Copyright © 1992-2013
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
King Peak Backpack
King Range National Conservation Area
Photos by the
Author and Barbara Lane Except Where Noted
Hail ping-ponged off my windshield like swollen
molecules of an angry gas trying to get in at me. I crouched
in the passenger seat where I had taken refuge, one boot on,
the other still clutched in my dripping fingers. Outside the
wind lashed the poncho I had hastily yanked over my backpack.
"Maybe this isn't such a good idea,"
I muttered to myself.
I had spent most of the morning
jarring along gravel mountain roads beneath a mosaic of cold
blue sky and blindingly white thunderheads bruised underneath
with dull foggy drizzle, winding inexorably into the heart of
Range National Conservation Area. This stretch of the coast
was once inhabited by the Sinkyone and Mattole Indians, the
government brochure informed me. The so-called "Lost Coast"
had been one of the most heavily populated Native American regions
in North America for 8000 years before the white man arrived.
Maybe so, but I hadn't seen a soul since I entered the area
more than three hours ago.
At the general store in Honeydew a large, friendly
fellow in worn coveralls warned me that the weather forecast
on his CB radio had turned ugly. Ordinarily a little rain wouldn't
put me off. After all, I spent good money on Goretex rainwear,
a urethane-coated tarp, waterproof stuff sacks, and a state-of-the-art,
four-season tent, all of which were packed slickly beneath the
whipping poncho outside. I had expected a few scattered showers
for the rest of the day, but nothing like this.
Lost Coast is different. King Peak, at just over four thousand
feet the highest point on the coast of the continental United
States, manhandles the moist Pacific air, squeezes it against
the sky, and wrings out an unholy amount of precipitation. Over
200 inches of rain fall annually in some places. And once it
starts, it can go on for days. Long enough for condensation
to wilt the loftiest down sleeping bag and clinical gloom to
settle into a pilgrim's heart.
As I contemplated my empty boot, wondering if
I was really into this much pain, the hail gradually became
a sputtering drizzle, then stopped. Slowly the sky brightened.
A dazzling sun burst from behind the clouds, a rainbow flared,
and the wet gravel steamed contentedly. I slipped on my boot,
snugged down the laces, and stepped out into the hot May sun.
Before me lay a dripping rain-forest of madrone,
oak, and towering Douglas fir. A thick understory of blackberry,
huckleberry, and salal was trying to choke the madrones, and
a whole forest of brazen flesh-like limbs writhed in frozen
agony. Moss clung to every available trunk, and sword ferns
held what little ground remained. No cross-country work possible
here, I concluded. Either stick to the trails or be eaten alive
by the foliage.
The Lightning Trail is the shortest route to the
summit. I soon discovered that the trail hadn't earned its name
for speed, but because it zig-zagged straight down out of the
sky. New thorny shoots grew into the narrow path like clawed
hands, snagging my pack, and droplets showered me as I broke
free. Unseen in the canopy a jay rudely decried my intrusion.
The sun had disappeared, and low clouds brooded overhead, obscuring
the upper slopes of the mountain. The air grew heavy, and I
realized I was in a race to get my tent pitched before the next
downpour. My shirt, soaked with sweat, clung cold against my
skin. An icy headwind greeted me as I crested a ridge at 3500
feet and swung south into a steep canyon curving toward the
With numb fingers I managed to erect my tent on
a rocky flat wedged between a swift stream and sheer slope in
a stand of Douglas fir. The canyon was a wind tunnel, funneling
the cold northwest gusts down from the peak into my campsite.
I gathered some damp wood and on my second try the fire caught.
Why was it so cold? It shouldn't be this cold in May. My thermometer
read 38 degrees and dropping.
Hunched over the fire with my back to the wind,
I ate freeze-dried shrimp creole and a fistfull of cashews.
After dinner, I set out for the summit. The trail cut through
the thick manzanita of the upper slopes and looped up to King
Peak. The sky had cleared enough for a cheap-seats view. Just
below the bottoms of the broken clouds the mountains rose on
both sides of the Mattole valley like crumpled wads of fuzzy
paper. Four thousand feet below the Pacific pounded the Lost
Coast. It looked a lot closer. The icy northwest wind quickly
drove me back down to camp. But at least it wasn't raining.
I slipped into my down bag confident things would be better
in the morning.
Sometime during the night I was awakened by the
"tat . . . tat" of a loose line blowing against the
tent membrane. No, not a line, water dripping, probably condensation
off the trees. I went back to sleep and dreamed of grinning
savages romping through a field of wildflowers. When I awoke
with first light, the dripping had become constant. I crept
out of the tent. It was snowing. Snowing!
snow metamorphosed into a steady drizzle. I resolved to outlast
it. I resurrected my campfire and ate a dispirited breakfast.
The drizzle became a driving rain. Smoke from my fire blew with
increasing urgency in the wrong direction--east--as if sucked
out to sea by the low-pressure inhalations of a looming beast.
This was to be no passing sprinkle; the real bad-news weather
was still hanging off-shore. I was cold, wet, irritable, and
losing conviction. My spirit mildewed. After four hours of enduring
the persistent wind-driven rain, the thought of my water-tight
vehicle waiting an hour below at the trailhead, with its forced-air
heat, reclining bucket seats, and Dolby stereo, became too much
for me. I called it quits.
I slogged down the steep trail carrying an extra
ten pounds of water in my soaked gear. How, I wondered, did
the Sinkyone Indians manage? They had no GoreTex, no nylon taffeta,
no polyurethane coatings, no high-tec walking boots, no geodesic
four-season shelters. They couldn't simply add water to a freeze-dried
dinner. If they didn't catch it, find it, grow it, or dig it
up, they didn't eat. Yet they and their ancestors survived here
for 8000 years. How did they do it?
The Sinkyone Indians had no other choice. It was
this or nothing at all. No automobiles waited below at their
trailhead. Rather, this environment chose them. The rain-soaked
Lost Coast was one more of the countless harsh anvils upon which
evolution forged the human being. Perhaps not as harsh as the
Eskimo's arctic tundra or the stark slopes of the Sherpas' Everest,
but harsh enough for me to throw in the towel for the weekend
and run home to my color tv, electric blanket, and freezer full
of Haagen-Dazs ice cream.
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