About a mile in, atop a small crest known as Windy Gap, a swooning cleft in the hillside provides perfect pasturage for two dozen elk hanging out at one of their favorite spots – a tranquil and pastoral redoubt sheltered from wind and just far enough down slope to be sufficiently removed from the threats and hubbub of gawking humans. A big antlered adult bull, standing about five feet tall, measuring the length of an NBA center, and adorned with a massive set of antlers that must add thirty pounds to his third of a ton bulk, unleashes a piercing bugle cry - perhaps signaling his preference for a mate. Several females (cows) look up and move away, disinterested. A second bull comes honing in, emitting a screeching bray, and the two appear set to engage in a display of rutting dominance, but instead both back off and go about their business of sniffing and snorting harmlessly. One of them might be lucky enough to defend the harem and claim bragging / mating rights, but not on this day, and perhaps never, since only ten percent of bulls in the breeding population actually end up passing on their genes. Talk about tough love.
Vast herds of tule elk once roamed the central valley and coastal plains – accounts handed down from early frontiersmen tell of a migratory biomass comparable to the dense bison herds that once roamed the Great Plains before an epic slaughter in less than a generation's time reduced their numbers to a relative pathetic few. Like other animals native to California – grizzly bear, condor, eagle, wolf – by the late 19th century the elk were hunted to near-extinction by over-zealous marksmen and bounty hide hunters. Come 1874, it’s believed that only two remained in existence, saved from eternal perdit ion by a cattle baron named Henry Miller.
In 1978, two bulls and eight cows were brought in to Pt. Reyes National Seashore from San Luis Island Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos to begin a breeding restoration program, and today the population approaches 600, which, according to some, places a strain on the land’s carrying capacity. So successful has been the re-introduction of a native species on the brink of disappearance, that today eco-managers must figure out creative ways to thin the excess numbers! One solution: cull some of California's 4000 elk, in twenty-two separate herds scattered around the state, by allowing hunting, such as they do at Grizzly Island Wildlife Area in Suisun Marsh near Fairfield, where herds are kept at 100 to 150 in number.
Watching the heavy-bodied but elegant megafauna roam and graze unperturbed in the protected reserve at Tomales Point in Pt. Reyes National Seashore, it's difficult to imagine seeking the "thrill" of the hunt, stalking the peaceful, sociable elk, and then pumping them full of lead shot and dragging their bloodied carcasses from the kill zone to a designated "animal processing area" for "successful hunters to hang, skin, and/or butcher their elk for transportation off the wildlife area." I suppose if you enjoy blasting harmless creatures to smithereens, posing proudly with your “trophy animal,” and engorging on the victuals of the mutilated remains, such an approach to "ecological wildlife management" makes perfect sense and constitutes "good fun." It is not, though, Gambolin’ Man’s idea of entertainment or harmonious co-existence or the ethic of doing least harm . . .but what to do? What to do? The dilemma is allow hunters to keep populations in check, or allow for the severe implication s of overpopulation and let “nature, red in tooth and claw” do her own “cruel” job of keeping numbers down. Who am I to say? Perhaps hunting is a more “humane” approach than letting them agonize and starve to death when resources go scarce. It's not a pretty dilemma either way. (Let's bring in more mountain lions and wolves, why not!)
Heavily tramped Tomales Point trailhead begins where the long and winding Pierce Point Road ends. Here, trails lead down to blustery stretches of McClure’s Beach, or head out to a remote finger of land at the edge of the Pt. Reyes Nati onal Seashore peninsula. The Pt. Reyes landscape along the drive in is an undulating tableau of gentle rolling hills dotted with historic dairy farms and ranches. Along the route, diversions include stopping off at a hidden marsh, or pulling over at Abbott's Lagoon for a mile stroll to a beautiful beach and sand dunes to explore and play around on and bird watch. If you’re lucky, you might spot any number of nearly 40 species of birds and waterfowl at this avian hangout – including (can you identify them?) the endangered Snowy Plover, Red-necked Phalaropes, Red-breast ed Merganser, Pacific Golden Plover, Heermann’s Gull, and Elegant Tern. Driving onward, you might have to pull over again to catch a glimpse of the elk grazing off the roadside. Drive slowly, for there's lots to see, and what’s your hurry anyway? A mischievous fox might wander in your path, or a Northern Harrier might suddenly swoop down, talons outstretched, to snatch up a kingsnake crossing the road - adding magical highlights and enhancing an already whimsical day filled with the promise of simple adventure and heartfelt joy just to be part of the great unfoldin g pageantry of existence and mystery of life!
On a warm sunny day, with patchy fog drifting over hills and hovering above valleys, doing its best to not burn off but instead create meteorological drama and mystique, my sister Cat and I set off on a 4.7 mile foot journey to land's end. It’s my first hike to Tomales Point since ten years ago (that long already!?) when I completed the identical loop with her identical twin sister, Col! We stop to read the informational signs posted, alerting us that we are entering "mountain lion country", the broad coastal swathes of grassland and scrub that comprise their stalking territory and partial domain range. We are interlopers, so we’d best know how to react should we encounter one. However, that’s a highly unlikely scenario - I’ve seen a grand total of one mountain lion in thousands of nature outings spanning my half-century plus lifetime. (But it only takes one episode, and like a rattlesnake bite, you’d better know what to do!) Another sign informs us of endemic flora, sea animals, avifauna, reptiles, amphibians, and other prevalent but elusive critters we might come across, but again, probably won’t ever see, such as bobcats, coyotes and foxes. (Some claim to have sp otted the elusive cryptozoologic phenom, the black panther.) The message of the medium? We are in a special wilderness, a land preserved chiefly for the benefit of non-human beings, so count it a privilege and honor to enter into their kingdom, to be invited into their world of which we are a respectful part. In this preserve of 100 square miles, every creature large and small, every blade of grass, every shell, rock, flower and dirt clod is protected and meant to be enjoyed, left alone, and preserved for all time.
We cinch our pac ks and set off past the big white barn - an elegant structure at historic Pierce Point Ranch, like something out of a dynastic Indiana farm. We continue past the photogenic row of battered old Monterey Cypress trees, nearing the end of their hundred year lifespan. The next big storm could do them in. The path then climbs modestly - there is very little elevation gain the entire length of the hike - to a crested hill at Windy Gap affording views of, on one side, the rolling countryside of western Marin County, and off to infinity on the other side, sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean, McClure’s Beach, Driftwood Beach, and the curving shoreline of the peninsula with its rug ged buttresses of dramatic cliffs dropping down from 300 ft. on high to the sandy beaches below, and farther beyond to Bodega Bay. At the right time of year, count on seeing pastel meadowlands ariot with yellow and purple Coast bush lupine, blazing orange California poppies, Monkeyflower, Foxglove, Douglas ' iris, Shooting stars, Checkerbloom, Cow clover, Columbines, Indian paintbrush, Forget-me-nots and dozens of other coastal, dune, scrub and grassland wildflower species. This is when watercolorists and photographers turn out in droves as well as non-artists who also appreciate the aesthetic transformatio n. Turning our attention to the weather, it seems like a blue sky day, but some patchy fog blots out parts of the landscape – then as quickly begins to lift, allowing muted sunlight to filter through a blanket of layered cloud cover, recreating a distinct English countryside-like effect.
A Tomales Point hike virtually guarantees a sighting – maybe up close and personal to the extent possible - of Cervus canadensis nannodes, a sub-species of elk unique to California. I tell Cat to expect California’s version of Namibia, where she and Col had r ecently taken a safari and were awed at the presence of so many big animals right in their midst. At about three miles in, we get another glimpse of the tule elk, coming upon a sizeable herd of over fifty individuals, casually grazing and foraging, hanging around a drying-up water hole, lying down, standing up, stationary, slowly wandering here and there, occasionally looking up at us nonchalantly from a viewing distance of about a hundred yards. We spot two or three loners off on a hillside. A big antlered buck seems interested in getting something on, but seems stalled, or frustrated, or maybe just too young to assert his dominance. It is surely one of the great wildlife sightings on e can experience in the Bay Area, or anywhere in California, given that massive ungulates or congregations of any megafauna are generally are not found in large concentrations outside of protected reserves.
Well beyond the midway point of the hike, we pass through areas of bush lupine and come to an arboreal oasis comprised of a few gnarled Bishop Pines and Eucalyptus trees, planted maybe a century ago. These are the extent of the trees on this fingertip of the peninsula – most everything else that grows is waist-high bush plants or ground-c linging shrubbery. The sculpturally expressive trees provide some measure of visual relief. A short 100 ft. spurt up a sandy hillock next leads us to a post with directional markers pointing straight ahead and indicating about a mile and a half left to the point. “Straight ahead” turns out to be any which way, however, as the overgrown trail branches off into multiple segments and false spurs, often meeting back up every fifty paces or so. The key is to keep trudging in the direction of the “point” – stay the line, and don't veer too far off to either side or you'll wander perilously close to treacherous cliff edges.
The terrain for the final mile is sandy, making navigation more of a challenge. But the lay of the land, despite being “nothing more” than flat coastal scrub plains with no apprehensible reference points, provides highlights of the narrow blue band of Tomales Bay to one side, and the Pacific on the other; it is beautiful and intriguing in its own small charm way. It takes your mind off the travails of hiking, the pain from an inflamed ankle. Wispettes of fog hover and vanish, revealing ‘neath the shroud of liquid smoke snippets of land formations, small rises and hummocks, an d hints of beach and shiny reflections off a few rock outcroppings. Dillon’s beach is viewed through rising fog as a scimitar of brown, curving shoreline, where Tomales Bay kisses the great Pacific - a roiling area of strong undercurrents and turbulent tides where great whites roam searching for anything they can swallow whole - including errant kayakers who might get swept out to sea. Once, such a scenario nearly happened to a friend and me as we were out paddling around and got caught in a nasty downwind late in the day that forced us to abandon our craft somewhere below Marshall’s Beach on a rugged purchase of land and then bushwhack for three hours up and do wn gullies and hills before finally coming to L Ranch Road - not having a clue where we were - and finding a ranger, who, on hearing our story, congratulated us for not having been swept to the sea’s outlet - where, he intoned with dead seriousness, we would have been little more than "shark bait."
Finally, our first glimpses of rocky cliffs at the tip of the world – Tomales Point. Weather conditions have changed suddenly and dramatically - we're blanketed in a chill of wind-swept fog which limits visibility. I'm perched precariously at the edge of a cliff, barely peering out at sharp defiles slashing down and rocky promontories falling away a dizzying 200 ft. below to the swirling waters crashing foam and spray onto jumbles of black boulders splotched white with bird guano. Farther out, visible in fog like a mirage, is a chunk of rocky earth, sitting cut off from the mainland, known as Bird Rock; it is white-coated from years and tons of avian droppings. Pelicans fly by in formation, gulls swoop and loop, and cormorants come to rest. At the tip itself, small rocky outcrops break away from the mainland – I christen the biggest one Sea Lion Rock, in reference and hom age to the dozens of pelagic pinnipeds congregating one on top of the other in close, near orgiastic, confines.
It is a wet, blasted world unto its own, terribly inhospitable and forever unwelcoming to the human spectators - me, Cat, and another party of three hikers. From the safety and comfort of our cliff top perch, we find shelter from the wind and enjoy a snack and sit back to watch the unscripted drama on the nature channel, taking it all in, trying to fathom the unfathomable wildness of it, gazing in silence, watching in awe, as gigantic swells build up and come crashing repeatedly over the roc ks. . . but it barely raises a ruckus among the fifty or so endangered sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) hanging out at what may be one of their prime rookeries. Observing closely through binoculars, I notice several of them have big scars - are they the result of run-ins, close escapes, from great whites? It's easy to see why German naturalist Wilhelm Steller named them sea lions - their tawny hides and leonid-like bellowing weirdly approximate doppelganger status. Protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, Stellers can live up to 20 years or longer, grow up to 11 ft. in length, and weigh more than a ton, and, though generally they prefer an onshore habitat, they regularly travel 250 miles in search of marine edibles (fish, squid and octopus). What a reward, right here in front of our eyes - privy to yet another fantastic wildlife viewing opportunity - imagine that! - two sightings of megafauna in one day within two miles of each other, one if by land, two if by sea! This is truly what makes Pt. Reyes National Seasho re extra special. (And consider the astonishing reality of the total constituted biomass of unseen insects - ants alone! - which surpasses in magnitude the weight of all the elk and sea lions combined!)
Before our muscles tighten up too much, and lest our creaky bones mutiny against the chill setting in, we pack things up and begin the hike back....I'm dreading the several miles of slogging it on my inflamed ankle, but what choice do I have? Away from the point, the wind abates and the sun comes out to brighten prospects. The scenery, conversation and company are wonderful - Cat is relating her perspectives and adventures at her first Burning Man experience - and the miles tick off one by one until finally we crest Windy Gap, round the bend and the old Cypresses and white barn come into view - a welcome sight. Cat has taken off ahead the last mile, charging along on an aerobic pace I cannot keep - I'm limping by the time we get to the car, but recharged enough to suggest a brief diversion to McClure's Beach to get a healthy dose of big, wide, open, wild Pacific surf in our face - it is truly all that.
McClure's Beach is a cove that curves gracefully, is backed by rocky cliffs, and lacquered with soft brown sand. It brims with bird life, is studded with sea boulders and artfully sculpted beach rocks and is littered with driftwood and humongous strands of kelp and all manner of flotsam and jetsam - it is a beachcomber's dream and nature lover's delight. Big swells, ripping undercurrents, and frothy surf pounds relentlessly, and high winds add to the drama. Rogue waves crash over giant rocks, pouring forth ephemeral mini-waterfalls, as riptides swirl deliriously, making it a dangerous place to do anything but admire from a distance - it is awesome and scary and glorious to behold. There may not be a wilder, more pristine stretch of beach along the entire California coastline, with the notable exceptions of Big Sur in Monterey County and the fabled Lost Coast in Mendocino County.
It is another magical payoff moment - famed outdoor writer Tom Stienstra attributes it to the "power of place" - and the ineffable beauty draws me back here time and time again to bask in the visceral sensations, confront primal elements, and experience raw nature in a soul-baring epiphany, an all-encompassing realization, that no matter how humble or insignificant of a being I am in relation to my surroundings, I am one with it, a part of, not apart from, it - an integral cog in the mystical machinery of Mother Nature. Not that I would ever wish such a thing to happen, but if one of those rogues waves were to sweep me off my feet and out into the engulfing waters, I would surrender to my fate and accept my death as a homecoming.
Check out other Gambolin' Man explorations of Pt. Reyes National Seashore: