Perspective Shift on a February Paddle

Egret by Ginny Parsons, mixed media

We set off in our buoyant, little crafts, intrepid paddlers bent on a morning of enjoying our time together on the clear, calm waters. I brought a knapsack full of my usual kayaking items: binoculars, waterproof camera, water bottle, windbreaker, and snack bar. Other than a water bottle and windbreaker, my friend Ginny traveled light. It was our first time paddling together, and I've mostly paddled as the leader of public programs where you have to be prepared for anything. When you have your own gear and go any time, on any whim, apparently you can pack light.

It was a shining, delightful day to be out on the water. Our paddles dipped as we chatted and made our way across San Leandro Bay. I could see rafts of ducks bobbing in the distance and even from this far range made a mental catalog: black with a white spot on the back of neck - surf scoters, dark on each end and light in the middle - scaup, black all over with a white beak - coots. Ginny and I exclaimed over how lucky we are to live in a place like this.

Just ahead of us a shiny, dark head broke the waters surface: a harbor seal! We paused our paddles to enjoy the sight. "Hello Harbor Seal," I called out in delight. Ginny and I had a little chat with it about the wonderful morning and assured it we would clean up some of the trash in the area. It didn't seem to mind as it stayed on the surface, calmly regarding us until it rolled slowly forward, showing its speckled-grey back as it dove underwater. It surfaced again just to our right, starboard in nautical terms, briefly watched us, then sank below the surface to go about its seal business. We continued our paddle to the marsh. Ginny made good on her promise to the seal and picked up a bright yellow ball that had floated into the cord grass.

I offered up that I had brought my binoculars. Ginny said she preferred to view the world without so much detail. She's an artist and often comes to the bay in her kayak or walks the beach for inspiration. She has done many fine painting series featuring the animals and landscapes here. I pondered the thought of "seeing fuzzy," as she put it. So much of my life has been about looking closely - with binoculars, with hand lenses and microscopes - to find an identifying characteristic or see the overlooked. But I have also appreciated the artists eye that takes in the broad landscape: forests, beaches, bays, bridges and neighborhoods. So I opted to paddle without so much focus: to see fuzzy, more "big picture."

As we traveled past the marsh and up a channel, I noticed snowy egrets in their white-feathery fineness wading or standing on the edges. They, too, regarded us calmly. We hoped to see bat rays winging underwater beneath our boats, but they didn't make an appearance. The channel narrowed and got shallow the further back we went. We had also hoped to see or hear the local endangered bird, California Ridgeway rails. They were quiet and elusive that day. Ginny said that further on it got too "African Queen"-like, and we didn't want to risk getting our kayaks stuck. The mud here is sink-to-your-thighs mucky, so we turned our boats around.

Paddling out of the channel and back across the bay, we had the breeze and tide against us. I let my focus soften and took in the teal green water, velvet green hills and darker forests. I noticed the tall trees rising out of the neighborhoods on our island and I could see several bridges connecting us to the greater Bay Area. I rejoiced again at how fortunate we are to make this island home. Next time we go paddling, I will pack lighter and enjoy the expansive view.

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