I am not an adrenaline junkie.
If the idea of hurling yourself through icy waves under gray skies appeals to you, then you're lucky to live in an area where you can kayak year round. All you need is the right gear (dry suit, booties, gloves) and a bad attitude, and you can paddle the big, cold water of the Smith or the Trinity all winter long.
If you're more like me, your idea of a good kayak trip is a lazy Sunday on mellow water, with the sun on your face and a beer at the end. If you're more like me, then your days of kayaking are numbered. The days are still warm but the water levels are falling, so September and early October are probably your last chances to experience true, local summer paddling.
A perfect example of this kind of kayaking is paddling the Mad River in Blue Lake from the fish hatchery to the Mad River Brewery. This stretch is only a few miles long, and very flat. The water level at the end of the summer is low, so be prepared to hop out of your kayak and wade through some shallows. To call these sections portages would be a stretch -- it's more like walking your kayak. Since the stretch is so short, you can easily (and literally) run your own shuttle. Or you can leave a car or bike near the bridge at the take out.
Start your adventure at the Mad River Fish Hatchery, which is open to the public daily from dawn to dusk. Take a moment to explore the pools and fish ladders. Fun fact: The Department of Fish and Game offers free morning tours of the hatchery during spawning season (usually January through March). For now, give yourself a tour. Then grab your kayak, paddle and dry bag (see packing list on this page) and follow the trail upriver past the parking lot. You will quickly see a short rocky trail that leads down to the river -- this is your put-in.
Just downstream from the put-in is a lowhead dam, so when you get on the water, paddle upstream and around the gravel bar to get across the river and avoid the dam. Right away you'll come to a perfect swimming hole and small beach. When we were there, a few families with little children were playing in the shallows and building sand castles. Idyllic. I highly recommend stopping right here and swimming, as you won't come across another good swimming hole for a while.
The next few miles are the most mellow paddling I've done in Humboldt. This time of year there a plenty of shallow areas. If you've got river reading skills, you can manage to keep your kayak in the deeper water by sticking close to the banks and picking the right lines around the gravel bars. But you're not out here to test your skills, remember? You're in no rush. There is something incredibly relaxing about wading through clear water on a hot day, finding pretty river rocks and tugging your kayak behind you like a large, lazy puppy.
Toward the end of the run there is a long, deep swimming hole that seems to draw fishermen, too. If you're so inclined, you can cast a line from your kayak or pull up on the sand bar. If not, take a dip in the water and keep paddling around the bend and under the bridge to the large beach and take-out.
From here you can choose your own adventure. We chose to ask a friendly looking family to watch over our kayaks while we put on running shoes. Then we ran the 1.5 miles back to the fish hatchery to get our car. The run is flat, exposed, and beautiful. We got to check out our kayaking run from another angle and feel like tri-athletes. When we reached the hatchery, we hopped in the car and drove back to the bridge. We thanked the family, rolled up our now-dry kayaks and tossed them in the trunk.
If you are not interested in the running portion of this event, someone in your crew needs to hop on that bike or car you parked by the bridge and go fetch your other vehicle from the fish hatchery (a five-minute drive, tops). However you organize your shuttle, your adventure will not be complete until you have walked half a block from the take-out to the Mad River Brewery to celebrate your sweet success. I recommend the Super Chili Madness for this purpose (my paddling buddy would like you to know he prefers the Steelhead).
Sitting at one of the brewery picnic tables with wet hair and a little sunburn, laughing with your friends is the perfect way to spend a Sunday in September. And on Monday morning when one of your co-workers is bragging about an "epic weekend," just remember that sometimes, adrenaline is overrated. Sometimes low, quiet water and a seasonal ale are the perfect adventure.