Birds, Boats, nature study

Paddling up Elkhorn Slough

02.22.09 | 13 Comments

In 2007 on Thanksgiving day, I floated with a handful of other surfers in Capitola, waiting for swells. The bull kelp was a thick forest below at low tide, snaking between our legs and boards. We compared dinnertimes while sloshing wet cords of the slimy cable off our boards, yanking our legs up out of slick knots of the kelp, some of us whining. Finally, the swells came and lifted us higher, releasing our feet. I paddled shoreward ahead of a wave and could have popped up if another hank of the kelp hadn’t snared my fins. Instead: the big heave up, swallowing the beachline, and back down again, a pair of lucky grommits passing my nose shoreward. Swell, paddle, snag, repeat. And again. Eventually I just paddled to the outside and hung out over the forest, picking up kelp crabs and placing them on my board so I could watch them up close. The water was rust red. I couldn’t see my feet below me. The ocean’s edge was in the middle of an algal bloom.

Algal blooms are caused by overfertilization and runoff. This may sound like an oversimplification but in our particular case, Monterey Bay is a watershed for the Salinas Valley, where all of your favorite produce originates, from artichokes to strawberries. Some of the farms there produce organic crops, but most of them do not, and the bay reflects this like litmus paper.

Spring has arrived early in the marsh. Buffleheads chase each other and fly in tense arcs around the canoe. Yellow mustard blankets the hills all the way to the mud. There is a lot to this season that goes unnoticed above the water; the bulk of the activity indeed takes place from the water level and downward, into feet of thick mud. What you can’t see with your eyes you can feel in your gut, this place is a nursery for most of the Pacific that swells beneath me. It is a primal, sinuous place of renewal. The success of the marsh lies in its ability to break down organic matter into detritus, which is then consumed by filter feeders, deposit feeders, other omnivores and scavengers, creating a massive producer-consumer food web that ultimately links birds, fish and humans together into inevitable trinity. Marshes have evolved as habitat capable of brief periods of dessication and inundation, sharp fluxes in salinity, and the brute footprint of man. Moreover, scientists have estimated that a healthy salt marsh produces ten times as much oxygen and carbohydrate biomass per acre as a wheat field.

Doing the hard work of filtration in this scenario is Elkhorn Slough.

Sicore crew

It has been raining much of the week and the boys, by measure of the sheer amount of fighting under our roof, evidently needed a getaway. Our sea legs were itching but there are, quite likely, one hundred more reasons I could give for want of a marsh paddle in early spring, so there we went.

putting in at Elkhorn Slough

The mud is thick and it swallows your feet, then your legs. It is rich, black as pitch and smells sludge-salty but sweet, mixed with the slow-hovering funk of chum.

you can't imagine

A black-necked stilt navigates the mud fluently and like a jackhammer it probes from the mud tiny crustaceans and worms.

black-necked stilt
marbled godwits, black-necked stilt
marbled godwits, black-necked stilt

snowy egret

A regal snowy egret, on the other hand, slinks about, spearing small fish and crabs.

The living, invisible world beneath us seems separate, from the vantage of the big red canoe.

harbor seal

Until a young harbor seal pup emerges to play. He dives about for food, himself. One moment he is playfully undulating in the shallow water, and then KERSPLASH!

harbor seal playing in the shallows

Maybe he catches something? Or maybe he is just having fun. Under the boat he slinks and emerges again, on the opposite bank of the slough.

Chas taunts Ford in the canoe, and Ford fights back, and the steady calm of the marsh at dusk starts echoing shrill chirps and warnings from the shorebirds. The slower we paddle, the more they bicker, but the minute we paddle with focus, the ride becomes meditation, a gentle left-right dance. You just have to learn the format and adjust expectations, and a little laughter goes a long way.

Elkhorn Slough from Stephanie Sicore on Vimeo.

The city of Arcata, California flushes with pride, having built, by its engineers, 154 acres of marshes, lagoons and ponds to cleanse the waste water generated by the town’s 15,000 citizens. There, the litmus paper reflects the opposite color of man’s efforts, and thousands of plant and animal species reinhabit the shallow coastline to live symbiotically with us again. Brown water turns emerald and then a deep, thoughtful blue and that water surges beneath you to the oceans pulse. Looking down, you wiggle your feet and watch startled fish scatter back into the kelp forest. Really, the only way to appreciate the beauty of this is to be out there, yourself. This is perhaps the ultimate reason we expose the boys like this as much as we possibly can.

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