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Chuck Graham

Kayaking the Santa Ynez River

Wet Winter Allows Rare Paddling Passage of This Long-Trickling Waterway


While California has soaked up the much-needed rainfall for months, one region has been slowest to feel the soggy effects: the Santa Ynez Valley, which has become the poster child for the state’s enduring drought. That’s thanks largely to Cachuma Lake, as the man-made reservoir was still only at 11 percent capacity by mid-February. And then, on February 17, the entire Santa Barbara County region endured a deluge not seen since 2005, or maybe as far back as the El Niño of 1997-98.

The Santa Ynez River feeds Cachuma Lake, and, as an avid paddler, I’ve always heard that it needs a minimum of 3,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) to be passable by kayak. That Friday morning of February 17, I received a text from Garrett Kababik, co-owner of the Paddle Sports Center in the Santa Barbara Harbor.

“It’s looking good right now,” said Kababik, who’d been keeping track of the river’s flow on the American Whitewater Gauge. “It’s at 3,400 cfs!!!”

Little did we know that was just the beginning for this river that serpentines through Santa Barbara’s backcountry down to the Pacific, from the Los Padres National Forest all the way past Lompoc to Surf Beach. Heading into the wee hours that night, the Santa Ynez River swelled to a whopping 20,000 cfs.

“Hey, early start tomorrow,” texted an enthusiastic Kababik. “Let’s get this when it’s fresh.”

Come Saturday morning, there was a convergence of guides who usually work the Channel Islands National Park, everyone trading in those wave-battered sea caves for some fun Class 3 and 4 rapids on the muddy river. We put in at the first crossing beyond the White Rock Day Use Area. Aside from a few collisions with river-strewn boulders and encounters with plenty of strainers (vegetation that had taken root in the previously dry riverbed), it was a backcountry run that won’t soon be forgotten.

Better yet, following the deluge, Cachuma Lake was just over 42 percent capacity. Things are looking up.

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