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California's Lost Coast
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Surfing the Perfect Break on California's Lost Coast
Somewhere north of San Francisco, on the longest stretch of wilderness beach in the lower 48, there is a near-mythical surf break—a secret in a sport of secrets.
To say any more could be treason.
Text by Dan Duane  

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Photo Gallery  |  Adventure Guide: Lost Coast, California

Adventure Travel in California

The phrase "Lost Coast" is a loose one, referring to some 80 miles (129 kilometers) of Pacific shoreline where the North American tectonic plate grinds against two others offshore to create a landscape so riven with relief that most roads, not just Route 1, run well inland. The result is the largest stretch of pristine seashore in the contiguous United States and a rarely visited sanctuary in this overpopulated state. For the most part the Lost Coast is defined by two large government holdings. At the southern edge, the 7,800-acre (3,157-hectare) Sinkyone Wilderness State Park is a morass of sheer headlands and isolated coves, where the Sinkyone and Mattole Indians long had permanent villages for fishing, spearhunting, and gathering shellfish; where famous Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Merton once considered building a monastery; and where Jack London detoured in a horse-drawn carriage with his wife.

North of the Sinkyone, clear past the mouth of the Mattole River, reach the 35 coastal miles (56 miles) of the 64,000-acre (25,900-hectare) King Range National Conservation Area. The region is the Bureau of Land Management's largest West Coast tract outside of Alaska and the true core of the Lost Coast. Currently under congressional consideration to become a federally protected wilderness area (the relevant bill passed the Senate in July 2005), the King Range boasts a dozen peaks above 2,000 feet (610 meters) and King Peak itself thrusts from sea level to 4,088 feet ( (1,246 meters) in the space of three miles (5 kilometers)—the most dramatic rise on the coastline of the continental U.S. It's a paradise for backpackers who come for the novelty of wandering a wilderness shore and camping next to waterfalls on the sand, among cougars, bears, and coyotes. Surf casters fish off black-shale beaches for wily perch, mushroom foragers hunt for chanterelles on the shadowy forest floor, and abalone divers scour the offshore reefs for oversize shellfish so prized they sell for up to a hundred dollars apiece on the San Francisco black market.

Then, of course, there are the surfers—more than a dozen had hiked in the day before we did just to catch a swell that had been forecast on the Internet. Others had gone in on powerboats and Jet Skis and one had even come in on an airplane, landing on a dirt airstrip at one of the last private inholdings in the area. The parcel, set right at Ghost Point, has passed since the 1980s from a surfer to a die-hard environmentalist and back again. It is one of the most exclusive surf properties in California, grandfathered in to any potential wilderness, and to those who know it exists, it serves as a symbol of surfing's central dream: an unsullied place, far from the masses, its precise location largely unknown.

But now, as we hiked in, all those surfers who'd shown up the day before were walking back out. The only reason those three men stopped wasn't (thankfully) to hassle us; it was just to rub in the fact that we'd missed some great waves. By the time we parted ways, the sun was well down in the sky. I knew that the next few miles (5 kilometers) of beach, which were backed by particularly steep cliffs, were impassable at high tide, so we picked up the pace, trotting as best we could through the deep and yielding sand and watching anxiously as the waves rushed ever closer to the rock wall. Rounding a headland, we came to a place where the mountains pull back from the beach and a river drains across a broad alluvial plain rich with grassy meadows and groves of trees. Quite sure we were getting close, we began passing oddly shaped driftwood forts, the lean-tos of weekend nomads interested only in rudimentary shelter on wave-hunting trips.

Many sports have their secret spots—fishing has its hallowed trout holes, climbing has its jealously guarded crags—but good waves are in such short supply that surfers have made secrecy into a kind of cultural fetish: If you want to be a respected member of the tribe, you simply never tell anyone exactly where you surf. No one wants crashers at their party. To walk into a surf shop and ask directions to the local break is the fastest way to brand yourself a clueless bonehead, precisely because no true surfer gives an honest answer to that question.

Applied to a rare and special place such as Ghost Point—it may be the only true wilderness point break in the lower 48—this obsession takes on a feverish quality. A doctor friend of mine, for example, on the morning I left my home in San Francisco, shoved his face much too close to mine and rejected my promise not to give away the precise coordinates.

"You'll still increase the impact a thousand times," he said with absolute certainty. An oncologist and renowned big-wave rider, this friend is no surf-addled rube; he's a considerate, compassionate, and thoughtful man. But to him, the very possibility of my compromising Ghost Point's secrecy was a personal betrayal. Another doctor friend, who had not been to Ghost Point in years and had no plans to go, felt the same way.

Wading the largest branch of the river, I wondered what exactly this was all about. Clearly none of my friends were at risk of suffering from a crowded Ghost Point session anytime soon. It's awfully remote and laborious to get to. And with at least 30 surfers there the day before, all rushing in as soon as a good swell was predicted, the place was at best an open secret. So what was it? A form of elitism? Protecting one's sense of membership in an exclusive club? And what then of my own promise to respect that secrecy?

On the beach a forest fire had ripped through, scorching many of the largest driftwood logs, but the place still had a unique pastoral beauty. When we finally saw Ghost Point itself, a long finger of land jutting into the sea, it took my breath away. A single-engine plane still sat parked on that airstrip, near a lovely cabin. Only one surfer floated in the water, as if waiting for me. I tore off my clothes as fast as I could. Tugging on my four-millimeter wet suit, booties, gloves, and hood, I sprinted to the water's edge and quickly paddled out to sea.

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Photo Gallery  |  Adventure Guide: Lost Coast, California

Adventure Travel in California

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Adventure's September 2006 issue features 31 amazing adventure towns; chaos at the top of Mount Everest; an inside look at surfing California's Lost Coast; 11 fall weekend getaways near you; the best high-tech footwear, world class adventure travel; hiking the Alps, and more!

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