FROM THE HIGHWAY 1 BRIDGE a half-mile south of Mendocino on California's North Coast, the Big River looks tantalizingly moody and gorgeous, its slinky coils meandering over grassy flats and vanishing into a deep gorge defined by the dark, towering presence of coastal redwoods. For the past 150 years this has been verboten terrainprivate property, recently in the hands of Hawthorne Timber Company, a Fort Bragg, California-based logging operation. But in about two minutes, I'm going to sling my mountain bike onto a shoulder, hop over a locked gate, and slip into this landscape for a ride along the Big River's northern banks. And no, I won't be arrested, scolded, or even glared at. The once-doomed-to-be-logged (again) Big River is ours, and it's the best news California's northern coast has heard in a long time.
As soon as the ink dries on a few final documents, any time between now and November, a $25.7 million purchase will transfer the Big River from Hawthorne to the California state parks system. The exchange will be made through the Mendocino Land Trust, a local non-profit conservation organization, which raised the money in less than a year after the timber barons signed the purchase agreement. The Big River's 7,344 prime acres of river, estuary, wetlands, and forest will fill in a long-coveted missing piece of a public-lands puzzle. The property is adjacent to 2,499-acre Van Damme State Park to the south and the mega 48,652 acres of Jackson State Forest to the north. Jackson in turn abuts Mendocino Woodlands and Russian Gulch State Parks and Jug Handle State Reserve, thereby linking 60,000 acres of parks, hundreds of miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails, and critical corridors for wildlife. That means protection for all sorts of stellar denizens, including river otters, black bears, beavers, mountain lions, and bobcats, plus 130 species of birds, including spotted owls, golden and bald eagles, herons, and ospreys. The Big River portion alone will leave intact a swath of fir and redwood forests, 50 miles of river and tributaries, 1,500 acres of wetlands, and the longest undeveloped and heretofore unprotected estuary in northern California. It promises an inland alternative for visitors who make the three-hour drive from San Francisco to behold the Mendocino area's grand seaside scenery: magnificent cliffs, roaring surf, solitary beaches.
And it means I get to go for a ridea sneak preview, actually, of this new playground that will soon be accessible to everyone. I hoist my mount over the gate and start up the Big River Haul Road, which loosely parallels the waterway to the end of its estuary, 8.3 river miles inland. The dirt doubletrack is now a nearly flat mountain-biking and hiking thruway into the new parkland, while four or five steep, technical spur trails lead uphill to the north like off-ramps. Some of these old roads will be decommissioned, but at least one of them will link the Big River with Jackson State Forest, where there's a 300-mile feast of trails to ride and hike. But the Big River Haul Road itself is easy going, and riding it is a leisurely way to survey the new park. All the land I can see is part of it, the north-south boundary marked by steep 800-foot transverse ridges. Inland, the new acquisition extends a couple of miles beyond the end of the estuary. The river winds placidly toward the Pacific between the ridges as it leaves the eelgrass flats, widening to about 100 feet near its mouth. I spot three osprey nests in redwoods above the riverbank and notice one of their tenants doing some fishing for...what? Coho and steelhead both run in the river, but not in the large numbers of yore. Spared the impact of logging, though, they just might stage a comeback.
The haul road soon enters the woods, and I get only a few views of the river until the road runs right into it. This is the 8.3-mile mark that denotes the head of the Big River's tidal range; to this point, ocean tides create its current. I ford the cool, shallow river and proceed on foot, again on an old logging road, about a mile into the deep woods that line 61-acre Big River Laguna, a marshy backwater where the mood shifts from scenic beauty to dark intrigue, with redwoods poking through the forest like gothic steeples. I scare up two wood ducks from their lily-pad refuge, bullfrogs start tuning for the evening, and fresh piles of bear scat hint at looming megafauna. I reach a grove of tall redwoods backlit by angled shafts of late light. This is the Fritz Wonder Plot, some of the tallest second-growth redwoods in the preserveup to 300 feetand to me, its beating heart. No, these aren't thousand-year-old antiquariansevery acre of this forest has been loggedbut now these 140-year-old trees will have their chance. The solitude is seductive; I have to pedal back in the last light and a brisk offshore headwind.
The next day I return along the same 8.3 miles of river, the easily navigable stretch, this time paddling a handcrafted redwood outrigger canoe with Rick Hemmings, who runs Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too!, a rental shop on the grounds of the Stanford Inn, a 41-room B&B and my home base for a few days. The design of the custom 19-foot outrigger is brilliantpontoons make it ultrastable, while the hull is light, sleek, and fast. The boats have been a Big River tradition for more than a decade. (Though the land surrounding the Big River was private and thus off-limits to visitors, California rivers are public property.) We glide with the tide along calm stretches through the eelgrass flats, and Rick shows me relics of logging days. An old flatboat is now scarcely an outline in the muck. Erstwhile dams are just orphan chunks of piling.
Paddling the Class I Big River estuary isn't so much high adventure as a serene meditationunless you time the tide wrong and try to return against it and a headwind. You can't. We paddle unambitiously, a harbor seal escorting us most of the way. Rick and I stare up into the woods that begin to crowd the riverbanks, and Rick tells me about legendary singing fish that lured the curious here back around the turn of the 20th century. "No one knows what they really were, but people could hear them late at night," he says. What did they sound like? "Uh, you know...a shrill, fishy sound." Oh.
Our timing is perfect for the paddle back. The headwind's going off at 25 knots, but the reflux of the tide and a smidgen of elbow grease win out. We coast into the dock. Tonight I'll return to my room in the Stanford Inn, above the river, and sleep with the window open, listening for the mysterious music of fish once again floating above the Big River.
THE BIG RIVER is a half-mile south of Mendocino and a three-hour drive north of the San Francisco Bay Area. It will officially become a state park sometime between August and November. Until the park opens, call the Mendocino Land Trust (707-962-0470) for information; the new park will be administered by the California State Parks Mendocino District Headquarters office at 707-937-5804.
Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too! (707-937-0273) rents single and tandem kayaks, canoes, and outriggers starting at $12 an hour. Gary Fisher, Cannondale, and Trek mountain bikes run $10 an hour for hardtails and hybrids, $15 for full-suspension. You can ride hundreds of miles of single- and doubletrack in Van Damme and Russian Gulch State Parks and in Jackson State Forest. I stayed in the Stanford Inn (800-331-8884; www.stanfordinn.com), a 41-room B&B on the mouth of the Big River, a lovely place with terraced gardens and views of the river or ocean from every room. My room, featuring antique furnishings and a corner fireplace, was a carpentry showcase, with knotty-pine paneling and a vaulted ceiling. Room rates start at $245, and pets are welcome. For more information on area accommodations, contact theMendocino County Alliance at 866-466-3636, or visit www.gomendo.com.