Wednesday, November 3, 2010

25 Hours

November's here. Rocktober is gone, as is Daylight Savings Time this weekend. The rain has started (although the past three days have been simply spectacular!). The whales are leaving, the blues and humpbacks and fin and minke beginning their long swim to warmer climes. The pelicans are following. Winter is nigh.

Boy-oh-boy, what a summer! What a freaking wild, intense, crazy mother-huncher of a summer. And fall...Hell, make that year. What a freaking wild, intense, crazy mother-huncher of a year!

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Last Saturday I went to The Marine Mammal Center in the Headlands, then came home and watched the boys of October play some baseball (Congratulations, World Champion San Francisco Giants!). My friend Linda had a tour set up for us, a tour of the new multi-million dollar state of the art facility that replaced the old shacks and rickety, chain-link enclosures started in 1975, that was piece-mealed together through the ensuing decades. The facility that stands now, with the new construction complete last year, is the largest such marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation center in the world.

They don't take whales there. Would if they could, probably, but instead host mostly sick or injured sea lions and harbor seals and juvenile elephant seals (the adults are waaaaay too big). Every so often a fur seal, we learned; couple of sea otters; and once even a dolphin, I think.

Here's a link to the MMC website:

I told the woman who led our group around the various buildings, the courtyards and holding pens out back the following story - the condensed version. She was okay as a guide, not fabulous, but it was still a fun visit. Made me remember the incident from 12 years ago.

Read on.

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25 Hours


I drove up to Steep Ravine yesterday with Don and Heidi, Julie and Lori. Steep Ravine is a set of ten environmental cabins and campsites about forty minutes north of San Francisco, a part of Mount Tamalpais State Park. It's just off of and below Highway 1, perched on a tall cliff overlooking the mighty Pacific. Reservations for the site are taken six months in advance; you call for the combination to the gate at the turn-off when your dates arrive, and voila!, have at it. We usually reserve three times a year. So close to SF, but light-years away.

We stayed in cabin #4 this time, the Rocky Point Cabin: one main room plus two bedrooms; no electricity; wood burning stove inside, grill outside; five raised wooden planks for mattresses and sleeping bags; picnic table and benches; a big sliding glass window facing west, the surf pounding away within earshot; a wide, rock-strewn beach just down the path; a counter for meal prep; and when the fog ain't in a big fat-ass sun sinking directly into the ocean. Absolutely beautiful.

Arrived at 4pm as the fog was finally burning off. After unpacking we hiked down to the beach and climbed some rocks and explored. The hillsides are still in the midst of their annual explosion of wildflowers, grass and scraggly brush: sea fig, lupine, buttercups, daisies, calalillies, iris, manzanita, oak and bay, laurel, Indian paintbrush, morning glory. This year the El Nino rain has whipped it all up a notch.  Everywhere the air is scented: a mixture of roasting earth, perfume, herb, brine, decay. It's out of control.

We climbed back up and watched a spectacular sunset from a perch by the cabin, California chardonnay in hand. Watched the hills ignite, the tide come roiling in, pelicans and cormorants dive for food, sea lions patrol the water just offshore. Watched the sky burst into orange and blue and purple and pink. Then, as the sun dipped below the horizon the time was ripe for red wine. And time to fire up the grill. We mustered up a huge meal of roasted corn on the cob, campfire potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and grilled flank steak. Ate like pigs. Washed it all down with 1996 Charles Joguet Chinon and Qupé Central Coast Syrah as the stars lit up the night sky.

When we finished dinner we stumbled back down to the beach and lay down amidst the rocks and listened to the waves thunder around us, watched outer space twinkle high above. Soon after it was back to the cabin and into our somewhat rustic beds. I don't remember ever sleeping so well.

The next day began with blue skies, a salty breeze and a breakfast of toasted bagels, shmear, tomato juice, campfire espresso and cappuccino (remember, we're in California). Then we suited up to go exploring again.

When the tide is low (actually you need a minus tide) it is possible to sneak around some rocks that are usually underwater at the far end of the beach, scale some more cliffs, poke though a sea cave or two (watching the surf at all times), and finally arrive at a spot where, just below the surface of the sand, hot sulfur-scented water bubbles to the surface. You dig deep, surround the hole with rocks to keep out the ocean, and you have a mineral bath. Strip down and soak. When high tide marches back in it is time to go back the way you came.

So this is how we spent the late morning, early afternoon. We didn't have to fight the tide, some other people came so we left the baths to them and clamored back around the point. Back at our beach we stripped down again and braved the nippy waters of the Pacific (it was actually hot and sunny by then). The short rocky beach gave way to a long, soft sand bar. Monstrous waves, ten-twelve feet high, were breaking just beyond the sand bar, but I didn't stray out that far (Don did, however). After a good twenty minute swim, we dried ourselves off and went back to the cabin for lunch, unaware that a drama had been unfolding just to our south.

As Heidi and Don and I were exploring the surf, Julie and Lori were hiking the bluffs in the other direction. They passed a fellow camper who told them he had seen an injured seal or sea lion down amongst some rocks. They returned to the cabin and called the Marine Mammal Center (cell phone: remember we're in California), explaining that the animal was just south of Steep Ravine, on the beach below the cliffs. So after lunch we set off in search of the spot. Sure enough, there he/she was. Looking through our binoculars you could see it was obviously injured with a gory wound on the left front flipper (bone was visible, muscle and blubber were torn away, stuff was oozing out), stranded just up from the surf. Thinking we had done our part by alerting someone, we turned around to head back. Two young women (they looked 20 years old, max) were approaching us.Yes, they were volunteers from the center.

Well, my first thought was that they needed a whole lot more help. Not us, but some trained help. We could further injure the animal if we tried to tangle with it; hell, we could injure ourselves! But it became obvious after some chat that they could not rescue it alone, and that no one else was coming.

To make a long story short, we all climbed down; one woman threw a big green net over the animal (it was too weak to really try to escape), then a big towel to calm it down and make handling easier. We picked it up (avoiding the razor sharp teeth as it snapped back) and backed it into the cage, hoisted the cage back up the vertical cliff (it took four of us), carried it over the coastal trail back to their truck, and waved goodbye as they drove off to get some medical attention.

We helped save a California sea lion.

Then we packed up and drove back over the Golden Gate Bridge to our lives in the City. Lives where this kind of stuff happens.

Ahhh, California!

June 1998

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At the Marine Mammal Center the sea lion was named Tommy, in honor of the gentleman who first saw it and sounded the alarm (a custom they still practice over there). I thought it should have been Rocky, 'cause it was found injured and stranded on Rocky Point, but whatever. We kept tabs on Tommy's recovery for a bit, and before long learned the center had released him back into the sea. Who knows...Perhaps he's out there now.

To creatures great and small.
To recovery, to healing, to rebirth.
To winter, which means that spring and baseball are just around the corner.
Peter J. Palmer