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The Wilds of Ten Mile

The final song on the Eagles' Hotel California album is called, “The Last Resort,” and Don Henley's closing line says, “You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.” At the risk of invoking that truism, here goes. There is a length of beach on the Mendocino Coast that is essentially as unspoiled today as it was when white men first arrived more than a century and a half ago.

When I was a small child in the latter half of the 1950s, the beach that stretches from McKerricher State Park north to the mouth of Ten Mile River was one of the treats of summer. Even today, walk north from the parking lot at McKerricher and solitude beckons. A few hundred yards north and you and your immediate companions are likely to have the beach, its sand, and the Pacific to yourselves. If you start out from the north end, by parking near Ten Mile Bridge, a short walk through an often overgrown "secret garden" kind of trail takes you down to the remnants of the old Union Lumber Company haul road and a short walk farther puts you on a desolate beach. Don't slog over the dunes unless that is your express purpose, such a jaunt will take far longer and use up most of your leg muscles. Much of this northern part of Ten Mile beach gets virtually no use even on holiday weekends.

The primary reason why Ten Mile beach has remained isolated in the 21st Century is something of a corollary to “The Last Resort.” Americans are great at loving to death what is easily accessible, but fortunately for intrepid folks, like regular AVA readers, the ruination often stops when more than a five minute stroll to nature's beauty is required. We are no longer the nation of Daniel Boone or Sacajawea. We are the nation of Lumpy Rutherford. So, for every Yosemite Valley that is overrun by motorists each summer there are also the Trinity Alps, Marble Mountains, and Russian Wilderness where a person can camp, hike, or backpack with very limited intrusion from other humans. Yes, Virginia, there is a sizable Russian Wilderness in California and it is nowhere near Fort Ross. Crank up the Google Earth app on your smart phone and check it out.

In addition to the deserted beach south of Ten Mile River, the adventurous can turn slightly inland to search for a lake hidden among the dunes. Hints: 1) it is closer to the south end of this stretch of beach; 2) find a high point and look for green reedy grass.

In the 1850s J. Ross Browne and his band of “Coast Rangers” discovered this area, on horseback, after a disturbing visit to the Mendocino Indian Reservation at Fort Bragg. “On leaving the head-quarters of the reservation we struck the beach about four miles to the northward, where we had a magnificent stretch of hard sand for five or six miles to the crossing at Ten Mile River. The whole party were in fine spirits, plunging their animals into the surf, running away from the heavy breakers, and racing over the sand-hills after the pack mules. It was a morning to inspire enthusiastic visions of adventure. The air was fresh and bracing, and seemed almost to sparkle with the invigorating spray of the ocean. Every breath of it was worth a day's journey. Along the beach, at intervals of a few hundred yards, groups of Indians were engaged in catching and packing away in baskets a small species of fish resembling the sardine, which, at particular periods during the summer, abound in vast numbers on this part of the coast.”

Browne goes on to describe the specific method used by the Indians, who were more likely Yuki than Pomo since the Cleone River was the presumed boundary between these two groups. Pacific herring were undoubtedly the catch of the day. Well into the 20th Century, millions could be seen, miles upstream in our coastal rivers.

Not anymore. Though the beach for miles south of Ten Mile still looks the same as it did 160 years or more ago, you won't find many herring or the Indians who caught them by the basketful. Kiss that goodbye.

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