June 16, 2018
It is a gorgeous warm sunny Saturday with an extra low tide after an almost new moon. My sweet old dog Mr. Nilson and I are walking the roughly 4.5 miles from Langley to Bells Beach, with a moderate wind in our face. Less than a week before the solstice, it finally feels like summer has arrived, after I ended up installing heaters in my new home just a week ago because of temperatures in the fifties. I am happily wearing a short skirt and t-shirt, with a wool sweater and hot tea in the backpack just in case, and take off my sandals and Nilson’s leash as soon as we get to the beach. We don’t encounter a single other human or canine on the entire walk, on a sunny weekend day on Whidbey Island, a 20-minute ferry ride north of Seattle. Oh how I love where I get to live!
Walking barefoot is tough without my usual rain boots, since the bottoms of my feet are still soft from winter and my muscles spoiled from indoor work. I have a choice and take turns gingerly stepping on nasty barnacled rocks on shore and sinking deep into the squishy seaweed-coated mudflats laid bare by an exceptionally low tide whenever the sea succeeds in drawing me out to the water’s edge. Occasionally a leg disappears all the way to the thigh, and at one point I end up crawling back to the barnacles sheepishly on all fours to distribute the weight better and keep up with my much more agile old grey dog. I do learn to look for thick carpets of sea grass to keep me from sinking and allow me to walk in the shallow water.
The sky is as full of eagles, crows, herons, and seagulls as the tide pools are of crabs, mussels, and tiny fish, and the bordering woods of butterflies, buzzing bumblebees, and blackberry blossoms. I am no scientist, and pretty short-sighted on top of that, so you won’t get botanical and ornithological details out of me, much less hard facts about the foreign world under the sea. I can barely tell a clam from a mussel, but hope to learn what squishes and squirms and squirts under my toes. I do love to flail around in seagrass waiting for seals and to swim in the cold blue stuff, and I am part mermaid apparently, so I am determined to get to know my new home in, under, and at the edge of the giant expanse of salt water known as the Puget Sound or, more broadly and poetically, the Salish Sea. I wonder if I will ever get used to the abundance of this bioregion, especially in comparison to the arid places in Arizona and New Mexico where I used to live. The dense dripping mossy rain forest on the shore is just as teeming with life as the kelp and sea grass jungles below the water’s surface. While my German genes feel right at home in the dark forest with its deer, squirrels, and mushrooms, it will take me a while to learn the secrets of its salty sister and feel comfortable around her inhabitants. Somehow I am not quite ready for the thought of swimming with a Grey Whale, as happened not too long ago to the open water swimmers group in Langley.
At some point, after passing a number of herons doing one-legged yoga balance poses, the usual suspects at low tide on a calm lazy summer day, Nilson and I encounter a large bald eagle not in his usual spot perched high on a tree watching the world go ‘round but down by the water, picking at what looks from the distance like a seal carcass. His message to me: “You puny human! Keep away and leave me to my business. And don’t you get too bogged down with your worldly concerns.” Channeling the favorite saying of my wise friend Lillian Bridges, he repeats a note on my fridge: “This too shall pass!” I gratefully defer to his right of way, and Nilson and I make a wide circle around him, which he doesn’t even acknowledge with a flap of his wing.
About two thirds through my hike, as the first house by the bulk head of my destination at Bells Beach appears in the far distance, Mr. Nilson and I decide to stop for a picnic and tea. We share a delicious duck egg that my new neighbor presented to me, Nilson conks out for a snooze in the shade, and I prepare some fancy Taiwanese Oolong tea in my traveling cup. l take off my shirt and soak up the sun, for the first time this year on my shining white belly. Just when I am about to join Nilson in Lala Land, I am startled by a sound like a truck dumping a load of gravel somewhere on Camano Island across the water. I remember the last time I heard this sound, on this same beach, a couple of months ago when the visiting Grey Whales were feeding for salt shrimp in the shallows, but it was too dark and grey and rainy then to see them through the fog, and they were much too far away. This time I don’t get to see the actual animal either, but I do see a number of water fountains shooting straight up in the air to accompany the big snorting sounds, straight in front of me. And what else besides a whale could be causing such a show? Humbled, I stand by the water’s edge and cry in gratitude for this gift.