The South Bay gleamed dully at low tide, its exposed flats an expanse of greenish-brown mud. A watery blue, dendritic network of tidal channels, thick with eelgrass, cut across the faintly reeking ooze, as if an enormous, mythical tree made of heavy sky had fallen from above, landed deep and remained, capturing sea water and reflection. Up one trunk of this water-tree two kayaks glided, following the channel's sinuous course to the middle of the bay. The channel grew smaller. Narrower, deeper. The mud walls closed about them. No birds called out. All was quiet. As they reached the middle of the emptied bay, the channel began opening up again. It seemed like another world, from another time. Rounding a bend, the men suddenly came upon a colony of seals lounging in the mud. The seals humped their graceful pale bodies into the water and, disappearing then reappearing, surrounded the two kayaks -- heads craning above the water, dark eyes, set deep in soft ghost-dog faces, watching.
In May 2011, Aldaron Laird set out to explore the entire 105-mile perimeter of Humboldt Bay and its three major sloughs. Keeping the tides' peculiar hours, he launched his little white kayak from dozens of locations, sometimes negotiating slippery slopes and thick brambles. He walked tirelessly, squishing through mud and teetering along rock-tumbled barriers. Frequently he paused, put down his pack, and pulled out digitized maps to ink in adjustments. He shot thousands of photos.
His mission: Record the current conditions of the bay shoreline and sloughs and determine where it is vulnerable to inundation, either from erosion combined with super high "king" tides or from sea level rise driven by long-term climate change. He had been awarded a $33,000 grant from the California Coastal Conservancy for what he had hoped would be mostly a tranquil wander by kayak. That's not quite how it turned out.
Laird is 58, not very tall, and has greenish eyes and a short graying blond goatee and mustache. He drives an old black Isuzu Trooper, hoping its decrepitude will deflect thieves. Slogging around the bay with a black visor jammed onto his shaggy head, he is laden with gear. A monopod for fending off pit bulls, balancing on loose rip rap and testing the mud depth before venturing onto it. Ray Bans perched on his head and reading glasses hanging from a cord around his neck. A blue-and-gray Camelback daypack with a "Tap the Mad, Drink Local Water" water bottle stuffed in a side pocket -- a token of his service as a director on the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District Board. And, for the 400-some photographs he sometimes shoots in one day, the Nikon SLR camera he bought with a small inheritance from his dad, who died last November.
A gentle person who cultivates bonsai trees in his off time, Laird likens his unprecedented bay wander to an Australian walkabout, or to traipsing the John Muir Trail. Born in eastern Canada, he grew up on the move as his family shifted back and forth between Montreal and Winnipeg, following his Canadian Army dad's assignments. He'd gone to nine elementary schools by the time he was 13 -- the last one in Los Angeles, where the family moved in 1965 when Laird's dad retired and found work in the private aerospace industry. Laird always loved being outdoors; when he was a little kid, living on the base outside of Winnipeg, he set up a fur-trapping line and tromped through the snow tracking animals. In California he made friends with climbers and backpackers, and before long he was spending his summers in Yosemite and other Sierra Nevada haunts.
He came to Humboldt County in 1975 to study biology and began exploring the local mountains and rivers. After graduating in 1978 from Humboldt State University, he and some friends started a business called Northcoast Reinhabitation Group; Redwood National Park had just expanded its boundaries, and the group was hired to do the park's first watershed restoration work. Then they planted trees in clearcuts on national forest lands. Eventually they were doing stream inventories and salmon restoration. Laird started his own businesses, Trinity Associates, to continue doing environmental planning work.
As he travels the bay, Laird has been fine-tuning the details of what he already knows: that 80 to 90 percent of the shoreline is artificial, altered by human endeavor -- earthen dikes and railroad beds, roads, rip-rapped low walls and other structures; and that only 10 percent of the native salt marsh remains, some of it growing on artificially altered shore. Laird has been noting where human structures could be inundated. He also wants to know where existing salt marsh has room to migrate inland as sea level rises and where it might drown because something -- most likely a human development -- is in the way.
Setting out from a parking lot at the end of Hilfiker Lane one day in early November, Laird wears black rubber boots, blue jeans and a tan shirt with pens stuffed into a breast pocket stained red with errant ink. On his left hand he wears his gold wedding ring. On his right he wears his dad's gold ring, its image of the family crest -- a lion's head with a diamond in its mouth -- worn nearly smooth.
He starts at the edge of the bay by the parking lot where a band of lawn grass is followed by a band of rusty colored pickleweed, a common salt marsh plant, closest to the water. He checks his map to make sure he's marked the correct amount of salt marsh. Then he moves on, up the trail winding north through green-gold cord grass -- Spartina densiflora, a salt-marsh invader -- failing most of the time to avoid stepping in the generous ground cover of dog shit. Delicate mats of strawberry plants line the path, a grasshopper clicks in the grass and marsh wrens chit-chit in the coyote brush. A gull twirls low above the bay and plunks noisily into the water, then rises yelp-yelp-yelping. Then a kingfisher zooms in from the south, hovers wings a-flutter, and drops straight in with a soft plip, surfaces quickly and speeds into the air.
Laird frequently stops and swing his camera up to shoot. He hopes to put on an exhibit when he's finished with this project -- maybe set it up in a huge room with a mock-up of the bay in the center and his pictures displayed about it.
The salt marsh broadens, eventually meeting a willow thicket inland. Up ahead, a railroad bridge hangs over the Elk River. Before the railroad was built through here, this area would have been even more tidally influenced; now, broken chunks of concrete line parts of the shore's edge, holding back the water, while yards away the tide is able to come in past unreinforced earthen banks and spread, nurturing salt marsh.
A flagpole clangs and machinery hums at the nearby water treatment plant. On a long, low spit separated from shore by a narrow channel, a pipe that releases treated wastewater into the bay at ebb tide juts up from the sand. It's one of many structures that could be compromised by sea-level rise.
"So far, an awful lot of the entire shoreline is really low," Laird says. "Particularly the railroad beds and a lot of the dikes. And some bridges. The state is saying to prepare for four-and-a-half feet -- 55 inches -- of sea-level rise by 2100. Very little around Humboldt Bay can withstand that. If we don't put the planning effort in now, we're going to have trouble by 2050."
Animals moved through the grasses, hunting. Thousands of shorebirds crowded the vast mudflats and slowly jittered forward, following the tides. In South Bay during low tide, Laird watched a congregation of white egrets, their white bodies mirrored in the bright blue sheen of glassy water, assembled in a long line and leapfrogging competitively in front of each other to stab at little fishes. In Hookton Slough he came upon a thousand cormorants, some posed elbows-out to dry their feathers, roosting on Teal Island, a strange ring of old, evaporating dikes around a watery center that once was grazing land created by farmers in the 1850s. Along the South Bay bluff, he stopped his kayak to chat awhile with a hunter setting out duck decoys. Up on Table Bluff one day, before dropping to the South Spit to stroll its shoreline, he saw two ravens and a paraglider suspended together in an updraft, a hundred feet above the ocean.
He saw ethereal mist rising from algal-green mudflats into bright blue sky. Days of bay and sky layered in gray monochrome. A herd of cows creeping behind him as he paced alongside farmers' dikes. A family of raccoons hunting for clams near a dune forest. Three complete pelican skeletons, each atop an earthen dike.
He heard godwits swarming his channel-bound kayak in the mudflats, a cacophony of sweet-sharp gabbling. Invisible geese honking, flying low in a dense fog. An otter in a slough ditch, crunching on something tasty. A foghorn keeping slow, steady time.
Humboldt Bay, the state's second largest estuary, is goggle-shaped with two bulbous, shallow bays -- the heavily altered Arcata Bay and the more wild and natural South Bay -- connected by a narrower, deep, industrialized channel called Eureka Bay. Twice a day, the ocean floods into South Bay through a narrow passage and fills the entire bay, mixing with freshwater from nearly three dozen creeks and sloughs. Twice a day the same mixture empties back out, exposing vast mudflats cut by watery channels in Arcata and South bays.
Before traveling Humboldt Bay's shoreline, Laird spent part of 2010 studying maps dating back to 1870 and aerial photos shot between 1948 and 2009. Using the 2009 aerial photos, Laird and his partner in the project, Brian Powell, a GIS specialist at McBain and Trush, Inc., in Arcata, made a master map. On it they marked segments showing different shoreline features -- natural, artificial, exposed, vegetated, salt marsh, dike, railroad, and so on. On his walkabout, Laird had to verify, or correct, those delineations along every inch of shoreline. Ground-truthing, they call it. After that, Powell would apply the adjustments, add surface elevations, and construct a final map.
In 2008, California's governor ordered all state agencies planning construction projects in low-lying coastal zones to take into account projected sea-level increases of 16 inches by the year 2050 and 55 inches by 2100. More to the point, the California Coastal Commission won't permit a project around Humboldt Bay if the developer can't prove it can handle a three-foot sea level rise now, minimum, and a six-foot-level rise, maximum, by 2100, says Laird.
Arcata's marsh/wastewater treatment plant would be at risk of inundation, given enough sea-level rise; relocating it would mean also redoing the sewage and stormwater lines. Pastures around the bay might become salt marsh again if their old, earthen dikes, already crumbling in many places, aren't bolstered. In fact, said Laird, a lot of ranchers, seeing the inevitable, have been selling their land to the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge or to the government. Restoration efforts to bring back some natural, tidally influenced systems are under way, including a new estuary at the mouth of Jacoby Creek and another at Salmon Creek, whose once-salmon-choked waters were diked and tide-gated by ranchers.
Laird hopes that when people see his data, and his and Powell's final map, they'll be inspired to do much more. And quickly. During a king high tide Laird has seen the rookery and the Tuluwat village site on Indian Island floating on open water, with all of the surrounding salt marshes submerged. He's seen the bay flood right up to the top of the railroad tracks near Arcata and to the lip of a dike on Gannon Slough. "Just a little bit more and it will spill over and into the fields and highway," he said.
He's worried planners aren't seriously considering the consequences of rising waters.
"I think [the idea] is so big, people just don't want to deal with it," Laird said, sitting in his Arcata office one day in early December. One of the pelican skeletons he'd found lay thinly on a bookshelf. "Look at Caltrans -- they're spending millions to rebuild the 101 corridor, and yet they're not putting it on a causeway. Maybe they should be. When I'm out there walking around those places, or kayaking, I try to imagine the scale of the impact. And I think, who's going to hold the ocean back?"
Laird's survey is an extension of an earlier project, the Historical Atlas of Humboldt Bay, that he completed for the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District and the state Department of Fish and Game in 2007. In that, he used historical photographs to document shoreline changes since 1850.
This new project had desk work, too. But Laird imagined that he'd spend much of his time in the field skimming along happily in his little white Dagger kayak. Besides the serious work at hand -- the mapping -- he was charmed by the notion he might be the first person to consciously cover every inch of bay and slough shoreline, shooting evocative photographs and scouting out potential new kayak launch sites while he was at it.
Instead his journey, now nearly completed, turned out to be a bit more of a slog -- on foot, through mud, weeds and occasional filth. Mostly he had to go out at low tide, because he needed to see the shoreline exposed to be able to tell its nature and condition. He ended up hiking two-thirds of the 105 miles. The rest he mostly kayaked, although he sometimes took the Humboldt Baykeeper boat to inventory the industrial shoreline around Eureka. Occasionally, he had to be innovative. When he needed to get to a far southern portion of bay shoreline, up against a steep bluff encased by private property, he ventured out at low tide in a deep channel cutting through South Bay's mudflats -- it was there he saw that colony of seals -- then, as the tide began to rise, bringing with it the shrieking, feeding shorebirds, he paddled toward the bluff and back along the shoreline.
Through it all, Laird has gathered a unique collection of encounters and visions that probably no one else can lay claim to. He has wandered every edge and sometimes the middle of that alien world that shimmers between our dwellings and the great, roaring ocean.
There's danger in every endeavor. You can build a town by the bay, fortify its narrow, choppy entrance, dike and fill the estuaries, displace whoever came before, and build yourself a life. And maybe the sea won't rise. Maybe it will. Maybe the dikes will slowly crumble and your fields fill with salt water. Maybe the salt marsh will struggle back. Or, if the ocean doesn't slowly stretch in to grab you, if that doesn't happen, maybe the earth will jump and toss a tsunami onto your shores, swallowing the lowlands.
The more mundane brushes with fate were likelier. Laird knew that. He'd learned, just by looking, not to kayak in the bay near the Elk River Slough spit where choppy fast waves broke constantly. But early on in his adventure, while walking the shore of Arcata Bay, he got his leg trapped under a big chunk of rip rap. The tide was rising. He'd left his cell phone, which was broken anyway, at home. He hadn't told anyone where he was going. Twisting his foot painfully, he finally broke free. One time, his kayak got stuck in the eel grass, and another time he almost tipped over when it rammed under the submerged, rotting pilings of a long-ago industrial dock. He got a new phone and began carrying a stick and telling his wife where he was going. An ounce of prevention.
All around him, however, were reminders of failed endeavors. The pelican skulls. Homeless camps. Stranded cypress stumps and rotted pilings. Railroad tracks dangling above an eroded shore. Eureka's industrial decay and North Spit's dead mills and dissipating dwellings. Out on the tip of South Spit one day, on a pretty sandy beach amid fragrant yellow lupine, Laird could feel the threat. The ocean roared, too close. Nobody was around. He'd have 10 minutes to get off the spit if the big wave was coming; not a chance he'd make it.
Or maybe he and the rest of us had another 50 or 100 years -- maybe more if the climate change predictions don't pan out -- to think about what the ocean could do to us, our lives and the land around us. He hoped people would choose to think about it, and then make a plan. He also hoped that, fast- or slow-swamping scenarios aside, they'd get out into their world and get to know it, like he was. Walk at low tide along the strangely exotic base of the bluffs in South Bay. Or choose a cloud-dotted day, get in the kayak, and paddle up a channel into the middle of Arcata Bay as the tide is just beginning to rise. The water will be about an inch deep. There will be no waves. The clouds will be beautiful, and they'll be above and below, as the sky merges with its reflection in the shallow water and makes one, big, blue-and-white seamless dome.