Point Reyes, California: I deftly tucked the poison oak soap into the open pocket of my daypack and took off for a day of hiking along Tomales Bay. I could not afford another outbreak like the one I suffered recently. Hiking around the waterfalls pouring down Mt. Diablo’s backside, I came into contact with unseen sprigs of leafless poison oak. On a flight to London five days later, the skin rash enjoyed a good 10-hour flight to spread and fester. I ended up in a clinic taking three medications.
My friend Ellen and I parked at the trailhead and descended a hillside of knotty trees that looked like headless bears with green fur over every inch of their wooden bodies. Quickly reaching a narrow creek that trickled into the bay, we hopped over it onto the sand, smelling the salty air. White caps jostled the water all the way across the bay to the grassy hills where happy cows grazed all day preparing for their cameos in commercials for California cheese.
At the far end of the beach, we climbed the hill and kept hiking. A fallen pine blocked our path. I wondered if I should remove my pack and go under the tree on my bad knee or keep it on and climb over the log, risking a fall. I chose the former since I’m as clumsy as an armadillo on a tightrope.
Poison oak encroached from both sides of the trail. As soon as I’d stepped through it, I looked back. In trying to avoid the lower reaches of the plant, I had inadvertently grabbed a higher branch with my bare hand. Darn! I halted and carefully placed my backpack on bare ground by grasping it with only the very ends of my fingernails. I grabbed the “Ivarest,” in order to soap off the oil from the poison oak. Not everyone is vulnerable to poison oak. Native Americans seem to have a genetic superiority that allows them to touch the plant without repercussions. Indeed, some folks have purchased old native baskets woven of poison oak reeds that gave them unexpected allergic reactions—perhaps some kind of Karma for commodifying the beautiful containers designed by our forerunners.
The call of the wild beckoned us further. A flock of seabirds in the distance shone like white marble in the sun, flying gracefully in patterned shapes against the brilliant blue sky. The birds flew unpredictably, yet miraculously, in unison, like shape-shifters descended from heaven.
We emerged from the forest and arrived at Heart’s Desire Beach, so named for its stunning landscape. Broad-leafed trees arched over grassy hills adjacent to a small sandy beach that meets the jade green bay. One single twisted pine held down the beach, backed by a semi-circle of evergreen foliage. Our lunch spot had a lovely view of the cove framed by distant cliffs camouflaged in rust-colored lichen. Satisfied that we had reached the loveliest beach in all of the Bay Area, we ate and relaxed and then decided to return through a different loop.
This route went through grassy meadows and we took a detour to nearby Pebble Beach. As soon as the beach came into view, a solid black fin emerged from the bay for perhaps half a second, then disappeared. We weren’t actually sure we had seen anything. Then more small fins bobbed in and out of the sea.
“Look! Over there!” We took turns shouting and pointing out fins to one another. One here, two there, three beyond the wave. They popped up like groundhogs on the prairie.
Quietly, we moved to the center of the beach. Right at the shoreline, in the softly lapping waves, swam dozens of leopard sharks. A deep feeling overcame me—of discovery and awe, of being uniquely alive, of being part of something inexplicable.
The fish seemed to be brushing up against one another in twos, but it was not yet mating season. It turns out the sharks were feeding on the bay floor’s biotic life: crabs, worms, fish eggs.
Most sharks are sadly misunderstood. People assume they are all killers. While white sharks at nearby Stinson Beach will annually take a bite out of a surfer’s leg, leopard sharks pose no threat to humans. In fact, I was far more frightened of the poison oak than the sharks.
Up close the black ovals that give the fish its name appeared and we could discern that each shark had two dorsal fins and a tail fin. Each one appeared about two to three feet long, although they can grow to nearly five feet. Perhaps we were seeing juveniles since a female will give birth to up to three dozen baby sharks every ten or twelve months.
We silently savored the experience, and kept our distance, so as not to disturb the fish. It’s likely no coincidence that the sharks feed at this cove, the only one of the five local beaches not frequented by many people. Sadly, the leopard sharks are hunted despite their high levels of mercury, which can be especially harmful to kids, pregnant women and the entire aquatic food chain. Even legal bans don’t stop fishermen from killing them to eat at home.
Ellen and I headed back, deeply affected by our proximity to the natural world’s aquatic residents. The usual barrier between us land-based beings and the sea world had disappeared for a brief moment. Yet despite what we humans think we know, we are still unable to keep our giant earth habitat free of pollution enough to actually survive over time, yet the beings we share the planet with keep feeding, swimming, walking, eating and surviving without disrupting the equanimity of life.
©Leanne A. Grossman