Paddling past submerged grass on the flooded Santa Ynez River.

By Chuck Graham

The last time I crossed the Santa Ynez River in the Santa Barbara backcountry of the Los Padres National Forest was the spring of 2015. I rock-hopped my way over the dry, boulder-strewn river bottom, which was suffocating in dry chaparral. I was backpacking over to the Wild and Scenic Sisquoc River which runs year-round.

There hadn't been any flow of the seasonal Santa Ynez since 2010, and despite steady, consistent rainfall in late 2016 and early 2017 the Santa Ynez River was still relatively parched. The Santa Ynez feeds manmade Cachuma Lake, which feeds a huge swath of Santa Barbara County. The lake has been on life support for some time reaching an all-time low of 8 percent capacity this past fall and had only budged upward to 11 percent by mid-February 2017, while the rest of California enjoyed the soaking rains.

In some circles Santa Barbara County, and especially the Santa Ynez Valley, has been dubbed "Ground Zero" for that persistent California drought. That all changed though, come February 17.

"Some of us are going to kayak the Santa Ynez this weekend after the rain swells the river," said Adam Sachs, an ocean kayak guide at the Channel Islands National Park for the Channel Islands Adventure Company. "You coming with us? We did it twice last week when the river was much lower, but with all the rain it should come way up."

I was definitely up for it. After all, who knew when California would receive another wet winter like this one? I remember reading an article last fall in the Los Angeles Times stating California would experience a La Nina episode bringing little rainfall and dry conditions, so much for that. But in heavy rains such as these it's about seizing the moment and making the most of the deluge.

Flooding closed roads along the Santa Ynez.

Even so, the U.S. Drought Monitor said Santa Barbara was still in an extreme drought stage, also known as D3. Then the largest storm of the winter slammed Southern California on February 17–18. The chaparral-choked forest hadn't endured a drenching not seen since 2005 or maybe as far back as the last significant El Nino episode in 1997–98.

I'd always heard the Santa Ynez River needs a minimum of 3,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) for the seasonal runnel to be passable in a kayak. On Friday morning, February 17, I received a text from Garrett Kababik, co-owner of the Paddle Sports Center in the Santa Barbara Harbor. He'd been keeping real close tabs on the river's flow on the American Whitewater Gauge.

"It's looking good right now," said Kababik! "It's at 3,400 cfs!!!"

Little did we know that was just the beginning for the Santa Ynez that serpentines below the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains within the Los Padres National Forest. That evening and heading into the early hours of Saturday, February 18, the Santa Ynez River swelled to over 20,000 cfs, breaching its banks! I also heard back from Kababik late Friday night.

"Hey, early start tomorrow," said an enthusiastic Kababik. "Let's get this when it's fresh."

Paddling in the flood waters.

The plan was to meet Saturday morning at 10 am at the first gate closure within the forest. I was the first to arrive at the river and was blown away by the sound and rush of water and the flotsam of storm debris ripping downriver and piling up in the strainers. The river had slowed to 10,000 cfs, but still the might of the river seemed foreign to me.

Soon after there was a convergence of guides from the Channel Islands National Park, trading in those wave-battered sea caves for some fun Class III-IV rapids on the muddy torrent. Geared up, we put in at the first road crossing beyond the White Rock Day Use Area. Aside from a few collisions with river-strewn boulders and encounters with plenty of strainers, it was a backcountry run that won't soon be forgotten. Better yet, following the deluge, Cachuma Lake rose 24 feet, but is still at only 44 percent capacity. Still, things are looking up.

— Read more of Chuck Graham’s paddling adventures from California’s Channel Islands to Alaska’s Wrangell St. Elias National Park.