Last year I discovered that the beautiful Bear Harbor in the Sinkyone Wilderness was accessible by car. I tried to initiate a BASK trip to this mild protected harbor but the weather turned against me with rain and 16 foot swell. I scheduled the trip again this year and this time the weather gods smiled on us. On Friday morning when three of us (Doug Montgomery, Mathew Hudson, and I) met at Usal Beach the swell was a reasonable 7 feet high. The Scripps Institute was predicting that the swell would steadily drop for the rest of the weekend, so we had reason to hope we could return to this beach on Monday morning. The wind had been strong from the east but as I arrived it died down and we had a beautiful sunny calm morning to launch into.
Doug and Mathew arrived early to put together their folding Feathercraft boats. I arrived late but still managed to get everything loaded into my boat by the time the other two were ready to launch. They launched their sit-inside boats first and then I set up to go. I saw a large wave go under the other boats but thought I would have time to launch before it reached me. Wrong! I lost control of my boat in the surf before I even got on it and spent an exhausting few minutes trying to pull the heavily laden boat back out of the reach of the waves. Then the water calmed down enough for me to launch successfully on my second attempt.
The two kayakers in their fabric boats were not interested in paddling close to shore and went way our to sea. I ended up following a middle course and didn't get as close to shore as I would have liked. It was a lot like paddling solo. I felt I had most of the ocean to myself and the wildlife. I saw a dolphin surface for a second. A minute later it came up close to my boat. Probably a long beaked common dolphin, but I never got a look at it's beak. It had a stripe down it's side that looked like a scar with a circular open wound in middle of it. A flotilla of pelicans went by skimming the surface. With seven foot swell the pelicans would disappear behind the waves, winking instantly in and out of existence from my viewpoint.
I turned closer to shore to talk to an abalone diver in another sit-on-top kayak. This guy had launched from Usal Beach just as I arrived so I didn't talk to him then or look at his equipment. Mathew became increasingly agitated about the fact that this abalone diver had a SCUBA tank on the back of his kayak. I tried to tell Mathew that it was quite common for SCUBA divers to also be abalone divers. I described divers I know who spend a day going free-diving for abalone between SCUBA dives and who never get in trouble with the game warden. Unless I see someone coming out of the water wearing tanks and carrying abalone at the same time, I give them the benefit of the doubt. Mathew was incensed even at the idea of someone diving with a tank to look for abalone and going back to free-dive for them knowing where they are. When a park ranger came by, Mathew reported the abalone diver going out with a tank. We found out later that the ranger called it in and a game warden came out and talked to the diver when he landed. All for nothing, since you are allowed to do both kinds of diving from the same boat. Mathew remains convinced that it should not be allowed.
We launched around noon and paddled north through times of mild headwinds. I managed to get a little rock gardening in, then headed out to sea to join my companions when I caught site of Bear Harbor. We made a mild landing on the beach around 3:00pm. As we approached the beach I saw an elk walking around between the driftwood. I was eager to claim my favorite campground and ran around to find that the campground was already full, with a bull elk and a dozen cows and calves! I risked the bull elk to skirt the campground and put a drybag on the picnic table, staking a claim that should supercede any other humans arriving late on Friday. Unfortunately the elk never left the campground until after dark. So we set up in the second best campsite and eventually I removed my claim.
Right after we arrived Charles Harris arrived by car. Charles has a very nice set of strap-on wheels and rolled his kayak out to the beach, then used the same wheels to turn two picnic coolers into a wheelbarrow with a walking stick for a handle. He brought a tremendous amount of equipment out in two trips from his car a kilometer away in the parking lot. I stayed in my wetsuit and talked Charles into joining me for a late afternoon paddle. Brian Douglas arrived about this time and considered joining us but decided to hold out for Saturday morning.
In the short hour or so since I arrived, the tide had dropped noticeably. The water was much calmer but there was a field of rocks starting to show through the shallows. Doug, Mathew, and I had surfed right over the rocks to a sandy beach without knowing the rocks were there. I jumped into the water to try surfing the waves and came in for a landing, banging and sliding my plastic boat over the rocks. This demonstration was not to Charles' liking, who wasn't sure he wanted to risk his fiberglass boat in these rocks. I offered to stand off shore while launching and landing and hold his boat and he decided to go out with me after all.
We paddled around the Cluster Cone Rocks, which were still a little rough for me to consider paddling between. We set a goal of paddling just far enough to look through the arch in Morgan Rock. The rock didn't look like it was very far away, but it never seemed to get any closer. I decided that this was because we were following Charles' lead of staying far from shore. We were going in a large circular path with Morgan Rock near the center. Eventually I turned straight towards the rock and paddled behind it to look through the arch at Charles far out to sea. He saw me through the arch and wondered if I was going to go in. I didn't this time because it was still pretty rough. The arch closed up from time to time but I might have timed it right and gone through if I had another dare-devil companion with me. I noticed that the stalactite that used to hang from the top of this arch had broken off! The recent winter had been rough enough to make a visible change in the shape of this arch. This actually made the arch a little safer for kayaking through! Even without paddling into the arch I found the water behind the rock pretty exciting. I waited for a few large waves to blast through and held onto my boat with my brace. After reaching our goal, Charles and I turned back to camp. It was only an hour until sunset and the tide was only getting lower. Later in the evening the tide pulled way out exposing 40 meters of rocky shore! Doug and Mathew started studying the TideLog and planning the return trip at times when the water would be high enough to protect their delicate fabric boats
Early Saturday morning I started hearing a clacking noise around the campground. At first I thought it was someone collecting kindling for a campfire the next evening. But the noise kept on for a long time and eventually I opened my tent to look out. Our bull elk was fending off a rival bull with his antlers, and the clacking of antlers was the sound I heard. When I first saw them they were dancing up and down the side of the hill behind our camp. However, Brian told me that they had been galloping back and forth around our camp earlier, meters from his tent! He was afraid they would get carried away and land on him inside. It was impressive enough to watch these huge animals prancing up and down a steep hillside on their toes as if they were weightless. The day before when I had walked around the other campsite to avoid the bull elk I had felt safe. I had figured that such a large animal could not move fast enough to endanger me. Watching him dance effortlessly up and down the hill the next morning I wasn't so sure I had been safe the day before. Well, I was safe but only because the elk had chosen not to bother me.
The camp host (volunteer non-ranger) walked out to check on the campground later in the morning. He told me he was going to stop listening to the weather report. Instead he was just going to count how many kayakers showed up and use that as a way to predict calm weather at the Lost Coast. "How did you guys know this was going to be a great weekend"? I told him we had planned this months in advance and only decided to go for it based on weather forecasts off the WEB on Friday morning. The Scripps Institute three day wave forecast had convinced me we would have mild water to play in.
I expected Roger Lamb to wake us up early in the morning when he arrived. But he took a wrong turn and ended up at Shelter Cove, then stopped to have breakfast at a restaurant there before joining us. Charles had a two burner stove and pulled a near infinite supply of eggs, sausage, milk, orange juice, and pancake batter out of his picnic cooler. We had all brought enough food for ourselves and a little extra to share. Charles brought hearty breakfasts for all and saved the rest of us from having to survive on instant oatmeal. After breakfast, Doug and Mathew went on a hike and the remaining four of us launched to do a day trip north to Needle Rock.
Roger and I paired up, calling ourselves the advanced kayakers, and went close to shore behind the rocks. Brian and Charles paired up, calling themselves the intermediate kayakers, and stayed farther from shore. Roger and I went through the arch in Morgan Rock, of course. Around some of the rocks, like those at Flat Rock Creek, even Roger and I turned far from shore and met up with the two other kayakers from time to time. We paddled past Needle Rock and looked at the rough surf breaking around the rock. I had wanted to land here and walk up the trail to the visitors center. It looked like a landing was possible, but the launch would be a wet one. I wasn't wet enough yet to take that on.
When it was time to turn back for lunch, we eyed a sandy beach north of Needle rock. There was a small rock offshore that looked like it offered some protection. I offered to head in first and test the waters. As I got close to shore a set of large waves came in and threatened to break on me. I backpedaled and just managed to keep my boat where it was. The tail of my boat rose up out of the water and slammed down on the back of three waves in a row. Then I picked a smaller following wave to go to shore with. This wave started to break behind me and pushed the nose of my boat underwater. I was bracing on my left side so I turned left to get the nose back up. My boat took off and carved across the face of the wave for 30 meters! Roger said that he saw the wave rise up behind me, then saw my yellow helmet suddenly take off and zoom sideways across the beach. When the wave finished breaking I was barely able to hold on and make a landing side- surfing up the sand. The next kayaker to land was one of the intermediate kayakers who lost his brace and had to swim the last ten meters to shore with his boat. Everyone else made it to shore with no problems.
While the rest of us rested after lunch Roger decided to get some practice in the surf. He launched a few times, making it look easy to the rest of us. Then he tried to catch a surfing ride but never managed it. My surfing ride, which I caught only by accident, was the best of the day so far. I was tempted to join him but everyone else was soon ready and we all launched through the surf with no problems. When we paddled back into Bear Harbor the tide is just right for surfing around the point. Roger and I stayed out and played in the water for another hour or more. At first I stayed away from the edge of the rocks and tried surfing towards the beach. But as the afternoon continued I became more and more comfortable between the rocks. I discovered that I could paddle out between the rocks in very shallow water and stay in control. Then turn and blast back between two larger rocks when another wave came. The best surfing ride I got was when Roger watched the waves for me and told me when to go for it. Then I caught a wave that took me all the way around the point, across the harbor and to the beach.
When we finally got tired Roger and I talked about the abalone diving possibilities here. The water near shore was a milky brown opaque color, like well creamed coffee. A little ways offshore there was a "mud-o-cline" and the water turned a milky green opaque color. It looked like nearly zero visibility. There was a patch of kelp growing out at an angle from the harbor and I guessed that diving off the edge of this might get us into abalone territory. Only it wasn't bull kelp but some other species that I wasn't used to finding abalone around. I've heard other abalone divers talking about Bear Harbor being a good place to go, so the abalone must like this kind of kelp as well. But the uncertainty, the murkiness of the water, and the low afternoon sun made us decide to put off diving for another day to let the water clear up some more.
Jan Brittenson arrived while we were out paddling and watched Roger and I surfing in the waves. He decided not to join us on the water and saved his energy for the next day. He might have joined us if he had made it to Bear Harbor earlier but like Roger he got lost on the poorly marked roads on the way here. Jan called himself a novice, as opposed to the rest of us intermediates and advanced kayakers, but was game to follow the rest of us into dumpy beach landings and launches the next day.
Instead of diving I started cooking my contribution to dinner early. I had brought a bunch of fresh vegetables to make abalone Sukiaki with, but made it into mushroom Sukiaki instead. I had a packet of pickled ginger with me and threw in a handful of that. The heat-sealed pickled ginger is not as sweet as the ginger you get in Sushi restaurants and it added a LOT more sharp ginger flavor to the dish than I would have liked. To round out our international dinner other kayakers cooked Italian tortalini, Mexican beans and tortillas, salad (Italian dressing, of course) and French bead. I convinced a few of the guys not to cook anything so there wasn't too much food. Brian tried to return to his car to get some bread rolls he brought, but the bull elk staked out the trail and wouldn't let anyone get back to the cars Saturday night!
The next morning Doug pulled out a pound of bacon to add to our hearty breakfast. Charles started to cook some plain scrambled egg, but I gave him a half an onion and some bell pepper. This turned it into a very nice omelet. Over breakfast we listen to the weather report. There is a prediction for increased wind, overcast, a chance of rain, and increasing swell for Monday. Because of this Doug, Mathew and I decided to leave Sunday evening and not chance staying another night. (This turned out to be a good decision, the swell rose back up to eight feet by Monday morning and the trip would have been a lot rougher). Roger and I give up on going diving so we could all get started on kayaking. Doug and Mathew had skipped kayaking on Saturday so they decided to paddle north past Needle Rock. The swell had calmed down so much, to five feet, that they went through a little arch in one of the Cluster Cone Rocks and through the arch in Morgan Rock. Even though they were in fabric boats!
Roger and I launched first and went out to play around the Cluster Cone rocks. I went through a little arch in one of the rocks that I had never been through before. Then I went over a big wash- over. This was a rock that stuck a meter out of the water on the troughs of the waves. But if I sat in front of it and timed it right I could ride a wave over the rock and slide down the other side. My boat hit bottom going over the rock but didn't make scratching sounds. I think the rock was covered with soft kelp that protected my boat. Nobody saw my first successful pass over the wash-over so I did it again when Roger came over to watch. I was successful on the second try as well, but afterwards my boat turned sideways and slid up close to a large rock. I couldn't brace into the rock and when I set my paddle down to brace away from it another wave came over the wash-over and pulled my paddle under water. I fell off the boat. Roger started to paddle over to assist me but I jumped back into my boat before he could get started. He said "That was the fastest self-rescue I have ever seen! You didn't even get your hair wet!" He went on to say that I should tell the other watching kayakers that I jumped off the boat on purpose to cool off.
I paddled back to shore to check on everyone else. I cut the corner very close and a wave caught me and surfed me in over the field of boulders being exposed by the lowering tide. At first I kept the boat pointed down the wave and tried to steer between the larger rocks. But the rocks and the wave conspired to turn the boat sideways. I braced, which involves holding the paddle flat out sideways. The blade of the paddle scraped and clanked over the rocks but what was worse was the knuckles on my right hand banged over the rocks as well. Fortunately the rocks were covered with kelp and this softened the blows to the bruising point without breaking my skin open. I held onto the brace because it was that or get rolled over the other way to land on my head. As the wave weakened the rocks became higher out of the water and the ride got bumpier until the boat banged to a stop between two rocks. I jumped out and towed my boat a few meters to deeper water. Should I be proud of managing to keep the boat upright in a difficult situation? Or embarrassed for getting myself in there in the first place? Until now most of the scratches on my hull have been in the long direction but now there are a bunch going across the short direction.
The four of us who went north the day before, plus Jan, turned south on this day. I had notes from my last trip past here with all of the caves marked on it. Unfortunately the best caves and arches are closer to Usal Beach and we didn't have time to get to them. There were a few arches close to shore that Roger and I got to paddle through. Several times when I went behind a rock I found Roger on my tail. He said that he was still feeling a reaction to the time he crashed his kayak near Estero Americana. He figured that my timing was good so he tried to follow me when I did something risky. Unfortunately my timing was just good enough for myself. I often make a transit like this when I see a large wave coming and I want to leave before it arrives. Just behind me was just a second too late in a few cases for Roger. Going through the arch in Morgan Rock the day before, a large wave came in behind me and washed over Roger, completely submerging him. For a few seconds he couldn't tell which way was up and whether or not he needed to roll. Then the water receded and he found himself still right-side up. Another time the large wave came around a rock, grabbed his boat and surfed it the rest of the way around, almost crashing into me. I admonished Roger for two mistakes: Trusting someone else's judgement (he should decide for himself what is safe) and for following too close to another kayaker (you might bang into each other).
We passed Wheeler Beach and checked out the landing possibilities for lunch later. The next point is called the Anderson Cliffs. A sheer rock wall rises 300 meters out of the water with several large rocks offshore. Roger and I went behind and between the rocks and found that it is relatively calm back there. This gave the intermediate and novice kayakers courage to join us and everyone was able to enjoy the spot up close. About then we noticed that it was time to turn back. Roger and Charles sprinted south to go around one last rock then came back to join the rest of us at Wheeler Beach to land for lunch. This beach is one of the places that has a "back country campground" (meaning no water and no pit toilet). I've long wanted to land there and check it out. The beach was pretty dumpy but everyone made a reasonable landing without falling out of their boats. The camp host had told us that river otters were reported in this creek so Charles went exploring to find them. It was starting to get a little windy and the rest of us were getting cold, so after only a short stop for lunch we called Charles back and launched to head back to camp. Only one kayaker had trouble on the launch, made a wet exit, swam back to shore, and made it on the second attempt. The rest of us made it on the first try.
I was supposed to pack and leave by 2:00 PM so I zoomed back to the harbor with no more time to play. I packed as quickly as I could to join Doug and Mathew and left about twenty minutes after they did. Doug predicted that I would have no trouble catching up with them but it took me over an hour and we were half way back to Usal Beach. This was just past the extent of the morning trip and starting into the area with lots of arches and caves. To my surprise, Doug went through most of the arches in his delicate fabric boat. Even Mathew, who does not seem to be as adventuresome as Doug, paddled his fabric boat through one of the arches! The water was exceptionally calm and I think it was as low as a three foot swell by the time we landed. I paddled into my favorite local cave, a large chamber with four exits. Doug stayed out of this one. The fourth exit is very low and to be avoided at high tide, but I looked down the tunnel that leads to it. It looks like the waves have extended the tunnel and opened another exit farther down! Perhaps in another year these two openings will merge into a larger one that will be safer to use by kayak.
Soon we made it back to Usal Beach, landing a few hours before sunset. The water was so calm that it seemed a shame not to be out playing in it. But Doug pointed out the angle of the sun and calculated we would not be done unpacking our boats and packing our cars until dark. As the weather radio had predicted the sky was starting to become overcast and we had intermittent sunlight as we packed our equipment away to return to our homes.