Friday, December 12, 2014

Paddling the Rivers of the Mendocino Coast

Three fine paddling destinations enter the Pacific Ocean along the Mendocino Coast. Thanks to Sierra Club trip leaders Larry and Shelly, who organized this outing, a small group of us were able to enjoy them all during a well-organized outing in November, 2014.

Strictly, these rivers, the Noyo, Big, and Albion, are semi-mature, tide dominated, drowned valley estuaries. Meaning that their winding meanders originally formed as they flowed across a level coastal plain, since uplifted to form the mountains and seacoast terraces that characterize the present day Mendocino Coast.

Russian Gulch

Russian Gulch
Russian Gulch State park contains the essence of the Mendocino Coast within its boundaries that stretch from bluffs with views of a huge sink hole, rock arches, and booming Pacific rollers, to a narrow canyon filled with overhanging redwoods, quiet birdsong, ferns, and a delicate waterfall.

During time off from paddling, I lingered with our little motor home on the bluffs here. I walked, read, and hibernated through one restorative drizzly day. Later in the week when the sky was clear I photographed the magic hours in the morning and evening. 

The waterfall at Russian Gulch SP


The "Magic Hour"
The best light happens when other people are eating - Galen Rowel
Backlight on waves and early morning mist
Its best to watch your feet when walking the bluff-edge paths; both to avoid a stumble as well as to see the beauty underfoot.
Early morning light at Russian Gulch
“Twice each day the cool, blue light of night interacts with the warm tones of daylight. Luckily for color photographers, these events, though predictable, are not consistent. For a full hour at either end of the day colors of light mix together in endless combinations, as if someone in the sky were shaking a kaleidoscope.”---- Galen Rowell (1940-2002)

The Rivers

These rivers once provided pathways for moving harvested redwoods from their primeval forests to the seacoast where they were loaded onto sailing vessels. Towns grew up at the river mouths, which exist now as destinations for those that come to enjoy this lovely area. The old pilings in the rivers, once used as wharves during the lumber trade, are now rotting, and serve as perches for the great blue herons, kingfishers, and egrets. Curious seals poke their heads from the water, and river otters enjoy their meals seemingly unconcerned as paddlers drift by.

The tides flow in, and the tides flow out. And if you can catch them just right, as we did for three days in a row on the Noyo, Big, and Albion Rivers, paddling through these lovely canyons and enjoying their wildlife is all that more fun.

Big River

Aptly named, this estuary can be paddled for at least seven miles inland from where it enters the ocean just south of the town of Mendocino. I always like to check in with the folks at Catch-A-Canoe, where colorful watercraft that can be rented for paddling and even sailing the river line the pier below the humble but cozy building that clings to the cliffs at the river mouth. If I've forgotten anything from a windbreaker to paddles they can provide them. But usually I just quiz them on the tide schedule. It is surprising how even a small current flowing against you can make it feel as if your canoe or kayak is dragging an anchor, or how delightful and encouraging a little helpful push can be when returning, tired and paddling against the wind that always comes in from the ocean later in the day.

The launching point is on the opposite, north shore, where a road from the north end of the Highway 1 bridge leads across a bar to a gently sloping ramp. The tide was coming in quickly and rising fast - we had to continually pull our boats up as folks were getting sorted out, to keep them from drifting away.

The put-in at Big River is one of my happy places. I first paddled here with my sons in the late 1970's. My wife and I have paddled its length in a Coleman, and later in our pretty red We-No-Nah several times, always coming back from the adventure in that mellow and refreshed mood that follows a bit of an outdoor workout.
Great blue heron at ease
Always fun to sneak around the obstacles on the river's edge. As you can see, the tide was quite high. We caught the tides perfectly on all three days - going upstream with the rise and out with the ebb.
Happiness on the water
Heading back down river. We were fortunate not only to have the tide with us, but only light winds from the west as well.
Big River road was probably originally put in as a logging road.
A river otter looked up from a snack - then continued with his meal.
A curious river otter

The Albion River

The launching point is from the Schooner's Landing Marina at the end of Albion River North Side Road. There is a $5 fee. 

Floating weekend cottages on the Albion River

Afternoon light on the Albion

Lunch stop on the Albion

We chatted up the owner of this floating home. He built it and has lived there since the 1970's. A mellow fellow, says he likes watching the light and the critters.

The Noyo River

The smallest of the estuaries we paddled, the mouth of the Noyo forms the areas largest harbor, with hundreds of fishing and pleasure boats moored in it. We launched from a public ramp along South River Road.
As a long-time fishing harbor, the upper reaches of the marina house some picturesque hulks.

Launching was observed by a lone swan

Happy paddlers. Author in blue life jacket.

Paddling the Noyo. the high tide allowed us to paddle further than any of us had been able to go before.



  1. That is indeed most excellent light, and most excellent use of it. (:

  2. What a wonderful area, and you've taken lovely photos.

    My grandpa was at Fort Bragg for a while near the end of WWII.

    Is Russian Gulch near the old Russian settlement in California?

    1. Here's what the State Parks site says about the name:

      "Russians who established Fort Ross in 1812 were probably the first white men to explore and chart this area. It is believed that U.S. government surveyors later gave the name "Russian Gulch" to the area 50 miles north of Fort Ross to honor these early pioneers." According to the Wikipedia entry on RG, "according to a more specific local tradition, a deserter from Fort Ross lived at Russian Gulch."

      Fort Ross is about 70 miles northwest of San Francisco, and about midway on the coast between Fort Bragg and San Francisco. It was the southernmost of several trading settlements established by Russia's Tsarist government. It existed from 1812 until 1841, when Spain forced them out to firm up their claim on California.

      So there you have it. Thanks for asking the question, and getting me to dig out some of the history of this area which we've been visiting for so many decades!