AbaloneFest 2011: Of Mollusks and Men

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago if I could ever see myself driving over 1,600 miles in one long weekend, from Bellingham, Washington to Mendocino, California and back, so that I could don a full-body wetsuit and snorkel gear and dive into the frigid springtime waters of the Pacific Ocean in search of food, more specifically a mollusk called abalone, that I’d never even seen much less consumed…

…well, I would have said, “That’s just crazy talk!”

And yet, here I am, a few days after having returned from that very adventure — AbaloneFest 2011 — and I can honestly report that it was, indeed, the very best variety of crazy.

A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.

Zorba The Greek

Now, I’m not an adrenaline junkie. That’s right, I’m decidedly NOT one of those guys who feels more alive when I’m doing something that could badly injure or kill me. And yet, at the same time, I do occasionally think that I’m too careful, too addicted to my comfort zone, that I miss out on some fun things, and that I could do a lot of those fun things if I pushed myself a little, worked at those activities, to gain the skills and confidence I need in order to not be so scared of injury or death.

So, that freedom that Zorba talks about, maybe it’s a freedom from fear, maybe it’s that exhilarating feeling of having accomplished something for the first time, perhaps something that you’d never thought you could do.

Not everything about this trip presented risk to life and limb, of course. But being in a car for many, long hours and sleeping in a tent with nighttime temperatures in low 30s are not the most comfortable conditions, and the diving, well, it was scary, I did it anyway, and doing it made me feel alive in an exquisite way.

Middle-aged Man And The Sea

Even though I’ve snorkeled quite a bit over the years, I’ve always done so in tropical water, in nothing but a swimsuit. So, I really had no idea what to expect, and starting with putting on the wetsuit it all felt incredibly awkward. I stripped naked in the parking lot at the beach and worked up such a sweat just getting into the neoprene suit and booties that I couldn’t wait to cool down in the water, however cold it might have been.

Wetsuit and booties on, I picked up the rest of the gear — neoprene gloves and balaclava; mask; snorkel; fins; abalone measuring tool and shucking knife; a fabric-lined innnertube that floats on the surface, holding the latter two objects and any abalone you harvest; AND a 35-pound weight belt — and proceeded to hike out on a bluff and then shimmy down a veritable cliff to get to the beach. (Note: Because the wetsuit is so buoyant, without the weight belt you can’t dive more than a couple feet down, and even you could find abalone at that depth, you have to expend WAY too much energy just to stay that deep.)

By the time I was at the water’s edge, I really thought that there was a chance I’d pass out from overheating. And yet, it took a considerable amount of additional time, as if I wasn’t hot enough, to put on the balaclava, gloves, and weight belt.

Finally, mask on, innertube in hand, I literally ran to jump into the water, and it was incredibly refreshing for a few moments, until heat exhaustion was replaced by another kind of exhaustion. The water was very choppy, and with trying to hold onto the innertube and propelling myself and the extra 35 pounds around my waist against the incoming tide I didn’t get very far before I was gasping for air. (Note: The photos here are from Day 2, when the water was considerably calmer.)

Once I was out far enough to not get washed right back onto the beach, where the swells were pushing non-discriminatingly in all directions, I rested my torso on the innertube and tried to relax and orient myself.

Finally, I was able to put my snorkel in my mouth, place my face in the water, and have a look around, and it took only seconds for me to have my breath taken away once again, this time from the stunning beauty of the underwater world all around me. A million sunrays pierced through the water, while swirling kelp, enormous anemones and starfish, sea urchins, and of course those amazing abalone were everywhere I looked. One variety of kelp had some kind of luminescent property on its leaves, and as they waved in the current and the light shone on them through the water, they glowed in much the same colors as you see on the inside of an abalone shell.

Long story…well, not short, as I’ve already rambled, but a little shorter…during my first day in the water I made about a dozen attempts to nab an abalone. But, with the water so turbulent and feeling so clumsy with the weight around my waist, and with the weight leading me to fatigue much sooner than I ever expected, I came up empty. After a rest on the beach and assurances from the other guys that they’d yield more than enough abalone for everyone, one friend and I returned to the water without the weights and other paraphernalia, just to snorkel about and enjoy the aquatic scenery, it was heavenly, and I spent my time in the water the next day similarly blissed out.

The Primal Campfire

That this trip involved not only an amazing diving experience, but camping as well, constitutes an absolutely perfect combination. And, there’s nothing more iconic about camping than the campfire.

A campfire is a primal thing, around which humans have gathered since the early stone ages, cooking and eating, keeping warm, gathering as families and communities, telling stories, singing songs, and dancing.

I always feel that heritage deeply whenever I sit and stare into a fire, and it was certainly there in our campsite at Van Damme State Park.

And you know, you can call it corny, super Robert Bly-ish and all that, but there was something primal too about the fact that this was a men-only event.

Everything on this trip was deeply infused with a kind of camaraderie that I’ve only ever experienced in a guy-only environment, and it feels really good to have a concentrated immersion in maleness from time to time. From the 30-some hours in the car with two Bellingham buddies, to hanging around the campfire, to diving into the Pacific together, there was an ever-present familiarity and sense of solidarity, even though I’d never met 14 out of the 20 guys.

Now, gatherings of men are admittedly not always so carefree, and it might be said that it is an understatement that arguments and fights do sometimes occur.

So, credit where credit is due: This was the 17th annual AbaloneFest, organized originally by a group of friends from the San Francisco Bay area, and they’ve done an incredible job of cultivating an atmosphere of goodwill and good times.

I look forward to seeing everyone next year, for AbaloneFest 2012, end of the world be damned.

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