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Creek Running North

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July 07, 2003


My brother in law came by today. We walked to the bay, where we found a six foot tide and strong wind driving waves against our shore.

It was a momentous occasion. Becky's brother is still recovering from a nearly fatal bicycle accident in December. Two weeks in intensive care, two months in a rented hospital bed in our living room. The last time Elmo went down the creek with us, he was in a wheelchair. Now his walk is just slightly uneven, thanks to a new titanium femur.

These were the biggest waves I'd seen on this part of the bay. Still too small to be anything but a source of silly fun for an inexpert kayaker, they lashed the cutbanks on the Hercules side of the creekmouth. The landscape here is shaped more by extremes than by the mean. If foot-high waves can pummel the cutbanks this way, I suspect the waves don't get that big very often. Otherwise, the cutbanks wouldn't still be there.

I found a section of the bank with a deep hole about as wide as a softball. Surf surged in and out. I lay down just above the hole, chest pushing into the star thistle and lotus, spray barely reaching my glasses, and watched the little waves as they drilled deeper into the bank.

Two feet below my face, wave after wave rushed against the "cliff." Hands full of soil dropped, one after another, from the undercut bank. If I'd lain there for long enough, I would have wound up in the drink. I think it would have taken two weeks. Crest and crest pounded into the hole in the cliff, rushing in as foam and out as silty water. However the hole started — mole burrow, driftwood cast — it would finish as a natural bridge, like the ones the State Park in Santa Cruz is named for that aren't there anymore.

A live clam seemed — despite its lineage — to be doing its best to hang on in the face of the storm. Each incoming wave would buffet it, then the slack would nearly expel it from the hole. And then the lee, and a slight seam opening between its shells, and an edge of black foot poking out ("where am I?") before the next onslaught. I suppose I should have rescued it, put it safely five, maybe six inches beneath the roiling surface. Deeper than that would have required a walk a hundred yards off shore.

When I was young, eight or nine or so, I could spend whole months watching the interplay of land and flowing water. I poured buckets over and over again on the same spot of sand, eroding that particular working class resort's expensively imported beach into the lake. When I decided my little canyon was taking far too long to form, I drafted my brother and sisters and a few of their friends to form a bucket brigade. What good are younger siblings if you can't conscript them as grunt labor for your grand experiments?

Camping in the Utah wilderness on a sandbar in the Green a few years back, I remembered that feeling of being lost on the elemental border of water and earth. The big river curled by in grand eddies, current as strong upstream along the banks as it was downstream in mid-river. Those cutbanks were carved into broad scallops, some of them shaped by eddies that no longer played along their edges. I remember being surprised that events downstream could affect conditions upstream: it seemed a violation of some natural law. Silly misconception. A gallon of sand placed into a small eddy by a careless foot could cause six or seven scalloped banks upstream to collapse within thirty seconds. Alter the flow and you alter the landscape it flows from. Quarries in lower reaches of California streams can degrade the upper watershed: as the water flows into the deep hole, it speeds up; the faster river cuts deeper and gradually deepens its bed further and further upstream, until the bristlecone pines teeter over a new gully.

Tonight, I could have lain and watched the surf for far longer than the twenty minutes I allowed myself. Certainly long enough to have tumbled headlong into the Bay over several weeks; long enough to watch the hills run down to the ocean as thin mud and ride back up again on the Hayward Fault, there to send thin mud down into some other bay, some day when San Pablo clams nestle tight in a band of fossiliferous rock.

Posted by Chris Clarke at July 7, 2003 10:52 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Chris, this is a beautiful piece. I too am constantly drawn to that elemental border between water and the land, and like you spent lots of hours recreating it as a child. Glad to have found you and your site through the Ecotone.

Posted by: beth at July 9, 2003 12:20 PM
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