Big River, Again

I decided to paddle on Big River both days of my two-day visit to the Mendocino coast. It is a beautiful river and I hadn’t paddled all the way to the end on the first day. Mostly I wanted to watch the otters again.

I got out ahead of the 11:00 AM high tide Thursday morning. Unlike the day before, there were several other paddlers near the launch area under the bridge. I didn’t want human company, so I quickly paddled upstream far enough to have the company of only wild creatures.

In an hour I was further upstream than I had managed to get the day before, carried by the moon’s magic carpet ride—the flood tide.

The river narrowed quite quickly between steep and heavily wooded banks. There is practically no place to easily or safely exit a kayak to take a lunch or bathroom break. But it is very quiet and peaceful. A lovely Madrone tree leaned out over the river channel in search of sunlight.

I continued about three miles farther. I had to turn around where a tree had fallen across the river (more of a stream at this point) making further progress in a kayak complicated.

I saw pretty much the same cast of wild animal characters who had entertained me the day before. Many of them, like these Western Grebes, were in almost exactly the same place on the river that they had been the day before.

The otter family, though, had swum upstream more than a mile. They were not skittish in the least. I wondered if they recognized me from the day before and knew I would mind my manners, not approach them too closely, and just observe them.

They let me get within about ten meters. I watched their mutual grooming and snuggling.

Otters appeal to humans, I think, because they seem to enjoy communal full-body snuggling, like we may have enjoyed as young children, if lucky enough to grow up in a large, snuggly family.

This fellow, after crawling up on top of his buddy turned his head upside down and snoozed for a short while.

Note the upside down head of the fellow on top

I watched the otter family of six for a good half hour before leaving them to their antics. In a little more than three hours I paddled 12 miles, assisted each mile, both ways, by a current running in my direction.

If you plan a paddle here, check the tide charts so that you’re having lunch at high tide!

Here is a map of my journey on Big River.




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.

Estero Americano Dec 5, 2016

The rains have added enough water to the Estero Americano to swell the channel near its banks.


Being able to see over the banks of the channel allows for a much more pleasant trip away from the parking lot through the dairy pasturelands.

I saw a number of birds and otters on the way out, but I couldn’t approach them as closely as usual. The wild animals scattered before they came within the reach of my camera.

I did manage to get this photo a couple of dogs who were out on an unsupervised romp through the Estero.


The beagle brayed.

Squeaky neoprene cold-weather gloves were the reason why wildlife was so elusive. They squawked with each paddle stroke.


Once I took them off I was able to do get better photos. Here’s a Great Blue Heron.


All the usual residents were in attendance and accounted for today, among them: Cormorants, Buffleheads, Coots, River Otters, Barn Owls, Vultures,Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, smaller hawks I could not identify and, in the surf near the beach, California Sea Lions.

A map of the outing:

Ten Miles on Tomales Bay 2

A great advantage of paddling solo early in the morning is the wildlife. No other humans were out on the bay when I started my paddle. But there was company out on Tomales Bay.

Not far up the shore from Chicken Ranch Beach three River Otters were enjoying a breakfast frolic in early morning sunshine.

They were so busy diving to the bottom for their morning buffet that they did not notice me right away.


“Whoa. What’s up with that orange thing? It wasn’t here when we swam out here.”

I approached slowly and quietly until one of them caught sight of my bright orange and white kayak.

He (or she) alerted the others with a tweeting vocalization that might easily be mistaken as a bird call.


“Chirp! Is that a human? Does he see us?”

They paused to take some good long looks at me. I think they were trying to decide whether I had noticed them. We all more or less stopped what we were doing. After a minute or so, they resumed feeding and I went on taking photos.

Soon after, all three began to move off, swimming toward the sun.


Swimming toward the sun

I wondered, “Do they swim toward the sun to make it harder for me to see them?” It certainly seems possible to me. They live by hunting, after all. They would know that prey animals are easier to see with the sun at your back.


“Arrrgh! This human won’t let us alone.”

Because otters cannot swim as fast as kayaks, I was able to position my boat between them and the sun. Eventually, my persistence annoyed them and they swam back to shore and climbed into the brush and out of sight.

I had interrupted their breakfast.

Tomorrow I’ll post a short video interesting mainly for its audio content where you’ll be able to hear the alert chirping sounds that otters make to warn each other of danger.

Abundant Otters

Many otters were out last time I paddled the Russian River.

The owner of this blue kayak had bungeed a dog bed on the back deck presumably so they could take their pet pooch on an evening paddle.

It was not a good idea to leave boat/bed rig on the beach overnight. dogyakThis appeared to be the work of River Otters.


Sure enough, there were at least a half dozen otters loitering about.


River otters are only kind of cute.