Atmospheric Rivers in Big Sur

You may have seen on the news that the California coast got walloped by “atmospheric rivers” in January. In other words, it rained a lot. It seemed endless. Sheets of rain with wind, a king tide, and sneaker waves resulted in feet of rain on the coast and valleys along with feet of snow in the Sierra Nevadas. This is great for drought relief. But the state didn’t need to catch up on years of rain within three weeks!

New Year’s Eve had some rain and then it stopped. It was the calm before the storm. My fellow camp hosts and I drove to town and loaded up with supplies. The forecast was bleak and there was concern that the river would flood, slides might cover the only road out (CA Highway 1) and the road could be closed for a while. It was likely that the electricity would go out. All those things happened. 

Once the first storm landed, it rained for seventeen days. We had daily, multiple weather warnings of excessive rain, high winds, hazardous beach conditions, and flooding – lots and lots of flood watches and then warnings. The state park where I am camp hosting is situated just two miles north of the Big Sur post office. I was in the middle of it all. My campsite is not 100 yards from the Big Sur River that flows through the park and surrounding area. We sit in a valley within the Santa Lucia mountains. It’s beautiful until conditions change. 

Luckily for us, there is high ground just outside the park at the Ranger Station. It also is home to the CalTrans highway road crew with trucks, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment at the ready. I moved my Airstream to the parking lot there and prepared to hunker down. I felt completely safe there but the weather was pretty dicey. I put all my years of Florida hurricane preparedness and training to use. I got out and bought supplies to last for a while. I moved out on the dry day ahead of the next storm. I prepared to boondock – using my solar, propane, and an onboard tank of water. We stayed for a week and it seemed like a month. We had sun for a few hours during that week. My solar held up as well as possible. My water started to run out. So did the propane. The electricity went out at some point for several days. Luckily, there is an industrial-sized generator on site for CalTrans and it powered the electric outlet in the bathroom next to where we parked. In addition to the outlet, there was a spigot with a hose connector. We MacGyvered electrical hookups to power our trailers and recharge the batteries, ran hoses to refill our water tanks, and were able to get propane down the road at the service station that was open a few hours a day. People here in Big Sur are used to these conditions. Every store, motel, and restaurant has a big generator so they can stay open at least for a while. It worked until there was a mandatory evacuation of the entire area. Fortunately, we were allowed to stay because we are considered park staff. Most everyone who works at the park lives adjacent to the property. But the lodge and surrounding commercial venues in the area closed. This is a remote location, but it seems very isolated when all this stuff happens. 

The river got to flood stage but receded before spilling too much over its banks in the park. It did not flood the road. Lower-lying areas flooded as was expected. There were slides on the highway that cut off the area for a day or two. There’s a slide about 10 miles south that is massive and the road will be closed for months. The worst damage was an incredible pileup of logs and whole trees all along the river. Think of a beaver dam in a comically exaggerated king-size. That’s what’s sitting in places in the park and out along the highway. There’s a YouTube video of one of the jams breaking up and the huge pile floating downriver. The Big Sur River hits the Pacific Ocean about four miles north of the park, inside another state park. The river was incredibly swift and powerful. It carried whole trees down the river until depositing them on rock bars and shallow sections. Some debris settled on the river bed and created a wave zone in several places as the river crashed into this stuff. I saw an entire tree float by. It actually raced by, carried in the current. It was jaw-dropping. 

When we got back to the park the park remained closed for camping for another two weeks. Mud and debris are everywhere. Remember I said we’re in a valley? Well, stuff flows downhill and into the river. It has to cross the campgrounds to get there. Fortunately, we did not have any mudslides. Fortunately, the roads did not crumble, though there were spots roped off for erosion under the road. I drove to Carmel a few days later and there was evidence of slides everywhere, but the rocks and debris had been swept off the road. There was a stretch of road down to one lane as engineers looked at some washouts on the ocean side of the road. I’ve seen videos of roads crumbling after a storm due to erosion. Not what you want to think about while driving the S-curves of this picturesque highway.  Other rivers flooded too from Monterey to San Francisco from the coast to the inland areas in Sacramento. Not unlike hurricane recovery, some things get back up and running right away and others take a while. 

The West is a grand scale. Everything is oversized here – mountains, redwoods, waterfalls, cliffs, and the Pacific Ocean. I think that’s why the event seemed so massive – because stuff coming down mountains is no joke. Rivers, flowing out of mountains just a few miles away are moving very fast. Electricity is strung on wooden poles that line the coast and then under the coastal forest canopy. Branches fall, wires go down, and it takes a while to get the crews, equipment, and supplies to repair stuff out here. It’s not like we are in the middle of a metropolis. 

Big Sur is untamed, despite human efforts to settle here. The land is going to behave as it sees fit and no amount of highway construction, retail and housing settlements, or even ranching is going to change that. We must adapt to the land. It will never adapt to us. The mountains along the coast dive directly into the ocean. It’s spectacular to see. There are some open areas where forests were cut down and cattle have been grazing there for 100 years. In the part of the coast where I am, man has cut a road through the forest and put up some outposts. There’s flat land where the river runs to the ocean and that’s where development settles. But it’s a fool’s paradise because like the Outer Banks in North Carolina, the Keys in Florida, New Orleans, or the areas along the Mississippi River – you can’t protect yourself from natural disasters. They will occur again and again. Man keeps trying, but it is futile. 

Some people said the last big rain event happened here in 2017. Others have compared this event to a literal high water mark in 1987. No one remembers so many storms coming back to back – wave after wave. Welcome to climate change – extremes in weather phenomenon. These types of storms have hit the coast of the PNW for eons. But the intensity, ferocity, and frequency are what worry people. Is the drought over? No. While this rain and snow will replenish reservoirs for the year, a brutally dry summer will start it all over again. It is the extreme of wet and dry that we can’t manage. Think of the highly destructive forest fires we’ve had due to brutal conditions. Those conditions will return. Part of the problem with this major rain event was the slide concerns from past fires. That’s what happened in Santa Barbara and other coastal areas that dominated the news because of celebrity homes in the slide danger areas. Fires leave bare land and the heavy rain saturates the ground and it slides. 

My time in Big Sur is coming to a close. The remoteness of this place did not give me many opportunities to get strong wi-fi for posting and picture transfers. I’ll be heading back north through CA and the OR coasts on Highway 101 as I get ready for my next adventure. It’s big, but I’m not quite ready to share yet. Stay tuned. 

I highly recommend coming to Big Sur to experience the breathtaking vistas, the gorgeous redwoods, and the natural forces that shape this area. It is a true wonder of the world in my book. I’ve seen many stunning places in my travels – Zion National Park, Yellowstone, Northern Cascades, and Mt. Rainier come to mind. But something about Big Sur is different.

“All the way down the raging coast! So that when later I heard people say “Oh Big Sur must be beautiful!” I gulp to wonder why it has the reputation of being beautiful above and beyond its fearfulness, its Blakean groaning roughrock Creation throes, those vistas when you drive the coast highway on a sunny day opening up the eye for miles of horrible washing sawing.”

Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur (Warbler Classics Annotated Edition) (p. 17). Warbler Classics. Kindle Edition. 

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