26 October 2007

Winter comes to the north coast

Monday 17October2007, around 930am...

It's been more than three weeks since I've taken the short walk down the beach to the mouth of Redwood Creek. (And precisely one month since I've chronicled it here.) Three weeks of bullshit government bureaucracy, cranky weather, short days caused by my post-work p.m. schedule, and general early fall sloth. But today I took the time seein' as how the visitors were few and we had a little extra help at the Visitor Center with the surprise arrival of one of our volunteers.

9:30 marks the morning's low tide. The slope to the surf is steep, the edges of the last high tide etched in a fresh line of waterlogged driftwood. The first real storm of the season came last Wednesday in a 2.5" soaker. Scattered showers over the weekend added more wet to the coast along with a good downpour early this morning. But now there's a nice break in the showers, a slight cool breeze from the south, and even a few patches of blue highlighting the varying shades of gray blanketing the sky.

A flock of maybe 60 Canada geese in an enormous V fly high overhead. Two smaller Vs of six and seven geese each fly inside the larger formation. There are just a few honkers in the group making me wonder if there are designated talkers in a flock of flying geese, those shouting out directions or encouraging the stragglers, or if they are simply the chatty Cathys of the bunch.

Walking north in the wet sands near water's edge, the sound of fall's stormy surf captures my attention. Visually, the waves are higher than they've been in the past couple of weeks, maybe eight to ten foot swells cresting and running to the shore in 10 second increments. But what I've not really noticed before is that it's the retreating waves dominating the soundscape. Close your eyes, as I do now, and you hear the upward trilling of the wave as it slides up and back down the coarse sands. The low drumming of the cresting waves further out are the background bass to the more lyrical run-up and back-down of each wave.

As the retreating waves slide back to the sea, they provide a smooth floor for the next wave to roll up the slope. There's a visual tension between advancing and retreating forces that slows and controls both their progress. Where the sandy slope angles to one side or the other, the diagonally backing waters force a spouting line of white foam in the full length of the incoming wave.

Approaching the mouth, the familiar flock of gulls and pelicans rest at the apex of the waveslope. They're not doing much of anything. A few sit. A few stand. And a few wander between the crowds. The pelicans bail out as I approach, the dozen or so of them bouncing three times in the sand as they build up wing speed enough to lift their bulbous bodies up and over the waves to nearby sea stacks.

There are more immature gulls out here than a few weeks ago. Dark brown and mottled, one with a nearly black head, another with dark rings around his eyes (a teen who stayed out too late perhaps?). They are western gulls, just young ones without the distinctive, clean white and gray markings of their elders.

The mouth of the creek is indeed open now. I'd been told it opened after last Wednesday's two-an-a-half inches of rain, but now I can tell y'all that I've been there and seen it for myself. I've always loved this point of clashing contact between river and ocean. The steady push of creek water is easily traced all the way into the crashing waves. The pulse of each ocean wave forces sea water over the rushing fresh water into the estuary behind the sand. In between, swirling eddies and ragged waves decorate this meeting of two worlds.

A western gull perches on a dark rock in the middle of the two watery worlds. Throughout the hour I spend in and around here, he (she?) doesn't leave, standing as a sentry on his small-scale Rock of Gibraltar.

Three seals slide in and out of this middle ground, surfing outward with the river's surge into the Pacific, and swimming back to the estuary in the calm eight foot- deep channel underneath the roiling swells.

This is my favorite corner of the beach, and love to be down as close to this joining of fresh and salt water as common sense and dry sand allow. The hazards of this spot are brought back to me suddenly when I hear water rushing in around the corner of the elevated sandspit to where I stand, my back momentarily to the ocean, eyes staring at the estuary. The water swells in the narrow channel as I scamper quickly to a higher spot of sand. My footprints are quickly erased from the wet sand, before the wave is spent and the water returns to its narrow channel. While never in any real danger of embarking on my own watery journey this time, I'm reminded that this transition zone is best left to loftable gulls and slippery seals, not slow-footed, Gore-tex booted rangers in heavy green jeans.

The estuary behind the sand spit is quiet and calm save for the occasional pulse of water from the overriding sea. The opening of its path to the Pacific has drained the estuary and its shores are perhaps 15 feet lower than they were last month. The south estuary that wrapped in behind the levee'd walls of the creek's mainstem is dry now. A flock of gulls bathe in the freshwater, furiously flapping their wings splashing water high above their heads, rocking side to side, and dipping their heads in and out of the water's surface.

A solitary egret, white and tall, stands in the rocks along the levee's edge, still, unmoving, waiting.

One pelican floats quietly, a few yards north of the splashing gulls. Just watching.

I wander up the backside of the sandspit through the piles of driftwood and back to the surf. It's just over an hour since I started this morning's saunter, but the wave heights have increased dramatically. Another storm is anticipated tonight or tomorrow that will swell the waves upwards to 15 to 20 feet high. My footprints from an hour ago are gone as the rising tide eliminates all evidence of this morning's walk.

Gray skies still dominate though small patches of blue appear between the grays allowing quick flashes of sun to hit the beach. The breeze has definitely picked up a tad.

A most glorious morning.

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