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Reserve

Started: 2020-12-30 21:35:05

Submitted: 2020-12-31 00:23:22

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In which the intrepid narrator visits Elkhorn Slough, on foot this time

On Saturday afternoon, the 5th of December, after my regularly-scheduled weekend video conference with my family, I took the kids on an afternoon excursion to Elkhorn Slough. The sky had been clear until the moment I started marshaling the kids into the car; then high clouds rolled in, obscuring the sun and casting a gray light on everything.

This time I drove past Kirby Park, where I kayaked two weeks earlier, and pulled into the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, a long and awkward name for a chunk of land above and in the slough that's managed both for research and for education (and, most relevant to my purposes, five miles of hiking trails where I could get my kids out of the house to see birds and stuff).

We stopped by the visitor's center to check in, which was mostly saying hi to the park ranger sitting at the desk outside the otherwise-closed-for-covid visitor's center, who reminded us that the whole thing closed at 17:00 and pointed out the trail map (which I had already attempted to print out, but somehow it cropped wrong and cut off the northern third of the reserve) and the laminated pictures of birds and other wildlife we might see.

Moss Landing Power Plant smokestacks above Elkhorn Slough
Moss Landing Power Plant smokestacks above Elkhorn Slough

Our first stop inside the reserve was at the overlook, on the hillside over the slough itself where several telescopes were permanently mounted to give a view of the slough and its surroundings. From our lofty position on the hillside it was hard to see any wildlife in the water, though given my earlier experiences in the slough I assumed there must be birds somewhere.

Julian looks through a telescope at Elkhorn Slough
Julian looks through a telescope at Elkhorn Slough

We continued down the hillside, past the Little Barn and Big Barn, finally walking out onto a boardwalk leading out over the water into a large pond connected to the tides in the slough.

Julian walks down the trail towards the slough
Julian walks down the trail towards the slough

Here I tried to read the interpretive signs to Julian, with mixed results; but we were finally close enough to the water that we could see sandpipers of various shapes and sizes picking their way through the shallow water at the edge of the muddy bank, plunging their beaks into the mud to look for tasty invertebrates for a snack. I tried to explain the significance of the pickleweed covering the salt marsh, now exposed by the lower tide, but I'm not sure either of my children appreciated it. (To be fair, I'm not sure they've yet had the chance to study saltwater plant biology and the difficulty that plants have in maintaining their biological processes in a high-saline environment.)

Calvin looks out on the boardwalk at Elkhorn Slough
Calvin looks out on the boardwalk at Elkhorn Slough

We followed the trail over a low bridge through the middle of the South Marsh (though this marsh was on the northern side of the part of the reserve accessible to visitors — the part of the reserve cut off the map I tried to print). Most of the bridge was a causeway built across the mudflat, and although the gravel on the causeway looked like it had been refreshed recently, I could see where the high tide had encroached onto the surface of the trail and where the gravel and dirt had begun to erode away on both sides of the bridge.

Julian and Calvin are not looking at the sea otter swimming in the slough
Julian and Calvin are not looking at the sea otter swimming in the slough

Here I saw a sea otter swimming in the water, lounging on its back and using its powerful rear flippers to push itself through the water, before diving under the water and resurfacing fifty meters away. It swam a couple of laps back and forth along the causeway. I pointed it out to my children, who did eventually manage to look in the right direction to see the otter gliding past.

Sea otter swimming in Elkhorn Slough
Sea otter swimming in Elkhorn Slough

We took a spur trail to Hummingbird Island, on the other side of the former Southern Pacific Railroad tracks running along the east side of Monterey Bay. (The tracks were still maintained, and allegedly active, though it's not clear how much use they still get.)

Railroad tracks running by Elkhorn Slough
Railroad tracks running by Elkhorn Slough

On Hummingbird Island we saw a couple of curious art installations that defy easy explanation. The island sat directly on the main channel of the slough; from the far side we could see masses of birds (too far away to make out in any detail) in the middle of the channel, with the twin stacks of the Moss Landing Power Plant in the distance.

Julian looks out at Elkhorn Slough
Julian looks out at Elkhorn Slough

The island may have been a real island at one point, but was no longer surrounded by water: it was was bisected by a causeway carrying the railroad tracks along the eastern edge of the slough, and we walked onto the island on a causeway separating one pond from the rest of the marsh; the pond was draining in the ebb tide through culvert under the trail.

Salt marsh at Elkhorn Slough
Salt marsh at Elkhorn Slough

The one bird I could identify was a bright white great egret standing by itself at the edge of the salt marsh.

Great egret at Elkhorn Slough
Great egret at Elkhorn Slough

We returned to the South Marsh Loop and looped around the east side of the pond, where the ground rose high enough for eucalyptus and oak trees to tower above the path. The path wove around the ponds, clinging to a stable contour line just above the high-water mark.

Julian and Calvin walk along the South Marsh Loop
Julian and Calvin walk along the South Marsh Loop

By the time we returned to the overlook enough clouds had cleared that we had a clear view of Loma Prieta (the mountain) to the north. I could see a couple of windows glinting in the setting sun; I followed the ridge to the left to where I thought our house must be and saw the glint of windows there, then showed Calvin and Julian in the telescope. I don't know for sure if it really was our house, but it could have been; I can confirm that I can see the sprawling convoluted waterways that make up Elkhorn Slough from the house.

Calvin and Julian look at Loma Prieta
Calvin and Julian look at Loma Prieta

As we were returning to the parking lot, a park ranger at the visitor's center pointed out a flock of feral turkeys wandering around the adjacent field. Neither of my children thought this was interesting (though Julian had expressed interest in feral turkeys earlier, a week after Thanksgiving, so I thought he might be interested to see this flock); but I at least took the opportunity to observe (and photograph) the massive birds as they strolled across the field gobbling to themselves. The turkeys were not actually the birds I had come to the reserve to see, but I did find them amusing.

Feral turkeys at Elkhorn Slough
Feral turkeys at Elkhorn Slough

And with that we returned to the car and drove back home to Loma Prieta, after an afternoon in the salt marshes.

Julian and Calvin climb past the barns at Elkhorn Slough
Julian and Calvin climb past the barns at Elkhorn Slough
I sometimes refer to you by your real names to real people.
- Neelix, 10 March 1999