North Coast Series: Out Into a Wet Wilderness

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

Heading out of Humboldt Bay in the pre-dawn blackness to ride an ebb tide.
Heading out of Humboldt Bay in the pre-dawn blackness to ride an ebb tide

By Paul McHugh

SEPT. 18, 2005 — A notion of the "will of heaven" is extremely useful. It can inform us a human presence is a grain of sand embedded on the vast cosmic beach, and that human preference is a sigh vented into the universal cyclone.

So it usually behooves us to fit our way to the will of heaven, rather than seek to combat it.

Practically, this meant our small party of sea kayakers arose on Woodley Island at 3 a.m. in order to launch at 4 a.m., and so catch and ride an ebb tide draining Humboldt Bay, rather than battle the next flood tide. And we had to do it rather than wait for the afternoon ebb, since we needed to force our way a few more miles down the coast before the next September gale hit.

According to NOAA weather radio, that next storm was indeed on the dance card. Didn't seem like we could catch a break, as far as meteorology was concerned. Consequently, we had to make our own luck.

"Mother Nature, it would seem," I informed my companions, "likes to have sex by screwing with us." They nodded soberly.

I figured at minimum we could make it southward to the mouth of the Eel River, a reach of a mere eighteen miles or so from Woodley – which didn't sound like much after our three days of lounging about and resting in camp.

And so it proved. Winds were calm, seas were moderate – a mingled four-foot northwest swell and a three-foot south swell, creating a jumbled fleece of foam that sheeted across the Eel entrance bars. Still eager to prove to my companions that my crash on the Klamath bar had been a weird anomaly, I again volunteered as test dummy, and rode handily in to the spit of the Eel's north bank.

"Nice line," John Weed said laconically.

Paul McHugh tries to contact Chronicle photographer Mike Maloney by radio.
Paul McHugh tries to contact Chronicle photographer Mike Maloney by radio.

Another Gale Threatens

Once our entire trio was ashore by noon, I whipped out the Motorola to see how the forecast was developing. We were told the next storm would arrive the following morning. Discretion being the best part of valor (as per Falstaff), we decided to paddle over to the south spit and build a stout camp that would be sheltered amongst the dunes there.

Next morning I awoke late, at 6:45 a.m., and wrapped an ear around the weather radio and found the predicted storm was delayed, and now was not slated to arrive until late afternoon. That meant we might be able to pull off a sprint around one of the wildest stretches of marine wilderness along our route, Cape Mendocino, but only if we truly hurried.

I'd like to say that's what we did, yet it was 10:30 a.m. by the time we were fully packed and paddling out to challenge the Eel River bar. And what a bout that was. The incoming swell had risen, the breeze in our faces was stiff, and both those forces were bolstered by a four-knot flood tide. We chose to try to bust out anyway, since we had such a strong need to make up lost time and miles.

"How bad could it be?" Weed asked, one of his famously wry, oft-repeated lines.

The Fight to Cross a River Bar

Well, bad. He and I both tried to hug the tip of the south spit, and wound up hustling along aboard an aquatic treadmill. I paddled as hard as I could, at times even windmilling my blade in a race-speed sprint. Water fairly hissed past my hull, yet when I checked my progress vis-à-vis the shore, I realized I hadn't advanced out to sea so much as a single yard.

However, we noted that Barnes, heading along the north shore, was making reasonably good progress, so we ferried over and renewed our assault. I grew so overheated inside my dry suit that I ardently welcomed each cold wave that splashed my face or broke upon my head. We made it past the surf line and were finally bobbing in open water.

"Whew!" I wheezed. "Feels like I've just done a day's worth of work in just forty-five minutes."

But there was more labor to come.

Maritime Earthquake Bullseye

A troubled, undersea spot a few miles west of Cape Mendocino is one of the most seismically active places on earth, generating about eighty temblors a year, many of them mild, but occasionally something mighty. It's the northern terminus of the fabled San Andreas Fault, the nexus where the Gorda, North America and Pacific tectonic plates ram together.

What this means for the shoreline is a lot of uplift that builds steep cliffs right out of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" – "beetling o'er their base into the sea." What a coast like this means for paddlers is that, essentially, there's not a single safe place to make landfall for many miles.

As we passed the tiny coastal burg of Centerville, rocky ramparts soared up along the shore. The escarpments were chiseled and striped, decorated by bands of strata that had been tilted and folded and flung upward by the region's dynamic geology. We could hear a hollow "Whumpf!" from seas that smashed head-on into vertical rock.

The morning's breeze had backed off in a literal calm before the storm, and the swells were sliding below our hulls, glassy and slick below a quilt of unmoving fog that hung about our heads. We steered by compass and GPS.

False Cape

Cape Mendocino is distinguished by a huge, cone-shaped monolith 323 feet in height, called the Sugar Loaf. This tall rock formed a major landmark for mariners for centuries. For example, sighting it was the welcome signal for the Manila galleons of the Spanish Empire to turn south and head for Mexico, after sailing east for months on the westerly trade winds from Japan.

However, about five nautical miles north of the cape another monolith reared up. This one, far lower and more boxy in shape, was dubbed False Cape. We came on it about 2:30 p.m., just as winds began to increase again, and they whisked that thick fog away as if had been feebly wrought of thin rags of grey silk.

We took our rest break in the lee of False Cape, swilling water, munching snacks, and pissing into Ziploc bags that we then dumped over the sides of our cockpits. Brown pelicans roosting on a quano-frosted ledge, seemed to take an inordinately keen interest in these proceedings.

With northwest wind shoving on our backs, we fairly scudded along toward Cape Mendocino, at speeds my GPS recorded at 5-6 mph. The sprawling cove where Bear River reached the ocean slid by to port, then the giant cone of the Sugar Loaf began to loom straight in front of us. We knew what we had to do before conditions worsened: get around that point tout suite, then seek a protected spot to land.

Safe Refuge Denied

Nearly every exposed ocean cape on the globe tends to be fraught with swirling winds and contradictory currents, and this one is no exception. Mix in opposing swells and strong wind, and you end up with a devil's playground of shifting, heaving wave peaks that force a paddler to make swift bracing strokes at random moments with scant warning in order to prevent a capsize.

We rounded the Sugar Loaf, and I glanced up to see an unusual vista, of a sort that's only won during a bout of adventure travel. High on the rock's west flank sat a ledge with a huge cave behind it that faced the open sea. A throne room suitable for Poseidon, I thought. Then we stroked downwind of the rock, and a stench of sea lion and seabird poop flooded into my nostrils, so acrid and rancid that it made my eyes water.

But my eyes did not fill so much that I failed to spot a beach paved with small rounded boulders just south of the big rock.

John Weed prepares to heat stew on his jet-boil stove in camp. Weeds line:
John Weed prepares to heat stew on his jet-boil stove in camp. Weeds line: "Jet-boil! Ready before you are!"

I pointed with my paddle. "That's the most protected landing we're likely to see!" I yelled. "Let's go in!"

My companions agreed, and in succession, out hulls jolted to a halt on the cobbles. Elated, we bailed from our cockpits and bumped fists in triumph. I stripped off wet gear and hiked up a rough track to approach a nearby ranch house to secure permission to camp. The occupant, a caretaker for the landowner, turned us down. In fact, he told us, we had to vacate that beach immediately or face arrest.

While I was away, the wind had fortified to a steady blast that reached the predicted 25 knots, and a misty sun had begun to dive toward the horizon. Since I was on a mission for the Chronicle, I felt I could not afford to mar the voyage by a tiff with the locals or an embarrassing arrest that would undoubtedly be publicized and cause delay.

Grimly, we launched off the stony beach, straight into turbulent seas, then turned south to hunt down another safe landing. On a scouting trip, I had previously picked a bailout spot, a cove called Hells Gate located just past the next major landmark, a sea-stack called Steamboat Rock. I thought now that cove might provide us with a timely escape. I was wrong.

Magic Meeting with a Whale

A momentary yet miraculous bit of relief came after I reached deep water. I saw a whale's spine lump up between the waves, then the whale's head rose beside me in a spy-hop maneuver. The animal regarded me gravely with a round black eye, framed by a jumble of wrinkles. It had a jutting lower jaw and seemed to be either a small humpback or a grey whale, it was hard to be sure. But its look seemed to be one of pity or concern, as if to say, "You wacky land-ape, what are you doing out in nasty conditions like this?"

Then the whale slowly sank back down and disappeared. Whatever it might've had on its mind, I appreciated the expression of interest, anyhow.

We paddled past Steamboat to Hells Gate in toward shore. That is, Barnes and I did. Weed was dubious, and hovered offshore. Turned out, he was the wise one. On a road trip, I had scouted this cove at high tide. But now it was low, and the surf crashed violently onto reefs that barred passage to the short curve of sandy shore. This place had turned into a hydraulic nutcracker, a hazard to both man and boat.

"Outside!" I heard Barnes yell. I looked over my shoulder to see the biggest waves of the day churning toward us with feathering crests, each with faces steepening to more than ten feet. I turned and we sprinted straight at them, barely scratching over the tops. I even caught air off of the last one.

"Where's Weed now?" I hollered.

"Way out. I see him!" Barnes exclaimed.

Push Comes to Shove

I proposed we check a more exposed cover, but perhaps one with a better approach, in the lee of Steamboat, further to the north. But, no dice. That one was also rockbound. I turned south again, and began paddling toward Weed. Barnes did not turn. He just kept powering on to the north.

I linked up with Weed. "Bo! Bo!" he yelled, blowing his whistle and waving his paddle. We tried to close the gap with him, struggling against the wind.

"No good," I said. "We'll never catch him. And if he ever turns to look at us, he'll think we're following him and keep going. But if we stop and turn around, when he looks he'll see the gap widen. Then he should come to us."

Weed then ventured that we should give up on trying to weave a way to shore any place through the rock gardens. Instead, we ought to cruise south with the wind, and make landfall on the first long beach we came to. With nightfall imminent, that sounded like terrific advice, and we took it, hoping against hope that eventually Barnes might note our absence, turn and follow.

Miracle Number Two

And then, right before sunset, as if God had flipped a switch, the wind stopped. The angle of the shore bent east, and the swell flattened. As the mountain philosopher John Muir had once remarked about his own escape off a sheer cliff, our deliverance could not have been more complete had an angel seized us by the hair to elevate us straight out of danger.

Weed and I glided in to make a surprisingly calm beach landing. About fifteen minutes later, Barnes appeared. He had indeed noticed that he was going north by himself, finally come about and traced our course.

Well, I cannot deny that a few recriminations were uttered by various parties about certain directions, navigational principles, and tactics. But in the end, we heartily toasted each other with cups of fermented agave juice.

I cleared my throat and summed up. "Another fine day of paddling, lads."

The sun dropped, the air turned clear and balmy. I unrolled my sleeping bag between mumble of the surf and the chirping of crickets in tall beach grass, lay down, put my hands behind my head, and waited for the full moon to rise.

— See all previous 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 5th.