Thursday, November 20, 2014

Kayaking SoCal

I was digging through some stuff the other day and found a copy of the Fall 1998 Patagonia catalog where I "got my first big break" of an essay that was published there about a memorable day of local kayaking.  We are leaving Friday for bike tour of Vietnam which hopefully will create the opportunity for a somewhat-worthy tale, but in the meantime I thought I'd throw up the Patagonia essay, if for no other reason than it happened about this time!   

During the fall of 1997 SoCal was all abuzz about the presence of a BIG El Nino event happening, and by early December we were getting a little tired of hearing about this inevitable onslaught of storms we were going to receive while continuing to bake under a hot sun.  But then it all changed....

For the past 2.5 years that I’ve lived in Ventura I had had quick glimpses of the North Fork of Matilija Creek while riding my bike in the Los Padres National Forest 15 north of the Patagonia offices.  It’s a cool little creekbed that winds its way down through the chaparral and provides shady relief from the summer heat in its pools.  The gradient of the creek is 150-200 feet per mile and although it was hard to imagine on parched summer days that this little riverbed with only a few cups of water trickling down its rocks could somehow grow into something that could float a kayak, I couldn’t resist a wishful, Oregon-born thought as I pedaled home:  That creek might actually go if it rained, and rained A LOT.”

In December, El Nino cometh.  A small crew of whitewater boaters from rainier regions of the country who had been lured to gainful employment at Patagonia eagerly followed as the first major front of the season stomped its way across the Pacific.  The rain started on Friday morning, and it poured all day.  We went to sleep that night to the sound of rain still beating on the clay SoCal roofs, music to our ears.

Saturday morning we were happy to discover that the storm had produced nine inches of rain in Ventura County and most of SoCal was under water.  “Makes for some prime boatin’!” I said to myself as I drove to meet the others at the office.  We loaded the boats on top of our cars and headed for the hills. 

Our first sight of the river was below the confluence of the South and North Forks.  Bank-full and raging over the road.  As we stared glumly at the chocolate water we were incredulous; after literally years of dry weather we were going to get flooded out!  But as we continued up the North Fork it became obvious that it was only providing a fraction of the total river volume, so our rose slightly.  Scouting from above, a couple of drops looked do-able, but years of little to no water had enabled the alder, ash, and Manzanita to engulf the riverbed.  The possibility of strainers on such a tight, steep creek seemed high, and we had all lost friends to kayaking accidents earlier in the year.  However, our desire to get some fresh water back into our noses and the awesome potential of a “find” so close to our adopted home overcame our trepidation and we put on.

Soon it became apparent that the gradient was consistent, the class 4  -4+ rapids were surprisingly clean, and the rainwater dripping from the desert chapparal provided an iridescent backdrop to the creek.  I was finally paddling the Matilija, and it seemed like a totally new place to me.  We bounced down the creek, scouting and running each drop, naming the bigger ones “Conglomerate” (a thick boulder garden), “Waffle Wall”, (with some cool sandstone texturing on the bank), and “Let’s Make A Deal” (don’t pick the wrong “door”?).  Our excitement increased with every crazy twist and drop in the river, and it was quickly becoming apparent that we were discovering a gem in our own backyard. 

It had taken three years of waiting and over nine inches of rain, but by the end of the afternoon we had completed our first run of the North Fork of the Matilija.  On the 20 minute drive home, while peering through our beloved rain, we decided that Ventura-by-the-sea was a pretty good place after all for a bunch of displaced paddlers who have fresh water running through their veins.  We weren’t home, but we were closer. 

If we took pics that day they are long gone, but here are a couple of pics of the NF Matilija Creek as it looks normally:

The rest of the winter delivered as promised; the rains kept coming to the point where SoCal was in a federal disaster area for months and we were able to paddle rivers and creeks that hadn't had water for at least 10 years.   We almost got arrested for kayaking since the local authorities had no idea how to treat us and we had to research California river navigation laws to make sure the laws were on our side.  

Since that 97-98 winter it may possibly have rained enough for the NF Matilija creek to be almost runnable for a couple of days each in 2001, 2003, and 2004.  2005 had some big rains that definitely created enough flow.  It has likely not had more than a trickle in it since 2005.  A rare gem indeed. 

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