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Dispatches From the Road: North Sonoma Coast, California

February 8, 2019

In his latest dispatch, Courthouse News' western bureau chief goes for a hike at a fishing camp in Northern California.

Chris Marshall

By Chris Marshall

Western Bureau Chief for Courthouse News Service since 2014. San Francisco Federal Reporter and Northern California Bureau Chief from 2006 to 2014. Passionate about photography, camping and history.

The young fisherman lifted his rod and gear, then one sodden leg, and the second, over a fallen redwood tree blocking the trail.

"Did you catch anything?" I asked.


"That's a bummer," I replied, and stepped out of the way to let him pass. "From what I hear nobody is getting anything this weekend."

"Yeah, it's been that way for the past few years," he said as he headed in the direction of camp. His voice fading, he concluded, "It's kind of a drag."

Klaus the dog and I had arrived at the campground in Gualala Point Regional Park on California's Sonoma Coast the previous day. After maneuvering the camper into a snug spot surrounded by moss-covered trees including the odd redwood, a middle-aged man with unkempt Mountain Dew-colored hair, a wrinkled, stained and faded camouflage shirt, worn light blue jeans and untied muddy tan boots approached with his dog, an older medium-sized mutt that I suspected had a fair amount of Labrador retriever in him.

At the Gualala Point campground. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

"I love your rig, man," he declared.  Our dogs sniffed each other, becoming fast friends, while we discussed our respective abodes. He introduced his dog as Fisher.

"But most people call him Mr. Fisherman since he's always out fishing with me."

They'd been out for steelhead trout that make an annual run in the river this time of year, he said, but so far the fish hadn't even nibbled.

"You here to fish too?" he asked, more like a statement than a question.

"Nope. I'm here to hang out, probably do some hiking," I replied. "I'm going to head out in a minute. If I leave soon I think we can get to the beach and back before dark."

He mentioned a couple other good trails in the area and walked away. When he reached his campsite he hollered, "Most people this weekend are here to fish! But you're not here to fish, right?"

"That's right," I said, wondering if he'd forgotten that quickly, if he didn't believe somebody would be here if not to fish, or for some other reason.

(Chris Marshall/CNS)

The trail weaved under increasingly dense foliage through some walk-in camp sites, and crossed a walking bridge over a small creek that led into a clearing that I imagine had quite the view of the surrounding hills.

But not that day. The fog was so thick I could see only the vague outline of a bridge over the Gualala River that in its final few miles forms the boundary of Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

Beyond the bridge, large wooden steps and multiple switchbacks made bearable what would otherwise be a challenging scramble up a large hill.

More twisted moss-covered trees reached into the trail at the top. They reminded me of the trees that trap characters in the Netflix series "Stranger Things."

Mossy trees at Gualala Point Regional Park. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

But the trees didn't catch us. Credit goes to my ferocious if diminutive companion.

A few minutes before the sun set we arrived at the bluffs. But what sun there was left remained shrouded behind fog. Realizing we'd soon be stuck in the dark with the spooky trees I sped back to camp.

The following morning I was lured from slumber by a bird singing in a nearby tree.

A large dog greeted us when we stepped out of the camper, then Mr. Fisherman and finally his owner.

"Robbie is too friendly for his own good," he grumbled, gently grabbed the dog's collar and pushed him in the direction of their site. Klaus followed.

Mr. Fisherman's owner said he and a bunch of other campers were heading to the riverbank to test their luck. I said we'd stop by to see them later but first I was determined to check out the beach.

The Gualala River as it meets the Pacific Ocean. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

On that clear and brisk morning the trees were decidedly less threatening. And as suspected, splendid was the view of the mouth of the Gualala River.

A woman walking her 18-year-old dog tipped us to a shortcut to the beach. Approximately halfway down the trail a lone fisherman trudged toward us. With each step his ample gear appeared to drag him further down.

"Did you catch anything?" I asked.

"Not a thing. The water is too rough down there," he lamented, sweat running down his face.

Waves roared high and reached far at the beach, but the collection of logs and other ocean refuse along the edge of the cliffs showed the tide wasn't close to its high point. We slowly made our way to the other end where the river meets the Pacific. A man took pictures of a group of wetsuit-clad surfers who spent most of their time getting crushed by the unpredictable swell.

Klaus the dog outruns the waves at Gualala Point Beach. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

A few hundred yards up the river a man cast from a small beach exposed by the tide as his female companion played fetch with a large dog.

I put my hand into the swift-moving river. Cool but not frigid. The riverbank gave way quickly once sand hit water. I don't know how deep the water was but even at the edge I felt like I was staring into the abyss.

Something dark and shiny shot from the water less than 20 yards away. Then another. And another.

Seals. The more I looked the more I saw, popping up, going under.

Upriver the fish might not be biting, but the seals were there for a reason.

I stopped for a quick picnic lunch and returned to the trail, which rose steadily to majestic cliffs that appeared to go on forever. We wandered them for a while before turning inland onto a different trail in a wild and wooded area along a stream surrounded by a well-manicured golf course that eventually brought us back to the trail to the campground.

(Chris Marshall/CNS)

Back at camp Klaus took a well-earned nap in the camper. Mr. Fisherman's owner and his friend drank beer and I read a book, parts of the pages illuminated by rays from the descending sun shining through the canopy.

Later, Klaus and I approached the section of riverbank that Mr. Fisherman's owner had mentioned that morning.

A lone angler remained. Standing in thigh-deep water, he faced the setting sun, rhythmically casting his fly-fishing rod until the last bit of yellow light nestled behind the hills. In no great haste he waded to shore, picked up his gear and headed for camp, leaving us alone with the quiet river.

A man fishing in the Gualala River, dwarfed by redwoods. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

We tarried a bit, then did the same.

Later that night while stoking the fire Mr. Fisherman's owner loudly debated with his companion whether he should buy a motorcycle, the discussion interrupted now and again by the sound of a beer can being crushed, the next opened, classic rock playing quietly in the background.

The fish might not be there to bring the anglers back year after year, but at least they had each other.

About Our Coverage of Sonoma County

Courthouse News Service has provided daily coverage of the Sonoma County Superior Court for more than a decade. The court is included in the North and East Bay Report, which also includes daily coverage from courts in Alameda and Contra Costa counties and regular coverage of courts in Marin and Napa counties.

Sonoma County, California Facts

County Seat: Santa Rosa

Population: 504,000 Named After: According to author Jack London, Sonoma means "Valley of the Moon" in the language of local Native American tribes. Depending on whom you ask, it could be instead a native name for "earth village" or "nose."

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