11 November 2007

The first fish

Late Thursday afternoon, 08November2007

It’s late on Thursday afternoon, one of my all-too-rare days to get down the mouth twice in a day. We closed up the building shortly after 4pm. For a change, I have nothing to run home to do – no soccer, no basketball - and lacking any desire to spend my final working hour in an square white office in the darkening village of Orick, I ask my fellow ranger to lock me in behind the gate…I’m a-gonna take a walk on the beach.

I knew as soon as my feet hit sand that the evening was to be memorable. Pockets of pink and blue have appeared in the formerly solid gray sky. The beach is wet well above the normal high tide line, with several long, bowed damp incursions almost up to the dune grass. Somewhere during the afternoon, the tide had risen incredibly high and at least a couple long running waves had invaded beyond the high point of the beach and running back down towards the vegetation. Sneaker waves possibly? ‘Tis the season.

But now, approaching 4:30pm and very nearly the day's second low tide, the beach lay exposed far below what I’ve seen in a long time. From where I’d walked earlier in the day, the beach stretched westward another 20 or 30 yards. Long expanses of glistening pebbles of gray, green, black, white, and brick red litter this lowest of low tide lines. Gazing north to the creek, the smaller twin sea stacks (occasionally known as “the Sisters”) were exposed to the shoreline, a rocky walkway connects them on the north side of the creek to dry land. If I could cross the creek, I could’ve walked out to ‘em. I content myself with tempting the edges of the now-calm waves at surf, excited to think I can walk today where tomorrow I’d be under several feet of water and crushing 6- to 8-foot waves. A Moses in the Red Sea moment in this mild-mannered bureaucrat’s life.

15 brown pelicans surf the air currents above the surf, single file, playing follow-the-leader over the bending waves. Large clusters of double-crested cormorants sit atop the ocean, ducking beneath the occasional breaker. The waves are a translucent green with the last light of a gray afternoon shining through them. Shortly, a second single-file flying march of pelicans cruise southward, their plump silhouettes gliding in front of a pastel gray-pink evening sky.

At the mouth of Redwood Creek, the wave patterns are a bit more erratic. The creek cuts a deep channel in the now-long channel between estuary and ocean…a giant S-curve, perhaps 100 yards long through rarely exposed sand, and full of downward rushing freshwater. The freshly cut sides of the channel quietly erode into the channel. The water eddies and gurgles inside the channel’s curves.

From the channel’s banks, you witness the force of the onrushing creek. The entire floor of the channel slides into the sea. Anything smaller than a golf ball rolls along swiftly, spinning its way to the sea. It’s geology in action, and easy to imagine how mighty canyons are carved over eons.

Standing on the bank, looking back from the calm, draining estuary to the turbulent sea, I notice a splashing in an otherwise calm section of the current. A flapping tail appears above the water. My first salmon of the season fights its way against the current over the very shallow sand hump between ocean and creek. I follow this lone creature as she struggles against the creek, her strong tail pushing her forward against gravity and friction. As the fish breaks into the deeper channel and begins moving more freely, it turns suddenly, right at my feet, and coasts back out to sea.

“Wait!” I say. “Shouldn’t you be going the other way?” I wonder, did the fish see me, flip out and run scared back to the Pacific? Or did she simply enter the wrong channel, or at the wrong time? Was she scouting the channel for others, ensuring they took the right exit off the Pacific Ocean highway? The thought stays with me though, that I may have scared off the first salmon to return to upper Redwood Creek in years. Sure, she was probably heading to the Prairie Creek or Lost Man Creek tributaries, but what if, after years of logging and over-sedimentation, this one fish had finally decided to head further upstream into Redwood Creek, and because of my long green & gray, middle-aged shadow on these freshly cut banks, she determined to head elsewhere?

Damn. (Or is it, “Dam”?) Either way, I'm damn (dam) glad I chose to wander out here than wander through the morass of emails in the office.

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