Pirates Cove

Sunday, January 7, 2001

Itís a cool, overcast day with a thick haze and no wind. Iíve decided to see if I can get down to the ocean at a little pocket beach called Pirates Cove, between Muir Beach and Tennessee Cove. After two unsuccessful attempts, I finally locate the trailhead on Marin Drive high above Tam Junction. Itís an odd trailhead because you start off up a driveway into someoneís yard, but soon come upon a sign for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). After seeing it, I remember that I had come down this trail once before long ago. The first stretch is steep uphill past an immense wooden water tank to meet the Miwok Trail. I turn right, uphill through a dense gum forest with lots of French broom on both sides. Then the forest falls away on the right and Iím looking out across a steep valley. The Miwok Trail winds across the opposite hillside near the top, a very faint old roadcut barely visible well below it. I note it for possible bushwhacking exploration another time. The fire road Iím on climbs steeply to a saddle with trails cutting off in several directions. I take a sharp left and an immediate right onto a single-track trail that will run into the Coyote Ridge Trail. Before I have gone far, however, I see on the ridge ahead a massive rock formation that I recognize. I climbed to it once from the bottom of Tennessee Valley and wrote about the wonderful view from the top of the cliff (see the Haypress Trail hike). I veer left onto a narrow track to visit the rocks again.

As I approach the first large outcropping I realize thereís a bird standing on the highest crag. At first I take it for a ring-tailed dove, but then I realize that itís in that peculiar erect stance that only birds of prey have. That small and sleek, it can only be a falcon. I stop and fumble with my fanny pack to get out my binoculars, but by the time I get them to my eyes, heís gone, swooping down the long slope too fast for me to track. His long curving pointed wings prove my guess was right.

I climb up to the same rock he just vacated and sit down to admire the view. I often find pellets of fur and bones on such hunting lookouts, but here there are only streaks of white to show that it is a falconís roost. I canít see the falcon, but two or three vultures circle lazily over a tiny pond at the bottom. When I was last here, in April, that pond was ringed with an emerald band of cattails, alive with the sound of redwings. Now it is brown and sere.

It is very quiet up here. The foghorns out on the coast low mournfully. When I listen to the silence, I become aware of a low whooshing sound that hints at the traffic on 101, many miles away behind me. Dropping away below me is the deer trail I followed the first time I climbed up here from the pond. To my left, the Miwok Trail switches back and forth across the slope as it descends to the end of Tennessee Valley Road. Iíve walked all those trails several times, and a series of memories flicker through me as my eyes trace their courses. On the far side I see the Miwok climbing the opposite slope to a saddle at the top of Wolf Ridge, two miles away as the crows fly, but looking much further in the haze. I remember standing at the junction in that saddle and looking over here at Coyote Ridge. How different it looked that day. It was clear and cold, sunny and bright and very windy, with distant details standing out clearly. Today Wolf Ridge is only a massive gray shape in the haze, with Hawk Hill beyond just visible, blue in the distance.

I climb down from the rock and move on to the next, much larger, outcropping. I walk out to the very edge and look down a hundred and fifty feet to the bottom of the cliff. After enjoying the little twinge of excitement that looking over a high cliff always gives me, I sit down to have a swig of water and check out my route on the map. Itís three or four miles yet to the cove, and over a thousand feet below me. Itís after one oíclock already, and if Iím to get there and back to the car before dark, thereís no time to dally. I pack up, get to my feet, and turn to go, but something catches my eye. Far below, in a rocky clearing, stands something dark and roughly triangular that doesnít look quite like a rock. I study it for a few moments, but it doesnít move. Twice I start to turn away, too lazy to take off my pack and dig out the binocs. Finally, just to resolve the issue, I crouch again on the rock and get them out. ďProbably just a rock,Ē I mumble to myself. I crank the focus, and the shape resolves into a large cat sitting upright and motionless in the grass. It is much too large to be a feral housecat, but it is too far away for me to get a good identification. It appears to be dark gray, but in the gray hazy light and at two hundred yards I canít be sure. I get a good look at the profile of its head; enough to be sure it isnít a coyote or raccoon. It must be a bobcat, but it seems to be too big for that. Iíve only seen bobcats two or three times before, usually just a quick glimpse as they get out of my way, but those had seemed to be perhaps twice the size of a housecat. This appears to be much larger. It is difficult to judge, but judging by the grass around him, I would guess that if I were standing beside him his head would be about genital-high on me. Weíd be staring eyeball-to-ball, as it were, an uncomfortable image. Heís looking off to the left, but then he turns and looks right at me without surprise. Of course he knows Iím here. I made no effort to conceal myself and Iíve been sitting here for ten minutes already. I remain motionless, staring fixedly through the binocs. He gazes at me a minute or two, then turns slowly away, without that blink of embarrassment cats often give when forced to break a staredown. He simply dismisses me as irrelevant. Then he stiffens and stares intently at something at the base of the cliff. Suddenly I realize heís no longer sitting down. Although I never took my eyes off him, I failed to notice that heís raised his hindquarters, so imperceptibly slowly did he rise into a stalking posture. As I watch, I realize heís still in motion. One paw is extended, then his body glides forward, perhaps an inch a second. The upper parts of his body, the line of his ears and back, do not change at all, but simply glide forward as if heís rolling on oiled casters through the grass. His eyes and ears are zeroed in on something I canít see. He begins to pass out of my sight around the base of the cliff. I lean farther and farther to my right, trying to keep him in sight. I sense something below me and take my eyes from the glasses to look down. I find Iím leaning precariously out over the edge of the cliff. I can see the headline now: Elderly idiot falls off cliff for no good reason.

When I look back, heís gone. I get up, drop the glasses in the pack, and resume my hike. The way the cat moved without appearing to move reminds me of the only other time Iíve seen a big cat up close in the wild. My wife and I were hiking in the backcountry of San Diego and came upon a cougar sunning herself on a rock in the middle of a meadow. We stopped and the three of us stared motionless at each other for at least five minutes. Then, so slowly we couldnít at first detect it, she sank back behind the rock and disappeared, all apparently without moving a muscle or changing her position in any way. We waited a long time for her to emerge, and when she didnít I circled around the rock at a safe distance and found she was gone, a trick I never fully explained to my satisfaction. Cats are obviously acting under different physical laws than the rest of us.

Thinking of the cougar, I suddenly wonder if this really was a bobcat. It was certainly larger than I expected a bobcat to be. I never got a clear look at the rear end, but surely I would have caught a glimpse of that magnificent cougar tail. Wouldnít I? The track Iím following narrows and enters a dense chaparral thicket about shoulder high. It occurs to me what wonderful cougar country this is, with its open meadows, dense cover, and great rocks for denning. Iíve seen two deer already, so thereís plenty of food. There were warning signs about cougar at the trailhead, now that I think about it. The fire road at the top of the ridge is a well-used road with plenty of hikers and bikers, but the little cut-off trail Iím on now is a spur off another spur. Iím three or four hundred yards from a major trail and well out of sight from anywhere but the rocks Iíve just left.

With a little half-smile at my nervousness, I turn and look back, expecting to see a lion watching me from the crags, but there is nothing. Of course, if it really were stalking me it wouldnít be stupid enough to climb up on a rock and silhouette itself against the sky. No, it would be down here by now, in the thicket with me. I glance back along the trail. Nothing. I look down at the trail to see if there are cat tracks. No, nothing but deer and rabbit, and three largish piles of carnivore scat. Not coyote. Probably bobcat, I tell myself. No point in standing still, so I continue walking. The chaparral is not very dense, mostly coyote brush and ceanothus, but too thick for me to get through off the trail. A cougar, on the other hand, could glide right along through this stuff, keeping me in sight without revealing itself. Remembering that motionless glide, I find myself peering into the shadowy understory of the brush. Iím not really worried. Cougars very rarely attack people and Iím fairly certain that was only a bobcat I saw. Iím walking softly and carrying a big stick. Still, it is rare for us modern city-dwellers to feel like prey. Like a good adrenaline rush now and then, itís probably a good thing for us to experience. We certainly evolved being very familiar with the situation. We were food for a lot longer than weíve been grocery store shoppers.

I emerge from the thicket with a sense of relief and work my way back up to the top of the ridge and get on the fire road. After another quarter mile I notice a smaller trail arcing off to the right up to a small summit. I have found that such trails are often well worth the side trip, so I walk a hundred yards and emerge in a grassy clearing at the very top of the ridge. On a lower ridge just below me is Hope Cottage, a beautiful little rustic cottage hidden under the only tree on the ridge, overlooking Muir Beach a thousand feet below. But what takes my breath away is a sweeping view to the north. Across the airy gulf of Green Gulch, Dias Ridge drops down from right to left, falling steeply to Muir Beach. Beyond Dias, a lighter blue silhouette marks the long curve of Mount Tam, from Steep Ravine to Cardiac Hill to Pantoll to the three summits. In the haze everything is gray or blue, from sky to land to sea. It is like a Japanese watercolor, with incredibly intricate and detailed skylines but the slopes below just washes of dilute ink. As I stand awe-struck by the beauty, three thirtyish women pass me, talking animatedly in that ďthen she saidÖ then he saidÖĒ conversation that only women seem to engage in. They seem oblivious to the beauty on every side, and I fantasize about just starting to talk, as if weíre in an art gallery and Iím an art expert expounding on the immense mural before us: ďThis piece is from the Shií dynasty, reputed to be by Mei Wing himself. Notice the bold brushstrokes merely suggesting the muscular shapes of the ridges, the subtle use of color, the understated hint of a copper sheen on the sea. If it is not by Mei himself, it is certainly of his school. He was the painting and calligraphy master for the Imperial guards, you know, who were expected to be able to handle a brush or a shakuhachi as skillfully as they disemboweled trespassers on the palace grounds.Ē

The women chatter on, oblivious to my silent attempts to educate them. Philistines. I shoulder my pack and walk on. After another mile of steady downhill walking, I come to the Coastal Trail coming up from the Golden Gate, the tip of its north tower just visible above Wolf Ridge. I turn left and steeply downhill for another mile, then right onto the Pirates Cove Trail. Iím right above the sea now, walking parallel to the coast, but still six hundred feet above it. The trail gets steeper and steeper, finally turning into hundreds of wooden steps. The people I meet coming up are red in the face and looking like theyíre not enjoying it. I start to wonder if Iíve tried to go too far. Itís a quarter past two now and two-thirty is my turnaround point. I wonít have the long bobcat encounter on the way back, but it will be all uphill. Still, Iíve come this far.

The trail makes a sharp switchback to the right, going up into a deep chaparral canyon before contouring north over another ridge before descending to Muir Beach in a couple more miles. I pause at a precipitous track running down toward the cliffs. Iíve walked the Pirates Cove Trail before and looked down the canyon toward the beach, wondering if there is a way down. I had thought to try bushwhacking down the canyon from where the trail crossed the creek, but this track could be a shorter way. Sometimes these trails just end up at the tops of the cliffs, however, and itís going to be a real workout getting back up. If I try it and itís a dead end, I wonít have the time or energy to try the canyon route. A group of young hikers comes by, and I ask if they know this trail. They look at me in some surprise.

ďYes,Ē says a young man with a ponytail. ďBut the beach is really small and the trailís pretty hard. Itís really steep and slippery,Ē he adds, and I can almost hear the unspoken ďToo hard for a fat old geezer like youĒ that follows.

ďThanks,Ē I say, and start down. It is steep, but not particularly dangerous, though there are a few spots along the cliff edge that give one pause. I scramble down a steep gully thatís probably a waterfall in the rainy season and emerge on a large pile of driftwood. I balance on a huge redwood log to catch my breath and look around.

The beach is small, perhaps a hundred yards from end to end, with vertical cliffs of dark and twisted metamorphic rock on all sides. In the middle is a black column of rock like a chimney, perhaps thirty feet high. Thereís no sand, just big round cobbles like pumpkins. I boulder hop down and drop my pack on a rock to scout around. I go over to the chimney and climb onto a boulder to get a better look. Looking around, I notice that all the driftwood is piled right against the cliffs, so thereís probably no beach at all at high tide. That makes me nervous about my pack and stick, so I go back and get them. The chimney looks easy enough to climb, so I decide it would be a good place to have lunch.

I leave my stick leaning against a rock, strap on my fanny pack, and clamber up. Itís a simple climb and thereís a comfortable little seat right in the top. I sit down and dig out my sandwich and Cheezits and munch thoughtfully, watching the big seas breaking on the sea stacks just offshore. Mindful of the tide, I look down to ensure that the waves are not yet coming around my rock. Thereís my trusty stick down there, looking rather sad at being left behind. I recently saw the movie Cast Away, where Tom Hanks is lost on a desert island alone. After a while, he starts talking to a volleyball he names Wilson. I can easily imagine myself doing the same. And what better companion than my trusty driftwood walking stick that floated the length of the Colorado (without a boat) and thatís gone thousands of miles with me? If I were to anthropomorphize it, what would I call it? After studying it its bone-white length solemnly for a while, I decide Deadwood might be best. I turn to study the sea again. Now that I notice it, the surf is incredibly loud here. The seas are quite big. Thereís nothing but breakers and foam for hundreds of yards out, and the cliffs behind me form a natural parabolic mirror with me right at its focus. That inspires me to dig out my recorder and play through the one and only Baroque sonata Iíve ever managed to memorize. The first notes are timorous, thin. Iím not completely sure that itís appropriate here, to tootle on my little plastic recorder before all this natural majesty. But after a while I just concentrate on remembering the notes, on my breathing and phrasing, attacks and releases, and the music starts to come out. Even over the crashing of the waves, the trills and runs and little ornaments create an oddly intimate setting. For a while thereís just me, Telemann, and three hundred and sixty million square kilometers of ocean.

When Iím done, I check my watch. 2:45, a bit past my turnaround, and less than two hours to cover four miles and a thousand feet of elevation. A bit of a puff, as an understated British hiker once said to me about the climb out of the Grand Canyon. Well, nothing to do but start. I put away my recorder and shinny down the rock (much harder going down than up, as usual). With one last look at the waves crashing in, Deadwood and I start up.

copyright 2001 by Brian K. Crawford