Mattole 95
 
H off to London, England, and me sick in Sacramento,
snorting and wheezing in a fog of symptomatic drugs. Too
tired from the Canada trip to pack on Thursday night, so
instead equivocated until 10 pm on Friday before assembling
the bare bones of equipment for a trip northwards in search of
legendary steelhead. The weather forecast called for rain,
locally heavy, the same as it's been for the last two months.
I'm regretting writing to everyone that California has no
weather, after this surfeit.

Set off into rain and strong winds at 8:30 am, with the cold
still banging around in my skull. I-5 to Rte 20, across the
valley and into the mountains, past Clear Lake and onto 101
northwards. Hilly, road sometimes highway, sometimes two
narrow lanes plunging and swerving through redwoods. The
Eel river was high, cafe au lait, logs rolling down a broad
waterway between the trees. I passed a solo kayaker setting up
above a gorge. Tempted to stop and ask him if he wanted
company, but thought that I probably couldn't cope with the
kind of water he'd be going into. Rain. More rain.

Stopped in Garville to get gas and a can opener. Found
Steelhead Ale in the grocery store, bought some as
consolation for the expected dearth of the real thing. Left the
highway for a single lane tar road strewn with branches and
flood debris, into Honeydew, on the Mattole river. After a
while the road turned to dirt and twisted down a first-gear
hill. Took over an hour for the 25 miles into Honeydew. A
surprisingly open valley, steep but not forested, through
which another swollen muddy river tumbled. Wide sweeps of
view across expanses of troubled water. Driving through all
these changes in elevation had given me considerable pain,
sinuses fully congested and pressure in the ears. Stopped at
the AW Way campground where green lawns lay in a bend of
the river. The river quite unfishable, no visibility at all. A
bagel for lunch, with some of the famous ale, disconsolately.

The sheep did not look up as I drove past on the lighthouse
road, heading for a walk on the beach at the river mouth.
Empty campsite at the road's end, and a clumsy but touching
painting showing that the beach had been adopted by the
Mattole primary school pupils of 1993. Steelhead were shown
ascending the river. Doubtless they were. The coast reminded
me of the Transkei, high green bluffs looming over a strip of
beach. Fierce weather, huge waves with long streamers of
spray torn from them by a wind that knocked me down a
couple of times. Toiled up against the wind for half an hour,
passing several waterfalls that ran down into the sand and
vanished. A dangerous-looking beach, big shore break with
strong rips running out through the black rocks. One solitary
rock at the water's edge looked like a primitive sculpture of a
bear watching alertly for salmon. Blown back to the river
mouth. The river bent at a sandbar before flooding brown into
the grey ocean. Currents and wind opposed in the eddies
created an agitated mass of small waves that slapped and
clattered together as a sort of timpani behind the wind's long
howl. Out in the strongest flows, two seals rolled and played.
Probably eating steelhead.

Dusk back at the campground. Tinned dinner with more beer
for the fire that was in my head. Slowly set up fishing gear for
the morning, to observe the proprieties and make at least one
cast in this supposed fishing trip. Static-laden public radio
station was playing live music from West Virginia. Tried to
sleep, but the van was shuddering in the wind, and I was
concerned for the canoes. At some dark hour of the night,
moved the van back towards the hills and into the trees in a
search for shelter. This reduced the shuddering, but added the
erratic clanging and thumping of falling branches pelting the
van. Took some flu drugs to reduce myself to boneless
passivity, which was achieved.

In the morning, two big trees were down, one on each side of
the van. Lucky me. The saplings were mostly at a drunken 45
degree angle. Went down to the water, made two casts and
then became entangled in the root system of a passing tree. I
could imagine catfish in this water, but failed absolutely to
conceive of steelhead.

Back up the Mattole road, through Honeydew and into the
mountains. At one spot, the single lane of tar changed to a
three-quarter lane of dirt, a kind of shelf in a mudslide that
ended far below in a stream. Looked at this and wondered if
the van was three-quarter width. Luckily it was. Arrived at
the Albee campground, where my trail guide assured me there
was a trail to big redwoods. Parked in the ferns at the closed
gate, and walked up to the deserted campsites. A red-tailed
hawk stooped at a covey of quail, which scattered a moment
early because of my approach. The hawk glared at me, then
rose again. I found a trail heading up the hill and decided that
must be the one. Climbed for an hour without seeing a
redwood, a view, or any sign of life. Meantime the rain
rained, and I sweated inside raingear. Back down the hill,
cold with cooling sweat. Lunched in the van amidst the ferns
and redwoods. One mile down the road from where I decided
I'd gone too far past the campground and turned back, the
real trail was revealed. How annoying.

Back on 101, the rain remained locally heavy for 100 miles.
On rte 20 past Clear Lake, the bridges were under water, two
feet of water piled up on the upstream sides. Got out the
lifejackets and went on. Turned on the radio and found that
rte 20 was closed. How interesting. A police escort took
several of us through the water, past the mudslides, and back
into the central valley, where a lake of water was being driven
over the road by the wind. I-5 was mostly clear after that.
Home in good time to start the laundry.