Kayak Camping in Search of Bioluminescence

Somewhere in the back of my mind I had a bucket list item labeled
Experience Bioluminescence but I’d let it slide down the list and out of my thoughts long ago. Like most people, I knew what bioluminescence was – some mercurial variety of plankton that, if you’re lucky enough to find you can stir up to reveal an ethereal and viridescent glow – but I hadn’t the faintest idea of how or where to experience it.
In walks Hannah, a fun and fiery mentch for adventure. We met Friday night at Burning Man when the metropolitan implosion was coming to a head, and, though we spent 12 wonderful hours together, we never saw each other again. Such a typical scenario in that frenzied desert wonderland. But, in our continuous missing of one another, Hannah left a little note with her phone number on my pillow. So when I found myself inching ever deeper into California as I checked off must-do mountain bike rides on my post-Burning Man roadtrip, I dropped her a line. I received a prompt and unequivocal reply: “I have two-and-a-half days off and I want to go on a kayak adventure.”
Now I hadn’t kayaked much and neither had Hannah but what we lacked in raw experience we more than made up for in enthusiasm and gall. We dragged the kayaks out from under a friend’s deck and strapped the 13- and 15-foot-long galleons to the roof of her 26-year-old Toyota Tercel. With the backseat housing a compendium of gear and supplies, we headed north out of Berkeley for a couple hours as we fleshed out our plan. (Sidebar: we’d spent the night squatting a sailboat in the marina there.)

Guided by tips from her local acquaintances (I’m from Colorado, she’s from New York,) we parked and put in at Miller, a county park with a boat ramp and $5 overnight parking. A kayak loaded for an overnight trip weighs at least 40 pounds, so a boat ramp is welcome if not entirely necessary. Permits are typically obtained a fair distance away at Bear Valley but we had arrived too late and resigned ourselves to guerilla camping – a euphemism that outdoorsman use to refer to camping stealthily, and usually illegally, which was us despite our good intentions.
Hell isn’t merely paved with good intentions; it’s walled and roofed with them. Yes, and furnished too. ~Aldous Huxley
Regarding red tape, permits are required for camping on Tomales Bay, and we were keenly aware we had been remiss. But not a soul entered our purview in the time we camped on the far shore. It was a Monday-Wednesday trip, though I am told that fall and October in particular is prime viewing season.
So for two days we camped and paddled the serene waters, all but silent and all but alone. Day paddlers and the occasional fishing boat would come and go, and the roar of the open sea crashing against the shores of Point Reyes on the far side of the peninsula that creates our luminous sanctuary was omnipresent, but the signs of other life consisted mostly of the squawks of sea birds (also omnipresent) and the rare bark of a seal.

Bioluminescence turned up in spades. It was everywhere, every night. It would stream from the bows of our boats in the moonless darkness and sparkle on our fingertips. Kudos to Hannah for the desire to touch it, a simple but strikingly beautiful experience that might have otherwise escaped me. Fish darted beneath our boats, trailing gossamer trains that lingered in proportion to their girth. Hannah hoped for a wiley seal to pass by us in the aqueous darkness below and leave a sparkling wormhole, while I silently imagined the rush of seeing the pointy-finned silhouette of the sea’s most notorious predator against a cloud of noxious green. After moonrise “bio” as the locals call it was to be found less strikingly, now appearing as what at first glance just looks like bubbles in the wake of our paddles.
We crossed the bay at the epitome of a casual pace. We set up camp on a deserted shore, upon a bed of matted vegetation scarcely above the high water line. Indeed, it took a bit of looking just to find that. Awaking in late morning, we frolicked but did not venture far, and then we dozed off for the afternoon. We ebbed back to Tomales Bay just as it was, bucolic and devoid of any obvious enterprise or ambition, a current that powerfully overcame the drive we’d once had.
We dressed warmly for the paddle back, and rightly so – a damp wind pummeled our city-soft skin while the outgoing tide sapped our speed with unsettling facility. We found lubberland just as crupuscular rays spread into the saturated blue beyond and we sat down to eat in the warm sanctuary of Nicks Cove restaurant. We shmoozed and noshed on chowder and oysters and bread, and then slipped back into inky darkness and onto the water to chase streaking stars and sparkling plankton once again.


The church from the movie The Rock is on the way

#bioluminescence #tomalesbay #california #kayaking #campin #burningman