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Kirby Park

Started: 2020-12-13 11:20:44

Submitted: 2020-12-13 14:10:36

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator kayaks Elkhorn Slough and sees So Many Birds

The weekend before Thanksgiving I went to Kirby Park to kayak on Elkhorn Slough. (I previously visited Elkhorn Slough on a kayak two years ago.)

This was the first time I've gone kayaking since moving, and I hadn't quite located all of my gear yet. (The movers had put my kayak gear in some weird places; the hand bilge pump ended up in Julian's water table, though I noticed this shortly after the move and put it in the right place so I could find it again.) The most important part of missing gear was my life jacket: I couldn't find it anywhere obvious, and we'd unpacked pretty much everything. Kiesa eventually found it in a partially-unpacked box of stuff stacked under a pile of packing paper, which was why I hadn't found it the first several times I looked. As I was pulling out of the driveway I remembered that I hadn't found my spray skirt. But I didn't think I really needed the spray skirt today, and I hadn't seen it anywhere so I wasn't really sure where to look for it anyway.

Kirby Park is a parking lot and boat ramp on the upper end of Elkhorn Slough. (The slough itself has a fascinating history: it was transformed from a small brackish backwater into a major saltwater tidal marsh in the 1940s when the US Army Corps of Engineers dug a channel through the sand dunes to form Elkhorn Harbor.) The slough meets Monterey Bay in the geographic center of the bay, half-way between Santa Cruz and Monterey, above Monterey Canyon, dropping precipitously into the deep ocean immediately offshore. (Geologists have no real idea how Monterey Canyon was formed, except to point out that the canyon is much too large and steep to have been cut away by the modest drainage basin of the Salinas Valley.)

I launched from the concrete boat ramp at Kirby Park, passing people fishing from shore and from the small dock. People paddled kayaks and stand-up paddleboards in the calm water. The tide was flooding, flowing up the slough; I paddled south, towards the ocean, with the tidal current running against me, with a light breeze from the north-east at my back.

Kayak on Elkhorn Slough
Kayak on Elkhorn Slough

I brought my new GoPro on its first outing onto the water. (I bought it this fall as a birthday present for myself, on the theory that I could use a good water-proof adventure camera now that I can see the ocean.) But I neglected to check that it was fully charged before I left, and I only managed to take a couple of pictures before the battery died completely. (I also decided that I needed to bring a carabiner to attach it to my life jacket so I could let go of it when I wasn't using it, then detach it and wave it about to get whatever pictures I wanted.)

Kayaking in Elkhorn Slough
Kayaking in Elkhorn Slough

The water was calm as I paddled towards the ocean, into the oncoming tide. The tide was high enough that most of the mud flats on the side of the slough had been inundated by water, but if I wasn't careful I'd find myself in six inches of water over the flat mud. This was enough water for my kayak to float, but it made paddling difficult until I found my way back to the main channel

There were birds everywhere, but with only wide-angle lenses at my disposal it was hard to get a good picture of them. I saw sandpipers and seagulls and pelicans and (maybe) terns, standing in the mud, swimming in the water, diving for fish, and soaring overhead. My favorite were the pelicans, soaring overhead on broad wings, then swiveling their massive beaks downwards in flight (like the droop nose on the Concorde) to look for fish in the water, and diving noisily into the water. I was impressed by how the pelicans flew when they weren't fishing, with their fat bellies a few inches above the perfectly-still water, clearly relying on ground effect to fly more efficiently, then climbing a few inches when they needed to flap their wings again.

Birds congregating on Elkhorn Slough
Birds congregating on Elkhorn Slough

I also saw sea otters in the water, lounging on their backs with their paws resting on their bellies, swimming against the current with their powerful real flippers, looking kind of like wet cats that had somehow developed an affinity for water. (They were far enough away that it was useless to try to photograph them with the equipment I had.)

Kayak on Eklhorn Slough approaching Moss Landing Power Plant
Kayak on Eklhorn Slough approaching Moss Landing Power Plant

After an hour of paddling, I reached Seal Bend, where the highly-visible, though now-unused, twin smoke stacks for Moss Landing Power Plant units 6 and 7 loomed over a small grove of trees. I stopped to eat lunch on my kayak, and I drifted across the main channel of the slough. The tidal current was still flooding, heading inland away from the ocean, trying to take me back to Kirby Park at maybe two knots; but the wind had picked up out of the north-east to maybe eight or ten knots; and the two forces were almost perfectly matched so that I slowly drifted south, perpendicular to the channel. As I ate I saw reddish-brown jellyfish (Pacific sea nettles) zipping along in the water below me, carried up the channel by the current, gently puffing and billowing as they swam along with the water with their tendrils fluttering in the water behind them, doing whatever it is that jellyfish do with their time. The jellyfish proved just as difficult to photograph as the sea otters: my phone camera, nestled in a waterproof case, was not up to the challenge of focusing on and photographing something under the water.

Heading upstream on Elkhorn Slough
Heading upstream on Elkhorn Slough

I turned back to where I'd come from, facing the wind and paddling east along the channel body of the slough, and came face-to-face with foot-high waves, the obvious effect of the wind and current opposing each other. I paddled back the way I came, seeing mostly the same things but from the opposite direction. On the way back I saw more sea otters; I couldn't reliably count the number of otters I saw because they kept diving and reappearing, but I may have seen as many as a dozen otters in different parts of the slough.

Elkhorn Slough
Elkhorn Slough

I reached Kirby Park and continued paddling a short distance upstream, where a trail and boardwalk lead along the slough from the parking lot. (I'd visited the boardwalk a week earlier, on a fact-finding mission before I was ready to commit to bringing my kayak down to the water.) I returned to dry land and headed home, after a good day paddling on Elkhorn Slough.

Elkhorn Slough from Kirby Park
Elkhorn Slough from Kirby Park
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