BASK Mendocino Campout, Mendocino Headlands, September 14th 1997.

I had originally planned to paddle for a few days down the coast of Humbolt County with MAX, but that was nixed when Max had his accident. So we planned instead to paddle together for a day or two starting Sunday. But Max found someone to put him up in Berkeley for a few days until he could meet some friends to go mountain climbing in Yosemite. We will connect up again later when he paddles out under the Golden Gate Bridge and heads south again. So on Sunday morning I had time to go out kayaking on a local Mendocino paddle.

We discussed where to go and settled on a trip around the Mendocino Headlands and back. Seven of us drove to Russian Gulch Beach and suited up. Roger Lamb pulled ahead and sort of got himself elected the leader of the pack. This meant that we went close to shore and between some pretty challenging gaps in the rocks. This was fine with me, but Joe Petolino suggested that we might be dragging some inexperienced kayakers past the edge of their skill level. We paddled into The Headlands and turned to zig and zag through some mild caves and arches. While most of the group turned to go closer to shore, I turned to go through a large arch I had always avoided before. Roger and Dave (one of the less experienced kayakers) followed me. I paused in front of the arch and noticed for the first time that it was doubled, with two arches of stone going over the water with a gap between them. I started through and a large wave followed me. I was tossed around a little, and the boat stalled in the middle of the white water. Then the wave made up its mind and surfed me out the other side. It was a valuable lesson for Dave who thought that the water in the arch looked mild until he saw the ride that I received. But then he went through the arch anyway.

Through one of the islands there is a long cave that splits into a second chamber with its own exit. I lined up to go through this cave and figured Roger would want to as well. I started through then turned at the last moment and went into the second chamber. I sat in there through several sets of waves enjoying the ride but keeping my eye on the ceiling. Instead of Roger, one of the other kayakers came by first. He sat in the cave for a while, then turned and went back the way he came, unwilling to go under the low ceiling at the exit. Then Roger came by and followed me into the side chamber. We both went out the exit fromthis chamber, which had an even lower ceiling as far as I could tell. Another kayaker came out the cave and we were about to leave when I saw one more boat starting through the other side. It was Dave and if I could have talked to him I would have recommended that he go around the island. However, he made it with no troubles, although some large waves came by after he came out the exit. He admitted that he was not sure which was more frightening, the cave or the waves he saw as he came out.

Half way around The Headlands the topology changes. Instead of islands with channels around them there is continuous rock with two deep coves carved in it. You practically have to go back out to the open sea to get from cove to cove, unless you can travel behind a row of small offshore rocks. On this day the waves were breaking rather strongly between these rocks and the entrance behind the first one looked too rough for me. Roger had other ideas and paddled right into the rough water, bracing against a wave breaking through the gap and paddling to keep from being swept onto the rocky shore. It looked like a long way for the rest of us to paddle around, and I figured Roger should have someone to paddle with back there, so I started drifting closer and setting up to go through the rough spot myself. Watching the waves, I saw a huge swell hump up over a shallow spot farther from shore. I turned out to sea and barely made it over this wave as it broke. Then things looked calm for a while and I paddled through with the expected wild ride but no problems.

I assumed that nobody else would be foolish enough to paddle through this gap, but I probably should have mentioned this before I charged through. I paddled hard to catch up with Roger who had never stopped to look back. The rest of the kayakers sat there for a while trying to decide if they were following us and let us get pretty far ahead. Then they (correctly) decided to go around. Roger and I went into the first cove and when I came out I could not see the rest of the group yet. They had to go far out to sea to avoid a shallow spot and were still surprised by a large wave that rose up over the shallows and almost broke over them. This spooked them enough that they decided to turn back. Roger and I could not communicate with them from behind the rocks and part way into the cove entrance. I tried hand-signing "WHAT" but could not tell if anyone answered because they kept dipping behind the waves. We considered paddling out to talk to them, but before we got around to it they turned around and started heading back. I suggested turning back and trying to catch up but Roger was unwilling to quit yet. We decided to continue on to Mendocino Bay before turning back, which had been the original plan.

Between the two coves was a small cave, and we paddled into it. Inside we found a beautiful chamber with three other exits. I don't recall this spot from my last trip through here, are things eroding so fast that this is a new cave? Then we started around the last corner of the headlands to get to the cave with the large sinkhole in the middle of it. There was another small row of rocks sticking out of the point, and Roger lined up to go behind these. I decided definitely to go around this one. Unfortunately, before Roger actually started through the gap, a large wave came through. I shouted "Heads Up!" and he braced into it, but it surfed him up onto the solid rock of the headland. He banged the prow of his boat on the rock but managed to keep the boat upright the whole time. When the water calmed down he rode the backwash down to the normal water level and paddled forward through the gap. I went around.

We paddled through the cave with the sinkhole and landed on the mild beach inside the bay. We relaxed for lunch and then Roger borrowed some of my duct tape to cover up the bare fiberglass showing on the prow of his boat. It didn't look like it was leaking, but it's better to be safe than sorry. We retraced part of our path on the return trip, skipping the roughest parts and going closer to shore on the last leg of the trip to go behind rocks we bypassed on the trip out.

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All text and images Copyright © 1997 by Mike Higgins / contact