Friday, October 2, 2015

ISLAND IN TIME, TOMALES BAY PART I


"We need to keep some of our vanishing shoreline an unspoiled place, where all men, a few at a time, can discover what really belongs there -- can find their own Island in Time." ---Harold Gilliam

The area outfitter gave us a stern warning. "Weather is moving in. Tomorrow it could be worse." she stated firmly, "We had a lot of rescues over the weekend. If you go out there you might not make it back."
We had all seen the weekend report of fifty-four kayakers on a nocturnal outing being plucked out of Tomales Bay by local fire departments when the conditions suddenly changed. Two were treated for hypothermia after a kayak capsized in the wind and rough seas.
A gray sky hung overhead while two-foot waves pounded Miller Boat Launch at Nick's Cove on the northern section of the bay as we continued unloading our kayaks and gear.  I saw the outfitter's tired eyes looking out over the water watching her crew retrieve kayaks from across the water, remnants of the past weekend's rescue operation. Her crew's motorboat with kayaks in tow seemed to make slow progress across the bay.

 "The little boat, lifted by each towering sea, and splashed viciously by the crests, made progress that in the absence of sea-weed was not apparent to those in her. She seemed just a wee thing wallowing, miraculously, top-up, at the mercy of five oceans." That's how American author Stephen Crane described the ordeal in his short story The Open Boat. The story is based on his own experience of surviving a shipwreck.  In classic literary style he would narrate the tale that seemed to match my view of the motorboat crossing the bay. "As the boat caroused on the waves, spray occasionally bumped over the side and gave them a fresh soaking, but this had no power to break their repose. The ominous slash of the wind and the water affected them as it would have affected mummies."

I looked to the members of our five man party all loading their kayaks with camping supplies. We had all paddled together in San Francisco Bay and camped on Angel Island. The conditions seemed similar, wind, waves and a little current. Nothing we had not paddled together before. "You know what we call a day like this in Minnesota?" I asked the group with a with a smile and then answered quickly not waiting for an answer, "A nice day."
The outfitter shook her and continued with her loading of kayaks. Her warning had disappeared in the wind. We had planned this trip to Tomales Bay for weeks. It was a scouting mission of sorts. We are looking forward to bringing other folks along on a future camp out as part of Bayside Adventure Sports, an active outdoor church group based in Granite Bay, California. The idea was to find a suitable beach for camping and viewing of the bioluminescence along the Point Reyes National Seashore. All we had to do was paddle out past Hog Island to the western side of the bay, about a mile away.
"A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important," Crane observed in The Open Boat in enduring the test of the ocean swells. Loaded full with camping gear, the waves crashed over my bow putting a salty spray in my face. I was the last one trailing behind the others heading into the gusty bay. Memories of paddling the mid-west lakes floated back to me. There wind and waves are common place. I can remember, one windy day on West Lost Lake in Minnesota where I battled whitecaps while paddling along the Otter Tail River chain of lakes. Up and down my kayak bounced along in the same fashion across the bay.

Hog Island sits about five miles south of the entrance of Tomales Bay. Small in nature the uninhabited island covers only two acres, while its next door neighbor Duck Island is even smaller. A haven for wildlife, the islands are managed by the National Park Service as part of the Point Reyes National Park Seashore and access in restricted. However, it did serve as a good rendezvous spot out of the wind as we all paddled between the two islands. Near the western shore of Tomales Bay the wind eased up and the waves ceased. While the other three paddled ahead into the cove with sand colored cliffs called White Gulch, longtime paddling partner Erik Allen cruised the along the shoreline looking for a beach to camp on. From the shore we heard the bugling sound of the tule elk. In the distance we could see them grazing freely in open grasslands and coastal scrub. Once almost wiped out, the elk have returned to Point Reyes and are one of the largest herds in California.

Under the shelter of Tomales Point blocking the winds coming off the Pacific Ocean, the tempestuous bay calms yielding way to smooth paddling along the coastline of the bay. It's a mixture of sandy beaches, high bluffs and thistle plants clinging to the rocks and tall banks. The vegetation huddles close to the ground.  Coyote brush and grasses are the dominant plants on the peninsula. It may look quiet but its home to all the animals, birds and reptiles. Higher up and lining the draws are a full array of Douglas fir, Bishop pine and coastal live oak.

Conservationist and writer Stephen Trimbles
said, "To cross this valley to the peninsula (Point Reyes) is to leave modern California and enter an island of wilderness, forgotten by progress, a quiet land misplaced in a noisy world." We picked out a quiet beach along the coastal prairie almost directly across from the noisy world, where had we started. Pulling our kayaks on to the shore, we pitched our tents in the sand, ate freeze-dried food and watched the tide roll away. The weather and waves and warnings faded into the tranquil sound of the water lapping against the shore. Resting around a beach fire, we found own haven by the bay.


Photos by Erik Allen & Jim Bryla. 
Next week in Outside Adventure to the Max find the magic during a bioluminescence excursion in Tomales Bay.