Albion Monitor /Features

Up the Cliff Without a Machete

by Simone Wilson

"We're out there to see how much of this trail exists, and we're finding it out in painful ways," says Coastwalk founder Tom McFarling.

He was out on the shore for 10 days with a dozen walkers commited to hiking the entire California Coastal Trail. They're following the state shoreline wherever that trail exists -- and even where it doesn't. The Oregon-to-Mexico hike is designed to promote a continuous trail along California's tidelands.

What they needed even more than a cell phone was a machete

One of the most grueling tests of the trail came in mid-June, when the hikers met the waves at False Cape in Humboldt County.

"We were told not to try go south from Ferndale past False Cape -- that the tides were tricky," says McFarling. "If you don't hit it just right you get caught in the tide." But an advance party had pre-hiked the cape a few weeks earlier, "and they sailed on through without any problem," says McFarling.

In a departure of their usual direction, the group decided to march south to north for this one day, hoping to scoot past the cape at low tide. But they missed their starting time, McFarling says sheepishly, victims of his own faulty alarm clock. By the time they reached the cape, the waves were nearly over their heads, and the soggy hikers went vertical, retreating up a mud slide to escape the surf.

At this point Richard Nichols, Coastwalk's statewide coordinator, discovered his cellular phone wasn't picking anything up. Bill Kortum, one of the founders of the coastal access movement, hiked to the upper edge of the cliff and reported dense coastal scrub on top. What they needed even more than a cell phone was a machete.

Dead trees on the slope provided firewood, and while the hikers dried their clothes they assessed the unappealing options: hacking through brush on the bluff, going back down and getting washed away, or shivering on the cliff until the next low tide. Al LePage, the group's lone Oregonian, pulled his harmonica from a shirt pocket and played the Stuck on the Edge of the Cliff Blues.

Eventually Kortum, a retired Petaluma veterinarian who turned 69 on the trip, went back up and powered his way through the cliff-top brambles, breaking a trail.

"He pretty much beat a path through the brush," says McFarling. "He's so big and strong he just ripped his way through." The group traced a ridge to another headland, then made their way back down to the beach and thence to Ferndale, with its rewards of laundry, showers and pizza.

Coastwalk, which began with a 1983 hike on the Sonoma Coast, now holds an annual five- or six-day hike in each of the state's 15 coastal counties. On those short hikes, the group sometimes shuttles past an inaccessible stretches, but this bunch isn't skipping a single cove.

"It's 1,100 miles and we're trying to do every step," says McFarling.

"We're not cheating." Of the twelve hikers, six will head home for long showers and a good rest in mid-July, when the group reaches San Francisco. They'll be replaced by a contingent hiking from the bay to Mexico.

Another six are doing the entire walk, Oregon to Mexico. Of the core hikers doing the whole thing, none has missed a day on the trail. What they haven't experienced is the leisurely pace more common to the regular summer Coastwalks.

"There isn't the spontaneity to stop and look at the scenery," admits Marilyn Goeller of Walnut, a long-time Coastwalker who's part of the core group. "I didn't realize it would be like work." The hassle of putting up a tent and taking it down every morning has turned her into an "outdoor minimalist," content with just sleeping bag, Thermarest, and the ground underneath.

"This crew is amazing -- they're doing 12 to 13 miles a day, with one day off a week." says McFarling. Neither distance nor dirt will derail this bunch. "They even did nine days in a row without a break, and without showers," adds McFarling. "They're committed."

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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 July, 1996 (

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