Estero Tour: Landmarks to the Beach

Many people at the launch area at the Estero Americano tell me they’ve never paddled all the way to the ocean. That is understandable. It’s five and a half miles to the beach and that first mile is nothing special.

Most of the journey to Bodega Bay, however, is a lovely paddle.

With that in mind, permit me to show you just how grest it is.

Let’s start with a map showing the names of the landmarks along the way. Click to enlarge.

Black text for features on Land. White text for water features. Each feature will be discussed in the following narrative. Click to enlarge.

The public launch is at the intersection of Marsh Road and Valley Ford Estero Road in northwest Marin County.

Looking back towards Valley Ford.

A gravel driveway, often rough with potholes, runs along the south side of the road out to the narrow Estero channel. Parking is limited, but not many people come here. Leave room for others to park.

Launch site. Paddle under bridge to get to ocean

From this site, paddle north under the bridge and begin winding up the channel. You’re likely to pass dairy cattle who often show interest in paddlers passing by.

Dairy heifer

The dairy buildings on the Marin side have a pleasing geometric appeal. They mark the beginning of the wilder reaches of the Estero. You have come about a mile at this point. It gets better from here.

Dairy buildings in Marin County

Wild animals begin to appear beyond this dairy. On the most recent trip, Willets worked the Marin shoreline.

Willet

A luxuriant grove of Bay Laurel trees overhang the Estero. It’s a pleasant place to sit in shade on a warm afternoon.

Beyond Bay Laurel Grove you’ll  pass beyond the dairy and out to the rangeland of True Grass Farms. The cattle on this ranch aren’t making milk; they’re for meat. As cattle go, they enjoy some prime real estate. As a rancher I know says, “My cows have only one bad day.”

It is here that the Estero stretches out in a more or less straight mile running west northwest and gradually widening as it approaches Buckeye Bend.

Along this stretch of the Estero I often see Turkey Vultures, Ravens, and Hawks.

To the north is California Highway One.

Zooming in

And zooming in more

Highway One is far enough away so that the only vehicles you’re likely to hear are the unmuffled Harleys. If you know where to look, you can catch a glimpse of the traffic passing by. If you look north as you pass by Coyote Point, you should be able to see the traffic going by on the highway.

Coyote Point, so named for this coyote photographed here.

You’re just shy of halfway to the ocean when you reach Buckeye Bend.

Buckeye Bend. Another person went out that day in a motorized canoe. He is visible if you click on the photo to enlarge it. 

Whale’s Tail marks the halfway point of the trip out to the coast. It’s a landmark that requires no explanation.

Just beyond Whale’s Tail the landscape opens up.

Sonoma Reach

Sonoma Reach opens to the north of the main channel. Sadly there is barbed wire fencing blocking easy passage into this Reach.

Crossing the Reach and passing a Point on the Marin shore you arrive at the Hanging Gardens. A pair of Barn Owls had made their home in a cave near the top of the cliffs here.

Hanging Gardens

Beyond the Hanging Gardens the Estero narrows briefly before opening to Marin Reach.

Marin Reach

As you exit the broader waters of Marin Reach you enter the fiord-like Straits that pass by the Sonoma Land Trust site and lead to the beach. There is Inner Strait

Inner Strait

Middle Strait,

Middle Strait

and Outer Strait.

Outer Strait

Each of these straits requires less than ten minutes of moderate paddling. As you paddle into Outer Strait the sound of surf will become more and more prominent.

Almost there ?

Get out at the end. You’ve made it to the beach!

Lots of footprints on this trip

If you go on a weekday, you may find the beach entirely empty of other people, and, if you’re lucky, even empty of other human footprints. Of course you will see the flotsam and jetsam of humans. It’s everywhere.

I always bring a trash bag to pick up whatever trash I find.

Here is a link to a video panorama of the beach out there.

Estero Americano Now Open

As I was packing my lunch and thermos of hot tea into my kayak I noticed the water in the Estero Americano running urgently toward the sea. Little eddies swirled quickly past the launch. A fallen Poplar tree had been pushed by the current up against the bridge. The current held it tight against the bridge pilings. The trunk almost blocked the channel.

I had never seen water flow so quickly through the Estero. I expected to find its mouth open when I got out to Bodega Bay.

The winds were calm. The sun shone strongly enough to take the chill out of the morning air. Without much effort I floated down the channel through the pastures and out beyond the dairy. Soon I found myself surrounded by Estero Americano’s calm beauty.

Estero Americano Serenity

Bufflehead ducks, one of the smallest ducks we see, spend winter all across the southern United States. They winter as far south as Mexico and spend summers in Canada. In January they are a common wintertime sight in Northern California. Yesterday was no exception. They were everywhere in couples or small flocks, often groups of two to four couples.

Bufflehead Duck Couple

As I paddled past the hanging gardens I was cheered to see Barney and Betty Barn Owl watching over the middle reach of the Estero.

We see each other regularly.

When paddling solo I usually see River Otters in the Estero. They often seem curious about a quiet human in a bright orange boat.

Who’s that?

This otter had a long look before deciding to vamoose. The camera scared him.

Had I not been upwind of this fellow, I think I’d have gotten closer. I could hear it sniffing me.

Rounding the final bend in the Estero, I could hear the roaring ocean. By now the current carried my boat at a good clip toward the breakers. It would be a bad time to lose my paddle! This is why I tie my paddle to my boat. Otherwise I would risk losing it while handling my camera.

This scene put some butterflies in the stomach.

The Estero’s mouth was open.

A beach swept clean by storm waves

The beach had been washed clean by huge waves from the recent storms. My bootprints were the only human footprints in the sand.

Looking south, toward Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore

I had lunch and tea in the dunes. A peaceful interlude.

Lunch spot in the dunes.

Here is a 24-second video of the water running out of the Estero.

At least two harbor seals were working the mouth of the Estero. Having seen Steelhead Trout in the Estero last year, my hunch is that at least a few Steelheads try their luck at spawning in the Estero watershed. That would explain the Harbor Seals, who don’t often come into the Estero these days. This one seems to have already enjoyed a midday meal.

I could be reading too much into that facial expression.

A curious River Otter visited my kayak while I was exploring the beach. He or she left muddy footprints on the foredeck. Perhaps it was the same one that I saw on the way out.

Foredeck footprints of a curious otter

The way home against the current was a real slog. The current strengthened in the afternoon, perhaps with the falling tide at the ocean. I got a workout bigger than I bargained for.

Despite my weary arms I saw things I had not noticed on the way out.

Nine deer.

Deer? What deer?

Zoomed in, you can see them.

They kept their distance from me.

A picnic table belonging to Sonoma Land Trust lodged high in the rocks. (I’ll call to let them know where it is—I’m guessing they don’t know what had happened to it.) The Land Trust has preserved 547 acres of land near the mouth. These acres will eventually be open it to the public.

Sonoma Land Trust’s picnic table

A Turkey Vulture sunned itself on a fencepost.

TV worth watching!

The paddle back to the launch against the current took nearly three hours. I estimate that the current added the equivalent almost three miles’ worth of distance to the already five-and-a-half mile long return journey.

Note fallen poplar tree in channel under bridge

It felt good to get home, tuckered out, hungry, and thirsty for a big cuppa hot black tea.

Monitoring Estero Americano/Storm Waves

Here’s a report on a quick trip out to the Estero Americano before the imminent three-day onslaught of rain begins.

I was curious to see if the heavy surf associated with recent storms might have closed the mouth of the Estero which would allow its waters to rise again. Sure enough, this appears to have happened.

Water is high enough to top the channel

 

Seeing the high water made me want to visit the coast to have a look at the big waves implied by the Estero’s high waters.

Big breakers on Doran Beach

Big combers thundered on Doran Beach. Despite the fact that it was low tide when these photos were taken waves washed so far up the beach that they almost reached the dunes.

This beach usually has small waves that are safe enough for youngsters to play in. Not today!

Even from the vantage point of standing on the dunes behind the beach the waves felt threatening. Out in Bodega Bay proper, huge Mavericks-like waves were rising and breaking in places I have never seen waves break before. Jackie Sones over at Natural History of Bodega Head reports the waves reached 26 feet at the buoys. Her blog reports on these waves, too.

After 30 minutes of mesmerizing wave-watching I retreated to the relative calm of the old sewage ponds adjacent to the Bodega Bay water treatment facility nestled between Highway 1 and Bodega Harbor.

I heard some quacking and walked around looking for the ducks. There they were, swimming in the bottom of this normally dry abandoned pond

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard

With a Great Blue Heron in the bargain.

Stand still for the camera!

Estero Americano, Emptied

The Estero’s rain-swollen waters had recently risen high enough to flood Marsh Road and inundate the launch area.

Now the sandbar that had been blocking the mouth of Estero Americano is breached. Gone is the water that had risen out of the channel and flooded adjacent pastures.

The water level is back to normal with the channel wending its way through the fields. The pastures, recently at the bottom of “Lake Valley Ford” are brown with muck. The air stinks of dairy and poultry waste.

Estero Americano, January 5, 2017

There’s a noticeable current flowing under the bridge, out towards Bodega Bay. Perhaps a strong Pacific swell will soon reseal the mouth of the Estero.

Hopefully the rains forecast for the coming week will wash some of the muck off the pasture grasses and perhaps begin to fill the Estero up again.

Estero Americano Filling Up

The Estero Americano is over its banks.

Tomorrow’s forecast is calling for the rain to stop.

It’s hard to say if there is enough rain and runoff still to come this evening to make the Estero overflow the sand dam at the mouth.

Launch Ramp December 15, 2016

We shall see.

We can hope that the Estero will just keep filling up and up—without breaking itself open and running into the Pacific.

When the Estero is brimming and about to overflow it resembles a five-mile long chain of lakes that end at Bodega Bay.

Looking Northward at Vally Ford/Franklin School Bridge