Day 1: In history's wake

bmilne@thetribunenews.comFebruary 21, 2008 

Coastal explorers have been launching boats from the mouth of San Carpoforo Creek for hundreds of years, so we figured our sunrise send-off wouldn't be much of an adventure.

But when the sun peeked over the Santa Lucia Mountains and shed some light on the fogged-in cove just north of Ragged Point, we were greeted by a stomach-churning beach break that had us reconsidering our launch site.

Instead of the calm summer swell we had hoped for, we were faced with 4-foot-high waves that were better suited for 6-foot-long surfboards, not 15-foot-long kayaks jam-packed with food and camping gear that were supposed to stay dry for the next six days.

As the three of us shuffled nervously down the half-mile trail to check the surf, I recalled reading how San Carpoforo and its creek-side path were the inland entry point of Gaspar de Portolá's 1769 expedition.

Not only was this a historic site, a well-preserved reminder of an initial meeting of indigenous and European consciousness, but it also was the northernmost launching site in San Luis Obispo County for our adventure. If we didn't launch here, we'd be missing outon a key stretch of our coast.

So instead of giving in to Mother Nature, we decided to play along. Like the explorers before us, we studied her waves for some time and located a lull in the surf where we could begin our venture into the big blue.

We had been training for this moment for four months, so there was no way we were turning back.

A cold awakening

Our paddle out wasn't a pretty one, but we made it nonetheless.

While Joe cruised past the surf zone with relative ease, Beau and I paddled face-first into a numbing set of waves that flooded our kayaks and filled our wetsuits with cold water.

Our kayaks maneuvered like half-full bathtubs as we muscled through the whitewash, but we somehow managed to make it beyond the wave zone without getting dunked (there would be plenty of that on Day 2).

"This is fun," I quipped between chattering teeth as I bailed the 50-degree water from my kayak.

Funny thing was, we were having a blast.

Coming into the trip, we knew it would be the most challenging outdoor adventure of our lives. Mostly, the three of us were excited our six-day, 98-mile adventure down the coast was finally under way.

The paddle begins

Aside from a curious sea lion that followed us during much of the third mile, we saw little marine life over the first nine miles of our foggy first leg.

That all changed when we reached Piedras Blancas, a large, guano-covered monolith marking the halfway point of the first day. As we paddled around the aptly named "White Point," taking pictures of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse, we stumbled upon what Beau described best as a "water wonderland for wildlife."

Atop the outcropping stood hundreds of pelicans, cormorants and a vociferous gang of sea lions that had turned this 50-foot crest into their very own waterpark.

The surging surf around the rock was filled with sea lions that had been swept away by passing swells, joining playful rafts that dived in succession and barked at our every move.

To the campground

Our fin-footed friends would only get bigger and louder as we paddled southeast toward our campsite at San Simeon State Park.

We paused for lunch near the Piedras Blancas rookery, where we made sure to keep our distance from a hungry harem of elephant seals. Not only is it unlawful to eat a tuna sandwich alongside one of the creatures, but it's unwise to get anywhere near a creature that's larger than a kayak and weighs more than 4,000 pounds.

After taking in all of the fishy smells and belching pinnapeds Piedras Blancas had to offer, we paddled the final 10 miles to San Simeon, rounding the point and waving to some friends and family members on the pier and shoreline.

I guess that's what William Randolph Hearst's guests felt like when they landed in San Simeon on their way up to the Castle. Only we were destined for soggy sleeping bags and tents at San Simeon State Park instead of a luxurious guesthouse on the "Enchanted Hill."

Then again, after 22 miles of open-ocean paddling, our campsite along San Simeon Creek seemed as cozy as any castle, and we had little trouble falling asleep despite our damp accommodations.

The real challenge would be waking up at 5:30 a.m. and tackling another 22-mile stretch.

"I think I was in a state of shock by that point," Johnston said, looking back on the nine-hour paddle. "That was only the first day? I'm not sure how we're going to do another five days of this."

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