Sunday, June 28, 2009

Pearl 26: Don't Mess with Mother Nature's Creatures

Dearest Gehrig and Eliana,

Good afternoon, sweethearts.  It is a peaceful, hot summer Sunday here in Texas and Granny and I are still basking in the warmth of your recent visit with us for our annual "Camp PK".  Having you and your mom for seven weeks was a pleasure we will treasure for years to come.  Even though you have been back in New Jersey for a few weeks, I love it when your mom asks you where you live, you tell her "Texas!"  Obviously, Granny and I have done our jobs well.

From the time I was 9 years old in the summer of 1955 until I was 14 in the summer of 1960, I attended various summer camps around the Southern California area.  Mostly they were two week camps.  They felt longer but were over too quickly.  The first camp I went to for two years was a YMCA camp up near Big Bear Lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  It was deep in a forest of tall pines and giant redwood trees and I remember the smell of the pine needles and the fresh mountain air.  Then for the next two years I went to the Circle B Boy Scout Ranch even further up in the Sierras at the confluence of the Kern River, Trout Creek and Fish Creek near "Domeland", a gorgeous natural formation of huge granite boulders and cliffs, very similar to Monument Valley in Yosemite National Park.  It was breathtakingly beautiful and you could drink the ice cold water right out of the creeks and streams coming off the summer snow melt from the higher peaks.

My favorite camp, however, I attended during the summers of my 13th and 14th years.  It was the YMCA Camp on Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles off the Southern California coast (the song said 26 miles but it got it wrong).  The camp was on the leeward side of the island about 10 miles north of Avalon (the only town on the island) in a secluded private cove where the water was so clear you could see down 100 feet.  Our open-sided tents were only 50 feet from the water's edge, right on the beach.  In the morning the mandatory ritual upon rising was to run down to the water, swim out to the diving platform anchored out in the middle of the cove and back.  It was our shower for the day.

We had boats to row around and fished out of the boats and off the rocks for button-back perch, garibaldi, Yellowtail and white sea bass.  The island is only 22 miles long and only 8 miles at its widest point and we took long hikes across the island and never saw another living soul...just lots of foxes, wild goats, a wild horse or two and even a small herd of bison.  We swam most of the day and snorkeled around the rocks and caves which were at both ends of the beach.  There was a plane wreck in the cove from a movie shot there once and we dove on that and chased away the leopard sharks that hung around the rotting fuselage. 

But the most fun we had was "hunting" the moray eels which populated the rocky underwater formations and abundant, flowing ell grass beds.  These eels were fearsome creatures which ranged in size from 4 to 6 feet in length.  The larger ones had necks that were as thick as a football, their mouths lined with three rows of needle-like teeth.   They are nocturnal feeders but they will come out of hiding during the day for their favorite food....abalone.  We would dive down and using our "ab bars" (flat pieces of iron with a strap affixed to one end that wrapped around our wrists) and we would pry abalone off the rocks, make a few cuts with our knives in the tough flesh and lay the treat by a cleft of rock.  Sure enough, it took only a few seconds for these slithering ells to come out and start ripping at their unexpected snack. 

Each of us had a homemade spear.  It was a spar-varnished piece of 8 foot long, 1 1/2" dowel with a three-pronged spear head mounted on one end and a four foot length of surgical tubing looped at the other end.  If you slipped your hand into the loop and stretched the tubing down the shaft and grasped it tightly, you would have a formidable weapon capable of being launched 10-12 feet.  As the ells were congregating around the abalone, we would swim down above them, take careful aim at the back of their thickly muscled necks and sink the spear head in that nerve-rich area.  They would go almost instantly limp.

We were not trying to kill these animals, merely stun them so we could look at them closer.  Once you pulled the spearhead from their neck, they would recover in a matter of seconds and swim off to the protection of their lair, but, for the few minutes they were stunned, we would bring the eel up to our boat and put him inside and inspect them.  Which kind of brings me to my next pearl....

Twenty-sixth Pearl:  Don't Mess with Mother Nature's Creatures

So one day we were "hunting" eels and I stirred up a monster.  He was at least 6 foot long and very thick.  I got closer than even I felt comfortable being and let my spear fly through the water to its target.  Although it hit him squarely in the neck I must have missed the large nerve group because this eel immediately wrapped himself around the shaft of my spear, craned his head around and started gnawing on the pole.  I panicked.  I swam up to the boat and with all my might lifted this leviathan out of the water.  He must have weighed forty or more pounds but I managed to use the gunnels and scrape him off my spear and into the boat.  Now, the four boys who were occupying the boat at the time were not exactly thrilled to have this new passenger aboard.  The eel was none to happy to be aboard either.  Thrashing about in a most violent manner, his menacing jaws snapping at anything he came in contact with cleared the boat of its other occupants in under two seconds flat as they leaped into the water with screams and expletives filling the air in equal measure.

For the next five minutes, as we all circled the boat and listened to this creature crashing around inside, I was hands down the least popular kid in camp.  Finally, it got silent and I was assigned the task of removing the unexpected and unwelcomed passenger; an assignment, I might add, which was not negotiable.  It took all my strength to finally fling the eel over the gunnels and back in the water which precipitated a mass movement of fellow campers back into the boat.  The eel lay motionless in the water for nearly a minute but then shook back to life and snaked his way back to the depths of the cove.

What I learned from that little experience is there are some things in nature that are best left alone.  Certainly anything that looks similar to or moves like a snake should be avoided.  Eels, I now understand, fit into that category.  Give a wide birth to anything with more than four legs.  Anything with four legs and teeth longer than your pinky finger be sure to put on your "No Play/No Touch" list.  Most things that crawl on their bellies are suspect unless they are in big shells and move very slowly.  Animals with names like Fido or Fluffy are probably alright but only if your parents buy food for them or they have a water bowl with their name on it.  Keep your fingers away from the mouths of brightly colored birds and anything with a long bushy tail and two front teeth like Uncle Dick.  Finally, any animal that is larger than you, faster than you, meaner than you and isn't behind the restraints commonly found at the zoo, is not to be messed with.  Trust me on this one my darlings.

I love you bunches and bunches,

Grandpa Jud

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