Albion Monitor /Features

Faultlines and Cowboy Coffee

by Simone Wilson

Geologists, botanists and hot-shot birdwatchers hike along for a day or two pointing out natural sights

"Just watch your step and keep the ocean on your right"

It's the first day of the Sonoma County Coastwalk and I've just given the all-important directions for getting from one end of Salt Point to the other. Fifteen of us will spend six days ambling along bluffs and beaches, skirting wave-etched cliffs and rocky coves. Along the way we'll pitch our tents on beds of pine needles and sandy stream beds. We'll also spend a night in Fort Ross, left behind in 1841 when Russian colonists gave up their dream of an outpost in sunny California.

The Russians wanted to grow food for their Alaskan colonies but were finally defeated by the foggy climate. (Marauding gophers didn't help either.) Still, if the Russians had explored the coast during weather like this, they might have expected good crops. For six days we're blessed with glorious atypical sunshine along a coast notorious for its socked-in summers. We quickly dig out shorts and sunscreen, shove wool hats to the bottom of our packs, and step out along the cliffs for an intimate look at the North Coast.

Coastwalk has rounded up daily interpreters -- geologists, botanists and hot-shot birdwatchers who hike along for a day or two pointing out natural features. By the end of six days we all recognize harbor seals, lupine and salal, osprey and oystercatchers.

The daily six or eight-mile hikes are vigorous, but we amble along carrying nothing but lunch and windbreakers

If Southern California is famous for its beaches, the North Coast is a realm of pocket coves and sandstone bluffs. Along this route we also zigzag back and forth across the San Andreas Fault -- the ultimate bad-boy of California earthquakes, so we're lucky to have two geophysicists from the US Geological Survey among the registered hikers. Sonoma State University geologist Steve Norwick also hikes along with us one day as we pass the sandstone quarry where builders cut curbstones to ship by schooner for the streets of San Francisco.

"This is social history as well as geologic history," says Norwick, pointing to Stonehenge-like blocks scattered along the coastal terrace. "Gritty sandstone was favored for curbstones," because it was less slippery than other stone. Municipalities in the 19th century were notoriously lackadaisical about cleaning the streets, even though people regularly emptied their chamberpots out second story windows. As a result, says Norwick, the space between the curbs was a disgusting slurry locals referred to as "corporation pie" -- not something people on the sidewalk wanted to slip into.

Later in the week, we'll stop for lunch on a beach south of Fort Ross where the San Andreas Fault emerges from dark cliffs and tumbles into the seabed. Serpentine rock on one side belongs to the North American plate. A nearby granite point is on the Pacific plate, which is moving slowly northwest, says Terry Bruns, one of the two USGS hikers. "If you want to go to Alaska, just hang out on that point for the next 30 million years."

People often bring kids on Coastwalk, but Sonoma is the first hike this summer and school isn't out. This group ranges in age from 30's to 70's -- not an unusual mix for these Walks, where the daily six or eight-mile hikes are vigorous but not technical. Gear is shuttled ahead to next campsite, so we amble along carrying nothing but lunch and windbreakers.

Jump-starting the morning with high-octane cowboy coffee

Coastwalk is also a venue for rediscovering the leisurely art of conversation. Walk for six days with a dozen other people, and you have time to swap travel stories, tell jokes, reinvent your life story and trade tips about how to keep deer out a garden. If you're tired of company, you can always speed up or dawdle and so hike in relative solitude.

Coastwalk started in Sonoma County in 1983, as a seven-day hike to check out where there was (and was not) public access to the shore. Sonoma was a logical place for Coastwalk to get a footing: Roughly 70 percent of the Sonoma's 55-mile shoreline has been set aside for the public, starting with Sonoma Coast State Beach in 1934.

Everyone had such a good time they repeated the hike in '84, then started adding more counties to what became an annual event. Now there's a five- or six-day hike in each of the state's 15 coastal counties. Anyone in reasonable shape can sign up for any or all of them. This summer a core group of 13 hikers is also attempting a one-time, 101-day hike along the entire California coastline. They started south from the Oregon border June 1, hoping to reach Mexico in September.

Here comes a shameless plug: Coastwalk is a bargain because it's a volunteer effort. Comparable adventure travel excursions cost more than Coastwalk's $35 a day (less for students & kids), especially with dinner thrown in. The organization has one (poorly-paid) employee, statewide coordinator Richard Nichols of Sebastopol. The rest of the help -- cooks, coordinators, nature interpreters, hike leaders, pitch in for free.

Coastwalkers bring fixings for breakfast and lunch. At the end of the day, volunteer cooks spread out a meal -- we've had chicken curry, pasta, even abalone appetizers picked that afternoon by Tim Reed, over-all coordinator of the Sonoma walk.

At night we shut the chuckwagon up tight. Every morning it's marked with the prints of frustrated raccoons who padded around on top but couldn't work the metal catches. The first order of business is jump-starting the morning with high-octane cowboy coffee. We boil water, toss in a few cups of grind and make jokes about Starbuck's until coffee whooshes over the rim of the battered pot.

Well stoked with coffee, we hit the bluffs and head south, the ocean on our right.

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Cotati writer Simone Wilson is a former Coastwalk board member and has been participating in the event since 1984.

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Albion Monitor June, 1996 (

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