PHILO, Calif. — The deeper you go into Mendocino County’s Hendy Woods State Park, the thicker the forest gets and the easier it is to get away from it all. Camping and hiking are what brings many visitors to the park, but during the 60s and 70s, a Russian World War II veteran set up a permanent home just outside the park's boundaries.
Many visitors knew him as the Hendy Woods Hermit, but park interpreter Steve Jahelka says his real name was Petro (AKA Petrov) Zailenko.
“Supposedly he was living off the land but we know he had a little help from campers,” said Jahelka.
As legend goes, Petro came to California on a fishing boat and got a job working at a lumber mill in the Anderson Valley. When asked to see his immigration paperwork, Petro disappeared into forest.
“Much of what used to be his shelter is fully decomposed now,” said Jahelka.
You can see Petro’s makeshift home if you take the Hermit Hut Trail, which was once built on old logging land but today is part of the park. To survive, Petro did a lot of foraging but also relied on the kindness of campers giving him food and cigarettes.
“If you go in here it is kind of spacious,” said Jahelka after entering what's left of one of Petro's former huts.
It’s easy to see why Petro chose to live in the Hendy Woods, especially when you walk through the Big Hendy Grove under towering redwoods.
“Many of these trees are reaching an age of 900 years,” said Jahelka.
Like Petro, Jahelka has a special connection with the trees. That's especially true of the one he calls "I-lean" because it once grew at tilted angle of about 10 degrees.
“You develop a relationship with every one of the trees but my relationship with I-lean was unique,” said Jahelka.
Jahelka is a part of the PORTS program, which teaches kids about the forest over live streaming video. After a storm in Jan. 2023, he was teaching a class and witnessed I-lean falling over.
“I think it was very appropriate that I was here for the falling of I-lean. It was an emotional experience,” said Jahelka.
The Hendy Woods have a humbling effect on visitors and park staff, too. The life and death cycle of the ancient redwoods remind many of man’s primal connection to nature.
Petro loved the forest and never caused any trouble. Over time many became fond of him and when he died in 1981, park staff spread his ashes here so he too could be part of the forest’s life cycle, just like I-lean.
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