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The Milky Way in Tomales Bay

Nicole and I pulled into the parking lot at Nick’s Cove right on the money at 6:30 for our bioluminescence kayak tour on Tomales Bay. There was Jeff unloading kayaks from the Clavey trailer and most of our guests were in small groups chatting it up about the upcoming light show. We left Sebastopol at 85º and sunny a half hour earlier and now we were getting out of the car under the cold low clouds of Tomales Bay. We thought perhaps these weren’t the best conditions but Scott Terriberry, our guide, was giddy with excitement. “No stars, no ambient light,” he said, with the animation of a schoolboy waiting for his favorite NBA star to stop by the house, “makes for absolutely perfect conditions. We simply couldn’t ask for more.” His enthusiasm was contagious. We pulled on our gear, grabbed our kayaks and made our way to the rest of our group – one of the many heading out that night.

People have been asking us for years, ” Do you do tours? Do you offer classes? Can you teach me how to roll?” And for years the answer was always the same – “No. No. No.” But then the stars aligned and a couple of guides and instructors we’d always admired got freed up from their prior commitments and before you could say, “Yes. Yes. Yes.”, we had ourselves an outfitter’s permit, some insurance and a heck of a lot of sign ups. And so here we were on a moonless, cloudy night on Tomales Bay waiting for the sun to finally set so the show could begin.

Scott likes to begin any evening paddle in the light of day. This way everyone can actually see where it is they’re going and get a feel for what the area looks like before nature turns out the lights. Sure we’ve all got headlamps, and they’re top notch headlamps too, but they don’t really replace the light of day. So with the sun still up there behind the clouds, Scott gets us all together for a little talk about safety, what to expect, how to stay together, etc. He traces our route across the bay with his finger, pointing out the oyster beds, the beaches, the gulch, the island. And with that all said and done, we carry our boats down to the water and away we go.

Once on the bay, Terriberry assigns everybody a number (I’m 15). So when the lights go down, we can all check in easily – all present and accounted for. The momma duck would hate to lose her babies. And with that the tour begins in earnest. Time: 7:30ish

In this group of 17 people the stats break down as such: 3 trained guides, 2 canoeist (in 1 canoe), 5 intermediate kayakers, 3 whitewater boaters and 4 beginners. 10 people (including canoeists) had their own boat. All 17 people were stable, comfortable and confident once we got on the water.

We leisurely paddled through the eel grass, over to the oyster beds and across to an officially unnamed beach unofficially named Pine Flat. By now the sun had set and the darkness quickly enveloped us. We counted off (15!) and Scott showed us how we could see the bioluminescence even in the beach as we dragged our feet back and forth in the wet sand. Cool! Time enough to squeeze the bladder dry and then back into the kayaks.

The water around my paddle blade explodes with light as I dip it into the bay. Awesome! I take another paddle stroke and thousands (maybe millions) of tiny one celled creatures light up in protest (or in frivolity for all I know) around each dip of the blade. I look over at Nicole’s boat. The hull glows as it scoots through water. Motivated for light, I pick up the pace of my paddle strokes, pushing the kayak as fast as my little arms can make it go. My boat lights up like I’m in some sort of low tech Christmas parade. It reminds me of my childhood: dragging my pug, Chowder, across the carpet of the living room on one of those remarkably cold, dry, winter nights. The poor dog lit up like Chernobyl as static electricity from his fur and the carpet brought the darkened room back into the light. But this paddle on Tomales Bay was way better. First off, no pugs we’re terrified in the glowing of light. And second, we were about to paddle into White Gulch and the the bioluminescence was about to go off the charts. Or as they say in Spinal Tap, “It goes to 11.”

As we’ve all been totally riveted to the lightshow, Scott wants to make sure no one wandered off so we do another headcount (15!) before heading into the shallow mossy, fish filled water of White Gulch. All present. And now for the headline act. The bioluminescence explodes around the fish as they dart from our boats. Terriberry yells out as one of the little bastards jumps onto his lap. The silence of the evening is broken with cries of, “Look at this! Right here! Look at that. Oh my god!”

Originally, I had wanted to describe our experience with the bioluminescence as fireworks in the water. But the bioluminescence of the greater bay was but mere sparklers to the New Years Eve at Times Square that was the waters of White Gulch. Terriberry herded us into a little area he knew was thick with moss. Plunge your hand into the water and pull it out with great gob of moss and it drips bioluminescence like radioactive diamonds back down your arm and into the waters from whence it came. I pick up a glowing mass of moss and throw it at Nicole – I mean, if you’re going on 40 years old and as excited as you were when you were 8 and walking into Disneyland for the first time, why not act like it?

The oohs and ahhs finally fade to the suggestion that we might paddle back to Nick’s Cove and get a drink (I think it was me), and we all make the slow turn back to towards the cormorants of Hog Island and finally back to the dock. We load the kayaks and gear back onto the trailer while the rest of our paddlers huddle back into small chattering groups of excitement.

The feeling from everyone is identical: This was a tour impossible to describe properly and improbable that you might ever go on one better. A bioluminescence kayak tour on Tomales Bay is like the first time you meet a big celebrity – something you’ll never forget and will tell everyone about for the rest of your life.

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