It began with a shipwreck. It led to the discovery of giant trees; green gold in an era when the Bay Area was booming. Saw mills sprung up in every cove and rivermouth. Rails replaced oxen and deeper into the Redwood forests companies went. For over a hundred years timber defined this area. In fact, it was dubbed the "Redwood Empire" for that very reason.
North of San Francisco was mysterious. It was extremely rugged. It was often stormy, or foggy, or just generally shitty. The people who lived and worked here were a reflection of their environment: blue collar, rough-and-tumble and able to thrive in adversity. This life defined California's north coast.
I cannot tell you exactly when the first surfers paddled out up here. Rumor has it that some intrepid individuals were riding waves as far back as the 1930s. After the war and into the '50s, a few surf clubs were established by Fort Bragg and Mendocino locals. From what I have been told, by the time the '60s rolled around, the Mendo scene resembled that of their Southern California counterparts. Did we have our own Gidget? It wouldn't surprise me. I read somewhere that the 1970s found some enlisted personnel riding one of the better waves in the area, and I guess they were always looking for folks to paddle out with them.
Over time since, a thin gray line developed beyond the Golden Gate Bridge; more so north of the Russian River. Many surfers, having grown tired of the escalating crowds down south, followed the back-to-the-land movement and ventured up here. At some spots, localism became a very real thing. The surf media was frowned upon and incredible stories circulated about how imperfect the waves were, how bad the storms were, how gnarly the locals were; both in and out of the water. Oh yeah, and did we mention the size of our sharks?
This, of course, was all before my introduction to surfing.
You see, I was an inland child; living an hour away from the mighty North Pacific with my mother who was a single parent. From my earliest memories though, I was drawn to the sea. I cherished every opportunity to put my feet in the sand, and was often saddened when it was time to leave.
I learned to bodysurf by accident when I was eight-years-old. It was an overcast day and the ocean was as smooth as glass. Playful little swells turned into equally playful little waves over a summertime sandbar. I happened to be playing too close to the water's edge and got soaked. Much to my mother's dismay, I jumped in the water. There was no current and I was a fairly bold swimmer, so my mom, ever watchful, let me play in the surf.
With coast trips being a bit of a luxury for my mom and I, a few years would pass before I got to play in the water again. My friend's parents invited me to go camping on the coast with them. Never one to pass up a chance to visit the sea, I asked my mom and she said yes. I remember on our first afternoon at Wages Creek, after exploring the entire campground and the creek itself, one of my friends had the idea to go bodysurfing. The rest of us were game, so we all ran to the ocean and jumped in. The water was cold but we didn't care! And if I recall, the four of us spent nearly half an hour riding waves before, one by one, we made our way back to shore. I think I might have been the last to come in. I was damn cold, that's for sure, but never felt more alive than at that moment!
Around that time, I found skateboarding and fully involved myself in it. By the time I was 13, my family moved to a neighborhood on the east side of Willits. Across the street from us, there was a kid who skated. His step-father was a carpenter, so the kid and his friends were always building ramps, and from that point on, I fell into that scene as well.
Surfing itself was a relatively foreign concept to me. I had seen Bud Surf Tour competitions on television, but as far as I knew, nobody surfed up here in these waters; at least I'd never paid attention to such things. One day I was home sick from school, half passed out on the couch when the cult classic "North Shore" began playing on KTVU's afternoon matinee. As hokey as it sounds, because of that film, a switch flipped inside my head. All of a sudden surfing was the most fascinating thing on the planet. I wanted to try it. I HAD to try it! This was my sophomore year.
That November I convinced two of my buddies to join me in a wave riding experience. Since all three of us skated, the idea behind riding waves seemed relatively simple to grasp. I called Subsurface Progression to check on rental prices, we set a date and immediately began to hype ourselves up. The more it was discussed, the easier surfing sounded, and by the end of the day we were sure that we'd be rippers in no time!
It was a chilly December morning. The skies were clear and there was excitement in the air. I picked up my friends early and we headed off over Highway 20, rambling on and on about surfing.
"Where are we going to go?"
"Is it really as easy as it looks?"
"I'm going to take off on the biggest goddamn wave I can find!"
The dive shop's surfboard rentals were relics; boards from the '80s that had seen better days. We did find two that were in relatively water-tight shape though. The wetsuits didn't fare much better. After scavenging through the pile, the best we could come up with were a pair of mismatched booties and two tattered suits that would somehow have to fit three people of varying sizes and shapes.
It didn't matter though. We were going surfing!
Had we done a little more research, or even asked some questions at the dive shop, the three of us may have wound up driving south to a sheltered cove where we could learn how to surf the proper way. With the mindset that surfing was like skateboarding on water, we chose to go north instead.
As we drove past the old railroad trestle at Pudding Creek, the three of us caught our first glimpse of the ocean. There was surf! It was messy, but at least there was surf. We kept going. There might be something better up the road. Upon the northern edge of the great sand dunes we stopped. Something had caught our eye!
But was it worth a desert trek to the sea?
The dunes were a picturesque stretch of sand that extended from the edge of state park lands in the south to the mouth of a lazy, serene river up north. During tourist season, the entire beach is a popular destination for beachcombers, birdwatchers and equestrians. Yet, those winter days left the only footprints in the sand our own.
There were telltale signs of civilization all around; the remnants of a weathered old logging road, wind-sculpted fences and houses that dotted the blufftops to the north. Back from which we came, smoke poured skyward and out to sea from a large sawmill. Occasionally, the engine brake of a logging truck echoed through the dunes. Otherwise, it was a quiet and somewhat eerie place that gave us the feeling like we could be the last people on earth.
And this is where we chose to surf.
What none of us realized back then was that what appeared to be playful from the road was actually a bit treacherous upon closer inspection. Looking back, I'd have to say that it was easily 8-to-10 feet on the outer sandbars and just going ballistic! It was intimidating, to say the least. There was silence on the sand as our eyes bugged out, and knees trembled. Someone cracked a joke. It snapped us back to reality.
We drew blades of dune grass to see which two would be going out first. After suiting up, two of us walked down to the water's edge, gave each other a nervous grin, and began to paddle out.
All in all, it didn't seem that hard; that is, until the two of us realized that we weren't making much headway, but instead were drifting south with a fast-moving current. In hindsight, that longshore current probably saved our lives.
None of us made it out to where the big surf roamed. We chased reforming waves over the inner sandbars, got mowed down by mounds of crumbling white-water a lot and for brief moments, were able to get to our feet and rode things resembling waves for a couple of seconds. Despite the amplified noise of the crashing surf all around us, hoots and hollers could still be heard! After five hours of mind-numbing fun, all three of us were exhausted, but stoked, and decided to call it a day.
The hike back through the dunes was long. The drive back toward the dive shop was quiet. I think each one of us were recollecting about the few rides we managed to get. As we passed by a spot that I now know pretty well, a couple of surfers were standing along the edge of the highway, waiting to cross. One of them noticed the boards in my car and smiled. A "hang loose" hand gesture was made. We replied in kind. Someone piped up that it felt like we'd just been initiated into a brotherhood. Laughter broke out and we continued on.
The three of us never surfed together again. Our circle of friends and activities changed as our time in high school passed by. I don't believe either one of them actually ever surfed again. For me though, I was hooked! The fascination had become a passion, which in turn, became an obsession. I convinced my mom to let me go on independent study and I found a full-time job. I saved up enough money for a board and wetsuit, and continued with the pursuit of getting better.
Eventually I began subscribing to some of the major surf publications of the time, because I wanted to relate more to the lifestyle and progression that I saw in those pages every month. I couldn't relate to the "grumpy old dudes" in the water at my local spots. I wanted to rip and eventually get sponsored and travel the world. The idea of recluse society up here was a foreign concept for me. What can I say though, I was extremely naive.
As I grew older, I really dedicated myself to the coast. I learned enough about meteorology to understand what weather and wind conditions worked best for where. I found perfect waves where none should have been. I tested my limits in big surf. And eventually, I found my preference, built a quiver of boards specific to how and where I liked to surf and it became my life.
One of the biggest gifts surfing had given me was photography. Even though I had been making photographs since I was a kid, and at one point was even a photojournalist for a local newspaper, I was always nothing more than a hobbyist. It took surfing all of the time in the mid-2000s and the desire to document these adventures for posterity that pushed me into being equally as passionate about photography as I was with surfing.
In the Digital Age, access to easy-to-understand surf forecasts, websites and social media have changed the dynamics of surfing along the north coast. What was once left up to one's imagination is now pretty open. To the mainstream, spot names and roadmaps aren't really taboo; even though for locals, the old etiquette remains steadfast. Localism is still pretty real in some places. Cameras are still frowned upon. There is a reason for this.
As SURFER Magazine founder John Severson once coined, “In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.
You can still find that up here.
Or can you?
Mum's the word.