Wednesday, July 25, 2012


We'll make this a quickie and get right to the meat of the matter: A few days ago I strayed, found myself in the arms of another, and it felt kinda good.

Those of you who know me know that my decision to do so was not taken lightly, as for two decades now I've been faithful to my one and only: the Oceanic Society. Yup, we're talking about the ocean, the Pacific Ocean specifically, and getting out on the ocean to commune with those fabulous beasts that call the ocean home.

My relationship with the non-profit, San Francisco-based Oceanic Society began way back in 1989, I think, and since then I've been signing up for their 8-hour, summertime, naturalist lead trips to the Farallon Islands and beyond pretty much like clockwork. I'm hopelessly hooked. Smitten. So in love with what they do and how they do it that sometimes I fork over the cash and hop on board twice a year.

Recently, however, my buddy Keith and I drove an hour and forty-five minutes south to the funky seaside settlement of Moss Landing, halfway between Santa Cruz and Monterey town. It's there one finds the departure point for Sanctuary Cruises, a small boat operation that, quite frankly, gets it done on Monterey Bay.

Like many of you, several weeks ago I'd started to read online and in the newspaper accounts of what we'll call Unparalleled Upwelling 2012 (please refer to my previous post for a refresher course on the marine phenomenon). Unlike many of you, tho, I immediately began to fantasize over the reported, and almost unprecedented, animal sightings in Monterey Bay: forty or so blue whales out there, scores of breaching and lunge-feeding humpbacks, fin whales, the occasional orca, enormous mola mola (ocean sunfish), a leatherback sea turtle, a basking shark. All hanging out on the surface because their food source was at the surface and all in sunny, calm conditions, allowing lucky landlubbers a superb opportunity to watch them do what they do do.

I've had my heart set on a Monterey Bay whale watch for a while now, but life in general and other high seas adventures in particular - you know who you are - had always (coitus) interrupted the master plan. This year, once I began to learn of the action down there, I knew the time was nigh.  Still, it took me two weeks to get my shit together and schedule the time to make it happen. I'm happy I did, but I should'a dropped everything and gone sooner.

After check-in and a safety briefing we slowly puttered out of the harbor, delighted with the lack of that pesky petroleum smell as Sanctuary is the only boat on the bay powered by biodiesel. Not twenty minutes into our sea voyage the boat suddenly slowed (always a good sign), veered right, and the captain picked up the loudspeaker: "We've got a leatherback turtle at 3 o'clock." Leatherbacks are the largest of the sea turtles, and they're rare. I'd never seen one before and had to stifle myself from actually jumping up and down. Instead I smacked Keith on the arm and quickly made my way to the side of the boat. Turned out to be a masquerading sea lion; a bit of a disappointment, but nonetheless our whole ocean-top tryst with Sanctuary was a blast. Highly recommended. The day was foggy but winds calm. Our boat and Captain Brian were able and accommodating, and Giancarlo, our young but versed naturalist for the day, was a hoot. Alas the big blues have unfortunately moved on for the time being, and we spotted none, nor any basking sharks. But there were humps (humpbacks) everywhere, spouting and fluking and even breaching very near the boat, several graceful black-footed albatross, plus harbor seals, bottle-nosed dolphins, sea otters, red-throated phalaropes, murres, pelicans, sooty shearwaters and the ubiquitous, noisy and acrobatic California sea lion.

It was a lovely affair, and I'll certainly head back down for one more romp on the water with Sanctuary before the 2012 season is history. You should as well, especially if a trip to the Farallones seems overwhelming: too long, too intense, the water and weather too unpredictable. Won't get to see the fabled islands, the Devil's Teeth as their called, but you'll no doubt have a grand day out on the mighty Pacific. The road trip to Moss Landing is a lovely one, the area is of course beautiful, the 4-hour trips are a worthwhile $50 (sometimes longer if everyone on board is in cahoots), and the undersea drop off (into submarine Monterey Canyon, where a lot of the action takes place) is much closer to shore than than it is off the Golden Gate. An added delight is the chance to observe lots of charming California sea otters on their home turf (so to speak), an animal you don't see on trips out of San Francisco.

I'll leave you with a link to the Sanctuary Cruises website, which contains all sorts of cool information about what they do, where they do it, and a Captain's Log that details recent trips and sightings, including those extraordinary couple of weeks in late June and early July 2012:

Oh...and one other website. Sanctuary may be my new mistress, my new secret paramour, but the Oceanic Society is still my main squeeze:

As promised, that's it. Outta here.

Peter J. Palmer

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Fickle Finger of Fog

What a gorgeous day today turned out to be!  Stunning, it was, especially the afternoon and evening hours.  Based on this morning, which was socked in, all day yesterday, which was so pea soup-thick with fog it felt like it was raining, and the past 10 days, which were (you got it) foggy and cold, I would’ a bet money on more of the same.  What do they say, though: “If you don’t like the weather in San Francisco, wait a couple hours.”  That’s right; we’re gonna talk about the weather.

“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

The above one-liner is often attributed to Mark Twain, but its true origin is forever shrouded in mystery, much like the coast of northern California this July is shrouded in fog.  Lots and lots of fog.  For the final two weeks of June 2012, San Francisco basked in blue skies and above average temperatures (much of the rest of the county sizzled).  Then Mother Nature turned on the A/C.  When she did the mercury plummeted, the Golden Gate Bridge disappeared behind a wall of thick, puffy white, and Alcatraz was enveloped in a long, low arm of gray that stretched all the way to Berkeley and the Oakland Hills.  Like clockwork bands of tourists waiting for a cable car suddenly found themselves chilled to the bone.  You’d spot them huddled together in shivering masses at the corner of Bay and Mason or California and Van Ness - even worse at Chestnut and Laguna as they waited for the #28 MUNI bus to the bridge for a wet and windy walk across the span - no doubt lamenting their choice of sightseeing garb: shorts and tee-shirts instead of pants and a sweater (more like it sometimes…a parka).

Scientists classify fog into several different categories, the names dependant on how it was formed: radiation fog, advection fog, evaporation fog, upslope fog, freezing fog and ice fog.  The first two, radiation and advection, are the types we in the Bay Area know and love.  “Know” meaning deal with, and “love” meaning love/hate.

The following two paragraphs are from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website:

Radiation fog forms at night under clear skies with calm winds when heat absorbed by the earth’s surface during the day is radiated into space.  As the earth’s surface continues to cool, provided a deep enough layer of moist air is present near the ground, the humidity will reach 100% and fog will form.  Radiation fog varies in depth from 3 feet to about 1,000 feet, is always found at ground level and usually remains stationary.

Advection fog often looks like radiation fog and is also the result of condensation.  However, the condensation in this case is caused not by a reduction in surface temperature, but rather by the horizontal movement of warm moist air over a cold surface.  This means that advection fog can sometimes be distinguished from radiation fog by its horizontal motion along the ground.  Sea fogs are always advection fogs, because the oceans don’t radiate heat in the same way as land and so never cool sufficiently to produce radiation fog.  Fog forms at sea when warm air associated with a warm current drifts over a cold current and condensation takes place.  Sometimes such fogs are drawn inland by low pressure, as often occurs on the Pacific coast of North America.

Okay, I’m back.

Here in the Bay Area radiation fog is often called tule fog, named so after the tule grass of the California wetlands, and usually occurs inland during the fall and winter.  Our local advection fog is…well, it’s what we have now: big time summertime sea fog, or coastal fog.  Thank you, Mr. Pacific Ocean.

It may drive us crazy sometimes – the lack of sun, the wind, the damp and the cold - and we may long for the balmier climes that bless our inland brethren or those back east, but let’s face it: Life in San Francisco would be much different, maybe not as pleasant and certainly not as dramatic, without the fickle finger of fog.

First things first.  My apartment (and many like it) would probably come equipped with a humming, perhaps irritatingly noisy air conditioner.  At night it would be so god-awful hot I’d have to turn the contraption on, thus drowning out the mournful, hauntingly beautiful moan of the foghorn and the barking sea lions I sometimes hear as I fall asleep.  Next, we’d all have screens on our windows, which we don't need because the cool and the wind help keep mosquitoes and other pesky bugs at bay.  Finally, take away our iconic, usually brisk and blustery San Francisco sea air and after a month the city would turn stagnant, sticky, suffocating.  The pavement and the concrete would bake and before long certain parts of certain neighborhoods would smell…even worse than they do now.  Think of some of those urban centers back east during a prolonged heat spell (sorry New York City, but I’ve stayed with you in August).  Hell, then think of the winters.

Sure, during the summer months we might be able to regularly linger on Baker Beach without a blanket; brave the possible great white shark and swim at Stinson without a wet suit; more often enjoy a leisurely stroll on Ocean Beach without gloves, a scarf and a hat; even drive up and down the coast with the top down all the time.  We’d probably even witness more of those badass thunder and lightning storms (one of the things I miss about Ohio).  All this might seem a tantalizing scenario, but over time our unique and uniquely beautiful landscape would cease to be just that.  San Francisco is a great city, a world-class city, but it’s the surrounding wilderness and our close proximity to it, both terrestrial and aquatic, that seals the deal for me.

Big case in point.  The coast redwoods (sequoia sempervirens), the tallest trees in the world, absolutely adore the fog.  Probably wouldn’t thrive here without it.  The stately, handsome giants suck up most of their summertime moisture needs not through their roots from rain, but through their needles from the thick fog that collects in west-facing valleys open to the sea.  Without the 100" of yearly precipitation that fosters places like Muir Woods, Big Basin, Montgomery State Reserve and the Redwoods National Parks what else would disappear?  The western sword ferns that carpet a redwood forest floor, certainly; perhaps the Douglas fir, the redwood violet and trillium.  Probably much more.  Chop down a redwood forest and you're left with coastal scrub chaparral, fine in it's own right but nothing compared with an ecosystem practically endemic to California.

Our local cast of animal characters would be different as well, especially those that depend on the Pacific Ocean for food or call the big briny Home Sweet Home, because fog goes hand in hand with upwelling.  And upwelling, like summer in San Francisco, is way cool.

When seasonal winds on the California coast zip north to south, as they typically do during June, July and August, the earth’s rotation, in an example of what's known as the Coriolis effect, pushes surface water offshore.  To fill the void left behind, cold, nutrient rich water rises up from the depths, bringing with it all sorts of teeny-weenie phytoplankton, which blooms once it sees the light.  That’s upwelling, in a nutshell, but that’s not the end of the story.  Myriad forms of zooplankton follow the microscopic plant life; they chow down, also bloom, and present their calling card to the next creature up the food chain: a homely little crustacean called krill.  As upwelling continues the population of krill explodes, and with that explosion the table is set for a truly massive annual feeding frenzy that lasts through October.  Pelicans, grebes, cormorants, auklets, murres, phalaropes, puffins, black-footed albatross, sardines, herring, squid, salmon, tuna, harbor seals, sea lions, elephants seals, harbor porpoises, Dall’s porpoises, Risso’s dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, killer whales, gray whales, humpbacks, fins and the big blues: they fly and flap and swim our way to feast on the abundance of food.  And not just a few: seabirds by the hundreds of thousands, whales by the hundreds!  As I write this there are reports of upwards of 40 blue whales hanging around Monterey Bay, with several others spotted out by the Farallon Islands.  Enormous pods of rampaging dolphins have already been seen, and humpbacks abound.  Yup, our part of the Pacific is amazingly fecund, especially during the summer (and especially this year, apparently).  If you’re into such things, and I am, there are few finer places on the planet to watch the show.  Fog is our friend.

And c’mon now, visually the F-word is oftentimes utterly enchanting - moody, changeable and alive, almost - and it usually never sticks around that long.  Couple of days at most (in the case of July 2012, a couple of weeks?), then the weather patterns change, the gloom retreats for a spell and the mercury rises to a (comparatively) balmy 64 or even (gasp!) 69 degrees.

The yin and yang of Mother Nature shall persist, though, just as it always does.  Sooner or later that first tentative whisper of fog will once again creep over the coastal hills, stretch a long, eager tentacle east across the center of the bay, and before long swallow the Golden Gate, partially or whole.  The temperature will nosedive 10 degrees; the foghorns blast to life.  Come afternoon the top of the Transamerica building and Coit Tower will no longer be visible, and by nightfall the entire city of San Francisco will be enveloped in a misty swirl of white and gray; a chilly wet that keeps the Buena Vista Café awash in tourists (and locals) craving a warm Irish coffee.  An eerie cloak that often makes me wonder if Jack the Ripper isn’t still alive and well and living in northern California, silently roaming the hills and alleyways of the City by the Bay.

I could go on, but it's now 7:00 in the evening, the wind has quieted, and it's just too beautiful outside.  In the Fort Mason District, where I live, the warmest part of the day, even.  I gotta get out for a nice long sunset walk by the bay while the gettin's good, before the you-know-what sneaks back into you-know-where for who knows how long.

Peter J. Palmer
July 2012

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hurry Up and Wait - A Cautionary Tale

Sometimes I need to just slow the flock down.  Chill the hell out, forget about the "plan", and not worry so damn much.  Sometimes we all do, I suppose.  Such good advice: so easy to remember but so hard to implement on a daily basis.

Case in point.  My sister Molly and her good friend Mike recently came to San Francisco from Ohio, and while here they wanted to spend some time in Yosemite.

"Hell yeah I'll go to Yosemite with you!" I sputtered.

I’m crazy about Yosemite.  Freaking adore it.  And the prospect of taking two people who have never before been – watch their faces as they get that first glimpse of the world-renowned, glacier-carved valley, of the stately sequoias and jumbled granite rocks, of the crystal clear waters of the mighty Merced River; listen to their oohs and ahhs when the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan looms into view, when we reach the eastern end of the valley and voila…Half Dome! – the prospect of that makes me salivate like a pig in shit.  “Crack a fat,” as our friends Down Under might say.

Looking east into Yosemite Valley.

Bright and early on Thursday June 21st we hit the asphalt, reaching the valley around 10:30 a.m.  Once inside the park I took the wheel and leisurely drove the entire loop road once, allowing Molly and Mike an unfettered visual taste of the whole enchilada and the chance to decide where they wanted to spend the afternoon.  The campsite for our two-night stay was in Tuolumne Meadows up in the High Sierra, another hour and a half drive, so I figured we had until 5 p.m. or so to snoop around the valley, especially if we wanted to make Tuolumne in the soft orange and pink glow before sunset.  That was the plan, and I did.

Together we spent some time on the grassy meadow by Camp Curry, the one with the unobstructed, drop dead gorgeous view of Half Dome and North Dome.  We stocked up on ham and turkey sandwiches at Degnan’s Deli in Yosemite Village.  We walked the short trail to Bridal Veil Fall, which, along with Yosemite Falls, was the only one still running.  Finally we settled down for a quiet spell on the Merced River, on the sandy stretch beneath El Capitan.  The beach by the parking area was filled with what looked like a goodly amount of the 4 million tourists that visit Yosemite annually, but a brief five-minute walk along the shore led us to a more desirable stretch of river, one with a deep swimming hole and a big fat rock in the center for scaling, sunning, jumping and diving.  The water was chilly but oh-so refreshing in the valley heat.  It was peaceful: the whisper of the river, the pleasing rustle of trees, the distant peal of laughter, the noisy quack of ducks as they zipped by or, at one point, swam over to inspect our food supply.  It was, as it always is, absolutely lovely.

Mike and Molly, with Yosemite Falls.

Half Dome.

Several hours later and halfway up Tioga Road we passed the Porcupine Creek Trailhead, important to the story because it’s the start of the fabled hike to North Dome, which was on my radar.  I’ve done lots of hiking in the park – Yosemite Falls, Half Dome (twice), Illouette Falls, Indian Creek, May Lake, Dog Lake, Chilnualna Falls in Wawona, Lembert Dome, the Mist Trail up Vernal and Nevada Falls (several times) – and for some time had my eyes and heart set on North Dome.

From the trailhead the round trip hike is 9 miles or so, with an elevation change of 1,200 feet, some of it down but lots of it up, much of which is on the return trip.  A biggish hike anywhere, but this, remember, is at 8,000 feet above sea level.

On Friday morning I woke in the chilly mountain air, tumbled out of the SUV (Molly and Mike had the tent) and, with a cup of joe from Tuolumne Lodge and a McYosemite Muffin from the Tuolumne Grill, began my mental assault of North Dome.   The idea, at least in my mind, was to crank it out as quickly as possible and spend the remainder of the afternoon/evening relaxing on camp chairs by the side of the Tuolumne River, watching the sun set and light up the meadow, the various lofty domes and granite peaks of high country.  To achieve my master plan, however – and get back in time to find some food, because we had none, save a quickly disappearing mixed berry pie and a half bag of tortilla chips – I knew we were gonna have to motor: drive 45 minutes to the trailhead, get hiking, keep up a good steady pace on the tramp, not dawdle too long, and drive back to our campsite.  An ambitious undertaking, I know, but I had to have it ALL.

Somewhere a long time ago I remember reading that on flat terrain, and at sea level, the human being walks around 3.5 miles an hour.  In my diligent and more recent research for our Yosemite escapade I read that the hike to North Dome usually takes between 4 and 6 hours.  The former if you’re huffing through it all, the latter if you’re not.  Neither scenario took into account my sister Molly and her trusty sidekick Mike.

At the start of the hike.

I knew the pace would be slow(ish); that the elevation and mileage and ups and downs would take their toll.  Hell, I had even thought about scrapping the whole idea and finding a much less demanding but equally enjoyable adventure for our Friday, just to be able to spend the whole time together.  Deep in my soul - come hell or high water - I wanted North Dome.  Wanted it bad.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the actual hike.  The first mile took us 45 minutes, and that was all downhill.  45 minutes!  At that pace I figured it would take us, oh, I don’t know, 8 hours to complete the hike.  For a while I tried remain calm, tried to contain my frustration and remind myself that this was not an ordinary experience: I was with my sister Molly and our good family friend Mike, the three of us in Yosemite for Christ’s sake, tackling a hike I had dreamed of for some years.

“Peter,” Molly reassured me, several times, well before and during the actual hike, “if we get tired and decide not to go on, you can leave us and we’ll just sit by the trail and wait for you.”

So I left them behind.  I really did.

“You guys are never going to make it,” I muttered, then walked off.

The uphill to Indian Ridge soon had me huffing and puffing, but I loved it.  I was in my element, working up a healthy sweat and as I breathed in the sweet and clean mountain air, as I listened to the lovely silence of the forest and marveled at the vistas that got finer and more expansive as I climbed.

I finished the hike in four hours and forty-five minutes, and it was gorgeous: the trail, the surrounding wilderness and the actual view from North Dome!  Clouds Rest and several other 10,000’+ peaks reach skyward, Yosemite Valley twists and turns 3,000 feet below the exposed perch, and across a vertiginous expanse the face of Half Dome seems so close one might actually reach out and…hmmm.  Rein it in, Palmer.

View down to North Dome proper.
Beyond that last little hump is a 3,000' drop.

Half Dome, from half way down.

I didn’t linger long on the dome itself as my adult-onset vertigo started to rear its ugly head.  All that open space was softly calling my name, so I quickly started back up and back home.  On the return I expected to find Molly and Mike around every bend in the trail, hear their ever-present laughter before I saw them, but the miles went on and I never did.  I wanted to take the short spur trail to Indian Rock, Yosemite’s only natural arch, but I figured they must have been lounging at the car already, so I hoofed it back to the trailhead and found…an empty SUV.  Molly and Mike were nowhere around.

What the what?

So I waited.  I sat, I paced, I thought, I watched the sun dip ever closer toward the mountainous horizon, I worried, I got frustrated, I read the Yosemite paper and perused the park map, I hopped in the car and drove briefly up and down Tioga Road, thinking they might have walked off to explore, then I sat and waited some more.  I waited for over three hours!  I waited until finally a young couple trudged up the last incline, walked in my direction and asked, ”Are you Peter?”  After assuring them that I was, they quickly added: “Your sister Molly and Mike are about 20 minutes behind us.  They’re on the way.”

“Where did you find them?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“On North Dome.  We were just descending and they were on the way back up.  Told us about that cool shoe-like rock formation.”

Shoe…what shoe? I thought.  In my haste I didn’t really explore much, briefly relishing the view then retracing my steps.

Sure enough, before long I recognized the familiar shape of two incredibly slow slowpokes slowly plodding up the hill.  The time was 6:30 p.m.  It had taken them seven and a half hours.  I wanted to be mad, or upset, but I couldn’t.  Wasn’t their fault I had forged ahead, and that somehow we had missed each other on the trail.  That somehow turned out to be the fact that Molly and Mike confused the side-trail to Indian Rock as the one they needed to get to North Dome, so they took the detour and spent a lovely interlude beneath the singular (and from the photos I saw, beautiful) Yosemite natural arch.  Damn it!  While they were up there I probably zipped by on my way back to the trailhead.  Double damn it!

After the hike.

Food…we needed food.  After a brief celebration the three of us hopped into the car and quickly drove to Tenaya Lake for a plunge, then on to Tuolumne Lodge in hopes of snagging a table before they closed, if they had one (reservations are highly recommended, I had read).

“I can probably seat you in 45 minutes,” the kinda’ grungy but kinda’ handsome young nature boy-trail hiker-rock climber-park employee explained.  As I turned to tell Molly and Mike this, the family behind me in line walked up and cancelled their reservation.  Thus we were seated promptly and with plenty of time to spare enjoyed a surprisingly delicious (and not so surprisingly memorable) dinner: a huge green salad served communal style, individual bowls of minestrone soup, all three of us broiled Idaho trout and a glass of Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc.

I was confused and perplexed by my feelings, but, once again, I couldn’t be mad or frustrated or anything but pleased, because it all was my fault.  My fault for the impatience, for having some grand master plan set in concrete (or granite), for not just slowing the hell down and enjoying the day all three of us as one, whatever that day turned out to be.

And an extraordinary day it was.  An extraordinary trip!  My sister Molly and her buddy Mike and I went to Yosemite.  They loved it.  I loved it.  The weather was fantastic.  We swam in the Merced River.  It was their first time in the park and I got to show them around.  Watch them take in the mind-boggling splendor of it all.  The experience was awesome, and on top of it all we tackled the fabled, jaw-droppingly beautiful hike to North Dome, something I have been dying to do for a long, long time.

Just not together.

They made it!

*  *  *

"Chill and ill and dill."  That's a phrase from this West Indian guy I used to work with at Piccola Marina Café in Saint Thomas, USVI.  He was a line cook.  I was a server.

Remember it, Mr. Peter J. Palmer.