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Lost Coast Trail – Jay Kolsch

Growing Deeper Roots

Hiking the Lost Coast
Jay Kolsch

It’s getting worse, I thought to myself. What had started as a dark blemish on the otherwise clear horizon was now on top of us, pelting us with rain. But the deluge wasn’t the cause of my concern – it was the fog. The deteriorating weather crushed our visibility, and I could no longer make out the black sand ahead of me. The driving wind, persistent rain and raging Pacific surf made a cocktail of deafening tones. ‘It’s only getting worse,’ I shouted over the noise to Christine. She stood at my side, squinting as the rain swept across her face. The dangerous high tide zone we had been trekking through all afternoon was our main concern. Even in good conditions these regions of the beach could be deadly. I didn’t want to find out what it would be like in a storm.

We had travelled to California with the goal of thru-hiking the Lost Coast. We wouldn’t cut any corners, and we wouldn’t use the expensive food drop services that offered a chance for re-supply at the halfway point. We would pack and carry everything for our multi-day hike ourselves. Christine and I chose this trail because it seemed feasible enough – literally a walk on the beach. However, it was hard finding information on the unfrequented northern section as very few people hike the entire trail. That sense of mystery is what had piqued our interest in the first place.

Christine rummaged through the side pocket on my pack and pulled out the map, which on day two was already starting to feel pointless. The map clearly wasn’t to scale and the marked elevation was unusable. To make things worse, the actual trail wasn’t even marked. We decided we would use it as a rough guide, accompanied by terrain association. But, standing there on the last twelve feet of the continent in a raging storm with no retreat from the rising sea, we found ourselves wishing for something more than this. After a hasty review of the map we agreed that we had just exited the impassable zone. Morale was low as we searched the nearby gulch for a spot to make camp. An hour ago we’d spread the contents of the medical kit on the ground and attempted to mend the enormous blisters on Christine’s ankles.

We’d made a navigational error the previous day, and wet feet and ill-fitting boots proved too much for Christine. She was no longer able to walk in her boots and had thrown on her sandals in a desperate effort to hike without constant pain. We weren’t talking about it, but we knew we had to make a decision once we were sheltered from the storm. If she couldn’t walk in her boots, our trip, only a day in, would be over. Once the tent was staked and guyed for the storm I went to work improving camp, stacking walls of driftwood in an attempt to deflect the ferocious gusts. Christine disappeared inside to unpack and further assess her feet. By the time I settled in I was shivering from the cold. We cooked a quick meal in the vestibule and crawled into our bags – it didn’t matter how early it was, we were utterly defeated.

The deteriorating weather crushed our visibility, and I could no longer make out the black sand ahead of me. The driving wind, persistent rain and raging Pacific surf made a cocktail of deafening tones.
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Very little in the world can lift my spirits higher than a person who decides for themselves, against popular opinion, that they can push on through strife and struggle to ultimately achieve their goal.

Drip, drip, drip. The sound startled us awake some time after midnight – a leaky seam. The storm still held us in its grip and even the tent was starting to feel the pressure. We eased one another’s concerns by sharing a laugh – at least the high tide had come and gone without taking us with it.

Christine was the first to wake and joyfully alerted me to the fact that is was no longer raining. The storm had passed, but I held back my enthusiasm. We still had to deal with her feet and the question of if we could continue. In one direction we were 10 miles away from the trailhead and the trailhead was 60 miles from our car. In the other direction it would take two full days of hard hiking to reach the first whisper of a town, and even then the car was another 30 miles away. At first we’d relished the lack of mobile phone reception, but now that joy was replaced with dread – even if we turned around, we would be hitch-hiking along deserted roads. Christine must have been watching me sink in worry as she made coffee. She handed me my cup and asked me what was on my mind.

The wilderness known as the Lost Coast remains the longest undeveloped stretch of coastline in California. The Pacific high tide drenches the beaches of the northern trail twice daily, making them inaccessible for hours at a time. The southern section of the trail boasts 12,000ft of elevation change as you wind through the ridge-line wilderness. With only two country roads linking the coastal wilderness with the rest of the state, a mistake on the Lost Coast could lead to a full-blown rescue effort very quickly – and it has. Would-be section hikers have been stranded, left clinging to rocks as the high tide raged below them. I try not to go into the wilderness unprepared and I would never recommend any risky backcountry behaviour. That’s what I was thinking about while Christine made coffee.

‘I think we will have to call it quits at the end of the northern section,’ I said, but she looked confused. ‘I’ll just wear my sandals,’ she said plainly. I reminded her about the mud, the elevation gain and the non-stop water crossings. ‘I’ll wear two pairs of socks,’ she responded.

Very little in the world can lift my spirits higher than a person who decides for themselves, against popular opinion, that they can push on through strife and struggle to ultimately achieve their goal. That kind of raw human drive is intoxicating. Her stoic belief in her abilities to continue on schedule, unconcerned by footwear, had won me over. When we started hiking again, the type-two fun was in full swing.

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I watched Christine squish her way along the coast in mud-soaked socks for the rest of the week. Her feet stayed wet, sun up to sun down, and only ever fully dried when we were asleep. When we stopped to rest we tended to any issues, but we never really talked about it – what was there to say? I watched every morning as she went into her pain closet and quietly found the strength to put on another wet sock. Six days of wet feet wears on you mentally, long before the soreness sets in. Luckily, the coastal wilderness was the perfect distraction as we wove through old-growth redwoods, long meadows brimming with flowers, and pristine gulches untouched by humanity. The Lost Coast was breathtakingly wild. Despite the rigours of the journey, we were happy to be there.

In the end, despite being in sandals and soaking feet, Christine had hiked at least 11 miles a day with a 45-pound pack through the most rugged, crippling coastline America has to offer. As we put our packs down and high-fived one another I was reminded of a very simple saying: storms make trees grow deeper roots.

Jay Kolsch spent his years after college as a photo assistant working closely with some of the world’s top photographers. He began photographing professionally in 2014 and continues to refine his portfolio and push his boundaries in adventure. He feels most at peace exhausted, dirty and far from home. When he’s not in the backcountry you can find him in Brooklyn complaining about how hip his neighborhood has become.

Instagram: @jaykolsh

Facebook: /kolschphoto

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