AT HIGH TIDE, Smuggler’s Cove doesn’t look like much—just a darkened hole at the base of a cliff on Catalina Island. But at low tide, it turns into an ominous maw. Legend has it that a sailor’s ghost guards a priceless treasure stashed in this cave by a band of ruthless California pirates.
In the waning light of an October afternoon, the members of Venturing Crew 420 hesitated at the entrance to Smuggler’s Cove in a pod of Skittles-colored kayaks. They could barely make out its rear wall, obscured by darkness, and its mouth was just big enough for a single boat. One by one, each paddled to its entrance, ducked, and glided into the cavern on the momentum of the swells. Then came Jake Stephens’ turn.
“Don’t go into the vortex. It’ll kill you!” Jack Daum said mischievously, as Jake, the youngest of the bunch at 18, dipped his paddle into the water.
“If you see a bright light, swim toward it!” J.R. Brolliar said, egging him on. Without hesitation, Jake tilted his head to glide into the cave’s craggy mouth and disappeared into the black. In another few moments, he slid back out again, a grin stretched beneath his crooked baseball cap.
Scouts have paddled into Smuggler’s Cove, and along Catalina’s rugged shores, for decades. They come to Camp Emerald Bay from as far as Korea, Japan, Denmark, and England to see this wild landscape and learn to kayak its waters. Some have never seen the ocean before but leave with an indelible sense of its magnetism. Most of the members of Crew 420, however, had been converted to the sport of sea kayaking years ago. The unusual crew consists of former camp staffers who continue to get together long after their summer tenure ended. On this particular weekend in October, they traveled from homes scattered along the California coast to meet old friends and spend a weekend paddling.
Every Catalina Island trip starts with a boat ride. On Friday afternoon, the Venturers boarded the last ferry in Los Angeles, and a palpable sense of excitement suffused the air. Soon the city disappeared in a haze, and the Santa Monica Mountains turned into ragged lines against the pale blue sky. A group of 6-year-olds on a weekend visit shrieked with delight as hundreds of bottlenose dolphins swarmed the boat, jumping in twos and threes in what seemed like a magnificent orchestrated show. The members of Crew 420 simply smiled, eyes bright. Though the ride only takes an hour, Catalina feels as if it’s in the middle of the Pacific.
“The great thing about us getting together like this is we pick up right where we left off,” said Nick Leimbach, a lanky teenager equipped with his mobile phone and plenty of enthusiasm.
“I’m excited,” said his friend Chris “Suzu” Suzuki. “I came all the way from San Francisco for this.”
THE CREW’S PLAN was to take off first thing the next morning, paddle about five miles to the western end of the island, and peek around to the windward side. Come evening, they’d camp on a deserted beach, then paddle back to Emerald Bay on Sunday morning.
Though it was a seasoned crew, any kayaking trip has variables—and Catalina Island, subject to the tempestuous moods of the ocean, is no exception. Within hours, the swells can grow to more than seven feet tall, high enough for kayakers to lose sight of one another as they dip into troughs; wind and rain can steamroll across a clear sky within minutes. While Camp Emerald Bay is situated on the sheltered eastern side of the 25-mile island, the western side, the crew’s destination, is much wilder.
“Here we’re buffeted by the island,” said Van Whiting, 26, the sturdy, tanned advisor for Crew 420, over breakfast at Camp Emerald Bay on Saturday morning. “On the other side, there’s nothing between you and Japan.” That morning, however, the sky was auspiciously clear and the water still as satin.
The appeal of kayaking is almost immediately apparent, even to beginners. The crafts are graceful and sleek. And unlike rowboats or canoes, they’re easily maneuverable by a single person, offering the individual freedom to explore a magical marine world unfathomed by landlubbers.
“I don’t ever want to go back to the mainland,” Nick said as the group paddled away from Camp Emerald Bay’s crescent-shaped beach. “Ever.”
SOON AFTER LEAVING THE BAY, the island turns wild, and no signs of civilization mar the steep, rocky slopes that plunge into the sea. Offshore, the water is so deep it appears as a rich shade of teal. That Saturday morning, a single heron sliced through the air above the Venturers’ heads, several pelicans skimmed the water, and baby loons trolled the surface, bobbing over 100-foot-tall kelp forests.
“What’s so cool about these,” Suzu said as he glided over the seaweed, “is you only see kelp and small fish at the top, but there’s so much underneath.”
As the crew traced the undulating coves and bluffs of the island’s shore, some of this mysterious underwater life revealed itself, to the cheers and shouts of the kayakers. Beneath the boats, clouds of silvery Pacific jack mackerel, glinting like mirrors, swirled in the sun. Several seals poked their heads out of the water, looked quizzically at the pod of kayaks, and disappeared only to pop up even closer to the boats, their eyes shiny like marbles. Later, an enormous bewhiskered California sea lion appeared, inspected the group grumpily, and slid beneath the silky surface just as easily as it came.
The kayakers naturally spread out, trickling into groups of twos and threes. Some kids explored the shady shores of the island’s rugged coast, much of it unreachable by foot. Others tossed a ball between boats, and another group paddled farther out, basking in the warmth of a cloudless sky.
“Kayaking gives you the opportunity to completely control a craft on the water,” said Van, who accompanied the crew that weekend. “You’re in control of your own boat, and you learn what your strengths and weaknesses are. For some Scouts who come here, they’ve never seen the ocean. Giving them the tools to explore this area gives them the opportunity to explore a whole new world.”
Van loves few things more than watching Scouts discover this place, just as he did as an 11-year-old Scout. Even as an adult he falls under its spell.
“One of the great things about kayaking,” he said as he watched the Venturers glide across the sea, “is that it is an activity that grows with you. You can start kayaking with easy, age-appropriate outings. Then, as you grow and learn, you can take on more and more challenging trips. This ability to keep learning and growing helps keep kids enthused and involved in Scouting.”
THOUGH CATALINA’S WEST SIDE holds a fearsome reputation, it was lamblike on that October afternoon. The crew rounded the tip of the island to find an even more dramatic landscape of cliffs plummeting into the ocean. They paused to marvel at the sight of the ocean stretching clear over to Asia before turning around to set up camp on Parsons, a sandy beach where they grilled cheeseburgers over a fire and fell asleep scattered about on the sand under a spray of stars.
The next morning, the kids woke just as sunrise brightened the sky. The eastern horizon glowed with violet light, and fog draped the surface of the sea. Quietly, the crew packed up their bags and slid the boats into the water, tottering through the small surf.
Crew 420 paddled in silence into the rising sun, which lit the fog layers haloing the bluffs and headlands. Below, the kelp forests teemed with mackerel and bright-orange garibaldi. Not even the hum of a single boat on its way to Hawaii or China or Japan broke the stillness of the sea. Their reverent silence suggested an unsaid agreement that this moment was worth getting up for.
“It’s kind of nice out here, actually,” Jake said in contemplation.
Nick hesitated, appreciating the breathless silence between paddle strokes. The moment seemed to defy words. “It’s gorgeous,” was all he said.
KATE SIBER is a correspondent for Outside magazine. Her work also has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and National Geographic Traveler.
PADDLE FOR A PATCH
There’s good reason why kayaks now drastically outsell canoes. For one, kayaking is easy to learn. That’s one reason why the Boy Scouts of America released a new merit badge for kayaking this past summer, with only one prerequisite: a swim test.
During about a week of summer camp—or the equivalent time period—the program introduces Scouts to a range of knowledge and skills. It starts with safety, but Scouts also learn about the different kinds of kayaking, kayak design, and how to paddle the boat efficiently.
“Compared to canoeing, the double-bladed paddle makes it easier to go straight,” says Patrick Noack, the chairman of the BSA’s National Aquatics Task Force. “Kayaking is very good from a beginner standpoint, because you can learn very quickly.”
And learning quickly leads to the whole point: fun. Find more information on the Kayaking merit badge requirements here.