POINT RAYES NATIONAL SEASHORE
We arrived at the Bear Valley Visitor Center at Point Reyes National Seashore bleary eyed and nervous about whether we’d be able to secure permits. As busy teachers, we had arranged for boat-in camping permits to take advantage the 3-day Martin Luther King weekend, but our confirmation email showed dates for the previous year. Not knowing whether this was a system glitch or our own fat-fingered mistake, we lined up at the visitor center 2 hours early to hedge our bets for same day permits if our reservation was indeed a year old. A phone call to the national reservation service hotline, which opens at 7:00 am, confirmed our permits as valid for the weekend, so we relaxed and went for a stroll along the Earthquake Trail to warm our toes while sipping coffee in the brisk morning air.
We paused at the restored fence line that shows where the San Andreas Fault shifted the ground 16 feet apart, and trembled at the thought of what it would’ve felt like to experience the 1906 quake. We got back in line at the visitor center to check in for our permits and get a beach fire permit. We chatted with several folks hoping to secure same day backpacking permits. Once the Visitor Center opened we quickly gathered our permits and set off in search of wag bags, a large supply of which we always have on hand at home and nearly always forget to pack in our rush to hit the road. We found the bags through a local kayaking outfitter in Point Reyes Station, and they were more than happy to share the local knowledge about where to explore in the bay.
Loaded with our poop bags and a wealth of do’s and don’ts, we loaded the truck once more towards Nick’s Cove, a great little launch ramp that was teeming with local fishermen. They only charge $5 a day for overnight parking, so we paid the iron maiden and prepped our boats and gear, and chatted with another local kayaker who turned out to be a 25 year veteran kayaking guide in the area. He echoed many of the same thoughts as the previous guide, and was generous with ideas of where to explore and how to time our route to catch the best currents. We parked the truck and walked our boats down the water. It seemed crazy to think how the water could be as rough as the guides warned us it could be, because it was all blue skies and glassy water when we launched from the boat ramp.
We paddled west towards Hog Island, past the famous oyster farms in the shallow water on the west side of the bay. I was already hungry, having, like most mornings, a belly void of else but coffee, so I was dreaming of fresh oysters on the half shell. We paddled around the North side of Hog Island, and into the deep part of the Bay, where a deep trench produces strong currents that pull with the tide. We could hear the difference, and feel the strong pull of so much moving water. We rode the current North, paddling lazily, mostly just to steer. We took in the picturesque panorama: lush rolling hills to the west, dotted with massive and twisted eucalyptus, giving way to sandy cliffs at the water’s edge. We paddled along, looking at potential camping spots on the beaches. It was easy to see the high water line, which was well marked by the seagrass that washes ashore with the tide.
This is the most important feature to look out for when selecting a campsite. Every sea kayaker knows what happens if you forget about the high tide, and no one wants to go swimming in their sleeping bag in the chilly wee hours of the morning. We finally spotted a beach that had a tiny trail that led above the sand to a little plateau that looked protected from the wind. We beached the boats and walked up the trail to find a beautiful little campsite under a gnarled old eucalyptus. The bark had peeled off and was hanging in impressive patterns, and the fallen leaves made for soft bedding and insulation from the damp ground. We fell in love with the spot, and immediately started setting up camp, even though the day was still young. With camp established, we ate some snacks and set off to explore on foot. A complex network of social trails above camp revealed a lot of elk sign, prints and droppings everywhere. Point Reyes National Seashore is home to an impressive population of Tule Elk, a smaller cousin of the Rocky Mountain elk that fills our freezer at home. We dropped down to the beachline just in time for low tide, and we were determined to walk to the northernmost point, where the currents can get a bit tricky for paddling. We scrambled over the slick outcroppings of rock and splashed through the soggy sands between tide pools and saw everything from deep purple jellyfish, brightly colored crabs, sea stars, urchins, anemone, to harbor seals and more species of seabirds than we could count.
We made it just about to the northern point when the tide started to rise again. We looked out to the sharky surf zone adjacent to the point at the mouth of the bay that we’d been warned was difficult to navigate. Outside Tomales Bay lies Drake’s bay, and the National Seashore closes many areas to the public during the winter Elephant Seal pupping season. It also boasts incredible bioluminescence events, leopard shark spawning, humpback whale migration, and so many other reasons to paddle there. We chatted glibly about calling our boss right there to quit our jobs so we could spend the next several weeks exploring the area. Not just yet. We headed back towards camp, and Trail Bride laughed as I attempted several times to gather arm loads of driftwood, which was was more scarce next to our camp, only to get tired and drop them after a half-mile or so. It was a good workout anyway. We arrived back at camp around dusk, and set about making dinner preparations and building a fire ring below the high water line. We enjoyed a warm but stubborn fire stoked from wet driftwood we hauled on the beach and dry kindling we boated in. A warm meal of freeze-dried sundries and box wine lulled us into a trance as we meditated in the warm light of the fire. We finally retired to the tent and took turns reading aloud from Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels until we drifted off to an uneasy sleep that was frequently disturbed by dreams of high tide washing away our boats. The next morning we decided we liked our camp enough to stay another night.
We planned to explore South with the flow of the rising tide, then turn back with the current in the late morning. We ended up enjoying a leisurely breakfast of hot coffee, sausage and toads in the hole, which put us behind schedule for optimal timing of the currents. Oh well! We set out to paddle south against the current. We faired better than I’d imagined, still traveling 3 nots or so per hour. We explored the white cliffs at White Gulch beach, and South to Elk Fence Beach, where we saw, you guessed it! Tule Elk. We also found a nice Hydroflask water bottle that had washed ashore. Bonus! We continued South, and saw many more beaches that were full of boat campers. We were glad to have ventured North to find solitude, not to mention these beaches were overrun with raccoons! hey roamed the beaches in packs, looking through campsites and around tents for food scraps. We stopped for lunch on a beach short of Tomales Bay State Park, where camping is restricted. We ate peanut butter and jelly tortillas and jerky in comfortable silence as we listened to the deep rush of the current and watched the seabirds work the shoreline.
We launched the boats again, and our backs thanked us as we steered into the current. It carried us briskly back the way we came, and again I marveled at the power of so much moving water as we covered the distance in a fraction of the time riding the current North. We built another fire to warm up and enjoy before cooking dinner, and followed the same pattern as the night before, the only difference was losing a chair to the flames in a distracted moment and a gust of wind. A crispy chair is a small price to pay for such a fabulous weekend adventure. We woke up early and broke camp, eager to hit the oyster bar at Nick’s Cove. We caught the morning current just right, and before we knew it the boats were loaded back on the truck and we were sipping bloody marys and shooting creamy oysters sourced from all over the Pacific Northwest, including Drakes and Tomales Bays. We’re so lucky to enjoy living in a place where we can paddle on the ocean in the middle of the winter, and still leave with sun kissed cheeks and noses. Viva la weekend!