California Flying

Victorian Eureka

August 1, 2003

Eureka is 280 miles north of San Francisco and bordered on one side by Humboldt Bay and the other by mountains lush with redwood forests. A half-hour away by car is Redwood National Park, featuring hiking trails, beaches, and wildlife.

The first time I stood in a redwood forest in Eureka, California, I felt like a child again. Everything was bigger than it was supposed to be. It was dark and cool, and rainwater dripped from branches hundreds of feet in the air. These coastal redwoods helped make Eureka what it is and, most important, what the southern half of the state isn't.

Far from the glitz of Hollywood and the bustling of Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties, Eureka resides in Humboldt County and is, in many ways, like the redwoods, larger than life. This is where Bigfoot is believed to roam. Eureka has evolved from its start as a timber and commercial fishing village in the 1850s to the North Coast's center for government, industry, and transportation. Yet, judging by the architecture, it is still very much a Victorian seaport. The city is flanked by Humboldt Bay, the largest port between Portland and San Francisco, and coastal mountains. National, state, and city parks offer miles of trails through the big trees. One of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen is snow on redwoods, a rare event.

Take a walk along the beaches and you may only see driftwood. With an average annual temperature of 52 degrees and sea breezes, it's too cold to let much skin go bare. And your feet turn numb in the ocean water as it batters the rocky coasts and jetties. The amount of rainfall is comparable to the coasts of Washington and Oregon, leaving the earth green and lush.

But the area sees one thing, and plenty of it, that is a major enemy to pilots: fog. As if someone throws a switch, the temperature-dew point spread narrows and fog instantly blankets the area to the delight of the redwoods and to the dismay of pilots who have to alter their plans as the fog enshrouds all three coastal airports down to the runways. It's common for half the morning commuter flights to get canceled at Arcata Airport in McKinleyville, about a 20-minute drive from Eureka, even though it has two decent-size runways and plenty of instrument approaches. Situated on a bluff 200 feet above the surf, it's a former military base and was used as a testbed for a fog dispersal system following World War II. By lighting gas burners, ground crews could lift the fog above instrument approach minimums, but it proved too costly for commercial applications. When the foghorns blow, pilots today may find themselves turning around or landing at Kneeland Airport, a scant piece of asphalt, 2,270 by 50 feet, perched at 2,700 feet above sea level in the coastal range. There are no instrument approaches and mountain-flying experience is highly recommended.

Eureka was never an easy place to reach, not even for the early mariners, whose ships often wrecked on the rocks. But this is also what has kept Eureka a big secret from the rest of the state. Once here, people seldom leave, falling into the rhythm of the peaceful misty rains and breathing in the salty air. When the skies do clear, the sun is appreciated, not taken for granted as it is to the south.

Humboldt County is also known for its diverse political landscape from loggers trying to scratch out a living to environmentalists who stage tree-sits to protect the redwoods, one of which lasted two years in the case of Julia "Butterfly" Hill. This is also a place where fishermen risk their lives in high seas when they depart the docks in Eureka and college students at Humboldt State University in neighboring Arcata, heavily steeped in 1960s ideology, are always looking for something to protest. Bell-bottomed and dread-locked, Arcata has been called Berkeley North.

It's easy to lose track of the seasons unless you know what indicators to look for, such as spring flowers or, better yet, annual festivities. People in Humboldt County love to celebrate whether it be banana slugs or rutabaga. If you happen to be here for the Memorial Day weekend, don't miss the Arcata to Ferndale World Championship Kinetic Sculpture Race where human-powered contraptions lightheartedly compete on asphalt, water, sand, and mud over the 38-mile course. Participants turn septic tanks into submarines and send giant crayons and insects hurtling through town. If you miss the race, check out the museum in Ferndale, a perfectly restored Victorian community founded by a melting pot of Scandinavian, Swiss-Italian, and Portuguese dairy farmers. Two other big events each year draw top musicians to Eureka, the Redwood Coast Dixieland Jazz Festival in March and Blues By The Bay in July.

For activities a little less seasonal, check out Eureka's Old Town, featuring nineteenth-century shops, restaurants, and art galleries; the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum; the Blue Ox Millworks, to learn about frontier logging and Victorian millwork; Woodley Island Marina; Clarke Memorial Museum, presenting Native American artifacts that emphasize Northern California tribes; and the Carson Mansion, an intricate architectural wonder built by a lumber baron, where you see new angles and shapes every time you look at it. There is also plenty of activity on the bay, like harbor cruises and sea kayaking, to help you appreciate the burgeoning wildlife from sea lions to hundreds of species of birds.

As for flying in, try the Samoa Airport Bed and Breakfast, located at the Eureka Municipal Airport that offers a 2,700-foot-long runway. The charming facility, located on a peninsula, is a restored 1940s military blimp base and is owned by Donald and Shauna Burrow. They offer rooms for $80 to $105 per night including tiedowns and breakfast for two. Courtesy cars are also available for $15 a day. The Burrows can be reached by telephone, 707/445-0765, or visit the Web site ( www.northcoast.com/~airbb/) for more information. The bed-and-breakfast is not far from the famous Samoa Cookhouse that specializes in large groups and serves up meals "lumber camp" style where the food is brought to the table in large bowls and passed around.

Besides Eureka Municipal and Arcata airports, there's Murray Field, located just north of town and the closest airport to Eureka. In 1919 Dayton Murray landed in Eureka after being discharged from the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was the first to deliver an airmail letter in Humboldt County, the first to fly from Eureka to San Francisco, and the first to perform aerobatics on the North Coast, according to The Humboldt Historian. The original Murray Field was a cow pasture a few hundred yards from the modern 3,000-foot-long runway. The airport now offers a full range of services and GPS and VOR instrument approaches.

Chances are, you won't see Bigfoot while you're here. But if you do, let the Willow Creek China Flat Museum in the small town of Willow Creek know. The museum collects such information.


E-mail the author at nate.ferguson@aopa.org.