Noyo Bay to Mendocino Bay, July 20th 1996.


Marty and Cathy Hessom looked at their calendars while we were camping in Jackson State Forest last month, and decided that we should do it again soon. In fact, the weekend of July 20th was open, so we scheduled it on the spot. Marty figured that we could bring a canoe this time, and she and Cathy could go canoeing on one of the many Mendocino County rivers. We went back to Jackson State Forest and tried to get one of those private campsites we saw last time. Unfortunately, when Marty and I arrived late Friday afternoon, they were all taken again. We talked to the camp host, and took another private campsite that was on the other side of the creek, an additional three kilometer drive over bad roads, but it was a nice spot.

I got up early and left to launch my kayak from the Noyo Jetty Beach. Marty got up later, had a leisurely breakfast with Cathy and Sean (Charles was unable to come this weekend), and followed me later. They drove out in Cathy's car, picked up my van, and drove down to the Big River in Mendocino Bay to go on a canoe trip up the river until I arrived. This worked great as far as I was concerned, but they got such a late start, they only had an hour to paddle the canoe before meeting me for lunch. This wasn't such a hardship, because the afternoon wind was starting up and they didn't want to go too far up-river and have to fight their way against a head-wind to get back. Meanwhile, I left early enough to spend five hours paddling 15 kilometers south from the Noyo Bay to meet them.

The weather service had been reporting a small craft advisory for the last few days, and were predicting 9 foot swells today. On Friday as we drove up the coast, the wind had come up in the afternoon and whipped the ocean into whitecaps. I decided to paddle anyway; leave early, and travel in the direction of the prevailing wind and waves. If things got rough, I would have the weather helping instead of hindering me. Also, even with the rough windy weather the day before, I had seen lots of sheltered coves with calm beaches as we drove up highway one. I would have all these places to land if I got in trouble. I might not get to do exploring close to shore, but I would get some exercise and some kayaking done. Happily, when I got up in the morning the weather service reported 5 foot swells and little wind at 7:00 am, even though they still warned about a small craft advisory.

The advisory had me nervous, so I paddled across the Noyo Harbor entrance and gave the rocks at the opening to the Bay a wide berth. There were a few un-named beaches down the next stretch of coast, but the waves were breaking far out from them, so I stayed pretty far from shore for the first 5 kilometers. I passed Jug Handle State Reserve, but the waves looked rough on their beach also. The swells at sea were a little intimidating, but didn't really look much larger than 6 or 7 feet, not the 9 feet predicted by the weather service.

As I approached the Caspar Anchorage, a large cove, I saw an interesting berm-construction house on the point. I saw some people out in front of the house, and then thought I saw them up on top of the house later. The berm (packed earth) construction continued up onto the roof with grass growing up there, so I figured it would be easy to walk up on top for a better view. I paddled out to sea around some big rocks, and came into the anchorage behind this house. The three people I saw on the roof turned into three black chimneys. Vain of me to think that these were people watching me paddle towards them.

The Caspar Anchorage is a big cove that is well sheltered from the waves and had very calm water behind my berm-house and a row of other expensive-looking designer houses. There was one small point of rock after another, each sloping down into a row of rocks leaning southwest. Between each row there was calm water full of kelp with caves close to shore. It was a very attractive and accessible place with a calm sandy beach and children playing in the surf. The name apparently comes from previous use as a doghole port, and there were still remains of rusty hooks and chains in the rocks where ships must have tied up.

The south side of the entrance, called the Caspar Headlands State Reserve, was a maze of large rocks just off-shore. Large waves were breaking way out to sea northwest of these, and I would have to travel a kilometer or more to get around them if I could not sneak through. I approached the area with some trepidation and paddled into the rough choppy water between the rocks. If this area became too rough, each stroke I took now brought me a farther distance I would have to undo to make the long detour around. But as I traveled behind each rock, the waves out at sea looked milder, and my confidence grew. I would be able to get out to sea when I needed to. For half the distance through, I kept finding passageways behind the rocks close to shore where the big waves were not making it in.

Eventually, I came to a place where the rocks connected into a continuous wall and I was going to have to head for the open sea. There was a narrow channel between the wall and the last rock and I paddled into this. There were two people sitting on the south side of this channel looking out to sea, until they saw me. I paddled up next to and a few meters below them. The water was so rough that I felt I could not take my hands off the paddle to wave at them. I didn't even have time to look up and smile at them, because my eyes were glued on the breakers coming in and churning the water into a beautiful electric blue-green color. I came so close to these people, I hope they don't think it was aloofness that kept me from tipping my hat and saying hello. I paddled forward to the opening of the channel, paused for another wave to come in, then charged out and quickly made it to the open sea. But I looked over my shoulder, and saw that the maze of rocks continued on the other side of the wall. I abandoned the safety of the open sea and turned back into the rocks again, hoping for more interesting sights.

I was wearing only the farmer john of my wetsuit, with an old long sleeved shirt on under the flotation vest to prevent chafing and to protect my arms from the sun and wind. I had my felt hat on instead of a helmet. The felt does provide a noticeable amount of protection from banging my head into household obstacles, like a solid iron spiral staircase. Fortunately I cannot yet report how effective it is against rocks. Wearing a helmet in water half this rough and rock strewn is required attire according to many kayakers. But on this whole trip, I never felt I was seriously exceeding my capabilities. I was anxious but confident as I came behind each rock and approached each wave. I never even felt afterwards that I should have had the jacket of the wetsuit on over the farmer john. I stayed in the kayak the whole trip, and only once felt in serious danger of being tipped out by a large swell threatening to break near me. That wave was well out to sea, out of reach of rocks, and would have been no problem to recover from if I had been tipped over.

After the Caspar Headlands there was a small private beach that I did not bother to approach, then a short stretch of rocky shore to the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse. The water looked too rough to paddle between the rocks of this point, so I paddled around them and back behind the lighthouse. Large pyramid-shaped waves rose up along the south side of this point and broke noisily. But they stayed close to shore, and I paddled along next to them. I was running a little late, but I saw some small coves in the shore here. When I left the pyramidal waves behind, I decided to take the time to explore, since I was unlikely to come by here again for quite a while. This area is the Point Cabrillo U. S. Coast Guard Marine Reservation, and no marine life may be taken here.

Marty and I have been talking about collecting mussels (when the quarantine ends) and I was curious to see what the mussels looked like in an untouched stretch of shoreline. I paddled into a small cove right at the south border of the reserve and looked into a crack in a rock. The crack turned out to be a long straight cave that ran almost 50 meters and came out deeper in the cove. There wasn't enough room to paddle in there, so I stroked hard a few times and glided through. A wave came along behind me and helped keep my speed up to coast the whole distance. I forgot all about looking for mussels.

The next section of coastline was the area that Paul and I had gone abalone diving several weeks ago. So to make up some lost time, I skipped this section of coast and paddled past Russian Gulch Beach. Looking at my watch, I saw that I had been paddling for four hours. I was supposed to meet Marty in another hour, and I still had four kilometers to go. So I skipped the entire coastline between Russian Gulch and the Mendocino Headlands, paddling straight across and going a kilometer and a half from shore. There is a beach in this area called Agate Beach, and I guess I will have to come back again to explore it one day.

No matter how late I am, however, there is no way I am going to miss the Mendocino Headlands State Park area. I explored halfway around this point from the south once before, and ran out of film photographing all the calm coves, arches, caves, and sinkholes that riddle this beautiful rugged point. I anxiously approached the headlands, watching the large swells breaking into the northeast corner. Again, I would have to go quite a distance out to get around if I could not get through. But I know that this point ends in a maze of rocky islands and caves, and I hoped that it would still be calm enough to go through.

I approached a little too far west, and rode in between two islands on some medium sized waves. Then the water calmed down, and I had a fantastic time. I turned left and went through an arch in the middle of one island and came out in a narrow channel between this rock and the next. I followed the channel towards shore and came out well on the north side of the headlands. No matter, there was a passage around and closer to shore that took me back to where I came in. My plan was to find the closest passage to shore around every rock. But I deviated from this when I found a cave or an arch.

When rocks are very large, when do you stop calling it a rock and refer to it as an island? One rocky island had a long cave all the way through it, perhaps 100 meters long. I went through this cave, and found a side channel into another alcove. I could only make it into this by waiting for a wave to come in and raise the water level a little to lift me over a ledge. Then I found myself in another smaller cave that exited a little ways away from the longer tunnel. This whole area is a playground for kayakers, and for some reason I had it all to myself today.

Soon I came to the arch that marked the place where I ran out of film my last trip here. Two brave people had walked across the top of the arch and were climbing on the rock on the ocean side. I took one picture of this arch, and ran out of film again. But I was satisfied because now I have photographed the entire Mendocino Headlands. I went under the arch and headed out to sea. Once again, I looked over my shoulder, and saw that the water was calm enough to go behind the rocks the rest of the way. This half of the headlands has a row of much smaller rocks between the land and the open sea. Instead of islands, there are a bunch of calm coves lined with caves. I managed to resist going into these this time. However, I could not resist going through the last cave that has a large sinkhole opening up onto the headlands where hikers look down. This cave looked considerably shorter and brighter than I remember it from my last trip.

I paddled along the beach, through one more small cave, and up to the Mendocino Beach at the mouth of the Big River (that's it's name, not a description). There were two kayakers surfing in the small waves breaking into the beach. One of them paddled out to talk to me. He asked if I had been in The Headlands, and told me that he had avoided them today because of the small craft advisory. I had expected to find thousands of kayakers in there on a weekend, but I guess they all believed the predictions and stayed away today. I checked the weather service report on my radio later and found that the swells had not risen above 6 feet while I was there. The wind was only just starting to pick up, and didn't look to get as strong as the day before. Mild and accessible weather to me.

I asked this surfing kayaker if the mouth of the Big River was navigable. He said yes, but recommended surfing straight towards the beach, then paddling across the breakers into the mouth of the river. He went on to say that the waves were milder the farther you got from the mouth, and perhaps I should start farther to the left. But I said I would head straight in, and had no problems. My surfing practice at Salmon Creek Beach served me well, and I was confident and (reasonably) stable in these mild waters. I easily paddled across the remaining breakers and into the river.

When I turned the first corner, there under the bridge I spied the unique shape of my Kevlar canoe. (I have never seen anyone else who has this model). Marty, Cathy, and Sean had just landed moments ago and walked up to the cars to get lunch ready. I changed into dry clothes and put the boats up on the rack on the bus. Then I joined everyone else on a blanket for lunch and an hour of relaxing on the beach.n


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