Marna Powell, owner Kayak Zak’s

The following is the first draft of a chapter for a paddling book being compiled by Explore North Coast paddle club. 

PADDLING HUMBOLDT LAGOONS

Overview of Humboldt Lagoons
Big Lagoon
Dry Lagoon
Stone Lagoon
Freshwater Lagoon

HUMBOLDT LAGOONS

Driving along Hwy 101 between Trinidad and Orick one encounters a series of lagoons bordering the Pacific Ocean and meandering through redwood, Douglas fir, sitka spruce, willow, and red alder forest. Big Lagoon, Dry Lagoon, Stone Lagoon, and Freshwater Lagoon comprise the area known as Humboldt Lagoons.  Dry Lagoon was drained in the late 19th century for farming and although it has a lovely beach for hunting agates it no longer has deep water.  The mouth of Redwood Creek also used to host a lagoon until the Army Corps of Engineers installed a flood levy and caused the lagoon to fill with sand.

One park literally runs into another as you drive north.  Jurisdictions abut one another: Patrick’s Point State Park, Big Lagoon County Park, Humboldt Lagoons State Park, Harry A. Merlo State Recreation Area, Stagecoach Hill Azalea Preserve, Redwood National and State Parks.  Mingled among these parks are an Indian reservation and several private properties. 

A plethora of wildlife can be found, especially at Big, Dry, and Stone Lagoons.  The brackish waters and proximity to  both ocean and forest attract most native species.  These waters are a bird watcher’s paradise attracting shore birds, ducks, songbirds, raptors, many migratory birds, and the occasional Asian or Mexican strays.  Elk, river otter, black bear, red fox, raccoon, skunk, bobcat, beaver, coyote, and yes; mountain lions are among many of the four-footed friends we find at these watersheds.  This author has personally seen every form of indigenous fauna at one time or another at our lagoons.  From the adjoining sand spits you might see migrating whales, harbor porpoises, California or Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, and occasionally other types of whales or seals. Interesting fungi can be found all year in this moist climate.  Spring wildflowers are too abundant to name. The tiny calypso orchid (fairy slipper) and blue pimpernel are two unusual plant forms that can be found here.  Imagine Trillium blooming under the redwoods on a clear spring day, azaleas covering the hill above, while Osprey build a nest above you, a steelhead leaps out of the water, and Roosevelt elk graze along the shore! 

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BIG LAGOON

Grey Whale in surf plays
River Otter with Pups smile
Roosevelt Elk watch

1. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE TRIP/LAUNCH SITE

Most of the time Big Lagoon is an enclosed body of brackish water.  Most years a combination of winter rains raising the water level inside the lagoon and winter down-welling, huge swell and high tides removing sand from the ocean side, causes the lagoon to breach and close again several times. Spring finds the water mostly fresh while in late summer it is quite salty. Big Lagoon launch Site

This lagoon shares a 3.2 mile by 700 foot sand spit with the ocean and is 9 miles to circumnavigate.  This 53.7 square mile watershed attracts an abundance of wildlife.  Shore birds, songbirds and river otters are probably the most evident. There is a cormorant rookery not far from the launch site adjoining the campground.  Paddling up Maple Creek from Big Lagoon you often see Roosevelt Elk from your kayak. Curiously, it is one of the few places in the world where the tiny minnow-like fish, the tidewater goby can be found. It is a great spot to picnic, whale watch, and look for beach agates.  Visitors enjoy swimming the relatively warm summer waters of Big Lagoon, fishing, boating and playing in the sand. With both a floating dock and plenty of sand to launch from, and a five mile-per-hour speed limit this is a great body of water to enjoy paddling.

From the county day use area, it is a mile south to Agate Beach and Patrick’s Point State Park.  Rock hounds travel from far away to find moonstones, jasper, California Jade, carnelian, quartz, and other beautiful agates to tumble, polish, or leave natural.  These treasure can be found all along the sand spit.

Fishing regulations change each year.  Check with the California Department of Fish and Game for rules and a permit before going fishing.  There are different California sport regulations for the waters of each lagoon, creek, and the ocean.  In general, on Big Lagoon barbless hooks are required for any species.  You may catch and release Steelhead and most likely keep a couple of cutthroat trout. Lift the lower jaw to expose a red slash on each side of the throat to identify this fish.  Check the current rules for size, species, and numbers allowed. 

2. CAUTIONS AND RECOMMENDED SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

Big Lagoon is, uh: big.  Afternoon winds can create enough fetch and wind waves that you may not be able to paddle back from the east side and Maple Creek.  The Coast Guard has pulled several boaters out of Big Lagoon over the past several years when they became separated from their watercraft.  Pay attention to NOAA weather forecasts for wind.  Kite boards, sail boards, and small sail boats love Big Lagoon for good reason.  If winds are expected it is best to stay along the sand spit on the west side bordering the ocean.  If you are caught in wind, lean your weight into the wind and paddle hard with your paddle low.

The ocean side has an extremely steep drop.  Waves slam onto the sand along the spit.  This is not a spot to kayak, surf or swim as many drownings have occurred here due to long periods in the surf set (aka, ”sneaker waves”), rip currents (always swim parallel), large swell creating large waves, and dumping waves slamming onto steep beaches.  The near-shore ocean temperature is 45 to 55 degrees.

Lagoon waters during winter months can be colder than the ocean.  Wear a wetsuit or dry suit in winter and spring. 

Fog.  Seems like we should be able to hear which side the surf or highway is, but sounds can bounce around and when it’s foggy ask your paddling friends which direction is north. Everyone points to a different direction.  Amazing.  Bring a compass!

In winter and spring months the lagoon will breach at the north end of the sand spit.  Stay out of the strong currents near the “mouth.”  The flows are similar to a whitewater river but spit out into treacherous dumping surf waves.  River boaters take heed:  A class II wave train turns into a class VI rapid with little chance to get out.  In summer the breach is filled by sand and there is no wave train.

Breach area can change location depending upon many environmental factors.  Winter breaching can theoretically happen anywhere along the sand spit.

Blue-green algae can sometimes bloom thick in late summer.  One year Big Lagoon failed to breach and this algae bloom killed several dogs that swam in it, drank the waters, and licked themselves off afterwards.  It is not a good idea for any of us to ever drink lagoon waters or lick ourselves after swimming.  A bloom that bad smells stagnant and looks like egg flower soup rather than water.  Ick!

The south portion of Big Lagoon between the County campground and the Hwy 101 bridge over Maple Creek is all private property.  Although there is no signage, the Big Lagoon Rancheria Tribe would appreciate that you do not land on their shores and trespass on their land.

3.  DIRECTIONS TO GET THERE

Big Lagoon County Park is nestled between Patrick's Point State Park and Dry Lagoon on the west side of Hwy 101.  At mile marker 108.3 on Hwy 101 take Big Lagoon County Park Road. From the south (Trinidad) this is a weird left turn from the fast lane of the highway.  From the north (Orick) it is an easy right turn.  Follow signs to the day-use area.  There is a $2 day use fee at the park. 

At lower water levels Harry A. Merlo SRA has a free parking area with no facilities on the east side of the lagoon.  Look for a dirt road at mile marker 110.51.  This launch is favored by windsurfers and kite boarders who enjoy the afternoon fetch.

4. FACILITIES: BATHROOMS, PARKING, CAMPING, PICINIC. ETC.

The county park has both a campground and a day use area.  The day use area has a nominal parking fee that as of this writing is $2.oo per day.  Yearly passes are also available.  The park has flush toilets, potable water, interpretative signage, recycling, and garbage bins.   There are also several picnic tables with barbeques and a group day use site with a fire ring.  Dogs are welcome on a leash.  The campground does not take reservations but it does have a host, firewood for sale, RV spaces, and a group site.  The campground is located along the edge of the lagoon and you can launch you kayak or canoe from your campsite.

5.  SUGGESTED TRIPS OR ROUTES

Prevailing summer winds are from the northwest. 
(1) From the boat ramp to the end of the sand spit is 3.5 miles.  This 7-mile route is generally more protected from the wind.  You can land on sand anytime to take a paddling break, enjoy whale watching, or look for agates.  Enjoy a tailwind on the return trip.

(2) Depending upon the water level it is 9 to 9.5 miles to circumnavigate the entire lagoon.  Launch in the morning at the boat ramp and head east towards Hwy 101.  Enjoy a peek at the cormorant rookery as you turn past the campground around Slippery Slope.  There are also kingfisher, (and fake kingfisher) nests in the mud banks.  Continue along the shores and come back with an afternoon tailwind along the sand spit.

(3) Begin the trip as in (2) above but aim for the bridge over Maple Creek.  Go in front of, and to the left of the tule reeds to find the main channel for Maple Creek.  Depending upon the water level and what winter has given us you can paddle about a half mile up the creek.  Bring a waterproof camera for this scenic trip. Enjoy viewing numerous animal tracks along the banks.  Many birds, elk, otter, and other critters can be seen from your kayak up Maple Creek.  During higher water in winter the whole area is full of water and you can paddle almost anywhere on the east side. You may have a headwind coming back across.  If the wind waves are very difficult to paddle stay near the south shoreline for protection.  This route is about 3 roundtrip miles.

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DRY LAGOON

Dragonfly Naid
Shells perch on marshy reeds
Spread new wings and fly!

1. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE TRIP

Although Dry Lagoon is not a paddling area, it is still worth a visit. Dry Lagoon was drained in the early 20th century for farming and although it has a lovely beach for hunting agates, today it is a non-boatable wetlands. This 280 acre freshwater marsh is nestled between Big and Stone Lagoons.  The combination lock numbers to access the six environmental campsites can be obtained from Patrick’s Point State Park 707 677-3570.  There is a 3.5 mile hiking trail from Dry Lagoon to the Stone Lagoon primitive campsites at Ryan’s Cove. See Stone Lagoon facilities for more info.  Dry Lagoon has one of the very best agate Dry Lagoonhunting beaches along our coast and has easy beach access from the parking lot. The one-mile paved road to Dry Lagoon is at Hwy 101 mile marker 114.5.  Day use facilities include fire rings, garbage and recycling cans, picnic tables, restroom, and paved parking area.

5.  SUGGESTED TRIPS OR ROUTES

There is a local group of friends who swim our lagoons for health and recreation.  The have a great annual party.  The day before this event they stage a few kayaks at Ryan’s Cove, Stone Lagoon.  That morning shuttles are run.  A group of approximately 30 people hike/swim/paddle three lagoons in one day.  They start and end at Big Lagoon County Park.  Hikers walk the sand spit and swimmers swim the 3.5 mile length.  Then they walk across the sand at Dry Lagoon, take the 3.5 mile trail to Ryan’s Cove at Stone Lagoon, and now the hikers take the kayaks while again the swimmers swim across Stone Lagoon to the waiting shuttle vehicles, back to Big Lagoon for a big potluck and barbeque.  One participant commented at the Potluck;” I don’t know why I’m so hungry this evening.  I never eat this much!”  Uh, maybe it’s because you just swam 4.5 miles and hiked 4 more!

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STONE LAGOON

Fall gentle first Rain
Land upon denser Waters
Float light Fairy balls

1. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE TRIP/LAUNCH SITE

Stone Lagoon nests in the heart of Humboldt Lagoons State Park and borders Redwood National Park.

Most of the time Stone Lagoon is an enclosed body of brackish water.  Most years a combination of winter rains raising the water level inside the lagoon and winter down-welling, huge swell and high tides removing sand from the ocean side, causes the lagoon to breach and close again several times. Spring finds the water mostly fresh while late summer it is quite salty.  Stone lagoon is fed by Mac Donald Creek.  There are six primitive campsites that can only be reached by boating or hiking.  It is a 3.5 mile hike from Dry Lagoon.Stone Lagoon

This lagoon shares a 1-½ mile sand spit with the ocean and is 4-1/2 miles to circumnavigate.  Shore birds and river otters are abundant. Highway signs warn of “caution elk crossing.”  Roosevelt Elk are often grazing in the south portion of Stone Lagoon. Summer waters are relatively warm.   This is another great lagoon for paddlers as it has a five-mile-per hour speed limit.

Listen as a flock of surf scoters take flight.  The eerie “wo-wo-wo-wo-“ is especially fun in the fog!

Fishing regulation change each year.  Check with the California Department of Fish and Game for rules and a permit before going fishing.  There are different California sport regulations for the waters of each lagoon, creek, and the ocean.  In general, on Stone Lagoon barbless hooks are required for any species.  You may catch and release Steelhead and most likely keep a couple of cutthroat trout.  Usually these are bigger trout than the allowable size at Big Lagoon. Check the current rules for size, species, and numbers allowed.

2. CAUTIONS AND RECOMMENDED SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

While not as great an expanse as Big Lagoon, afternoon winds can create fetch that form breaking waves at the boat launch.  Pay attention to NOAA weather forecasts for wind. If winds are expected it is best to put in at the north launch and stay along the sand spit on the west side bordering the ocean.  If you are caught in wind, lean your weight into the wind and paddle hard with your paddle low.

Like many of our beaches, the ocean side has an extremely steep drop.  Waves slam onto the sand along the spit.  This is generally not a spot to surf or swim as many drownings have occurred here due to long periods in the surf set (aka, ”sneaker waves”), rip currents (always swim parallel), large swell creating large waves, and dumping waves slamming onto steep beaches.  The near-shore ocean temperature is 45 to 55 degrees.  That said, there are times that the north end actually has some great surf,  and board surfers wearing 5-4-3 wetsuits enjoy the north site for that reason.

Lagoon waters during winter months can be colder than the ocean.  Wear a wetsuit of dry suit in winter and spring. 

In winter and spring months the lagoon will breach at the south end of the sand spit.  Stay out of the strong currents near the “mouth” while it is breaching. In summer the breach is filled by sand and becomes a haven for shore birds to gather. Beware of bird poop!

3.  DIRECTIONS TO GET THERE

Take Hwy 101 north from Eureka, Arcata, Trinidad or south from Oregon, Crescent City, Orick.  Stone Lagoon is nestled between Dry and Freshwater Lagoons on the west side of the highway.  The Humboldt Lagoons Visitor Center is at mile marker 115.3 right along the lagoon.  For the north launch look for the day use sign directing you to mile marker 117.38.  You will no longer see the lagoon when you make this turn.  The one-lane paved, windy road is .2 of a mile long.

4. FACILITIES: BATHROOMS, PARKING, CAMPING, PICINIC. ETC.

At mile Hwy 101 mile marker 115.3 there is a paved boat launch, parking lot, visitor center, picnic table, trash and recycling cans, and bathrooms that as of this writing are under construction.  The launch here has some sharp rocks that can scratch kayaks.  Day use is free. In the parking area is a bulletin board with camping fees, fishing regulations, and other info posted. Immediately to the left of the board is a high-tech spotting scope to show you where Ryan’s Cove campground is located.  This very efficient tool consists of a small piece of pipe welded to a larger piece imbedded in the ground.  In front of the board is an “iron ranger” to put your camping fees into.  Each camp site has a “bear box” to stash your food, fire pit, picnic table, and tent spaces.  Bring toilet paper for the primitive privy, and trash bags for LNT practices and courtesy.

Redwood Trails RV and campground is across the road within walking distance and has some grocery items.

There is another launch site at Hwy 101 mile marker 117.38.  This paved, short, one-lane road will take you down to a parking area.  The only amenities here are trash and recycling cans.  There are no restrooms at the north launch. This site is available from sun up to sundown with no overnight parking allowed.  Old maps show a campground here with a host.  This launch is sandy and gentler on your kayak.

5.  SUGGESTED TRIPS OR ROUTES

Stone Lagoon is an 8.9 mile circumnavigation.  Even if you are not staying to camp, it is fun to get out at Ryan’s Cove and run around on the trails up the hill.  Salmon berry, thimble berry, blackberry, salal, and many fungi grow along the trail under an old growth spruce forest.  Belted Kingfisher burrow in the muddy walls and green heron likes to hunt here.  Another great spot to rest is anywhere along the sand spit.  Many types of marine mammals can often be seen frolicking along these shores and of course, there are agate treasures to find.

At higher water such as we find in spring you can also get quite a ways up the narrow channels in the southwest portion of the lagoon that find their way to Dry Lagoon.  It becomes too narrow to paddle all the way and you might have to paddle backwards to get back out.  Look for dragon fly naiads on the reeds and newly formed dragonflies stretching their wet, folded wings before taking first flight.

If strong north winds are predicted put in at the north launch site to take advantage of the protection of the sand spit.  This is a nice place to launch anyway.  If you have traveling companions who do not kayak they can enjoy the beach while you paddle.  The launch site at the Visitor Center has the advantage of including a picnic table and interpretative site, but it is along the highway and your companions won’t be able to hike around there.

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FRESHWATER LAGOON

Four pair Osprey hunt
Rainbow Trout tasty dinner            
Bald Eagle watches

1. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE TRIP/LAUNCH SITE

Freshwater Lagoon is always an enclosed body of fresh water.  Years ago it was a natural, breaching, brackish lagoon.  Cal Trans added landfill to the sand spit and ran Hwy 101 across it. This lagoon shares a 1-mile sand spit with the ocean and is 3 miles to circumnavigate.  The north and west sides are part of Redwood National and State Parks, the east side is private property including the Weekenders’ Boat Club, and the south side is the northern end of Humboldt Lagoons State Park.  Mad River Hatchery stocks this lagoon several times a year (water conditions, funding, and political climate permitting) with rainbow trout.  When it has been recently stocked you will see several pair of osprey hunting above.

Due to the proximity of the highway there are less mammals at this lagoon than the others. We see them more along the east and south sides. The abundance of fish attracts many shore birds and raptors. Whales and other marine mammals can also be seen offshore here. Freshwater Lagoon

Fishing regulations are the most liberal at this lagoon. Check with the California Department of Fish and Game for this year’s rules and a permit before going fishing. Check the current rules for size, species, and numbers allowed. Along with rainbow trout there are also largemouth bass, blue gill, German browns, and catfish in this lagoon.

On the ocean side you might see local commercial beach fishermen using traditional Yurok Indian A-frame nets to catch surf fish.  An act of congress has allowed the commercial fishermen to continue this ancient skill in our national park territory.  Note that they only access the beaches at designated points, taking care not to disturb the sensitive dunes areas.  Non-commercial (sport) surf fish and perch fishing are also very popular at this beach.

2. CAUTIONS AND RECOMMENDED SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

Afternoon winds can create fetch and breaking wind waves. If you are caught in wind, lean your weight into the wind and paddle hard with your paddle low.  The good news is that this lagoon is the most protected from prevailing strong north winds.  Watch out for south or west winds here.

The ocean on the other side of the highway has an extremely steep drop.  Waves slam onto the sand along the spit.  This is not a spot to surf or swim as many drownings have occurred here due to long periods in the surf set (aka, ”sneaker waves”), rip currents (always swim parallel), large swell creating large waves, and dumping waves slamming onto steep beaches.  The near-shore ocean temperature is 45 to 55 degrees.

Lagoon waters during winter months can be colder than the ocean.  Wear a wetsuit of dry suit in winter and spring. 

Algae blooms in late summer can be quite thick.  The lagoon can turn red orange.  Although the name is “freshwater” you should never drink this water.

Fog. Visibility can be lost but luckily this lagoon is fairly small.  Pick a direction and paddle until you reach land.  Continue paddling along the land until you reach your put-in.

Motor Vehicle Traffic.  Since Freshwater Lagoon borders Hwy 101 and the restrooms are all across the road, please be careful when crossing the highway or pulling out from your parking area.  The speed limit here is 55 mph but people go faster.

3.  DIRECTIONS TO GET THERE

Just a mile south of Orick at mile marker 118.5 there is a one-lane dirt road drive down to the boat ramp area.  Kayaks and canoes can launch anywhere along there so you can also just park along the highway and carry across the dirt road to the lagoon.

4. FACILITIES: BATHROOMS, PARKING, CAMPING, PICINIC. ETC.

In the summer months Redwood National and State Parks place porta-potties, dumpsters, and recycling on the beach side day-use area across the highway from the lagoon.  At the north end of the sand spit there is a restroom and picnic area all year.  Around the corner is the Redwood National Park Kuchel Visitor Center.  There are restrooms here as well as potable water, maps, books, interpretative programs, and friendly rangers and volunteers.

Parking is available on both sides of the highway or at the boat launch.  There are no day-use fees or camping facilities here.

The town of Orick has food, gasoline, lodging, and many gift shops.

5.  SUGGESTED TRIPS OR ROUTES

Put in at the north end and paddle down to the quieter south end where you will find a couple of small inlets and perhaps some wildlife.  It is about a 3 mile trip to circumnavigate freshwater lagoon.

When strong north winds blow out other nearby paddling areas, Freshwater Lagoon remains calm from the protected headland.

Bring your fishing pole and license!

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