We’re spending a good part of this summer at our cabin in Big Lagoon, about 30 miles beyond Eureka on the northern coast of California, between Trinidad and Orrick. Walking the beach the other day, I was glad to see an array of glittering plants flourishing so close to the ocean, but it also reminded me of a mournful experience here in January of 2004.
Winters at Big Lagoon tend to be short on light. And deep in rain, averaging 65 inches a year, most of which falls in the winter months. We keep a wood fire going twenty-four hours, sealing our small refuge against the chilly damp nights. Storms are commonplace at this time of year, it’s when the Pacific takes its best shots at the long stretch of beach that goes from the northern point of Big Lagoon down to jagged rocks at Patrick’s Point. In December and January, a huge section of the beach is impassable and most locals keep their dogs on a short leash. Even on a calm night, in our cabin over two hundred yards from the Pacific we can hear the waves booming on the shore: a deep kettledrum sound.
This year, the winter of 2003-4, it’s rained even more than usual. Maybe there’s been one full day without rain in the last two weeks. Usually it lets up for a while and I take the opportunity to go out for a walk. With my dog Wilbur urging me on, I head to the spit that threads the ocean and lagoon. Here, a barrier beach runs for about three miles north of our cabin until you reach a place where the lagoon, fattened by streams and rain, occasionally leaks into the Pacific and where the ocean at extreme high tide pours its brackish waves into the lagoon. One of my new year’s resolutions has been to make it along the barrier beach to the northernmost tip of the lagoon, but I’m easily distracted by the glint of black green jade in the sand or I’m run off home by a stinging rain.
Usually, in the winter my only company is Wilbur. Occasionally we see another lone hiker or a beachcomber, back bent, eyes down searching for agates, jasper, and petrified wood. As I set out this wintry weekday, however, I can see people in motion about half a mile away. The beach seems crowded for early January. As I get closer, I realize there are two groups of men, one near the ocean, the other near the lagoon. To my left, where the surf breaks on the beach, a couple of big guys in uniforms are sitting on their stationary dune buggies, squinting out to sea. I stop to talk with them – a common courtesy between strangers around here – and they tell me they’re with the sheriff’s search and rescue team. There’s always plenty of work for them.
About a month ago, a friend of a friend watched her indestructible dog, a strong swimmer at ease in the ocean, disappear into the waves at Agate Beach, his back broken. And before the new year is two weeks old, Robinson Martin, a young student from Berkeley, will walk into the surf at night on nearby Clam Beach and reappear three days later, washed up dead on the beach at Luffenholz. Today, the deputies tell me they’re hoping to find what’s left of eight-year old Joseph Bailey who was sucked under by a rogue wave just up the coast a few days earlier. At the entrance to the beach at Big Lagoon, there’s a sign that says, “Warning: Dangerous Undertow,” but many visitors from out of town don’t read the local obituaries until it’s too late. The day that Joseph died, so did his uncle, Jeff Russell, trying to rescue him.
One of my ritualistic pleasures on this daily pilgrimage is to stop, face the ocean, and look out with eyes wide open. There’s always movement, always something to watch: whales, otters, and sea lions, the lights of the crab boats, herons and egrets skimming the water. But today I notice that the roiling ocean is a sullen green, the surf lipped with scum, and I’m hungry for the stillness of the lagoon.
As I turn east, I see that the other group consists of three men, also in uniforms, on their hands and knees in the wet sand, digging and pulling at the ground, as though rooting out potatoes. I go up to greet them. “Good afternoon, looks like you’re doing some weeding,” I say to them. The park rangers greet me back, chuckling at the absurdity of my observation. “Sure looks like that,” says one of them. “We’re pulling out the ice plants. They’re not native. All the way from there” -- he indicates the place where I started my hike -- “to all the way down there to the end,” he says, pointing to some imagined place where the ocean breaches the lagoon.
“Must be hard on your backs,” I offer. “Not really, you get used to it. We need to do it because the ice plants are starting to invade the whole area,” he says. “Not native.” When I return in the spring, they tell me, there’ll be more space for the sea figs, beach strawberries, seaside daisies and other salt-resistant plants to reclaim their home here between surf and lagoon. I wish the rangers well in their work and walk on further down the spit.
Soon, I stop to look back. Their bodies have faded into the ghostly fog, but it’s reassuring to hear murmuring voices holding their own against the ocean’s dirge.