When we planned to start our trip in 2020, we never imagined that it would correspond with such huge and devastating events: first the Corona Virus pandemic, then the escalating tragedies leading to Black Lives Matter, and now the massive wildfires in Oregon and California. As many of our friends and their families are being evacuated from their homes, we are heading to sea, feeling guilty that we have the luxury to do so.
Our first physical experience of the wildfires came during our first time hunkered down for a storm on anchor. We sat on two anchors upriver from Newport, Oregon, well out of cell service and full of suspense for the predicted 45-plus-mile-per-hour winds. With the wind came the smoke and ash from the Cascade wildfires that we had been reading about. The sky turned orange and soot peppered our eyes and noses. Within 36 hours, the winds died down but the smoke persisted. We continued south, our boat covered in ash, navigating by radar because the smoke limited our visibility to under 400 yards. It was like traveling in thick fog.
As we rounded Cape Blanco, bashed by the notorious waves and wind there, I saw a white figure flying frantically around the boat rigging. I lost sight of it for a second before it crashed into the back of my head. The white was the underside of a storm petrel, which ended up in our cockpit. It let me pick it up, and it nestled in my cupped, gloved hands. I built it a nest from towels, and it sat content for 45 minutes before climbing with its tiny webbed feet up my arm to my shoulder, flapping its wings. I held it up, and it flew away. But that was not the last bird refugee.
Two mornings later, anchored at Hunter’s Cove, we woke to find another storm petrel cowered in the walkway on deck. We took him to the cockpit and provided him his own towel nest. He slept there for the entire nine-hour voyage to Crescent City. During that leg, the wind grew against us causing us to fight into wind waves. At a particularly bumpy moment, I looked forward to see yet another storm petrel cowered on deck just inside the gunwale. We took her in as well, making another towel nest. Rob looked like a mother goose sitting at the helm with his baby birds surrounding him.
After settling in at the Crescent City Marina, I called the closest wildlife rescue, who informed me that petrels, once fledged, stay at sea. She explained that it was highly unusual that they would try to land on anything other than water and advised us to return them to the ocean. Considering that the two had had significant rest and were likely hungry (having rejected my canned-herring offering), we carefully carried them to the nearby beach. We held them in the water, and instinct took over. They immediately started paddling their tiny webbed feet towards open ocean. The petrels took waves that were thrice their size like professional surfers and were soon out of sight. But that was still not the end of petrel refugees on Mapache.
That night, I heard something moving in the anchor-chain locker, I opened it up and found our fourth petrel. He was restless, so we immediately took him to the beach. Rather than paddle, he spread his long slender wings and glided low over the waves toward open ocean.
After talking to our bird-expert friends, we believe that the smoke is affecting the petrels. They are either confused or overcome by it and head for the closest light they see, which, four times now, has been our boat. Keep an eye out, fellow sailors and fishermen, and make sure that after rest, the petrels get back into open waters.