"Mendocino is such a rocky coast line," says Cate Hawthorne, co-owner and operator of Liquid Fusion Kayaking (LFK), about her home base along California’s Mendocino County coast. "It’s a rock garden mecca. Look [over] any bluff here and you’re like, oh, look at that rock garden right there."
Today, rock gardening continues to merge with mainstream paddling disciplines. Rock garden hounds seek out slots, drops, caves, and pour-overs. They negotiate coastal swells, frothing waters, and standing rocks. With so many of these features located in Noyo Bay, it’s easy to see why Liquid Fusion Kayaking is just a few minutes’ paddle up the Noyo River. No matter their skill level, aspiring coastal whitewater paddlers should scope out the bay. Upwards of 30 features can be found in a day, ranging from class II to V.
While the rock gardening is world class, it is far from the only reason Liquid Fusion planted its signpost on the Mendocino coast.
"It’s an epic playground," says Jeff Laxier, Cate’s other half, and the founder of Liquid Fusion Kayaking. Laxier easily rattles off the many benefits of the region, including rock gardens, surf breaks, coastal estuaries, and rivers. Further upstream, there are superb whitewater runs. All within range of Fort Bragg, California. "It’s not hard to pick this place," adds Laxier.
Laxier, who started Liquid Fusion Kayaking in 2005, was previously based out of San Diego. But he spent most of the year teaching ocean and river kayaking along the Pacific coast, from Alaska to Baja. While guiding an outing in Mendocino County, Jeff met Cate, an area school teacher. Changing the course of their lives, a long distance relationship ensued.
"He was going to all these cool places, having all these cool classes," says Hawthorne. "So when I had vacation, I would find out where Jeff was or where he was going and tag along and take his classes. That was how I got into paddling, and it was full immersion right way. Sea kayaking, whitewater river kayaking, and surf kayaking all at the same time."
By 2007, Jeff had moved to Fort Bragg. In spring of 2008, the two concluded they should operate Liquid Fusion together, combining Jeff’s on-the-water experience with Cate’s classroom experience. In addition to classes and guided outings accessible to any level of paddler on water bodies throughout the region, Liquid Fusion Kayak also offers natural history tours and multi-day river trips.
"Cate is the translator," Laxier states. "People look at me like [a] dog cocking its head like, ‘What did he just say?’ Cate comes in and interprets my instruction, and that works well."
Canoekayak.com recently caught up with Cate and Jeff for an in-depth conversation about their efforts.
Canoekayak.com: What has it been like running a kayak school together?
Cate Hawthorne: Fun. Challenging. Exciting. There is a lot that goes into it. A lot of thoughts, planning, and dreaming. Here you have this passion you share together, and you get to share it with other people. Of course there is some butting of heads here and there, and differences of opinions, but it’s fun. Living the dream.
Jeff Laxier: It’s great to be on the water together. I wouldn’t call it seamless but pretty close. We have days we don’t really communicate by talking and we can accomplish quite a bit when teaching classes or guiding trips. We will also be on the water running two different adventures at the same time. So we are kind of running parallel but [separate].
Cate: Our strengths compliment each other’s weaknesses in a lot of ways. I have a master’s in education and was a classroom teacher for years and I bring that dynamic to kayaking. Jeff has all these years of kayaking experience, and the ocean experience, and he brings that. But there is also the yin and the yang balance of, sometimes one of us gets real serious and focused and the other one tends to be more the joker that lightens things up out on the water.
So who is the Joker and who is the serious one?
Jeff: We have to take turns on that one.
Of all the programs you offer which do you most enjoy leading?
Jeff: The trifecta. It’s our whitewater surf safari. It’s a three day adventure, all in a whitewater kayak. One day is actual kayak surfing, so performance surfing on ocean waves. A day of paddling in the rock gardens, riding whitewater features in the ocean which we call our, "Whitewater of the Sea." The third event is a whitewater river run on one of the local rivers that’s running.
Rock Gardening used to be on the fringes of paddling, but it seems more popular these days?
Jeff: Yeah, its almost a discipline itself these days. I got lucky. I started in 2001 with an outfitter, and we used to run whitewater rock gardening trips down to Mexico. Super fun. I got my paddle wet on that stuff. It’s been fun building the program from there.
Cate: There are definitely a lot of people interested in rock gardening these days. A lot of the programs we run are specific to the whitewater kayaks in the ocean and some of that is because Mendocino is such a rocky coast line. Any beach you launch from up here you can be in a rock garden in five minutes in a whitewater kayak— an eight or nine foot river runner. In other areas, people tend toward sea kayaks because they have to travel some distance to get to the rock gardens.
We do it in a beginner format, too. We take people who have never kayaked before, beginner beginners. Using our whitewater sit-on-tops, they are playing in the rock gardens their first time out in the ocean.
So whitewater sit-on-tops make this type of paddling accessible to every ability level?
Jeff: Absolutely. They open the door. It actually makes it more fun because you can literally jump off the boats and swim around in the ocean. Very user friendly. No roll necessary. Which is great for the beginners.
Any advantages or disadvantages when teaching on the river versus teaching on the ocean?
Jeff: It’s easier to teach whitewater of the sea because you have pulses instead of a constant [current]. So you can sit on one whitewater feature and really hone in your skills, and really fine tune it because you have repetition. Think about a boof on your local run, you get one shot at that. So if you want to run that again you have to get out, hike up, maybe able to attain up. But out on the whitewater of the sea, it gives us an opportunity to coach somebody over a drop and say alright get back in line, and work on that skill right away. So in a way that speeds up the learning.
You mentioned you are getting ready for your annual Christmas bird count?
Cate: It is for the Audubon Society, and is the longest running citizen science project in the United States. People get out within a window of time in their local area and count birds. Whether it’s at your feeder out your window, or in a territory or area. Our local Audubon Society has different areas and the area we do is on the river. So we kayak and survey the birds. We have a tally sheet, and keep track of the numbers of different species we see out there.
Are you involved with other community events?
Jeff: Absolutely. We try to do a quarterly "Afternoon on the River."
Cate: It’s a benefit [on] a Sunday afternoon. We invite people in the community to come out for twenty dollars an adult and ten dollars a kid and go kayaking. So we donate our services and our kayaks and rally volunteers from the organization we are donating to. It helps benefit local nonprofit organizations. We also rally Coastal Cleanups. Usually in September in California on the third Saturday.
What are some of the nonprofits you’ve helped with your quarterly outings?
Cate: Delta Kappa Gamma, a society of women educators [who] raise money for early literacy. They raise money so every baby who is born in our local hospital gets a book. The book has information for the parents on the importance of reading to children at an early age, and about the local library and the services the library has. Then we make sure every kindergartner who starts in our local schools has a packet of what they need for success in kindergarten to do their homework and practice their skills. Crayons, markers, scissors, writing pad, primary kindergarten pencils. So those kids have what they need to practice their letters and their work at home.
You mentioned the California Coastal Cleanup. As an outfitter, do you see yourselves as stewards of your local environment?
Jeff: Not only do we find ourselves as stewards, but anybody on our tours, mostly the kids, they see us picking up a piece of trash floating down the river and next thing you know they have a few pieces of trash they have gathered. It is an everyday activity of ours. That slogan, "just pick it up," that’s real, that’s what we do.
Scope out more from C&K’s Shop Stop profile series to learn more about North America’s colorful specialty paddling shops who make a positive impact on their local paddling communities.
More from C&K: