Daren Commons was raised in Santa Cruz, kayaks avidly, and teaches history in Watsonville. When the San Lorenzo River rises each winter, he grabs his kayak and heads into the mountains to whitewater kayak the San Lorenzo River. Read, in Daren’s own words, what it’s like to navigate the rising river rapids of the winter flows of the river.
“As a kid in Santa Cruz the river was always an invisible thing, crossed quickly, noticed only at the river mouth, making dirty waves, getting shredders sick, it doesn’t seem to offer much to the town. However, I have had the pleasure and privilege to become intimately acquainted to our major waterway. I have paddled it every winter for the last 15 years. The place gets a bad rap, but the San Lorenzo is a lovely, exciting stream that I consider a tarnished jewel of the area.
The Santa Cruz Mountains are a small range, with a short drainage. Clearcutting 100 years ago removed layers of spongy topsoil, which make the water levels spike quickly. In a storm the river gathers up debris (soil, trees, tennis and soccer balls, bottles, pool toys, the occasional hot tub), throws it all downstream, then subsides nearly as fast, making for short windows of play most years. This year has been different. The majority of flotsam has long since flushed out, and the earth is saturated. The San Lorenzo River has been flowing fiercely for months. It feels cleaned out and rejuvenated. Even the fish are coming back.
We start in or below Felton, and float to the edge of town. A shorter stretch is accessible from the train tracks between towns . There are a handful of class three rapids and one class four (the most difficult class is five). The river tumbles down large granite boulders or pinches between bedrock banks, whips around sharp turns and piles up against cliffs. It’s not difficult if you are an expert boater, but unsafe if you are a novice. There are encroaching willows in the wider shallow sections, and trees and branches get jammed in rocks from year to year. It’s a dynamic place. Last year a rockslide above the tracks created a new wave. This year a river-wide logjam has formed that requires a clever work around. A rock has shifted in the “Big One” and another in the “Long One,” changing the way we navigate the rapids in subtle ways. For the handful of local boaters who keep in touch with the river year to year it is a deep pleasure to note the evolution of the stream.
“For the handful of local boaters who keep in touch with the river year to year it is a deep pleasure to note the evolution of the stream.”
Santa Cruz is a busy place, full of people pursuing every fun outdoor activity there is. The waves are surfed, the trails are ridden, but the river is a quiet place, a wilderness 10 minutes from downtown. Sometimes we float in the sunshine, other times through pouring rain, but usually some misty combination of the two. Only a few patient fishermen and occasional walkers and Garden of Eden bathers share the banks of the river. I’ve kayaked whitewater around the world, and the San Lorenzo River is a unique stream, a flawed gem, flowing under the redwoods, through a seam of granite (this creates all the best rapids), and out to sea in under ten miles . There have been days when I have surfed, mountain biked and kayaked the San Lo all in the same day. There are few places in the world where that is possible (South Island of New Zealand, British Columbia perhaps). Here is a place where I’ll see few homes and fewer people, but many Merganser geese and maybe a great blue Heron. I can immerse myself in the ebb and flow of the climate, the stop start tumble of erosion, the life cycles of the watershed.
Here’s to the mighty San Lorenzo!”