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Bears and Giant Redwoods on the road to Mendocino
Mendocino, Northern California

by Sarah Shuckburgh

We woke to the honking barks of sea-lions and the smell of coffee and freshly baked muffins. Pale mist drifted in from the ocean, revealing patches of blue sky and glinting green-grey waves. We had to get dressed in a hurry - breakfast at the cliff-top Lost Whale Inn is served at 8.30 sharp, and we didn’t want to miss the steaming fruit cobbler.

After driving for ten days in northern California’s scorching hinterland, my husband and I welcomed the clouds, fog and soothing chill of this rugged coastline. Trinity county is not the place for sun-bathing or swimming. The ocean is cold, grey and dangerous, with strong currents, sudden underwater hollows, and rogue waves which knock you off your feet. Banks of mist blot out views, and bring eerie silence. But this sparsely populated, top-left-hand corner of California offers a unique mix of beauty, tranquillity, culture, comfort - and park trails.

Until two weeks ago, I assumed that a trail through a park meant following Princess Diana arrows through Kensington Gardens, but trails and parks mean something different in America. Northern California’s parks preserve some of the world’s most spectacular and unspoilt landscapes, and hikers share the wilderness paths with mountain lions and bears.

The mist lifted as we drove to Patrick’s Point State Park, near Trinidad - a dramatic area of coastal bluffs and headlands, ancient redwood forest, and sheltered meadows grazed by herds of elk. We strode out to Wedding Point, a bleak, beautiful promontory surrounded by churning ocean. On jutting rocks beneath us, auburn-coated sea-lions flopped lazily, as squawking gulls circled overhead, and harbour seals bobbed in the surf. Above the tideline, turkey vultures pecked greedily at a sea-lion corpse. For generations of Yurok Native Americans, this coast provided such plentiful food that a unique social system developed, with luxuries and privileges. In a hazy forest clearing, we came upon a traditional Yurok village, reconstructed from hand-hewn redwood planks. A sea-faring canoe, hollowed from a single redwood trunk, took two men a year to make, using elk antlers. We squeezed through a small circular entrance to a dark, earth-floored family house, and pondered the relativity of luxury and privilege.

At the Humboldt Lagoons State Park, sky, lake and beach were washed in shades of palest grey, like an under-exposed, blurred photograph. We trudged along a narrow spit of grey shingle dotted with cornflowers, daisies and clumps of silvery grass shivering in the breeze. To our left, pelicans and ospreys glided over the freshwater lagoon, its pale ripples smudging into the grey-green of distant misty banks. To our right, grey waves thundered on to the pebbles, discarding hunks of knarled driftwood, smoothed by the waves, and bleached as pale as bone.

Until 1850, this foggy coast was forested with two million acres of redwoods. These enormous trees grow nowhere else in the world and can live for 2000 years - but today only 3% of the original old-growth trees are left. We drove to the Redwoods National Park, where ancient trees grow to record heights on rich alluvial soil. Leaving the car, we followed sun-dappled trails between giant trunks, the rust-coloured bark deeply fissured, as if hung with lengths of twisted rope. A hundred yards up, pale green feathery leaves formed a translucent canopy. At our feet, bright yellow banana slugs, like slimy peeled bananas, inched through the leaf litter.

California’s history is short but dramatic - until 1846, it was part of Mexico. Within weeks of becoming the 31st state of the Union, gold had been discovered, and logging began. Today, the Californian economy is the fifth richest in the world - but the state coffers are empty, and park rangers are worried about funding. “The ‘Governator’ wants to sell off our state parks”, they told us.

The next day, we drove south, passing redwoods with burnt-out trunks which you can drive through, or fitted with doors and windows. In the Humboldt Redwood State Park, a narrow Avenue of the Giants forms a 32-mile leafy tunnel. Chipmunks scampered across the road as we stopped to walk into sunny glades of ferns and fallen logs. The forest seemed to soak up sound, but the silence was broken by ominous creaks as the shallow-rooted trunks swayed with the breeze.

Fog was wafting in as we followed Highway 1 back to the ocean. We caught brief glimpses of grey waves and craggy headlands as we wiggled slowly round narrow hairpin bends to the quaint little town of Mendocino. We were staying in the Joshua Grindle Inn, a whitewashed clapboard farmhouse built in 1879 - and today an elegant and luxurious B&B. As luck would have it, we arrived during Mendocino’s annual music festival. After an early supper of red snapper and mash, we joined locals in a marquee on the headland, and listened to Dvorak’s New World symphony as wind rustled the canvas, and darkness fell.

Mendocino’s headlands of tangled, shoulder-high wild flowers, tiny coves and jagged cliffs, form another state park. The next morning, as the mist lifted, birders were staring through long lenses at rare murrelets - robin-sized seabirds which nest in ancient inland forests. Squadrons of pelicans flew in, joining hundreds of other birds on small rocky islands. At my feet, the comical face of a gopher popped out of its grassy hole and we peered at each other in surprise.

At midday, we hired a canoe and paddled, with the tide, up Mendocino’s peaceful Big River - a totally undeveloped estuary eight miles long, and a state park since 2002. We floated between salt-marsh wetlands and rocky, forested hillsides, as vultures wheeled overhead and dozens of smaller birds darted across the water. We ate our picnic lunch, and when the tide turned, drifted blissfully downstream towards the sandy beach.

We had time to visit one more park. Jughandle, just north of Mendocino, protects a unique ecological staircase formed over 500,000 years as the sea-level changed. Next to some complicated geological diagrams, an amusing notice warned: ‘If you meet a mountain lion, Don’t Run; Look Aggressive; Fight Back Vigorously‘. We followed an undulating three-mile trail from coastal flower meadows, through windswept scrub, down to a sheltered creek with ferns and deciduous woodland, and on through relatively youthful redwood trees - only a century old and 100 feet tall - to a strange pygmy forest of stunted bonzai-style pines. As we turned for home, shafts of late afternoon sunlight filtered between slender trunks of the young redwoods. It was mesmerisingly beautiful and eerily silent, apart from the thud of our feet on the sandy path.

A creak startled me. Was a ‘widow-maker’ branch about to fall? Were mountain lions watching us? What about rattlesnakes?

Suddenly, on the track 10 feet ahead of us, we saw a bear. It stared at us. We stared back. My heart thumping, I wished I’d read the notice-board more carefully. Should we run or stand still? Look aggressive or polite? Fight vigorously or act dead? Before I could decide, the bear stepped gracefully off the trail. We watched its glossy black back glide behind a fallen redwood trunk, and it was gone.

That evening the choir sang Vivaldi in the big white tent. In the interval we watched the sun fall from a pink sky into the sea, as waves splashed on to the headlands. Later, we walked back to the inn through deserted, dimly-lit roads, as frogs croaked loudly from beneath a wooden water tower. The sky was clear, inky black and scattered with stars - and somewhere in the darkness was our bear, following a park trail through the redwoods.

First published by the Telegraph

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