Fort Bragg, and Glass Beach in particular, had been on our high priority “return to it” list since our visit in 2015. Aside from the price for drycamping at the nearby state park, we had loved everything about it. Beautiful setting, quaint town, proximity to nature and the ocean, and ridiculous sea glass hunting. So after our lengthy stay at Travis AFB, we made the arduous journey across the coastal mountain range along State Highway 20, whose steep grades, hairpin turns, and limited shoulders had given The Big Kahuna fits. It was easier in Serenity, even with a tow vehicle this time, but still far from fun, and we were relieved to finally make it out of the mountains and into town after a four and a half hour run.
Fort Bragg Farmers Market: we can buy but we can’t sell!
This time of year MacKerricher State Park campground is tough to get into on late notice reservations, so we settled for what our online research suggested would be a very nice and affordable partial hook up, private place nearby, Cleone Campground. It was better than we expected, so much so that we extended our stay from three days to a full week. The location was perfect, only a couple of miles from town and Glass Beach, the price was right at only $35 a night for power and water (compare that to $45 a night plus an $8 reservation fee for drycamping at the state park next door), and the grounds were beautiful.
We started in the front section, with a long back-in spot protected by heavy growth on both sides, and our stern abutting a horse pasture such that we were greeted with whinnying most mornings. For the latter half we switched to the back portion of the grounds, snagging the only pull through spot available, a huge site under significant tree canopy. I strongly recommend Cleone Campground for your Fort Brag RV needs. The only downside is they have neither sewage connections nor a dump station, so you will need to use the pay facility at the state park for that.
One of our first activities: celebrating Rosemarie’s birthday! And while we couldn’t arrange to do it with family this year, we made the best of it: sweet local cherries, wine, and a fantastic location. And of course, cake!
While there we relaxed, enjoyed the town, and hit the beach, particularly Glass Beach. Now this is controversial: Sometime in the past two years local politicians passed an ordnance banning the collection of beach glass in the area. On top of that, rangers at the state park started issuing tickets for those in violation. The problem, as the fine folks at the International Sea Glass museum explained, is that California law explicitly overrides or precludes a local law of this nature. It comes down to the glass being, essentially, unprotected garbage that does not meet criteria as a natural resource or antiquities item.
People challenged their citations in court and won, and now the town doesn’t try to issue tickets anymore, though they still engage in dissuasion tactics such as carefully worded public placards that allow readers to mistakenly infer that it is a crime to collect the glass, while also going out of their way to make access to the beach a bit arduous (e.g., they have not repaired the stairs down to the most popular of the sites.) Let me also say that aside from educating us on the law and controversy, the International Sea Glass museum was really cool and well worth you time if you are in town.
Our genius cat
OK, so sure, its legal, but beyond that reasonable people can disagree about the ethics of it: Fort Bragg considers maintaining a robust sea glass laden beach as vital to their tourist economy, and visitors leaving with bucket fulls has definitively eroded the amount and quality of what you see on the beach. We limited ourselves to a couple of select handfuls from one of the less accessible beaches (it required some scrambling down rocks to get to) and signed the petition supporting a replenishment project for the three main inlets.
Everybody’s crafting round here.
We met up with the Neely’s again! Turns out they rolled into a park just a score of miles north of us, so we made arrangements to meet at a vineyard and wine tasting place half way between us. What a fantastic decision: After a false start in which we went to their sister facility actually in Fort Bragg, which was closed, we realized our mistake, headed north, and arrived at Pacific Star Winery, whose facilities are right on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific. We caught up, did the standard tasting, and purchased a couple of affordable bottles of red to share down by the cliffs’ edge. And while there we had a grey whale come in fairly close to shore and give us a show; we watched it cruise north along the coast, sporadically diving and hunting for about 30 minutes before we lost sight. Fantastic.
So, abalones. I had eaten one at a restaurant in Chile, where it is apparently legal to commercially harvest them. In California, however, they are rigorously regulated: no commercial harvesting, only licensed individuals can hunt them, and it must be done without scuba gear (in other words, free diving only.) Oh and you can only take three in one day and 12 for the entire year. Works for me! Diving for abalone has been rising on my bucket list since I first ate one and subsequently saw the process highlighted on food and travel shows.
But: how to go about this? I have zero cold water diving experience, didn’t know the area, and didn’t have the necessary gear. Not one to let lack of knowledge or proper equipment defer an adventure, I persisted. My best option seemed to be a guided tour/excursion with rental equipment that Rosemarie found on line, which was gonna be pricey. On a whim, I reached out to Cousin Rob, who lived in coastal NorCal for a good portion of his adult life, to see if he had any suggestions. He put me in contact with his long time good friend Ron, a regular abalone diver.
The Great Abalone Hunt of ’17: The Hunters
Ron was enthusiastic about taking me out: he admitted that he gets a dozen every year, but rarely eats a single bite. Rather, he enjoys helping other people have success at it, especially newbies like myself. I was probably the 20th person he has introduced to abalone diving. He even provided all of the equipment with the exception of the full dive suit, which I rented from a local shop for $15. That plus the one day California fishing license and the specific abalone card ($38 for the pair) was my total expense.
Ready to deshell, clean, slice, and pound
Geared up, licensed, and a wee bit anxious, I waited for Ron, girlfriend Melissa and her daughter to pick me up mid morning and take me down to a special location near Mendocino that, given the weather conditions, he thought would be perfect. Even with such assurances I anticipated several hours of arduous effort, free diving to perhaps 20′, to hopefully get a couple of legal (bigger than 7″ shells) finds.
In the pan with oil and butter
I needn’t have worried. The water was a lot rougher and visibility quite limited compared to casual Caribbean diving, but I found my first abalone within 5 minutes in chest deep water, and collected two more legals inside of an hour, the deepest at maybe 8 or 10′. Heck, the only reason it took that long was once I had two, I got picky and tried to find a big one for the final catch. I ended up with one over 8″, so I’m pretty happy over all. Ron finished things off by showing me how to remove the shell and clean the meat from the guts, as well as providing some preparation and storage recommendations. This plus a bit of fantastic ‘shine made for one hell of a day.
Ready to eat!
While I was out abalone diving, Rosemarie, sister Dolores, and niece Tamiry spent the day at Glass Beach doing what needs to be done. Dolores and child had arrived the day before and set up a tent in our spot. Though Tamiry stayed in the RV at night, mom is terribly allergic to cats and had to stay outside, haha. Aside from the need to watch a precocious four year old near cold rough water like a hawk, they had a grand time collecting glass and generally hanging out on the beach, especially since their timing worked out so well, having arrived just before low tide.
That evening Rosemarie turned Dolores loose on our table top drill press and diamond bits so she could transform some of her beach glass into jewelry. Tamiry painted rocks, inaugurated our newly discovered outdoor shower (a beach bucket with flexible water spout filled with sun-warmed water), and generally contaminated herself with feline dander and hair in our rig. We also had the old campfire standard: smores. Dolores tried to upscale the process with a custom device that combined and melted all the ingredients, but I ended up reverting back to the “just melt the marshmellow on a stick and then mash it together” method in the end. I call that weekend a success by any measure.
Finally, we want to give a shout out to the Fort Bragg Farmers Market for an enjoyable afternoon (as shoppers, not vendors, too many CA rules for us to sell there) and especially to Jenny’s Giant Burger, a fantastic big burger diner that will make you wonder why you ever still go to any of the big chains. We keep our restaurant experiences rare, and yet we ate here twice during our ten day stay.
And that’s it from Fort Bragg. Since then we have sprinted up the coast, experiencing awesomeness and at least one major hiccup along the way. More on that next!