Mendocino Russian Gulch Camping Trip September 27th 1996.


September 27th through 29th 1996.

BASK (the Bay Area Sea Kayakers) is always having interesting sounding camping outings, but these are usually on weekends. Because of Marty and my split lifestyle between Cazadero and Berkeley, taking weekends off to go kayaking is not acceptable. Weekends are when we spend quality time together. So I look longingly at the camping trips in the BASK calendar and usually pass them by. But this month Marty was taking a training class in Maryland, and at the last minute I realized I could join the BASK camping trip. Fortunately they had a large number of people cancel and I was able to get a spot in the group campsite in the Russian Gulch State Park in Mendocino County (not to be confused with the Russian Gulch Beach in Sonoma County). I arrived around 5:00 PM on Friday and after setting up my tent, I didn't have much time to do any kayaking that evening. Besides, if I saved my wetsuit for later, it would be dry for paddling early in the morning.

Saturday Morning Abalone Dive.

Around the campfire after dinner I asked if anyone else was interested in abalone diving, but nobody else was prepared. Then I asked if anyone was interested on going out early in the morning and spotting me while I dove, and I finally got an offer. I got up at 6:00 AM Saturday and started warming hot water for coffee and coca, then woke up Nicholas by scratching on his tent. Despite the early start, we procrastinated getting into our suits, getting our equipment ready, and didn't really get on the water until nearly 8:00 AM. I lead Nicholas to a little cove just north of Russian Gulch. This was the place my brother Paul and I had found an "abalone supermarket" along the edge of a rock. This time, the tide was a lot lower, and it seemed like I was diving in only two meters of water. However, the kelp was a lot thicker this time of year, and I worried about getting tangled.

While Nicholas watched, I was able to come up with 4 abalone on 5 dives, although one of them was too small and had to be put back. I would dive at one end of this rock and swim along the crack on the bottom edge. I'd stop and pick off the largest abalone I saw and bring that up. By the fifth dive, my standards of size were lower, and I think I got all the large and legal sized ones that were not stuck in cracks. I figured three was enough for the pot luck Saturday night, and quit before I got exhausted. We got back to camp a little after 9:00 AM only to discover that everyone else was still getting up and would not be ready for a group paddle for another hour or two. The main reason I had gotten up so early was so I would not miss a group paddle. I could have slept in another two hours!

Russian Gulch to Albion Harbor, September 28th.

After a hour or so of rest, eight kayakers on seven kayaks went on a 12 kilometer trip that I suggested: From Russian Gulch to the Albion harbor. I suggested this because ten kilometers of this trip, from Mendocino Headlands to Albion, would add to my quest to paddle past all of Mendocino County. Actually, my original plan had been to go from the Big River, behind the Mendocino Headlands, to the Navaro River farther south past Albion. This would have skipped the Agate Beach area which I have paddled past, and added another couple kilometers to the quest. I agreed to the compromise to have company on the trip, and because last time past Agate Beach I was far from shore and didn't explore the shoreline as well as I would like.

Hanging out with BASK people, I feel like a feral minotaur that was raised by the humans. Now I'm among my own kind, but they have mores and customs that I never learned. As we left Russian Gulch Beach, I leaned left and everybody else cut straight across the water to the Mendocino Headlands. Keeping with the rest of the pack, I missed out on exploring the Agate Beach area again. But when we got close to the headlands, I asked if we were going through the headlands or around them. Since I had been through there recently, they deferred to me and let me lead the way through the headlands. Acceptance from the fully socialized pack of minotaurs!

The swells were a little lower than last time I was through here, but for some reason it was rougher in the headlands. The angle the waves approached probably amplified the effect. We were unable to go through some of the caves that I went through easily last time. At the end of one channel, there were three ways to proceed, through a big arch that was way to rough, through a small gap between the rocks, or through a larger gap. One of the other kayakers was a guy named Don "Duct Tape" Barch who had a reputation for being a risk taker, according to his friends. He went through the arch, which I had avoided even on a calmer day here. I went through the largest gap between the rocks. Even so, a large wave came through and gave me a scary ride. Fortunately it was calmer when everyone else followed me.

Again I was disappointed when the group headed across the Mendocino Bay and did not explore the shoreline just south of the Big River. I was still wearing my full wetsuit from diving, and was pretty warm. So I stopped to take off the jacket. Hurrying so I would not hold up the group, I tangled in the arms of the jacket, lost my balance and fell out of the kayak. I got back in sheepishly and explained: "No, I didn't do that on purpose to cool off, but now you have all seen my self rescue". We soon came close to land again, and went through what seemed to be one cave after another, until we got to Van Damme State Beach. There were hundreds of people on the beach, with zodiacs and kayaks buzzing around everywhere. We went on by and found a small inaccessible beach to land at and stop for lunch.

South of Van Damme we saw more caves. Several of the people in the group had been in this area before and were able to find them quickly and review previous trips through them. The rough water forced us to forgo going through several of them. One cave was particularly fascinating to Don. He spent a long time sitting in front of it watching the swells go through. The cave ran north for a short distance, then opened up to the sky with waves coming in from somewhere else out of sight. Behind that opening was a triangular arch into another place where we could see light shining down again on breakers and a far rock wall. Unfortunately the waves entering the cave from two directions often met in the middle and piled up to close off the ceiling. We convinced Don to reluctantly forgo the pleasure.

I went around to the other side of the cave to see where the waves were getting in the back. I found a wide slot in the cliff leading to a wider round chamber open to the sky. The water in the round chamber was calmer than the water in the slot, and had a Sargasso of kelp and big pieces of driftwood in it. The Sargasso convinced me that it would be reasonably calm in there, so I paddled in. The cave went north from here and the triangular arch lead south. Don came around and quickly joined me. He was still looking at the cave, while I spent a few minutes looking at the triangular arch. Two other kayakers, Joan Weiner and Joe Petalino, started to come in, but a large set of waves arrived and started to break through the slot. This convinced them to turn around and go back out. I don't think they needed to worry, the breakers calmed back down into waves across the Sargasso and reflected harmlessly off the back wall and under me.

I kept my eyes on the triangular opening while that large set came through. It stayed reasonably calm and open the whole time. I figured it would be safe to go through there. It opened immediately into a dead end chamber, longer than it was wide, open to the sky, with a jagged rocky beach on the other end. From behind me Don's voice said "Are you going in there"?. I replied "I'm tempted". He suggested, "If you go in there, I'll follow you". So without any more delay, I shot through the arch. Right after I got through, something noisy happened behind me in the opening. A wall of breaking water came through and knocked me forward. I think I was bounced halfway out of the seat and was unable to effectively brace with my paddle. The kayak quickly turned right as it rode the breaker forward, and slowly dumped me off the back of the wave despite my best effort.

I held onto the paddle, and the leash kept the kayak from surfing all the way into the far wall. I have had a lot of experience slipping back on my sit-on-top kayak. Most of that experience was abalone diving with weights on and without a life vest. So without a 30 LB handicap and with a life vest, rough water will not keep me out of my boat. As soon as the breaker was past the kayak I pulled it towards me, flipped it back right-side up, and jumped back on before the next breaker arrived. I got the nose pointed back out over that next breaker and was able to ride the rest of the set fairly easily. Occasionally I would get surfed backwards towards the jagged rocks of the beach. If I stayed close to the exit, the surge would try and suck me through the arch. In the middle, the water was very rough but I had time to pull out my camera and take a picture of the waves breaking through the triangular arch.

The only problem with this picture was getting back out again. Occasionally I could see Don out in the "calm" chamber and it looked like he was working pretty hard to keep upright himself. One large wave after another came through and the triangular arch kept closing up. This set of waves lasted and lasted and lasted, until I wondered when I was going to get a chance to leave. Don said later that it took five minutes. Although that sounds about right to me, it was probably actually a lot shorter. I was afraid that Don would make good on his promise to follow me in here, when what I needed now was for him to tell me when I could get out. Fortunately Don read my mind and waved at me to come out when he saw a calm period in the waves. We paddled out the slot and found that Joan and Joe had waited for us while the rest of the group got a little ahead.

Is there anything I would do different if I had it to do all over again? (Besides NOT doing it)! The short time between going through the arch and getting in trouble makes me think I probably could have seen it coming. My eyes should have been on the waves coming in the slot and not on the calm water in the arch. I probably should have been wearing a helmet, but fortunately I never got that close to the rocks. I had every other piece of safety equipment I should have: Wetsuit, life vest, paddle leash. (VHF radio, flares, first aid kit, duct tape, 50 meters of line, flashlight, spare paddles) Joan suggested adding a belt or knee straps to my kayak. I find that having a sit-on-top kayak makes me a little more fearless than perhaps I should be. Usually the worst that can happen to me is to fall off, and then I just get back on. No problem. Well it worked this time.

We went through more caves after that fiasco, and I got chewed out for not wearing a helmet on one of them. "Either wear a helmet, or be more conservative!" said Nicholas, my diving buddy from earlier in the morning. One cave in particular was very long, and came out under a gazebo and deck at the top of the cliff. There was a wedding party in the gazebo with some well dressed people looking down at us. I ran out of film and got out my drysack to get another camera. Joan saw me rooting through a bag of dry clothes, laughed at me and said: "That's OK Mike, you don't have to put your Tuxedo on!"

Nicholas and his wife Cathy were in a double kayak (also a sit-on- top). They said that they were not getting enough exercise waiting around for the rest of us, and were getting cold. They decided to go directly around the next point into the Albion harbor, and left the rest of us behind to poke around close to shore. Don ran in a big channel and discovered that it turned and continued along the shore. We went behind two rocks, and came out in the middle of the Albion harbor, getting there sooner by a long shot than Nicholas and Cathy. We all paddled under the wooden trestle bridge and up against a strong tidal current coming out of the Albion River and made it to the camp ground where several cars had been shuttled.

I tried to call a friend of mine, Robert Bruce, who has a cabin in the area. But the headlands north of Albion blocked my reception of the Fort Bragg Marine Operator, and the pay phone in Albion was out of service. Robert was going to come and give me a ride back to Russian Gulch, but instead we piled my kayak on top of two others and I crammed into one of the shuttle cars back to Russian Gulch.

Abalone Dinner, September 28th.

There was no preset time for dinner, but eventually the food preparation reached a critical mass. I started shelling and gutting and pounding and slicing and cooking. Marty and I have spent only a small amount of time so far trying to find a good low fat abalone recipe. So far my conclusion is that the best way is to fry strips of abalone with a little butter. If I am careful, a lot of abalone can be cooked in a small amount of fat. In one serving you eat no more butter than you would put on a piece of toast. While pounding abalone, I have noticed a smell that I previously associated with fried food. But if this smell is there before frying, it must be the real abalone taste. I conclude that there is a lot of flavor in fried abalone, and frying it caramelizes the proteins and makes that flavor stronger. Unfortunately the preparation time from shell to plate took too long. By the time I had batches of abalone strips coming out of the frying pan, everyone was full from all the other wonderful food. Everyone had a taste, but there was no need to cook the other two abalone. I took those home on ice for my freezer. After dinner I discovered a wonderful flavor in the dishwater I used to scrape the brown remains out of the frying pan. Now we are going to have to try to make abalone gravy and abalone stock.


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