Mendocino Headlands, August 22nd, 1995


I had several things that could be done in the Ukiah area, so I combined them into a single drive that would include a kayak trip on the Mendocino County coastline somewhere. This sounds like quite a long way out of my way, but I measured the mileage up the coast and the direct route up highway 101. Going up the coast and across Highway 20 only added 20 or 30 miles to the round trip. I asked myself, "Would you drive 30 miles to go kayaking? Of course!". Then again, the winding roads made those a long 30 miles, but that's OK.

I got going at 7:00am after reading a NOAA report of calm water: only 3 foot swells at sea. I could drive up Highway 1 and pick one place to paddle for only 2 hours and still get to Redwood Valley at the appointed time. I drove up the coast past all my favorite local places, tempted to stop and paddle at one of these spots. But if I was going to drive past most of the Mendocino shoreline, I was going to experience it from the water. I have driven up and down this shoreline before, but not since I started doing all this ocean kayaking. On those previous trips, I had noticed that the coastline of Mendocino County was scenic. But looking at it with the eyes of a kayaker, the coast was even more attractive. I cried out in pain at passing up the beauty of all the rocks and coves south of Albion. I had decided to go around the Mendocino Headlands State Park, and managed to resist the siren call of all the rugged coastline carved by what seem a large number of creeks and rivers, compared to Sonoma County. Perhaps I will have to add Mendocino County to my Quest, and paddle past all of it next.

When I got to the town of Mendocino, I found my way down under the road to the Mendocino Beach. I parked my bus all alone in a dirt lot and got ready to get in the Big River a kilometer or so from the sea. Across the river from where I got in, there was a kayak rental place that was teaching a class in river canoeing. But they had a large pile of colorful ocean kayaks, and I'll bet the ocean here is lousy with them on weekends. I paddled around some bridge construction and out to the beach. The first waves reaching shore from Mendocino Bay had formed a sandy beach, then the river had carved a channel through this. The waves came in the channel, and formed another sandy beach a hundred meters farther in. There were two sets of breakers, but I found a path to weave between them and got to sea without getting a face full of salty water.

The last time Marty and I visited the city of Mendocino, we went for a walk on the Headlands. The headlands are riddled with sinkholes, and one of them had a railing around it and ocean water surging in the bottom of it. I remembered this and looked forward to trying to find a way in there from the sea. Just at the end of the calm water in the bay, there was a beach with access down from the city. I went pretty close to this beach, but turned away from it before getting to the cliffs at the first point. As I started around the point, I saw a cave, and turned to look into it. It was full of very calm water, and I could see the beach through it! I had turned away from the beach just a little too soon to see the other entrance. With the calm water, I was able to paddle in and enjoy the view. Halfway through was the sinkhole Marty and I had looked down into, and I was now looking up out of it! The water was a dusky blue color, and in the light coming down the hole, I could see the rocks and kelp on the bottom. There were quite a few large pieces of driftwood trapped in this water to thump over on my way through. I came out the other side just 10 meters from the beach. If you went swimming on this beach, the cave would be easily accessible, and it was certainly calm and inviting on this day.

I went back through the cave and continued on. The waves were a little rough going around the first point, but there was a row of rocks off- shore that I could paddle behind. The 3 foot swells in the wave data looked a little higher now breaking over the outer rocks, but in most places behind the rocks it was just a little choppy. The action of the ocean carving caves, collapsing sinkholes into them, and washing all the resulting sand away has produced a large number of little coves and islands on this coastline. I cried out at the beauty of these little coves, but unlike the trip up the coast, I could satisfy my desire to paddle into them now. They all had very calm water, but each cove was ringed with caves, continuing the process, and some of the caves connected together from cove to cove. But none of these connections was quite large enough to kayak through in the first few of these that I saw. But I did paddle into every cave large enough to get in and back out of.

I went around a point that had particularly large swells, and spied a beautiful, long thin arch going from the shore to a large rock in the water. I got one picture of it, and my camera ran out of film. I decided to go through it and dig out the second camera in the calm water in the cove behind the arch. It was gorgeous going under this, and the large swells calmed down to allow me to linger and enjoy the view as I went through. But when I looked in my drysack, there was no second camera. These disposable waterproof cameras come in a mylar pouch that looks a lot like a large, thick, Power Bar (tm). I had seen the glint of golden mylar in the bottom of the bag while I was packing, and assumed that the camera was already in there. Instead, it was still on the floor of the bus, 4 kilometers away. Oh well, it was about time to head back anyway. I will have to come back here and photograph it more thoroughly some other time. There is a park a few kilometers north of here. Marty and I can drive up there and camp one of these days, and I can do the rest of the headlands and some more of this beautiful Mendocino coastline.

I went back through the arch on my way out, skipped a few coves, and went through the long cave with the sinkhole again. Along the edge of the bay was a pair of large rocks just off shore, and one of them had a small cave through it. I waited for the mild swells in the bay to calm down, and charged through. This cave got so narrow and low at the end that my paddles banged the sides and ceiling, and I had to drift the last few meters out the other side. Heading back into the mouth of the Big River (that's it's name) there were 3 kayakers playing in those double sets of breakers I had woven out through. I went far enough south to avoid the first set, which would have washed me up on the first beach. Just before the second set of breakers, I sounded the sandy bottom with my paddle: only 1.5 meters deep! These second breakers gave me a bit of a ride in through the mouth of the river. Past the second beach, there was a funny place in the corner of the river that I had avoided on my way out. The water rose up into little breakers again, and I found the water to be very shallow here. I charged through the middle of it and got one more little shove on my way. I got back to the car in a fraction of the time it took to go out, but getting the equipment stowed and into dry clothes took so long that I barely left on time. I guess it is lucky I didn't have another camera, or I would have spent too much time out there.


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