North Coast Series: Explore Every Charmed Nook and Cranny

A 400-mile sea kayak voyage down California’s Pacific shore

"To see the world in a grain of sand..." John Weed has an eye for coastal detail
“To see the world in a grain of sand…” John Weed has an eye for coastal detail

By Paul McHugh

OCT. 2, 2005 — Napoleon opined, "An army travels on its stomach." Right there's an ol' boy who'd surely know everything 'bout that. I mean, who else (besides Alexander and Julius) ever ordered armies to slog so many miserable miles? Amid the rout of his Grande Armee and retreat from Moscow back to France amid 1812's harsh winter, I'm sure Napoleon watched his inspirational speeches grow highly irrelevant to the grunts. All those poor dudes straggling home on frost-bitten feet longed for was another pot of boiled shoe-leather soup.

Well, neither hunger nor disillusionment happened to be our problems.

Nombre un, we had no lack of optimism for our mission. Deux, our guts had been delightfully crammed by the best of viands. A taste of our feast that day on the beach in Mendocino might no longer hover on our lips, but it had yet to fade from memory. Plus, my wife Dawn had come equipped with no less than two (count 'em, two!) homemade pies baked with blackberries she'd picked on the banks of the Winchuck. Those savory slices not only made fine desserts but sublime snacks, as well as excellent barter items for other people we met in Albion. One customer was a local dory fisherman who smoked all his catch and was more than willing to swap a few hunks of tangy rockfish for a dose of fresh pie.

Another thing that posed no problem that morning was the Pacific Ocean.

The Pacific Gets Pacified

The boisterous winter swell sledging into the North Coast over the past three days had finally fallen off. Now we looked out at an open-ocean lump of six feet at twelve seconds – surf which at this point we had to call moderate. A sapphire sky was unflawed by cloud or fog, a sea-breeze sighed onshore at a rate rarely exceeding twelve knots, and our day's goal lay a mere ten miles to our south, a wide band of beach below shoreline cliffs at the hamlet of Elk.

Put this all together, and it spelled h-a-p-p-i-n-e-s-s.

Weed and I showed this by locking arms and performing a few kicksteps in a routine much like the Rockettes, excepting that we were clad in olive-drab drysuits instead of spangled swimsuits.

Dawn gave me a smooch, then we hopped into our sea-kayak cockpits and paddled out under the high and skeletal understory of the Albion River bridge.

Our Secret Camping Beach

We rounded the rocky south horn at the harbor mouth and cruised past the Navarro River bar, and next one of the most picturesque bays along the California shore, one dotted by sea-stacks (tall, narrow islets of rock) of every shape and size – making it look like a place where elements of ocean geology gathered near shore to spawn.

We approached the beach at Elk, but since it was a sunny weekend afternoon, the place had gotten jammed by tourists and beach-combers. Too bad. My plan to spend the night at the south end of the beach had relied upon us remaining unnoticed, since I had not obtained special permission to camp there. Instead, I recommended to Weed that we double-back a few miles northward, to a nook called Cuffy's Inlet.

Never did find out who Cuffy had been named after. Suspect the man might have been a pioneering settler who ran a loading chute down to doghole schooners from his blufftop land, high above the inlet.

The Steve Sinclair Saga

However, I did know Steve Sinclair, a buffed waterman who founded the Force Ten kayaking school and ocean guide-service in Elk in the 1980s. He was a L.A. lifeguard who'd visited the North Coast and fell in passionate love with its wilder waters. He founded his local shop, and won fame by designing a unique craft called the Odyssey surf-ski and paddling it out in winter storms of the utmost severity. Needless to say, Sinclair could lure few customers into taking a trip like that with him. (On rough days, he'd prefer to be alone out there, anyhow.) Instead, Force Ten's bread-and-butter came to be guiding people in short paddles up to Cuffy's Inlet during much, much milder weather, for stints of over-night beach camping.

So that's where we went. Nestled in a cranny of rock, the inlet was a south-facing cove with a beach that formed dunes tall and dry enough at the upper end of its niche that we felt we'd have zero worries about high tide.

A Savory Barbecue Lunch

You've heard of the sea's bounty, yes? Here's one resonant example. As we made landfall, I spotted three abalone that had been flung by the previous day's surf a few yards up onto the sand. When I went to inspect them, I found two of these large and tasty mollusks were deader than mackerels and already shriveling up. These, I didn't want to take a chance on. Legend has it that one of Napoleon's army chefs had invented mayonnaise as a dressing to disguise the taste of spoiled meat. Since there's so much info about how politics operates in this myth of origin, it bears repeating, even if apocryphal.

Napoleon's subsequent inspirational speech: "Yes men, you're traveling on empty stomachs, but as you can see! I have provided mayonnaise for you. Bon appetit, mais oui?"

However the third abalone, the one nearest the water, was still alive. In rather serious trouble, though. An upside-down abalone can't right himself and crawl back to water as a crab is able to.

Bad Luck for an Abalone

On this trip, I'd brought along a fishing license, angling and "abbing" gear, but the weather had been so foul I'd not yet found any chance to use it. I dug out my ab measuring clamp, saw the live dude was legal. So I had a choice. Rescue him by tossing him back out to sea, or finish him off by thrusting him into our gullets? I decided that we should not display ingratitude to Poseidon by failing to opt for Plan B. As every mariner knows, Poseidon is one major guy you really don't want to piss off.

The poor ab likely thought his problems could hardly get much worse. Yet, they did. I whipped out my tiny grill – a rectangle of steel mesh – propped it on two long rocks and built a driftwood fire underneath. By the time the wood became golden coals I had the abalone popped out of its shell, tenderized by pounding, then sliced into oblongs. These I barbecued with a drizzle of spices.

And our bodacious banquet by the seashore was able to continue for one more day.

 

— See all posts from the NORTH COAST SERIES

Ed. Note: Paul McHugh’s North Coast Series first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on S.F. Gate in 2005. The posts, edited and updated for this version, follow McHugh, John Weed and Bo Barnes on a 400-mile, sea kayak voyage along California’s shore. The stories will be posted on CanoeKayak.com almost daily as they appeared 11 years ago, following the crew from their launch on September 6th through their paddle under the Golden Gate Bridge on October 16th.