Dispatches from the Upper Newport Bay: Ubo and the polymorphic capability of the Back Bay

Polymorphic capability is a term that occurred to me today, kayaking in the Upper Newport Bay. When I’m in Southern California, visiting my mother, I go there a lot. There’s a trail to walk and the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center to visit. Wonderful people work there: helpful docents, and O.C. Department of Parks and Recreation staff who will answer all your questions. They really want you to understand the estuary. Go visit the center and talk to them.

I also visit the the Newport Aquatic Center in Dover Shores. You can rent a single-person kayak for the inexpensive price of 15.00 dollars an hour. In San Francisco if I want to kayak in an interesting estuary, I have to drive two hours and pay 35.00 to kayak in Tomales Bay. The NAC is a steal, as they say. And it’s never crowded. I just love it.

I rented a kayak the other day and paddled due north, heading for the opening of the 23rd street spring, which is my working name for the spring-fed tributary stream that used to exist where Cherry Lake does now. It was the only freshwater source that came from the northwest uplands of the bay.

Elizabeth C. Creely paddles north. Those are the bluffs of Dover Shores on the left.
Elizabeth C. Creely paddles north. Those are the bluffs of Dover Shores on the left.

I was feeling mighty chuffed: the sun was out, the Clark’s Grebes were ducking and splashing all around me and I’d made the discoveries I wanted to make at the Langson Library Special Collection and Archives center at the University of California at Irvine. Nicely done, I told myself, as I took off.

I feel weirdly confident in a kayak. I didn’t grow up kayaking, and until the fall of 2012, hadn’t done it more than four times in my life. But I was in my home estuary, and it turns out that kayaking is pretty simple. You paddle on both sides–left, right, left, right– using your torso to turn your body, so as to give your shoulders a break. You have to have a certain amount of fitness to paddle for an hour and a half, and I have that. My trapezoids, rhomboids, deltoids, triceps and latissimus dorsi are all in fine shape and let me do whatever I want without too much complaint. We’re all good friends.

So, gripping the paddle, off I went, to visit familiar territory that changes every time I encounter it. I’d have to be there every day to see all the life that flyeth, swimmeth and creepeth in the Upper Newport bay. The UNB has a tremendous amount of capability for sustaining lots of different types of life, thus giving me the idea to think of the habitats of this tremendously life-sustaining environment as proof of great polymorphic capability.

How many habitats? Let’s see if I can do this from memory: Mudflat, salt marsh, freshwater marsh, riparian and upland. Five habitats, hundreds of species guilds and more animals and microscopic organisms than could ever be counted. Check it: “Coastal salt marsh vegetation has been found to be up to twice as productive as corn, three times as productive as wheat and twenty times as productive as ocean vegetation”, meaning that the tremendous amount of habitat diversity supports more life. It’s staggering, the polymorphic (many-formed, many- bodied) nature of wetlands.

I see new things every time I’m there, which is a good argument for going back to the same wild/natural area: you will be shown new things, often. This is my mantra. Ask Craig Dawson, of Sutro Stewards who has been planting his boots on Mount Sutro for at least ten years while he leads the efforts to re-plant native coastal scrub. He’s seen more wild animals and more native vegetation than most people will ever see. Ever see a trillium on Mount Sutro? You probably haven’t. But Craig has because he’s there all the time. So I feel justified in going to the same place over and over and over again to make observations of the natural world, because the more I go, the more I see. My powers of observation, which are such an important tool for a witch, grow.

A snowy egret at the Upper Newport Bay

For a long time, I had only seen ever seen an egret striking one pose: standing still, head up and out, stepping delicately through the water. This changed last fall when I was kayaking in the estuary with my husband. We saw an egret dancing and hopping around, jumping up on one foot, making quick, jerky movements. We looked at each other. What was the egret was doing? Why was it making those movements?

My husband said “I think it’s hunting.” It was. The egret was running after the tiny fish that school around the margins of the mudflats and spearing them, one by one, with his beak. We’d never seen an egret move like that, and it’s likely we wouldn’t have noticed this had we not already become accustomed to seeing them at all. And we wouldn’t have seen the egret had we not paddling around in its habitat. If you want to see stuff, you have to go to where the stuff lives. You know?

Yesterday, the rule that you-will-see-more-stuff-the-more-you-go-to-where-the-stuff-lives held true: I saw even more stuff than I’ve ever seen before.

I saw: A large silvery fish, glinting like platinum metal in the sunlight, jump out of the water. And then I saw another. And another. The fish turned out to be the aptly-named silvery mullet. I had no idea that silvery mullet routinely jump out of the water, but, if you go to the Newport Bay Conservancy website, you will read this confirmatory sentence “It is the silvery mullet that is frequently seen jumping from the water into the air.” Throughout the bay I saw evidence of them, large bubbles appearing from below the surface that formed concentric rings that radiated outward.

I saw: a round stingray, finally. Everyone knows that rays live in the bay and I’ve been looking to see one since I was a kid, but never, until then, had I seen one. Here’s how it all went down. I was paddling up the channel that drains the 23rd Street creek. To my right, an egret was hunting. The channel was getting shallow. I scraped to a halt in the shallows and pulled my camera out, intending to take a picture of the mouth of the creek. I snapped away. I put my camera down and looked around, falling into a reverie. Thick mats of algae were floating around. Underneath me, perfectly preserved in the mud, were the paw prints of animals, raccoons I’m guessing.

The delta of the 23rd Street stream as it enters the Upper Newport Bay
The delta of the 23rd Street stream as it enters the Upper Newport Bay

Egret’s spidery claws were there, too, clearly imprinted in the bottom of the channel, preserved by the still water. Something moved. I looked. It was a ray, dun-brown, flapping and rippling its way along the bottom of the channel. I looked at it and thought: I’ve been waiting to see you since I was six.

I saw: lined shore crabs. They are ADORABLE and beautiful: rotund and glistening. They have very round claws, and their body is blue and their claws are red or… is it the other way around? (Must be more observant next time). I do know they have two distinctly different colors. They were all over the place: under the water next to the mudflats, and running back and forth between the water and these little muddy overhangs they call home. I was fighting with the current a bit and so bumped into the margins of the mudflats a few times, which prompted them to raise their claws heavenward in a gesture that looks prayerful but is defensive. It  is intended to let you know, the big weird thing in the even bigger, weirder, yellow thing, that they will pinch the shit out of you with their claws if you so much as look at them the wrong way. “Sorry,” I called out to them a few times as I struggled to right my kayak and paddle back to the middle of the bay.

A lined shore crab in the Upper Newport Bay

I saw more perfectly preserved footprints in the mudflats, tipping me off to the estuary’s polymorphic capability. When the water covers the mudflat, marine animals live and breed there.  When the tide ebbs and the soft, sticky mud is exposed, mammals use it as hunting ground. I saw a mysterious reddish bird in the distance which could easily have been a bittern. I saw alert least terns diving again and again – one flew directly above me over me with its wings folded back in a perfect display of aeronautic power and skill. Further still above the tern, I saw a passenger airplane soaring through the sky, and I thought: I know which one of you came first.

I fought my way back to the beach. The current was coming in and it was strong. The crabs scurried and danced on the shores of the mudflats, warning me off with their rotund claws. The smell of salt and brine was maddening to me. There’s always a point where I want to stop paddling and dive into the bay. The water is clear out there and at a distance it looks blue and clean. Up close you can see the results of freshwater mixing with salt, and what happens in a shallow estuary when the sun beats down on it most days and warms it: photosynthesis and the production of a very long food chain. There is stuff that floats in the water, sometimes fluffy and green, sometimes with finely detailed leaves. Webby-looking plant life. Elegantly slender eel grass. It’s there for a reason.

Estuaries are nurseries, the place of origin for animals who are born there but may not live within it as adults. I wasn’t born there, but I was raised there. I came to some important consciousness in the Back Bay. That’s another reason I go back. It is home, and important node in my historic bio-region that stretches from the uplands of the mesa, the mudflats of the estuary, down to the ocean. When people ask me am I from Costa Mesa or Newport Beach? I want to tell them that I am from Uplands-Bay-Ocean.

Ubo. This is my home, a place that unfolds naturally and gradually and according to the rules of the ecological system that exists within it.

Bluewater in the Upper Newport Bay
Bluewater in the Upper Newport Bay

I made it back to the beach, with the wind pushing against me the whole way. I pulled my kayak up onto the beach. Several teenage girls were heading out in a kayak, followed by their giggly friends who dove into the bay and followed them. This surprised me a bit. I don’t see many people, let alone self-conscious teenage girls from NB, swimming into the bay. When I was young, the bay was a poor substitute from the ocean, and only tourists swam there.

I looked at the water:  it was blue in the distance and very clear at my feet. The wind was low and the water sparkled.  This bay is much cleaner now, I thought. I waded in and dove under, listening, which is the first thing I do when I take my first swim of the summer. I heard what I always hear: a sound of immensity coming from the territory beyond. The water was cool.

I swam a few yards away from the beach and paddled around for ten minutes. The cold of the water made its way inside my body and I felt my blood become calm and chill, as if salty seawater had replaced it. I turned and swam back, my head just above the surface of the water, which is the perspective I prefer: a creature of the bay looking not down at it, but looking from within it, an animal of the mud, the water and the sky.

Elizabeth C. Creely in UBO
Elizabeth C. Creely in Ubo, her ecological home.

This Dinnshenchas is dedicated to my father, Christopher Culpeper Creely, my first teacher, and to Ursula LeGuin, a wonderful mentor I’ve never met.

Elizabeth C. Creely

June 7, 2013