Just because we like to be a little different, my family and I went camping the weekend after Memorial Day Weekend in the Mendocino area. We ate well, enjoyed a warm campfire in the cool coastal temps, paddled the Big River, and did some hiking and biking on the Fern Canyon trail.
Temperatures were in the high 90′s in the Sacramento area, but we quickly changed out our shorts and tee shirts for long pants and jackets once we arrived at our campsite at Van Damme State Park. We stayed at site number 31, which the campground hosts affectionately referred to as the honeymooners spot due to how it sits off on it’s own loop. There was a bit of a walk to the bathrooms, much to the chagrin of my wife and kids, but the privacy was second to none for a drive in car camping campground. Lots of great sites on the upper loop area that we were in, particularly the outer loop on the north-east side (aside from our spot that is). There is also a large grassy meadow for kids to play in up there, and showers are available for those that require such amenities. Overall I was very impressed with the campground as a whole.
Anyhow, after settling in and getting a good nights rest, we headed up the coast a few miles to the mouth of the Big River. To get to the put in you cross over the bridge on PCH to the north side of the river, and there is a road that goes down to the parking lot on the east side of the bridge. We timed our arrival to be about an hour and a half before the morning high tide to give us a bit of a tidal push up the river, but evidently we weren’t the only ones with this plan as there was a large event staging in the parking lot when we arrived (a run and paddle for cancer type of event). We were invited to join, but rather than pay the $25 entry fee we parked over by the bridge (don’t get me wrong, I am all for supporting cancer research, but we just hadn’t planned for that). I would not suggest at all launching by the bridge. It was a large shallow beach with some small waves coming all the way up and in from the ocean. I had to drag the boat, with the family loaded and ready, out quite a ways before I could time the next surge of water enough that I could jump in and paddle for the channel way out in the middle.
Once in the channel we swiftly headed up river gliding along with ease due to the help of the tidal current. It did not take long at all before we found ourselves alone on the river, soaking in the beauty of our surroundings as we moved out of the coastal marine layer and into the sunny blue skies. The run and paddle must have been more run than paddle, as we only passed 3 or 4 boats paddling the event before we were beyond them and on our own. I’m guessing they were preparing for more paddlers, as they had two or three search and rescue boats out there keeping an eye on everyone, and one even zipped up to us after we passed by to make sure we weren’t with the event and let us know they were headed back so we are on our own. I joked that they had quite a crew for what I regarded as one of the easier paddles around (other than the wind on the way back) and that we’d be quite fine on our own from there on out (nice guys though).
After about 4 miles of pushing up river we reached the place I had in mind. It’s a small cove with some old pylons from the logging era of the past, the has just enough room to pull in a couple of boats. There is a nice grove of Redwoods here, and someone has built a small tree house. We stopped and stretched our legs, but the bugs drove us back to the boats to have lunch on the water.
By this time the tides had shifted and the winds were beginning to really pick up. We ate quickly as we were floating back down towards our put-in, and before long the peaceful calm waters had turned to whitecaps and a challenging wind that came at different angles depending upon the direction the river was meandering. As we crested through a particularly large set of wind waves, my son started to get a little scared, but I reassured him that there was nothing to worry about. I do have to admit to considering dropping them off on the nearby bike trail, as I was not expecting to be hitting these conditions so soon on our return journey. My thought was that if we were hitting some one to two foot wind swell 3 miles up river, how bad is it going to be at the mouth of the river with the full brunt of the coastal winds blowing in. Our 17 foot Navarro Loon was handling like a champ though, so I just pulled us out of the main channel to the side where the waves were not forming and found any little bit of wind shadow I could. The paddling was a bit harder out of the main channel without the aid of the current, but since we weren’t going over so many waves my son began to relax and become more comfortable. All the while my daughter was calm as could be, writing in her journal as we went about how she could barely keep hold of her notebook in the wind and how fun it was to slice through the waves.
We rested a bit in the few bends of the river that shielded us from the wind, but for the most part we just put the wood to the water and got ourselves to the final stretch in amazingly fast time (got to love the speed of a good 17 foot boat). Before we made the final turn into the last straight away that is an open wind tunnel to the sea, I kneeled down for stability and prepared myself for battle with the wind. To my relief it really wasn’t much worse than what we had been hitting, and by this point both kids were cheering us on as we punched through wind waves and muscled the boat back to shore (my wife all the while shouting whatever Hawaiian words she could remember to give her strength and energy). We came in with a full head of steam having encountered nary a problem navigating the gale. It’s times like these that it really pays off to have invested so much time and energy in training efficient and precise boat control. Without the confidence from that I would have probably pulled to shore miles up river and had quite the hike out with a boat who’s most favorable attributes don’t include light weight.
After packing up with drove further north to Fort Bragg to check out MacKerricher SP beach in a thick foggy marine layer. I don’t know if it is because they were born at the coast in Southern California, but my kids just love running around in the sand and water at the beach. It was fun to just sit back and watch them.
After another nice nights rest at our campsite (nice and quiet at site 31!), we took the kids and their bikes over to the Fern Canyon Trail for one last trek before packing up and heading out. It’s a beautiful hike along the creek with many pretty arched bridges going over the Little River. I don’t think we made it anywhere near the end of the trail, but we had a nice hike and the kids even regretted not going a bit further as they zoomed downhill back to the parking lot. My only regret was that we came a bit too early for the plethora of Thimble Berries growing all over the trail. Last year I had quite a yummy snack hiking the nearby Russian Gulch SP trail system.
It goes without saying that we had a wonderful time camping, paddling, hiking, and biking in Mendocino. There are least four rivers in this area that are beautiful to paddle, so if you haven’t visited this place put it on your short list. Our whole family had a ton of fun!
Discuss Big River and the Mendocino area in the forum here: http://www.norcalcanoeing.com/forum/topic.php?id=53