We were introduced to these toys by the movie Ponyo and hadn’t seen them since, until the other day when our Canadian friends brought us a pair from Toronto. Powered by a tiny candle, these little boats pop-pop around the bathtub as the steam passes through tiny pipes in the hull. It’s an adventure just watching them go, since it takes a fair amount of patience priming the engine and hoping your boat ever starts when your brother’s boat is already on it’s second candle and ramming your boat as you desperately try to warm up the boiler plate…
Speaking of adventures, we have been quietly joyful around here since our return trip home from the Tomales campout. On our way home from the trip, in the car, driving in Sunday afternoon traffic on sunny Van Ness street in San Francisco, we received a life-changing phone call. The technicians had made the official count: we were now carrying a “XX”, a baby girl, due to arrive on January 17th or thereabouts in 2011!
Suddenly, we are the sixth month already, and it has been smooth sailing throughout the pregnancy, so to speak. The best news is that both boys are utterly thrilled!
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.
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.
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!
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.
This year, our annual camping trip to Mono Hot Springs was chalk full of adventures, joyful moments and one swollen San Joaquin River! The water was so high that the original campsite we had reserved was flooded. Luckily we were able to sneak in to another site, and enjoyed the river from high ground. The weather was hot so we spent much of the time in dappled, pine needled shade making bakeries full of tasty sand cookies, washing clothes or other domestic play. However, we did manage to slip in a few Boy’s Almanac activities, none of which were planned and all of which mirrored the imagination of a child and the discovery of the High Sierra.
Seth spied some concrete along the river from which rocks had been dislodged and exclaimed, “Look Mommy, Ohlone grinding rocks!” All year long his teacher has taken the kids on hikes, half of which seem to have acorn grinding rocks along the way. It was nice after a long year of preschool to see that Seth had picked up some useful knowledge that could be applied to his life in the wilderness. At first we looked for pine nuts to grind, but found that the only way to get them loose from the cones was with the pliers on a leather man. This proved far to labor intensive. Instead, we sacrificed some squirrel pillaged walnuts to the pestle. The work of grinding walnuts took a long time, all the while the local squirrel was waiting patiently. Although it is not campsite etiquette to purposefully feed the local wildlife, we did have lot’s of fun watching him scurry and bury with with a fury.
We started reading the Chronicles of Narnia in the spring. Wither the books have peaked Seth’s interest in swords and weaponry, or wither this is just part of being a little boy, we spend much of our time in sword play. Drawing seems to be a good way to calmly channel this energy. Seth is perfectly happy to stop mid battle to sit down and draw. He has a “book” he is working on. Making drawings for the story is great way to give his knight in shining armor some down time, and allow mommy dragon to get dinner prepared.
Last year I wove little reed mats for the kids out of cat tails (rafts). I stumbled across Seth making this funny thing out of reeds. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me he was making a raft. I was mildly surprised that he had made this connection, and it was pleasant to watch him manipulating the reed and getting a feel for the material. In the end it was a tangled pile, but the process seemed fruitful, and one step closer to understanding the basic principles of weaving organic matter.
This year we took the water taxi from The Vermilion Valley Resort on Edison Lake. I was hoping that we could make it the 1.4 miles in to the John Muir trail, but we only made it about half way (Seth is a binary hiker and that day was a 0). After the whining abated we spent the rest of the afternoon playing in the streams in and around the mouth of Mono Creek. This turned out to be perfect, because there was a mama Merganser and babies who were hanging out too! There is nothing better than having a legit excuse to use your binoculars for hours of elapsed time. Returning to view your subjects at your leisure every few minutes. The babies were having lots of fun speeding along the shore, waddling as fast as possible around the granite, and getting into all sorts of trouble. The cutest part of all was too far for the camera to capture. The clouds rolled in and we heard concentrated chatter from across the river. Mama duck was squatting feathers splayed with all the babies underneath. All you could see was a cuddly pile under her “floofed” wings that wiggled and chattered while she napped in the breeze.
The Mono Valley is filled with non poisonous water snakes. The kids kept a keen eye out for them because they seemed to pop up everywhere. Seth even fashioned a snake “fishing pole”. It consisted of his pocket knife with the blades out, attached to a piece of twine. He could be found lowering it into all manner of water “fishing” for snakes.
The perpetually busy Dragon flies were our constant companions. Other creatures were busy in the midsummer too. The Violet Green swallows were hard at it on the river dipping for insects or a drink (I could never figure out which). Swallow Tail butterflies flitted all about the hot spring mud. We slipped along behind them, examining the wings of those who had expired with relative interest and relishing the joy of those in the peak of life. The most examined creature of the trip was the lady bug. For several days there was a swarm of ladybugs at the start of the road to Dorris Lake. Although we get to handle ladybugs at school, Seth was riveted none the less and grabbed bug after bug from the wild roses for a closer look.
We did a fair amount of casting, but this trip was really about feeding the fish. Once the kids discovered that the fish liked peanut butter and jelly crusts the frenzy was on. The masses of minnows provided a super hands on “fishing” experience as the kids tried to catch them with their hands, gleeful in the wildness of the situation.
The most sentimental phenomena of the trip was the return of the camping fairy. Last year the camping fairy had come in the night and left some nature maps and a fishing pole for Seth. It was supposed that her house was under a Snow plant near our campsite. This was confirmed by the presence of the Snow plant on the “Plants of the Yosemite Valley” field guide. This year Seth was quick to point out every snow plant and announce happily that another camping fairy was near by. In our attempt to reach real back country and the John Muir we saw camping fairy houses galore. At one point Seth saw a little one and a big one and exclaimed, “look, a mommy and a baby camping fairy house!” ~ little boys are the best @%#!
Enthusiasm was inherent on this trip, as evidenced by Seth performing his California Grizzly impersonation below. I hope your summer camping trip is as joy filled as ours was. Until next year Mono Hot Springs!