Break On Through to the Other Side

Spring 2007

This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
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Kayaking in Poseidon’s Den

by Neil Schulman

Crunch. This is about the worst place for that fiberglass-meets-rock sound: at the back of a sea cave underneath 200 feet of solid basalt. It’s just a love tap, felt and heard as I turn around at the back of a cave at Cape Meares on the Oregon Coast. And a good thing too, because we’re a few miles of exposed coast from the car, with a surf landing in the way.

Small swells roll into the cave, and for a moment Karl is silhouetted in the entrance. Then it’s out of the dark into the bright, blue world of the sea and the sky. Huge cliffs rise two hundred feet from the sea. Birds wheel around the cliffs. Waves break and suck against rocks covered in mussels and sea stars.

Beyond the breakers is a world most paddlers never see. Guarded by the surf zone, fraught with breaking waves and rock gardens, the open coast is one of the most difficult paddling environments around. But it’s also one of the most stunningly beautiful places I’ve been, full of arches, rock gardens, and secret coves. And until recently I didn’t even know it was there, despite living nearby for 17 years. That’s because nobody can get there except skilled sea kayakers.

For many years, I paddled the way most people do: locally, on both flat and dynamic water on the wind-prone Columbia River. I’d play in the surf to hone my skills and catch rides. But it wasn’t until some friends took me on my first trip to the open coast that I became fully entranced with Poseidon’s Den.

The west coast of North America is a rocky coastline, with alternating sea cliffs, headlands and sandy beaches. The endless pounding has created sea stacks, arches, caves and narrow channels. When conditions are mild enough, it’s a fantastic place to be. Less than a mile away, tourists might be buying salt-water taffy, and laying on a beach towel. But from a kayak, the sea and shoreline are still very wild, and a good paddler can access spots nobody else can. Seabirds like puffins, guillemots, murres and auklets love this environment too. During nesting season, many of Oregon’s offshore rocks are closed to kayakers.

The open coast is not a place to enter carelessly. Despite years of kayaking, a solid roll, and lots of practice, I only venture past the surf line in good conditions, and with people I trust. And when I do, it’s with a respectful nod to Poseidon, lurking below.

A trip to the open coast means negotiating the surf zone every time you land or launch. Surf is powerful stuff, as anyone who’s been faced down by even a small breaking wave knows. It takes stamina to get out past the breakers, and skill and experience to get back in to shore safely. And good form is important, since the surf is easily powerful enough to separate your shoulder or turn your boat into a fiberglass jigsaw puzzle.

Equally importantly, you’ll need to be able to learn to assess surf conditions—to know where to find smaller surf, how to interpret wave height and period, spilling and dumping waves, and how surf can change with the weather and the tide’s rise and fall.

This means you’ll need coaching and practice in the surf zone, and a reliable roll on both sides. The good news is that playing and practicing in the surf is tons of fun. It will be a humbling, capsize-laden experience at first, but it’s one of the best environments to develop paddling skills.

You don’t want to come out of your boat in the surf, but you really don’t want to have an out-of-boat experience in rock gardens. Constricted by rocks, waves do weird things. They steepen, surge forward, break unpredictably in tight passages, rebound off cliffs and combine with other waves, suck you back one moment and shoot you forward the next. In this kind of water, well-developed boat control skills are critical. You’ll need to be able to turn quickly, move your boat in all four directions, and stay upright in the rough stuff.

As much as paddling skills, coastal paddling puts a premium on the ability to assess conditions before you even leave the beach. Swell and wave height, period, direction and changes in tide and weather must be anticipated. Small changes in tide height can turn a bay of smooth swells into a minefield of waves booming over sharp rocks. A surf zone that is easily manageable in the morning might be a boat-eater when you come back for lunch. A fog bank can turn a fun paddle into a cold, blind guessing-game. And once you’re out there, it’s not easy to get back onto solid ground.

Which means you’ll need to manage whatever happens from the water. Bracing and rolling on both sides are no-brainer requirements. Rescues in surf and rock gardens are difficult at best, and can easily create a second victim. Injuries are serious problems. Boat compartments should be backed up with float bags in case you hit a rock or blow a hatch cover. Rescue and safety systems should be quick, simple and practiced. Immersion clothing, helmets, spare paddles and general fitness are all necessities.

The other necessity is a good group of paddlers who paddle together. While you may have a leader, everyone needs to be fully competent to play in Poseidon’s Den. You’ll need to communicate on the water, with a good set of signals to keep you together and out of nasty spots. When you find a good group, keep ’em. One of the greatest rewards of kayaking is the camaraderie of paddling with good folks in one of the best places in the world.

Many kayakers who are unused to swell, discover that they get seasick on the open ocean. Make seasickness medicine part of your accessible kit, and take it before you launch if you’re prone. A seasick kayaker is an incapacitated one who will usually require at least two other people to tow. Most medicine doesn’t work well if taken after the onset of nausea.

We leave the caves underneath Cape Meares, laughing that two hundred feet above us, a bunch of tourists have no idea they’re standing on a headland that’s hollow underneath. Back at the beach, I surf in, feeling in control. Suddenly, Karl points at me, cackling uproariously. Sure enough, a wave picks me up vertically and then pitchpoles me toward the beach. I land upside down and roll back up, with a big green stripe of seaweed stuck to the side of my helmet. The sea always has the last laugh. I’m too giddy to care.

As Neil writes this, the coastal forecast is a west swell, 12 feet at 14 seconds, with 4-foot wind waves. He’s glad to be somewhere else.