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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Kayaking in an Alien Land

Point Reyes: the hitch hiking block of granite, currently 30 miles north of San Francisco

With time for (at least) one more adventure before the winter rains hit California, Al and I strapped the kayaks atop my Subaru and set off for Point Reyes on the coast, to paddle where Sir Francis Drake had careened his Golden Hind 400 years ago, visions of elephant seals, bat rays, and diving pelicans dancing in our heads, only mildly concerned that we’d be camping and kayaking right on top of the San Andreas Fault. After all, what were the odds?

Sitting around the campfire the first night, Al with his corncob pipe, me with a slim cigar and flask of Scotch, it sounded like a freight train approaching, initially, complete with the rumbling of the ground. Then the trees began to sway, as we stared wide-eyed about us. Then the sudden, nauseating jolt…At least that’s how Al described it, adopting the Orson Wells voice from War of the Worlds. I would hear this version several more times over the trip. Yes, our campground at Olema was virtually atop the San Andreas; but no, the Fault moved not a whit while we were there. Yet it was pleasant enough to anticipate it.

That first day we had wound through our usual bewildering (to me) array of California back roads and byways, down to Clear Lake, past Robert Louis Stevenson’s monument above Calistoga, thence pretty much due west. We stopped for gas in Middletown, then soon at Al’s favorite Taco Truck in Guerneville (“What can I get for you, my amigo?” asked the proprietor cheerily, white teeth gleaming as he looked down at us.) Three days after we left it, Middleton was engulfed by the “Valley Fire,” destroying over 700 homes there and leaving most everything else charred and smoking in the surrounding 95 square miles. We devoutly hoped our cheerful Guerneville friend had moved his truck out of harms way, and made a lot of money feeding the thousands of firefighters who thronged to the area.

We stopped at Jenner on the coast and eagerly launched the kayaks on the Russian River, paddling a mile to the Pacific, where several dozen harbor seals lounged on the sand spit. Brown pelicans wheeled above us, occasionally folding their wings and plunging down into the water. Only once did we notice an obvious fish in the long bills as the birds emerged from the river, but perhaps they did better than it seemed. Caspian terns were also diving about us, while
Common mergansers floated placidly.

We arose early the second morning, eager to retrace Drake’s steps, grabbed breakfast at the Bovine Bakery (yes, it’s real name) in Point Reyes Station (alas, no train stops there these days), and drove west off the North American tectonic plate onto the Pacific tectonic plate, upon which Point Reyes National Seashore sits. Or rides, more accurately. The American continental plate here is an ancient, complex mixture of sandstones and limestones (the Franciscan) that have accreted to the plate proper from millions of years of thin slices of seafloor getting scraped up and piled onto the original edge of the continent as the rest of the ocean floor dives deep under the continent (“is subducted”). But what we call the peninsula of Point Reyes is alien land, a chunk of granite representing geological processes 80 million years ago in today’s southern California, where another subduction event forced ocean floor deep, producing vast plutons of granite by igneous action deep in the molten mantle.

Some of this granite moved west under the continent and, when uncovered, became the Sierra Nevada range. Some of it, though, became stuck to the Pacific tectonic plate, and moved north with the plate, about two inches every year. From its origin in the Tehachapi mountains above Los Angles (whose rocks fit the rocks of Point Reyes very closely), this chunk of granite passed Monterey’s Point Lobos 30 million years ago, and by 1906 sat some 30 miles northwest of San Francisco. In less than a minute on the morning of April 18, 1906, the granite moved a further 20 feet north, to its current position.

Only on Inverness Ridge on the west side of Tomales Bay, and around the lighthouse on the Point Reyes headland, is this granite easily viewable. In the low marshy plain between, the granite has been overlain with ocean deposits of sandstone and mudstone, having been underwater for much of the past 80 million years. The entire peninsula between the Ridge and the Point is low, but some of it was the delta of a vast river system and thus eroded even lower. When the last ice age ended 20,000 years ago and the great glaciers melted, the rise in sea level transformed these river channels into estuaries. In 1579 Sir Francis Drake had entered the largest of these estuaries to careen his ship and scrape the barnacles off, earning the estuary the name “Drake’s Estero”—Drake’s estuary. This was where Al and I were headed.

Drake’s Estero spreads into four bays reaching three miles inland from the Pacific, forming an arc of water some 2 miles wide. We launched the kayaks on Schooner Bay, at the former site of the Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, recently closed down (and its decades of extensive litter cleaned up, mostly) by the park service after a protracted legal battle. On a nearby spit a dozen white pelicans (larger than the browns, and not divers) watched us paddle by before taking flight. Terns circled above us, and we kept an eye out for osprey known to live here, Al spotting one.

The Estero is mud-bottomed, and on the shore Least sandpipers and dowitches scooted about. In the shallows, I saw several bat rays gliding under my kayak, the largest with a two-foot wingspan. A shout from ahead: a leopard shark, six foot of it, had just passed beneath Al. Hundreds of feet of treated redwood structures remained in the estero from the old oyster farm, upon which planks of oysters had formerly been hung. Al found an overlooked plank and dragged it up. I paddled over and we examined oyster shells cohabiting with a large crab and pink tunicates, before gingerly returning it to its site.

We made the turn into Home Bay to the east, noticing a forested patch amidst the generally brown shrub-and-herb-covered hills surrounding the estero. An archeological dig was going on here, probably at the site of an old Coastal Miwok village of native-Americans. We don’t know exactly where Drake careened the Golden Hind, of course, but the accounts indicate the indigenous folk he encountered extended friendship and food to the Englishman and his crew, who reciprocated with trinkets.

In retrospect, these first Englishmen to reach California treated the native-Americans much better than the Spanish who would soon move up from Mexico, enslaving the Indians in their Missions (for the benefit of their immortal souls, of course), taking forcible possession of the land and resources upon which the various tribes had sustainably coexisted for thousands of years, and killing the majority of Indians by disease, flogging, or sword. Some legacy. Pope Francis installed Junipero Serra, the most prominent of these Spanish missionaries, as a saint in his late September visit to America. A dubious honor, from a pope who claims to represent the poor and oppressed, yet. To be fair, it should be noted that the “Anglos” who took over California during the mid-19th century Gold Rush treated the remaining native Americans even more brutally than the Spanish ever had, and soon reduced them to scattered pockets on isolated reservations.

These various ghosts of the past notwithstanding, the day was sunny and brisk, the air and water full of life, and our five-mile foray around Drakes Estero the high point of the trip. We decided not to paddle to the Pacific at the mouth of the estuary, which would add several miles and hours, but knew that the sand spits there would feature hauled-out harbor seals, California sea lions, and possibly elephant seals.

After returning to the launch site, we drove to the headlands at the end of the peninsula and the famous Point Reyes lighthouse there—a windblown, wild crag where the underlying granite can clearly be seen, overlaid by a band of conglomerate. The North-American-plate coastline above and below the alien granitic chunk on which we stood was clearly visible north and south, though low clouds on the horizon prevented us from seeing the Farallon Islands some 25 miles to the south, sister chunks of granite also hitching a long ride north with Point Reyes. The whole granitic sibling group will, in another 30 million years or so, be devoured by the extreme edge of the North American continental plate in the vicinity of the Aleutian islands, subducting deep into the core of the planet there, to be transformed, yet again, in a maelstrom of fire and heat.

We stopped at Chimney Rock near the lighthouse, where we hiked to an overlook onto the ocean side of Drakes Bay. In the distance was the mouth of Drakes Estero; just below us on the beach was a long-favorite haul-out site for elephant seals. Several dozen juveniles and subadults lounged there, looking very comfortable and contented, possibly because their parents were far away. Adult females spend the summer and fall in the ocean near Hawaii, while adult males are in the waters off the Aleutian Islands—migrations of 13,000 and 15,000 miles, respectively. They are feeding there on deep-water squid, octopods, and fish, making incredible (to us) hour-or-two-long dives to depths of a thousand feet and more. They surface only occasionally and spend but a few minutes, filling their blood (via lungs) with oxygen before plunging on another deep, long dive. The secret to a happy family, at least for pinnipeds: separate long vacations for mom and dad, thousands of miles from the kids.

As another several hours of daylight remained, Al and I wound our way east to 15-mile long Tomales Bay, the eastern edge of the granite block of Point Reyes, and launched the kayaks at Hearts Desire Beach (nice name, eh?). The San Andreas Fault sits right in the middle of Tomales Bay, running due northwest from Bolinas Bay at the southern end of the park. As we paddled north up to Indian Beach, North America sat to our right, Bolinas Ridge rounded and brown, composed of sandstone and serpentine rocks. To our left was the Pacific plate, adorned by its granitic hitchhiker in the form of Inverness Ridge, higher and green with lush plant life (a result of its differently-based soils? or its north-east-facing aspect?).

As we rounded the point revealing Indian Beach, a brown pelican dropped from the skies about fifteen feet from Al’s kayak, exploding into the water and eliciting a howl from my usually imperturbable friend. In his heart of hearts, I am convinced that for a split second Al thought The Big One had commenced, and he was already relishing the tale he would have, being in Tomales Bay atop the Fault when it lurched northward. Alas, it was merely a bird, fishing. We paddled over some of the bay’s thousand acres of eelgrass, underwater meadows supporting rich assemblages of waterbirds, fish, crabs, snails, nudibranches, bat rays, salmon, and anemones. Tens of millions of herring spawn here in the winter, attracting harbor seals by the thousands to the mix.

Our last morning we completed our quartet of kayaking venues by adding a creek to our already-notched river, estuary, and bay. Lagunitas Creek (yes, for which the California beer is named) flows into the southern tip of Tomales Bay in a marsh. The put-in was a bit awkward (inclined mud bank), but neither of us fell into the water, so we were feeling good as we paddled up the narrow creek, heading due west, with marsh wrens twittering in the bushes beside us, and a river otter popping up ahead of Al. After half a mile or so the creek bends sharply north, where two kingfishers protested our early morning invasion of their domain, though not as noisily as usual.

The creek is not deep, and we had planned it so that we were on a rising tide, as the guidebooks cautioned. Even so, we bottomed out shortly after the bend, and disembarked in the eight inches of water to pull our craft forward some 50 feet. Now the water was fine, and we climbed back in (without falling!) and resumed our voyage to the marsh at the south end of the bay. A pair of osprey soared repeatedly from one side of the creek to the other as the bay came into view, looking huge and graceful. Further up the creek, the yacht club at Inverness on the bay came into view above the margin of the marsh.

The marsh was quickly thickening when we reluctantly decided to turn back; we had a long drive home ahead of us this day. We tarried a bit at Point Reyes Station on the way out, giving The Big One a final opportunity to strike as we stood atop it. Alas, there was insufficient tension in the fault to produce movement, so we left Point Reyes, memories of elephant seals, ospreys, otters, diving pelicans, and an Estero where Drake had met Miwok Indians still dancing, but vividly now, in our heads.

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