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The Lost Coast is home to California's only off-the-grid public school | Bartell's Backroads

Miles from the nearest public utilities, Whale Gulch School in Mendocino County functions like any other school, with the help of solar panels and a lot of ingenuity

MENDOCINO COUNTY, Calif. — The Sinkyone wilderness is a wild and raw piece of Northern California that is dense with old-growth forests and a treacherous seascape. 

It’s a part of the state known as the Lost Coast because the area is so rugged that Highway 1 could not be built here, but if you have a high-clearance vehicle, you will find that people do live out here.

Located in the thick of a redwood grove overlooking the Lost Coast is Whale Gulch School, the only K-12 public school in California that is completely off-grid. Whale Gulch is part of the Leggett School District in Mendocino County, and apart from being disconnected from modern amenities, the school functions just like any other school, according to site coordinator Brenda Bullington. 

“We do not have power. This is a total solar-powered school, but all the kids have computers and we even have an electronic smart board,” Bullington said.

As site coordinator, it is Bullington’s job to make sure everything is working properly. Between the lights, the computers and new digital smart chalk boards, the school uses lots of power, so when clouds block the solar panels, the propane-powered generator kicks in. 

Most of the time. 

“I’ve had to bring my car down here and jump the generator before. Ha! I do everything,” Bullington said.

Bullington really does wear a lot of hats. In fact, another hat she wears is manager of the school’s water treatment plant. Bullington says the school's water comes from a creek up the hill and its gravity fed through a pipe down to a series of filters.

This year, the enrollment at Whale Gulch is 48 kids and they all share about a half-dozen teachers and instructors. Many of the grades learn in the same classrooms together. But that’s ok with Claire Cauffman, who is one of the three seniors this year. 

“There was one year we had a graduating class of one. There was another year where we had none,” Cauffman said, who has been going to Whale Gulch since kindergarten. 

You may be asking yourself why parents would choose to live and enroll their kids in Whale Gulch. Well, Sandy Tilles is one of the founders of the school and she says the answer was simple. 

“You know, grow your own food, build your own house, raise your kids," Tilles said. "We just wanted to get back to the land. It was the beginning of the back-to-the-land movement."

As more families moved to the area in the 1960s and 70s, it became apparent they could not drive their kids an hour and a half to the nearest school in Leggett. 

“We all built our own homes, so we hired one master builder and he organized all the volunteers,” Tilles said.

The first years were tough. Kids learned inside a yurt. But after lots of hard work and years of negotiating with the Mendocino County education system, the community eventually built a school of their own and officially joined the Leggett School District. 

“We have fabulous staff and wonderful parents that continue to keep this school vital and alive,” Tilles said.

There’s no cellphone signal, no mall, no movie theater or easy road out of Whale Gulch. Nature and this small community are what these students grew up with and for those graduating, it’s something they will miss. 

“Something I am going to definitely miss is the community and the relationships that I have with all the students and teachers. I am very close with everyone,” says Cauffman.

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