Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Kayaking Tomales Bay on a mild winter weekend

NorCal Yak pal Lisa paddling through the mist north of Inverness

INVERNESS – Kayakers can only worry as favorite rivers and lakes shrink during an unseasonably warm, dry winter in Northern California. But on the coast, similar weather has made for spectacular paddling. On a recent Saturday morning, Tomales Bay looked more lake-like than estuary, with flat water under a clear sky. And the North Coast’s famous fog was reduced to a few photogenic wisps as temps climbed into the 60s.

Winter offers some great kayaking days here, if you pick your spots. And a bit of luck doesn't hurt, as was the case on this NorCal Yak trip. In fact, there were several lucky breaks in what turned out to be a memorable weekend, kayaking and otherwise.

Before and after -- just add water

It also turned out to be a much different experience than another paddle that began on the eastern side of Tomales Bay. That trip was marked by strong tide and even stronger winds. This latest paddle – on the sheltered western side, further back from the mouth of the bay – proved more relaxing and scenic. Plus, the drive over takes you through Pt. Reyes Station, one nice little town.

We launched from a concrete ramp at the Tomales Bay Resort near Inverness. The previous evening, under a misty full moon, the resort’s small marina resembled a hog wallow with a dozen sailboats tipped at odd angles in the muck. But a five-foot-plus flood tide works wonders. Turned out to be the best high tide at a decent hour on a Saturday morning in weeks. By 10 a.m. we were paddling north, over what had been mostly mudflats a few hours earlier.

Steep hillsides, winding roads, and a heavy canopy of trees provided a picture-perfect backdrop for our paddle. It also was a nice way to celebrate the preservation of Tomales Bay State Park. Recently, the National Park Service agreed to take over the area and a handful of other state parks threatened with closure due to state budget cutbacks. (Learn more at Christine Sculati’s blog.)

The paddle to Heart’s Desire Beach (another potential yak launch point) and a bit beyond was a leisurely, three-hour, nine-mile roundtrip that went by much too quickly. At fairly regular intervals, seal heads popped up around us like whiskered buoys. White egrets and blue herons glided above. At one point, a pair of magnificent bald eagles appeared in a stand of conifers above a cliff. That’s pretty rare, according to one local, so we were lucky again.

Spanish moss, orange lichen, and that weird burping sound

Mostly, NorCal Yak pals Frank, Lisa and I paddled in quiet reverence. Morning sun carved shafts through trees that hung heavy with Spanish moss and a fine salt mist added sparkle to air and lungs. In one place, brilliant orange lichen coated rocky cliff. The total effect was both weird and beautiful, the “weird” underscored by a strange, burping sound from small swells that pushed water in and out of tide-worn pockets in the shoreline. A natural rhythm section set to the bay’s own brand of music.

~ ~ ~

When it comes to music, this blogger must "break" into song, because he’ll never find the right key. But who could turn down an invite to join a dozen or so musicians in a 100-year-old redwood cabin high above Tomales Bay? Fiddles, banjos, guitars, mandolins and hours of music, both elegant and accessible, even to my unsophisticated ear. A wonderful evening to cap a wonderful day of paddling, and thanks to NorCal Yak pals Melissa and Toby. 

Golden light from the hearth helped set the musical mood

If you're in the mood for local music, check out nearby Pt. Reyes Station for live bands, starting at the Station House CafĂ©which serves fresh, local seafood in an informal atmosphere. More bands at the Old Western Saloon across the street. (Note: Area cell phone coverage is chancy, but locals say the strongest signal can be found just outside the saloon entrance. It’s true, buckaroo.)

Stylish wheels, informal dining
  If you can stay for a weekend, Pt. Reyes Station is a fun place to wander around. No chain motels (thank goodness) on Tomales Bay, but easy to Google in advance for a variety of accommodations. Even in the off-season, weekend reservations are a good idea.
And here’s a special shout-out to NorCal Yak pals Denise and Cassandra, who run the desk at the Tomales Bay Resort. Our room was clean and quiet, and their customer service was first-rate. (Note, however, that the resort restaurant was closed as of this writing, although it's still listed on the Web site.) The motel also offers a concrete launch ramp for guests with kayaks. Plus, Blue Water Kayaking, a longtime outfitter, is right next door with rental boats and tour packages. 

Homemade sign, Pt. Reyes Station
Finally any post on kayaking Tomales Bay should include a note of caution, even on the finest paddling day. When the tide turns, you’d best be prepared to do likewise. If low tide falls below 2+ feet, avoid the back bay unless you’re willing to risk a long and very muddy stroll. Go for higher tides and less stress – providing winds are light and weather clear. Even then, consider the shelter of the western (Inverness) side as preferable, in most situations, unless you’re an experienced hand on the bay. (Here's a popular online tide calculator with data on most places along the Northern California coast.) 

Sometimes you're lucky...
NorCal Yak knows of at least two recent incidents in which kayakers almost lost their lives on Tomales Bay because they failed to heed wind, waves, and tide. (Here's a local news audio clip.)  On our trip, we saw a paddle boarding couple who weren’t wearing cold water apparel or even PFDs. They may have enjoyed the luckiest time of all, and they didn’t even know it.

© Glenn Brank 2012