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A Pioneering Walk Along the California Coastal Trail: Oregon Border to San Francisco

Dinesh Desai

   Bob and I are walking the lonely Mattole Road. It is about 1 P.M. and as we come close to the top of a small rise, Bob freezes and motions me to be quiet. No more than 100 ft. ahead on the road is a full-grown mountain lion.  He is staring at something in the other direction. Since we are downwind from him, at first he doesn’t notice us. But he soon spots us and slowly disappears into the woods.

“Well, Dinesh, that’s our reward for taking this 36 mile detour.”

Prior to starting our coastal walk, we had set certain rules for ourselves. We would cover every inch of the path between the California-Oregon border and the Golden Gate Bridge, start our journey each day at the same point where we had stopped the previous day, thus tracing a continuous path and we would not use a motor vehicle to travel any roads or skip any sections.

Originally, Coastwalk had planned the whole hike to take place in the summer of 1995. Bob and I had volunteered to be on the route committee and we got to know each other during the many hours we spent mapping the route and discussing the details. I had even spent a week scouting certain problem spots. So, when Coastwalk had to postpone the whole hike to a future date because of lack of funding, Bob and I decided to walk the Northern portion by ourselves.

      Bob and Dinesh when not walking

We chose to do our walk in the off-season month of September for one main reason: we only had a very rough idea of where we might be able to walk or how long it would take to walk a particular section and we didn’t want to be tied down with advance camp reservations. We just hoped to find a camping place at the end of each day. An incidental advantage to this timing was that many coastal creeks would be easier to ford in the fall.

We relied on our wives and a friend to provide vehicle support. We certainly couldn’t have done the walk without their support and I want to take this opportunity to thank my wife, Joy, Bob’s wife, Julie, and my friend Doug Crawford for their supreme efforts. We packed our Ford Explorer with the necessary gear and all the food, mostly freeze dried, for the first two weeks that Joy was going to be with us and headed for the Oregon border.

It really was an adventure. We had no cell phones, guides, guidebooks or any real knowledge of the route. We would pick a spot on the map and after some guesstimate, tell Joy to meet us there at a certain time. At times, however, we wound up walking the bluffs and the roads instead of the beach and reached the destination several hours late. A couple of times, what appeared would be a 14 mile walk in the morning turned out to be a 20+ mile marathon. Luckily, Bob and I are fairly strong, easy going hikers. As such, we were never too bothered by the unexpected turn of events. It also helped that we had complimentary personalities; I loved the planning and Bob was meticulous in carrying out the details. Many trips have been ruined by personality conflicts and we were lucky to have been spared those problems.

We camped at Gold Bluffs campground in Del Norte County but it was not easy. Because of the Labor Day weekend, there were just a couple of empty campsites left when we reached there late in the day. However, several big Roosevelt Elks had decided to claim the sites and only after a lot of shouting and yelling, were we able to get them to move. The next day, as we walked the beach towards the Skunk Cabbage trail head, we came across a dead whale. There was evidence that bears had been feasting on it and most of the meat was gone. A local told us that it takes at least three months for the carcass to be free of blubber, but this one had been here only about a week. I picked a rib bone, about 30” long, and carried it with me as a present for Joy. Bob has a much keener sense of smell and he tried losing me on the trail. We fastened the rib bone to the top of our car and in the next few days, had fun watching several dogs salivating over it. By the way, I still have that bone in my backyard.

 








Dinesh carrying a whale bone   

 


We used the services of commercial outfits to ferry us across Humboldt Bay, Tomales Bay, the Klamath and the Eel Rivers. Sue Davis and Tim Reed of Coastwalk helped us cross the Smith River and the Bodega Harbor respectively. We carried small inflatable rafts to cross many smaller rivers and creeks including Estero Americano and Estero de San Antonio. We arrived at one creek at high tide and had to travel several hundred feet inland to make a safe crossing.

    Bob and his raft drying out

We loved the beaches and trails in Del Norte County whereas Mendocino turned out to be the worst county for beach or bluff walking. We found hundreds of intact sand dollars on a beach in Humboldt County and some agates near Patrick’s Point. Generally, we found the beaches litter free though the natural litter, driftwood and kelp, was quite abundant.

It truly was an incredible experience. We both loved the feeling of not knowing what each day would bring. Yes, it was scary at times, but that’s what an adventure is all about. We prepared as best as we could and then hoped for the best. And it all turned out just fine.

The participants: Dinesh Desai and Bob Cowell
The support staff: Joy Desai, Julie Cowell and Doug Crawford
The dates: Start on 8-29-1995 and finish on 10-04-1995
Follow this link to read a San Francisco Examiner article about this walk.

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