By Lee Foster
I was kayaking up California’s Elkhorn Slough, north of Monterey, looking for curlews, herons, and snowy egrets. Large populations of birds rested on the banks and cluster in the waters.
I was searching, however, for something other than a single species of bird. I was looking for an antidote to the environmental pessimism that permeates the lives of those who choose to be informed. I longed to immerse myself in an example of something we have saved, something we have done right, such as Elkhorn Slough, a part of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
The week before this kayaking trip I received a letter typical of what we all hear and see every day. The letter, from the World Wildlife Fund, said, “Without firing a shot, we may kill one-fifth of all species of life on this planet in the next 20 years.” After outlining the rapacious activities of the most destructive species yet to evolve, my species, the letter closed with the admonition, “Extinction can come quickly. And extinction is forever.”
After such barrages of information, the daily assault of bad news, I longed for an exposure to something we are doing right, some small element in the good-news environmental story. Kayaking up Elkhorn Slough was a good place to start.
As I kayaked along, I was the layman wise enough to have sought out a guide. I was kayaking with Jeff Shrock, who had been perusing for years this seven-mile-long wetland, fully 5,000 acres of submerged and semi-submerged lands. He saw the same birds I saw, but knew all their names and their calls intimately. Shrock alerted me to the magnificent bird resource that Elkhorn Slough represents.
“My greatest thrill as a kayaker comes when flocks of sandpipers are present,” said Shrock. “There are thousands of birds in the flocks. They come flying at the kayak in dense numbers, directly, head on. When they reach the nose of the kayak, they split, veering off half to each side, all guided by some seamless and beautiful intelligence, all directed by some special navigational skill. It’s a wondrous experience to watch them, up close.”
The kayaking experience possible at Elkhorn Slough is exhilarating, but should not be undertaken casually. I recommend strongly a guided tour, from Monterey Bay Kayaks or other outfitters, for your first kayaking trip here.
One reason is the tides. It’s helpful to launch with the incoming tide and ride back out with the outgoing tide. Otherwise, a day of moderate paddling could become an ordeal. The channels of the slough that are navigable and intriguing at high tide become mudflats where you could easily get stranded at low tide. Wind is another variable. A guide understands the patterns of winds that blow in from the ocean and up the slough, making paddling difficult. Launch times must be planned with these variables in mind. Kayaking Elkhorn is a half-day to day outing, which is why I like to make an adventure at Elkhorn a weekend getaway, using Monterey as my lodging and dining base.
The actual launch site is the Moss Landing Harbor District Launch Ramp, near a rather unsightly Duke Energy (formerly PG&E) generating plant. At first you will wonder about this location as the start of an ecotour, but once underway, the PG&E stacks soon disappear from your sight.
What looms ahead of you on a kayaking trip is a fauna-and-flora treat, starting with the large mammals, the harbor seals hauled out on the mud banks and the rafts of sea otters, who enjoy the protected waters and the ample clam population in the slough.
But it is bird life for which Elkhorn Slough is most famous. Elkhorn’s location on the coast of California, where 90 percent of the wetlands have been destroyed, and its strategic position on the Pacific Flyway make this slough a major bird motel as species rest between their summer nesting sites in the Arctic and their winter destinations further south.
A total of 267 species of resident and migratory birds have been tallied at Elkhorn, but a special birding phenomenon occurred on October 31, 1982. On that day 116 species of birds were seen in a single location at Elkhorn, which is an American birding record. Rare and endangered bird species also favor Elkhorn, ranging from peregrine falcons to snowy plovers.
Elkhorn is also celebrated for its fish life. Over 80 species have been identified in the slough, including such important commercial species as halibut and ling cod. It is estimated that over two-thirds of the commercial fish and shellfish we consume spend part of their lives in coastal wetlands like Elkhorn.
While kayaking here in summer, I have witnessed an extraordinary fish experience. Five-foot-long leopard sharks, smoothhound sharks, and bat rays enter Elkhorn in summer to give live birth to their young. Watching large leopard sharks wallowing in the shallows, with their fins out of the water, is a memorable encounter. These sharks are harmless bottom-feeders in no way dangerous to humans. A kayak presents an excellent venue from which to observe the sharks at relatively close range, yet without disturbing them.
Since the winter-flowing Carneros Creek emptying into Elkhorn runs only part of the year, Elkhorn is known as a seasonal estuary. The meandering channels of the slough become rather salty and brackish by late summer. About 1,400 acres of the total 5,000 acres in Elkhorn Slough are designated as one of 25 U.S. National Estuarine Research Reserves, making Elkhorn a prime candidate for research, education, and stewardship.
I have enjoyed each season of the year at Elkhorn, both from a kayak and hiking on land. Autumn is my favorite time to see the migrating shorebirds, such as plovers, godwits, and avocets. In winter the duck population soars, with widgeons and shovelers in ample numbers. In spring I have watched egrets, herons, and cormorants build their nests in trees adjacent to the slough. Summer is my favorite time to hike the oak grasslands around the slough.
Besides approaching Elkhorn from a kayak, the other access mode is on foot. Drive inland to the excellent Visitor Center at 1700 Elkhorn Road, five miles from the kayak launch site. The Visitor Center is open Wednesday-Sunday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., has interpretive exhibits, and provides maps for five miles of hiking trails. Three trails loop through different habitats, ranging oak woodlands to salt marsh mud flats. Anyone who wants to get involved in the future of Elkhorn can take a summer training course at the Visitor Center and then participate in volunteer activities.
As I kayaked up Elkhorn Slough in autumn, passing the rafts of sea otters and the migrating shorebirds, I found my mental health improving. Elkhorn Slough is one of my personal antidotes to environmental pessimism. My hope is that you, too, will find such antidotes in your experience.
KAYAKING ELKHORN SLOUGH: IF YOU GO TO MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA
Kayaking is organized by Jeff Shrock and others. The kayaks launch at Moss Landing. Contact Monterey Bay Kayaks, 2390 Highway 1, Moss Landing, or 693 Del Monte Avenue, Monterey, 800/649-5357.
For Monterey region tourism information, contact the Monterey Peninsula Visitors and Convention Bureau, P.O. Box 1770, 380 Alvarado St., Monterey, CA 93942-1770; 831/649-1770.
The Elkhorn Slough Visitor Center (831/728-2822) is east of Moss Landing at 1700 Elkhorn Road. Their web site is www.elkhornslough.org.
Get the ELKHORN SLOUGH book, published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for $9.95. It has 64 pages and 113 color photos and watercolors portraying the slough. The book is available at the Visitor Center bookstore. A premier kindred site to visit is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, 886 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93950; 831/648-4888.