I don’t know why I was in such a foul mood. The overload of workday video conferencing? The frustration of my knee and hip not working the way I want them to? The banking glitch necessitating phone calls I don’t have the time or patience for? The to-do list that would keep me in front of the computer until I weep if I were to actually commit to getting it done? The deeper, darker stuff that I ignore in favor of pitching a fit about whatever minor irritations? The goddamn lack of rain? Hard to say.
What I did know is, I needed to get outside. The high tide and lack of wind called me to Woodley Island, where I unloaded the stand-up paddle board from the storage container and lugged it down the ramp to the public launch at the north end of the marina. What breeze had blown earlier had faded, leaving the bay glassy, reflecting the hulls and masts of the fishing vessels and sailboats lining the docks. The sky stretched blue overhead. The sun’s rays slanted sideways as it prepared to set behind the distant peninsula. Various seabirds bobbed in the water and poked about along the shore.
I dropped the board in the water, pulled off my shoes, tucked them under the tie-downs, stepped onto the deck and headed south against the tide. I knew my timing was tight – I’d launched a mere 30 minutes before sunset – but I figured I’d have a solid hour of light, enough to get all the way around the island.
Did I consider the fact that the high tide was, in fact, a very low high tide? Yes. Yes, I did. If I were advising or leading someone else, I would have warned them that it might be too low to cross the mudflats. But with only myself to be responsible for, I did what I sometimes do, which is to figure that I’ll figure it out along the way.
I shoved all the energy of my bad mood into my paddling. I passed the Coast Guard’s patrol boat, the Barracuda, which inevitably sends that song’s chorus through my head. Passed the Coral Sea, Cal Poly Humboldt’s gorgeous research vessel onto which I’ve somehow never finagled my way. Passed the “skinny, nameless and now-stalled project of retired professor J.A. Gast,” a ship reputed to be unseaworthy, 121 feet of folly. Passed around the south end of Woodley Island, where the Fisherman statue honors “those whom the sea sustained … and those it claimed.”
As I turned north, the tide zipped me along. I looked behind me in time to see the sun settling onto the horizon, an orange haze enveloping the spit. Who can sustain grumpiness in the face of the world’s beauty? Here I was, out on the water, a stone’s throw from my house, body working well enough to propel me through temperate air under a golden sky, annoyances evaporated, replaced again by the awareness that I have so much: the bay, the board, the paddle, the golden sky, the setting sun, the heron overhead, the house, the husband, the friends, the job, the children who remain alive despite circumstances that could have had them otherwise and I know too many people who cannot say the same and although my body stayed standing, my heart fell to its knees in supplication that my luck will hold.
I crossed under the bridge to find approximately a million of those brown birds with the long legs and pointy beaks – willits or godwits or curlews or the other one, I forget, and I wish I could say with surety which they were, but alas. And this is where, filled with hope and amused by the birds, I let myself cross around the north end of the island too early. At a proper high tide, one can cut right through between Woodley Island and Daby – I wish I knew the Wiyot names – I know Tuluwat and that the Bay is Wigi, and I am aware all the time of being on stolen land and this makes me feel unsure about how to love it properly, love it as I do, grateful as I am to be on it, I want to at least do the very small act of getting the names right – but this high tide was too low, so I should have kept aiming north, taken a broader path, gone all the way to the one channel marker before turning toward the other.
A kayak would have made it. A paddle board with a nine-inch fin protruding off the back end did not. Even as I admired the bird tracks still visible on the mudflats a few inches under the water, I recognized that seeing them meant I was in trouble. Sure enough, my forward momentum ceased as the fin slid, then stuck, into the mud. I dropped to my knees to avoid pitching forward and used the paddle to scoop-shove my way along. Every few inches of progress took several minutes. I worried I’d break the paddle. After 10 minutes or so, I feared I would not make it to the other channel – the tide was due to turn and the water over the mudflats would only get shallower. I thought about calling my husband, telling him to hurry out with the kayaks, but I wasn’t sure how that would work. Maybe we’d both end up stuck.
I thought about what I would do if I had to choose between calling for a rescue or sleeping on the paddle board overnight while waiting for the tide to drain and then fill in again in the morning. I was definitely not up for the public embarrassment of being rescued from a place I’ve spent countless hours – and I wasn’t in any danger. I was fine! The land was right there! Even if the mud was too squelchy to walk on. I ignored what felt like incoming texts buzzing through my PFD, stretched out belly-down on the board to reduce the weight over the fin and began to pull myself through the mud with my hands as the sky continued to darken overhead.
This clawing toward the channel worked. Not quickly, but after a while, the water deepened and the board’s movement changed from a slog to a glide. I rinsed the mud off my hands, wiped them on my leggings, untucked the paddle from underneath me and shifted to my knees, then my feet. The bridge arched in front of me, street lamps illuminating the water below, the lights of the marina framed between its piers. The quarter moon shimmied in the bay alongside me as I powered toward the docks. The shouts of homeless people making their way toward camps bounced across the water under a sky that had turned dark save for the final deep blue glow of dusk lingering in the distance.
God, it was beautiful.