Freezing fingers riding the tide

I don’t kayak much in January — it’s often stormy, windy, wet and cold. But despite this week’s freezing overnight temperatures (had to clear ice from inside my kayak before launching in the morning), conditions have been perfect: sunny skies, small swells and light winds. I’ve been on the water three times this week. First, the slough.

Saturday was ride-the-tide at Elkhorn Slough. If you don’t know the slough, it’s an estuary midway along the Monterey Bay coastline (at Moss Landing). It’s the second largest tract of tidal marsh in California; San Francisco Bay is the largest. The slough, pronounced slew, is a nearly 7-mile (11-km) channel with associated aquatic and terrestrial habitats. In short, it’s a beautiful, life-rich place to visit.

For the ride I joined my long-time friend Ava and some of her friends — about a dozen of us, guided by David from Kayak Connection. We launched at Kirby Park (about 4.5 miles, or 7.2 km, up the slough) after noon on the ebbing tide (a 6.3-feet or 1.9-m high tide was at 10 a.m.), which carried us toward the mouth of the slough at a pretty good clip. For the first hour or so of the ride it was sunny and calm. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the water receded, the mudflats were exposed. The shorebirds’ focus on feeding allowed us to gawk at diving Forster’s terns, fishing herons and egrets, probing godwits, plucking avocets, squirting clams, and circling flocks of sandpipers.

While enjoying what seemed like a rare, vibrant, minimally disturbed environment, our guide shared stories about the dramatic changes to the slough since the Ohlone people settled here thousands of years ago. What we were seeing was nothing compared to what was. And even now, though much of the slough is protected and carefully watched over, it’s losing ground from tidal erosion and threatened by invasive non-native species, pollution and future sea level rise.
Our footprints are everywhere.

About two hours into the ride, near Seal Bend, the wind picked up, blowing in off the chilly ocean, and my fingers turned numb — a reminder that it’s January. We paddled (instead of drifted) past sea otters diving and dining, sea lions crowded on a dock, and harbor seals snoozing on a sand bank near hundreds of resting seabirds (mostly gulls). We quickly disembarked to seek warmth, but were left with the glow of a great day.

Click on the links to find out more about threats to Elkhorn Slough and what you can do to help. If nothing else, visit — whether by paddle or by foot.

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