By Lee Jeffries
It’s not the destination, my friend, it’s the journey.
If you’ve never looked earnestly into someone’s eyes and uttered those words, you were never a college sophomore. And you certainly haven’t gone road-tripping up the Central California coast with a quiver of kayaks.
Stay with me here. No time for fine-tuning. I’ve given myself 20 minutes to write this because we’re loaded up for another trip and we need to get through L.A. before the traffic gets bad. If you want the CliffsNotes version, here it is: Paddling is awesome, and it’s even more fun with a bunch of friends in cool places. Plus, funny things happen on the road.
Our trip begins on a Tuesday evening in Southern California. We’ve just sent an issue to the printer and are way behind on the next one. In other words, it’s an ordinary day at the offices of Canoe & Kayak magazine.
We’ve got some sea kayaks to test and people to meet. Vincent Shay runs Avila Beach Paddlesports, an outfitting business in an overlooked beach town about an hour north of where the concrete ends and the Real California begins. He’s a pioneering surf kayaker and all-around waterman who spends most days herding tourists on sit-on-top kayaks through a maze of rock gardens near Shell Beach. Today, we are those tourists.
We’re late, of course. Six hours of driving plus a campground conversation with a glazed-over woman walking her leashed cat has put the crew behind schedule. Shay meets us at the beach, dressed head-to-toe in neoprene, a few extra kayaks fanned out behind him. He is ready to go. As we slowly unroll ourselves from the vehicles, collectively running at about a 4, he’s already cranked to 11, reminding us that this is another fantastic day for kayaking. Not much swell and a little windy, but that’s okay … this is going to be great! Who needs water? How ‘bout sunscreen?
Rock gardening is kind of like C&K, in that it mixes a lot of different paddling elements into a single satisfying package. We start with a nice flatwater tour out to the rugged, cave-pocked headland, then probe a few easy pour-overs. Next we play around with some creeky Class III moves—easy and fun when the waves behave predictably. We gain a little more confidence, allowing the sea and the easy precision of Shay’s paddling to con us into thinking that rock gardening is easy.
The next thing you know, Shay has ridden the crest of a wave right up onto a rocky island. When the wave recedes he’s half a story above us, his 12-foot kayak sitting in a tide-pool 14-feet across. He’s grinning ear-to-ear and urging us to follow. “Come on, it’s great! You just gotta time it right!”
One of us times it wrong, and a POV camera full of heroic exploits gets sheared off the kayak and sinks to the bottom. Which is fortunate in a way because later that afternoon another of us will spend some quality time in the back of a sea cave waiting for Poseidon to stop throwing head-high set-waves at him. Nobody wants to relive that on video, let alone listen to the soundtrack, which consists of crashing surf and Shay shouting “Omigod, here comes another big one!” for what seems like 45 minutes.
Eventually, the petulant sea god loses interest and allows our man to leave the cave, which as it happens was not his ultimate destination, but another part of the journey.