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Russian Gulch, Mendocino Coast. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

The plan was a simple one: head up to Mendocino County on the Northern California Coast, meet up with three of the best rock garden paddlers on the west coast and film the result.

Jeff Laxier and Cate Hawthorne from Liquid Fusion Kayaking in Fort Bragg are pioneers in teaching rock garden paddling. Bryant Burkhardt is an extremely accomplished all-round paddler and one of the best instructors I have ever worked with. He now calls the Mendocino coast his home and these three would be our guides, showing us the best features for the conditions and the time that we had available. It was my first opportunity to paddle the famed rock gardens of the Mendocino coast and I was so excited!

Jackson Kayak’s Vice President Marty Cronin would provide the direction that this project needed to take. Marty is an experienced whitewater boater but he is less familiar with the ocean environment and was really looking forward to this new challenge. We didn’t want just anyone to shoot this project so we called upon one of the best: Ben Stookesberry is one of the most accomplished whitewater expedition paddlers and film makers on the planet with expeditions in 13 different countries resulting in 70 first descents (check out his latest film Kadoma: .

Ben prefers fresh water but he embraced this mix of salt and fresh water project with typical Jackson Kayak enthusiasm and professionalism.

The three pre-production Karma RG’s arrived half a day late but after a fast drive north from the Bay Area we managed to get in a late afternoon rock garden session launching from Russian Gulch. A tad breezy, conditions were otherwise ideal with enough swell to really spice things up on the outside. This was our first opportunity to try the Karma RG in its final production form and we were absolutely delighted with the way it handled the big conditions. Super stable, plenty of speed and maneuverability and bomber outfitting. I felt like I could take this boat anywhere. Jeff and Cate styled every feature and Bryant was always positioned to get the shot. Ben was immediately looking for whitewater and quickly found it!

Jeff Laxier, always paddling with style. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

The first tunnel proved to be really exciting. I was the first to enter and bounced off the sides a couple of times before exiting rather tamely compared to Ben who I watched back paddle furiously in the guts of it and then explode out of the exit like a cannonball, surfing a six foot wave! It seemed like he had been paddling rock gardens all his life. But I guess this was nothing compared to some of the mighty waterfalls he has run. He looked to be having a lot of fun but there was work to do and soon he landed in a rocky cove and climbed up on the cliffs to find some interesting angles to shoot from.

Ben Stookesberry finding the best angles. Photo by Sean Morley

What makes Mendocino such a dreamy place to paddle is the numerous tunnels that are largely protected from the mayhem going on outside, allowing you to explore their depths even on big swell days. As the sun lowered in a cloudless sky towards the distant western horizon the intensity of light turned the ocean into molten white and yellow gold. One cave was perfectly oriented towards the setting sun and for a brief few minutes the setting sun lit the back of the cave with a shaft of light so intense that I half expected the rocks to separate revealing a pirate’s treasure chest or an ancient tomb guarded by a mystical sea god. Ben worked the sunset for a while, shooting those final rays of light until darkness engulfed Russian Gulch and a frog chorus serenaded us as we loaded boats ready for another day of adventure.

A spectacle of light. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

Chicken Point was appropriately named by the local fishermen who would stand on the bluff above the mouth of the Noyo River and check out the sea conditions before deciding if it was safe to head out to sea. The point has also become a favorite surf spot of Jeff and Cate’s and other local paddlers and it is the perfect place to play ‘chicken’ with the rocks – which is exactly what the Karma RG is designed for!

Jeff running a pour-over. Photo by Sean Morley

Sean Morley taking off in the Karma RG. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

A 20 second period swell produced some spectacular waves and the Karma RG excelled – lots of speed, the ability to carve a turn and the confidence to take a beating if we went too deep. It was a truly memorable session and the swell just kept on pumping with 15 foot faces to drop down followed by screaming three to four hundred yard rides. We surfed until we had no more energy left and I was grateful for the skeg to assist me with tracking as I paddled back to the harbor.

Jeff Laxier playing 'chicken' with the rocks. Photo by Bryant Burkhardt

The rest of the day was spent stumbling through a walk-through video session and a somewhat contrived flat water kayak camping shoot. The true genius of the Karma RG is summed up nicely by Marty as “a one boat quiver”. And he is spot on: if I could only have one boat, the RG would be it.

Cate showing the boys how it is done. Photo by Sean Morley

The Main Fork of the Eel River provided the perfect location to really demonstrate the versatility of the boat and we enjoyed a really fun 7 mile Class 3 Section from Outlet Creek to just upriver from Dos Rios. Ben did more cliff climbing to get the perfect shot whilst Cate, Jeff and Marty paddled the RG’s and I had fun in my Zen. It was another stunningly beautiful day in Mendocino County and was finished off with a beer at the take out.

Jeff Laxier surfing the Karma RG on the Eel River. Photo by Sean Morley

I really want to thank Jeff Laxier and Cate Hawthorne from Liquid Fusion Kayaking for being such good sports, showing tremendous patience as we worked through shooting the material we needed. I am stoked that they will be joining the Jackson Kayak Exploration Team. We could not ask for better ambassadors for Jackson Kayak and better advocates for paddlesports.

Jeff and Cate in their natural environment. Photo by Sean Morley

Check out the result of our labors here.