Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Elkhorn Slough and Santa Cruz

Highlights: Sea Lions, Sea Otters, and Kayaking with Dolphins

Elkhorn Slough

Elkhorn Slough is a protected estuary reserve located near Moss Landing. Because it's protected, and there are kayak rental shops at the Moss Landing Boat Launch, the slough sees a lot of kayakers, and the animals are used to them. Consequently, you paddle gently by with the animals doing their thing, mostly ignoring you. Your side of the bargain is not to bother them. Observe them from a distance. Sometimes they pop up right by you, and in those situations, stop paddling, and just enjoy the show.

Where and when you put in depends on the tides. There are only two choices. There is a put in at the mouth of the slough at Moss Landing Boat Launch, and the other is at Kirby (see the kayakers map) near the five mile point. The slough is about six miles in length, so to the end and back is a good paddle at about 12 miles. Since we had a high tide on May 17 at 10:30am, we put in at the mouth at around 8:45am, and let the tide help us all the way to the end. Then we turned around, took out at Kirby for lunch, then let the tide help us out from there on. If you plan with the tides, you'll cover a lot more ground and find your trip a lot more enjoyable. The wind is also an important consideration.

Moss Landing Boat Launch requires payment of fees for parking and for launching. For kayaks, this fee comes to a grand total of $8, placed in an envelope and dropped in a box. I didn't find this information before arrival, so we ended up having to drive just down the road to a store just beyond the restaurant, Whole Enchilada, to make change. They have beaches for putting in, or floating docks. I prefer the floating docs to keep my feet dry when they are available. From the put in you paddle toward the power station. Yes, there is a monster power station here that you won't see in any of my photos. While we were just putting in it let out an enormous hiss of steam into the air. That got our attention. It makes a great landmark.

To your left there is a floating dock covered in barking sea lions. The rule here is to observe the wildlife from a distance. If you paddle too close, you may cause the animals to stampede for the water, and this causes them to waste energy and exposes them to their predators. Some male sea lions can become aggressive if threatened, and they are much bigger and can swim much better than you. There are unseen sea lions on the other side of the slough, and you can hear barking from all sides, and you will probably see sea lions in the water all around you. Just steer clear and drift if one pops up right in front of you, and enjoy the peaceful encounter. They aren't dangerous, but they are very impressive. I will never forget their sounds. They grunt and bark as they quarrel amongst themselves.

You enter the slough by paddling under the Highway 1 bridge. In certain conditions the tide can create quite a current here, but we found it to be a very calm following current. At the time, we were the only ones on the water, and it was a very peaceful setting. Very shortly after entering we spotted a large group of brown pelicans on the north shore. And there were many cormorants and grebes on the water. Study the map for the off limits places. We stayed on the main channel. We talked to one group that went up Rubis Creek (at mile 2) and grounded (this was close to high tide). I recommend staying on the main channel.

On our way, in a number of places we saw sea otters. They are just about the cutest animal I've ever seen. We saw them cleaning, playing, and on our way out, we even saw them feeding. It was in the afternoon, which seems to be feeding time for everyone. We heard this clacking sound, and looking off just to our left we saw an otter on its back smashing a clam into a rock on its chest. Then he ate the contents, then dived for another. Then we heard the same clacking from the right, and there was another otter feeding. About this time we also saw pelicans diving for fish! Next time I paddle Elkhorn Slough, I will bring binoculars. It would be great to catch the sea otters with pups. They are cute enough as it is, but they keep the young on their chests, and this would be a sight to see.

The slough is great for inexperienced paddlers, but the rental places do beginners a disservice if they do not provide adequate instruction. For one thing, we saw a lot of paddlers going against the tides. On a more serious note, we heard from another pair of experienced paddlers how they had to rescue a grandfather and his granddaughter from their capsized tandem. The water is quite cold, though the day can be very warm above water. You can still get hypothermia if you are too long in the water. The girl was shivering in the water, and this is very dangerous if you don't know how to rescue yourself. They were fortunate to have a couple of experienced paddlers come to their rescue. Sit-on-tops are best for novices, and some experienced kayakers prefer them. They can't swamp, so if you tip over, you just climb back on. The drawback is that they are more easily blown about by the wind.

Finally, we met a kayaker who swore by QCC Kayaks in Wisconsin. He and his kayaking partner were so happy with their kevlar kayaks from QCC, that I decided to at least check them out. Apparently they satisfaction guaranteed, and free shipping (in both directions if needed).

Santa Cruz

The idea for the Santa Cruz paddle came from the book Adventure Kayaking by Michael Jeneid. I highly recommend this book for good reading, and great trips. I bought it from Amazon to inspire me to take trips in my area, and it deserves the five star rating. I have read it cover to cover, and I intend to do as many of the trips as I can.

To avoid the traffic and fees of the harbor, I decided to reverse the route and we put in at Seacliff State Beach. This meant the added fun of a surf launch in the morning. Here is a great video on how to properly do a surf launch. When we got to the beach at 7am, the park was closed. As the park opens at 8am, and there were no envelopes for payment of fees, we took the risk of getting ticketed.

As we were getting the kayaks ready, Kevin saw a dolphin right off the shore. It was so foggy, you couldn't see very far. So, we got the kayaks down to the water's edge, and reviewed the put in procedure. I was to go in first, and a few passersby stopped to watch us. How I love an audience. While I was putting on my spray skirt, I saw Kevin bouncing around in the soup without his spray skirt on, and a wave pushed him right up against me, and over I went. Did I mention that the tide was coming in? So, with the comedy show over, we both powered out through the mild surf, and relaxed beyond the breakers, and finally put our spray skirts on firmly. About this time I noticed that my water bottle that had been under the foredeck webbing was lost to the sea. In the future, I will put my spray skirt on further up from the surf, and with my bow pointing into the waves rather than parallel, which was a mistake that I made. Then I'll do a chimp walk down to the water. I had to pump a fair amount of water out of the cockpit, so be sure to have that spray skirt on before you do a surf launch. I will also tether my water bottle in the future!

There is a shipwreck here, and in the fog it was ominous. We paddled over it to have a look, but not too close. The sea was very calm. Then we turned northward and paddled slowly along the coast and talked about things to do differently next time we do a surf launch. That was when we spotted a pod of dolphins just a little further out to sea from us. In the lead was a group of about four dolphins, followed by at leat two more a little further back. You could hear the blows of their breathing as they surfaced. This was the highlight of that day for sure!

We kept paddling until we hit the kelp beds off of Capitola, and here we turned around. The Adventure Paddling book recommends a paddle from the yacht harbor down to Seacliff and back, but due to a number of factors, we decided on a much shorter paddle. We wanted to have the luxury of a hot shower after our paddle, so we didn't check out of the hotel before we set out. I was also concerned about the truck getting ticketed, or even towed. Also, we were tired from the day before.

To make up for our awkward launch, our take out was flawless! We both rode waves expertly onto the shore and hopped out and pulled our kayaks up the beach.


This trip took a lot of planning! But all in all, it was very easy. We stayed at the America's Best Value Inn in Watsonville, and we would both do it again. You can read the review I wrote for the hotel. What website did I use to find the hotel? Kayak.com of course! From Watsonville, it is a 15 minute drive to Elkhorn Slough, and the same distance from Santa Cruz. There is so much to do and see in Santa Cruz, that when you're not paddling you can be walking up and down the Pacific Garden Mall, exploring the nightlife, walking along the beaches, checking out campus, soaking at the Well Within or Kiva, or hanging out at Cafe Pergolisi.

I got the tides from Saltwater Tides and kept my eye closely on the weather. I was sure to bring paper maps of California, Santa Cruz and Watsonville, which made it easy to get around. I brough a cable to lock the kayaks together to deter theft, and locked the Thule racks in the down position when leaving them for the day. All the gear stowed neatly in the bed of the pickup and traveled well under a bungee net from Kragen.

I highly recommend either location! Have a great (and safe) time!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Kayaking Clearlake

Last night I got this crazy urge to kayak Clearlake. I've often heard about this lake, but had never been there, that is, until today. I checked out the weather and that looked good. So, I started by searching for public boat ramps, and considered what routes I might like to take. I found a great website resource, AnglerNet (pun!), and chose a boat ramp in the lower lake to put in at. I Googled the directions to the put in, and expected about a 2 hour drive.

On my way, I stopped at Safeway to get a sandwich for the trip. I love to have plenty of food with me, and if it had been calm I would have eaten my lunch while drifting on the water, but that was not to be.

It took a little bit longer than the expected two hours. The road is a winding one, and I go a little slower in my Honda Civic with the kayak on top. The Thule rack is very stable, and I can go full speed without any vibration or noise. The kayak is just as secure and tight when I arrive as when I left. When we first bought the kayaks I bought some foam hull cradles, and I put these on the Thule rack between the load stops, and this is working perfectly.

As I approached Clearlake, I saw a sign saying, "The Biggest Lake in California." Perhaps Tahoe doesn't count because it is shared with Nevada. I didn't really see the lake until I pulled into the boat ramp area. You take Highway 29, to Highway 53, then turn left at Ballpark Ave. Very easy. It is a very nice put in. The first three lanes on the right are dedicated to car top launches, so I had plenty of room. There are several good toilets with flushing toilets and sinks with push button cold water. There are lots of picnic tables, and a lawn space. Best of all, there's plenty of free parking.

I got the kayak all set up. I put hands in the water and decided it was warm enough, no wetsuit needed today. But definitely need the spray skirt and skeg due to wind. I had myself half of the sandwich and a granola bar, and was fueled up for the trip. I put in at about 11:30am.

My intent had been to make it as far as Buckingham Park, but the route that I actually took was dictated by the wind and the waves. The farthest I made it was the point defined by Edgewater Drive. I monitored the wind before I left on WunderMap, and it did show some wind. Also, a lot can change during the two hour drive, and wind generally gets stronger as the day goes on. After putting in, the first thing I did was cross the lower lake to see some rock formations at the water line (one of the pictures in the slideshow shows them). At that time the wind was coming gently out of the West and there were no waves to speak of. I was having a pretty blissful time of it.

Then I paddled north, and rounded the point of Bay Tree Lane. At this point I felt a strong wind in my face, and there were pretty good waves coming at me head on. I set my bearing for the point at Edgewater Drive and struck out to cross the bay described by Point Lakeview Road. This was a bow slapping good time! I made the crossing in about an hour, and found it exhilarating. I even took some pictures. The big mountain in the background is Mt. Konocti, a volcano! Rather than continue to Buckingham Park, I decided it was too rough to go on, and I turned around.

Now I had a problem. To do the same line as I had come by in reverse was too dangerous. Waves kept hitting me from the left at an angle. The waves washed over the side and over my spray skirt. They also tried to broach me (turn the kayak parallel to the wave), and tip me over. Suddenly, my adrenaline was pumping, and I needed a plan. I decided to paddle perpendicularly away from the waves behind me. In this way, I rode the wind and the waves into the shore closest. My reasoning was that I can follow the shore, and if I capsize, at least I will be close to shore. The waves were coming often and close together. One wave would lift my stern and put my bow underwater! Yes, I did have several cups of water in the forward compartment. As some of the larger waves overtook me I paddled faster and was able to rush down their face and make excellent time. But eventually, they would pass me up, and leave me behind. As I got close to shore the waves were worse (in the shallow water waves are bigger), and following the shore would put me parallel to the waves, and I would probably capsize. I needed a new plan. I decided to tack.

To get home, I had to paddle upwind, diagonally over the oncoming waves until I was on a line where the waves and wind at my stern would take me somewhere I wanted to go. At first I did a small tack and then came back close to shore, but you are vulnerable when you are turning about, so I eventually did the one big tack that you can see on the route. I almost crossed the lower lake to the East side, but just as I was lined up with the put in, I turned right, and kept the wind and waves to my stern all the way in.

It was a relief to come back into the boat launch area, and I had the other half of my sandwich, and another granola bar, and plenty of water. It was now 3pm. This wasn't the paddle I expected, but that's the adventure part. I am definitely coming back! Now that I'm writing the blog, and looking at my route, I realize there's a lot more lake to explore! Another time I'd like to explore the island and the waterways in the south tip of the lake, and try some other put ins to see other parts of this very large lake. Some serene conditions next time would be appreciated!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

First Time Kayaker's Story

On April 25, 2008, I posted about a trip I took my friend Mark on. He wanted to contribute a blog post about the trip, and I'm glad to have it. Enjoy:

This BLOG entry relates my first time experiencing kayaking. My name is Mark and my good friend Shamus Thornton is an avid kayaker and he encouraged me to try the sport. Both Shamus and I live in the Bay Area city of Vallejo, which is situated on the north shore of San Pablo Bay (about 30 minutes outside of San Francisco). As I live near the water, taking up kayaking “seemed like a natural choice”.

Although I have had some background in “adventure travel” (great white shark cage diving, elephant safaris in Thailand, bush safari in the Masai Mara, etc), I must admit that I was a bit intimidated by the prospects of kayaking. Climbing into what appeared to be a small and unstable watercraft had given a little reason to pause. However, my friend Shamus is very knowledgeable and passionate in regards to the sport of kayaking. His emphasis was on safety and he was very thorough in preparation of our outing. With Shamus as a guide, my concerns subsided.

And the day that we chose for kayaking could not have been better. The wind was calm, the sun was bright, and the air was clear. We started a little after 10 AM (morning I was told is the ideal to kayak as the water and winds are generally calmer). We set out near downtown Vallejo across from the historic Navy base (first on the West Coast) of Mare Island. Though I had seen this stretch of water many times before (I can see it from the window of my house), it was an entirely new perspective from a kayak. While in a kayak, one feels very connected with both the water and the environment. And as a “human powered” craft, kayaks leave little (no) impact on the environment.

Kayaking can be a little rigorous at times (I learned a lot about “currents and tides” that day), but the experience is also serene and tranquil. Kayaking is a great way to enjoy nature, but without causing damage or impact. Needless to say, my first kayaking trip will not be my last!

Monday, May 5, 2008

People Paddle Fundraiser for AIDS

On Sunday, May 4, 2008, 200 kayakers hit the water at Pier 40 in San Francisco and paddled from there to McCovey Cove and beyond (route map) to raise money for AIDS services in an event called, People Paddle for AIDS. The event was hosted by Healing Waters, and kayaks were provided at discounted rental rates by City Kayak. There were a great many first time kayakers out there, getting advice and instruction from those of us with a little experience, and I hope they were bitten by the bug. Time to go kayak shopping!

I signed up for this event after I learned about if from the events listings in Sea Kayaker magazine. It was so easy to register online. A $25 registration fee was required, then you have to start gathering sponsors. You can pick one of many organizations to raise funds for, and I chose New Leaf Services. This is an organization that has helped people I know, and I felt very strongly about working to raise money for them. People Paddle provides the website that your donors can visit to make donations, and that was extremely convenient. There is no minimum amount you must raise, but I set myself a goal of $500. All I had to do was email all my potential donors with my pitch and the link for my personalized donation page. I automatically received credit for the donations that were made at my donation page. I asked for $10 donation, because I was going for volume. But many of my friends surprised me with generous donations of two times, five times, and ten times that! Thank you so much! I exceeded my goal, raising over $800.

The day of the event came, and I had to get my kayak to San Francisco, into the water, and then park my car. How would it all work out? I arrived at the event, and all of the volunteers were wonderful. I can't praise them enough. Two young ladies picked up my kayak from my car and offered to take it down to the dock for me while I parked my car. Parking was not a problem on Sunday. I parked about two and a half blocks away on Townsend Street. It was close, and free, and there was plenty of parking along the street. After registering, signing some releases and waivers, I was given my whistle, safety instructions, and off I went down to my kayak and into the water.

At the dock I met Angela and Robert, tandem renters. Angela had some experience, but I think this was Robert's first time. They were very nice, though Robert wanted to know what was the purpose of the big squirt gun looking thing in the webbing on the foredeck of my kayak. Ha, ha! He'd have his eye on me to make sure I didn't use my bailing pump to soak him when his back was turned. Me? No, I wouldn't do that, now would I?

When I went to get into my kayak, another volunteer appeared to steady my kayak as I got in. Now, I'm used to getting in without help, with onlookers. Aware that I'm being watched, I always say a little prayer that I don't mess it up. The volunteers made it easy for me to save face. I offered to help another kayaker get into his little whitewater kayak from the dock, and he said, "No thank you, I'm on the US team." My bad.

When in the water I made friends with a number of kayakers, one of whom was Leeman, in his inflatable kayak. His had hard plastic bow and aft, and doesn't look like the cheesy cheap inflatables, though it is not expensive ($300 new) and he spoke highly of it. I have looked into inflatables such as his for my Honda Civic, but elected to get the roof rack instead, and continue to use my polyethylene Necky Looksha Sport. Turned out Leeman had a hole in his bow and was taking on water. Good thing it was inflatable and didn't sink. Patching the hole is a minor repair, so he'll be back on the water in no time.

The conditions were actually a little rough. There was some wind coming from the Southwest, and it was a little gusty at times. There were swells, but luckily no chop. The paddle was under way by 10:30am, and it was a fun group. Imagine paddling as part of a mass of 200 kayakers for a good cause. It was a great group, and a lot of fun. When we reached McCovey Cove, you get a great view of AT&T Park. There a fireboat started its pumps, and fired all hoses into the air. It was quite a sight!

At Lefty O'Doul Drawbridge, the tide was high and rising. You had to lean forward or back to travel under it. The safety volunteers warned, "Watch your head!" There was some concern that if we don't make the trip to the end of Mission Creek and back quickly enough, we might not make it back under the bridge. So, I hurried. We paddled past the house boats where some people came out to ask what was going on. Its not every day you see two hundred kayaks in your backyard.

I turned around at the end of the creek, under the freeway, and paddled back to Pier 40 without incident. At Lefty bridge a photographer was waiting for me, and I paddle my best, and gave him a big smile. That was John Han, Reporter Photographer of FogCityJournal.com. Check out his pictures on their site.

Back at the pier, I was second to return, and as I sidled up, a volunteer rushed over to steady my kayak as I got out. Best volunteers ever! Another volunteer helped me carry my boat up the ramp, then I went and got my car and loaded up myself.

It was a great experience, and I would recommend it to anyone who is thinking about kayaking for their first time to do it at an event like this. You will get a lot of help in all respects, and it will be a very gratifying experience. If you are experienced, you will also enjoy helping others, and sharing the experience of doing a good thing for a good cause. There is another People Paddle event coming up for the environment, so check it out!