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.

high-water-ea-dec-5

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.

two-dogs-ea-dec-5

The beagle brayed.

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

squeaky-gloves-ea-dec-5

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

gbhe-ea-dec-5

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:

Estero de San Antonio

I’ve only paddled the Estero de San Antonio (ESA) once before—more than 32 years ago.

ESA is the little brother of the better-but-still-little-known Estero Americano immediately to the north. There is no public access point for the Estero de San Antonio; it is almost unknown to the paddling public.

Peddalin' Paddlin' Home 7:26:16

To paddle ESA you’ve got to know someone who knows someone who owns land out here to get permission to drive on a ranch to launch your boat.

George Curtis at Launch 7:26:16

George at our launch site on Cornett’s ranch.

Recently I met George Curtis, a semi-retired pharmacist who was born in nearby Santa Rosa. George knows a lot of people, among them one of the sheep ranchers in West Marin County, Chris Cornett. Cornett is a fifth generation sheep rancher running 1400 sheep on more than 800 acres along the Estero de San Antonio.

George invited me to paddle from Chris’s ranch to the coast. At first the going was tough, especially for George’s Mirage Drive-powered Hobie kayak. Algae growing in ESA fouled the propulsion fins on the keel making it inoperable. For the first stretch, George had to resort to paddling.

Gamely Paddling thru Algae 7:26:16

George gamely powered through the first couple of miles of the trip out to the coast.

Half an hour into the trip we made it to the Middle Road bridge where, soon, an algae-free path began to open in the middle of the channel.

The bridge at Middle Road 7:26:16

We passed the remnants of the railroad bridge that once spanned ESA on its way from Sausalito to Duncans Mills.

Railroad Bridge Ruins 7:26:16

There was wildlife to see along the way including this Great Horned Owl, one of three family members living in eucalyptus trees.

Great Horned Owl 7:26:16

Whitaker Bluff loomed above us as we neared the halfway point in our journey to the coast.

Whittaker Bluff 7:26:16

About halfway out to the coast we passed under the last bridge, the Valley Ford-Franklin School Road bridge.

Franklin School Road Bridge 7:26:16

From this point on, the hills got bigger and steeper making the paddle both more dramatic and more mysterious.

Coastal Hills 7:26:16

At times it seemed impossible that this small splendid ribbon of water could wind its way through such steep hills and find its way to the coast.

Way Home 7:26:16

Then, suddenly it air chilled and we knew we were close to our goal. We paddled past an abandoned seaside farm, just a few yards inland from the ocean.

Derelict Ranch Building near Coast 7:26:16

And made our way into the coastal fog,

Fog at Coast 7:26:16

and onto the beach. We shared a sandwich. We didn’t linger there long as it took us more time to make it out the the beach than either of us had anticipated.

At Bodega Bay Beach 7:26:16

The trip back was pleasant. A friendly breeze blew in from the coast. I had remembered to bring my sail which made some sections of the estuary effortless. George spotted a TV watching us from atop a post.

TV Watching Us! 7:26:16

We cut short the trip to avoid the algae-clogged last mile or so and pulled our kayaks out under the watchful eye of a Holstein bull.

Homestretch 7:26:16

Luckily, the bull didn’t seem perturbed by our activity and we got home in time to enjoy a beer at George’s place with his lovely wife, Shannon and her visiting parents. Our paddle took us almost four hours on the water and covered just a little more than 11 miles.

Here is a map of our adventure:

 

Visiting the Russian River Estuary

The Russian River Estuary is filling up now that the mouth has closed. My wife and I got up early this morning to take our canoe out to see the wildlife out there and to pick up whatever garbage we could find.

Jenner 6:3:16

It was calm when we arrived.

We paddled out to the mouth and then upriver stopping at a pasture for a break. We saw about 70 Harbor Seals at the (now closed) mouth, Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Loons, Mallard Ducks, Caspian Terns, Pelicans, Canadian Geese, and Turkey Vultures. Although we hoped to see something a bit more unusual, specifically River Otter or perhaps, a Bald Eagle, none showed themselves to us.

All along the way, we found flotsam and jetsam to pluck out of the river and take to the garbage receptacle at Jenner launch site.

We stopped by the visitor center to buy a gift for our daughter’s best friends newborn baby girl.

A wonderful morning followed by a fantastic creekside lunch we enjoyed on our way home at Fork’s restaurant.

Map of today’s outing:

 

At the Mouth—Whales!

Canoe on Penny Island

The Russian River Estuary is an excellent place for anyone interested in seeing a variety of wildlife. Today’s canoe outing started out slowly, but finished spectacularly.

A lone Great Egret waded along the north shore of Penny Island catching small fish to eat for a midday meal.

Great Egret 1130  4:20:16

About a half dozen harbor seals swam just inside the mouth where more than 200 seals were hauled out on the sand and resting. Among them were many pups. Some were nursing.

Nursing Harbor Seal Pup

Mama seal nursing her pup. I took this picture from the overlook after the paddle. I saw similar scenes from the boat, but to avoid disturbing them, I didn’t approach close enough for a good photo.

Among the harbor seal colony there was a group of about a dozen Cormorants and several times that many gulls. A couple of sea lions barked in the surf zone just outside the mouth.

Paddling back towards Penny Island, a pair of Common Goldeneyes took note of my boat’s approach. They swam off to keep a comfortable distance away.

Goldeneye Couple 4:20:16

When lunchtime came, I pulled the canoe out onto the gravel bar along the eastern (upstream) shore of Penny Island. A group of Buffleheads didn’t notice me right away and came close enough for me to make a move for my camera. My movement caught their attention and they started to swim away.

Better Buffleheads 4:20:16

The one furthest from the camera is an adult male. Not sure if the others are his harem or what.

There were only a few other paddlers out today. When the river’s practically empty of boats, the deer feel it’s safe to come out to browse on the grasses along the shore of the island. This deer didn’t hear the very slow and quiet approach of my canoe. There was time to take its picture. As soon as it saw me it tip toed back into the brush and out of sight.

Deer on Penny Island

Along the way I also saw gulls, Crows, Turkey Vultures, Mallards, and Red-winged Blackbirds, but didn’t get photos of any of them worthy sharing here.

At about 3:00 I decided to return to the launch ramp and rack the canoe on the car. As an afterthought, I decided to drive up to the Highway One turn-out that overlooks the mouth. From that vantage point, using binoculars, I could accurately count the harbor seals in the colony. There were 234 seals, not including the dozen (or more) in the river and ocean.

Ken Sund drove into the turnout and we talked a little bit when he saw a Gray Whale spout in the waves just outside the mouth of the river. There was a mother and her calf, I think perhaps more: two mothers and two calves, perhaps?

Ken explained that the Russian River’s outflow is significantly warmer than the ocean water. Calves enjoy lingering in these warm Russian bath waters, a bit of wine country luxury on their 8,000 kilometer journey to their feeding grounds in the frigid Arctic seas.

Gray Whales at the Mouth

These whales were right along the beach, the closest to shore I’ve ever seen Grays approach.

 

Ken and I told others visitors who had stopped at this overlook about the whales. Most people stopped there to look at the seal colony. A few had stopped simply for the view of the ocean.

Everyone was pleased to see the whales who put on a good show, spouting and holding up an occasional pectoral fin. A calf spy hopped, but, alas, this photographer wasn’t quick enough to get pixels on the memory chip.

Gray Whale Spouting Off

Eventually Ken took off to launch his kayak, paddle to the beach at my feet and then walk out on to the beach for a closer look.

Ken on Beach

Ken photographing a marine mammal in the waves. Not sure if its a seal, sea lion, or whale.

I stayed up on the overlook for 90 minutes. I told everyone who came to look for the whales and pretty soon quite a crowd gathered, intently watching the whales.

 

Roving Docent 2 Roving Docent Work

It was fun acting as a Roving Docent.