“During negative tides you can walk along the seashore all the way from Muir Beach to Pirate’s Cove,” the old-timer said. “I did it once with my dog, when he was a pup. Had to carry him over boulders the size of haystacks.”
I was smitten. Pirate’s Cove is a small Marin County beach decorated with driftwood, piles of which are sometimes artfully arranged into secret sculptures by day trippers. It’s accessible by a meandering up and down four-mile cliff edge hike from Muir Beach. The last 100 yards consists of a steep, often muddily ragged, trail. I’ve visited the cove in this manner many times. But the idea of approaching it from shore, after traversing multiple tidepools and normally submerged rock gardens, thrilled me.
The old-timer had given me what amounted to a lost map to pirate’s treasure. I intended to use it.
I’ve been a dedicated tide-pooler – searching out sea creatures and hidden crevices in temporary shallow pools revealed by low tides – since I was a boy. The activity is an exhilarating adventure, with a tang of challenging discovery. It takes skill and strength to navigate slick, newly daylit, rocks, and keen eyes to spot (partially) underwater life: tiny fish, eel, anemones, crustaceans, mollusks, slugs, and the stellar species, starfish. Corpses of birds, sea lions, even whale bones might be found. There’s the human detritus, not all of it pure toxic garbage: wayward buoys, polished bits of glass, salty toys from faraway lands. Everything’s being revealed for the first time, at least that day, to be seen only by the eyes of the intrepid, soon to be lost again. Maybe forever.
Tides are largely shaped by the moon, with the sun also a team player. When the sun, moon, and Earth are aligned – during a new or full moon – solar and lunar influences combine to create extra-high and extra-low tides, known as spring tides. A coastal-specific average lower low tide is the zero mark. During especially negative tides, which occur only a handful of times a year, tides can be upwards of two feet below average.
The first significant negative tide near Muir Beach, a foot and a half below the mean, occurred several months after the old-timer’s tip, at around 6:30 a.m. I woke up early that morning, stuffed a water bottle and extra sweatshirt in a knapsack, and headed to Muir Beach in darkness. The sound of lapping waves and scent of ocean air drew me forward. Soon enough, I was clamoring across rocks, slipping on slick ones, peering into verdant sea gardens. My hands and legs became tattooed with narrow streaks of blood, happy badges of my expedition.
Crabs leapt off rocks as I approached, claws raised high in defense.
“Yo, crabs, chill, I’m not a bird here to eat you,” I called out to them.
They either didn’t understand or didn’t believe me, continuing their twisted jumps to hide. As each new underwater world presented itself, I squatted, absorbing the wonders of the mirage-like dioramas. After a while, though, I picked up my pace, lest the tide turn before I reached my destination, trapping me with the crabs.
As I hopscotched amongst the surf slickened stones, I skirted past towering boulders, on which clusters of cormorants or murres noisily perched. After passing two small beaches, whose mostly sandy edges provided short-term relief from rock hopping, I began to wonder if I’d almost reached my goal. Soon enough, I spied a modest-sized cove marked by a handful of offshore rock pillars. As I clambered up a jumble of boulders my progress was abruptly interrupted by a deep slash of surging seawater. I’d reached a crevasse, roughly three feet wide, the ocean perhaps ten feet below.
I studied the terrain. There was no way to skirt the fissure from above; the cliff walls were too steep. Below, the sea route would require more than foot long leaps between several rocks, all sporting wet tendrils of weedy hair on top of them, some of which were periodically submerged under the waves. I could jump across the crack, but if I failed the tumble into the water could cause injuries far more serious than a few scrapes.
I squinted my eyes toward the cove, my treasure just out of reach. Reluctantly, I turned my back on it, retracing my washed-away steps to Muir Beach.
Not long after, I encountered the old-timer and told him of my failure.
“Yeah,” he said, rubbing his stumbly white whiskers. “There’s a place where you might need to jump. Not a big jump, though. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
I must have missed something, I thought, a plausible pathway over the crevasse, or more likely, along the seashore.
Almost a year later, with the tides predicted to go negative by a foot, this time at 8:40 in the morning, I set out again. Despite the later hour I was alone as I strode across Muir Beach to the intertidal strip, my rocky road to Pirate’s Cove. Again, the crabs greeted me, tiny claws waving with comic impotence. I passed by dense clusters of black mussels, peered at fat neon-orange starfish and flowering blue-green sea anemones, some as thick as my thigh. Pigeon guillemot squawked protectively on gigantic boulders, taking wing if I got too close.
As I scrambled up a litter of human-sized rocks, I spied a couple of people further down the coast, visitors to Pirate’s Cove. I spontaneously waved towards them, with no response. I was going to make it, I thought to myself, I’m almost there!
And then I arrived at the same crevasse. Again, I studied it. There was no safe way above, below, or across. I sighed and turned back.
The repeated experience, I’m sure, was supposed to be a lesson. The treasure that I sought was the journey, the time spent with the sea and its creatures. Or the treasure was always inside me, a golden nugget of knowledge that I, and all of us, are the ocean, each a small splash of life-tumbled wave forever interconnected with one another and the Earth’s eternal, infernal, abundance. Or the treasure was the realization that goals are an illusion, some never, ever, to be achieved. And that was alright.
All those things are true. But it’d still be hella cool to reach Pirate’s Cove by the covert shore, to walk the small beach, study the driftwood, before heading over the coastal trail back home. Perhaps there is a way along the seashore, if picked through carefully. Next year, I’ll pack a wetsuit.