Elkhorn Slough

The town has seen a couple of days of rain, though the amount that has fallen has not been very spectacular. At home in the morning yesterday I sat out by my propane campfire and read from my Kindle. The sky would change from completely gray to completely blue within a matter of fifteen minutes. I went down to the ocean to have a look across the Monterey Bay. Large expanses of rainy, droopy masses of streaked gray lay on the horizon and were tossed by the wind. I came home to do some reading and the clouds and rain followed me. I spent the rest of the day ducking indoors and out, hoping that it would pass, because the air was warm and I prefer to read outside. After several intervals of sun and cloud, the rain presided over the sky.

This morning all is clear. In the middle of the night the pattering of rain rattled my skylights. The air, however, is cooler than yesterday, so I sit inside and take up my journal. The thing has been so poorly neglected this last week or two. I have no good excuse for not writing, but I have many poor excuses that all seem to be centered around lack of focus and easily being distracted by visitors and weather. I usually read a lot when I find it inconvenient to write. This helps that part of my brain keep working. Sometimes I read things though that don’t seem to help my brain much. I read, for example, a week or two ago, a novel titled “Canticle for Leibowitz”. After the halfway point, I rather picked up on the writer’s main idea and chose not to go any further along with him on his journey. The novel was written in 1959 and it just did not really speak to me. When reading goes like that for me, the writing part of my mind seems to want to express itself and is working in parallel with the reading mind, and these two parts of me together then come into conflict, so that I am actually doing neither. I am not reading and I am not writing, exactly, but a little bit of both, and not very well. It is like the weather has been, a little of sun and a little of rain, but neither one being done very well.

Last weekend I went kayak paddling. I have done very little kayak paddling in my entire life, even though I have always wanted to. My brother-in-law came down from the Sierras for the weekend and he also expressed the desire to go paddling. Between the two of us we built up enough synergy to motivate us to get out on the water. Those two days were quite warm on the central California coast, with temperatures dwelling around 80 degrees. The first day of our paddling, we rented two roto-molded kayaks on the Santa Cruz wharf, and paddled them north around the famous surf spot known as Steamer Lane. A professional surf contest was being conducted at the Lane, but the surf was so marginal that the contest had been suspended for a couple of days, while the pros waited for a bigger swell. We felt like champs paddling around through this water. Temporary stadium seating had been constructed on the cliffs above, except that the seats were empty, so we paddled as if huge crowds were watching us, when, in reality, only a few seagulls and otters really paid us very much attention. I could not believe how warm it could be sitting on top of a kayak. The Pacific waters are pretty cold this time of year, and all I wore was a life jacket and a pair of swimming trunks, but as long as I did not tip over – and I did not tip over – I remained warm, even where the wind outside of Seal Rock was blowing 15 or 20 miles per hour. We spent perhaps three hours on the water without chill.

I realized how much I miss being close to the water. You cannot put it in words, but can only experience what the feeling of open water does for your soul. Swimming pool experiences are just not the same. It’s that rough and unpredictable ocean water, the unknown creatures below it, and the wind and swell above it, which are constantly influencing the conditions – these things settle deep within me. Surfing and sailing for most of my life has given me that hook into nature. The next day, this would be Sunday, my brother-in-law and I decided to do another paddle in another body of water some twenty miles to the south of here.

Elkhorn Slough is a paddler’s delight. I have driven over the Highway 1 bridge that crosses the slough for so many years, looking east at the kayaks, and wishing that I might go along with them. Sunday I did it, paddled the slough, for my first time. We checked the tides the night before, and the wind conditions, because I knew from my years of windsurfing on the Sacramento Delta, that these two forces in the right combination can make your day wonderful or turn it into a dreadful experience. You want to go with the tide and with the wind. The tides will change, but usually the wind will not. Our plan was to paddle up the slough on the incoming tide, as far back as we could go, until the tide reached slack stage. We would do that in the morning before any wind would blow. When the tide began to go out, we would also ride that.

The plan went remarkably well. We arrived at about 10 o’clock in the morning, settled our accountant with the rental office, and launched at the Moss Landing boat harbor in our thirteen-foot kayaks. It took us about 2 1/2 hours to reach our destination of Kirby Landing. Along the way we saw sea lions, otters, and many varieties of shore birds, including pelicans, gulls, shearwaters, cormorants, and sea hawks. The paddling I found to be quite easy, even though my muscles have not been trained lately for that kind of work. I could have made the paddling more difficult if I had reached deeper into the water and pulled with more strength, but that sort of effort was not really required in order to make the kayak move smoothly across the surface. We stopped several times to rest on the edge of the slough, or estuary, and observe the bird life. Then we raced on with renewed vigor toward Kirby Landing.

Elkhorn Slough is indeed a large estuary, one of the largest and most well preserved on the entire western coast of the United States. It is probably tiny compared to some of those on the east coast. Nevertheless, Elkhorn is a womb for the sea. So many different types of wildlife come into existence here. The state has done much to keep this fragile ecosystem in its most natural state. That is what makes the paddling experience so wonderful! People can come here, and there is no other easy way to see all of this estuary, and be a part of it for a few hours, without doing it any damage. It is almost like being in an aquarium, where observers are removed from the tank, but are oh so close. I would like to spend more time on Elkhorn. I am thinking of buying a kayak just for that purpose. We got lucky with the weather this day. Moss Landing is known for its persistent fog and wind. Seldom will you see a day like this Sunday in which we paddled all day with little protection from the elements, and with only a desire to go have fun and explore.

We talked to some of the kayak aficionados who frequent these waters. It’s a central part of their life, this experience of paddling here, they told us. One old guy told us that his favorite thing to do is to paddle back up into some of the narrow passageways and herd the leopard sharks. I am still not clear on why leopard sharks need herding. I suppose that it is some invention of his own mind that gives him purpose and pleasure. I am of the thinking that leopard sharks want to be left alone in the narrow passageways, but in their spirit of cooperation with other creatures of the estuary, have opted to go along with this old man, and swim in the direction in which they believe he would like them to go. You know, I cannot think of another place on earth where an old man and a school of sharks can coexist in such sweet and playful harmony. I love that about the estuary. If I had a kayak, I could just see myself poking around among the friendly leopards.

The slough was originally owned by a Portuguese family in the 1800s. When I was working in the hospital in Watsonville, close by, in the 1970s, I met the oldest son from those original land owners. He told me a lot of interesting things about the slough, and referred me to some old and out-of-print books that described the early days in more detail, and so I have over the years had an affinity for this very special place. The old son is long gone, but as I paddled up and down the slough or estuary on Sunday I thought a lot about him and his ancestors here. There is something about being close to a special body of water. I thought of Thoreau and his life on Walden Pond, while I paddled along the marshy edge of this water. Thoreau spent more time looking at and contemplating the pond than nearly anything else in life for a couple of years. My mother’s maiden name was Walden, and we have determined that Thoreau’s Walden Pond was owned by, and named after, one of our bunch from long ago. Finding peace and life near water must be something I have inherited.

The paddle back from Kirby was predicated by the turning tide. As we sat and ate a bite of lunch on the fishing dock at Kirby, we could see the reversal of these waters, and knew that it was time for us to put in. We had paddled nearly five miles in and now needed to recover that distance. We went around a wide bend in the waterway at about the halfway point, and could then see the course that we needed to complete. I was disappointed, however, to feel a head wind in my face. I had hoped for one at my back. With the tide going out and the wind coming in, a rolling swell is created, through which the nose of the kayak must push, giving a spray of saltwater into my face. We hugged the shores of the estuary as we paddled, because there is less swell there. This made the paddling much easier, but it was still a long hard journey back to the harbor where we had begun. The sun was getting low because of the change of time on the calendar, and I doubted whether we would make it back before sunset. But we did.

We crawled out of the water, arms now severely limp, backs wishing to stretch, vertebrae decompressing, but smiling happening with our faces as the kayak rental guy asked us how we enjoyed our paddle. We told him he had just developed some return customers. Here it is a few days later, and we are both still exhilarated from that day on the Elkhorn.

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