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Humboldt's Lagoons



Of the four lagoons claimed by Humboldt Lagoons State Park, only two would pass muster with any self-respecting dictionary. A lagoon is usually defined as a shallow body of brackish water separated from the ocean by a shoal, having a regular source of fresh water. Big Lagoon and Stone Lagoon (the latter being Chah-pekw O' Ket'-toh in the Yurok language) clearly make the cut, while Dry Lagoon is, um, dry, and Freshwater Lagoon has been a lake for more than 100 years.

Dealing with our non-lagoons first, Dry Lagoon was drained and infilled by would-be farmers in the early 1900s, but their several attempts at raising profitable crops failed. Now, during the rainy season, it defaults to a marsh, attracting flocks of migrating birds. Freshwater was once a true lagoon, with regular infusions of salt water from the ocean, but its long spit became a permanent dam to accommodate U.S. Highway 101 when the Old State Highway was deemed too narrow and windy for north-south traffic. 

Fresh water in Big Lagoon comes from Maple Creek (a lovely kayak or SUP paddle when the water's high enough), while salt water usually flows in from the Pacific several times a year in winter and spring when the spit is breached. "Breaching is a natural and generally welcome occurrence in our lagoons," according to Marna Powell, an Orick resident and former owner of Kayak Zak's. In a normal year, Big Lagoon is open to the ocean for weeks at a time, when its spit is breached at the north end. Typically, Maple Creek and the other feeders raise the water level until it's perhaps 20 feet above low tide. The difference in level, together with steep beach slopes resulting from winter downwelling currents which erode the sand, leaving the narrow spit between lagoon and ocean vulnerable. First, pipe holes appear (see photo), followed by spectacular breaching: "A class V whitewater wave train moving at incredible speed out into the enormous crashing, dumping ocean waves," to quote Powell.

Later, sand washes down the coast — mostly from the mouth of the Klamath — to rebuild the spit, sealing the breach until next time. This yo-yo process — breaching and sealing — usually happens twice a year, although some years the spit is never breached (like in 2001, when massive algae blooms led to several dog deaths), while other years it occurs many times. The result is the salinity of Big Lagoon varies wildly, both in time and place: when the breach is open, it can be as salty as the ocean at the north end, while at other times, in the south and closer to Maple Creek, it can be virtually fresh. Fish have adapted to this variation, the technical term being euryhaline, i.e. they can tolerate a wide range of salinities.

While the annual breaches at Big Lagoon are almost guaranteed, Stone Lagoon is less predictable. With a smaller freshwater inflow (from McDonald Creek) and a shallower beach slope than at Big Lagoon, its mile-long spit breaks open much less frequently and years may elapse between breaches.

I've been using the common term "Stone Lagoon" but, as of April of 2022, the Yurok Tribe has assumed a partnership role with the state in administering the name in their language Chah-pekw O' Ket'-toh, together with the visitor center adjacent to U.S Highway 101. This move, along with the naming of Sue-meg Park (formerly Patrick's Point, named for a notoriously murderous white settler), and with tribe's lead role in condor restoration, the Yurok are taking what tribal Chair Joseph James says are "significant step[s] toward the healing of our people."

Barry Evans (he/him, loves paddling his kayak around Chah-pekw O' Ket'-toh /Stone Lagoon. Check out his latest Humboldt book, Humbook Two, at any local bookstore.

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