For the 30 years that I have lived off the grid in Big Flat, I have always enjoyed the solitude of the South Fork of the Smith River, the forests, the mountains and my great neighbors in the valley.
Our main road to Rock Creek, Boulder Creek and Big Flat is South Fork Road. It has been improved greatly in the last two years as Tidewater Construction of Brookings eliminated all of the one-ways to two full lanes. The second phase is now under way with the replacement of the one-way metal bridges, Steven and Hurdy Gurdy.
The other two roads in and out of Big Flat are seasonal. French Hill Road heads north from Big Flat and is 24 miles to Gasquet over Gordon Mountain, about 4,500 feet high and comes out at the old Wagon Wheel Motel. This is county-maintained and is usually closed by snow in the winter.
Another beautiful drive is through Big Flat to the Steven Ranch, where it turns into a Forest Service road and heads up toward Ship Mountain, which tops off at 5,300 feet in elevation. The road continues past Bear Basin Butte, its Forest Service rental cabin and mock fire lookout station.
This cabin was donated to the Forest Service many years ago by Bill Pierson of Eureka, who also rebuilt Camp Six Lookout on this site. The road then ties into Little Jones Creek Road, a paved surface that runs into Highway 199 north of Patrick Creek Lodge. On a clear day there are places on the high points that Mt. Shasta is visible.
I have always considered this red-neck country because of my upbringing and have enjoyed that aspect of my life. In this environment we are free and can live life like the good Lord intended.
Richard Wiens and wife Laura of the Triplicate have moved to this area and have shared through their articles of their adventures of our back-country and ocean vistas. It is evident that they enjoy living and working here.
My latest trek was a drive to Ship Mountain Lookout hosted by John Dean, Forest Service officer at the site. I met John three years ago on a trip to the lookout with my nephew Mikael Love of Fort Worth, Texas. I was joined this year by Sol Love, Missy's 93-year-old father from Dallas. It is an 11-mile drive up through the valley past Steven Ranch and then onto a Forest Service road that crosses Jones Creek at the eastern end of the valley.
It is all gravel road up the steep climb so my comfort level is to kick the 4x4 truck into "4 high."
I told Sol to pay attention to the change in the type of trees as we started up the mountain. Tall firs slowly diminished into more pines and cedars, dominated by hardwoods also on the decline. These changes are very evident with people that are aware of the timber environment.
As we got to the 4,000-foot level in elevation, many of the trees were stunted or distorted by the tremendous winds in the winter storms. John Dean has a wind gauge at the station, and has recorded gusts of over 150 mph.
We turned left close to the summit and kicked the Ford 4x4 into low range for the climb to the small parking lot at the lookout. John came out on the deck and greeted us, and 93-year-old Sol went right up the stairs to the surrounding deck and observation area.
This is a wonderful new facility with a lot of comforts of home. The station is cabled into the rock cliff and has a lightning rod that is grounded in rock.
John shared with me that he was sure he took a direct strike previously. The bolt blinded him momentarily and the thunder clap was instantaneous and then a burning smell and a smell of ozone in the air. John was fine and the system worked.
The view from this lookout is spectacular as westward the coast, Castle Rock and St. George Reef Lighthouse are visible as long as there is no fog. The sight northeast with the tall Siskiyou Range shows Preston Peak, El Capitan and Sanger Mountain standing much higher than Ship Mountain. Preston is right around 7,500 feet. They are an extraordinary sight.
Many of these peaks and their sparse trees have been hit with lightning strikes over the years. These small burn areas stand out.
The main equipment in the building centers around radio communication. That communication can be to the regional base in Fortuna, working in unison with Cal-Fire State firefighters. There is also communication with the main base in Gasquet that houses head Ranger Mary Kay Vandiver, whom I worked with while I represented the Board of Supervisors on the Biscuit fire. Mary Kay is a professional and I enjoyed flying in a Forest Service helicopter during the fire.
John showed Sol and I the Osborne Fire Fighter built in 1911 - improved in 1933. The Osborne is a 360-degree sighting device with a map showing township, range and section with an azimuth reader which pinpoints the fire.
Typical fire report by John:
Blaze or smoke sighted, estimated size, any vehicle access. Azimuth 181, Township 14, Range 3, Section 2. Distance from Lookout 6 miles, location 8 Mile Creek.
This gives the regional facility the tools it needs to get forces in place.
At times John will report and track formation of thunderstorms and situations where clouds have rain but it does not reach the ground.
John said the Gasquet Ranger District has been called the Asbestos Forest because it has fewer fires than other areas. This is an area of higher mountains with geological formations of serpentine and peridotite rock that cut back on brush and tree growth on higher slopes and in other areas. I know from my geological background that that is true.
As John and I sat in the lookout, Sol ventured around the outer deck and I knew that he was "smelling the roses" and that great mountain air.
I walked out and joined him on the deck. To the west and down, we could pick out the Steven Ranch and Jones Ranch. They looked like postage stamps 4,000 feet down the mountain.
I appreciated the two visits to Ship Mountain in the last three years and John certainly knows his job and makes it fun. John's wife, Carrie, also is with the Forest Service, assisting Mary Kay in Gasquet. Spies tell me that Mary Kay might retire this winter after both she and her husband spent a career with the Forest Service. I want to congratulate them on a great career of service.
Grandpa Sol made it back down the steps to the truck and we carefully negotiated the narrow road off from Ship Mountain Lookout. Thanks, John Dean, for another great visit and thanks to Sol for the courage to take on the mountain.
John shares this: "Amazing things that are out there are God's creations."
John is also the pastor of Gasquet Bible Church.