I met my father in Valley Ford, a little town near the Marin County border, at 7:00am on this morning. He left his car there and we drove together in my VW Bus down around Tomales Bay. It was foggy in places, but the views of the bay from the road were spectacular. Dad loaned me his cheep 110 camera to take on this trip, so we had to stop and buy a roll of film for it, and then another stop to buy some scotch tape to hold the camera together long enough to last the trip. We drove all the way down the bay, and then all the way back up to the northern most beach on the ocean side: McClures Beach. On the way through the park, there were signs warning of the currents and rough surf, especially at McClures Beach". On the trail down to the beach, there was a warning sign about the currents, surf, sleeper waves that come up the beach all the way to the cliff, and the great white sharks. "Stay away from the water. Stay away from the cliffs". So why is there a trail here anyway? I was going to walk down the trail and look at the water before bringing everything down, but dad was a bad influence: The trail is half a mile long, you can't see the beach till you are almost there, and that would make for a long walk. "Just get ready and go!" he said. The first 100 meters of the trail was imported beach sand, and I could slide the kayak with all the supplies in it down the trail. But the trail got steeper, and made out of ground up pumice, so we picked up the kayak on both ends. Dad wasn't really up to this, so after a while, I gave him the wetsuit top and the life vest, and carried the kayak the rest of the way on my back. If all goes well, I'll land on a shallow beach and will not have to haul everything back up this trail.
The waves were pretty intimidating. But since I put the wetsuit long johns on up in the parking lot, since the kayak was down here, since I had an audience, (Dad, and a couple of German tourists who came over to watch), since there was a steep trail if I turned back, I had to try to get out through the surf. But I predicted (out loud) that I would fail the first attempt, and get washed back up on the beach. I put on my full armor, (like St. George preparing to slay a dragon): wetsuit long john and jacket, life vest, booties and gloves, and tied my felt hat on extra tight. I waded out into the water and waited for three large ones to come in, to try and get out in the calm time afterwards. Of course, from the water, they all look large. As predicted, my first attempt got me knocked back off fairly soon. I hoped that this was really the end of a rough time, and got back on almost right away and made it over the little waves. That was when the three large ones came in. I paddled hard and stayed pointed straight through the breakers on the first one, although Dad said later that it looked like I almost got tipped over backwards. The second one broke way out to sea, and I shouted "OH NO!", but it lost much of its energy before it got to me, and although I got a face full of water, It was relatively easy to plow over. The third one threatened to break, and threatened to break, and threatened to break... I was of two minds: I wanted it to break way out there so the breakers would calm down before I had to plow over them, in which case I should slow down and wait for it. But I also wanted it to go under me before it broke, so I wouldn't have to deal with it at all, in which case I should paddle for all I was worth to make sure I got over it. Ambivalence usually puts me in exactly the wrong spot to get the wave to break on top of me. This time I made it over the top just as it was breaking, and made it out to sea. I was exhausted and breathing as hard as I've ever been in this kayak. I paddled WAY OUT to get past any more big waves before I turned around. The fog was hanging close to the shore, and I could not see the beach at all through the glare from the early morning sun.
I had hoped that the waves at McClures Beach were a local phenomenon, and I would get to paddle inside the ring of rocks that line the shore here. But as I went north, the waves broke OVER this row of rocks, and I had to stay pretty far from shore to stay safe. The fog was low, I could see a ring of blue sky over my head, but the early morning sun created so much glare, that I did not even see the cliffs for the first 2 miles of the trip. This is a shame, because my USGS map shows that the cliffs are very steep, and 120 meters tall in places here. The map also showed a large rock offshore 3 miles north of the beach, and I got there ahead of schedule, probably because I didn't have any other rocks to paddle around. Its called Bird Rock, but there are probably 300 rocks with that name up and down the California coast. Once I got behind this rock, the water calmed down, and there was an inviting sandy beach in the sheltered area that would be easy to land on and take off from. There is a 4.5 mile hiking trail that starts near the McClures Beach trail-head, and it probably ends at this beach. The waves broke over a row of rocks extending from bird rock to the shore, and it was not possible to continue north, I had to go back around the big rock. This is not a problem, I wanted to explore it anyway. There was a sandy beach on the inside of the big rock, protected by another ring of rocks just offshore. It looked like it would be easy to get in- between these rocks and land on Bird Rock, but a bunch of harbor seals had preceded me, and I didn't want to disturb them. There were also a bunch of seal heads popping up in the calm water and watching be go by. Can't these seals read? This is BIRD rock, not seal rock!.
The next rock out from Bird Rock was much lower, and as the waves hit it, water geysered out of several holes in it. I tried to take a few pictures of this as I went by. Apparently, Bird Rock is just the largest of a row of rocks that extends much farther out to sea. I had to go way out to avoid the waves breaking over the submerged rocks that I never saw. Even then, I apparently turned over them a little too soon, and three big waves broke over them and gave me a scare. At least I knew I'd have a calm beach to wash up on if I got in trouble.
Bird Rock is only 1.5 kilometers from the northern most tip of Tomales Point, so I got cautious and stayed pretty far from the shore, expecting weird water around the tip. It occurred to me that Tomales Point would also extend a long way north under the water, and I would have to go way around this as well. Sure enough, the waves continued breaking over nothing when I was past the point, and I had to plot my course by watching to see if waves were breaking ahead of me, and by the sound of them breaking to my right. A few Zodiacs and aluminum fishing boats went by in both directions, and we waved at each other. I was amazed that everyone slowed down as they passed me to decrease their wake. I don't think it was necessary, but I was impressed by the courtesy.
When the sound of breaking waves was almost lost behind me, I turned west. There was a place where the swells got REALLY TALL without breaking, and that must have been going over the submerged part of Tomales Point. After that, the waves calmed down for a while. I was still surrounded by low fog, with only 200 meters of visibility in all directions, but a circle of blue sky overhead. The sun was still low enough to create a lot of glare, so I was still wearing my sun glasses. The buoy at the entrance to Tomales Bay faded into existence ahead of me in the mist. It was a lot like playing the game Myst: This strange machine appeared in front of me making interesting noises. There were 3 horizontal plate like bells mounted one above the other, each a slightly different size. There were 4 clappers hanging around the bells, all of them inside a rectangular frame that went up to a radar reflector and an orange plastic ball on top. The whole thing was only about 4 meters tall or so. Two of the clappers on opposite sides from each other hit the bottom bell. The other two were mounted orthogonal to the bottom ones. One of these hit the middle, and the last one hit the top bell. If this buoy is anchored so that it cannot rotate, you can tell which way the swells are coming from by listening to the tones! I wondered what the "trick" was: Do you get out and play a special tune on the bells? If you play the right tune, the machinery inside will grind to life and the plastic ball will split open to expose... a BOOK! (If you don't get this 'literary' illusion, you should go play the game "Myst". Find someone who has it on their computer if you can't play it on yours).
West of the buoy, I could see waves breaking again. From my last trip in this area, I knew that there is a sand bar outside the bay that is exposed on low tides and waves break over even when it is under water. So I turned north to avoid this and to get closer to Dillon beach before heading in. But as I went north, the waves kept breaking to my right with no sight of shore. As I went past a pair of floats anchored off shore, I though that maybe I could see a couple people waking on the shore. But even with the sun almost at zenith, (11:30am), all I could see was some bright gray outlines of figures in a bright white glare. There is a long sandy beach south of the parking lot at Dillon beach, and I didn't want to land too soon and have to drag the kayak a long way. I kept going north, but the waves seemed to get rougher and start breaking farther out to sea. Then I saw something that sent a chill of adrenaline through my veins: The heads and shoulders of a flock of surfers in the water closer to shore. This is bad news, because if the surfers LIKE this beach, then I'm going to HATE it. I started paddling out to sea, and none to soon, because 3 big waves came by and broke just past me. I assume the surfers had a great time.
I kept going north, hoping the fog would clear, or that I would find a landmark that would tell me where I was. Eventually, I did find the rocks offshore and the cliffs north of Dillon beach, which I have paddled past in better visibility once before. Now I wished I had just let the waves wash me to shore where I saw the floats. If I got washed ashore here, I'd end up on the rocks. I turned back and started putting things away for a rough landing. I had taken off the wetsuit jacket just past Bird Rock when I had finally started to overheat, and now I had to put it back on again. I had a devil of a time getting it up over my shoulders, only to discover that I was trying to put it on over the flotation vest. Sheesh. While I was juggling gear and tangling my arms up in a morass of neoprene, large waves kept coming by and threatening to break over me. I shouted at them "I'm not dressed for this yet!", dropped what I was doing and managed to paddle over them. Once the suit was back on, it was not as comfortable as before: It bound my right elbow on every stroke and felt like it was going to cut off circulation. I have to get to shore soon and take this thing off. I found my way back to the floats and squinted in the direction I assumed was the shore for a while. Do I really see shapes in the mist, or am I just deluding myself? I watched two of the shapes walk south, one of them go north and pantomime looking out to sea. One of the shapes was sitting in a boat-shaped-outline, surely not a boat that close to shore? No, it was a surf board. OK, this is where I head in. I waited for the Three Evil Sisters (my pet name for the next three big waves) to go by and started in. The waves were calm enough for the first 100 meters, but as I started to see the beach, some larger ones came by. A friend of mine, Paul Futcher, recently told me a trick for breakers. Paul is a video engineer par excellence, and I have written software for his hardware many times. But it turns out he is also a white water kayaker, and has been in the ocean. He says that the correct thing to do in the breakers is to turn sideways and lean into the wave. I do recall learning that riding a wave requires a shorter kayak, and turning sideways will make me as short, with respect to the breakers, as I can get. I tried to keep the nose pointed towards shore on the first breaker, but when I saw it kicking up sand I knew I was in for a nose-dive, remembered Paul's advice, and let the kayak turn away from perpendicular to the direction of travel. It turned the wrong way, which I wasn't ready for, but the nose did not go down and dig into the sand, and I did not get dumped out. I waited broadside for the next breaker, and it picked us up and took us closer to shore without mishap! I though about riding the next one just for fun, but I saw that I was in only a few inches of water and decided not to push my luck. I stepped out of the kayak and walked ashore.
This was a surreal time to be at Dillon Beach. The sandy beach was very wide because of the low tide: perhaps 400 meters. The fog still limited visibility to 200 meters, but I could see it swirling up off of the sand, as if the sand was boiling hot and generating steam. And yet there were still a lot of people at the beach. As I pulled my kayak up the beach, apparitions would appear in front of me and fade away behind me. A guy in a folding chair with a beach umbrella and a picnic cooler would be sitting in his own little circle of sunny blue sky, with the other beach parties fading into a vague blur all around. Welcome to the Twilight Zone!
When I got to the parking lot, my dad and my VW bus were not there. It was 12:30am, a half an hour past my earliest arrival time. I waited a while and had time to change into a set of dry clothes from my dry-sack, eat the second apple that I brought along for breakfast. After 1:00pm, I went up to the parking lot entrance to talk to the gatekeeper. "Did a crazy man in a VW bus, who clamed to be a high- school-buddy of Mr. Larson stop by here?" (This is "Larson's Beach" ($5.00), near Larson's Store(no parking), just north of Larson's RV Camp, Larson's Landing($5.00) and Larson's Boat Launch($5.00)). The girl in the booth smiled and nodded. I figured that he would be memorable "That's my Dad!". She said that she sent him to Larson's Landing because he said he was here to pick up some guy in a kayak. "That's me!" I asked for directions to a pay phone, but before I could walk up to Larson's Store, the VW bus came down the road to meet me. I had opened the Thomas Brothers map to the Dillon Beach page for him, I had drawn a red arrow pointing to the beach. I had told him that the beach was north of the landing. I had told him that it was on the edge of down-town Dillon Beach. What is it with my parents? Did they inherit this problem with directions from me? That's the only thing that explains BOTH parents having problems meeting me at the arranged places.