Another Look at the Sonoma Coast

On a gray and tempestuous day in late June, I meet Hollis Bewley on a rocky outcropping overlooking North Salmon Creek Beach, a wide expanse of sand and rippling dunes located north of Bodega Bay. It’s a bad day for hairdos, Chamber of Commerce-friendly photography and anyone interested in getting an early start on their summer tan.

But for me, a Sonoma Coast newbie, the uninviting wind and fog served as an entry point to understanding perhaps the most important trait of the vast, 60-mile stretch of rocky promontories and hidden beaches on our coastline: the oceanic upwelling system that forms the backbone of the world-class Sonoma Coast ecosystem.

As we stand on the outcropping overlooking North Salmon Creek Beach, Bewley explained how strong seasonal winds drive up very cold, nutrient-rich water from deep in the ocean. “That is the beginning of the food chain for all of the fish, seabirds that are nesting out here, marine mammals, the whole nine yards,” she said. “The upwelling doesn’t happen if the wind stops.”

The next three hours were filled with similar revelations, as Bewley, who serves on the board of directors for the environmental non-profit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, guided me along an eight-mile conga line of Sonoma Coast State Park beaches that stretch from Salmon Creek to Goat Rock Beach in Jenner. With more than 20 years of coastal exploration under her belt, Bewley spoke to her favorite corners of the coast, the cultural clashes between its resident species, and the most pressing concerns for the community at large in the same way a local might give a cultural tour of his or her native city.

Clearly, I can’t say I emerged a Sonoma Coast expert from that afternoon tour; even an aficionado like Bewley still comes upon surprises. But I did get a sense of the coast’s role as a ‘living laboratory,’ as Bewley called it, a place of turmoil, adaptation and even danger.

At the Sonoma Coast, red tides and mysterious illnesses sweep in like biblical plagues and obliterate tide pool regulars, and rogue waves can prove treacherous for visitors. Yet it’s also a locus for unexpected delights, where seal pups lounge on sandy beaches and rare coastal prairies surround rocks where mammoths may have scratched their backs. Or as Bewley succinctly put it, it’s a place for a “different kind of beach-goer.”

Drama at the Tide Pools
A bustling world is located in the sand and surf around our feet at North Salmon Creek Beach — a place I come to learn, despite being populated by algae and small or near-microscopic animals, is home to enough drama to supply material for a host of oceanic soap operas.

The theatrics start in the fall, when storms raging out at sea sweep algae onto beaches like North Salmon Creek. “Often there are a lot of little interesting, small, practically microscopic animals that have settled on the algae,” Bewley said, running through a list of oddly named hitchhiking aquatic organisms such as Bryozoa (aka “moss animals”), Ascidians (aka “sea squirts”) and the more-familiar barnacle. “And,” Bewley adds, “I’m always looking for baby octopus that might have washed up with them and have only found one so far.”

Bewley said the deposit of organic material, called beach wrack, proves a rich resource for those interested in observing marine life. “There’s wildlife that people aren’t necessarily aware of when they come down here, unless they’re looking for it,” she said. “So the beach wrack is really interesting to explore.”

We continue down the coast to Marshall Gulch Beach, Bewley’s favorite tide pooling beach. While beach wrack may be an underdog-like source of marine life for curious beachgoers, tide pools are clearly the beauty queens: flashy and a little elusive.

“The thing that’s interesting about tide pool beaches is that there are different animals at each of them,” Bewley said, recalling that her first encounter with a sea cucumber came just a week ago at Shell Beach, another tide pool-friendly destination. Though tide pools still offer these surprises, two recent large-scale disasters have drained the population of observable marine life around the Sonoma Coast.
Almost wistfully, Bewley describes the heyday of tidal exploration, when tide pool regulars included mollusks called gumboot chitons — the largest chiton in the world — as well as a variety of sea stars, including many-legged sunflower stars and ‘super predator’ ochre sea stars, which maintained the biodiversity of the area by keeping the populations of mollusks in check. Then, an unusual red tide swept up the California coast in late 2011 and soon after, a mysterious disease called Sea Star Wasting Syndrome devastated wide swaths of sea star populations.

The fate has spared whimsical nudibranchs, which are shell-less mollusks that look like brightly colored slugs, as well as sea snails and barnacles. While the red tide exhausted gumboots, other chitons still make an appearance in local tide pools, and sea urchins are making a comeback. Though tide pool creatures may be in a state of flux, Bewley points out that the tumult is merely a microcosm of life itself — a fact evident to those who have been observing tide pools for long periods of time. “It’s a living laboratory,” she said. “This has been going on for eons. Species come and go.”

But to aid the preservation of these creatures, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods educates visitors on the fragileness of tide pool life. “We’re like giants entering their world,” Bewley said. “They live in a very tough neighborhood, for all types of reasons.” Due to the delicate balance of their community, everything a person may touch in a tide pool — from a sea star to a rock — must be placed back where it was found. “Especially right now,” she said. “They’ve got enough problems.”

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Beaches
Departing Marshall Gulch, Bewley and I press forward through the thickening fog, passing Schoolhouse Beach, also known for its tide pools, and the sandy, accommodating Portuguese Beach. We drop anchor at the midway point of the State Park — Duncan’s Landing, a rocky promontory that juts out into the ocean, a place meant for picnicking and surveying the coastline that stretches in either direction below.

At Duncan’s Landing, Bewley demonstrates how rocky promontories create a marked difference in personalities between neighboring beaches. Duncan’s Landing shelters Duncan’s Cove, a beach on its south side, while on the north side, Wright’s Beach is left more exposed.

This Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like disparity is again repeated further north, where Goat Rock offers some protection to Blind Beach at its southern end, while conditions remain more rough at Goat Rock Beach on the northern side.

“Sonoma Coast is really, really dangerous,” Bewley cautioned. “There are sleeper waves all the time. But Blind Beach … is protected by Goat Rock, and it’s comfortable if you come out with young children.”

We walk together to stand over Duncan’s Cove and watch a family lounge on the beach below. “Where I’m standing right now, it feels like the temperature has risen about 10 degrees,” Bewley points out. “So it’s protected from the surf, but then it’s also protected from the wind.”

Step Back in Time at Shell Beach
As Bewley and I draw closer to Jenner, we stop for a time at Shell Beach. Known for its tide pools, the beach and its surroundings also teem with features of ancient historical significance. These traces of age-old tectonic activity and long-extinct animals remain hidden, but not inscrutable — a little like a well-planned scavenger hunt. But without clues, visitors might remain completely unaware of the significance of what lays at their feet.

Through Bewley, I learn that the area is considered a Mecca for geologists, due to tectonic activity dating up to 100 million years in the past. At the time, the North American Plate and the Farallon Plate were colliding, with the weight of the North American Plate pushing the Farallon Plate into the earth’s mantle, creating a subduction zone. Due to the subduction, a wedge of rocks known as a mélange accumulated in the area, now raised above sea level. Consequentially, Shell Beach is home to a chaotic menagerie of rocks, including peridotite, serpentine and greenstone, shale and greywacke sandstone and an igneous rock called pillow lava.

But this ancient presence extends beyond the shore. From the Shell Beach parking lot, visitors may access the roughly 4.5 mile Kortum Trail, which runs both south and north, weaving in and out along the bluffs before it terminates at Wright’s Beach to the south and at Blind Beach to the north.
As we walk briefly along the north-bound stretch of the Kortum Trail, I ask Bewley if, while educating the public, she comes upon any common misconceptions about the coast. “Well one,” she replied, gesturing down to the grass at our feet, “is that these are weeds. All of this is part of the 1 percent of the coastal prairie that remains in the state of California.”

Kortum Trail offers panoramic ocean views and an ever-changing display of wildflowers from February onward, but also an opportunity to roam a remnant of the ancient California coastal prairie that once housed prehistoric grazers including Columbian mammoths and ancient bison, as well as carnivores that sound more borne of fantasy than reality: American cheetahs and dire wolves.

Much like the prairie itself, most of these creatures have been lost to time. Yet a few may have left their mark on a complex of blue schist sea stacks and boulders, known as Mammoth Rocks, which sit about a mile north from where the Kortum Trail meets Shell Beach.

Years ago, a California State Parks archaeologist identified patches where these normally rough rocks were polished smooth and hypothesized that the rocks once functioned as backscratchers for long-extinct mammoths. Another report indicated that a microscopic analysis of the polished rock showed areas identical to known elephant rubbing rocks in Africa.

“It’s pretty much established that before they were extinct, this area was sort of like a Serengeti and that one of the large mammals here were mammoths,” Bewley said. “It’s really an incredible feeling, when you’re walking around them and you rub these areas yourself, to realize that animals that are long extinct created these really smooth surfaces.”

Where the Seals Sleep
The final two beaches we visit are reminiscent of the first, with light wind, heavy fog and another estuary at hand. Just south of Jenner, Goat Rock, an impressive promontory, separates the more protected Blind Beach from Goat Rock Beach.

Bewley and I spend some time at Blind Beach, discussing how she enjoys its relative tranquility, accessibility and walkability. “The rocks are really interesting on this beach, too,” she said. “I must have a thousand photographs of them … The other thing that’s really special about walking on this beach are all the offshore rocks, which we can just kind of barely see right now.”

Shortly after, we continue further along Highway 1. Cruising past Jenner, we just begin the gradual climb up rocky cliffs when Bewley drives onto a pullout overlooking the northern end of Goat Rock Beach and the mouth of the Russian River. Far below us, a colony of harbor seals lounges in the surf, looking from a distance like sleepy and contented chocolate sprinkles.

“There are still pups here,” Bewley said. “You can see there are some on one side of the river and some on the other … If a seal is looking at you on land, you’re too close,” Bewley said. “In the water, when they’re in their own element, they’re extremely curious animals.” The seals may even follow visitors as they walk down Blind Beach or paddle in the estuary, like surf-bound shadows.
But now, lounging on the beach, the seals don’t look that energetic — more like exhausted children resting after a long day of play. So after a few contemplative minutes, we leave the seal colony on the cool sand, shrouded in fog, to make our way back to Salmon Creek.

Looking out at the gray day on our return drive, I ask Bewley what she believes to be the broad appeal of the Sonoma Coast, since it doesn’t seem to be the place to have the luxurious experience typically associated with warmer temperatures and white, sandy beaches. She quickly corrects me: “Actually, you can. It’s just that most of the beachgoers here aren’t there for that reason.”

These beaches will be crowded even on a gloomy summer day, she said, but people are there just to relish the experience of being at the coast. “It’s the salt air, it’s the coastal environment,” Bewley said. “It’s a different kind of beachgoer than you find in a lot of other areas.”   SD

Photo by Nevin Mahoney