The Way Wet

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1994

The Way Wet

When it's hot--really hot--hiding under the porch won't do. You need water.
By David Noland

The dog days are back--those sultry, muggy midsummer afternoons when Sirius, the Dog Star, is riding high in the sky, influencing everyone with a canine lethargy.

It's nothing a little H2O can't cure, however, and we've got it: fresh and salt, flat and white, water to swim in, skim over, paddle through, get splashed by, or just look at. Here are ten blessedly wet long-weekend escapes--places to canoe, kayak, boardsail, raft, or simply float on the beach. No more excuses for staying home and sweltering--because it's still a long time till September.

Tuolumne River, California

Some rivers you run for the rapids, some for the scenery, some for the solitude. You get all three on the lower section of the Tuolumne, a highly technical Class IV+ National Wild and Scenic River just west of Yosemite National Park. Not even veteran guides take the Tuolumne's nearly nonstop whitewater for granted. Last season, every single boatman flipped at least once, many of them at Clavey Falls, a 15-foot drop just above a massive hole. Overturned rafts have been known to dance around for ten minutes in Clavey Hole before finally flushing out.

Although the 18-mile trip from Meral's Pool (ten miles east of Groveland, off California 120) to Ward's Ferry can be covered in one arduous day during spring runoff, the typical summer weekend run takes a leisurely three days. ARTA (800-323-2782), Outdoor Adventures (800-323-4234), and Echo (800-652-3246), among other outfitters, run three-day trips for about $400. For private-trip permits and a complete list of outfitters, call Stanislaus National Forest at 209-962-7825.

Highly experienced (and fearless) whitewater paddlers might consider spending an extra day to run Cherry Creek and the Upper Tuolumne, a hair-raising Class V+ that ends at Meral's Pool. Many consider it the toughest whitewater in North America. Call Whitewater Voyages ($228 per person) at 800-488-7238.

Gunnison Gorge, Colorado

Mother Nature and the Bureau of Land Management have teamed up to assure that Gunnison Gorge will never appeal to the whitewater masses. For one thing, the put-in is a rugged half-hour hike down a steep trail. For another, the BLM limits commercial trips to two per day, with a maximum of 12 people on each trip.

Although the Gunnison's nearly constant rapids echo off the narrow, 500-foot canyon walls in a forbidding roar, they're mostly Class II and III--great for getting wet and cooling off, but not enough to trigger serious adrenaline. Never mind. The trout fishing is world class, and nonfishermen can hike Bobcat Trail for views of the lower end of the Black Canyon or pool-hop up Smith Fork, a tributary festooned with waterfalls. The takeout is Gunnison Forks Pleasure Park (14 miles east of Delta just off Colorado 92), a riverside bar, dance hall, fishing store, and picnic ground that's a mecca for lonesome cowboys from miles around.

Several outfitters run two- and three-day trips at prices ranging from $300 to $500. Dvorak Kayak and Rafting Expeditions (800-824-3795) features paddle-raft and inflatable-kayak runs, while Gunnison River Expeditions (800-297-4441) specializes in oar-boat fishing trips. Call the BLM at 303-249-6047 for a complete list of outfitters; independent boaters can also call for directions and other information.

Block Island, Rhode Island

Hard-core shortboarders may scoff at the modest 15- to 20-knot prevailing summer winds on quaintly retro Block Island, 14 miles and a few decades off the Rhode Island coast. But longboarders are out there, feet in the straps, making spray. Beginners do well on Sachem Pond, a small freshwater lake at the island's north end where steady five- to ten-knot morning winds riffle the glassy water. Intermediates prefer Andy's Way on Great Salt Pond, a protected inlet where even the peak afternoon wind kicks up only a modest chop. If that's too tame, head for Crescent Beach, where you can launch challenging open-ocean runs.

Camping isn't allowed on Block Island, but that's not a problem. Boardsailing guests at the Narragansett Inn ($90-$100 for a double with breakfast; 401-466-2626), whose wraparound veranda overlooks Great Salt Pond, don't even have to de-rig at night. Ferries make four round-trips a day from Point Judith, Rhode Island ($6.60 per person one way, $10.50 for a same-day round trip; call 401-783-4613 for a schedule). Car reservations should be made at least a month in advance for summer weekends. Since there's no windsurfing shop on Block Island, you'll have to bring your own board. The Watershed (401-789-3399) in Wakefield, six miles north of Point Judith off U.S. 1, has an $80 weekend rental package that includes a board and wetsuit.

Pistol River, Oregon

When one of those brutal 100-degree July hot spells suffocates the Columbia River Gorge, the cognoscenti head downstate to Pistol River. This remote swath of rugged coastline 30 miles north of the California state line ups the ante with Gorgelike winds and six-foot ocean swells. A strong current flows downwind past rock outcroppings, and water temperatures in the low fifties require full wetsuits with booties. But for the worthy with honed wave-sailing skills, the rewards are immense: consistent sideshore winds of 20-35 knots in July, the best sailing month of the year.

Pistol River proper consists mostly of a wood-heated general store off U.S. 101. About 12 miles north is the Hunter Creek Mobile and RV Park, with 12 tentsites ($11 per night for two people; 503-247-2322). The nearest real town, 13 miles north, is Gold Beach, which has a number of lodgings. The Heather House B&B ($55- $65 for a double; 503-247-2074) is an Edwardian mansion one and a half blocks from the beach, with both ocean and mountain views.

If you're not quite ready to deal with icy water, big surf, and rocks, head 45 minutes north on U.S. 101 to Floras Lake, a skinny, mile-long speed-sailing arena with Pacific-strength winds (the lake is just a low sand dune away from the ocean) but 70-degree water that's flat and chest-deep in most places. Floras Lake House ($90-$125 for a double with breakfast; 503-348-2753), a windsurfing-oriented B&B a hundred yards from the lake, rents boards for $35 a day and offers instruction.

North Manitou Island, Michigan

Leelanau Peninsula, just north of Traverse City, has been called a midwestern Cape Cod. Thankfully, though, the analogy breaks down offshore. North Manitou Island, a four-by-seven-mile chunk of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore 12 miles out in Lake Michigan, is by no means a Nantucket or a Martha's Vineyard. No beach houses. No boutiques. No overpriced seafood. Instead, you'll find an uninhabited haven for wilderness camping ringed by 20 miles of virtually untrodden beach, some of it backed by 300-foot bluffs, all of it fronted by fresh water that's deep, clear, and . . . well, let's call it bracing.

Inland, 23 miles of hiking trails wind through parklike hardwood forests, open meadows, and abandoned orchards. Mile-long Lake Manitou is great for warm-water swimming and bass fishing. Set your tent up anywhere, but stay at least 300 feet from either lake. And be sure to guard your food from the clever and voracious raccoons. For more information and a free camping permit, call the Visitor Center at 616-326-5134. The ferry to North Manitou leaves Leland, Michigan, on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 10 a.m. Round-trip fare is $18; for ferry information call 616-256-9061.

Perdido Key, Florida

Don't be dismayed by the gruesome sight at the entrance to Perdido Key, a sandy finger of the Gulf Islands National Seashore 15 miles west of Pensacola. Ignore the 400 parked cars, the hordes of crinkled sun-worshipers, the teenagers queuing up for corndogs. Just pay the $4 entry fee, get your free camping permit, and keep driving. Two miles later, at the end of the road, park on the shoulder, pack up your beach gear and tent, and start walking. Half a mile ahead lie four empty miles of grassy dunes, clear Gulf of Mexico water, and some of the whitest, finest beach sand on the planet.

Pitch your tent anywhere on the beach--it's 300 yards wide in some places--and make sure that you build your campfire below the high-tide line. Don't worry about neighbors; only about 150 or so camping permits were issued for Perdido during all of last year. You can surf-cast for pompano and spotted sea trout, or snorkel after sand dollars and starfish. Walk out 100 feet as the 75-degree water gradually rises to your chest, and watch the porpoises cavorting just beyond the sandbar.

OK, Perdido Key isn't perfect. You may run into some boat campers. Red foxes will try to steal your dinner. You'll want to keep a mixture of vinegar and Adolph's meat tenderizer handy for the occasional jellyfish sting. The blackflies bite in August. And at times, you'll long for shade. But you're tough. Call the ranger station at 904-492-0912 for maps and information.

The Pine Barrens, New Jersey

Canoeing New Jersey may sound oxymoronic, but about halfway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City lies the Pine Barrens, a vast tract of sandy scrub forest laced with narrow, meandering streams. Here canoeists can poke along beneath overhanging sweet-gum boughs and pluck wild blueberries as they brush against the gunwales. There's no whitewater; local paddlers, in fact, call it brownwater. Tannin leached from decaying vegetation turns most rivers in the Pine Barrens the color of a well-brewed cup of tea.

Bypass the hordes on the Wading River and head for the Mullica, designated a state Wild and Scenic River. Put in at the hamlet of Atsion, about seven miles north of Hammonton on U.S. 206. A leisurely four-hour paddle downstream through twisting channels and broad grassy marshes brings you to the Mullica River Campsites, with privies and hand water-pumps, accessible only to hikers and canoeists. The next morning, continue an easy three hours to the takeout on County Road 542, about nine miles east of Hammonton. For a camping permit, call Wharton State Forest at 609-561-0024. Canoes can be rented from Adams Canoe Rentals, located right at the put-in ($30 per day, including shuttles; 609-268-0189).

For more solitude, sneak north to the little-known North Branch of Rancocas Creek, which flows between Browns Mills and Mount Holly. The Rancocas is a labyrinthine delight; at one point you'll wave to a cabin-owner on his front porch, then greet him again 20 minutes later on his back porch. (He'll be expecting you.) Put in behind Clark's Canoe Rental in Pemberton, on Route 530 halfway down the creek, and paddle six miles to Browns Mills. Canoes rent for $20 a day; call 609-894-4318. Owner Bud Clark provides shuttle service and can steer you to friendly locals who allow camping on their creekside property.

Niobrara River, Nebraska

"This place drives the biologists crazy," says a resident of Valentine, Nebraska, 130 miles up U.S. 83 from North Platte on the banks of the shallow, swift-moving Niobrara River. The Niobrara slices through the Sandhills, a starkly beautiful expanse of grassy dunes where six ecosystems converge in a hotbed of biological diversity. Down on the river, you're surrounded by 200-foot bluffs and dense forests of oak and ponderosa pine. But hike a few hundred yards to the canyon rim, and green prairie stretches to the horizon.

The classic Niobrara trip is the 27-mile riffle-run from Cornell Bridge, just east of Valentine, east to Rocky Ford. The first seven miles wind through a wildlife refuge that's home to turkeys, bobcats, and white-tailed deer. (A very confused fawn jumped into a passing canoe there last year.) Stop for the night at tree-shrouded Sharp's Campground, 18 miles downstream. (For reservations, call 402-376-2506.) Because the current averages a brisk five to six mph, you'll be forced to stop and fish for channel cats, body-surf the Chute, and cavort in Smith Falls to make sure you don't arrive too early. Damn! The next day, it's a mere two-hour paddle to the takeout at Rocky Ford.

Rocky Ford Camp and Canoe Base (402-497-3479) charges $45 for two days' canoe rental, plus a $3-per-person shuttle fee. (Sorry--rental paddlers are forbidden to run Rocky Ford, a Class II rapids just below the takeout. But you can tube it instead.) A fully outfitted two-day trip with meals costs $125 per person.

Santa Cruz Island, California

Sea-kayak spelunking sounds like one of those goofy beer-commercial sports, like luge bowling or beauty-pageant hockey. But along the rugged, sea-cave-riddled coast of Santa Cruz, the largest of southern California's Channel Islands, hard hats and high-powered waterproof flashlights are de rigueur for kayakers--as indispensable as paddles. Some Santa Cruz sea caves are as deep as 600 feet and so narrow that you have to stow the paddle and pull yourself along by hand. You're likely to find seals in the caves, as well as brightly colored mineral deposits lining the walls.

Base camp for kayak spelunking is Scorpion Cove, at the island's east end, where there's a eucalyptus-shrouded campground ($25 per night per person) and a turn-of-the-century ranch bunkhouse ($55 per person per night for a double; guests must bring their own bedding, food, and water). For camping, bunkhouse, and ferry information, call Island Packers at 805-642-1393. Because the sea caves can be dangerous in certain conditions, independent kayaking around Santa Cruz is not encouraged. For intermediate and advanced paddlers, Southwind Kayak Center (800-768-8494) offers a far-ranging three-day camp-based trip for $325 per person, including the ferry from Ventura. Paddlesports (805-899-4925) and Aquasports (310-642-1140) run less-demanding two- and three-day trips, suitable for beginners, for $235-$310.

Roque Island, Maine

Ask local sea-kayaking guru Ken Fink about his favorite weekend getaway, and the answer is quick and emphatic: Roque Island, about 60 miles "down east" (Mainese for "up the coast") from relatively overrun Penobscot Bay. Rarely visited by kayakers, Roque Island is a paddler's feast of rocky cliffs, thundering surf, and narrow tidal channels between smaller surrounding islands. But it's no wilderness: The family that owns the island has a compound there, and sheep nibble grass in meticulously mowed fields.

Great South Beach, a graceful spiral of white quartz sand on the south shore, is a protected landing spot with a freshwater spring. It's also the only spot on the island where boaters may come ashore. From the beach, a hiking trail leads a mile and a half to clifftop views from nearby Great Head. Camping isn't permitted on Roque, so make your way to nearby Little Water Island or to one of the surrounding private islands whose owners allow camping by members of the Maine Island Trail Association. Call 207-761-8225 to join; membership is $35 a year for individuals or families and includes a guidebook that describes the 76 islands on the trail.

Down East kayaking is not for the unskilled or unprepared. Afternoon sea breezes average 16-22 knots during July and August, and the 12- to 16-foot tides around Roque trigger currents of three to four knots. The swells can be huge; the fog, thick. Kayaks can be rented for $35 per day ($50 for a tandem) from Maine Sports in Rockport (800-722-0826). Maine Island Kayak Co. (800-796-2373) runs fully outfitted three-day trips in the Roque Island area for $445.

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