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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   Photograph by Corey Rich

Photo: Surfers on California's Lost Coast
THREE'S A CROWD: Surfers on their way back from "Ghost Point," a word-of-mouth wave far from the masses.

We'd been walking for hours on that vast Northern California beach, our feet sinking in the sand under our heavy packs and a 20-knot headwind pushing us backward, blowing our surfboards around like sails, when I finally saw them: three vague forms shimmering in the sun-dappled distance, rising and falling with the undulating dunes.

Photo Gallery  |  Adventure Guide: Lost Coast, California

Hemmed between crumbling sandstone sea cliffs and pounding Pacific groundswell, those three hulking men grew steadily closer, carrying their own surfboards on their backs like broad white spears. Stowing my pen and notebook in my pack, so as not to be taken for a journalist, I told my friends Jeff Daniel and Corey Rich to hide their cameras, and hide them well, right away. Leave no visible sign of even a camera bag.

Before we set out, I made a promise to several good surf buddies—all of them furious that I wanted to write about the secret wilderness surf break that lay somewhere out here, and all of them unwilling to come along—that I wouldn't give away the wave's precise name or location. They didn't buy it; a true surfer, they said, simply never writes about certain breaks. A pack of locals would be even more skeptical. Out here in the West Coast's equivalent of Appalachia, in the heart of dope-growing country where rednecks and back-to-the-land hippies have crossbred a toxic hybrid culture that's equal parts New Age crystal worship and alcohol-fueled xenophobia, I didn't want to guess how a confrontation would play out.

Just getting here had been exciting enough: five hours north from San Francisco on U.S. Route 101, plus an hour on a nausea-inducing coastal-access road, only to end up at an isolated fishing village where we abandoned the car and started walking. In a well-apportioned bait shack, where we stopped in for directions, we saw photos of a great white shark—bristling rows of bloody teeth and all—on the deck of a local trawler. ("Hey, at least that one's dead," said the bait-shack owner.) Next, while we were packing our sleeping bags, wet suits, surf-fishing rigs, and abalone-diving gear (I like to eat off the land), a young father approached us, visibly anxious, with his little boy, wondering if we'd seen his wife. He gave us a precise physical description of her and said she'd walked off hours earlier. The man gazed up the beach in the direction we intended to go and told us there were big currents and dangerous riptides. "I'm really worried about her," he said.

Then, as we began our march out of town, we passed an old Styrofoam fishing buoy that was carved and painted into a ghastly sort of totem pole and posted like a warning on the beach. A nearby stream poured from the mountains into the waves, and a massive driftwood log, uprooted and stripped of limbs, had formed a natural bridge. The first in our group, Jeff, climbed onto the span and led us across the symbolic threshold into the so-called Lost Coast, a stretch of California so rugged that when highway engineers arrived in the area to build State Route 1, they simply gave up and ran the road 30 miles  (48 kilometers) inland. The seashore was left to black bears, a herd of Roosevelt elk, and solitary bobcats. From the bridge the beach ran unbroken into the misty distance and we hiked onward, hour after hour, that wind ever trying to send us back to where we'd been. Around each bend, we studied the size and shape of the waves ahead, wondering if we'd found the place I'll call "Ghost Point." The only people we saw—before that band of three surfers appeared—were a heavily involved couple: a tattooed man in black jeans and a black T-shirt, cavorting with the wife of the worried man from the parking lot. (He was worried, needless to say, about the wrong thing.)

So the last thing I wanted in the loneliness of all that open space was to get singled out as a traitor by the heavyset middle-aged men who had stopped stock-still before us. Work boots on their feet, board shorts on their pale legs, the men stood scowling, a scarcely concealed contempt behind their wraparound sunglasses.

"Get any waves up there?" I asked, trying to smile.

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Photo Gallery  |  Adventure Guide: Lost Coast, 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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