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Creek Running North

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August 16, 2005


In summer, wind comes down the Pacific coast from Alaska. It pushes near-shore waters before it. They do not move in a straight line. Blow on a bowl of soup to cool it, and eddies will circle back to the left and right. In the bowl of the Pacific, land lies to the left, so no eddy forms there. Surface waters skitter offshore, at near-right angles to the northwest wind.

When the water heads west, more must come to replace it. A current comes up from the depths, ten or fifteen degrees colder than the water it replaces. At Stinson Beach, callow August tourists from the east run gleefully into the surf, shriek, and run back looking ghastly pale. They shiver in blankets and drink hot tea.

From the depths, the upwelling brings crab larvae and copepods, free-floating marine algae, krill and other drifters. Fish eat them, and larger fish eat them in turn. This wind off Alaska feeds whales and seals. Shut it down - as happened this summer, for a time - and the food chain atrophies.

We along the California coast walk out in the morning, our world shaped by the whale wind. Moist wind meets cold, benthonic brine, and fog congeals from the summer air.

There are as many kinds of fog here as there are whales off the Farallones.

There is the creeping kind, the kind that has no boundaries, that wafts in stealthily until you suddenly notice that you cannot see fifty yards in any direction, and the sun is a faint bright dazzle above.

There is overcast, the fog that hangs five hundred feet above sea level, or two thousand, an obvious, sharp ceiling above the world. This fog looks much like a Great Lakes high summer stratus, except that it's low enough to remove the peaks of hills, the top few floors of tall buildings. The towers of the Golden Gate furrow this fog, gray eddies twisting around orange steel.

There is the Glacier, a formidable wall of white a half mile high hanging ominously off shore, or sealing the westward neighborhoods of San Francisco in near-permanent gloom. From a mile off, or two, the Glacier seems placid. Venture toward the front and you will be buffeted. Where Glacier meets hilly land chaos thrives. You can drive north off the Golden Gate Bridge and watch rivers of thick fog flowing eastward down the drainages of the Marin Headlands, faster than any white water river. Every so often a spot near the ground will brighten, and then an eighteen-wheeler's headlights will emerge from the torrent. By the time the back end is visible, the cab will have gone into the next river of fog. Hold tight to the wheel as you enter, for the cross-winds will push you up against the guardrail and down into Sausalito.

There are the tongues. These are the oddest fogs of all, and the most relentless. Our old place in Richmond attracted them: a band of thick fog a half-mile wide originating far out to sea, on an otherwise clear day. Three days out of five, that half-mile wide tongue would reach out from its home beyond the Farallones, beeline for the Golden Gate, slip under the bridge without touching the sides, execute a perfect turn at Alcatraz, and reach fifteen miles northeast to land in my vegetable garden. It rarely reached a mile inland from our yard. It rarely landed anywhere else. During our four years in Richmond I never had a ripe tomato before September, when the upwelling ceased, the water warmed, and the fog retreated off the Cordell Banks.

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 16, 2005 04:51 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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in the same way that many beaches on the california coast have a sinusoidal waveline because the prevailing current, translated at the shore to waves, strikes at an angle, it seems that the coast taken large has a pattern of fog and, well, not-fog, in a regular pattern. some places are noted for fog and some for it's absence.

monterey has more fog than santa cruz. arcata has more fog than crescent city.

i love the fog. and the clear.

how do tomatoes do in pinole?

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at August 16, 2005 07:08 PM
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This is beautiful. Having walked in many different kinds of fog, I think my favorites are the dense-and-wispy ones that play hide-and-seek among trees and the high thick stuff that hides the horizon on the coast and merges with the grey of the ocean.

Here the only fog-like things I've seen are mists over fields of corn and soybeans in the morning and at twilight. But the year is young yet.

Posted by: Rana at August 16, 2005 07:24 PM
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doh. my pattern editor was in a fog. with my apostrophe editor.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at August 16, 2005 07:49 PM
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What an ode to fog!

I love it. After a year on the East Coast with its sweltering 100 degree heat and 90% humidity, my wife and I are moving back to the SF Bay Area at the end of the month. I lived there long enough to take fog for granted, but NEVER AGAIN!

I can't wait.

Posted by: Mike Anderson at August 17, 2005 05:50 AM
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I live at the edge of the fog zone in SF. It's foggy in the morning, but usually burns off by noon. When one looks west along the two straight east-west streets I live between, one can see the Glacier sitting patiently out by the avenues until tea-time, until the sun starts hitting the land obliquely enough for the updraft to fade. Then the Glacier just pours in, swirling in the light.

One of the side benefits of living in this neighborhood is that it's almost always windy, as well. Fog and wind, two of my favorite things.

Posted by: paperwight at August 17, 2005 07:33 AM
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This is beautiful.

Posted by: dale at August 19, 2005 10:18 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs