Forgive Me, Mr. Abalone

Gone Summering, July 1998


Forgive Me, Mr. Abalone

Because off northern California's "Riviera," diving for slimy sea creatures is but one of many worthy pastimes
By Patrick Symmes


Exploring the Lost Coast

Free from the pretensions of wine-tasting tourists to the south and the beatnik conformism of its neighbors to the north, Gualala is where craggy cliffs and redwood forests meet the habitat of gray whale and abalone. While the Gualala River flows tranquilly along the town's southern border, the fickle Pacific alternately rages and whimpers to the west, toppling unlucky surfers one day and gently undulating under thankful sea kayakers the next.

Getting There: From San Francisco, simply find your way to the coast and head north: Gualala is 120 miles — or about three hours — from the city on slow-but-scenic Highway 1.

Do It Yourself: Adventure Rents (888-881-4386), Gualala's only multipurpose gear shop, has kayaks and canoes for $20-$60 per day and hybrid bikes for $7.50 per hour (two-hour minimum). At North Coast Scuba (707-884-3534), you can buy an abalone fishing license for $12.60 and rent a wetsuit for $14. Finally, a good dose of local wisdom can be found in the Hiker's Hip Pocket Guide to Sonoma County ($14, Bored Feet Publications, 888-336-6199).

Outfitters: Gualala, it seems, is a bastion of self-sufficiency; to find a guided tour, you'll have to venture to Elk, 45 minutes north. Here, Force Ten (707-877-3505) offers sea-kayaking tours; on the average two-hour trip ($80), kayakers paddle through numerous sandstone caves and along stretches of coast still totally uninhabited, save for the sea lions lounging on the shore.

Where to Stay: Anchor Bay Campground (sites, $25; 707-884-4222) in Gualala fronts a three-quarter-mile private beach and sells used gear on the cheap (a wetsuit goes for $35). A step up in comfort — albeit a small one — is the Gualala Hotel (707-884-3441), which offers spartan rooms near the beach for $48-$60 a night. A bit more luxurious is the nearby Old Milano Hotel (707-884-3256), where ocean-view rooms start at $115. — Lea Aschkenas

Finding Gualala, a postcard-size hamlet north of San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway, is simple enough. But I pack a compass nonetheless. I hope, upon arrival, to park my bags in the old Gualala Hotel and spend the weekend using it while putting the X in extreme, both by paddle and on foot.

That, at least, is the notion I chose to delude myself with. But the reality, when faced with the prospect of tightroping that fine line between extreme and, well, extreme, is an entirely different matter. Since the perennially unpredictable coastal winds are kicking up a vicious chop and the prime sea-kayaking grounds of the so-called Lost Coast are dotted with narrow tidal caves best avoided in heavy seas, I drop the compass on my bed and head straight for the creaky hotel bar, Gualala's social center. There, a collection of tanned cattlemen and squinty-eyed dope growers plumbs my gullibility. (I lose count of how many locals claim to have helped build the hotel, which was finished in 1903.) Four men in wetsuits clomp in, part of the black tide of skin divers who descend every summer on Gualala. Like sea otters, these four spent the morning diving beneath the tossing surf. Their goal: to pry loose as many monstrous abalone as the law allows — four to a man. Warmed by bourbon, they flash large knives and describe, Quintlike, long and colorful battles with various sharks and the occasional jumbo abalone. Leaning close, they suggest I join them tomorrow.

Abalone hunting is among the world's purest pursuits; you need only good lungs and a sense of fair play. (A yellowed newspaper clipping on the bar's wall admonishes, "Do not speak roughly to an abalone.") But successful hunting also requires underwater facility with a sharp knife, and I don't trust myself with slippery things that can cut me. So, when morning comes, I leave the shellfish tucked safely in their beds and hit the coastal trail, a seven-mile hiking route clinging to high bluffs and curling in and out of wind-twisted forests. Whitetails stand motionless in clearings while ospreys float overhead. Gray whales commute up the coast.

As I continue hiking above the ocean, other waters eventually beckon: Clean and green, the Gualala River cuts down through groves of redwoods in a series of lazy curves. In summer, the area's dry season, the mouth of the river closes and the waters back up into a gentle, miles-long lake known, without the expected irony, as the Gualala Riviera. From the ridge I follow a river-hugging trail down to the ocean and, on a deserted beach littered with driftwood, settle in for an extreme Riviera nap. Rolling over, I feel something poking my backside. The compass — still, presumably, doing its job. The sun warming my face, I shrug and settle deeper into the sand.

Patrick Symmes is at work on a book about retracing Che Guevara's 1952 motorcycle trip through Latin America.

W h e n   I n   . . .... Northern California, head to Mendocino's Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too (707-937-0273) and borrow some paddleable art. The outfitter buys 19-foot redwood outrigger canoes crafted by legendary local boatbuilder Bob Cummings — for $6,000 a pop — and then rents them for $18 an hour. Faster and more stable than plastic or fiberglass, they're perfect for exploring the nearby Big River, the area's largest estuary.

Illustration by Jason Schneider

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