Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – A trashy campsite deep in the forest has yielded possible new clues about the builder of the immaculate tiny house in the Arcata Community Forest (ACF). Discovered by city workers last year and later cleared out and demolished by its builder, the mysterious cabin drew interest from across the country.
Now, the revelation that a second, somewhat similar cabin existed concurrently with the ACF shack has perhaps provided fresh clues as to the cabin maker, and posed fresh puzzlements.
Illegal campers’ messy campsites are a continuing problem in the Arcata Community Forest (ACF), particularly in areas close to town. The trashed camps are regularly cleaned out by city crews and volunteers, as, among other problems, they compromise the recovering watersheds and natural assets with pollution and fires. Occasionally, a more ambitious camper tries to hide in the ACF’s eastern reaches, and some end up outside city limits.
Recently, two distinct camping cultures have been iterated in the forest just a mile or more east of Arcata residential areas, roughly defined as scrupulous and otherwise.
In January, Arcata Police started getting reports from forest users of a calf or yak wandering on Trail 11, the ACF’s easternmost north-south road. A trail of animal waste led east over the ACF border to the privately held McAdams Ranch, working timberland managed by Eureka-based Natural Resources Management Corp. (NRM).
In 2014, a yak stashed in the outer forest went a-wanderin’ westward and wound up down in Redwood Park. Their human mentors appeared to have been operating from yakquarters well away from the low-effort camper rabble.
“We found the yak guys’ camps,” said Bob Kelley, NRM vice president. The campsite’s condition was the outdoor equivalent of the “Occupy Arcata Heights” house on K Street that yaksmen Tom Vanciel and Sam Sanchez, had left in extreme disarray in 2012.
Kelley said the yaktensive forest remove was strewn with “junk” – tarps, sleeping bags and other debris.
It wasn’t the first time yakonauts had set up shop on McAdams Ranch land. NRM personnel had encountered the prickly pair in a different area in 2013. “It wasn’t hard to tell where they had a camp set up,” Kelley said. “There were yak tracks all over the place.”
“They were belligerent,” Kelley said. “We told them to leave.”
The two departed, but at some point they apparently relocated to another McAdams Ranch site. There, workers happened upon individuals matching the yakitarians’ description – two men; one walking and one using a bike.
“They re-emerged simultaneously with our folks being out there,” Kelley said.
This time, as with the previous yakupation, the Sheriff’s Office was contacted, and a deputy accompanied NRM to the site.
“We went out to let them know they were trespassing,” said HCSO Deputy Kevin Castler. “We contacted the yak owner, and he said the yaks were gone.”
Sanchez was asked to leave the spot where his yak had apparently been kept for an extended period. NRM personnel later returned to clean up the trash-strewn yakstead.
During the yakvestigation, Kelley mentioned to personnel with the city’s Environmental Services Dept. the existence of another, far different camp that had been found in the same general area in 2014.
Located perhaps a quarter-mile away from the yakhole, this site boasted a shelter, and it wasn’t the usual casually improvised affair.
“It was a real, quality cabin,” Kelley said. “Good construction, with hand-built furniture.”
Kelley, who is familiar with the Mad River Union’s stories on the mysterious, plywood-clad hut in the ACF, said the unit on the property he manages was “close in quality” if not in specific construction methods.
This time, the builder had hand cut and notched large redwood logs to create a home even deeper in the woods. A watertight working door and window opened to the inside of the sturdy structure.
The slanted roof bore a carefully installed plastic sheet suitable for the wet forest, and a latrine had been set up in amid some logs nearby.
“He did a quality job,” Kelley said. “Real tidy.”
Interior furnishings were spare but functional – a bunk bed, table, a few stools. Outside, Kelly said, was “outdoor furniture, if you can call it that,” and a handmade sawhorse.
“He was pretty damned skilled to build all that with a bunch of hand tools, which is all he had,” Kelley said.
The cabin was “off the beaten path,” Kelley said, “but you could definitely follow a trail to his place.”
Like the previously known cabin, it was surrounded by undisturbed forest. Except for lightly trampled ferns, though, the structure was all but undetectable in the dense woods. “You wouldn’t know it was there until you stepped on it,” Kelly said.
Meet the cabinator
Just as the yaksmens’ trashed settlement looked nothing like the cabin occupant’s fastidious camp, their irascible affect also contrasts with his humble demeanor.
“He wasn’t an obnoxious guy at all,” Kelley said. “I almost expected a confrontation.” The homesteader was “very apologetic” and “embarrassed that he got caught.”
The man said the cabin’s redwood logs had been hewn from trees which had fallen naturally, and that he hadn’t cut down any redwoods. Kelley said he found no stumps in the area to contradict the claim.
The sandy-haired, average-sized man wore a short beard, and was possibly in his late forties. He told his discoverers that he had recently been released from prison, and “didn’t assimilate well” in society, hence his isolated domicile. He said he was employed in Arcata, and commuted to town and back via bicycle.
On being discovered, the man abandoned his tiny house. “He took all his stuff out,” Kelley said.
Unlike the ACF cabin, which its occupant apparently demolished after being discovered, the log cabin was left in place. Returning to the area last summer, Kelley and his personnel found that it had been re-inhabited.
They flagged the structure and tagged it with “PC 601,” a reference to the state Penal Code statute for aggravated trespassing. Notes were also left warning the occupant.
The next time the NRM crew saw it, the cabin had been cleared of possessions. It was then chainsawed to the ground to prevent further occupancy.
'Underground bunker-type thing'
Meanwhile, about a quarter-mile away, NRM found something else – “kind of a bunker, if you will” Kelley said.
There, an employee discovered a lean-to made from tarp and cables, and in further inspecting the area, discovered an underground room. The dugout, accessible via a short tunnel, was topped with a fern-covered wooden roof. “It felt like you were walking on solid ground,” Kelley said of the “underground bunker-type thing.”
That installation was similarly marked, and later found to have been both vacated and mitigated by someone unknown.
“As soon as he saw that we had discovered it, he filled that in and cleaned up everything.” Kelley said.
He acknowledges the obvious similarities between the ACF cabin occupant and whoever built what he called the “Lincoln Log” cabin on property he manages. He also sees a link between the log cabin and the bunker. “Likely it’s the same guy,” he said.
Still, the McAdams and ACF cabins lived and died more or less concurrently. Why would one hyper-ethical hermit create and furnish two fairly elaborate tiny houses within a half-mile or so of each other – or is that exactly what he’d do, to create a backup bug-out option?
No different, or weirder
The ACF-bordering property is no stranger to illegal camps. “We’ve been removing structures and campers since the 1980s,” Kelley said. He recalled another elaborate structure the property had once hosted – a two story treehouse.
In recent weeks, the Union’s stories on the now-demolished cabin in the ACF have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. The story has been picked up and rerun online – often without attribution – by a variety of outdoor, survivalist, tiny house and general interest websites, some of which link back to the Union story.
Continuing interest in the tantalizing enigma has made the story the most popular in the Union’s 2 1/2-year history. Runners-up include a story on the closure of Porter Street Barbecue over handicapped-access issues, and an update on Arcata's beloved street wanderer, Pete Villarreal.