There are some misconceptions about California beaches in pop culture. Tropical weather. Deeply tanned people in bikinis. Crystal clear ocean water you can bathe in. These are not necessary norms. The borderlands between land and sea are not supposed to be lounge material! In Northern California, when you enter the maw of the sea, you feel like you’re entering a different plane of the world, not a day spa.
There are innumerable tourists that summer in the Bay Area. If you hop the ferry from Sausalito into San Francisco harbor in July, you are as likely to hear a torrid argument in French or a conversation in Japanese as you are to hear the native complaints about our Giants’ hitting woes. Not that this is unusual at any time of the year. We are an international metropolitan area, but in summer that identity is much more pronounced. The same questions are invariably asked of local San Franciscans and Oaklandians and Berkeleyans and Santa Rosans, “Where are the warm, California beaches around here?” “When will the fog lift?” “Is this biting wind permanent?” The same answers are invariably returned, “Those beaches are two hundred miles south.” “The fog lifts by midmorning…or by the evening.” “Yes, yes it is permanent.”
Water meets earth in spectacular ways in Northern California. At Mavericks, ocean waves plunge and bombard the shallow waters and daggered rocks, where only the most insane surfers dare to test their mettle against nature. At Ocean Beach, the undercurrent is sentient, constantly scheming to pull you with the seaweed a half mile from your entry point into the water. From Mount Tamalpais you can peer eastward to see the chilled winds whipping fog lines across Richardson Bay, or turn west, hike through the evergreen Madrones and see the Pacific churn at the shores of Stinson Beach. These primal extremes make their way into Northern California lore, and lend themselves to distinctive artistic framing – Laird Hamilton in Riding Giants, Louis CK and Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine, George Oppen in Some San Francisco Poems.
For me, Bodega Bay encapsulates everything that makes the Northern California coast unique, but there’s really no one better to pen an ode to its natural beauty than Alfred Hitchcock. Can you picture Tippi Hedren rowing across the eerie-cold waters to deliver her lovebirds? (I was expecting bird attacks, but I really didn’t see that seagull swooping from on high to maul her.) Or the ghastly Potter Schoolhouse, 17110 Bodega Lane, where the children fled from flocks of marauding crows? What’s more inviting for beach enthusiasts, will you tell me? Drive a few miles north of The Birds locale and you will find Salmon Creek – the gnarliest beautiful place in the North Bay.
Coastal prairie adorns the approach to the cliffs above Salmon Creek, beetles fluttering out of the grass as you approach the edge. The cliffs perch primordially, sediment beaten back by thousands of years of ocean tides receding and resurging. From the top of the wooden-staired path that descends to the beach, you can see the Pacific stretch until it meets the sky. Stone formations jut out of the sea here and there, lonely and monstrous.
This is an ancient place, with a history of wooly mammoths, Coastal Miwok, and 19th century Russian settlers, it has seen its share of the forms of the earth. The wind shrieks on a normal day, and on gusty days you chew sand as often as you exhale. The creek for which it is named winds some 18 miles through Sonoma county before reaching Bodega Head and spooling out into the ocean through sand dunes so clean they look untouched by human hands. Mule deer, tide pools, kelp, driftwood, green herons, sand dollars, and sea lions – all of the beach looks to have beaten back civilization. You stand and think you have come to the place where saltwater and stone meet freshwater and grass for the very first time.
So which do you prefer? Placid, static coasts where the ocean and the land have become a yawning, stuffy old couple, hardly a gust of wind or a diving bird of prey or the roar of the waves? Just set aside the ideas of bikinis, Mai Tais, steel drums and lounge chairs. Put your Best of the Beach Boys away (please don’t actually own that). Grab some jeans and throw on a hoodie. Bring a beanie just in case. A six pack will work fine, as will ambient noise. Sit in the sand, or on a well worn rock that hasn’t yielded to the tide, and feel the salt on your face. It’s Northern California. It’s cold. It’s awesome.