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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Oystergeddon: Willapa Bay's Benevolent Face

 Rhodesia Beach (Close to the Mouth of Willapa Bay)

(Drawing from The Five Chinese Brothers, by Claire Huhet Bishop and Kurt Wiese)

They’re a mystery to me.
Sometimes I go to the beach and they’re out.
Sometimes I go to the beach and they’re in.
Until recently, my best hypothesis for the broad expanses of beach exposed at low tide was derived from a book I read in my childhood called The Five Chinese Brothers. The disappearance of all the water from a bay can be attributed, according to the book, to the first Chinese brother swallowing the sea. Since he can not hold the entire sea in his mouth for very long…

…I know it is unwise to walk out into the bay as far as Uncle Rico and Kip have in this picture. For instance, this would be a terrible time to hear the tsunami sirens.

Uncle Rico perfects his cockle hunting protocol. Gently dragging his rake behind him, he remains alert to the subtle impact of shell against rake.

We spend the low tide collecting cockles. From this strategic location, we know it will be easy to tell when the tide shifts directions.

When it becomes obvious the ocean is returning, we high-tail it to the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters boat ramp…

…and set out for Long Island.

As on our last Red-Neck camping trip, we agree dinner will consist only of things that we capture.

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The tide is still rising, and the gentle incline climbing toward the beach means we’ll have to walk our kayaks to the shore, but unlike the mud sucking swamps of the west side of the island, the sandy mud on this side is firm, and the shallow water warm.

We find this site satisfactory.

We quickly set up camp…

…and quickly return to the bay to search for our dinner.

Oysters, scattered like gold doubloons from a recent shipwreck, lie in the water like dinner treasure. Eventually I bow to peer pressure and eat my first raw oyster. On one hand, I appreciate the nice little enamel plate. On the other hand, I wish I was more familiar with oyster anatomy and possible oyster parasites.

We strike-out with the crab trap. Oysters are shaping up to be the main course.

Tell-tale seaweed writes a clear high-tide warning in the rocks at the base of our campsite. Even Uncle Rico, Kip and I are able to read the message and manage to tie up the boats so they will be safe.

Kip breaks out the cigars.

Uncle Rico breaks logs into kindling.

(I’m not exactly sure who captured the wild parmesan cheese…but good job!)

With just a smattering of knowledge, a place that seemed inhospitable to me on my last visit suddenly seems like a haven of free seafood and desserts, a place where a tidal conveyor belt both pulls me to my destination and eventually helps push me back home.

During the night, I wake to the sound of waves slapping against the kayaks. But beneath the canopy of fir trees, there is no light and I see nothing. By morning, the water has retreated again.

A heavy mist saturates the trees and drips from the branches simulating rain that falls only on our camp.

A hot sun beats back the mist and dries out the camp.

The difference between high and low tide is stunning.

I don’t know about Uncle Rico and Kip, but I paddle away from Long Island feeling as if I’ve been granted a moment of grace, an instant in which a typically indifferent creation actually resembled a garden designed to sustain me, to nurse my hangover, and to warm me after the mini-death of unconsciousness.

I know it is an illusion – I know that this island can be as harsh and unforgiving as any ruthless business model – I know that luck is a factor – that some variables are unpredictable.

I think that in some ways, humans (at their best) have tried to cushion the hard aspects of nature by building social networks, by inventing insurance, by inventing banks and savings accounts, by finding ways to mitigate those times when bad luck works against skill and experience.

But I also think it is sometimes refreshing to cast one's self into nature, to ride the currents of impersonal physical laws and feel the judgment of a universe that isn’t driven by petty human selfishness.

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