Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mad River

Dory screams at me lately, louder and louder: Just keep swimming.

Not figuratively, as in, It's Always Darkest Before the Dawn! Don't give up!!


Just keep swimming, or you'll lose your momentum and will. Keep swimming or your calves will seize into painfully useless meatballs. Keep swimming or you'll get left behind. Farther behind, anyway.

Lock into the groove, rely on muscle memory, check arm and hand movement once in a while. Roll hips, not too much. Relax. Count strokes. Don't look back, don't look around, don't even look ahead if you can help it. Whatever's coming up behind you probably won't hit you, probably won't hurt you, anyway.

Don't stop for food or drink. You don't really need it.

Just keep swimming.

Good ol' Disney®™-fied fish.

With Dory's clarion call I could enter the strange waters of Humboldt Bay Sunday and join the inaugural Humboldt Bay Critter Crawl.

Sarah and Bill dreamed it up. I first met Sarah virtually, another facebook™® swim friend who shared my passion for the open water and could answer my questions about whether people can swim in Humboldt Bay (yes!) and what the water's like (cold!). I met her and Bill in person at the 24-hour swim relay in Aquatic Park in February.

When I heard about their proposed never-before swim, I had to do everything I could to join in. Nancy and I made it a weekend and toted the kayak. There we reacquainted with some other facebook swim friends, Cathy and Lisa and Rob and Allison, and met new swimmers.

Billed as a 4.5 mile swim on a strong flood tide, the Critter Crawl began at the entrance to Humboldt Bay on a spit of beach, and ran along the shoreline edge of the city of Eureka into the marina at Woodley Island.

The swim came at a good time. A trio of diehards (I'm the reluctant one) has been doubling, tripling, and once a week quadrupling the distance of our daily swims at Lake Natoma. I'd moved on from stopping multiple times, drinking at eating each stop, and plodding from one end of the lake to the other in more than three hours once a year — to eschewing fuel and reaching the end of the lake in about two hours and 20 minutes once a week.

Just keep swimming.

I missed the cold, too, which Humboldt Bay offers. Our usually cold lake near Sacramento is in the low-60s, and Humboldt Bay still lay in the mid-50s, I was told. The day was gray and purple and cool: My kind of summer.

My game plan: Do what Dory says.

"How fast is the tide?" I asked Bob, a kindly volunteer related by marriage to this whole endeavor, a fundraiser for the North Coast Marine Mammal Center. Bob is a lifelong resident of these shores, and a long-time fisherman.

Bob smiled. "Take a look," he said.

On cue, a fishing boat headed into the open ocean had stopped and set itself adrift right off our starting point. The boat began twirling at a fast clip back toward the marina.

It'll be a big flood tide, Bob said, filling the bay eight feet. It'll ebb just a little and flood heavily some more. Bob checks the tide charts when it's important to him, and today was important to him.

After a fireboat saluted the first small group of short-distance swimmers with a fountain from its nozzles, it was our turn. Into the mad river, filling the bay. One copse and then another of cypress trees whizzed by, then this pulp mill and that wood mill.

Just keep swimming. The water was cool and welcome at the start, not cool enough to stop me short, and gradually warmed as we neared the marina. I just keep going. Poor Mary who agreed to kayak alongside me must have been a bit out of sorts when I told her I didn't have any food or drink she had to keep for me. I watched her with every breath, enjoying the day on the bay.

Nancy, who thought she might have to paddle around the marina on her own while the swimmers made their way up the bay, instead got to be part of the flotilla in case extra help was wanted. She had practiced heaving the kayak up on our roof and lashing it down, just in case she was by herself.

Commercial fishing boats chugging out to sea tossed us about. I worried about Nancy out in the waves for the first time, but she said it was fun to bob along.

I sighted on a boat way up ahead, hoping it was part of our swim. I wouldn't know one landmark from another, so I just followed the crowd. I suppose I should have minded where the water was flowing, but I figured if the leaders weren't being led astray, I'd be all right.

The bubbles of my wake were squarish somehow, and silvery, and flowed ahead of me. Nearer the city, I could pick up the sharp sweet smell of creosote, coating the pilings.

All I really remember from Sarah's instructions were to look for a green-and-white research ship and the statue of a fisherman. That's where we'd stop.

Just keep swimming.

Well before I expected it, the ship and statue appeared. We were done. A crowd, including caretakers from the marine mammal rescue center who had driven an hour-and-a-half from Crescent City, cheered us on from the opposite landing as we reached the edge of a dock. The hardest part of the entire swim was trying to heave myself up a small ladder onto a deck. Photographic evidence of this struggle did not flatter me.

Harbor seals, we were told, followed us into the marina.

Stroke count — how I measure time and distance — told me this was equivalent to a three-mile swim. We were moving fast. I finished in hour and 15 minutes; my typical 4.5-mile swim at Natoma is another hour longer.

We bounced around the marina parking lot, talking and laughing in the weightless joint relief of having completed the endeavor, to have been part of something new, something done well, something we want to do again next summer.


Mad River, the town (as far as most travelers know) is a bend in Highway 36, consisting of a bar/grocery bookended by a hamburger stand operating out of a travel trailer at the west end, and a taqueria working out of a trailer at the east end. The trailers don't appear to be going anywhere. Each one is under a roof. A trailer court hunkers in the dark shade in back.

Forensic research (meaning I clicked through Google™® maps) shows the burger bar was there first, and a sign suggested the taqueria had been there for almost two years when we drove in Saturday.

It was well past time for lunch on our way to Eureka. We had feared the windy highway would not yield any place to eat, when up popped this daydream.

For no other reason than we were in that kind of mood, we opted for tacos. We had parked at the other end, though, before we even knew what was what and who as who, and walked across town, 150 feet. Though the servers were kind and chatty, the taqueria's shaded picnic tables stank of garbage or a dead animal nearby, so back across town we walked, to an empty shaded table a good shout away from the burger bar. Twosomes and foursomes sat indolently at a few other tables in the hot afternoon, room for everyone.

It wasn't until Nancy went to throw away our lunch trash that the daydream ended.

A door slammed open on the burger bar trailer, a figure hidden by the shade.

"You need to throw that trash in the taco trailer's cans. You didn't get that from here," the voice shouted. "And for future reference, these tables are for the Burger Bar. I don't want you buying your stuff over there and eating it on this side."
"Don't worry, ain't gonna be no future!"

"'For future reference!' That's the funniest thing you've probably ever said."

"Who are you, the Chamber of Commerce?"

"Who are you, the director of first impressions?"

"Sorry to impose on your overflow crowd!"

"Don't you believe in the co-mingling of trash?"
And other assorted Walter Mitty witticisms we told each other later in the car, following the rest of 36 to the coast.

What we did in real life was stare for a brief moment, and move on. Nancy said aloud, "She probably wouldn't want me using her Porta-Potty®©™, then."

To which a teenaged girl sitting nearby said, "No, she'd probably take your head off for that."

We decided in our sweet-lemon state that we had done exactly what we should have, let the shrill anonymous woman launch her dud of derision, never to give her satisfaction. Kind of like the woman long ago who simply waved each time I flipped her off (yes, I did!) for cutting me off. I got nothing from the transaction, except the lingering chagrin.

We decided the cool coastal breezes would wash us clean.


It's been so long since we last stopped through Eureka, I had forgotten how prevalent homeless people are. I can't pretend to know why a somewhat isolated city in the far north of California would attract homeless, so cool and wet so much of the time, but there you go.

On a country FM station broadcasting San Francisco Giants games (one up on Sacramento, Eureka!) and their mad river of loss, a sort of commercial played. Though it sounded like a political ad, it carried no attribution, no candidate, no interest group. The woman in the commercial called for the "need" to distinguish between the just-plain homeless and homeless vagrants, and urged vagrant crime to stop, though it didn't say how.

I imagined a processing center where officials would assign the homeless one color armband and homeless vagrants another. Now, where have I heard that before?

After the swim, Bill pointed across the harbor to the Eureka shoreline, describing historic buildings and redevelopment that's been going on for some time, with more to come.

Like everything else, he said, it needs a river of money, an economy to move again with new energy.


We stayed at a KOA®™for the swim, not wanting another hotel expense but not wanting to fight for a state park campsite on short notice. Easily 40 years have passed since I last stayed at a KOA. My parents seemed to prefer them on summer vacations, the motel for trailer folk — always a site, always on your route, easy to reach.

I loved them as a kid. A general store (not that I remember buying anything at it), pool tables or ping pong in the next room (not that I remember playing, unless my dad felt sorry for his shy son), a playground.

We always had a trailer when I was a kid. Then as now, I realized, the world favors trailer folk. Trailer folk slid into their spacious slots, arranged at precise slants in the middle of the camp, each with precise slants of green lawn precisely beneath where their canopies unfurl. We watched couples walk their dogs in the trailer area, laughing and gesturing as if they'd stepped out of one of those "let's go RV'ing" ads.

No such equivalent for tent campers, who got the perimeter against the fenceline, spaces not much longer than a car nor much deeper, each site separated by a curling half-sheet of plastic landscape lattice nailed to fenceposts, a square picnic table, a concrete block sometimes recognizable as a firepit.

We began to wonder what we'd done to tick off KOA®™.

Kids didn't bother us, even the mad river of kids that ran around the park into the night as bats began to roam the tree canopies. Kids reminded us of our own (although we'd have hauled them back to our site long before nightfall, and not let them run around by themselves); kids reminded me of the labor camps in "The Grapes of Wrath," an oddly comforting thought.

Ah well, it was a place to stay, and we only needed the tent space for the night. We had gone to dinner at Samoa Cookhouse with Lisa and Cathy. The restaurant out on the spit across from Eureka is supposed to be an old lumberjack's cookhouse, and customers eat the same meal together at long tables topped with red checked oilskin tablecloths.

I tossed and turned, dreaming when I could of the next day's event.

Just keep swimming.

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