Into the Jeweled Cave: Kayaking sea caves is rewarding, risky

Kayaker Scott McIntosh eyes the entrance to a sea cave at Cascade Head. Getting into the caves is an art of timing the ebb with the swell and the wind.

The last time I launched from Depoe Bay, a young man was returning to retrieve his Zodiac from the Coast Guard. The outboard was shot.

I was told he had attempted to exit the Salmon River at Cascade Head, had gotten a crabbing line stuck in his prop, had been hit by a wave and flipped. I agree with paddlers who claim they feel safer in kayaks than powerboats—one fisherman saw a friend exiting the famed Columbia River bar, asked if she was crazy. Her response: are you crazy?

Cascade Head lures amateur boaters of many stripes. The sea caves, featured on Oregon Field Guide, are remarkable. The main cave is cathedral-like: as we entered we looked five stories up. Our voices echoed. The late afternoon sun threw light on ochre-colored streaks smeared on the walls, above bright green sea anemones clinging just under the waterline. Deeper in, it darkened. The last droplets of light appeared on a sea lion's whiskers when it raised its head to check us out.  

Getting into the caves is an art of timing the ebb with the swell and the wind. In winter favorable conditions confluences are rare. The ocean has the say all the time. It does not care how good our offside roll is, or how well we handle a bongo slide. These help, but the rule of the wild is that it's uncontrolled.

While we were poking around the caves that afternoon a big set came through, raising us swiftly. We didn't wait to see, dug in and hurried out. Back at the Salmon River we surfed over the bar and chugged hard against the end of the ebb. The seas were building.

Cave access is highly dependent on skill level and sea conditions. I’ve spent many hours and dollars on gear and training, evenings rolling in pools and afternoons getting roughed up in surf zones, paddled in symposiums and read books on safety and technique. I guided for three seasons in Portland and two in the San Francisco Bay. I’ve practiced rolling alone a couple miles offshore, had courses with BCU-level instructors and reenacted rescues with novices and experts.

Though my love of exploration and wilderness — and the ocean is to me a last wild place — is a guiding principle, I still have my fair share of uneasy moments. I'm still regularly humbled. I regularly remind myself what Freya Hoffmeister, who has paddled around multiple continents, once told me: “Never take your eyes off the sea.”

Editor’s note: Exploring sea caves is a hazardous endeavor and should be attempted only by the most skilled kayakers.

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