We were only 15 minutes into our paddle the first time I fell in.
The turbid waters of the newly reformed Salinas River rushed past me. The 2-gallon water jug I carried with me in my small kayak fell out and drifted down the river out of sight.
“Great start,” I said to my friend Brian Milne with a laugh.
Things weren’t going as planned.
When we launched our kayaks at Halcon Road in south Atascadero late one Saturday morning, we thought it would be smooth paddling through the North County all the way to San Miguel. That notion quickly changed when we were confronted with piles of debris, shallow waters and narrow streams.
And as we looked ahead, it appeared there was much more where that came from.
Salinas River Returns
It wasn’t until I moved to California in June 2015 that I remember seeing my first dry riverbed.
“So this is what drought looks like,” I remember thinking.
Since then, I’ve watched as Mother Nature tried to get California back on track. Last year’s El Niño — weaker than predicted — brought a decent amount of rain, but it barely put a dent in the drought. Then, in the past three weeks, rain drenched the thirsty hills of the Central Coast. Some spots haven’t seen this much precipitation since 2010.
The rain’s impact was immediate, with the most dramatic effects seen in the sandy area formerly known as the Salinas River — a 175-mile-long waterway that stretches from Los Padres National Forest to Monterey Bay. For the most part, it has sat dry and dormant since December of 2013, and some wondered if it would ever flow again.
Now it has returned to life.
The best example of the Salinas River’s resurgence in San Luis Obispo County can be seen on Halcon Road. There, the flow that originates on Garcia Mountain has severed the North County road like a murky blade. So when the idea of taking a kayak ride down the Salinas River was floated by my editor, Halcon Road seemed like the perfect place to start.
At least that’s what we thought.
North County Bear Grylls
If I was going to take on this kayaking trip and write a story about it, I needed a guide, someone with knowledge of the area and a taste for adventure — a North County version of Bear Grylls, the famous survivalist. According to my research, the Salinas River hasn’t been kayakable since 2010, so I would need someone who has been around a while, too. Enter my friend and surfing buddy, Brian.
Brian is a California native, a Cal Poly graduate, Tribune alumnus and outdoor author. He wrote “Fishing Central California” and “Top Trails: California Central Coast: Must-Do Hike for Everyone.” He was also part of a three-man crew that kayaked about 100 miles down the Central Coast in 2008 for a series that ran in The Tribune and still comes up around the newsroom today. He also kayaked the Salinas River in January of that same year.
So even when he arrived two weekends ago at what was left of Halcon Road on a foggy Saturday morning (and coming off a late-night poker game), I was confident I was with the right guy.
Here we go
Brian readied his trusty 15-foot ocean kayak (a little too long, we would learn) from his previous missions, and I had a 9-foot, on-top ocean kayak I had rented the day before. I had all the gear and supplies I needed and more: cellphone, snacks, life vest, wet suit, helmet, sunglasses, gloves, booties and, of course, a GoPro.
Brian forgot his booties — a rookie mistake for such a grizzled veteran. The water was flowing, and his feet were already cold when we launched around 11 a.m. Our original goal was to paddle from Halcon Road all the way to Mission San Miguel, about 25 miles total. But because of our late start and an anticipated 3 mph speed, we realized that probably wouldn’t happen before sunset.
In the early going, the river was more narrow than we anticipated. My premature dunking 15 minutes into our trip occurred when I tried to change directions to avoid a clump of dried tree branches that had washed down the river and bunched up on an island. Luckily, the water was only 3 feet deep.
We spent the next two hours ducking and dodging overhanging tree limbs and trying to pick the easiest and deepest path at each fork in the river. The helmet and sunglasses kept me from taking twigs to the head and eyes. The good news is that I eventually found my lost water bottle.
“It’s a good day for that!” a man riding a UTV said from the shore as we cruised though an open section in Atascadero. “I don’t know how far you are going to get, though.”
He knew something we didn’t.
Lo and behold, a few minutes later we hit an impasse close to where Adobe Canyon Road runs into Rocky Canyon Road. When the river forked, we chose to go right, which turned out to be a poor decision. After getting out of our kayaks and exploring the land between the two streams, Brian decided the best plan was to get out and push our kayaks through the thick brush.
It wasn’t long before we rejoined the main flow and the pace picked up. The next half-hour featured an idyllic stretch of water surrounded by reeds, where we disturbed the peace of several birds including mallard and wood ducks that scattered as we whisked by.
So far, we were the only people on the river.
Highway 41 bridge
“We should have launched here,” we agreed when we arrived at the Highway 41 bridge. On the north side of the bridge, the river opened up. Here the river was deep, wide and easy to navigate, a welcome change as fatigue began to set in.
We let the river carry us north as we soaked in what had become a clear, sunny day. This is what I had envisioned when we launched.
Then we saw something strange — two old cars embedded in the east riverbank. It was a reminder of the junk that collects when the river runs dry. Every once in a while, we would see strange piles of twisted metal among the brush in the river. We did our best to avoid them.
A short time later we met up with Tribune photographer Joe Johnston, who had also been a part of the coastal kayak trip in 2008. As we stopped for a break and refueled near the Atascadero Home Depot, Brian reached into his backpack.
“No way. My booties were in here the whole time!” he yelled, holding them up.
We were still laughing as we launched again into water that was really flowing now. In no time, we reached the Templeton Road bridge in Templeton.
Nearby, we passed a woman sitting next to a kayak in her backyard within view of Templeton Feed & Grain.
“You gonna take that out?” I asked.
“No, but my husband is already out there,” she replied. “But I haven’t seen him in a while.”
Turned out we weren’t the only ones with the idea to kayak the Salinas.
The next hour flew by. The river opened up even more, and we were surrounded by the recently greened hills of south Paso Robles. Red-tailed hawks circled above.
We made our pullout spot at 4 p.m. just short of the Niblick Road bridge at Lawrence Moore Park in Paso Robles — far short of our original goal. We had still managed to travel about 13 miles in five hours with plenty of stops and obstacles on the way.
At the park, we found a handful of fellow kayakers. One of them turned out to be a familiar face: Paso Robles High School running back and Tribune County Football Player of the Year Christian Erickson.
Through text, Erickson said he launched in Templeton. I told him we launched at Halcon Road.
“We were going to go there, but we thought it would be too long,” Erickson replied.
He was probably right, and I wouldn’t recommend kayaking the Salinas River — particularly during or after storms — unless you are an experienced paddler. At times, it was a sketchy trip through flooded trees and brush that could easily hang you up if you don’t know what you’re doing.
But even though I was cold and left with scratches on my face, an aching back and lingering worries about water quality, I was glad we took advantage of the increasingly rare chance to paddle the Salinas River.
Who knows when it will turn to sand again.
Brian Milne contributed to this report.