Oregon’s public coast laws, California enacted their own California Coastal Act in 1976.
The law is similar, but the access is not. The difference is not so much in the law itself, but what is perhaps a key difference between Oregonians and Californians.
From 1993 to 1995, I lived in Malibu, adjacent to Zuma Beach, first in a trailer park on Point Dume and then in a celebrity enclave directly on the beach. As a college student, I was incredulous at my ability to afford coastal living in Los Angeles’ most exclusive enclaves. My rent at Virginia Beach, where I could spit into the Pacific from my bedroom, was $250 dollars (and water the plants once a week.)
Both the trailer park and the enclave were gated. In both cases, the gates limited public access to beautiful California coastline in different ways.
In my last year in Malibu, I finally began to pursue my lifelong dream of learning to surf, which, after taking a class at Pepperdine University on the basics, I befriended a group of Malibu locals who had decided to renew their childhood interest in a sport that had taken a backseat in their teens.
Surfing in Malibu is world class because the geography lends itself to numerous point breaks, which create long, clean waves.
ut half the game of surfing in Malibu is finding the right beach: the one with the right-sized waves and the smallest crowds. In Malibu, neighborhoods will often gate off access to beaches entirely, offering gate keys only to homeowners in the neighborhood. But these gates created a black market for keys, which the children of wealthy homeowners would sell to surfers for upwards of four-hundred dollars per key.
Since we had black market keys, we could access some of the hidden, secretive beaches restricted to just a handful of families. Still, the idea that these public beaches could be gated bothered me.
Wealthy landowners across California still fight to limit access to the public.
In 2008, billionaire co-founder of Sun Microsystems Vinod Khosla bought 59 acres of property near Half Moon Bay; called Martin Beach, a sought after Northern California surfing area, and locked a public beach access gate. As part of California’s coastal access act, he was required to, and repeatedly warned of his obligation to keep public access to the beach open.
When five surfers walked down to the beach anyway, they were apprehended by guards hired by Khosla and promptly arrested by the local sheriff, which raised the profile of a Surfrider Foundation campaign to reopen access to the beach.
Khosla fought the California Coastal Commission, Surfrider Foundation and the State of California for the next five years at incredible expense for all involved. In 2018, the Surfrider Foundation ultimately won the case, and surfers are now free to access the beach.
In Oregon, gated communities are virtually nonexistent. In my fifteen years of living and traveling in the state, I have never seen one. But in California, living behind walls is one of the fastest growing real estate trends in the state. Over forty-percent of all new homes being built are in gated communities, or, often, actual gated cities.
California’s gated cities, like Canyon Lake and Bradbury, can be viewed through Google Earth. In these gigantic gated communities, open space is almost entirely absent. Any public space is maximized into small, heavily landscaped places: baseball parks, golf courses, playgrounds. The only land left wild are the narrow spaces around riparian drainages. Every public space is owned by a corporation.
Author Michael Pollan, in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, looks at how America’s early views of outdoor space were a direct and intentional rebuke of the broken glass high walls, fences and gates of Europe, and in his explanation for not putting a fence around his garden, writes, “I had absorbed the traditional American view that fences were Old World, out of place in the American landscape.” Nineteeth century American landscapers, Pollan explains, derided fences as “feudal holdovers from Britain.”
America’s inviting, unfenced front yards were seen by visiting Europeans as superior, inviting, a breath of fresh air. He continues:
“To the Puritans, the whole American landscape was a promised land, a sacred space, and to draw lines around sections of it was to throw this paramount idea into question.”
California has always been at the forefront of the idea of public spaces. If America sold the world on the importance of preserved wild places, then California sold that idea to the United States when John Muir made his case to President Roosevelt.
California still breaks new ground on preservation and conservation and even public spaces. The state is still a catalyst of innovation on the big global environmental issues of our time. But how will the Californians of the future champion public space when they've boxed it out of their own lives? When they return to the gates and fences and exclusive, closed-off properties of feudal Europe?
Klamath to Trinidad
he northern border of California features one national and three state parks, all mostly connected together and protecting the remaining Coastal Redwoods habitat.
Among the groves of towering redwoods, we find the turquoise-hued Prairie Creek in Prairie Creek Redwood State Park, and set out for its rocky banks.
While my son and I wander barefoot along the river’s edge, Jane yells for our attention.
“There’s something in the water. It’s huge!”
Then, a couple seconds later, “Is it even alive? It’s not moving.”
I had told Jane that we shouldn’t expect to see new animals on our trip to California. But Jane had just given me enough information to pinpoint what she was looking at.
And that’s she because it lives in Oregon, too. I had been unsuccessfully looking for one for the past fifteen years, sometimes spending hours along riverbeds, looking under rocks. Did Jane just see a Giant Salamander?
I stumble over to the shallow still water where she is standing. The creature is nearly a foot long, it’s submarine body is a tiger print of purplish-brassy splotches, lined by beige on a chocolate-brown body.
It has an ethereal, unworldy look to it, as if, like Jane exclaimed, it cannot possibly be alive.
Salamanders are always out there, beneath our feet, hidden away feet underground, almost never seen. And for as exotic as they are in their diversity, coloration and behavior, they are unlike birds, butterflies, lizards, beetles, flowers and fish, in that their diversity doesn’t multiply as you head south toward the equator. Actually, they are an order that is most robust and diverse in the northern latitudes. Their ideal habitat: the moist, riverine rainforests of the northwest.
Over the years, I have slowly found most of the species of northwestern Oregon. But the Giant Salamanders — like this Coastal Giant Salamander — have eluded me.
Giant Salamanders, usually nocturnal, almost always underground, are indeed elusive elusive creatures of the deep forest. No creature better represents the idea of the need for untamed, wild, pristine forests as the salamanders, which have seen higher rates of global decline than all other amphibians, and so, to see one here at the northern tip of California, is to imagine that Californians will always uphold their reverence for wild places.
I crouch down to look closely at the salamander. I know that he actually packs a vicious bite, and when he pops his head out of the water to reconcile with my presence, I catch sight of his bronze iris sizing me up.
At night, our family exhausted, I tell my son a story while he falls asleep. The next morning, I remember my dream. I was walking at night under the towering redwoods and came to an isolated, bare wood shack illuminated in the night. When I opened the door, six giant salamanders were hunched over a table, playing poker and drinking dark rum. When they turned around, I saw the demonic, wild look in their eyes as they invited me to play.