That is exactly how some would describe Big Sur, California. This narrow, isolated strip of paradise extends 90 miles long, 20 miles wide and is home to many writers, poets, naturalists, and mysteries. With fewer than 1,000 permanent residents, Big Sur is notorious for its towering redwoods and desolate coast that is more about emotion than geography. Although this coast attracts millions of people every year, only a handful of people have witnessed it from the water. At Isle Surf and SUP, we want to push the boundaries and experience unfamiliar places for the desire to explore the unknown. For that reason, we got the Isle Ambassadors together and set out to paddle the most famed coastline in the world.
As anxiety and excitement built up over months of planning, we were finally here and ready to launch. The waters along this coast have an undeniable power that can send shivers down your spine – and isn’t the place for those who require control. If the swell or wind were different than we had hoped for, then all the planning and time spent would’ve been for nothing. Fortunately for us, the conditions could not have been more ideal.
*All pictures were taken by Slater Trout
“Ikaika lead us in a Hawaiian prayer asking for good weather, safe travels, and unforgettable memories.”
There was definitely a palpable swell in the water which resulted in some sweeping shore break. At a beach like this, your trip can end quickly. As everyone’s jitters were at all-time high we had Ikaika lead us in a Hawaiian prayer asking for good weather, safe travels, and unforgettable memories. Thankfully, we all had a good launch and our expedition had begun!
Once we hit the water, our first stop was the infamous Bixby Bridge, and at a towering 260 feet above sea level it is an architectural relic. The view from below was fascinating and more picturesque than the generic photos everyone has taken countless times from the side of the bridge.
“As we approached the white sand, a faint alien- like head appeared and stopped us in our tracks.”
While our curiosity was burning, we went and explored a couple caves around the corner. Considering that no one from our crew has been along this coast, with each twist and turn the little kid inside of us came out and it was like exploring a playground for the first time.
One particular cave we explored was at least 30 feet high and the darkness inside was beckoning; the deeper we went, the colder and creepier it got. The sound and light were almost absent, other than this faint white strip that resembled a sliver of sand. Excited to think we had just found a private beach inside a cave we kept moving forward. As we approached the white sand, a faint alien-like head appeared and stopped us in our tracks. One head turned into five, then 10, and within seconds we were staring at 50 creatures on this beach. It became apparent once this massive group of seals began charging at us that we were not welcome here, so, like the little kids in us, we sprinted back out of the cave yelling our faces off.
The Man in the Grey Suit
The last leg of the first day was the one we were most anxious about for many reasons. For one, the wind kicked up to 15 knots and we would have to fight it up until we went around Point Sur – which is also the tip of the Red Triangle. The Red Triangle is off the coast of Northern California and extends from San Francisco to Big Sur. It accounts for 38% of recorded great white shark attacks on humans in the US. Needless to say, we paddled hard and had our eyes peeled.
“I don’t know if it was all the thoughts in our heads, but within minutes of getting to the tip of the Red Triangle Scott radioed to us, “’Shark Shark Shark!’”
As we were approaching Point Sur, the groups were getting further from one another due to the wind but we all had one objective: get around the lighthouse and catch the downwind to our camp for the night. I don’t know if it was all the thoughts in our heads, but within minutes of getting to the tip of the Red Triangle Scott radioed to us, “Shark Shark Shark!”
Not surprised but definitely alarmed, we had no choice but to continue around the lighthouse and catch up to them to stay in a group. As our fatigue was now replaced with adrenaline, we powered up to the rest of the group and both Scotts recounted their first interaction with a great white. As they described, they were coming up to Point Sur and a faint 10-foot silhouette started pacing with their board. They brought up their paddles, braced their feet and watched as the juvenile checked them out and then disappeared into the abyss.
Once we rounded the lighthouse the NW wind provided great downwinders which escorted us right into camp for the night. We gathered our stuff and made a base camp where we sipped on a little whiskey and foraged for firewood to warm us up. After consuming an entire chicken for dinner we spent the remainder of the night staring at the caveman TV and talking about the exciting adventures that awaited us the next day.
In addition to the amazing location, there was something more fascinating about to happen above us: a meteor shower. If you’ve ever been to Big Sur at night then you know that it has zero light pollution, which gives the impression that you’ve been looking at a different sky your entire life. As tired as we were, the only thing keeping us up was the thrill of each shooting star blazing over our heads.
Day 2: The Unexpected Detour
Our plan was to spend three days and two nights on this coast, but things happen and you may not understand it at the moment but in time it all make sense. Our second day was supposed to be the best since we would be passing some of Big Sur’s most impressive beaches and rock formations. In addition, this leg was going to be the longest, with 20 miles of water to cover and no place to stop. We had a light paddle on the river to warm up the arms and wake us up from the late-night stargazing.
The Portal can give the impression, on the right sunset, that it is a doorway to another dimension. We were on the other side of the portal and Ikaika was the guinea pig to see if it passes through to a different realm. With a sizeable swell, it was all about timing and waiting for a lull before passing through. After a couple attempts and getting knocked off, Ikaika finally made it through and came back. Even with a 2 to 3-foot swell, once it funnels into the portal the water can fluctuate from flat to 5-foot waves smashing against the rocks. You always want to give respect to the waters because the power and beauty of it can humble you real quick.
The Dead Zone
The majority of the Big Sur coastline runs parallel with Highway 1; however, at a certain point the highway cuts into the coast and there is a 12-mile stretch that we coined the Dead Zone because there are no beaches or outlets. Plus, there’s an indescribably eerie aura.
At this point in our trip, we have seen various jelly fish, seals – and of course the great white –but something about the dead zone brought out the rest of the sea creatures. The most inquisitive creature was the Mola Mola (Sunfish) that almost knocked Slater clean off his board. As we continued down the coast we were greeted by a pod of Risso’s, dolphins that are almost completely white in color. We were lucky enough to see multiple breaches as close as 100 feet away from some magnificent whales as well. It was fascinating to watch how they can remain under water for up to 35 minutes – and then all of a sudden, they are breaching 50 feet in the air right next to you!
The Beach of Your Dreams
If you close your eyes and imagine the most exclusive and perfect beach in the world, that was our final destination for the day. The weather at this point was light winds and overcast skies, but as we approached the shore the clouds peeled back and the sun was beating down, making the water turn a tropical, turquoise hue.
Though our initial plan was to stay the night, we were informed that the winds would be shifting the following day and more swell was expected from the opposite direction we planned to paddle. We discussed the option of battling an 18-mile headwind to our parked car, or call it early and find a place to hike out and hitchhike to our vehicle. Choosing the latter for safety, we packed the gear and paddled back North in search for an outlet where we could hike everything to the road.
“A nice sand beach was replaced with jagged rocks covered in sharp mussels.”
Fortunately for us, we could see a trail leading to the highway but it wasn’t going to be an easy entry as a nice sand beach was replaced with jagged rocks covered in sharp mussels. As it has been a mantra the entire trip, It Is All About Timing and this was another instance where we had to wait for the right moment or it could ruin the perfect trip we’d had so far. Despite a couple cuts and bruises, we had a successful landing and hiked all of our gear a mile out and flagged down a ride to our car.
How All Trips End
As our body and minds were exhausted, our only thought was a cold brew and warm meal to recount all the amazing experiences we just had in the last 48 hours. Thankful for our safe travels, we hugged it out and praised one another for the trust and swift thinking that collectively got us home in one piece. With new friends and unforgettable experiences we couldn’t ask for a better adventure with a great group of guys! It is difficult to describe the emotions that Big Sur can engender and truly, it can only be understood when you are present. Replace fear with curiosity and live courageously when in the face of the unknown!
WARNING: This trip was planned and thought out for months. The Big Sur coastline can be very unpredictable with the swell and winds shifting in minutes. This should NOT be attempted unless you are a seasoned paddler with lots of water experience. Also, this area has the highest concentration of great white sharks and miles from any help. In a nutshell, don’t try it!