That’s not the sound I wanted to hear at the back of a dark sea cave underneath a basalt headland pummeled by ocean swell. As the stern of my kayak banged into the rock wall, I paddled forward, hard, as the next swell came through.
Not hard enough. The wave pushed me against the cave wall. I pushed myself off the barnacle-covered wall, glad I was wearing neoprene gloves. Then, seizing a gap between swells, I paddled toward the bright light at the cave mouth. As I squinted into the glare, a stench confronted me, followed by a deep bellow.
I know that smell and sound well: sea lions. As I was leaving the sea cave, a bull sea lion was coming in. Not wanting to get into a right-of-way debate with a 700-pound bull with big teeth in a sea cave, I shouted “Hey buddy!” to let him know I was there. He gave me a withering glare and dove under me as I paddled into the brilliant sunshine. Seabirds wheeled around the cliffs. Bruce, my lookout for big swells at the mouth of the cave, headed around the corner toward a double arch; our next play spot. Welcome to a day of kayaking the rock gardens of the Pacific Coast.
In case you’re wondering, whale snot is very gelatinous and hard to clean off of a camera lens.
Of all the kayaking I’ve done, coastal rock gardens are far and away my favorite. Where the ocean meets a rocky shore, the constant pummeling of waves creates arches, sea stacks, tunnels, caves, and mazes of narrow channels. Add ocean swell to this maze, and you have a dynamic obstacle course filled with beauty and excitement. Toss in a few thousand seabirds, whales, tidepool critters, and sea lions, and you have one of the richest paddling environments on the planet.
Coastal rock gardens exist on many rocky coasts. 0n the west coast, they range from Alaska to Baja, with occasional breaks for long sandy stretches in Southern California and southern Washington. The Olympic Peninsula, the west coast of Vancouver Island, and the Oregon Coast offer some of the best rock gardening in the world.
Climbers have Yosemite, and surfers have Oahu’s North Shore, skiers have Chamonix. Sea kayakers have over 4,000 miles of playground from Cabo St. Lucas to Anchorage.
Elusive Rugged Beauty
Separated from crowded tourist beaches by a mile or two of cliffs, the only people who will ever visit these spots are sea kayakers with the skills to launch through surf and paddle through the rocky maze. Powerboats can’t get close without getting chewed up by the rocks, even on calm days. So the only way to travel through these arches, caves, and secret channels is in a two-foot wide kayak that needs only eight inches of water to float. Nobody else will ever know these places exist.
And exploring these rock gardens is undeniably thrilling. Kayaking here is the “whitewater of the sea,” an adrenaline-rich mix of skill and lightning-fast decision-making among waves and rocks. As with whitewater paddling, things can go wrong, so training, safety measures, and judgment are critical. Because drought has dried up rivers in summer, more whitewater paddlers have turned to the ocean for their rough-water fix. But unlike whitewater kayaks, sea kayaks are also designed to carry gear, so you can enjoy turning coastal paddling into a camping trip. It is indescribably exhilarating to camp on tiny pocket beaches or paddle under waterfalls plunging into the sea.
Unlike whitewater paddling, you’ll have moments that feel like you stumbled into a National Geographic documentary. Caves and channels have some of the richest ocean tidepools around, filled with massive sea stars. Diving seabirds, pelicans, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles are constant companions. One day I paddled around a rock and surprised a napping raft of sea otters—one of which decided to head-butt my kayak in response. I once surfed a swell through a massive arch, where I nearly jumped out of my kayak in surprise when a 30-ton gray whale came up for a breath right next to me. In case you’re wondering, whale snot is very gelatinous and hard to clean off of a camera lens.
A Swell Time
Ocean swell is big. When it gets compressed by rock gardens, it does weird things—sudden breaking waves, surges that can shove kayaks around, rebounding waves, pour-overs that suck you backward, and waves that drop you onto concealed rocks. Those patterns constantly shift with large and small swells and tide and weather changes. Fog can turn a sunny paddle into a cold guessing game. Learning to manage ever-changing conditions is the art of seamanship, and it takes time and practice to learn, even for whitewater kayakers, who may know how to paddle a boat in rough water.
Getting to the rock gardens has a price of entry—the ability to launch and land through the surf. That means being able to size up beach launches and landings, power out through the surf zone, and come back in safely every time you want to get out of your kayak. Some capsizes, swims, and rescues will happen in surf zones and rock gardens. Being able to reliably roll your kayak and rescue others is fundamental.
As any Northwesterner knows, the Pacific Ocean is cold. Drysuits or wetsuits, helmets, and gloves are critical for keeping you safe in the water. Plastic boats that bounce off rocks are better in rock gardens than more fragile materials. Rescue gear like towlines,VHF radios, and seasickness prevention aides are essential. So are the skills to use those them.
The ocean isn’t just big. It’s also fickle. Forecasts can be wrong. Many times, I’ve driven 90 miles to the coast only to look at the conditions and leave without ever taking my kayak off the car. Most coastal kayaking accidents happen when people launch despite obvious signals that the conditions are questionable. It takes a while to develop good judgment. Local knowledge is often key, as is the ability to read a nautical chart and calculate the depth of the water, tide height, and headlands when finding a safe place to land.
Coastal kayaking is a team sport. You’ll need to find a small group of good folks who you trust in rough water, who aren’t so gung-ho that they’ll get everyone in trouble, who communicate well, and with whom you enjoy exploring wild places. When you find them, they’ll become your tribe for many years.
And when you paddle through a cave into a beam of light illuminating green water while seabirds frolic at the cave mouth and the whole world smells like the sea, you’ll experience the transcendant joy of playing in Poseidon’s Den.
Neil Schulman is a writer/photographer living in Portland, Oregon, where he also runs a river conservation group. You can find his work at neilschulman.com.