Thursday, May 17, 2012

Whither thou goest

Dark and hunched, the forest seemed to be digesting this eerie, fetid river even as we paddled up from its mouth.

It made me think of our marriage.

Just where are we going? Pics courtesy of Nancy.
No, not the river (!) — the idea that we'd explore it together.

We've always been like that, even before we married: Eager to see what's around the corner, and decide what to do from there. Sometimes literally.

So what would be different on our anniversary trip to the coast? A full rare weekend stretched ahead of us; a weekend without meetings or obligations or goals or any other reason to do anything other than look around the bend, together.

"Which way do you want to go?"

"Let's go left."

(Our teasing variant is, "Whatever you want to do. It's your day.")

Who said what? Doesn't matter.

Left from where we stayed the night was north on Highway 1, to see what we had not seen, corner after unexplored corner.

Time and again, cars jammed right up to our rear bumper and we pulled over to let them pass. We weren't going for destination, just journey. Besides, we had no destination. North, so far. So many pullouts along the way; maybe the highway was built with us in mind.

Into Point Arena. Quick U-turn to get gas. $4.65 a gallon! We got only as much as would return us to civilization. The station had two mid-20th Century gas pumps; I'd almost forgotten how to work one. The station owner made change out of what he had in his shirt pocket.

Detour to the lighthouse. $7.50 to drive in and look around! Though we had walking-around money, it wasn't for walking around a lighthouse; we didn't know yet what it was for, though. Farther north.

Look what the people of Elk, Calif., have to put up with.
Past Manchester, near the beach where I once camped with my son's Boy Scout Troop. Up to Elk, where everything is named Greenwood, after the cove that shelters it.

Vaguely hopeful to happen upon open-water swimmers and maybe get in a quick dip, we explored the bluffs above Greenwood Cove, following abalone hunters in their wetsuits with long fins and glorified inner tubes strapped to their backs. They disappeared a few hundred feet down a steep bluff, belaying by relying on knotted ancient mariner ropes someone had tied long ago to tree roots.

Cuffy's Cove Community Cemetery is right next to Cuffy's Cove Catholic Cemetery. Must be an interesting daily existence around those parts. Catholics vs. community; those who spell it "Cuffey's Cove" on the wrought-iron gate vs. those who side with "Cuffy's Cove" on the painted signs. Maybe good fences do make good neighbors here.

Farther north, but not much farther.

We felt it time to turn back. Albion was next. "That's the ancient name for Britain," one of us said. Albion had no center, no place by which to turn around. But wait, far below the soaring wooden bridge over the mouth of the Albion River, a campground. And a sign that spun my heart, "Canoe and kayak rentals."

Two tries got us down to the campground. "Do you wanna get a canoe?"

"Uh …… sure." A lot of our adventures begin this way.

The host showed us the tide chart; her husband fetched us jackets and paddles. They were new to the job; neither had been upriver. Off we went up the Albion.

The river stretches 18 miles, I'm told, though I don't see how. It's really an estuary, a thing more of sea than of land. Tides pushed us up the brackish river. Every slow bend was choked with eel grass, laying its long fingers along the still surface, to catch the pollen and dust and detritus and slowly, slowly, slowly, turn it into new shoreline. We paddled up the narrow middle, the water creamy jade.

The Albion once hauled timber to the ocean, as did so many rivers along the redwood coast. Pilings marked the route, their whitened sides fringed with dead eelgrass, rattling like pom-poms in the sea breeze. Here and there the skeletons of boats lay where they decomposed in the water. Somewhere in the thick forest a railroad once ran.

I read that a former Reagan administration official proposed filling giant bags with fresh water from the Albion and Gualala rivers and ship them to San Diego. Sillier things have happened, I guess.

A saltbox house floated on the water, tethered to earth somewhere beneath the flotsam jammed against it. Maybe someone lay in a sleeping bag in a hammock in its rafters, clearly visible beneath a roof of translucent plastic panels. Maybe not. The handwritten sign on the door: "Respect my house."

Eighteen great blue herons stood in a row on one boggy bend of the river, looking guilty.

At lunch, unseen men began to hoot and whoop in the trees along one bank, and smoke from a fire on the next bend blew hard along the water surface. I ate calmly but thought about "Deliverance," and wanted to get out of there. The last campsite was at least a mile back.

"That's not smoke, that's mist," said Nancy. The hot boggy riverbends, we learned, steam and stink like compost piles in the cool breeze.  And when the hooting and whooping never became words, I realized they weren't what I feared. Ravens — those mimics — appeared from the trees, swooping and whooping.

Time to leave anyway. We pushed off from the muck, our paddle handles turning coal black from ages-old sludge.

Harbor seals welcomed us back to the river mouth, darting just ahead. Others just stared.

For our anniversary dinner, we had burgers and beer at a Gualala bar to watch the San Francisco Giants attempt a win. We listened to the rest of the game by driving around the strange home development known as Sea Ranch near Gualala. I hope the homes are spectacular inside; they are dreary and depressing and distressing, purposely unpainted and rusty, outside.

The weekend over, the spell broken, it was time to go home. We got into the car reluctantly.

"Which way do you want to go?"

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