Boats, Camping, documenting nature, nature study, Summer

The Edge of the Sea in Tomales Bay

07.19.10 | 81 Comments

When I was a child, my father took my on many outdoor expeditions but they all were very close to home, and home was central Texas. I became a young expert of the post oak savannah, in particular. I also knew the pineywoods of Beaumont and the rice field habitat, because that was home to my grandparents.Beyond a 50 mile radius of either home the world was more or less a mystery, and I didn’t care.  I certainly spent little time near the seashore, save for a few crabbing trips along the shores of Galveston Bay every summer with my family. I was afraid of being in water deeper than my chest; it brought me primal fear of being eaten like no other experience did, so I avoided the ends of mile-long jetties later, when spincasting for mackerel and I never entertained swimming in the ocean, let alone surfing, because of my fear of tiger sharks. But this did not mean that the Gulf, and later the oceans, would not be my most enduring source of inspiration. So now, thirty years later, my outdoor sweet spot where I try to spend most of my time and certainly most of my time with my children, is not necessarily oak savannah (which we also have here in the hills surrounding us) but in and along the many edges of the Pacific Ocean. Over time my children have watched me grow less and less afraid of this previously unknown and formidable place.


With our canoe and our kayak and our surfboards, bit by bit we have clocked hours atop muddy estuaries, shallow grassflats and deep, tranquil kelp forests, teeming with life. Tomales Bay is a perennial favorite of ours for the habitat variety, the seclusion, the creepy tule elk calls during rutting season, the adrenaline in paddling in the open among great white sharks, the playful sea otters, the bioluminescence, and sometimes, when the current is just right (or wrong, depending on who you ask), for the beautiful flotsam.

Sea nettles. They’re all up in Tomales Bay right now. You can’t stick an oar in the water without whacking one of these frilly, painful basketball-sized jellyfish. But there they are, for who knows what reason, and there we were, slackjawed and amazed by their grace and quiet resignation as they drifted there along the lower rungs of the food chain.

Beautiful Dead

Many landed along the beach where we set up camp. Being a lover of transparent layers, I crouched down and poked and stared at the dead nettles while the boys helped their father build a fire. I halfway expected a tentacle to spring up and inject my thigh with a neurotoxin-laced nematocyst, but it just laid there, all those layers of coiled potential energy.

Once, A Flowering Tree

Lest we forget that our beach is subject to tidal fluctuations, this fallen tree at Pita Beach, where we camped, flew the colors of low tide. Naturally, we are used to the blunt edge of the Pacific. California truly dips straight down into the ocean in places, and Tomales Bay is no exception, as it happens to straddle the San Andreas faultline, that deep furrowed brow on the face of California.

During the night, Ford became miserably uncomfortable from a pulled hamstring muscle, and moaned for hours in his incapacity to find a comfortable resting position. In one brief 15 minute interlude when he was able to sleep, I managed to paddle out into the black abyss and stir up some sparkling plankton soup, which never ceases to amaze me. All alone in the void, I feel simultaneously terrified and gobsmacked with joy. Is this how the sea otter feels, always somersaulting and playing on the edge of danger?

Though this boat-in camping trip was ultimately not without its share of headaches, we successfully managed to expose the boys to a little pelagic goodness without leaving the continental shelf.

We also saw  river otters!

river otters!

That’s one merit badge closer to Eagle, in Boy Scout currency. In the context of parenthood, I’m closer to The Parent I Want To Be. You care about that which you know, and nature is no exception. If I raise engineers or linguists or musicians, they are incomplete before being, first, stewards of the earth. And any wild place, be it the space in the crack in the sidewalk where the dandelions grow or the space on the continent where it is folding in on itself and swallowing swarms of jellyfish and human fear–any wild place is food for that hungry part of our human soul. If the boys aren’t getting themselves lost out there in the thick of those wild spaces, then I make sure it happens. I continue to do this, in all honesty, for myself too.


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