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Headwaters Forest, I Was There

Not many people have hiked into Headwaters Forest, and not many people are likely to because the trek in is a grueler. The old logging road up (yes, I said “up”) to Headwaters western perimeter is much more difficult than is suggested in the uniquely vague Bureau of Land Management’s handout. What the BLM variously describes as a “walk” in one sentence but a walk with “severe” hills to climb in another is six miles up hill to get there and six miles down to get back to the parking area.

“Is it a hard hike or not?” I wondered prior to wagonmaster Cockburn’s directive to assemble at his house in Petrolia no later than 6:30 am Friday morning for what turned out to be the 9:30am departure of our caravan for the Headwaters trail head. Not that I cared, really, because I hike a lot and am prepared for most physical trials short of fire walks and school board meetings. But I remembered that the last trek organized by Cockburn — one of those rare intellectual types with the constitution of an ox — down the Lost Coast was also billed as a “walk.” I had anticipated that time a long but leisurely stroll along an ocean trail running from Petrolia south to the bizarre, marooned suburb of Shelter Cove but turned out to be a three-day, thirty mile slog through the sand, interrupted only by harrowing dashes around slippery boulders half-submerged on ominously fast incoming tides. That adventure took me a week to recover from, but was more than redeemed by the liquid evenings around the camp fire with Al and Joe and Karen Pfaff. And King Range terrain running steeply on down to the Pacific is memorably beautiful. Everyone should do it. Once.

On the steeper parts of the old logging road leading mostly up and up and up to America’s most recent acquisition (aside from Yugoslavia which can’t easily be accessed by day trippers), our expedition saw only ten other hikers; one of them was a young woman by herself who seemed to emerge from her car, shrug into a back pack and truck on by to the trail all in one motion. She was later seen staring wistfully west from the clearcut entry to Headwater ten thousand acres, “saved” from the villainous Charles Hurwitz at half a billion tax dollars. The only other people we saw was a ten-person Bay Area Sierra Club chapter whose average age seemed to be about 65 — a vigorous 65, because it’s not easy to see the trees of this particular forest.

When a government bureaucrat says a walk is a walk, or writes anything in the way of what to expect in the way of energy expenditure to walk across public property, I always assume he or she is assuring the Winnebago People that they too can enjoy an amble through a purple mountain’s majesty, complete with wheelchair access for gran and her poodle. With Headwaters now being managed by BLM, I figured “severe” probably meant at most a couple hundred yards of mild incline of the type the Winnebago People could brag about having alpined as if they’d mastered the climb with ropes and pitons when they wheezed back into their trailers thirty minutes later. On the other hand, it was possible that severe meant severe; occasionally words have precise meaning in these obfuscating times.

We set out from Cockburn’s Petrolia in a three-car caravan. Joe and Karen Pfaff; Cockburn’s young nieces Chloe and Olivia; Dan Weaver and his daughter Liz. Joe and Karen produce Gold Rush Coffee, the west’s best; Chloe is a student at Harvard — she was reading a 900-page art history tome as we stood around waiting for the wagonmaster to provision himself; Olivia is a high school student; Dan Weaver is a former Navy fighter pilot who is now an investigator with the Pacific Justice Center; and Liz lives with her family in Manhattan Beach. The nieces were spending some quality time with Uncle Al in Petrolia. Their home is in Washington, D.C. They didn’t seem at all dragged by spending the day with Uncle Al and his mostly AARP-qualified friends. Dan Weaver and the Pfaffs live in Petrolia, a lively little place with a lot of brainy people for a small population.

We drove up through a thick fog on the ridges above Petrolia (Petrolia itself is oddly free of the wintery summer weather lingering above it) through Ferndale, the eerily tidy little tourist trap, and on east to highway 101. To get to the Headwaters trail you turn off onto Elk River Road only two miles south of the Eureka city limits. Drive east about five miles to the end of semi-rural Elk Creek Road, and there’s the BLM’s parking lot, a work still in progress last Friday, but one complete with heart of redwood comment boxes, a huge porta potty through whose barn-size door a non-ambulatory handicapped person could drive his entire bed and the usual fine print postings the government tacks up everywhere to incite people to vandalism out of outrage at them.

Severe meant severe. Headwaters is not an easy 8-mile roundtrip walk. It’s a hard hike mostly up hill. Fortunately, the day was cool so the gruel factor faced by our group was not as great as the hike would be on a warm day. But it’s not a walk in a park. Round trip the trek to Headwaters is closer to 12 miles by the time you get up to the massive clearcut (maybe five years old and beginning to come back fairly well, to these inexpert eyes anyway) and back down to BLM’s lavish parking lot with its landscaping stone and its a heart of redwood comment box, your shirt is soaked through with sweat and your legs are at least a little rubbery. I knew I’d been on a hike and I hike somewhere for an hour or two every day, hungover or not.

It’s worth it.The logging road through the second and third growth forest on the trudge up to Headwaters is very pretty. In between wheezes we were all able to chat about everything from the latest film version of Lolita — unanimous thumbs down — to thermal imaging, Dan Weaver’s area of expertise in his second career as an investigator on pot cases. Dan also sits on BLM’s advisory board, which seemed to account for the wariness of a pair of BLM employees we met at the top of the hill. The uniformed young woman said she was there every day to monitor the foot traffic in and out of the forest. She cautioned us not to disturb nesting murrelets high atop the redwoods. Weaver said later that old loggers called murrelets “fog larks,” a much better name for the seldom seen sea birds. The youngish man with the young BLM woman, not in uniform, said he was from BLM’s Arcata office and was present to cover over unauthorized trails into the acres of untouched trees forged by “Earth First!ers.” For a tame group of maybe a hundred sensitive and peaceful young people upon whom are fastened a handful of middleage opportunists and miscellaneous nut cases, Earth First! has a reputation for mischief out of all proportion to its mostly helpful deeds.

Headwaters Forest is exactly due east of the decommissioned nuclear power plant on Humboldt Bay just south of Eureka. If you stood on 101 looking east through binoculars you could see Headwaters old trees looming up about 15 miles out.

When we all gathered in the massive clearcut slashed right to the edge of the preserved acres, a gourmet lunch was unpacked and thirty minutes of cynical speculation ensued on the inflated purchase price of the 10,000 acres and how e clearcut was probably the negotiating equivalent of a severed ear mailed off with the ransom demand. “You see what we’ll do to your Headwaters if you don’t cough up $500 mil, you sniveling druids?” Hurwtiz snarls, revving his chainsaw. “O please, Mr. Hurwitz. Don’t kill the trees. We’ll give you anything you want. Darryl Cherney, the Social Security fund, Carl Pope, Fortuna. You name it, Mr. Hurwitz.”

I’d better say that I twice penetrated the actual forest. The first time I walked about twenty feet in by myself and decided that maybe Ron Reagan’s infamous remark that “You’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all” wasn’t as callous as it first seemed. I’ve seen mammoth redwoods right here in Boonville at Catherine Eubanks grove, and I’ve seen the big boys at Hendy Woods and Rockefeller Grove. But the one I might die for is the massive single redwood about a quarter mile from Navarro on out towards the Coast, more majestic somehow in its single solitude, a magic survivor twenty feet from 128.

Commander Cockburn appeared as I had just sat down to enjoy an apple. He demanded I accompany him on a second Headwaters recon. Since he had the flask of scotch, I had to do what he said. We got about thirty feet in this time, wondered where the really big trees were, turned around and headed back for the security of the clearcut and lunch.

As we straggled back down the hill, we passed the mostly elderly chapter of the Bay Area Sierra Club. The older people looked unphased by the hike. One old boy wanted to know if he thought it was wise to move to Eureka. “Are there any hiking clubs around here?” he demanded. An older woman, who had yet to see the purchase, said whatever Headwaters had cost it was worth it. She burbled on about all the wonderful Northcoast activists who had made the deal possible, and wasn’t it wonderful to live in an area where there were so many people who would step up to the plate for the wild things. Our group exchanged embarrassed looks, none of us wanting to shatter the old girl’s fantasy.

I’d do it again, but only with the same group of congenial people. The trees seem to be there, alright, and maybe we won something.

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