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Issue Five / Photo Essay
“We settled in quickly, spilling our belongings onto bunks like dogs marking territory”

The Lost Coast

Words by Nicholas J. Koch Photographs by Alex Farnum

A group of friends travels to the Lost Coast—an undeveloped section of the California North Coast—for remote surfing and campfire cooking.

As our SUV skidded along the muddy clay road toward the trailhead, the rain fell violently, blindingly, our car shuddering as storm winds swept over us from the Pacific Ocean. Our surfboards were sardined in the cargo bed behind us, flanked on either side by rattling bottles of beer and camping equipment. I scanned the radio dial; a voice crackled through the speakers, announcing that the storm was expected to last two days—the exact length of our trip.

We had organized the trip far in advance, knowing we were risking bad weather. As the trip neared, we realized we were heading straight into the middle of a furious coastal storm. Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, though, the four of us were in high spirits; this was the first time in months we had gotten away from our apartments and our neighborhoods and our wearying jobs. The prospect of getting a little soggy wasn’t about to sour our moods. We pulled into what we hoped was a parking spot and filed out of the vehicle, the rain relenting to a manageable drizzle as we prepared for the modest two-mile hike to our campsite. We were in the heart of California’s Lost Coast, and, with my friends guiding me, I—a novice outdoorsman—was about to fumble my way through my first surf trip.

The Lost Coast is a nearly 100-mile swatch of coastline five hours north of San Francisco, a mecca for hikers, campers and surfers. When I moved to San Francisco in the spring of 2007, I did so in a fit of whimsy, abandoning the piss and vinegar of New York for the promise of California’s sunny, adventurous lifestyle. I’d had visions of Pacific-side hikes and leisurely bike tours through wine country, and perhaps even a trip or two through the storied California desert. But, as often happens, the demands of daily life interrupted those plans. Not long after signing my first lease, I was foisted into a management position at my job, which, along with my twice-weekly stints as a bartender, swallowed up all my free time.

And just like that, five frenetic years somehow blurred by me, my initial reveries of outdoor exploration lost in the chaotic shuffle of an unforgiving work life. As 2012 rounded the bend, I found myself disheartened, repeating old resolutions to work less and frolic more, resolutions that I only half believed I would uphold. And then, as my friends and I were enjoying the sun of an unusually warm February afternoon, they mentioned an overnight surf-camping trip planned for April. I had never so much as held a surfboard, but they invited me along all the same. I agreed without hesitation.

Now we swiftly made our way along the rocky trail that led to the cabin, surfboards tucked underneath our arms and packs jangling on our backs. By then the sprinkling rain had stopped, and the sun was peeking through the grumbling storm clouds as if to welcome us. Before long, our cabin rose into view, perched at the top of a verdant hill overlooking the Pacific. It looked more like an early-century barn or granary than it did a campsite. It was a stately vision of deteriorating Americana whose wooden slats were faded gray from decades of sunlight and salty ocean winds. Inside, the sleeping area was small but beautiful: two sets of wooden bunks sat on either side of the room, and a west-facing window afforded us a view of the heaving Pacific Ocean. We settled in quickly, spilling our belongings onto bunks like dogs marking territory, and began stepping into our wetsuits almost in unison, all of us eager to take advantage of the break in the foul weather. We were ready to see what kind of surfing the Lost Coast had to offer.

The path leading from the cabin to the water snaked picturesquely through the seaside hills. It dropped steeply from the campsite’s bluff, through a copse of eucalyptus trees, and finally onto the narrow, rocky beach. We waded into the ocean one after the other; I, the least experienced by a large margin, brought up the rear, my surfboard leashed awkwardly to my ankle. The water was cold, but not uncomfortably so. The Lost Coast, however, is no bunny hill—the waves were choppy, frenetic, upset by the intermittent storm. I paddled about halfway between the stony shore and where my friends had clustered, content to simply bob in the waves and watch them surf.

To witness a seasoned surfer catch a respectable wave, gracefully maneuvering the surfboard as if it were an extension of his own body, as if the curling drums of water underneath him were something he could control—to see that happen is a thing of beauty. Every fluid movement represents years of devoted practice, years of the trials and errors and injuries and improvements and defeats that simply come with the territory when learning to do something you love.

I tried once or twice to catch a satisfactory little tumbler, but I lacked the grace of my comrades; I only succeeded a handful of times in catching anything resembling a wave, and, even then, I was never able to rise from my belly. But as I was out there drifting on my stomach, partially immersed in the brisk northern Californian ocean, my friends’ voices wafting to me over the waves, I couldn’t think of any other place I’d rather be.

We arrived back at the cabin wet and chilled and tired and tremendously happy. The storm, in all its previous ferocity, seemed to have abated, even if just temporarily. We leaned our boards against the warping planks of the cabin’s walls and clambered back inside, the sunshine warm on our backs, and we carefully peeled off our wetsuits and rubbed our numb hands together. Once we were all clothed and dried, I pulled out the cornbread batter I’d brought with me, and, taking my cue, each of my friends followed suit. One by one, their respective contributions to the family meal appeared—lamb chops, dandelion greens, the makings of a chickpea stew and an impressive array of alcohol. I stepped out of the cabin to start the fire as everyone set to preparing supper; I could hear the others sharing stories of surfing triumphs and calamities while they chopped and sliced.

As I stood next to that ancient cabin, the unexpected sunshine waning into dusk, I thought of how I got to this rocky seaside trail, of those blurry years that whisked by. I smiled to myself as I peered out to the Pacific, the sounds of clinking bottles and laughter floating out of the cabin and into the salty coastal air, like waves.

Suggested dinner menu

Dutch Oven Corn Bread
Baked over hot coals

Camping Chops
Marinated during hike into camp

Spicy Bitter Dandelion Greens
Harvested wild

Grão-de-Bico
Portuguese-style chickpeas

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