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Inside the Magic:
Big River

Your guide to the hidden magic, from local canoe guide Mitchell Ritter of Catch-a-Canoe

Big River is one of the pristine gems of Mendocino County. It is a tidal estuary with over seven miles of navigable paddling at high tide and is absolutely teeming with wildlife and historic features. With the tidal influence being noticeable several miles upriver from Mendocino Bay, there are a few things to take into consideration for a trip along this special stretch of river where the freshwater of Big River combines with the saltwater of the Pacific Ocean.

Within a given 24-hour span, there are two high peaks and two low valleys in tide levels, each with varying water movement. When exploring Big River via boat, board, swimming or otherwise, given the option it can be very enjoyable to “go with the flow” literally! Depending on the duration of your voyage, it is advisable to head upriver on an incoming, rising tide, time the midpoint of the trip at the highest tide level of the day, and begin to head back toward the bay as the tide gradually begins its outgoing flow. Be sure to check in with weather conditions to see if there’s anything in the forecast against your preferences. 

Along the journey, there’s a good chance of seeing some of the year-round and seasonal wildlife residents and botanical wonders. To ensure peaceful and comfortable time on the water, wildlife are best observed and enjoyed from a distance. Some of the year-round friends on Big River are harbor seals, river otters, great blue herons, mergansers and all sorts of bird life, as well as dungeness crab and varieties of clams. Other visitors include varieties of jellyfish,  salps, nudibranchs, tunicates, eagles, osprey and other birds of prey. There are seemingly countless species to encounter.

Big River is also one of few lucky places in the world to display seasonal blooms of a small dinoflagellate called noctiluca, which glow brightly when disturbed. At night, the changing tides can wash these little critters to the sand, causing footsteps to ripple with glow in a seemingly psychedelic experience brought to you purely by nature. Paddling the river while the noctiluca are in the water can emit a dazzling, memorable display of light, especially on a new moon or very dark nights. One caveat is that the state park closes after dark, and while bonfires are generally permitted within designated rings, vehicles parked near the beach after dark may receive parking violation notices or citations.

However, with no harmful intent, after-hours beach wanderers in search of the sparkles can leave notes that they are hoping to see the bioluminescence and rangers are generally understanding and grant brief approval. Overnight parking will almost assuredly result in a ticket. This phenomenon is arguably one of the Mendocino Coast’s more memorable experiences, but can be tricky to catch and doesn’t necessarily happen every year or right on schedule.

If the objective is to catch some sightings of wildlife in the tide pools, there are plenty of opportunities in the area. Some tide pools are more accessible than others, but local state parks officials will often have good recommendations of safe pools with steady foot holds and relatively easy access via trails. Be sure to mind the tide and surf reports for the day when accessing the shoreline via rocks!

The Big River area is such a special spot which visitors are sure to enjoy and residents cherish and do their best to protect and keep as undisturbed and serene as possible. Please spend some time and enjoy safely! 

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