Big River Estuary: Expansive Conservation, Enormous Fun
By Jennifer Savage, Adventure Columnist
Photo Courtesy by Catch a Canoe
Of all Mendocino’s many adventures, exploring the Big River Estuary State Marine Conservation Area ranks among the most amazing. It’s the longest undeveloped estuary in Northern California, bordered by Big River State Park, making for 7,000 acres of protected land. The landscape impresses – marshy edges give way to misty redwoods up impressive hillsides – and the abundance of animal life is almost unparalleled.
The river otters steal the show, of course, with their twisting, shimmying and flipping along so cute one can’t help but laugh along in delight. The harbor seals appeal, as well, all fathomless eyes and whiskers.
But the eight-mile inlet is also critical habitat for northern spotted owl, coho salmon, steelhead trout, Dungeness and shore crab, among so many more. Osprey, eagles, yellow warblers, purple martins are just a few of the 130 types of birds adding drama and beauty to the scene.
The best way to experience the Big River Estuary SMCA is by canoe or kayak. Located adjacent to Big River and Highway 1 on the grounds of The Stanford Inn by the Sea, Catch a Canoe & Bicycles provides a wide selection of kayaks, canoes and outriggers, all year round (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s being the only time off), plus a variety of guided tours in the summer. The river’s gentleness suits beginners and experts alike.
But before we launch upriver, a little background. Big River State Park was acquired in 2002 by the efforts of several state, federal and nonprofit organizations, and thousands of private donors. Today, the Mendocino Land Trust (MLT) partners with the California Department of Parks and Recreation to manage and protect this extraordinary area. From the MLT website: “The purchase of Big River presented an unusual opportunity to link coastal habitats to inland habitats on a landscape scale, greatly enhancing conservation efforts on adjacent state lands through cooperative management, support of scientific research, and by facilitating management of the entire acreage as an ecological system.”
Another opportunity to increase stewardship of Mendocino’s natural resources arrived in the form of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), a 1999 state law calling for redesign of California’s ocean reserves. Implementing the MLPA took over a decade, but on December 19, 2012, the North Coast region’s marine protected areas (MPAs) came into effect, making California the first state in the nation with a border-to-border network of science-based MPAs. The inclusion of Big River Estuary strengthens the core connection between land and water conservation, ideally leading to even greater genetic diversity in plant and animal populations – the sort of scientific achievement that helps animals thrive and gives people a place to recreate in awe.
The reverence doesn’t take long to set in. I’ve done two trips on Big River with Catch a Canoe. The first time was a summer tour on the Solar Wind outrigger, large enough for nine people, equipped with a downwind spinnaker for gentle sailing and boasting a solar panel array that makes traveling a breeze. Our guide pointed out plants, birds and historical artifacts leftover from the area’s logging days. The next year, a friend and I paddled ourselves in an outrigger canoe – one of the wonderful aspects about these is how stable they are. Anyone concerned about tipping over will instantly be calmed. You can rent a variety of sizes to suit your needs: two-person, family-sized, even ones that include space for your dog!
The wild, up close
Alyssa and I hoped to see river otters and were almost immediately gratified. “Look!” I stage-whispered from the front. They’re exactly as unbearably endearing as you imagine. The family dove and popped back up several times, eyeing us – or maybe ignoring us completely, it’s hard to say – while we giggled and tried to take photos with our phones before their sleek bodies maneuvered out of sight.
Various birds we didn’t know enough to identify flew overhead, sometimes landing on the water with the slightest of splashes, sometimes coming to a perch in a tree. We watched a gull and a crab battle for five-minutes at shore’s edge. The gull would catch the crab in its beak, the crab would pinch the gull, causing the bird to release it back into the water, then the gull would poke its head into the water and the struggle would begin anew. The crab lost the fight, eventually, and the gull made a meal of it on the sandy beach alongside the river.
Harbor seal pups lolled on logs and rocks, round-eyed and lazy, occasionally plopping into the water if we looked at them too long, which of course we did given the extreme level of adorability involved.
The paddling took enough energy to feel like we had a bit of exercise, but wasn’t ever a struggle. Do note that due to the way the tides affect Big River Estuary, planning ahead is key. Ideally, you’ll want to paddle upstream with the incoming tide and return downstream with the outgoing.
Planning your trip
Catch a Canoe is ready to help. Give them a call at (707) 937-0273 to inquire about renting or to be added to their email list and get a heads up on the popular summer tour dates – the nighttime bioluminescent trip is said to be amazing.
You don’t have to wait for summer, however. Winter’s a bit cooler and stormier, but there’s plenty of breaks in the weather, and going out off-season offers a more intimate and remote experience.
Catch a Canoe is located on the grounds of The Stanford Inn, just east of Highway One on Comptche-Ukiah Road, one-half mile south of Mendocino village.
After-canoe cocktail tip
Now that you’re blissed out from your time on the Big River Estuary State Marine Conservation Area, stretch the moment out with a trip to the Little River Inn bar, known for its views and well-made Manhattans. The Little River Inn is located just slightly south of Big River, at 7901 California 1.