By Ian Stout
Humboldt County, Calif., and Oregon are hardly strangers.
The two regions are linked by a lengthy history of large-scale cannabis production going back long before the days of legalization. Countless Oregonians have done their time working the land on the California side of the border, and vice-versa. In weed terms, Southwest Oregon and Northwest California are one region, in culture and spirit.
And if you've done any time in the inland pockets of the Emerald Triangle, one thing is clear—it is truly a wild place.
I spent six seasons working the harvest and shooting in a remote pocket of Northern Humboldt. Like many who've done time in the Triangle, I was just another middle-class kid looking chill in what, to me, seemed a slice of paradise. The money was part of it, but the real reason I came to Humboldt was for the pot photos.
Last year, Netflix released a six-part documentary on the history and sociopolitical vibe of the region called Murder Mountain. The back half of the series examines the unsolved murder of a young pot farmer that took place in the notoriously outlaw enclave of Alderpoint. The first thing I thought to myself after watching it was how it could have been me.
I knew going in it wasn't going to be easy down there. I had friends who farmed and understood the risks and what it took to hang there. I heard a lot of stories, and ended up with a few of my own. Here are two of them.
Around 2010, small mom-and-pop medical pot farms in California started to push the envelope on the 99-plant legal limit. It invited serious risk.
At that time, I reunited for a night with a pot farmer who was an old acquaintance, and for whom I would soon work. That season was a banner year for his farm, with hundreds of pounds harvested. The following season, my first year, he planted only 99 plants in an effort to deflect heat. The season after, though, it was back to business. There were four separate gardens that year, close to 800 Sour Diesel plants—and a couple hundred old-school AK-47s in the mix.
My second morning there, 10 dudes gathered around a Coleman stove, passing blunts and watching water boil.
Around 10 am, the first Humboldt County sheriff's spotter plane came roaring in from the south over the top garden. It was so low over the treetops we could see, for a brief second, the pilot's face looking down at us.
Within minutes, multiple helicopters were moving up the valley. Everyone scattered. I shoved camera gear into my backpack as fast as I could. We were about to bolt and hike out, but at the last second, the farmer ordered us to his truck to make a risky run for the gate.
As we were pulling away, another chopper came flying past the ridge, with two officers brandishing military-style rifles and gear bags, harnessed to ropes, dangling below the helicopter.
We made it to the gate unscathed. Meanwhile, the officers whacked an entire garden of a few hundred Sour Diesel plants. The helicopters came back and hauled it off in nets—a quarter of the crop gone. They never came up to the house to arrest anyone, they didn't hit the biggest, choicest gardens, but they certainly made a statement.
We essentially spent the next three nights harvesting from sunset until dawn, hauling around 700 slightly premature cannabis plants' worth of flower off the mountain. Each day, we figured they'd come back to finish the job, but they never did. In the end, we got away without charges, but we took a hit and we saw the whites of their eyes.
On the opposite side of the equation, and way more dangerous, are the raiders—backwoods gangs of varying audacity and ability that traditionally target pot farms. Most gangs in Humboldt are arguably nothing more than a few dudes with a little ambition and nothing to lose, but there are many much larger gangs with all kinds of backing, from all walks of life.
Many of these crews know the vast system of country roads that spider-web their way across Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. They use Google maps and sometimes drones to study farms and properties, then come in stolen trucks and quads, with body armor, ARs and all kinds of weaponry. They have chains, pipe cutters, torches and even wet saws to take out farm gates. They'll ram and shoot at vehicles and outbuildings.
It was mid-November in a different year, the harvest had recently left the mountain, and a gang had been working our road. While the property was temporarily vacant, they cut the gate and made their way in. There was a single camera in a tree near the entrance. They somehow located it, climbed the tree and burned it. Once on the property, they shot up outbuildings, smashed in doors and stole just about everything they could, including old dog beds, a wood stove and a full cord of stacked firewood. In total, they stole about $10,000 of equipment, not including the damage to the buildings.
The following week, I returned to Humboldt to hang in solidarity over the incident. It's a bummer, but this stuff happens and it is a sobering reminder. The following day, we headed up to the property to do some more patchwork on the break-in. As we arrived at the gate, we found the temporary replacement chain and U-lock cut.
These guys had come back for round two—and they might be on the property, like, right now. So we pulled out the shotgun. We loaded three slugs and put three warning shots in the air. We stopped to listen for any sound of movement or trucks coming from the property. But all was quiet. We crept in through the winding roads of the property, sweeping the different nooks and crannies, sometimes on foot. They seemed to be gone, and hadn't taken anything more.
On the way out, there was an additional game camera hidden on a long straightaway on the property. We took it down, and watched over beer and pizza later that night. A bunch of clips roll by, triggered by rain and wind-blown leaves, showing a repetitive clip of an empty muddy driveway. We were about to give up when the moment of suspense arrived.
A '90s Chevy 1500, without license plates, came barreling into the frame, hauling ass down the driveway. The driver was obscured by glare and the reflection of trees on the windshield. Clear as day, hanging completely out the passenger-side window, was a male, late 30s, pointing a pistol at whatever hypothetically might be in their way. We literally spit beer and pizza out of our mouths and noses upon seeing this. They appeared again on the camera, some 30 minutes later, exiting the property. According to the timer on the camera, they had exited the property about 15 minutes before we arrived.
A good hour was spent watching and rewatching what was about 10 seconds of footage. We were right. God knows what would've transpired had we arrived at that gate a few minutes earlier. I can tell you this, though—that dude with the pistol, hanging out the window of that truck, probably wasn't fucking around.