by Skip Wollenberg
Estuaries are the transitions between rivers and the sea, where steelhead and salmon acclimate to fresh water on their journeys upstream in the Fall, and where young smolts feed and get their first taste of salt water before they venture seaward. When I kayak Mendocino County’s Big River Estuary I traverse ecologic zones ranging from beaches, through salt marshes, to riparian woodlands and conifer forest.
The estuary is a drowned river valley that extended at least five miles farther west when sea level was three hundred feet lower, fifteen thousand years ago during the last glacial epoch. If you were standing on the Mendocino bluffs then, you’d barely see the beach five miles away, down the river flowing in a valley incised in the sandstone bedrock. As continental ice sheets melted and sea level gradually rose, winter river flows deposited silts farther and farther upstream, partially filling the valley and forming
riverside flats that were in turn inundated by the rising salt water of the
growing estuary. Freshwater silt flats became salt marshes, forming the
basis for the interplay of life between the river and the sea.
Just across from the beach where I put my kayak in, there are small salt grass islands laced by channels, navigable except at low tide. Here it is easy to see that the estuary is the key to the life of the lower river, and the border marshes are the key to the life of the estuary. The marshes rely on daily flooding and emptying; the free flow of salty water around the marsh grasses nurtures the microlife that forms the base of the estuary’s food chain. Near high tide, every small channel brims with salt water, and salt grass and pickleweed bend before the upriver current. Six hours later at low
tide the vegetated channels are exposed to air, oxygenating, the veritable lungs of the estuary.
After investigating the marshes, I start upriver. Despite the evidence of old logging and the presence of other boaters, I have the feeling of solitude after rounding the first bend and losing sight and sound of the highway. The alders and willows of the flats and redwood and fir of the slopes instill an impression of wilderness. Several osprey pairs nest in the tree tops along this stretch, rearing their nestlings in spring, training their fledglings in summer, then heading south in October. Past an old log boom the estuary narrows and a blue heron precedes me upstream squawking my presence. In the late spring, flotillas of young mergansers are escorted by their moms
under the alders overhanging the north bank, sharing the shadows with river otter. In the fall when the Coho school up to await the first rains to provide fresh water, a harbor seal may be out for a dinner cruise. He surfaces, stares me in the eye for a few seconds, then backslides under water and I see, can almost feel, his dark form streamlining beneath the kayak.
A hundred years ago, this was an industrial waterway, clogged with first-growth logs dumped into the river, then boomed up behind temporary dams to await winter high water to flush logs down to the mill in Mendocino. Today the slopes are mostly reforested, and have recently become protected in the Big River State Park.
Bedrock underlying the estuary and its marshes is exposed on bends where the current has attacked the steep banks. It is a fine-grained sandstone, termed “graywacke,” whose parent material was deposited in an ocean trench, then became hardened and fractured as the trench collided with the western edge of North America forty to sixty million years ago. In places the graywacke is laced with white veinlets of quartz where the fractures conducted warm, silica-rich fluids.
Bluff tops on the sides of the estuary’s valley are capped with softer sandstone and pebbly conglomerate of marine terraces, uplifted hundreds of feet from where they were shoreline dunes. Successive terraces with theirunique “pygmy” soils make up a giant staircase, where the oldest terrace, about a half million years old, is now five hundred feet above sea level and several miles inland.
The boundary between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates is the San Andreas Fault which now lies a few miles offshore; when sea level was three hundred feet lower, you could have walked out to the fault. The San Andreas moves in fits and starts; the most recent episode was the great earthquake of 1906 when the Pacific plate shifted instantly fifteen to twenty feet northwestward with respect to North America. The shaking and subsequent fires in the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg were similar to
the trauma experienced in San Francisco.
Having been in a rowing shell on a narrow arm of San Francisco Bay when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake hit, I can extrapolate a little to what might occur on the Big River in the next large earthquake. I remember feeling the solid slap on the boat’s hull of the shock transmitted through the water, then my amazement as millions of bubbles reached the surface when the shaking released gasses from the bottom sediments. Water in the arm of the bay I was on sloshed from bank to bank, causing small waves to slap the hull from right and left. The wet soil on the banks slumped into the water, adding to the wave action. I can imagine similar occurrences on the Big River, with the added unease of seeing trees shaking and some tumbling into the estuary. If I were near the mouth, I’d feel compelled to beach the boat and get to high ground before a tsunami bore rolled up the estuary. But why this paranoia? The probability of my being in a small boat during another large earthquake is infinitesimal, I hope.
During winter high water, the estuary is the color of latte, and the current makes my paddling upstream very difficult. I see then how sediments from the interior Coast Ranges continue to be deposited in the estuary, adding material to the existing natural levees, slowly converting salt marshes to fresh water marshes. Our present global warming might offset this process as sea level rises rapidly and salt water intrudes farther up the Big River.
During times of moderate winter flow, I’m able to kayak about four miles upstream in a couple of hours to where a landslide from the south bank partially blocked the channel in 1998, evidence of the effects of that year’s El Nino winter on slopes logged in the 1980s; a reminder that nature and human activities still combine to alter the estuary. Then with energy sagging I turn and ease down river, paddling just enough to keep my kayak aligned with the current. In summer, timing for the tide I reach five miles upriver on the flood, then use the ebb to return, cooled by paddling into the afternoon wind past the marshes with their saltgrass bending upstream.
Perro de Oro
He was blond, and like many of that hue he thought he was hot stuff. As such, his daily patrols covered not only the village where he and many like him frequented Yelapa’s small cafés and shops, but he also ventured down the steps, crossed the river, and traversed the sand spit with its palapa cafés and hotel.
The trouble was he only weighed seventeen pounds, and in the beach area there were fifty-pound black Lab, Shepherd, and mix-breed guardians of the outdoor cafés.
To look at him you could tell that running the gauntlet of the territorials had taken its toll. His right flank, shoulder and hips had patches where his blond coat no longer grew, attesting to fights with the larger adversaries. He must have always exposed his right side; his left side was unscathed. In fact, he appeared to be the only part-Chihuahua on the beach; the rest of his compatriots were content to stay in town and leave the playa to the big boys.
Yelapa is made up of a sandbar, a stream, and steep forest-covered slopes where houses, small shops and cantinas are interspersed, then bunched closer together as the village follows a creek up to its waterfall. In the village and among the hotels and cafés of the sandbar ranges a floating population of dogs, some of whom have staked out territories demarcated by collections of white plastic umbrella-shaded tables, from which crumbs and occasional larger morsels dribble onto the sand. The smaller the dog, the braver it must be to survive in this milieu.
Granddaughter Elena found him that day, panting in the shade of the hotel office, blood oozing from a gash in his right hip and another at the front of his ribs. Two hotel guests said they had heard and seen him being attacked by a black Lab on the sand spit. He had then made his way to the hotel where he sought solace from staff and guests. We had taken a liking to him the day before when he was much more intact, even hosting him in our rooms where he exhibited all the charm that an eight kilogram battle-scarred part-Chihuahua could bring to bear, so to see him in such dire condition demanded action.
The office clerk phoned Pamela Nuñez, the only veterinarian in Yelapa, who said to bring him over right away. Easier said than done; he was hurting badly now and didn’t want to be picked up, let alone carried ignominiously past his adversaries, but there was no choice. We cornered him in the office under a chair, where he growled and bit at anyone trying to extricate him. A kindly woman from the yoga group said, “I’m a healer,” put out her hand and obviously sent the right message because then Elena’s mom, Kathy, was able to lift him and he acquiesced to being carried by her past the beach guardians, across the river and up the steps to Pamela’s clinic.
There the attractive young veterinarian greeted us and immediately prepared for surgery. She asked me to hold him while he was sedated and to pinch together his pulled-apart hide as she first disinfected, then stitched the two wounds. You could see that the wounds were deep and connected, because as Pamela squirted disinfectant into one, it seeped out from the other.
“I will keep him here tonight,” the vet explained, “and start him on antibiotics which he will need to take for thirty days. You can pick him up tomorrow. And please seriously consider taking him home with you. He will not survive without steady care, and will just get mauled again if he stays here in Yelapa. I can arrange to have a certificate of health for him that will permit his transport to the U.S. All you need to do is to stop at my veterinary friends in Vallarta on the way to the airport. There he can get a rabies shot and you can obtain a carrier for him to ride on your flight to San Francisco. How about it?”
I looked at Jackie, we looked questioningly at Kathy, who would have to do the transporting in two days, and we all nodded OK.
Cordy, a companion dog to our present German Shepherd mix, also a rescued dog, had died a year ago. Now appeared the time to resume our two-dog lifestyle. If Kathy and her family could get him to their home in Humboldt County, I would pick him up there after I returned from Mexico in two weeks.
“By the way, what do you think his name is?” Jackie asked.
“Well,” answered Pamela, “I have seen him around town for at least two years and I’m pretty sure I have treated him before. I call him Guerito, little blond.”
“Does he have an owner?’
“Not that I know. He must leave here to survive.”
Asking the hotel staff later, we found that there was an owner, but he had neglected Guerito for at least a year. He tried tying him up. The dog always escaped, but not before crying piteously. Thus his nickname – Baby.
When we returned the next day to retrieve him, Pamela wasn’t home, Baby’s cage was open and he was gone. Kathy, Elena and I searched Yelapa calling embarrassedly, Baby, and he finally appeared from between two houses, ambulatory with tail wagging. Kathy carried him back to the hotel where we began the course of antibiotics, each pill wrapped in chicken set aside from that day’s fajitas.
He spent that night with us, sleeping next to Jackie on her bed, but the next day, sporting two stitched wounds swathed in purple disinfectant, he slipped away, and as we later found out, to his old haunts in town.
We reported him missing to Pamela, who put out an all-points bulletin on the Yelapa grapevine for anyone knowing the whereabouts of Guerito, aka Baby, please notify her. By that afternoon one of the hang glider pilots had found him by the landing zone on the sand bar. We retrieved him from Pamela. This time, collared and leashed, he was returned to chicken-laced confinement. Beginning tomorrow his world would spin with new experiences: a boat ride, then by taxi through a bustling city, an air journey to (for him) a chilly milieu.
In the morning Baby knew something was up as he watched Jackie empty an expandable suitcase and line it with a sweatshirt. He complained with growls, nips and shivers as we tried to place him in the bag tail first. Finally a chicken treat persuaded Baby to be bagged for the boat ride to Vallarta. Kathy lowered this cargo gently from the pier into the panga, and despite the hull-slapping trip, Baby calmed, almost slept in his bag cuddled by Jackie on the forty-minute voyage. Ashore at Playa de los Muertos, led by Elena and her brother, Larkin, he trotted happily on-leash on the strand, then sampled scraps from our breakfast at an open-air café.
At the Puerto Vallarta vet’s, Baby was inoculated against rabies, then outfitted with a harness, leash, blue and white polka dot sweater, portable cage and documentation. Someone remarked he was now un perro de oro.
At the airport, the United check-in agent accepted Baby in his carrier, stating, “You know this is a no-frills flight, no meals for people, but we’ll make sure your dog is fed and watered.”
With fingers crossed we waved goodbye to Baby in his cage as it moved on the belt through the baggage portal.
Two days later, we phoned Kathy from Vallarta to find that Baby had made it safely to Humboldt County and was now stretched asleep on a blanket in front of their wood-burning stove. The chicken treats had been downgraded to cheese.
When Kathy delivered him to Fort Bragg, I had second thoughts about the name Baby. After all, his medical certificate listed his breed as mixto
, his color miel
, and his sex macho
. Prolonged deliberation resulted in modifying Baby to Bobby, and he now patrols the property, clad in a forest-green Gore-Tex sweater, accompanied by Latte, his female female German Shepherd companion.