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Of Fire & Creatures of the Deep

Nature's ways can be a predictable or a mysterious thing. Of course, when humans toy with nature, you never know what the result might be.

Some folks get all wrapped up in their dedication to nature to the point of ignoring humanity, others literally get burned. Three years after the “Great Comptche Fire of 1931” blazed from Big River to the Navarro, fire broke out in nearby locations in the summer of 1934. A thousand acres or more burned in the brushy acreage in the Low Gap section while farther west crews from the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) rushed to slow down flames that broke out in the dry duff in the vicinity of Melburne. One group of CCC young men got cut off by fire on at least three sides. Most of the boys made their way to the north and found a safe clearing on the Skiffington range. One of their companions got separated from the crew. He forced his way through flames to eventual rescue, but received severe burns in the process.

A month or so later fire reared its ugly presence just down river from this ranch, raging a swath a mile long in Railroad Gulch and threatening the Pesula property on the edge of Albion Ridge. Again a CCC crew answered the call. This time the fellows motored in from the Russian Gulch camp. The firefighters and the dampening effects of a fog that settled into the gulch throughout one night and well into the next day stopped that blaze.

Though the fire halted short of their place, early October, 1934, proved an unlucky time for the Pesula family of Albion Ridge. The month started well. The apple dryer that the Pesulas shared with their neighbor, Victor Herbert, went into operation, with a large number of the September varieties dried and stored for winter consumption. However, Mrs. Anna Pesula fell on the farm, cutting her forearm rather severely. Her daughter, Martha, accompanied her into Mendocino where Dr. Preston dressed the wound. No sooner did they return home than Martha stepped on a nail in the yard. The puncture was deep enough to warrant another trip into Mendocino. Dr. Preston tended to this injury as well. Full disclosure side note: Two years later Martha married Clyde Anderson, one of my father's first cousins.

Even before those late summer and early fall fires were extinguished salmon had begun to be spotted at the mouths of coastal streams. The bay at Mendocino proved a good fishing ground in the early autumn on days when the sea sat relatively flat, but the biggest catch of the season was at Noyo  point in Fort Bragg in the last days of August. The tide was low August 25th when sixteen-year-old Zeno Manning went out to the point with his chums Raymond and Larry Miller. The three boys ventured out quite a distance searching for abalone they could pry from the rocks. Zeno circled slowly around a particularly big rock, his eyes peeled for abalone only. In about four feet of water something reached out and grabbed hold of Zeno's legs, turning him from hunter to prey in an instant. It was an octopus, whose tentacles pinched the boy's ankles and knees together while another arm wrapped about his torso, pinning his arms to his waist.

Zeno screamed for help and the Miller boys sloshed through the water as fast as they could. With their ab bars they beat at the eight foot octopus, but it refused to let go of Zeno. Luck smiles on the fortunate and in this situation that meant a plank sitting nearby. The Millers shoved the plank under the two arms that the octopus used to clutch the rock. As it let loose of the rock the Miller boys went at the ocean beast once again with their ab bars, beating at the octopus until it let go of Zeno's waist and grabbed hold of the plank instead. With his arms free, Zeno pummeled at the octopus as well until the beating from all three succeeded in losing his legs from the creature's grip.

In their frenzy the boys struck the octopus over and over until it succumbed to their blows. They pulled it ashore and measured their defeated opponent. Zeno and the Millers returned home with far less abalone than they had hoped, but with an experience that few in these parts can claim.

(See what's lurking under the rocks at

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