How it all started: Some Biographical stories:

How did I get myself started kayaking, and on this quest to see all of my local shoreline? It all started when I was 12 years old. No seriously! I realized that I have almost always owned a canoe of one sort or another. And it started because I read "Rascal" by Sterling North when I was young and impressionable. If you haven't read that book, stop reading this right now and go get a copy! If you have, let me remind you that Sterling's mom died when he was young, and his dad raised him. Without a woman in the house, Sterling got away with lots of "boy things" that the rest of us were jealous to read about, like raise a baby Raccoon (named Rascal) and build a canoe in the living room. The canoe was made of a wooden frame with canvas stretched over it. I ran out into the back yard and nailed two apple boxes together end-to-end, nailed 4 short 2x4's into a prow, and put two longer 2x4's along the middle of the sides (to give it a rounder look, and to help hold the apple boxes together). Then it was wrapped in wax soaked canvas that was nailed on with galvanized roofing nails. I was disappointed to discover on the first trip to the back yard creek that it was very unstable and tipped over when you sat in it in the water. But my friend Kenith and I soon learned that with a little practice we could balance the canoe anyway, and a second one was build so we could both paddle the creek at the same time. Years later I was pleased to learn that real Eskimo kayaks are also unstable in this same manner, and require dynamic balancing to keep them upright just like my old canoe.

The creek in the back yard of The Ancestral Higgins Home is shallow, and runs dry in the summer when the Dirkies up the road (and upstream) used it to water a field of corn. The creek was so narrow that there were few places where two of these canoes could pass each other. It rarely stayed deep enough for a trip of 50 meters before you had to portage over a gravel bar. We had a blast! Once or twice a year we would build a dam out of gunny sacks filled with gravel and try to make a long twisty lake to paddle in. Usually, the next time the Dirkies pumped the creek dry, some irate neighbor downstream would walk up the creek and destroy our work. None of these adults seemed to understand the concept of FLUX (after it is full, the amount of water entering a dam is the same as the amount flowing over it) and none of them ever went a few hundred meters upstream to find Dirkie's pump watering 4 acres of corn. Adults are so dumb. Eventually, we built a two-boy canoe out of 4 apple boxes nailed side-by-side. This one was stable in the water with an amateur at the paddle, and was so big that it could even carry my dad! I remember him being very impressed and I can still see the smile on his face while paddling up the creek in it.

Many years later, after graduating college, I bought a kit from FolBot. (The name is short or Folding Boat, but I bought a non-folding kit). It was for a two person partially canopied canoe, sort of half way between a kayak and a canoe, with one large hole in the top with two seats in it. I built this on my mom's deck behind her house (still emulating Sterling North). It was made of a wooden frame (plywood for the bottom and horizontal pieces) covered with about two hundred pounds of NaugaHide. Really! There were two layers on the hull, one brown snakeskin pattern layer that faced into the cockpit, and one smooth white layer that was glued onto the first layer facing out and down. The top of the canoe had a single layer of blue NaugaHide facing up, with wood trim around the cockpit, and aluminum around the gunwale. It was very stable and has been on a lot of trips in the Russian river, and a few very nice trips in Monterey Bay. I tried going out in the ocean a few times in it, but had a lot of trouble getting through the breakers and gave up.

A friend of mine, Linda Mundy, showed me a chapter from a favorite book of hers about two guys paddling kayaks into the Pacific Ocean somewhere near here and catching tons of rock cod. So much that their friends got sick of fish and told them to stop. The chapter mentioned the problems that they had getting out through the breakers, and how even an expert would get wiped out once or twice before making it into the open sea. I've always remembered that story, and have been meaning to start fishing from one of my canoe/kayaks real soon now. Perhaps when the Quest is over.

I don't recall what ever happened to the canoes we made for the creek in the back yard when I was a kid. After years of patching them where the gravel in the shallow creek bottom wore holes in the canvas, and even replacing the canvas completely a few times, I think we lost interest. The canoes were probably left down near the creek one winter and the floods took them away while we were not thinking about them. But I still have the remains of the FolBot. Crashing back on a beach in Monterey, or tumbling end over end in the surf on Goat Rock beach, broke a few of the ribs, I mean longerons (I must remember those silly nautical terms). I patched a few of them, but eventually decided that it really needed to have the skin removed and new longerons (ribs) put in. It never actually became un-seaworthy, but I stopped using it until I had more time to repair it one day. At one time, I bought some aircraft dacron to re-surface the canoe with. I read an article about a guy who built canoes out of aircraft materials. He was working on techniques to build ultra light aircraft, and was bored with making test wings that he could not do anything with after they were finished. So he used the same materials to build canoes just to test the construction techniques, but afterwards he could paddle around in them. People who saw them liked them, so he started selling plans, then kits, and last I heard was making a living off the canoe kit business. His canoes were made out of wood glued together with aircraft epoxy, with Kevlar twine stretched over it in a diagonal weave, and then shrink-to-fit dacron glued on top. No metal in the structure at all. I bought one of these kits: a small 8 foot canoe that will weigh 8 pounds when finished (ultra light!). A friend of mine, Dan Koenig, came over and helped me work on it once a week, but we stopped being able to find the time to work on it, and it has never been finished. My original plan was to practice with this small kit and learn the techniques, then adapt them to repair the FolBot canoe to re-surface it with a much lighter material than the original NaugaHide.

One reason for trying to make the FolBot canoe lighter was because Marty had a lot of trouble holding her end of the canoe up while taking it off or putting it on top of the VW bus. When it became apparent that I was not going to get around to finishing or fixing something else soon, I bought a new manufactured canoe. It was a partially canopied canoe again, made of Kevlar fiber so it could be lighter than a normal fiber-glass canoe. It was 50 pounds when new, but we swear that it has gotten a lot heavier over the years. We call it the Bullet Proof Canoe sometimes. This canoe had one disappointing problem: It will not go in a straight line without constant correction. It was designed for two-person white water canoeing (which we have never had any interest in doing) and apparently was designed to be unstable in this direction so it could be turned in a hurry. The place we bought it suggested adding a keel or a rudder. I tried building a rudder once with limited success, but it eventually came apart. The behavior is this: if you are paddling in a straight line, and you stop actively paddling or steering, the canoe will turn sideways and stop instead of gliding forwards on its momentum. If you notice that this behavior has started and the nose is starting to turn, it's too late: Paddling with all your might on the opposite side will not make it go straight again. You have to predict when the canoe is about to do this behavior and start correcting before it starts. Over correcting causes it to reverse and do it on the other side. In choppy or windy conditions it is worse. With practice, in calm water, you can make it go where you want, so we have had a lot of great trips in it, in Monterey bay a few times, but mostly on the Russian River.

Just recently, I added a skeg to the kevlar canoe: sort of halfway between a keel, a daggerboard, and a rudder. Like a rudder, it is small and located in the back of the canoe. Like a keel, it cannot rotate and steer the canoe. Like a daggerboard, it can be rotated up into a pocket inside the canoe, by pulling on a control cable that runs up by the rear seat. Lowering this skeg into the water (I often call out "Shields Down!") makes the kevar canoe travel in a straight line without any stearing, and makes it much easier to paddle. When we get into shallow water, it can be raised back up again ("Sields UP!"). With the skeg down, two people can paddle the canoe at once and make double time or paddle into a strong wind. I should have done something like this years ago!

Long before the kevlar canoe got it's skeg, it went on a few trips out in the ocean at Goat Rock State Beach, but we got wiped out every time we landed back on the beach. My brother Paul and I went out once with the express purpose to "practice landing until we figure it out". But we spend most of our time waiting for the large waves to stop, and got wiped out 2 out of 3 times we landed anyway. On the only successful landing, a small wave that we didn't even care to notice sneaked up on us just as we got to the beach. It broke over the lip of the canoe and instantly filled it to the brim with water. Thump! We were sitting on the beach in a Kevlar-glass bathtub filled with 1000 pounds of water. We had to wait for a big wave to come so we could turn the canoe over and empty it before we could move it again.

The last year or so, Marty has not been interested in going out in the canoe as often. The kevlar canoe is really a two-person canoe and neither seat is well balanced for one. With one seat empty, the steering problem is worse. I tried putting a seat in the center, but it got in the way of two-person use and had to be bolted in or removed every other time. I decided this year (1994) to get myself a one-man kayak that was specifically designed for the ocean.

I chose to get a sit-on-top kayak. Purist kayakers will probably say that this isn't REALLY a kayak, but I'm having fun and getting a lot of exercise. The biggest reason why I got this style is because of the kayak roll: A real kayak is most stable upside down with your face underwater. Before you can go paddling in real water, you have to practice this special twist with the paddle to flip the kayak right-side up before you drown. I've seen people practicing it over and over again in Aquatic Park in Berkeley. It looks like being in a washing machine. You have to practice it until it becomes second nature. But in a sit-on-top kayak: if it rolls over, you fall off. Then you get back on. No problem. No face held under water. You have to wear a full wetsuit, but I already had one of those. Since I got it, I've found a few other good reasons for having a sit-on-top: Getting in and out of the ocean. I can just walk out through the breakers towing the kayak, and then get into it. Waves break where the water is shallow, so you can usually get most of the way through them on your feet and not take the chance of getting wiped out on your way out. Coming back to shore has a similar advantage: If the mother-of-all- waves breaks behind you, get out. If waves are breaking behind you, it means the water is shallow enough to stand up in and run. Let the wave smash the kayak onto the beach without me, thank you very much. I've been meaning to go out one day with the express purpose of landing over and over again until I figure out how to surf. Marty says I have a phobia about waves near the beach. In a real kayak, you cannot get into it after getting in the water, so I assume you strap yourself in, sort of turning yourself into a voluntary paraplegic. In this helpless condition, you wait for the mother-of-all-waves to dunk you and put enough water under the keel to start paddling out through the next few face-slamming waves. I got the smallest type of kayak I could find in this style: 9 feet long. It weighs 40 pounds, so it's not a problem to carry it. I hoist it up on my back and carry it down and up the zig-zag trails to some of the beaches.

In a typical trip, I carry the kayak in the back of my bus and drive to a site where I think I can get in the water. I usually paddle from south to the next site north, since the wind and waves tend to come from the northwest. Then if the weather turns bad on me, the wind is usually blowing in the direction I need to go to get back to the car. If there's a particularly long stretch of coast without access, I'll get up especially early (when the air and water is calm) and travel south to a half-way point. Or talk someone into getting up early and picking me up at the next beach. I started out only going a mile or so, but now 6 miles out and back is possible. 3 miles each way is more reasonable if I want to get home in the morning to get some work done. I usually only go out twice a week.

I originally went to a few local beaches a bunch of times, but I started recognizing the rocks around Goat Rock State Beach. So I went further and farther up and down the coast, looking for interesting places to explore. Looking at my Thomas Brothers map, it occurred to me that most of the Sonoma coast had a public beach every 3 miles, and I could probably do the whole coastline. I work in Marin county 2 or 3 days a week lately, and the area around the Golden Gate Bridge looked rocky and interesting, so I decided to explore around there as well. With a few problem areas like Point Reyes National Seashore, it looked like I could get most everywhere by myself from the Golden Gate to the northern end of Sonoma County. And that is what happended. I have now explored every inch of the Sonoma and Marin County coastlines. I am amused that I can now write down a list of most of the beaches and points for both counties, by name, in order from south to north, from memory. There are a few beaches skipped in my list, because I skipped the ones close together in Sonoma County. When Marty and I drive down the coast, I can point out the rocks that have names, and name most of the points as we drive by them.

Back to my home page.
Mike Higgins /