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By Roger Schumann
“Renowned for its world-class scenery, the Nor Cal coast spans three national marine sanctuaries, two wilderness areas and a national seashore. It’s no accident this area has received so much protection—it is among the most spectacular and wildlife-rich marine habitats on the planet.” – Guide to Sea Kayaking Central & Northern California.
Bordering not only our collective backdoor, our local Sanctuary Coast also borders what is essentially the world’s largest wilderness area, the Pacific Ocean. The vast majority of local paddlers are content paddling within the relative safety of wildlife-rich sloughs and harbors like those around Elkhorn Slough, Pt. Reyes, and San Francisco Bay. The promise of remote beaches, hidden coves and sea caves, however, beckons to those willing to develop the paddling skills and sea savvy to venture beyond. Armed with a little knowledge of sheltered launch sites, local wind patterns, tides, and some basic safety skills, you can start stealing glimpses of concealed marine wonderlands that few human eyes have seen.
HOT TOMALES AND THE PT. REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE
“Tomales point jabs its rocky, northwest- pointing finger 14 miles up into the Pa- cific—a giant natural breakwater 500 feet high, forming Tomales Bay, the longest most uninhabited, stretch of protected salt water on this coast.” –from Guide to Sea Kayaking Central & Northern California
For Nor-Cal kayakers, Tomales Bay, fram- ing the landward edge of the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, is definitely a hot spot. In terms of variety, the most diverse sea kayaking in our area can be found along T Bay and the nearby Seashore. My first trip there 15 years ago was also my first overnight kayak-camping trip. Although I’ve logged literally hundreds of nights out since then, leading groups from Glacier Bay to Baja and dozens of places in between, the pull of Tomales keeps drawing me back year after year. This area is well-known for offering the best coastal kayak-camping opportunities in the state for both beginning and intermediate kayakers. Tomales Bay is truly excep- tional, featuring miles of sheltered, largely uninhabited seashore with most of the state’s only coastal boat-in camping beaches.
Novices without kayak rescue skills or their own kayaks can arrange either day tours or overnighters with one of the two outfitters on the bay. Those with more experience, basic knowledge of tides, and the required backcountry permits can rent or launch their own kayaks in the sheltered southwest corner of the bay around Inverness. At low tide the launch beaches turn into mudflats, so timing is crucial. Two of the most popular and accessible campsites are within a two hour paddle: Marshall Beach (three to four miles, depend- ing where you launch) and Tomales Beach (a mile north of that). Both campsites have outhouses, but are otherwise undeveloped.
There are more campsites, every mile or two until the point. These sites require both backcountry permits and some sort of toilet system; because there are no outhouses and the park requires campers to pack out everything. (Most kayakers use WAG bags, a personal poop-in-a-bag system for waste disposal, approved by the National Parks Service). In addition to permits and poo bags, paddlers here also need a lot more sea sense, because the further northern reaches of the bay become increasingly exposed to the open sea, afternoon winds, and treacherous tidal currents. During strong ebb (outgoing) tides, boaters in this area have been swept out to sea, into large surf and have drowned; stay away from the mouth unless you know what you’re doing. The safest time for intermedi- ate, open-water paddlers to try a little taste of what lies beyond the mouth, is to paddle the mile or two out to Tomales Point during flood tide before the wind comes up. A protected launch site at Lawsons Landing, just inside the bay, gives the best access for day trips.
For experienced class IV and V ocean paddlers, the mouth is where things really start to get interesting. Around the tip of Tomales Pt. and south toward Bird Island the full unrestrained glory of the open Pacific is exposed; rocky headlands, exploding waves, rugged cliffs, and rock gardens stretch through the sea mist to the horizon. This area is an advanced paddlers’ playground. Paddlers here should always wear a helmet and need to have the proper experience. Before venturing to this area make sure you have rough-water paddling and rescue skills, previous surf zone and rock garden experience, and probably even a combat roll. Steer well clear of Bird Island if landing on the beach nearby (one of the only landable beaches for miles in this open-ocean cliff-fest), so you don’t flush the harbor seals or cormorants resting there. Also, remember to watch the winds. It is common for the winds to build up to 15 to 25 knots in your face on the return trip.
Paddling north from the mouth is a three mile stretch of exposed, sandy beach for surfing, followed by cliffs and more rock garden play spots all the way to Bodega Bay, eight miles or so.
In general the area around the mouth is as dynamic as any on this coast. Within a few minutes a change in tide and rise in wind can change things from a simple class II jaunt into a serious class IV+ free-for-all. And then, of course, there are the sharks. Nothing puts the wild in wilderness, it’s been said, like the presence of some large, toothy predator, and the reminder that in this neighborhood you have slipped down a link from your normal place at the top of the food chain.
For tamer trips along the Seashore, paddlers can also try Drakes Estero. Like Tomales Bay, make sure to avoid low tide mudflats, dangerous ebb currents and the surf at the mouth – unless you like that sort of thing and are prepared for it. The waves here tend to be much smaller and more manage- able for intermediate kayakers, and they break onto sand, not rock. Note that after- noon winds blow from the launch beach, so getting back can be a five-mile slog if you haven’t checked your marine weather radio.
From Drakes Estero, Class III ocean paddlers can drive (or paddle) a few miles further out the road toward Point Reyes lighthouse to Drakes Beach for a sandy, semi-protected surf launch. From there you can paddle about five miles along white, sandstone cliffs (with a variety of landing beaches) all the way to the towering Pt. Reyes headlands. Once around Chimney Rock you are back into serious seas, where three miles of 300 foot granite seawall marks the dramatic geologic statement of Pt. Reyes.
MENDOCINO: SEA CAVES AND ARCHES AND COVES, OH MY!
Although the craggy Mendocino coast is among the more scenic shorelines in a state famous for its beautiful shores, what puts Mendo on the map as one of the planet’s premier paddling destinations is the numWhile Mendocino has some wonderful options for novice paddlers, they are mostly limited to trips up the Big, Albion and Navarro Rivers, winding in solitude among the tall trees of second-growth redwood and Douglas fir forests. Adventurous paddlers turn their bows toward one of the most rug- ged, wave-sculpted coastlines on the planet – a 20-mile long fluke of geology literally Swiss-cheesed with sea caves. The safest and easiest launch site to access a cave here is from Van Damme State Beach. One local company offers short guided tours on sit- on-top kayaks into a few of Van Damme’s more accessible caves. When the sea is being cooperative, intermediate paddlers can seek the company of experienced sea cavers to explore many more of the caves in this area.
The more skills and experience you have, the more terrain you’ll be able to explore. On a typical day, it is semi-protected from Van Damme south to as far as Buckhorn Cove (about three miles). This area previews some excellent examples of what the area has to offer. Beyond Buckhorn Cove the exposure increases exponentially–the caves tend to be bigger and more dynamic. If the northwest winds come up, you may be committed to the seven-mile, one-way trip down to Albion, the next possible take out. Other than that, this area is filled with cliffs, caves and more caves. There are the occasional pocket beaches to stop on for lunch, but that is about it.
This dearth of beaches and distance between landing sites can make mistakes costly. An acquaintance of mine lost almost a foot off the stern of her fiberglass kayak when a large wave washed her into the cliffs – she was fortunate not to lose more. Others have been injured and worse. A sudden wave can turn a peaceful, dreamy cave into a nightmare in the blink of an eye, so getting proper instruction before playing in caves is essential. Classes in surf zone and rock garden paddling are the mini- mum. But for those willing to put in the time to learn, this place can be pure magic. Inter- mediates can also poke around the scenic, pro- tected coves at Albion and Russian Gulch, but to access the caves and coastline beyond, they should only go with experienced sea cavers.
“Spanning one-fifth of the California coast, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the crown jewel of the sanctuary program. Among the most productive marine habitats on Earth, it offers unparalleled opportunity for marine research and a wildlife-rich envi- ronment for paddling.” From Guide to Sea Kayaking Central & Northern California.
Next to Pt. Reyes, the Monterey Bay area offers the most diverse paddling in the region. Beyond the popular, wildlife- rich wonders and kayak rental operations at Elkhorn Slough and Cannery Row, are lesser-know jewels like Stillwater Cove (north of Carmel at the south end of the world- famous 17 Mile Drive). This south-facing cove is aptly named as it is sheltered from all but the largest of swells. The launch site is almost always suitable for beginners. The cove is less than a mile wide, but is still worth poking around. Outside the cove, intermedi- ate paddlers with surf zone skills can head down to Carmel Beach. Advanced paddlers can explore along the cliffs and rock gardens to the north along 17 Mile Drive, or south past Carmel, to Pt. Lobos Marine Reserve.
Launch sites closer to Pt. Lobos (at the infa- mous, Monastery Beach or inside the Reserve – reservations required) give the best access to some of the finest advanced, open-coast paddling and the most scenic seascapes in the state. This area marks the beginning of the Big Sur coast and offers dynamic views of windswept cypress trees clinging atop rugged, wave-sculpted, granite cliffs. Around Pt. Lobos on a clear day, the Pt. Sur Light flashes an invitation to adventure, alluring as any Siren’s song. The three-day, open-coast journey down to Big Sur, sharing all the cliffed-out exposure of a big wall climb, however is another story entirely, and is best saved for another day.
Roger Schumann, author of the award-winning Guide to Sea Kayaking Central & Northern California and Sea Kayak Rescue, and owner of Eskape Sea Kayaking in Santa Cruz, has specialized in skills instruction for coastal kayak touring for the past 15 years.