Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Working Class Hero

The guide book I used to chart some of the things we wanted to do on this trip suggested that Fort Bragg was the blue collar cousin of chic Mendocino, some 10 miles further down the rugged west coast of California.  It is an old logging and fishing town, a place Steinbeck was intimately familiar with and as it was bigger and had more lodging options than Mendocino, so we ended up there.

We hadn't intended to.  We'd meant to leave Deerfield at a reasonable hour and head up 101 to Eureka, our furthest northern point on this trip, and then bimble down the coast at a reasonable pace.

However a late morning induced by poor discipline attached to some of Deerfield's finest meant that our departure time was delayed to the point where we'd be reaching Eureka at a late hour rather than mid-afternoon so we decided on the hoof to change direction and stop about half way up and as Fort Bragg had the Skunk Train, a rail line into the redwoods following the old logging trail, that was where we chose to stay.

The last 20 or so miles from Willitts on the freeway to Fort Bragg were uphill and then downhill through a redwood forest with the road clinging onto the hillsides for dear life in some places, or so it felt.

However Fort Bragg was the first place we witnessed the famous fog from these parts.  It was brown.  I've never seen brown fog before!  However it burned off around 4 pm so made for a gloriously sunny evening that enabled Viv and I to go out for a long walk along the seashore and through a small redwood grove on the outskirts of town.

Fog rolling in

Our daily redwood fix

We also had the chance to have a beer at the North Coast Brewery where we met a very friendly family from Crescent City (to the far north) who were on their bi-annual trip to the big city (San Francisco) to get their big city fix.

The train ride was the focal point of the day being a 4 hour round trip to a place called North Spur, a siding in the middle of the forest about another 2 or 3 hours from Willets, some 50 miles away.  The rolling stock ranged from 150 years old to just about 50 or 60, ours on the day was 70 years old.  Too tired, according to the genial conductor, to make the full trip to Willetts with such a load as the final bit was all through the really high mountains.

It was a wonderful trip through the forest, not a government owned park but owned by the California Lumber Company who still log the forest... but with far more regulation now than in the past.  The lumber company had sold the railway to the current owners 40 years ago because they didn't want to run a railroad any longer -- the company owns 12 feet from the centre of the railway line in both directions along the track.  Fortunately the weather has been benign for years now so the track hasn't worn as much as it could have ... in many parts it looks to be on the verge of falling down a cliff!  The conductor said rains would wash out large tracts regularly but this hasn't been the case lately.

Not much stopping the track being washed away!

The trip itself was enriched by the conductor's stories and another guy dressed in train uniform who sang railway songs to the travelers.  Both were locals and had some great stories of the old days.

The logging companies had upwards of 300 men out in the woods at any point in time at camps all along the railway.  When they went further, they added more line occasionally putting in camps in the midst of the forest (like North Spur).  The forest was widely denuded only twice in the last 100 years though; once being after the 1906 fire when San Francisco needed to be rebuilt.  The other time was during World War II when the forest was sacrificed for the war effort.  After the first time, the lumber company offered people the chance to buy 100 acres of denuded forest for $1 per acre with conditions: farm don't log, don't sub-let.  Several parcels remain who are apple farmers.  The others were bought back during the Depression by the logging company at $2 per acre.

One of the old remaining log cabins in the woods
The actual logging process was a massive enterprise encompassing not only the chopping down process itself but also its transshipment from the forest to a place where the logs could be shipped out -- this was largely before roads in the area, so shipping out of often small ports was often the only way.  Trouble was redwood logs are so water saturated and therefore heavy that they could not be carried out by ox cart or river (they would sink), hence railway.

Additionally the first 10-20 feet of the tree were particularly heavy so loggers would climb up 10 or so feet and attach a sort of platform where 2 of them would saw and hack 12 hours each day for 7-8 days per tree (with a trunk diameter of 7-8 feet, a 200 year old tree as they couldn't cut down the really big ones!) not knowing when the tree would actually fall so they were still up there on their platforms when these huge trees would fall.  Dangerous work indeed -- but they were paid $4 per day to do it.  A big payday back then!

Now its all over like the fishing.  Regulation, environmentalists and over zealous husbandry in earlier times are the collective reasons -- i.e. few fish.  So I asked the conductor what the young people do and he told me:

"One of two things.  They leave or grow marijuana.  There's 100,000 acres of marijuana out there in the forest.  Young fellers can earn upwards of $100,000 a year just by growing a few plants".

I can believe it as marijuana smells are everywhere.  Apparently there's a license that can be obtained, a 2-15 license someone told me, that enables people to grow marijuana for their own personal use.  But that definition is often/always abused so there are endless numbers of 'Herb' shops around, even in the smallest villages.  It really does seem endemic these days.

Regulation and other well meaning initiatives often have unintended consequences.  As a finance person I do wonder what will become of the banking and finance industry with the ever growing list of capital restrictions.  The immediate reaction has been the curtailment of retail and small business lending.  Where will those people go for their finance needs?

After the Skunk Train, we headed off to the Mendocino Botanical Gardens (see website here) to stroll among the rhododendron gardens.  They were just coming into bloom, in a few weeks they will be even more magnificent.

They were actually pretty magnificent anyway!

I was disappointed with Mendocino, in retrospect possibly unfairly.  First of all it is tiny (but then again so many other named towns are tiny too) and the weather had started to grey and get chilly.  We'd experienced fantastic weather to this point so this may have stained my impression.  It looked to be 2 streets down to the water and 3 across all with artsy enterprises selling I'm not sure what.  The place certainly didn't leave a good impression with me anyway.

Our final decision was dinner and Noyo Harbour back in Fort Bragg where we saw some otters swim up the river competing no doubt for the fish we were eating.  Sorry guys, today you lost!

Tomorrow we head north…again!

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