Mendocino Russian Gulch State Park, June 29th 1996.

We arranged to spend this weekend camping with our friends Charles and Cathy Hessom (and their son Sean). But a month before the arranged date, all the state camping spots up and down the coast near Mendocino were full. We figured this was because abalone season was ending (for only a month) and all the divers were going out one more time. Also, it was the weekend before the fourth of July, and many people may have taken the weekend off before Independence Day. I talked to the rangers at Jackson State Forest, where they do not take reservations, and they thought they would probably have empty camping spaces on this weekend. Marty always gets Fridays off, and I took Friday off so we could drive up on a weekday and reserve a campsite by staying in it Friday night and holding it down until everybody else arrived.

It is actually rather fortuitous that we were forced to try Jackson State Forest, because it turned out to be quite a find. It has lots of campsites marked out on the map with tent symbols. Usually these symbols indicate areas where dozens of campers or tents from different parties end up close together. But we discovered when we arrived that many of the tent symbols on the map indicate an area where only one party may camp, and the camps are a mile apart! Each of these spots has a long road leading to it with a gate you can close that has a sign on it reading "Campsite Occupied". This would have made for a nice private experience in the woods, but all these campsites were already taken. We had to settle for a spot in an area that had 3 other families in it. This is much less crowded than most State Parks, but after seeing what we missed, we were a little disappointed at first! Almost all the camps in this forest have a babbling creek running nearby and groves of redwood trees to camp under. So even the "crowded" areas were quite nice. If you are considering going there, be warned that none of the campsites have potable water, they do have pit toilets, there is poison oak everywhere, and its a three mile drive on a rough (unmarked) logging road off of Highway 20.

We set up camp, called everyone to gave them directions to the camp, and went out for a nice seafood dinner at "The Wharf" restaurant on the Noyo Harbor in nearby Fort Bragg. Almost every seafood item on the menu was fresh. It was a little expensive, however. Then we went back to the camp for a campfire, roasted marshmallows, and waited up for Paul to arrive after 10:00 PM. Paul had driven up here straight from work so that he could join me kayaking and abalone diving early on Saturday morning.

I set my alarm for 7:00 AM and got up to start hot water for tea, coffee or hot chocolate milk. But even with this early start, we didn't get into the water until 10:00 AM. We went to Russian Gulch State Park. This is another collision in name space, since one of my favorite beaches in Sonoma County is also named Russian Gulch. This beach in Mendocino County has a wonderful old concrete bridge arching over it, and a creek running across the sand. As we arrived, all the "real" abalone divers were done for the day and getting out of the water already. The park had an outdoor shower that these guys were rinsing themselves and their wetsuits in. The water was steaming in the morning air, making me think it was heated. I had paid $5.00 for a day use permit to park here, and those hot showers made me think I was really going to get my moneys worth.

I asked one guy where everyone was getting the abalone, and he said they were picking them inside the 'harbor' that the creek had created in the shore here. He advised getting as close to the rough ocean waves as possible and figured we would have to dive 7 meters to get abalone. I had intended to go kayaking up the coast a few miles to the next public access and back. Along the way I figured we would find some out of the way place that would not be picked over by other divers. The swells had been low all week, 4 feet or less, so Paul and I were looking forward to calm and clear water on the weekend. Unfortunately, the swells rose up Friday evening and dashed our hopes. The swells were still 8 feet high Saturday morning. This is a little high for me, because it means I cannot explore close to shore. It also makes the water rough for abalone diving, and churns up the water and makes it murky for seeing the bottom when you dive.

We paddled out of the harbor and north through some copy water for a kilometer or less. There are several little coves on the map here, and I hoped that these would be sheltered from the northwestern swell. The first one had a row of rocks (not on my map) that made getting in and out too rough. The next one was behind a point, and rough waves were breaking around the point. But as we got closer and closer, I saw a clear path into this cove. Paul has taken out the Frenzy kayak on SCUBA diving trips recently, and he has taken Dramamine as a precautionary measure and not had a reoccurrence of the sea sickness he got on several of his kayak trips with me. Then again, he blames the exhaust fumes leaking into the passenger compartment of my old VW bus for causing his queasiness on those trips. This time he forgot to bring some Dramamine and was apparently feeling uncomfortable even though he had not driven in my bus. He told me he would turn back if I went past this cove. But I was thinking of turning back myself after doing some diving anyway.

The cove was very narrow with several rocks sticking out of the water in the narrowest point. The water was very calm past these, where it widened out a little, with a cave on the left side. I paddled as close as I dared into the cave mouth, which sloped down until it was underwater on the largest swells. The cracks and chambers in the cave were making those wonderful breathing and rumbling and roaring sounds that I called "sleeping sea dragons" when I first heard them from a kayak. Paul paddled up behind me and said "What a wonderful sound!" I was overjoyed to be able to share them with him.

I discussed diving strategies with Paul. We figured that people have been climbing down from the private property above us into this cove. They have picked all the abalone near the shore. Other abalone divers going by in kayaks and zodiacs know this, so they have stayed away. But if we go halfway back out, we'll find abalone that neither group has picked over yet. We tied out kayaks to the kelp behind the rocks, although the water was so calm we could have just let them drift free. Then we got into our equipment and started diving.

For a long time, I saw no abalone. Paul found one, but it almost caught him! The little spring powered stopper that holds his abalone iron on his arm had broken. So he wrapped the cord around his wrist one more time and trapped it under the Velcro fastener of his glove. Then he stalled his iron half way under an abalone, and the abalone started to grab the iron! If he had been unable to pull it back out, the abalone might have pinned him to the bottom. I laughed when I heard and suggested that abalone was going to tell tall tales about the big one that got away.

We both went clockwise around a big rock, and when I got to the north side first, I found a deep gap along the edge of this rock. The bottom of the gap was covered with sand, and there was a dozen abalone along the rock right at the edge! All these abalone were crammed into the darkest part of the shadow of the rock, about 5 meters down. This is a new piece of data for my abalone model: They will try to hide away from the sun. I passed up a small one, a large one that was lodged in a crack, and picked the largest one of a group of three that looked just legal to me. I measured it at the surface and found my eye was correct, it was just a few millimeters over the legal limit. Good enough for dinner at the campground! I dove a few more times, and had trouble finding the gap again. When I finally found it on my last dive, I ran out of air. I figured that one abalone each was more than enough, so I got back in the kayak and took off my gear. I gave Paul directions to find the gap.

He found my abalone supermarket, and had a similar shopping experience. He looked over all the abalone and picked a large one I had missed. It was at least 3 centimeters over the legal limit! We had each dove a dozen times for just these two abalone and were tired but satisfied. This was more than enough meat for dinner for 6, so we got ready to head back. It was around 11:30, and we were right on time to meet Marty in Mendocino.

While we were kayaking and diving, Marty had taken Paul's truck into the nearby town of Mendocino to do some shopping. She was scheduled to meet Charles Hessom between 12:30 and 1:30 down town, and we would be able to catch them in that window as well. But first we had to get back to shore, wash the salt off our equipment, and put the kayaks back in and on the bus. I discovered that the water coming out of the shower was NOT heated, the air had just been colder a few hours agao. It was still nice to be able to wash the salt off the wetsuit as I removed it, and then know that it was ready to go and didn't need any more cleaning later. Then we drove to Mendocino were we were found by Marty as we looked for a parking space.

While we were describing our successful hunt to Marty, Cathy Hessom drove by. She had decided to come out instead of Charles and go shopping with Marty. First we had a picnic lunch on the edge of the cliff looking out over the ocean south of town. Then us guys went back to camp to do manly things while the women when shopping again. We hung out our wetsuits to dry. Gutting and cleaning your catch is certainly a manly thing. So is carving a stick into a meat tenderizer. And whacking a marine invertebrate between a stick and a log is defiantly manly. I got into the mood of this manly thing and arranged my lines and hooks for a fishing expedition on Sunday, and cut some bait out of the abalone trimmings.

While we were cleaning our abalone in the creek, this GIANT salamander walked up to us on the bottom of the creek. It was at least 20 centimeters long from nose to tail. We tried dropping choice pieces of abalone guts in front of the salamander, but it didn't eat them. Paul offered it the butt of his knife, and it lunged at it! This startled Paul, and he was a little intimidated by the salamander from then on. "It knows something that we don't! Maybe it's poisonous"! When he tried wiggling a piece of abalone on the tip of a stick, the salamander was willing to eat that offering. Then it wandered off and came back again twice more while we were working. Each time it came back, Paul acted a little nervous. We left the abalone guts by a tree near the creek in the hopes that a raccoon or a fox would come to eat them in the night.

Charles and his son Sean (4 years old) arrived soon, and we had time for a few more manly things, like telling tall tales about our abalone hunting expedition. Then the women came back and soon it was time to start the briquettes in the campfire and get ready for dinner. Paul scored his abalone and wrapped it in aluminum foil with lemon juice and sliced garlic. This was placed on the grill to cook over the campfire. When it was done, the meat was very tender, more tender than whacking it with a stick should have made it. It tasted great, like lemon and garlic. I sliced my abalone up and put it on skewers and barbecue it. Some of the slices were plain, and others were dipped in teriyaki sauce first. The plain ones had a nice texture, but didn't have much flavor, even from the smoke or caramelizing in the heat. The ones in teriyaki sauce tasted like teriyaki sauce. I'm beginning to wonder again if abalone is worth all the trouble. Paul says that the great part about catching abalone is things like the beautiful grotto we dove in to catch them, and the views of the bottom we saw in the process. The extra protein is unnecessary for enjoying the experience, and is just a bonus.

Cathy cooked a pot of cous-cous, and we grilled a huge amount of vegetables over the campfire. I had gone to the Farmers Market in Marin on Thursday and brought 3 kinds of squash, 4 colors of bell peppers (including rare purple ones), huge portabella mushrooms, and 8 ears of fresh sweet corn. Marty took charge of slicing and grilling the vegetables, and never got around to cooking any of the corn. Everyone else had also brought enough food for themselves and some extra to share. We ate until we were stuffed and kept on eating. And of course we had at least 3 bottles of wine. Another gourmet meal in the middle of a state forest. Now this is how roughing it in the wild should be!

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All text and images Copyright © 1996 by Mike Higgins / contact