A rescue on my own kayak trip is a reminder that in outdoor pursuits, you’re always safer to trust your gut.
The journey to Marshall Beach was a two-hour paddle in choppy water toward the Pacific. We hugged the shore, avoiding the strong current.
Deserted beaches broke up five miles of tree-lined cliffs, jutting in and out from the California coast like ribbon candy. We glided by clusters of bufflehead birds, dipping their white heads into the waves in search of an afternoon snack. A great blue heron eyed us lazily from a stump. A handful of rubber-boot-wearing clammers pecked at wet rocks with shovels, hoping to find dinner in low tide. We didn't see anyone else for the rest of our kayak commute to our campsite.
It was my first trip to Point Reyes National Seashore — a wild, wind-swept peninsula, home to whales, seals and elk — and it was as remote feeling as I hoped.
Fog swept in, shrouding everything in milky, wispy white. I heard only the calls of birds and the water lapping at my paddle. We reached Marshall Beach as the fog lifted, with just enough daylight to set up our tents and get dinner cooking. This is a boat-in only area. There’s no parking. We packed our food, fire logs and gear in waterproof dry bags and carried them in storage holds in our kayaks.
We savored the solitude, talking beside the campfire, catching up.
My friend Olaf and I were having a reunion. I met him when I lived in Germany; we meet up every few years to keep the friendship going. His sister, Astrid, and her friend from California, Nicole, organized the overnight kayaking trip.
We laughed at how we so far had avoided “solitude invaders” — otherwise known as visitors like us but who happen to wander into our experience — and went to sleep serenaded by a chorus of frogs under the stars. Come morning, we would rely on one of those intruders to help us.
In the morning, I strolled the shore watching the sun inch itself into the sky. It was calm. I looked forward to the leisurely paddle back to Chicken Ranch beach, where we left the car.
By the time we ate breakfast and repacked, Tomales Bay was a much different arena. The wind was blowing and the Pacific heaved in white caps. That five-mile paddle suddenly seemed much farther.
Of the four of us, Nicole was very experienced, having logged in many hours on the bay. I am an intermediate paddler and Olaf and Astrid had only kayaked once.
I was first on the water. The wind was brewing up one- and two-foot swells. I wore waterproof hat for rain which I cinched so tight it was giving me a headache, yet a gust flung it 10 feet. My boat was rocking. I aimed for shore to avoid the current, but even with the rudder down for extra balance, my boat was tough to control.
I took inventory.
My spray skirt, which I wore around my waist, blossomed out to seal around the cockpit, and would keep the cold water out. But one of the basic rules is to hit waves head on. Meet them sideways and you can easily roll over. For our route, there seemed to be no way to paddle perpendicular to the waves. It would be a sideways toss and tumble the entire trip.
I have kayaked many times before, usually on ponds, lakes and moving creeks, but I managed well enough running rapids in a whitewater course. I’m a confident paddler. This day, it felt uncomfortable. Dangerous.
"I've got a problem," I shouted to Nicole as she got close. "It's really rough. I can't control the boat well in the swells. I'm going back to the beach."
If she was disappointed, she didn't show it. We paddled back to Marshall Beach, where I traded my neoprene booties for hiking boots before she hooked my kayak to her own. She would tow it back and I would spend most the morning waiting.
My Plan B was a disappointing and long prospect. I’d wait on the beach for hours, guessing how long it would take them to paddle back. Then, I'd walk a mile uphill to a road, and wait again for my friends to arrive by car.
I plunked down in the sand and had second thoughts: I'm probably going to regret this. They are going to make it just fine and tell me how much fun it was. Then a big wave broke against the sand and I said aloud, “Forget this. This is just stupid."
Next time I looked, there were only two kayakers. The third was a bobbing head. Someone definitely went over.
I squinted to make sure. In the meantime, a man and his two kids had come and we all ran to the water’s edge. The waves were big enough that we couldn’t make out much.
“I sail here all the time. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he said.
I was afraid for my friends, and confident I made the right decision. I told him why I was on the beach; he nodded.
He asked me where my kayak was. Tied to one of theirs, I said, as we both saw it — my bright blue boat, getting carried away in the current to lands unknown.
Olaf was in the water — the waves were too tall and they were too far away to tell.
I could do nothing but watch as they inched closer to shore. Thankfully, the stranger graciously offered us a ride to our car. A park ranger with amazing timing also came at this point to collect trash. I ran over to him, relieved.
If the intruder and ranger had not shown up, he would have been wet, in 45-degree weather, miles from a road, with no cell phone service.
The ranger used his radio to report our man overboard, just as a call for “three kayakers in trouble, one in the water," came over the airwaves.
It wasn't us. There were two other parties with people capsized at the same time.
A Coast Guard rescue helicopter flew overhead, searching for one of them.
Thankfully, Olaf was still clinging to his kayak, doggy paddling. Nicole had his boat attached to hers, where mine used to be. Olaf was soaking wet, teeth clattering. I ran in to waist high to grab his boat as he shuffled stiff-legged ashore.
We warmed him up fast to prevent hypothermia, which can easily kill someone. Olaf changed clothes, wrapped himself in a sleeping bag and slid a neck warmer and wool hat over his head. One ranger ferried Nicole to our car and a rescue boat motored up with a surprise — my kayak, now with some big scratches from where it was slapping against the rocks.
As for the other rescues that morning, one of the men in the other paddling parties had a broken rudder and had to be rescued. A ranger boat would shadow the other kayakers across the bay, in case they capsized. There was a good chance they would. The wind was whipping at 45 mph and the white caps were getting bigger.
Olaf said Nicole made the call that it was too rough to continue, at about the same time I was having regrets for bailing on the beach. He tipped on their way back to the beach, getting caught sideways in the waves. At the very same time, the hook on the rope that was attached to my kayak broke off.
The ranger said our scenario happens two or three times a year on the peninsula: People boat to remote locations, when the weather and forecast is good. In the morning — surprise — the weather unexpectedly turns and everyone gets stranded.
We were able to rescue ourselves and walk out, but it could have been worse and illustrates what can go wrong in adventures, and how important it is to trust your gut instincts.
I was glad I had the guts to take the safe way out. It certainly wasn't the easy way. I had to accept being uncomfortable, and risk looking like a chicken, in front of everyone else.
It’s not always easy to listen to your instincts, as the experts will tell you. They are the same instincts, however, that tell make your hair stand on end and scream flee when you're walking down a deserted street at night and something doesn't feel just right
Kris Dreessen can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 253, or email@example.com