Up The Road: Elkhorn Slough

Dec 20, 2017

This week we head up the road to Elkhorn Slough, the primary “head” of Monterey Bay’s canyon, just offshore.

It’s probably no coincidence that marine biologist Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck’s best friend, memorialized in various books as “Doc,” deeply understood ecology before anyone knew the word. Given his familiarity with the Monterey Bay area’s plants and animals, expertise developed while plying his trade — collecting specimens to supply educational and research labs — Ricketts had the opportunity to connect the dots, ecologically speaking. 

Juvenile brown pelican, Elkhorn Slough
Credit Photo by Becky Matsubara

How this animal fed on that animal or plant, and that animal required this kind of environment to successfully reproduce and raise young — and how any sustained environmental disturbance had ripple effects, disrupting the food chain and the success of various species in predictable ways. Predictable if you were paying attention, that is. And Ricketts paid attention. He predicted the decline of California’s sardine fisheries and the death of Cannery Row that came very shortly after his own death in 1948, when his car was broadsided by a Del Monte Express passenger train. A bronze memorial bust marks the spot.

Honor Ed Ricketts by reading his best-selling intertidal ecology text, Between Pacific Tides, and by imagining him sloshing around in hip waders — collecting those specimens, here and everywhere else he went — while exploring Monterey Bay’s Elkhorn Slough Reserve. This is California’s largest surviving tidal salt marsh beyond San Francisco Bay, and a Globally Important Bird Area, according to the American Birding Conservancy.

Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Reserve
Credit Photo by Nick Doty

Most people come here to kayak, hike, and bird-watch, but the fish life is also phenomenal. No wonder the Ohlone people built villages here some 5,000 years ago. Wetlands like these, oozing with life and nourished by rich bay sediments, are among those natural environments most threatened these days by “progress.” Thanks to the Nature Conservancy, the Elkhorn Slough — originally the mouth of the Salinas River, until a 1908 diversion — is now protected as a federal and state estuarine sanctuary and recognized as a National Estuarine Research Reserve, California's first.

Southern sea otter eating a clam, Elkhorn Slough
Credit Photo by Teddy Llovet

These meandering channels along a seven-mile river are thick with marshy grasses and wildflowers beneath a plateau of oaks and eucalyptus. In winter an incredible variety of shorebirds call this area home, not even counting migrating Pacific Flyway waterfowl. Endangered and threatened birds thrive here, including the brown pelican, the California clapper rail, and the California least tern. More than 340 bird species, residents and visitors, have been identified. The tule elk once hunted by the Ohlone are long gone, but harbor seals bask on the mudflats, and bobcats, gray foxes, muskrats, otters, and black-tailed deer still slink and saunter.

Home to abundant plant and animal life, these wetlands serve as a natural filter for water entering Monterey Bay, removing impurities. They also sequester or capture carbon — removing greenhouse gases from the earth’s atmosphere and storing them, helping (we desperately hope) to slow climate change.

Elkhorn Slough Reserve
Credit Photo by Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve

Elkhorn Slough offers some 5 miles of trails that wind through tidal mudflats, salt marshes, and an old abandoned dairy. Start at the visitors center, open Wednesday through Sunday, as is the reserve, with its introductory exhibits. Staff will even lend you bird books and binocs. Docent-led walks are offered year-round on Saturday and Sunday at 10 and 1—there’s a small day-use fee to use the trails—and on the first Saturday of the month, there's also an Early Bird Walk. Still, there’s no better way to see the slough than from the seat of a kayak, which is why kayak traffic has become a safety concern. Or take a guided tour aboard a 27-foot pontoon boat, on an Elkhorn Slough Safari.

Would Ed Ricketts have loved that? Hmm.