The Unusual Suspects


When I go tidepooling I expect to see anemones and crabs, starfish and sculpins. I hope to spot a nudibranch species that’s new to me, maybe an octopus or some creature from the deep stranded in a shallow pool. A few nights ago, while I was squinting downward into dark water, a strange being descended from above. To say it scared me half to death isn’t accurate—I was more than halfway to a heart attack.

* * *

While running on a dark beach before the moon rose, I had lions on my mind. I had always thought of mountain lions as animals of forests and deserts, swamps and peaks. I'd never imagined cougars stalking the ocean's edge—until I read about a recent study in British Columbia. The research revealed that mountain lions hunt harbor seals and sea lions on the Pacific Coast.

Ecological science has shown that all things along the coastal edge are connected, from the raindrops that fall on a mountaintop to the ocean's microbial community. Animals like salmon and harlequin ducks move seamlessly between freshwater streams and salty waves, illustrating this connectivity.

I like the idea of lions stalking rocky shores. Imagining these ambush predators crouching next to churning surf, hiding in the shadows of anemone-covered boulders as they wait for marine mammals to emerge from the waves, helps shatter the illusion of the separateness of land and sea. But when I'm exploring the intertidal zone at night, I try not to think about powerful nocturnal cats prowling beaches.

I know I’m much more likely to be maimed in a car accident than to be mauled by a cougar. Statistically, mountain lions pose an insignificant threat—my cerebral cortex understands this. But tell it to the primal fear center in my brain's limbic system when I’m running through the black wilderness of a moonless night.

Had we evolved for millions of years in an environment where cars disabled and killed thousands of people each day, as they do now, we would be terrified each time we got behind the wheel or slipped into the passenger seat. No rationally engineered seat belt or cleverly designed airbag could remove the fear. But because motorized transport is new in our evolutionary history, the ancient brain structures handed down from our mammalian ancestors and reptilian progenitors don’t freak out at car crash statistics. The fear circuits buried deep in our nervous system are triggered when we see a tree root that looks like a snake, a shadow that moves like a lion.

And so, when thoughts of mountain lions stopped me in my sand tracks on the dark beach, I swiveled my head back and forth like a panicked elk, staring into the blackness that surrounded me—a featureless plain with nowhere to hide. The forest bounding the beach was a few football fields away. Unlike my ancestors on the African savanna, I couldn't climb a nearby tree if a lion stalked me. Also, cougars are adept climbers, so escaping by scurrying up tree limbs wasn't an option. Mountain lions can sprint up to 50 miles per hour, and they prefer to pounce on their prey from behind. I'd have a better chance fighting a mountain lion than fleeing from one.

Once in Africa on a hiking safari I was told that if I saw a lion I should lock it in my gaze. If I averted my eyes I'd be in danger, my guide warned. If I turned away I'd be stalked; if I ran I'd be dead. Easy to say. Could I really stand my ground and stare an African lion in the eye? Maybe. Never in my life have I felt more present and alert than when moving on foot through lion territory in Africa, tiger jungles in India, and grizzly country in Alaska. With enough fight or flight adrenaline, almost anything is possible—even wrestling a mountain lion on a moonless beach.

In many years of wandering through cougar country, I have never seen a lion. But these stealthy creatures have certainly seen me, a biologist insisted. He told me that mountain lions watch people, sometimes from within striking distance. The good news, he said, was this: If a cougar decided I looked like dinner I would never see it coming—like the mule deer whose carcasses I'd come across in the foothills around Boulder, where I ran and mountain biked for a decade. Once, while examining a deer skeleton next to a trail, I thought I saw bite marks on the bones, but maybe that was my imagination twitching in the dusk.

* * *

After my lion panic on the dark beach subsided to manageable fear, I forced myself to march toward a tidepooling mecca, the object of my nighttime quest. At the ocean's edge my headlamp beam illuminated a concealed world.

Shore crabs, shy during daylight, brazenly crawled across exposed surfaces of rock and sand, scattering in numbers that reminded me of mass land crab migrations I'd seen in nature documentaries. The ground crawled with crustaceans; I placed each step with care to avoid crushing scurrying crabs. The eyes of shrimp shined like cat retinas in my headlamp beam. Limpets, which hunker down when the sun is up, glided across stone surfaces, gobbling algae as they moved. I've read that the sound of limpets’ hard teeth scraping rock is audible to the human ear; I might have heard this rasping above the hiss and pop of barnacles circulating water in their shells. Streams of night air filled my nose with rich decay, and cool breezes lacquered my lips with salt.

As I looked at a sea star of royal blue that seemed the right hue for a sitting room in a European palace, a soft explosion drew my headlamp upward. Less than five feet from my head, a barred owl shook its wings and then settled back down. For an instant I thought a lion was leaping down on me, delivering death from above. Cougars lock their jaws on the spinal column of their prey, I remembered, and I touched the back of my neck. For several moments my heart bulged and shrank in panicked contractions. My adrenal glands emptied whatever fight or flight chemicals hadn’t already been depleted by my lion scare.

When my breathing calmed, the owl also seemed to relax. Instead of flying away, the bird maintained its perch on the barnacle-studded boulder above me. It swiveled its head to stare at the sea; I went back to searching tidepools while this forest raptor I hadn’t expected to see at the ocean's edge watched me from a few feet away. I could have lunged at the owl and grabbed its soft feathers. It could have raked me with its talons.

Before I fled the rising tide, I held my headlamp to the side, shining a light beam on the owl. I raised my phone with a broken flash above my head to take a photo. The bird swiveled its face toward me when I hooted its call, comical and haunting: "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?" In Richard Wilbur's poem "A Barred Owl," the creature that a child hears calling in the night is both friendly visitor and fearsome predator, depending on the language we use to either tame our terror or explore our dread. Imagining the creature's call as "Who cooks for you?" lets us avoid the unsettling truth of "some small thing in a claw / Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw."

I breathed methodically to avoid shaking my phone as I took a photo. Then for several minutes I stared at the dark globes of the owl's eyes. When I finally looked away, I realized I needed to race ahead of waves that swamped a headland I had to pass. The tide had turned. I had spent too much time with my winged companion; I had lingered too long in the intertidal zone.

I watched the surging waves and waited for the right moment to sprint: after my escape route drained, and before the path to safety refilled with seawater. Waves grabbed my ankles but I powered into the surf, plowing through cold foam. A rouge wave nearly knocked me down; I hugged a boulder and held my breath as spray slapped my face.

When my waterlogged shoes finally stepped onto the safe shore, an adrenaline thrill had been replaced by a sick fear of drowning. I bent at the waist and coughed saltwater onto the sand.

I could have climbed over the headland instead of trying to pass it on the shore. I know the path well, and I had a headlamp to light the way, but there is too much darkness in the forest at night, too many places for fear to hide. I'd rather take my chances running through the tidelands.

* * *

While I ran home after escaping the rising tide, I thought about creatures like the owl that had surprised me in the intertidal zone—the unusual suspects.

River otters sometimes appear in the tidelands, lifting their whiskered faces from the water to study me as they shimmy through surfgrass and slide between boulders. A raccoon once joined me in a tidepool, each of us hunting critters by peering into the water and turning over rocks. One morning when I glanced up from a tidepool I saw a herd of elk standing on a sea cliff above me, their bodies black against the rising sun.

Once I saw a spectacle of flying termites in the tidelands. In countless thousands, termites swarmed the water. I often see flying termites around trees and buildings in town, and I've spotted a few of them stuck to damp sand on the beach, but never have I watched them in such numbers at the ocean's edge. The termites provided a feast for seagulls—and these insects of the woods must have fed invertebrates and fish of the intertidal zone, as well.

After reading that foxes hunt beach hoppers at night, I searched for vulpine eyes by sweeping a dark beach with a light beam. I didn’t see foxes on the sand that night, but I found deer prints that I followed to the water's edge. Why deer walk on the beach at night is a mystery to me. Maybe they enjoy moving under the starred dome of sky with the sound of the surf at their side. Maybe they lick salt from rocks, or nibble beach-cast kelp. Or maybe the open beach is safer than timbered paths where the fangs of lions reflect the light of the moon.

Do deer on their nocturnal wanderings ever walk past seals hauled out on the beach? I have seen the prints of deer tamped in dunes and the haul marks of seals streaking the sand. Someday, perhaps, I will see these paths cross.

Ocean and forest overlap in surprising ways. There is no clear edge between land and sea. Each completes the other, and any line separating these realms is as fluid as waves, as shifting as sand.

* * *

A few days after my owl encounter in the intertidal zone, I listened to a pair of owls call in a forest. Soft hoots slipped between hemlock and spruce as I hunted mushrooms. A downpour filled streams that tumbled onto beaches, returning rain to the sea. As I prowled the dusky woods, my neck prickled at the thought of lions lurking in shadows.

After creeping into a clearing where chanterelles gleamed like golden vases, I knelt in the damp soil and listened to distant waves. As I moved my face toward the mushrooms to sniff their apricot aroma, the scent of forest floor evoked memories of compost piles, and I recalled the reek of a rotting salmon carcass I’d seen next to a stream earlier in the day.

Salmon feed at sea, building their bodies from ocean nutrients. These nutrients they spread through the land of their birth when they spawn and die in their natal streams. Salmon unite worlds, nourishing with their sea-fattened flesh the mushrooms that fruit on forest floors.

Salmon swim through the intertidal zone as silvery smolts heading out to sea; as brawny adults they surge through the tidelands when they return to spawn in rivers and streams. Spotting a salmon in a tidepool would be unusual, though no more surprising than watching a barred owl hunt among the waves.

* * *

The barred owl is not native to the Pacific Northwest. This adaptable species spread from the East after humans altered the landscape by creating treed corridors across the open plains. In old-growth coastal forests, the barred owl is now out-competing its native cousin, the northern spotted owl.

Perhaps the barred owl will survive the wave of extinction we are spreading across the planet. Maybe this dark-eyed bird will evolve into a creature that glides on silent wings above the changing sea.

Maybe after our species has turned every rich forest into a dead moonscape, every productive field into a sterile desert, the beak of the barred owl will evolve into a tool to pierce the last shelled creatures that survive in the planet's acidifying oceans. Maybe the eyes of the barred owl will become perfectly tuned to see fish that swim through the plastic-choked waves of the world's warming seas.

In the intertidal zone at night, fear and wonder give the imagination flight.

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