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Del Norte People: Adventures of traveling South Fork Road

The new Steven Bridge is one of many South Fork Road upgrades.
The new Steven Bridge is one of many South Fork Road upgrades. Submitted by Chuck Blackburn
As residents of rural counties, I am sure that we have more daily adventures in our travels to our destinations. I can’t imagine what it must be like driving each day to work in a commute from, say, Santa Rose to San Francisco.

In my eight years on the Board of Supervisors, I attended many meetings outside of our area where people lived off grid, 15 miles from the mailbox. We had cell phones with antennas in our vehicles with boosters, and I could tell by the looks on the faces of some of the residents that they wondered, “Who was this alien from outer space?”

I have thought of this over the years of living in paradise along the South Fork of the Smith at Big Flat, where your privacy is nearly total. I bought our property in 1977, a year after my father’s death. I started construction of our original cabin in 1978 on four and a half acres of land. In 1983, I added a two-story addition, which we then moved into full-time.

We had wood heat and generated, stored energy in eight LC 16 batteries with an inverter that turns 24 volts of direct power into 120 volts of alternating current like homes on the grid in town.

This past May we had 12 140-watt solar panels put in and during the summer months they furnished us with enough energy to not have to run our Onan 11 kilowatt diesel generator. What great stuff that is. This produces 1680-watt power.

Missy and I have been married for 19 and a half years, and for a gal who was raised in Dallas, what a change in lifestyle. She loves the seclusion of Big Flat and even the round trip of 50 miles. I would like to share my experiences of travelling South Fork Road for over 50 years — 30 years as a full-time commute from home.

Evolving improvements

South Fork is a Federal Highway Administration road, which connects to the “GO” Road, the Gasquet-Orleans Road, which was built in the late-1950s. The GO Road took off from Big Flat to the southeast and is all paved and dead-ends about 24 miles in. The GO Road from Orleans on the Klamath River heads north westward and comes within six miles of joining its counterpart. It never was completed because of environmental and Native American concerns. It will never be completed now, since the new wilderness designation came into being.

Although I always considered South Fork a great road, it had two narrow one-way sections plus four one-way metal bridges. The first one-way was dangerous in the wintertime because of constant slides. The other one-way segments were inconveniences.

In about 1996 former Assessor Jerry Cochran and I as a supervisor met with the federal highway folks from Denver, joined by our County Road Department. A two-phased project was discussed to turn South Fork Road into a full two-lane road into the National Recreation area. The first phase was a two-year project done by Tidewater Construction out of Brookings, headed up by George and Kassie Fitzhugh.

What a great job they did. Two new two-lane bridges at Rock Creek and Boulder Creek were constructed and the two dangerous one-ways at three-mile and 10-mile were rebuilt into safe corridors. This past year West Coast Construction out of Coos Bay built the two new Steven and Hurdy Gurdy bridges, two full lanes each. What a great 15-mile drive today.

Through rain and sleet

The years 1994 through 1998 were tough years on South Fork with the tremendous rain that those four years brought. Our average at Big Flat is about 120 inches of rain a year. Those years were 140, 144, 154 and 170 inches. In 1996, 154 inches for the year — we had 60 inches in December and two great slides occurred at three-mile and 10-mile.

County roads and a private contractor opened both sites in a couple of days, but they continued to be dangerous.

In my 28 years of broadcasting football and basketball, I had to drive through many violent storms returning to Del Norte from Humboldt County or Oregon, only to look forward to an additional 45 minutes of travel from town up South Fork to home.

There were several occasions where I would get to a slide site and the road was blocked and it would be 1 a.m. in the morning. I would have to turn around and drive back to Hiouchi or Crescent City, where I would find friends by cell phone for a place to stay for the night. My great friends Larry and Kookie Amos hosted me several times over the years in their famous “Hotel Amos.” Thanks, good buddies.

After the great rain years of 1996-97, Terry Smith of Essayon’s Construction of Redding got the contract to fix the three-mile and 10-mile one-way slide areas for safer passage. As this was emergency funding from FEMA, this was only slide removal and some shoring up of the bank areas. We still had closures and in February 1997, the Del Norte County Road Department had to try to open French Hill Road over Gordon Mountain into Gasquet with its five feet of snow.

I had to get into town that evening to broadcast a Del Norte basketball game over KPOD Radio. I kept in touch with the county through radio telephone and finally at 3:30 p.m. was given permission to head up the mountain.

I led a small caravan of residents up French Hill and it wasn’t long before we encountered snow. We first met Terry Degross above Dry Lake with his county grader and waved. As we neared the 5,400-foot summit, two county CATS were pushing a five-foot wall of snow off the roadway. It was taller than the roof of my Izusu 4x4 SUV. It was still snowing hard and we plodded ahead. Below the summit on the Gasquet side is Camp Six and it’s 13 miles of downhill into Hwy. 199.

We made it into town safely and I stopped at Northwoods for a pre-game meal with my “compadre” Donnie Mattz in preparation for the Del Norte-Eureka game. I knew that I did not want to tackle Gordon Mountain at night with its continued snowstorm, so Larry and Kookie put me up at Hotel Amos again. What great friends. It saved me another dangerous trip to Big Flat in the middle of the night.

Wildlife encounters

Another remarkable feature of South Fork is the interface with wildlife. One remarkable site was a midnight return from a basketball game as I stopped at the mail box near “Second Bridge” where South Fork turns toward Big Flat.

Just a quarter-mile up and on a right-hand turn, my lights shone on a large female mountain lion in the middle of the road. She looked at me in a crouched position. Her sinewy, muscled body stood out as I slowed down to a crawl. She exploded upward toward the steep bank and disappeared in the woods above. It was a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. The slow motion-like event is still vivid in my mind.

Many times I have slowed down for black bears and their cubs. Many times I have followed right next to them up the road until they dart sideways and into the brush. Foxes abound during the night hours with occasional deer saying “howdy” from the side of the road.

There are many people who know South Fork, but yet many who have never travelled it. Welcome to all of you who have never enjoyed the many miles of paradise. Maybe if you join me, we may even say “hello” to Bigfoot. Remember, Bluff Creek, site of a noted sasquatch sighting, is only 40-50 miles away to the southeast in the Klamath River drainage.

Our best to you all from Rock Creek, Boulder Creek and Big Flat. We live this lifestyle for a reason — its freedom, independence and the wonderful relationships with neighbors with like feelings of enjoying nature.

 


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