Mendocino Campout, September 18th to 20th 1998.

Every year BASK has a big camping weekend on the Mendocino County coast. Last year it was at Van Damme campground, the year before at Russian Gulch Beach. I've been to three of them now (counting this one) and it is a fun kayaking weekend not to be missed. Maryly and I drove up early on Friday afternoon to try and find the time to do some diving. Maryly had decided to learn how to free-dive and wanted to go abalone diving with me this weekend. But first we had to set up our tent and drive up to Fort Bragg to do some last minute shopping. Then we drove straight to Van Damme beach to take Maryly abalone diving. Why Van Damme? From my experience SCUBA diving here I know that it has a huge abalone population despite the thousands of abalone taken every week. I figured Maryly had an excellent chance of seeing one here.

We went out late, 4:00pm, with nobody else in the cove but us. Why was the place so deserted? I began to wonder if the abalone rules were "no taking three hours before sunset". Usually abalone diving is something you do early in the morning when the wind is calm and the waves were probably as calm as they were going to be all day. But the NOAA marine weather forecast was for swell as high as 13 feet with gale force wind warnings for later this weekend. I figured if we were going to get to go diving, today was our only chance. Maryly's only chance to try out snorkeling and my only chance to catch an abalone for the pot luck dinner the next night.

The sun was still up when we launched, which was nice. I hoped that it would still be there when we were shivering in the parking lot later to remove our wetsuits. There was a bank of fog threatening to come in off the horizon, but fortunately it stayed out there for a few more hours. We paddled across the cove to a row of protecting rocks. I had been out here on a checkout and abalone dive in my advanced SCUBA class so I knew that there was shallow water here for Maryly to snorkel in. We started out less than 3 meters of water. The water was very clear and the sunlight slanted down, reaching the bottom and illuminating all the different types of kelp for us to admire, even from the surface.

I looked around and only found one empty abalone shell. I put it on a bare sandy spot on the bottom and pointed it out to Maryly. She said later that she saw it right after I put it down, but then the kelp waved in front of it and the surge pulled her away and she never caught site of it again. Maryly tried swimming around without the weight belt, then put it on when she couldn't keep her feet below the water with 7 mm of wetsuit on. She tried diving down once and discovered that she was very buoyant even with 12 lbs. of lead shot in her belt. I went swimming across the top of the kelp looking for deeper water and Maryly followed me. I found one abalone and pulled it off the rocks with my bare hands. It was undersized but I was able to show it to Maryly before returning it to the bottom. I found a place with lots of abalone and took Maryly over to show them to her. The water was only 4 meters deep but the visibility was so good I could see abalone from the surface. I dove down while Maryly watched from the surface. On the bottom I spun around and tapped on 4 different abalone while she watched from the surface but never saw any of them. She says I was in the way but I couldn't have been in front of all four abalone at once. I popped off one abalone to keep for the pot luck the next evening and we quit for the day. The sun was still up when we paddled back to shore, a blessing while taking off wetsuits and putting on street clothes. We got back to camp just in time to join a group of BASKers on their way to a Thai restaurant for dinner.

Saturday, September 19th, 1998.

The predicted 13 foot swell did not arrive the next morning, although the ocean was at least 8 feet by my eye. Roger Lamb is an early riser and he waited around for everyone else to get up and get started on the day. I offered to get up early on Sunday morning and go diving with him. But he wanted to go diving today (Saturday) and get an abalone for his contribution to the pot luck. I offered to spot him from my kayak and Maryly joined us. Our plan was to paddle into a protected cove just north of Russian Gulch where we enjoyed diving last year. Of course we took the scenic route along the north shore of the cove and poked into some mild caves we found there. However, when we made it out of the protected Russian Gulch Cove, the ocean became very choppy. Maryly was uncomfortable and wanted to turn back. She was amazed when the "macho guys" she was with agreed immediately and turned back with her.

We went back into the cove and looked behind a rock at the cove entrance. I saw rocks, hints of the bottom through the excellent visibility, and bull kelp. All my indicators of good abalone territory. Roger and I tied up to the kelp so he could get suited up to dive. I sounded the bottom with my anchor (an old 5lb diving weight with 12 meters of parachute cord) and found it to be 4 meters where we tied up and getting shallower towards the visible rock. I told Roger to look closer to the rock.

Maryly saw a group of BASKers paddling around the cove and went over to join them. Most of them stayed inside the protection of the cove, while a few took off into the open ocean to paddle down to Van Damme beach. Roger's plan was to catch one abalone but he found so many that he couldn't resist catching a second one. Even taking that extra time, plus the time to take off his gear, we were still able to join the group at the other end of the cove with Maryly. There is a cave through the southern point at Russian Gulch and a bunch of kayakers were going through it one at a time. The tricky part was getting to the mouth of the cave through a gauntlet of rocks. The larger waves broke pretty rough between these rocks so you had to have good bracing skills or good timing or both. But once in front of the cave things calmed down and it was an easy paddle through. There was one low place in the roof that I waited for a low spot in the waves to duck under. On the other side I found a bunch of kayakers queued up to paddle out through the rough waves to get out to sea and back around into the cove again. I simply turned around and paddled back through the cave.

I caught up with Maryly and landed with her for a few minutes rest on the far end of the cove. When we got back in the water, she headed straight back for the cave muttering that it looked interesting. On the way we ran into Jan Sommer who is also a white water kayaker. Jan asked us if we had been in the cave and told Maryly that it was actually pretty easy. This was all it took to convince Maryly to try it. We approached the cave from an angle that was milder, then stopped in front of it. Maryly paddled in when the waves looked calm and easily went the 30 meters or so to the other side. I followed behind at a safe distance and congratulated her. We rested only a minute and then turned back through.

We paddled back across the cove to the north side again where we saw some other BASKers looking onto the caves there. Since we had explored the area earlier in the morning we went over to join them and tell them which caves were the best. At one point everyone tried to go over a little washover: A gap between two rocks that looked navigable only when a wave was washing between them. The surge kept turning my boat in the wrong direction so gave up for a while. Dave Kennar got pushed sideways on his first try and his boat was left high and dry on the rock, then rolled over and dumped him in the water. Maryly went over to help hold his boat, then found herself surrounded by BASKers telling her the correct way to hold the other boat for a "rescue". (Rescue means "getting back in the boat"). Dave is in charge of the BASK Novice Clinic this year, an intensive 6 week training class. Maryly wants to get into the clinic, so we joked about this rescue and speculated that she may have disqualified herself from being considered a novice. I took a picture of the rescue in progress so we could blackmail Dave into letting Maryly get in to the clinic anyway.

Maryly and I relaxed on the beach reading for a few hours, then started preparing my abalone early for appetizers. I cut some strips out of the center of the foot, pounded them lightly, cut them into pieces and marinated them in orange juice (because we had a case of oranges and no lemons). We served the abalone sashimi with soy sauce and wasabe brought for the purpose. It was excellent and the center pieces were very tender. When not pounded, abalone meat is so tough that it crunches between your teeth like a carrot. The rest of my abalone was pounded in my usual way. I didn't bring any flour or seasoning so I tried another experiment. I fried the plain abalone in butter with a little bit of sesame oil added. The oil added a spicy flavor to the meat and some people judged my simple preparation the best. There were lots of other wonderful dishes, including abalone sauted in butter, garlic, and cilantro.

Sunday, September 20th, 1998.

I agreed to get up early the next morning with Roger so I could try and catch my limit of abalone to take home that afternoon. Roger managed to wake me up at 6:30 AM and the three of us (Maryly wanted to try diving again) suited up and went back to the place inside the cove where Roger said the abalone were everywhere. I tied up in 6 meters of water and dove down to see what the abalone were like in the deep area. There were abalone there, but not very many of them and the largest of them were barely legal. I pulled one off a rock with my hands and measured it to find it was legal. Roger dove in the shallower water where he saw abalone the day before and soon caught his limit of 4. I think this was the first time he caught the limit! On one of my dives I plucked the largest one in a group, then managed to get the second largest and take both of them to the surface. They turned out to both be only 8 inches or less, still legal but not as large as I hoped.

With three abalone I didn't need to look for more so I joined Maryly snorkeling in very shallow water over by the rocks. She had seen one from the surface and brought me over to look at it. It was in under two meters of water. On the troughs of the waves, I could stand on the bottom and keep my head above the water. I saw two other large abalone on this same rock that were better hidden in the kelp. Maryly dove down and touched the abalone that she had found, then borrowed my abalone iron (she did have her own license, complete with abalone stamp). She dove down again and managed to get close enough to poke at the abalone with the iron but didn't get it loose. However, these were important goals: Finding one and touching it was everything that she had hoped to accomplish on her first weekend diving. I tried to pull her abalone off with my hands, but we had scared it too much and it had a good grip on the rock. We left it where it was.

I told Maryly that she needed to improve her pike dive (a way of using the weight of your legs out of the water to drive you down). I told her to watch me and I dove down past the edge of the shallow rock her abalone was on. If you do this right you can easily get 3 or 4 meters down without using your flippers at all. I found myself zipping down into a large hole between rocks that had a dozen abalone in it. Maryly still had my iron so I looked around for an abalone that didn't look prepared and pulled another one off the rocks with my hands! Perhaps the way the Fish and Game Department can make this sport more sporting is to outlaw abalone irons and make us all catch them this way!

When we took our bounty from the deep back to shore, we talked to a bunch of BASKers who were finally leaving for a paddle. They were planning on heading north towards the Caspar Lighthouse, then turn back if they got tired or the weather turned bad. We decided to go in the same direction when we had re-arranged our equipment and were ready to go. When we ran into the main group on their way back we would turn back and return with them. Two other kayakers got ready about this time and joined Maryly and I. As we paddled across the cove we ran into one group of kayakers who had already tuned back.

We paddled out into the open ocean and found that it was not as rough as the day before when Maryly wanted to turn back. So she was willing to continue but our two new companions became uncomfortable and they did return to Russian Gulch. I convinced Maryly to follow me north between two rows of rock to a cave I saw. There was a rough area here where waves were occasionally spilling between the two widely separated rows of rock. I figured it would not take as much skill to stay upright as it looked. We made it back close to shore without having to test that hypothesis. The water calmed down in front of the cave and Maryly agreed she was glad she had stuck it out. We went through the cave and came out into a beautiful little cove with calm water thick with bull kelp. The cave continued through the next cliff and into another beautiful little cove. Here we ran into a second group of BASKers who had turned back early. The cave continued again through the cliff and landed on a little beach open to the sky and another exit that turned left into yet another beautiful little cove.

The three caves that we had traveled through lined up and you could sit on the beach and look through all three of them and see a little spot of open ocean. The cove on the end of the left turn was the one Roger and I were trying to get to the day before. While Maryly and I got our lunch out, the main group of BASKers came in through that cove on their way back and a landed to join us. John Dixon, Tsunami Ranger, pulled his boat up across a log and a rock, then posed in it pretending that he had paddled it that high up above the water. Maryly was impressed at the organized anarchy of a BASK trip. People formed groups of kayakers to go someplace, then the groups split up and reformed like quicksilver to go in different directions with hardly any discussion. Yet nobody was ever pressured (very hard) to go someplace they didn't feel comfortable and there always seems to be a more advanced kayaker willing (without being asked) to escort a novice back to the cove. Maryly says "This is a GREAT club"! (She's not the first to notice that).

When lunch was over we went back out through the row of caves, with a short side trip to shine a flashlight into a large side cave and see where it ended. The people in the hard-shell kayaks pulled ahead leaving Roger, Maryly, and I to paddle our slow plastic boats in at our own speed. Another drop of quicksilver splitting off. Once we got behind we lingered even longer and went rock gardening on the calm north shore of the Russian Gulch cove. We went behind rocks close to shore and looked for more caves on our way to the beach. Once we hit the sand, it would be time to start packing up for home.

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All text and images Copyright © 1998 by Mike Higgins / contact