Saturday, August 01, 2015

POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE: Sublime Sensations, Sweet Serenity and Sun-Baked Solitude on the Great Beach

"Mother, Mother Ocean, I have heard you call" . . . the nostalgic lyric from Jimmy Buffet's classic '74 album AIA is blaring on the CD player, keeping rollicking company as you cruise splendidly and freely, unobstructed by traffic, toward your destination and call for today. Mother, Mother Pacific Ocean! Long overdue, it's time to explore the fantastic and remote Great Beach defining Point Reyes National Seashore and emblematic of its mystical charm and allure, where the lone and level sands stretch far away in both directions . . .

Waking up to fog and mist, you figure more of the same awaits in secluded western Marin County where the famous peninsula, born of dynamic geological processes, unpredictable weather and mercurial ocean currents, is situated. Fully expecting a fogged in day, often typical of the region in July, you're heartened to see patchy clouds give way to brilliant early morning sunshine heralding a mild blue sky windless day. And what a relief, for those whipping zephyrs so often are a deal breaker on the Great Beach. That, and intolerable sun exposure. All day long, all day strong, the splendid California sun beats down on you with no respite or escape or mercy . . .

It's barely 9 a.m., and the parking lot at Abbotts Lagoon trail head is devoid of cars, miraculously so, and pretty much remains that way all morning. The people factor (except for you!) is non-existent! Well, okay, it is the Monday after the Fourth of July holiday weekend, but in world-famous Point Reyes National Seashore, a parking lot on any given day with zero cars is an unheard of thing. And yet here you are, a quick hour fifteen drive from Berkeley, arriving at a place you last explored a decade ago, finally, at long last, returning today, alone, to know it for the first time. Much to your delight and surprise, for the next several hours you are the soul representative of the human race - nobody in sight for miles upon literal miles.
Clear, vibrant light characterizes an abundant world of wild flowers dotting hillsides, old growth coastal scrub carpeting rolling landscapes, fancy sword ferns adding decorative touches here and there, and always the tantalizing promise of catching a glimpse of the many animals who live here.

The most visible and active residents are the birds, out in force this morning, flirting, feeding, flying, looking like they're having lots of fun, mostly. Sparrows playing hide 'n seek in the bushes and tag on the fence rows. Spirited crows - or are they ravens? - blustering about acting like bullies. California Quail strutting out from beneath a sage bush, waddling right up like cute little pets, not wild creatures more often scared silly by human encounters. The handsome couple is not in the least concerned with you. In fact, with almost comical expressions, they fearlessly size you up before shuttling off with their little ones taking care of the more important business of ground foraging.

Fifty feet down the trail, out steps from the brushy cover an adolescent deer, miniature antlers poking up like some weird bonsai plant growing out of his skull, casting a glance of cautious recognition or perhaps curious acknowledgement. Inspecting but not fearing you, the interloper, you pause, awestruck at the early morning cervine rendezvous, hoping not to create a disturbance.

Eyes lock, staring one another down for a good ten seconds. Suddenly, three of his hidden family members - buck, doe and sibling - appear and quickly bound out of sight into a land providing little cover, but they blend right in with the chaparral like brush of the treeless terrain. Little Bambo, however, holds his ground, continuing to eyeball you with quizzical intent, as though trying to determine if you're harmless or threatening. Perhaps he's attempting to place where or if he's ever seen such a funny looking thing before. Chances are, you are his first encounter of the kind wild deer instinctually know to avoid and fear.
With bird activity blitzing and dragonflies and bees buzzing from flower to flower, and millions of photos to take, the morning unfolds lackadaisically with no rush to things, no particular time table and certainly no pre-planned GPSed coordinated destination in mind. No map, just this wide open splendid territory to explore leisurely, the only agenda being to walk your leisurely walk and squelch your yammering talk.
The trail wends through lovely coastal foothill terrain, home to brush and jackrabbits, black-tailed deer, weasels, raccoon, bobcats, coyotes and mountain lion. Although rarely seen, you can feel their presence lurking in this pristine wilderness. Every which way you turn, beauty abounds and stretches to seeming infinity. A wide open exotic world of deserty hill formations, extensive brush habitat, and in the distance, a bright blue sparkling gem contrasting against brown sand dunes - a swathe of the fresh water lagoon awaiting exploration.

You don't progress too far too quickly, waylaid as you are by bunny rabbit and gopher snake sightings mixed in with dozens among the hundreds of bird species found here captivating your attention flitting and feeding and flying about. It takes nearly forty minutes just to reach the upper fresh water lagoon, a mere mile from the trail head, so absorbed are you by the magnificent panoply of life bursting with vitality and energy on this bright early morning in paradise.
Where you happen to be the only human being within miles. Knowing that Abbotts Lagoon is a magnet attracting hundreds on any given day, the feeling of walking solo, undisturbed along the pretty trail, is a sensation of unfolding bliss every step of the way. Not that you're a misanthrope or anything. But for the next three hours, until around noon, you don't encounter, see, come upon, hear or engage another person along this popular thoroughfare of humanity normally making the trek to the lagoon and beach to check out the unparalleled natural world awaiting. Not that you want to deny anyone their own primal experience and pleasure out here. But, today - THIS IS ALL YOURS!

Though things have a familiar look and feel, the heavenly surroundings have an exotic appeal as a quiet and safe refuge for animals and birds, and a soulful retreat for humans seeking primal experiences and raw beauty. (Just you for now.) The only thing being constant is the brutal unrelenting sun exposure. Be prepared for zero shade. Sun stroke and heat exhaustion are distinct possibilities, so come armed with hat, shades, (natural) sunscreen, and, if you wish to spend a lot of time lounging about here, bring an umbrella for shelter, since it will be your only recourse. Luckily, it's still a gentle morning and the sun is your friend.
To your surprise, this amazingly pretty place is also absent of noise! Not just the human chattering and blathering of the social interaction kind, but of a much less benign sort - industrial noise. You'd just read a piece about how the FAA is re-routing jet traffic over Point Reyes National Seashore to ease up congestion at the Bay Area's three primary airports. According to park scientists, it's a terrible plan, and every living thing will suffer. Wildlife's ability to cope, defend, and breed will be impaired and compromised, not to mention overhead noise being a major bummer for humans seeking a pristine experience free of aural pollution and unnatural sounds.

Like the fog layer you'd been expecting, you also braced for a barrage of overhead jet rumblings. But, thankfully, with the exception of a lonesome, distant hum of a single-engine plane that quickly dies down, not one jumbo jet passes over head. Also, during moments of serenity and reverie, you reflect on the history of Abbotts Lagoon - not millennial long passages of idyllic time when Coast Miwok tribes flourished in this land of plenty - but more recently when the place served as a bombing range / target practice area for Alameda Naval Air Station pilots from 1941 to 1952 until it was finally designated a part of Point Reyes National Seashore heritage in 1962. Oh, how the times have changed . . . and may continue to change!
The lagoon grows larger with each step, now a prominent body of surreal cerulean water against a glinting backdrop of coastal dunes textured and colored by marine sedimentary layers upchucked millions of years ago. Looking high above, you see a black-shouldered White Kite flying away with a hapless fish clutched in razor-sharp yellow talons. A few minutes later, you hear another cry from the heavens and see a second Kite plying the blue skybelt, this time with a freshly-caught song bird dangling mortally in his grip off to feed the young 'uns with eager mouths agape in some recondite nest.
At a small bridge connecting the fresh-water and brackish lagoon segments, you scare up a Northern Harrier at the water's edge, noting his distinctive white band across his large fan tail. Across the way, on  an isolated spit of land with looming cliffs, a curious, languorous deer peers out from around the bend.

 You stop in your tracks to marvel at the dazzling tableau of blinding azure water amid scrubby and picturesque coastal sand dunes. Through binoculars, you spot a troupe of American White Pelicans congregating on a sandy bar. These stately birds are among the largest of their kind, weighing up to 25 pounds with wing spans stretching 9 feet; they're quite graceful in mien and movement despite their awkward looking appearance as half aquatic / half land creatures.
All About Birds describes them as having "thick bodies, short legs, and short, square tails" and unlike their gray cousins, they do not dive bomb for fish. You'd think by looking at them they could never get off the ground, but once air borne, oh boy, they are soarers par excellence, traveling great distances in elegant formation, giant wings flapping in rhythmic slow motion. Their gathering presence up and down the Central California Coast is a promising indicator "that an El Niño is gaining muscle this summer" writes Tom Stienstra in a recent SF Chronicle Outdoors piece, "Word from the Wild."
You get as close to them as possible, keeping your respectable distance, intrigued watching them synchronize into an elegant conga line of white ethereal sails floating through a narrow channel in the lagoon. No doubt you disturbed them, but what are ya gonna do. Payback comes in the form of a band of distinctive pelagic hunters - Caspian Terns - flying overhead and shrieking up a storm. With their black head caps and long sharp pointed orange beaks, they mount a vigorous aerial assault in defense of their breeding turf. It takes a few dumbfounded moments for you to realize you're intruding in their space. One by one, they swoop down on you like something evil out of Hitchcock's The Birds when you get too close for their liking.

You back off and give them some room, removing your heavy hiking boots, savoring the cool soft squishy sand beneath your feet, lacing them together and flinging them over your shoulder, carrying on, splashing about in the lagoon with the wide open beach just ahead. You can hear her roar but the only blue you see is lagoon and sky below the shelf of sand hiding the ocean's massive contours. And still you're all very much alone, very much feeling lost in time, very much, you imagine, like when Coast Miwok peoples hunted, fished and lived in these parts for thousands of years, undisturbed . . . until . . . Drake and his picaroons passed by, dropped anchor, and changed things forever.
Suddenly, you're standing on the edge of the continent, facing a void of cerulean infinity, staring out at crashing white breakers and roiling surf, filled with humility and trembling with insignificance at the awestruck scale of things. It's as though you're seeing the ocean for the first time. You and your puny little self, all alone, confronting this epic ocean spectacle.

An uncharacteristically calm ocean prevails, with the pleasantest of breezes tickling the freshest of faintly moist air tinged with an appetizing hint of briny ocean aroma. Normally, the punishing winds are lashing and blowing sand about like piercing needles in your flesh, but not today. Despite the sun heating things up with every passing minute, it's a flawless, perfect day as you could ever hope for.
And, still, not a single solitary person (except for you!) or sound of the mechanized world. The only evidence of human interference in this preternaturally primitive world is a roped off barrier to protect the endangered Snowy Plover while they breed, and a lone fishing boat bobbing a few hundreds yards offshore, a tiny reminder that you have not gone back 2000 years in time. All you can do is stand there in reverential awe, gawking at the immensity of it all, gazing up and down the 11 miles stretch of emptiness from south at the Point Reyes Light Station in the Gulf of the Farallones to the northern terminus of the Great Beach at big, bold, wild Tomale's Point where a friend once told you he spotted a mountain lion on the great rock off the tip at land's end where sea lions lumber ashore to rest in - presumable - safety.
You take in the splendor with huge gulps of fresh air while balancing in mountain pose and sun salutation, then drop into a downward dog (not that you do Yoga by any stretch of the imagination) to lengthen the spine and assess your withering energy. You drop down to your knees finally, in a genuflecting acknowledgment of the raw power and sacred moment. You, alone, in this wild and infinite, blue, green, aqua marine and all colors in between world of vivid, visceral sensations at truly spectacular at Point Reyes National Seashore, one of the world's great marine natural heritages.
Before bidding Abbotts Lagoon adieu, you're determined to check out the dune topography. Despite the delicate nature and endangered plants of the arenaceous ecosystem, it's an area open to exploration and tromping around to your heart's content. The otherworldly dunes are reminiscent of some ancient dried up inland sea in New Mexico or somewhere. You climb up to a "pinnacle" about 30 feet high affording expansive views up and down the coast, bereft of signs of civilization. Scanning all directions, it's as close as you will find to a pure natural state with only primal sounds emanating in the gorgeous three sixty scenery. You close your eyes and imagine the world as it once was: wind rustling, waves lapping, birds crying, sand squeaking, head ringing and ears buzzing. Suddenly an industrial sound, not too, too bothersome, intrudes - the gentle purr over the ocean roar of the fishing boat. Soon drowned out by shifting your position leeward.

Your inner little kid is fully unleashed as you clamber around aimlessly on the dunes exploring this strange new landscape for the first time. (How'd you miss it in prior visits?) There's a lot of territory to cover, and  mobilizing over patchy layers of shifting sand proves to be a sapping activity under the sun, growing hotter by the minute. Off in the distance you're intrigued by a blanket of sand the size of four football fields above the lagoon, again more reminiscent of Death Valley or White Sands than coastal California. But of course, this kind of dunescape once was extensive up and down the coast, today reduced to mere protected pockets, remnants of once great coastal stretches of ecologically important and sensitive dune habitat.

You come upon big piles of ice plants, gathered up by park volunteers for eradication due to its invasive nature threatening to take over and oust native plants, thereby further debilitating the dune's natural ability to shift and morph. Such a fascinating place, you could hang here for another hour, but the sun, beating down relentlessly, forces you to move on to your next destination.

In your earlier enthusiasm, you were hoping to bag a trifecta of the five named beaches along the undeveloped 11 mile stretch of Great Beach. Abbotts Lagoon, check. Next up, Kehoe Beach, and hopefully, after that, McClure's Beach a few miles down Pierce Point Road at the Tomales Point trail head. At Kehoe Beach, a little roadside pull-over, you wonder if you've just teleported to the Garden Isle, it's so appealing in an exotic, unfamiliar way.
Crazy but true - it's your first visit to Kehoe. How can that be, in thirty years of visiting Point Reyes? Just goes to show you how big a place it is, and so often the case, you return to the tried and true, the places outstanding in your mind as being the most beautiful and rife with adventure and possibilities. Which, of course, is every place on the San Andreas fault-rived peninsula of unrivaled bio-diversity where a multitude of natural features shape rich ecosystems of intertidal and subtidal zones, marsh, delta, ria, and forest, ocean and prairie and grasslands - habitats sheltering  38 threatened and endangered species.
Kehoe is one whopper of a beach, approached via a half-mile trail affording splendid views of the surrounding countryside and little hint of the pelagic pageant awaiting. The roiling surf appears as you crest a narrow slot in a duney rise. Suddenly, you're up and over and facing the endless shore - a staggering vision of blue and white infinity. By now, nearly 1 pm, the sun has been blistering you to the point of exhaustion, with little cloud cover, but you can't pass up a romp at Kehoe.
To the left, a sweet little riparian scene awaits for the rebound, but first, to the right, a quarter mile stroll along the beach beckons all the way to the next beach - McClure's - it seems so close as the crow flies - but in reality it would take all day, especially at your snail's pace.

The gigantic ridge fronting a mile or more of the beach is impressive for its sculptural hodge-podge of intense faulting intermixing sandstone and granite rock to create unusual formations with little niches to escape the sun but you're averse to trudging up to them across the hot sand and opt to stick by the refreshing water letting gently crashing waves lap into your thighs.
With each receding tide, dozens of sand crabs are stirred up, little critters who quickly dig themselves back into the sand to avoid predators. Gazing out at the infinite seascape, you're blown away by the raw power of Mother Mother Pacific Ocean. Along the Great Beach, a wicked undertow, combined with devastating sneaker waves and inescapable rip currents, will take your life in a heartbeat if you're not careful. Today, though, it seems so very calm and gentle, but the illusion is short-lived as a big wave rolls in out of nowhere and nearly knocks you on your ass. So much for romantic spacing out.
By now, you're really flagging, but have just enough energy to drag yourself back to the mouth of the creek. It's a slow-moving, languid, algae-ridden stream that invites exploration along its banks. Huge strands of chartreuse plant material festoon the bed, giving the place a prehistoric feeling; tiny cliff faces and here and there a deep stagnant pool attract patrols of red and blue damselflies, and a couple of Black Phoebes looping in the air nabbing mouthfuls of gnats swarming about.

You plop down beside a log in the sand - still no shade - and take in the big California littoral scene where the creek rolls on giving way to a stand of impenetrable reeds. The never before seen scene appears as exotic as a tule choked marsh in Mulege . . . and you're still all alone - no wait! You see the first humans of the day sitting on the trail bench where you're now making your way back to the car.

McClure's Beach will have to wait another day, not that's it's going anywhere. You've been there recently, so you don't feel too, too badly about missing the wild and primitive shore this time. But you are too exhausted and sun-baked to care after several walkabout hours of beachcombing and romping.

It's been a memorable day replete with no great accomplishments, really, only small unheralded adventures that might not rank up there on some thrill-seeker's scale of fun, but still, a shake up your world day to remember, filled with quiet reflection and small miracles and great intrigue at every turn. All of which draws you back to Point Reyes National Seashore time and time again to bask in Mother Nature's heartrending beauty and confront her visceral elements on an earthly-cosmic scale worthy of several barbaric yawps - is anyone around to hear them? - in the land of sublime sensations, sweet serenity, and sun-baked solitude.

Bonus footage of Great Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore:

http://youtu.be/fOHZliYPezs

Bonus footage of American White Pelicans and Caspian Terns at Abbotts Lagoon:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiu-_b9oWJo

See the complete Flickr album https://flic.kr/s/aHskf6jv8o

Check out other Gambolin' Man posts of Point Reyes National Seashore @

http://gambolinman.blogspot.com/2010/01/pt-reyes-national-seashore-94-mile-hike.html

http://gambolinman.blogspot.com/2008/05/pt-reyes-national-seashore-whiling-away.html

http://gambolinman.blogspot.com/2008/02/pt-reyes-national-seashore-ten-mile.html

http://gambolinman.blogspot.com/2006/09/pt-reyes-national-seashore-8-mile-out.html