A new client sent me on a new adventure to the Lost Coast, California’s unspoiled shores in search of empty waves with three friends. We brought along Grundens’ new recreational clothing line to keep us dry and warm, as well as camping gear by UCO and a couple action cams by Intova. View the gallery on the website, Industrial Revolution’s blog post here, and enjoy the full story with imagery below:
Kris stretches into the armhole and extends through, pulling a thick black neoprene sleeve up onto his shoulder. In defiance, his own skin bunches and folds with heavy drag. It’s a frustrating and familiar struggle for most. For Kris, it’s merely familiar. Calmly, he uses his other arm to help skirt over the shoulder before his hand pokes through with a distinct pop. His other arm then begins, this same process until the entirety of his 5/3mm wetsuit wraps up around his chest, and in doing so, covers a noticeable 8-inch scar. He is nothing but smiles. Almost giddy. Yeah. He’s giddy. With a quick zip and a pull of the hoodie, he grabs his board and jogs toward the heaving sea, leaving me behind to wrestle with my own suit.
Less than six months ago Kris suffered a heart attack—unbeknownst to him for days. He continued his work as usual until an increasingly shortened breath finally drove him to the hospital for an exam. He was nonchalant; the doctors were outraged. They called him crazy. They called him lucky. They called for surgery. Six months later, his arteries mended, his breastplate clasped closed, his skin stapled back together, and he is back; a retired teacher-turned contractor, marching miles through wet black sand, pebbles, large stones and crashing surf with three millennials to an isolated California lineup. The coast is calling. Five minutes later, I’m in the water paddling after him.
This is the Lost Coast: a raw, undisturbed land of wonder and contradiction. Graceful yet ferocious. Peaceful yet violent. Evolved yet ancient. It beckons as it warns. It is a shoreline of proud pine-clad cliffs, sturdy golden grass tuffs, and a thrashing blue-green Pacific Ocean. Kelp beds float below shore birds. Barking seals leap through the surface on wild hunts. Whales breach at the sun’s horizon and few onlookers gawk at the natural beauty. This natural beauty is undeniable, at times unbelievable, and yet few onlookers chance to gawk. To take the time and energy to hike out to this wild backcountry requires a strong willingness and preparedness that gratefully we possessed. Streams supply the drinking water. All else is packed in and packed out.
With 10 pounds of food each (40 pounds total), stuffed into four bear canisters, packed next to clothes, cooking gear, tents, hammocks, sleeping bags, wetsuits and 6-foot surfboards, our backpacks weighed in at over 80 pounds. I struggled; this was by far the heaviest pack I’d ever carried. My two other 30-some-year-old friends also struggled. I could only imagine what post-surgery Kris felt under the weight and excessive heat we endured while hiking out. But still he and we trod on. We scrambled ridges, tiptoed intertidal zones, and silently tested every motivating mantra we’d ever heard, until finally descending the yellow grass bluff into camp. The waves were pumping. The view was stunning. For a few moments, the pain in our weakened knees and aching hips went unnoticed. Green lines interspersed with whitewash as backlit waves peeled into evanescent barrels. We dropped our packs, chugged our remaining water, and suited up. I was the last in the lineup. Kris is definitely crazy. And we’re all lucky.
For six days and five nights, we stared at the western horizon. Whether bobbing in the water or resting on land, we became transfixed on the incoming swell. We learned what tides the breaks worked best, whether it was at the point or river mouth, and analyzed each potential crest. Which direction was the wind? Where were the exposed rocks and hidden threats? Was the tide incoming? Outgoing? What was it yesterday, and how is the swell moving in relation to the beach? Parallel or straight onshore? I hope it’s onshore. I hope it’s low tide now with an incoming swell. I hope it’s a building swell. Chest high. Head high. Two-feet overhead. Offshore winds. Our minds danced like monkeys, utterly consumed by the now, the physical. Our senses were elevated by the stillness and simplicity of life off the grid. We had carved out a forbidden space—a temporary break from our familial and business lives—our concurrent realities behind and looming ahead. We had found that other part of ourselves, which exists only in great solitude.
The sun beat down on our shirtless bodies and blasted our squinting eyes. We rehydrated with hot drinks and fresh filtered water. We cooked large meals to quench our appetites, slowly emptied our heavy bear canisters, and let time disappear from our minds. All was sunrise or sunset, and we didn’t care. Our attentions were on the waves, and when it was on—low to incoming tide—we were as young as ever. We were mere children hyped on an inexhaustible spoon of liquid sugar. Bottomless. Boundless. Endless.
We surfed for hours, until our toes went numb from the cold and our legs reminded us of our arduous hike. Sam from Ocean Beach was always the first out. Seemingly impervious to the long hours in the water, Sam had the luxury of surfing almost yearlong in the punishing OB breaks. Kris, Skyler and I, though accustomed to a shorter season, were at least used to the cold waters—our Pacific Northwest temperaments adjusted to feeling numb year-round. Despite our differences, we were all aligned to one indisputable truth: not in our wildest dreams could we have imagined surfing in a pristine California location, miles away from road or highway, without anyone to share the waves but ourselves. Nothing can prepare you for this pleasure.
For two days, the swell dropped as a thick impenetrable fogbank closed over our heads. We still got in the water, but now when the kelp licked our toes and bumped the bottom of our boards, it was no longer ticklish fun. It was unsettling. We looked out towards an unseen horizon. The curious fear had finally crept into the consciousness. This was shark country—and the appearance of the fog exacerbated this feeling. Weeks prior, Sam had sent us a video of a great white leaping out of the OB lineup. It was a subtle reminder of where we were headed and of the predator’s unspoken omnipotence. So we stayed tight, waiting quietly through the lulls and shivering in the cold as each passing kelp frond made its presence known.
Then one morning the fog was gone. The breeze was offshore, and the swell was building. As usual, we were up at dawn and down patrolling the waves before we could wipe the sleep from our eyes. The surf was immaculate; powerful, big, green, and beautiful. We rode them like they were the last waves of our lives. With the hazy mountains to our backs, we looked hopefully up and down the coast, as though searching for some way to prolong the trip or slow down time itself. Despite this, the hours slipped by, the tide came in, and soon we were spent, as was our time at camp. With heavy regret, we walked onto dry land, packed camp, and as if we were never there, departed. Sam couldn’t stop turning back at the unridden waves and the cruel beauty of the teasing sea. Nobody in sight. No boards but our own. We left the coast lost once more.
Right before sunset, as we wrapped up our 10 miles back with lighter packs and fuller memories, we came upon a dead grey whale. It lay motionless in the surf; its sides scoured with huge, gaping bite marks. The unmistakable work of the sharks—the ones likely near us, beneath us, and possibly upon us if it weren’t for this feast they had won. Now on land, we could more openly visualize what had been lurking in the waves and may still be just beyond the reach of the whale. And shuddering, we thanked the brave beast for its sacrifice—a fitting reminder of the celebration we had just experienced.
Sure, call us crazy. But we say we’re lucky—to be free, alone with friends, and surfing the spotless lineup along a stretch of one of California’s unspoiled coastlines. The little peril, mostly imagined, is but a small price for this wholly real reward.