My feet felt like tenderized beef and there was still a layer of sweat salt on my forehead. I had several new rips in my hiking pants and ritual scarification from aggressive blackberry canes. But, nine hours and some 16 miles later, we had arrived back where we started.
Circumnavigating the northern portion of Humboldt Bay (technically Arcata Bay) on foot was my friend Riley's idea. His office balcony had long distracted him with a tantalizing panorama from the Arcata Marsh to the bridges between the Samoa Peninsula, Indian Island and Eureka, to the Arcata Redwood Mill and Bracut Industrial Park and everything in between. He had mused about such a journey from the comfort of his desk, but I suspect it wasn't until I signed on that the prospects got real. What better way to experience this beautiful place than at the speed of 2 miles per hour?
We agreed to do our best to walk as close to the water as possible without trespassing on private property. However, there is no trail around the bay. While plans are unfolding for a trail along Highway 101 between Arcata and Eureka, it's years away. Several braids of the California Coastal Trail have incorporated rather dubious links in their routes around the Humboldt Bay area (e.g., a water crossing from the North Jetty to the South Jetty). We reviewed maps and Google Earth to craft a tentative route, but still concluded that we would be wise to do some actual reconnaissance.
After our brief exploratory trip, we added rain pants, work gloves and hand pruners to our survival supplies. We resigned ourselves to crossing Eureka Slough on the highway rather than the railroad, and anticipated with some dread the bridges on State Route 255. The railings on the bridges were as low — and the traffic was as considerable — as we remembered.
Walking out of the Arcata Marsh parking lot on South G Street early on the appointed morning, the ethereal fog lifted just enough to reveal the rising sun. The happy chatter of the avian community followed us until we reached the restored wetlands of the McDaniel Slough Restoration and Enhancement Project. We followed the levees through the Mad River Slough and Wildlife Area. This area is not open to the public and, for the most part, the three hours we spent getting to Mad River Slough involved picking our way through thigh-high brush, lupine and blackberries. There were times when we would scramble along the rock riprap that protects the bay side of the levee. As we went west, we encountered massive chunks of industrial concrete and old roadway used to buttress the dikes.
We saw some of the remnant flocks of geese, evidence of river otter escapades and, of course, cows who eyed us warily as we passed. When we reached the old railroad bridge crossing the Mad River Slough, we took a break, changed out of rain pants and put on dry socks and shoes. It hadn't rained, but it couldn't have been much wetter if it had.
We followed the railroad tracks and Peninsula Drive through Manila before the route, now much easier, returned to the shoreline. At last the sun poked through and quickly scattered the marine layer. "The time has come," Riley said, "to talk of many things: of shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings." Among the many attributes of walking is the chance to talk without rushing. And so we did as we admired the unveiling of the bay.
Our walk was incredibly quiet, until we reached the bridges to Eureka. So different, I suspect, from the heyday of timber, fishing and the railroads around Humboldt Bay. (By the late 1800s there were some 400 lumber mills on the North Coast.) Riley and I noted the oyster beds, an egret rookery, the reclamation of Indian Island by the Weott people and a tall ship docked near the Adorni Center and teeming with school children.
We stopped in Eureka for lunch. There was no mention of walking the extra yards into Old Town for our favorite haunts. My feet said it wasn't an option. My hiking poles attracted some attention and probably some concern at the Mexican restaurant. In the end, the few other patrons and the staff were more curious (even envious) about our outing.
In some ways lunch was counterproductive. On a full stomach, next on the agenda for a tired body is a nap. My body reluctantly commenced the home stretch. We retreated to the railroad right-of-way north of Eureka. Just two years earlier, I had helped organize a grassroots effort to "clear the way" along the tracks, and it was discouraging to discern so little lasting impact. Nature was reclaiming what little the tides were leaving behind.
We made good use of our pruning shears and did lots of high stepping over the grasping, tugging blackberries as we hacked our way toward Arcata. Except for the drone of traffic on the safety corridor, there were stretches where you would not have been completely surprised to meet a lion or tiger or bear, oh my. Near the finish line was some of the worst of it. Perhaps it was just that the wild undergrowth impeded the triumphant march to the marsh we'd visualized.
A warm bath and some Vitamin I(buprofen) did wonders for my perspective on our adventure. As the days pass and I reflect on our journey, I marvel that all this is right in our backyard. I have even started to wonder, "Why not walk the rest of the way around?"