Aaron Appel has the quiet confidence of a young man who has lived in the same place all his life and knows, unquestionably, that’s where he belongs.
A native of San Simeon, and something of a renaissance man, Aaron’s independent spirit, strong work ethic and artistic bent keep him attached to the still-rugged northern edge of the Central Coast where he grew up.
Aaron’s parents, Elizabeth and Ollie Appel, were young artists in 1970 when they brought him home from a San Luis Obispo hospital to a small rented ranch house perched above the ocean at San Carpoforo Creek. The family home was surrounded by grazing cattle, with the Pacific Ocean as their front yard and the Santa Lucias out back.
It was a quiet, peaceful life where they were “always down at the beach.” Aaron says. “We did a lot of fishing for steelhead –they were plentiful then –and it’s where I learned to fish from my dad.”
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Though their house was close to Highway 1, few cars drove by during those summers in the 1970s, and the highway was virtually dead in the winter, Aaron says. “I was lucky to grow up there.”
As Aaron and his younger sister, Moriah, got older, the distance to Cambria became an issue. Their family lived so far out of town that their mother petitioned the school to transport the children. For a few years, bus service was denied, but later the school bus ran all the way to Lucia, picking up the Appel kids along the way. The ride was so long, he still remembers the drivers’ names: Slim and Avis.
The Appels lived 12 years at San Carpoforo and then moved to Cambria’s Park Hill where Aaron’s parents bought a home. “There was just too much solitude up the coast for my mom,” Aaron says. “My dad still loved it, though.” His parents eventually divorced and his dad moved to Big Sur.
Aaron attended an alternative school for fourth through seventh grades in the old one-room Home School on San Simeon Creek Road. He liked the school’s emphasis on the arts and the “encouragement to do what you want, to be who you are.” It was a real shock, he says, to return to public school in eighth grade.
It was about that time he earned his nickname: Chappy. “When I surfed a lot, I looked like Australia professional surfer Chappy Jennings, so my buddies called me ‘Chappy,’ he says. “Not because I was always sunburned, as most people thought.”
After graduation from Coast Union High School in 1988, Aaron worked in local restaurants. He saved his earnings and bought a small boat and commercial fishing license in 1992. The ocean from Big Sur south has been his workplace ever since.
He was one of the first to use five-feet-long drop lines, each with five hooks, to land rockfish that are sold live to commercial fish markets in the Bay Area and elsewhere.
He learned early that it’s hard work launching a 14- foot boat from the beach and then bringing his catch back to shore, Aaron says. And it’s sometimes dangerous. Once his small craft was hit by a large wave and Aaron was thrown out, along with all his gear, into the deep, cold water. He managed to get everything, including himself unharmed, back into the boat.
“Fishing is really a fair-weather deal, May through November,” Aaron says. “It’s tough, but I’ve never been hurt really bad.”
Still, he says, after 20 years, the romance of the sea has dimmed and he’s looking forward to retiring from that job someday. Now, during the off-season, he forages for mushrooms on local ranches where he’s been given the green light to go. But mostly, he’s turning his attention to more artistic endeavors.
Aaron builds beautiful furniture from salvaged wood. Redwood,
sycamore, Monterey cypress— wood from windfall trees and what he calls “urban removals,” trees taken down for development or public safety. He has invested in power tools
and two types of mills— one huge mill is powered
by a Volkswagen engine— at his woodshop near the base of San Simeon Creek.
“It’s nice to create something out of something that would be thrown away,” Aaron says. “I mill, season and work with the wood I find. Most people just buy it. I like to do the process from start to finish. Cutting, drying and creating.”
His favorite is sycamore. “It’s reddish when you cut into it and has almost a snakeskin pattern in the grain. No other wood has that character.” (Samples of the furniture he builds can be found at aaronappelwoodworks.com.)
Aaron also has a bit of “jade fever.” If the weather’s nice, and he’s not working, he’s usually in the water free-diving for jade. He makes earrings, bracelets and necklaces from the jade he finds, and is learning to carve, as well. The competition for the stone is fierce, with divers waiting at first light to search key spots. Top quality finds sell for about $100 per pound.
Aaron lives with his girlfriend, Sarah Utley, in a small ridge-top house on San Simeon Creek Road, about 8 miles from Highway 1. Their neighbors are bobcats, mountain lions, hawks and other critters typically found in the mountains. They watch red foxes scamper around every night. They have not seen bears, but Aaron did find a 38-inch pitch-black rattlesnake with 11 rattles. “It sounded like the gas line blew,” Aaron says.
Even with a few close calls and the nicks and cuts of rustic living, Aaron Appel is where he wants to be.
“I feel lucky to be able to work for myself, make a living and stay here,” Aaron says. “I would never consider going anywhere else. I love it here.”
Susan McDonald’s monthly “Someone to Know” column is special to The Cambrian. Email comments and suggestions to cambrian@thetribune news.com.