At dusk on a Thursday in early May, the streets of Shelter Cove were empty save a lone man on a Segway, rolling slowly in the direction of the village's imported lighthouse.
Rows of vacation homes were half-empty, awaiting the summer occupants, as was the best restaurant in town, which is staffed by local teens. Down the road, the bar near the pay phone was abuzz with fishermen, laborers and likely a few of Humboldt County's many “independent businessmen.” Rock hits from the 1970s blared and a woman crooned loudly to no one in particular, “I will choose a path that's clear … I will choose free will.”
A tiny plateau of green baring its teeth into the cold Pacific winds, the lone settlement on California's rugged Lost Coast is still deciding what it wants to be.
With one winding road in and out, a general store with two fuel pumps and an aging airstrip, perched some 200 miles north of San Francisco in a remote and largely undeveloped swath where forested mountains dip into the sea and state highway builders long ago gave up and forged inland, Shelter Cove has transformed over the past century from sheep ranch to fishing village to resort-town-in-waiting. It's also a popular entry point for back-country hikers navigating the gorgeous Lost Coast Trail, the King Range National Conservation Area and the Sinkyone Wilderness.
Shelter Cove is not at all lost – more hidden, tucked away from the noise and bustle by both geography and history.
“You have to like the outdoors,” said Toni Lair, whose father Mario Machi and his two brothers were one of the area's founding families. “There's no mall, no theater, no McDonald's. And for a lot of people, that is not easy.”
The Machis, who according to Lair arrived in Shelter Cove by boat from San Francisco in the 1930s to work as fishermen, ended up buying part of the ranch land, and among other odd jobs ran the marina and fish market. During the busy years, a “mosquito fleet” of dozens of boats would fish out of the area, but by the late 1980s the salmon population had dwindled and restrictions were put in place.
“Once that was gone it was really hard to make a living, and less people came, and it was very different then,” she said.
What remains of the marina market now is a cluster of forlorn shacks, though a few fishermen carry on the tradition.
“I guess it's kind of in my blood,” said Jared Morris, standing at the top of the marina's boat ramp.
Down in the cove, an osprey chases away a bald eagle, and the rocky beaches are strewn with abalone shells. Morris, a 24-year-old native whose father and grandfather came from Sacramento as commercial fishermen, now fishes crab in the winter and runs charter fishing tours in the warmer months. The cove has no dock, and boats are towed into the water by tractor.
“It's a lot harder and a lot windier,” Morris said. “But it is one of the last places that's got the best fishing.”
Hardcore year-rounders mingle and gossip in the morning at Shelter Cove's only coffee shop, where from its back deck retirees hold court over the crashing surf as gray whales migrate up the coast. Strangers are treated with both welcome and wariness. The town has seen its share of real estate speculators and well-intentioned newcomers pushing for change a little too quickly for some.
“Typically, we keep an eye on each other, even if our politics are different,” said Mike Caldwell, owner of the Inn of the Lost Coast, an 18-room hotel overlooking the water whose history goes back to the sheep ranch days. Caldwell and his wife first rode into town on a Harley Davidson to escape the inland heat, and bought the place in 2000.
“I called it a funky fishing motel with priceless views,” Caldwell said.
It's been remodeled now, with large, comfortable rooms, flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi. Cell service came to Shelter Cove only a few years ago, and it's spotty. A board member of the resort improvement district — the closest thing Shelter Cove has to a town council — Caldwell is seeking to attract more visitors to the area, though he also notes there is limited space for development.
“In my mind, it's just never going to be much other than what it is,” Caldwell said, adding that “people out here are self-contained and self-entertained.”
Walking quietly through a forest of Douglas fir, alder and live oak, Diana Totten puts the wisdom of her native grandmother to use. She spots a serrated chert arrowhead on the trail that she said was used to hunt deer and might be 1,000 years old (other hikers walked right past it). Further up the hill at an ocean overlook, she sees scratches on an auburn trunk of manzanita — the claws of a black bear marking its territory.
Totten, and botanical expert Cheryl Lisin of the Lost Coast Interpretive Association, are making frequent stops on the path here in Hidden Valley, a spot known mostly to locals amid the peaks of the King Range, chatting about the wide variety of edible and medicinal plants that grow here, such as wild ginger, stinging nettle, huckleberry, yarrow and wild strawberries. Their common mission is education and preservation.
“When I grew up, the wilderness was a place of refuge,” said Totten, a volunteer fire rescue worker and wilderness tracker who now leads hiking and camping trips for girls, reintroducing them to nature and hoping to gradually, if temporarily, wean them off their cellphone addictions. “You realize what makes your heart calmer, and you can see your place in the world, and the universe, and not feel so disconnected.”
In neighboring Whitethorn on the other side of the mountains, the longtime local lumber yard, Whitethorn Construction, has become a kind of community center. Residents chat over strong coffee and sandwiches at Caffe Dolce, as a stream of young men in pickups pull in and out of the yard. Marijuana — the product of choice for those “independent businessmen” — is widely recognized as the main economic driver throughout the area. And though some people have mixed feelings — especially when it comes to pollution from runoff, an increasing number of locals tooling about in luxury SUVs and the crop's uncertain future in California — businesses have become dependent on it.
Efforts are underway to find a healthy balance. The principle of respecting the Earth is not just the province of the legion of former hippies and back-to-the-landers who migrated north from San Francisco years ago. You'll hear the same from people who were born and raised here.
Winemaker and conservationist Tasha McCorkle McKee, whose father, Bob McKee, owns the construction company, describes her parents as beatniks originally from Eureka who, amid a more conservative community then, palled around with Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac. The “On the Road” author supposedly babysat her and her sister when she was 3.
“And apparently he was on good behavior,” she said, laughing. “He didn't drink.”
As a teenager, McCorkle McKee started making homemade wines from blackberries and rose petals.
“I took it to my friend's house and impressed all the adults,” she said while standing amid oak barrels full of pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Later, with a degree in winemaking and work experience at wineries in Napa and Sonoma, she returned home to start Whitethorn Winery. Now working with her son, her philosophy puts paramount importance on quality grapes and fermentation technique over expensive technology, and a French-influenced focus on a wine's texture rather than simply its smell and taste.
In 2003, McCorkle McKee took a hiatus from winemaking to work on restoring water to the drought-stricken Mattole River. She is now director of the nonprofit Sanctuary Forest, which leads successful research and education programs focused on watershed conservation.
The Lost Coast is also a retreat for the spirit. In 1962, a group of Cistercian women monastics settled deep in the redwoods near Whitethorn. Begun by a Roman Catholic order from Belgium, the Redwoods Monastery remains a small group dedicated to a simpler life of meditation, work and prayer. This abbey maintains an organic garden, a chapel and living quarters, and relies on sales of their flavored creamed honeys and donations from guesthouse visitors. Anyone is welcome to stay.
“It's for their soul,” said Sister Veronique Geeroms, who has lived at the monastery since its founding.
“This place gives them something, but we also get something back,” adds Sister Kathy DeVico, a resident since 1971. “They become part of the community when they're here.”
There's an old tale that the lands around Shelter Cove are cursed — from the days of Spanish and Russian explorers, and the expulsion and killing of local American Indians, to shipwrecks, plane crashes and drownings. But such superstition is usually, and level-headedly, dismissed. For many fortunate enough to call the Lost Coast home, it is simply about getting away, living independently, and leaving as little trace as possible on this land of pristine beauty and splendid isolation.
Most seem to know that change, like a sea-worn cliffside, comes slowly and then all at once.
If you go:
If visiting the Lost Coast for the first time, a good start is the Humboldt County Visitors Bureau at www.redwoods.info. For hikes, classes and more area info, visit the Lost Coast Interpretive Association at www.lostcoast.org, the Bureau of Land Management at www.blm.gov/ca/arcata/kingrange and Sanctuary Forest at www.sanctuaryforest.org.
Inn of the Lost Coast: The inn has 18 roomy suites with modern amenities, each with a private deck offering incredible ocean views. There is also a small art gallery on site and next door are the town’s only coffee shop and pizza place. Summer room rates from $180 to $300. 205 Wave Drive, Shelter Cove. www.innofthelostcoast.com.
Whitethorn Winery: Tasha McCorkle McKee and her son handcraft between 200 and 500 cases a year of pinot noir, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. Tastings by appointment only. 545 Shelter Cove Road, Whitethorn. www.whitethornwinery.com.
Redwoods Monastery: This small community of Roman Catholic women monastics, located in idyllic pastoral splendor in the Lost Coast redwoods, dates back to 1962, and welcomes visitors, whether to buy some of their delicious honey, or to stay for a few days and join the sisters in meditation, prayer or work in the garden. Stays are by appointment with a requested $70 donation per night. 18104 Briceland-Thorn Road, Whitethorn. www.redwoodsabbey.org.
Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com