Fire and Fog on the California Coast

It’s summer on the Northern California coast—fog season. The fog moves in dramatically as an aerial waterfall flowing over the tops of the hills. It’s the only source of moisture during the extended dry season, and it’s what nurtures the growth of the coast redwoods found nowhere else on earth. The fog provides the temperature contrast with the intense summer heat inland and while the frequency varies year to year, it sees us through until the winter rains.

It seemed to be a relatively foggy summer until it wasn’t. Just still warm air, and then high winds bringing freak storm clouds shooting down dry lightning that ignited thousands of fires. And still no fog to slow down the flames.

Where I live is not in the fire zone but the smoke is intense. Seeking cleaner air and the comfort of nature, I headed toward the coast in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the late afternoon. Traveling through the Marin Headlands, I spotted a coyote.

And the coyote spotted me.

I arrived at Rodeo Beach. Walking on the sand toward the waves, I looked across the ocean as I have countless times. But never had the sky looked like this. There was the fog, hovering over the water miles away. A thin strip of blue sky was visible above it, and on top was a giant layer of smoke drifting above and heading out to sea.

I watched the seabirds coming and going from appropriately named Bird Island, silhouetted against that strange sky. The cormorants traveled alone in straight lines, the solitary gulls meandered, and brown pelicans gracefully circled in groups and glided just above the water. I was watching a moving painting that was simultaneously ominous and beautiful.

I lingered to take in the fresh salt air. Before I left to sequester indoors with my air filters again, I watched the sunset with the eerie orange glow that only smoke can create. And willed the fog to come ashore.

Within the Buddhist teaching of Metta, translated as loving-kindness, is a phrase one says on behalf of all beings—may you be safe. For all affected by the fires, known and unknown, this is my wish for you.

Pacific Coast Wildlife Extravaganza

Yesterday, Mitchell took me for a spectacular walk on the cliffs above the Pacific, at a place called Bodega Head, a peninsula jutting out into the ocean about an hour and a half north of home. Funny that I’ve lived here all these years and never walked out there.

Knowing we were going to be passing through the little town of Bodega on Bodega Bay, first we of course had to watch the video of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds since it was filmed in the town. Bodega Bay is definitely more developed now than the sleepy fishing village it was in 1963, but it’s still got a fishing and crabbing culture. The old Bodega Bay School featured in the film has been restored and it’s now a private residence without any attacking ravens. Constructed in 1873, the building is still stunning.

All photos by Mitchell Yee

On Bodega Bay, we walked to the end of the fishing pier, where a shameless adult male California sea lion begged for bait fish from the family that was fishing on the pier. We watched both brown and white pelicans, birds that typically aren’t found that near each other. The diving brown pelicans were in the deep water, and the larger white pelicans were doing their group feeding thing swimming in the shallows.

There was also the biggest group of cormorants feeding together that I’ve seen–at least 30–obviously following schooling fish. Long-necked and low-bodied, they appeared almost like sea serpents, all neck and beak, then diving and coming up with fish that they gulped down.

In perfect weather, we headed out to the trail high on the bluffs of Bodega Head. From there, we stopped awestruck looking down on a trio of California gray whales. They ended up hanging out near the shore for an hour. We walked along the cliff and listened to the barking of dozens of California sea lions at their island rookery, and spotted a few harbor seals hanging out on the rocks around them. A big pod of dolphins zoomed around, churning up the water as they took to the air.

That’s not a rock behind the island–it’s a whale.

All of that, and there were more brown pelicans flying in formation, songbirds, seabirds, and a couple of deer along the trail. And finally, a red-tailed hawk perching in the glow of sunset silhouetted against the sky below the nearly full moon.

A magical day.