Some time ago I borrowed a canoe from my friends Gail and Keith to paddle across Drakes Estero to Sunset Beach. I told them about that trip, and about the trip Marty and I made to the same beach from Limantour Estero. They have long been interested in going on that trip but we have never arranged a time until now. What clinched it for Keith was when I told him about the trip to Sunset Beach when I brought my wetsuit and went snorkeling in the beautiful rocky area north of the beach. It turns out that Keith maintains a native salt water tank at the Bird Rescue Center in Santa Rosa, and enjoys tide pooling to collect specimens for the tank. The thought of seeing the marine life nose-to- nose convinced him that it was time to finally come out with me. I also wanted to go out to Sunset Beach one more time this year before the Estero was closed to kayaks and canoes for the harbor seal pupping season. (Starting March 15th). We picked May 5th because there was a low tide predicted in the afternoon. The plan was to paddle out from Limantour Beach in the morning with the falling tide. The low tide would expose Limantour Estero as a mud flat and cut off our route home. But getting marooned on a sandy beach on a sunny day for six hours until the tide returned didn't bother anyone. I figured there would be time for tide pooling, rock hunting, kayak surfing (in the waves coming in from Drakes Bay), catching crabs for lunch, and snorkeling.
When I was at a BASK meeting the week before, there were few trips on the calendar and the president begged for more ideas. I opened up Keith and my trip to bask members and added it to the calendar. Only one new member, Jean-Fancois, had the flexibility to take a weekday off and join us. Gail came along with Keith and a friend of theirs named Tony. I asked Jean-Fancois if we could call him John, and he said yes but he didn't promise to respond. He says in Canada, where many people speak French, nobody bats an eye at a name like his. This started me wondering: Why do we insist on having such short nick-names here in the USA? Most people have names that have two or three syllables in it, but we all insist on having everybody hail us by a single-syllable short version of it. Apparently this is a feature of our own culture that I was not aware of until now.
It has been suggested to me that a four-foot tide is required to get in and out of Limantour Estero from the Limantour Beach parking lot. By showing up at 10:00 AM, we were pushing the best time for this. However, on my trip out here with Marty the tide had been even lower and I didn't see too much of a problem. The water was just deep enough to paddle out if you found the correct channel. Of course, we miss-judged this in one place and ended up getting out to pull the boats across the shallow water into the deeper channel again.
When we got to the last point before Sunset Beach, the tide was really ripping past and out to sea. Apparently the sand had piled up at the normal exit and the current from Drakes Estero was running down the beach before turning out to sea a little south of the normal exit. I worried about Keith and Tony in a canoe, but they made it against the current even with only one paddle. While packing our equipment Gail had asked me why I had an extra paddle in my kayak. I told her about the time I lost my paddle and how having a spare was considered required equipment for the open ocean. Of course we were paddling calm muddy water all day today, and a spare paddle was probably unnecessary. But it was a habit I just couldn't force myself to break. Then Tony broke one of the canoe paddles on a rock, and everyone was glad there was an extra paddle to share for the trip back.
We settled down on Sunset Beach and took out food for a snack, even though it was not lunch time yet. Everyone had brought enough food for themselves and enough to share. We joked that we could camp out here for several days before we would be forced to go home. Unless I was very successful at catching crabs, and then we could stay longer. I have heard that getting cramps from swimming after eating is a myth passed from mother to daughter for centuries. There is no scientific basis for this belief and some evidence that it is incorrect. However, I suggested going rock hunting and tide pooling first so we all went climbing around in the rocks exposed south of the beach. Gail found a large rock, it must have been 15 lbs or more, that had an incredible likeness of a face on it. She wanted to take that and a whale vertebrae home with her, even to the point of convincing Keith to float them home in the canoe. Keith and I both had licenses to catch wildlife. Collecting interesting pebbles at the beach must be an inalienable right by now. Bringing home boulders, however, starts to set off alarms in my head. I convinced them to leave these large items behind, artistically arranged on a driftwood log for the next beachcomber to discover and admire.
Tide pooling was interesting enough that we spent a long time doing that and some people wanted another snack when we came back to base camp. I put on my wetsuit and weights and went to the rocky self north of the beach. This was the area where Marty and I enjoyed tide pooling by just looking over the edge of our canoe as we drifted over. This time of year all the large kelp beds would have died and washed away so I was curious how the marine life was coping. Keith and Tony had rented wetsuits to try out snorkeling and had only one weight belt between the two of them. Both of them had the same gut reaction I had when first contemplating putting on weights in the water: It seems like the worst kind of folly. But even with 25 lbs of weight, Tony discovered that he could not hold himself on the bottom if his life depended on it and he admitted he was glad he brought the belt along.
Before we even got in the water, I saw a gigantic Lemon Sea Cucumber from the shore and pointed it out to the tide poolers who were not gearing up for the water. The first thing I saw when I put my face in the water was the orange fringe of a small rock scallop, a local animal I have heard about but never seen before. Later I found a large rock scallop and managed to pry it off to add to my lunch. With so much to see, we spent hours in the water without realizing it. I had expected the tide to slack at 2:15 PM, perhaps 50 minutes earlier according to the Tide Log corrections for Point Reyes. But the tidal current running past these rocks stayed strong all afternoon. In the shallow water I could not engage my flippers well enough to paddle against the current, and ended up pulling myself through the water from rock to rock with my hands. Sometimes I would reach for a rock and discover it was not a stable grip, made out of a pile of kelp. One time I grabbed a rock, and a piece of it came off and grabbed me back! I found an angry kelp crab in my hand who could not hurt me (much) through my gloves but who was a little difficult to dislodge.
I caught one large rock crab, Tony another. Tony found and identified several large females, all loaded with eggs, and let them go. I saw many large crabs sitting on the bottom, only to discover that they were already dead. Perhaps there is a normal yearly die-off of crabs after the yearly die-off of the kelp. This makes me wish I had come out here a month ago so I could have eaten all those large crabs myself before they "went to waste". By the time I warmed up water to cook the two crabs, it was 4:30 and we started packing to leave. I ate my crabs in a hurry with little help, since Jon-Francois turned out to be a vegetarian, Gail couldn't stand the thought of eating someone who she had recently met, and everyone was full from all the great food we had lying around. I didn't have the right tools for opening the shell of my rock scallop, so I held the shell open by cramming a finger or two in it while I tried to slice the muscle. The scallop tried to close on my fingers, hard enough to hurt but not to leave a bruise. The interesting thing was that it did not just clamp down once, but the pressure came in short bursts with a regular period. My report about this as it happened upset Gail and made her unwilling to try the scallop after it was cooked. I found it even more tasty than the crabs. Hunting for your supper on the ocean seems to have a little tinge of Political InCorrectness among most of the kayakers I know. I don't even know any kayakers who talk about fishing with a line and hook off their boats. One of the (many) things that attract me to kayaking is the survival aspect of it. Of course I don't need the protein now, but practicing the skills of gathering my own food seems like a wise thing to do for some future emergency.
The tide went out the whole time we were there, for over six hours, and didn't start back up until after 5:00 PM. When we started back there was a strong tidal current and a gentile breeze, both pushing us in the direction of our cars and home. The sun had disappeared behind some clouds earlier, but came back out underneath them and cast a warm golden sunset glow over our shoulders onto everything we saw.
On the whole trip back up we saw acres of exposed mud on both sides and could easily find the deep channel through it because that was the only place where there was any water. I kept hoping we would rise up the mud flat with the tide. However, we apparently moved faster than the tide and found ourselves paddling against water still flowing OUT from the last high tide! The narrow entrance and twisty channels must make the Estero have its own tidal schedule that is hours different from the open ocean. Eventually we all struck bottom and could no longer paddle. I had chosen to paddle from Limantour Beach this trip because it cuts 4 kilometers off the round trip from Johnson's Oyster Company, and because the scenery along the way is a little more interesting to me. But getting stuck in the mud is worse than a lot of extra paddling. Next time I try this I'll arrange to do it with two cars. We can get in at Limantour at the high tide, and paddle the long way back to Johnson's at any time without having to time or predict the tide.
We could see the old dike that had our exit trail on it, but it was still a kilometer away. The options were to "wait or wade". With the sun about to set everyone opted to wade and climbed out of their boats to slide them across the mud. We tried to keep to the middle of the channel to find a few inches of water to float the boats behind us. In places the mud was a lot deeper than I encountered last trip and we sank up to our calves in it as we slogged forward. In a few places, the water got deep again and we were all tempted one at a time to sit back down and paddle. But these stretches always turned out to be disappointingly short. The sun went down. Eventually the main channel turned into a creek of mud winding through a field of marsh grass.
Jean-Francois pulled ahead of everyone, and suddenly we saw him carrying his Featherlite kayak on his shoulder straight across the marsh grass instead of following the crooked channel. This was not an option for the rest of us, who had too much equipment in their boats for this maneuver. This included 30 LB weight belts in my kayak and Keith's canoe. When his kayak was up to his van, Jean-Francois came back and offered to help the rest of us. The man must be a Saint. I assured him that most BASK trips do not involve this much work. The marsh grass area was discouraging because the creek wound back and forth and made the trip longer than we wished it to be. On one particularly large loop back, we stopped and slid the boats up the bank, across the grass, and back down into the channel again. When we came close to the trail, we abandoned the last loop through the mud and dashed, or rather stumbled and slid, the last short distance. The ordeal was over. Unless you count carrying all that equipment up to the cars, and hours of washing off mud the next morning.