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Are We There Yet?
Family Adventures Close to Home
By Janis Cooke Newman
All over the country, Labor Day signals the end of summer vacation, the end of having a legitimate excuse to wear white shoes, the end of long afternoons lingering at the beach. But here in San Francisco, the first Monday in September has a different meaning. Here, as if in compensation for a summer spent shivering under gray skies, Labor Day signals the start of the best beach weather of the year. And while the rest of the country is digging out sweaters and gassing up leaf blowers, we're grabbing Frisbees and Mexican blankets and heading for the ocean.
Last September, on the first non-foggy day since mid-July, my husband, our 6-year-old son Alex, and I did just that. We loaded up the car with sweatshirts and water sandals and the dog, and headed out to Limantour Beach, on Drake's Bay at Point Reyes. Our plan was to walk along the shoreline from Limantour, about two miles to Coast Camp, and back.
We parked at the big lot at Limantour, and walked out to the beach. People were flying kites and barbecuing. Little kids were making sand castles and burying their fathers. It looked like the height of summer.
"What kind of bird is that?" Alex asked me, pointing to a cluster of tiny birds that were running along the water's edge on matchstick legs.
"A sandpiper," I told him. I believe that all shorebirds are sandpipers.
We crunched along the sand, walking between crashing waves and crumbling white cliffs still studded with little clumps of bush lupine and pink morning glory. A little farther down the beach, we stopped to watch a fisherman reeling in a flat brown stingray. He let Alex touch it, before tossing it back into the water. The dog ran ahead in order to bark at a long piece of sea kelp that looked like a giant bean sprout washed up on shore.
"Watch this, Mom," Alex shouted. He threw himself on the wet sand and moved his arms and legs along the ground. When he stood, he'd left the imprint of a sand angel.
"I used to do the same thing," I told him, remembering how I'd make a chorus line of sand angels on the last day of vacation, as if leaving my mark on the beach would mean that I hadn't entirely left, that the summer wasn't entirely over.
Out past the waves, we could see brown pelicans diving for fish, their feathered bodies making awkward splashes like poor swimmers. Each time they caught something, it filled up the loose skin beneath their beaks so that they resembled the pelicans in cartoons.
Farther along the beach, we saw birds with long angled beaks digging for small sea creatures in the receding tide.
"What are those?" Alex asked me.
"Bigger sandpipers," I told him.
On the beach near Coast Camp, we picnicked on things we'd bought at the Tomales Bay Food Company in the town of Point Reyes: a soft goat's milk cheese called Humbolt Fog, organic strawberries, homemade duck confit, and roast chicken. While my husband and I ate, Alex filled a Calistoga bottle with wine and milk and sand, and told us that it was a science experiment.
Leaving the dog on the beach, we walked up to the campsites, dotted with the bright blue and green tents of autumn campers. White cow parsnip bloomed along the path, like bits of lace perched on stems, and swallows whooshed past our heads, barely moving their triangular wings. From thick bushes of manzanita, we could hear the breathy mutterings of quail.
In a cluster of sea grass, Alex found a lethargic brown lizard. He named it Relaxer.
Back on the beach, we walked past Coast Camp to an outcropping of rocks along the shoreline. It was low tide, and the exposed rock was littered with hundreds of shiny black mussels. Exploring the tide pools, we discovered round sea urchins covered with a dusting of sand that made them resemble onion rings, and sea snails in little round shells. One tide pool was filled with spiny sea anemone that made me think of submerged sunflowers. I touched one, and it pulled in its spines, making a tight bulb.
"Alex!" my husband shouted. "Come see this." He was holding a starfish that was as big as his hand. It had the same mottled coloring as a giraffe.
The dog barked at it.
For an hour or so, we clambered over the rocks, trying not to step on the shiny shells of the mussels. Overhead, seagulls flew by, making a noise that sounded like laughing. Dipping my hands in the warm water of the tide pools, I could almost believe it was still summer.
But walking back toward Limantour Beach, I could tell that it was fall. The late afternoon light was less bright, and our shadows on the sand were longer -- stretched-out people with long legs walking along the beach.
Near Limantour, we spotted a group of seagull-sized birds with long legs playing tag with the tide.
"What are those?" Alex asked me.
"Even bigger sandpipers," I said.
FINDING SUMMER AT POINT REYES
To get to Limantour Beach, take Highway 101 north to the Sir Francis Drake turnoff in Greenbrae. Follow Sir Francis Drake through San Anselmo and Fairfax to Olema. In Olema, turn right onto Bear Valley Road. Turn left on Limantour Road, and take it all the way to the parking lot at the beach.
Coast Camp is located just under two miles to your left, if you're facing the ocean. Dogs are allowed on the beach at Limantour all the way to Coast Camp. (They are not allowed up near the campsites.)
If you plan to explore the tide pools near Coast Camp, be sure to time your visit to low tide. The Point Reyes web site at www.pointreyes.net has tide information. Be sure to follow the site's directions for calculating the tides at Point Reyes. And bring along waterproof shoes for walking on the rocks.
If you're lucky enough to time your trip to a negative low tide, you can continue walking along the beach, past Coast Camp for another half mile or so to Sculptured Beach and Secret Beach. These beaches can only be reached during negative low tides, and do require some rock scrambling, but they're well worth the effort. If you do decide to walk to Sculptured or Secret Beach, keep an eye on the tides. Less than three hours from the maximum low tide, the route back can already be under water.
Camping at Coast Camp
Campsites at Coast Camp (which can also be reached by a 1.8 mile inland route) can be reserved by calling 415-663-8054 up to three months in advance. Be advised, weekends do tend to book up that early. The fee for camping is $10 per site per night, for sites that accommodate up to six people. There are pit toilets, picnic tables, food lockers, and running water at Coast Camp.
Janis Cooke Newman's recently published memoir, The Russian Word for Snow, is available at Cover to Cover Booksellers and Phoenix Books on 24th Street. To contact Janis with ideas for future Voice stories, e-mail j-newman @pacbell.net.
Meanwhile, husband Ken Newman's photo exhibit of street children in Guatemala and Mexico City continues through September at the Diamond Corner Café. The photographs are for sale, and all proceeds go directly to Casa Guatemala, an orphanage and medical clinic in Guatemala City. For information on Casa Guatemala, log on to www.mayaparadise.com/casaguae.