Hiking Coe Can Be A Grueling Task

By Dan White

Special to Mercury News Venture

By the time Henry W. Coe State Park was through with me, my face was a mess, my legs ached, and there was poison oak over 40 percent of my body. I was sunburned the color of roast salmon and my clothes smelled so ripe I got kicked out of a Denny's.

I fought Big Henry and he kicked my butt again.

Why did this keep happening?

I'd go to the 80,000-acre park for a nice walk on one of the short loops, surveying savannas where dairy cows once grazed. Then I'd wonder why I shouldn't push myself up one more hill to the Northern Heights Route, then venture into the heavily overgrown exterior rim trail.

And then I'd get lost, trying desperately to follow the ridges west, cursing myself for forgetting the compass, dead-ending in stands of black oak, afraid to stoop and tie my untied shoes lest a mountain lion grab me by the skull and drag me off.

At first I thought overdoing it at Henry Coe was just my little problem, some mid-life attempt to make up for never getting on base during Pee Wee League or chickening out of Junior Lifeguards because of my shark phobias.

But I'm not the only one. Henry Coe - the largest state park in Northern California - may be one of the region's most popular state-funded places to hurt yourself, get lost, get sunburned and heat-stricken, all in the name of good fun and testosterone.

"The place is infectious," park volunteer Page Frechette said. "It gets in your blood."

The park itself is very safe. It's got a helpful staff and several safety patrols that carry water. The danger, if there is any, exists in plain old human stupidity.

On rare moments when I can suppress the urge to push myself until I'm dehydrated, I can actually enjoy this place. I like the way the open lands make me feel, all that dry grassland, the deer in the bushes, the turkey vultures, canyon springs and snaggy green lakes.

Once you drive up the winding road from Morgan Hill and step outside, the place just knocks you out with its faraway-ness. It's open, so remote, with places so tucked away that there's nothing but the wind and a few bobcats to keep you company.

Sadistic Hills

Above all, remember that the hills will sneak up on you and squash you if you let them. Never in my life have I seen uphills as sadistic as this.

For reasons I haven't figured out, the park is situated in such a way that the hills will punish you as much as possible. At most parks, headquarters and trail entrances can be found at a low point. That makes perfect sense. You start low and work your way up, and when you get tired, you head downhill.

But Henry Coe is the opposite. You start high, then descend, merrily running down the hill, thinking, "This is fun. Everyone said this would be so hard. But it's all so easy."

Then you turn around and the realization hits you. It's 10 miles back to your car and it's semi-vertical. And the sun is burning down at 100 degrees. Too bad the Diet Coke is all gone. You can always filter water out of that mucky spring over there. But the water filter's in the car. Oops.

Another harsh truth about Henry Coe is that many of its "trails" are really old jeep roads, built long before Henry Coe became a state park. These weren't engineered with human walkers in mind. These uphill sections will make you scream.

Hikers Bound To Get Lost

If you combine human nature with the unusual way this park is designed, you're bound to run into occasional problems.

"It's rare for anyone to truly get lost," said Lee Dittmann, a park staffer who has walked almost all of it. "Ninety-five percent of the time, when someone is reported overdue, they show up within the hour."

But that didn't happen two summers ago when a 29-year-old San Jose tile installer named Wade Garvin set out for Henry Coe to test his two-month-old blue Cannondale mountain bike. He ended up missing for three days. They were just about to send a 32-person search and rescue unit out for him when he turned up.

His two big mistakes, according to Coe staff members, were going alone and not bringing a helmet. Garvin fell, hit his head, and was knocked out cold. He awoke in pitch darkness to hear wild pigs all around him.

Garvin's more pressing problem was figuring out where he was and how to get out of there.

Fortunately he brought a water filter and a red-and-silver space blanket for night warmth. He finally managed to get to a forest ranger station at Highway 152 on Pacheco Pass.

Fishermen Unprepared

Garvin is certainly not the only one who's been up to his neck in Coe. Dittmann said fishermen often hear about great fishing at some of the lakes, many of which are grueling hikes from park headquarters. "There's no stopping them," Dittmann said. "Some of them are obviously overweight."

Often a whole party of fishermen will be stranded at the bottom of some hill, give up and set up camp. "Sometimes a radio patrol will give them more water, or the stronger of the group will come back and say, 'My buddies can't make it, can you go pick them up?'" Dittmann said.

This sort of thing makes me sad, mostly because I'm guilty of it myself. If only people, including me, could calm down and enjoy Henry Coe, we could recognize its many treasures.

They include the snag-filled, rustic Frog Lake, the spring near Deer Horn, and the stunning views all around the Northern Ridge Trail. Henry Coe makes you take a deep breath when it isn't making you scream with pain. Its streams, thickets, dry grasslands and twisting walkways make it hard to believe you're not far from the skyscrapers and cubicles of Silicon Valley.

Stay On A Short Leash

But keep your wanderings on a short leash. Unless you stick to one of the moderate loops, Henry Coe will extract its toll: butt-aches that last for days, poison oak swellings, the embarrassment of having a search party try to find you.

I've done lots of dumb things at Henry Coe and will probably do some more. But don't do what I do. Henry Coe is meant to be enjoyed, and wasn't designed for personal war games or manhood testing. If you want to do these things, go ahead.

But Big Henry always wins.

Posted: Wed May 21 05:42:06 PDT 1997