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A Day at the Russian River


FIFTY-FOUR or more brown pelicans squat on a sand bar where at this time of day the Russian River and the tides of the Pacific surge east and west. The pelicans have the look of men in suits at a bar waiting to order a drink, preferably "sex on the beach." They are very cocky, indeed.

Nearby close to 40 sea lions and seals nap at river's edge where foamy waves of the sea roll into the river's mouth, the river dark green, the Pacific swirling indigo and turquoise. In the far distance a curved stretch of blue shines bright on the horizon, saddled by a heavy dark mound of fog that grows lighter as it billows toward the heavens, a wisp at its peak like fresh whipped cream.

Cormorants race across the surface of the sea like bats but in a perfectly straight line. Nearby on the beach rocks are frosted: there are limbs and pieces of marbled elephants, tree trunks washed ashore, bleached white by salt and sun.

A sea lion -- or is it a pelican? repeats the same word over and over again in a voice that sounds like Stephen Hawkins: "Wow." A few drops of rain fall. I'm back after going on a chase to find Loly who wandered off to get a better view of the pelicans and sea lions...

We have wandered over to an area where the river forms a lovely pool ringed on the northwest side by a soft bank, a place where our children used to play when they were kids, running down a tall hill of sand and leaping into the warm water of the river. The hill is smaller now, worn down by time and wind and rain...

Everywhere we go we remember our children. Every landmark, every turn of the beach and bend of the river that remain trips memories –the games they played, the exact words they said, the expressions on their faces, the sparkle in their eyes, questions asked... and we wish so much that they were here.

One hundred feet from the lonely sandy hill where the kids used to play, running down it at full speed then diving into the river (that is to say as close to full speed as they considered safe -- they were always cautious) -- one hundred feet away is a grassy knoll, the point of a penisula, solid land, THE land, shoreline untouched by tides for a hundred years.

Two rusty railroad tracks are suspended in mid-air between the mounds, long parallel iron rails ringing in the wind and from the weight of the steel wheels they once supported . They will not be moved and dutifully await the resurrection of a phantom train buried in a sandy grave in Mendocino.

Facing northeast, following the river with one's eyes, it appears to be low tide, rocks and a fallen uprooted tree in the shallow water, the tree's roots tangled like so many tentacles.

Naturally Loly has wandered out there. She sits on a Loly-sized smooth rock, (a small one) gazing this time at a tiny sandy island in the near distance, the Republic of Pelicans, population 24.

There's a peninsula directly across from the Pelican Republic, two or three wing flaps away, the tip crowded with citizens, one flapping his wings, neck craned in a display of dominance (though he may just need a stretch).

Two seals play in the river, which is what drew Loly's attention, flipping, flapping, noses and heads popping above the surface playfully as they sniff at the air, whiskers and eyes blinking, the seals rolling around, tumbling, creating a black-and-tan with foam at the top.

"It must be nice to be a seal," Loly says, "except when you're near a killer whale. They don't have any predators here," she explains, "except PEE-ple."

A squadron of pelicans arrives in formation, wings arched as they float with confidence across the river.

Three gulls make a sudden run for it, one in the lead, another apparently on the outs, squawking and hurling insults and gull threats.

The seals are not distracted by the dispute. They poke their heads above the surface, smile at each other then disappear -- except their flippers, which slap at the glassy surface, which shatters and rolls into soft balls of foam.

Loly has made a discovery: The sea's tide must be rising. The dry stone spotted sand is slowly but visibly flooded, fingers of the river reaching for the feet of the sandy mound.

We stand and watch in wonder just below the high water mark, our toes planted where there will be two feet of water soon. It is astonishing to see how quickly the tides reclaim dominance over river and land...

Brown pelicans float down from the heavens and settle on the river as it brews. “If only humans could leave nature alone,” Loly says. "The earth is so generous..."

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