Some blessings come by way of a sea lion’s bark

Sarah Becking is one of six reader columnists for The News Tribune.
Sarah Becking is one of six reader columnists for The News Tribune.

This is what happens when you live near Puget Sound: The natural world comes right to your doorstep.

On Christmas Day, after the presents, the breakfast, the hasty sorting of packaging from valued gifts, my husband went out for a bike ride. He sent me a text: “The sea lions are out.”

It was a non-sequitur; we’d never discussed sea lions. And he usually rides toward Mount Rainier, not the water. But when he got home, he played the family a sound recording of sea lions barking. He had been surprised by them and knew I wouldn’t believe him.

My mother and I were dumbstruck. I’ve been near the water many times since moving here in 2017. I once saw a seal at the Chittenden Locks and an otter. These amazed me. I’ve also seen birds and many salmon, but never any big marine mammals so near my home on JBLM.

My husband rode his cyclocross bike along a cliff in DuPont, a trail I showed him after a friend showed me. I never saw anything from that cliff except for a concrete boat. (Yes, you read that correctly. Concrete doesn’t seem like material one would use in boat construction, but that’s what everyone calls this semi-submerged structure.)

At low tide, people walk out on the sandbar and climb around on the boat. Apparently, on Christmas Day, the sea lions did, too.

A few weeks later, my husband sent another improbable-to-me text message while I worked again in the kitchen, a reminder that my horizons can be domestically small.

Sea lions? Again?

I was determined to get outside and see them for myself. Sea lions in people’s backyards is outlandish to my East Coast roots. Could I be so lucky to see animals in the wild that I’ve only seen after paying admission to an aquarium?

One January morning, with my schedule clear for the first time since before Thanksgiving and my kids on their way to school, I set out with my walking shoes and camera.

I noodled through the suburban streets of DuPont, recalling only the name of the park where my friend started our cliff hike.

At the outset of my walk, an Olympic Mountains vista stunned me with its majesty. Snapping a photograph, I expected that to be my only takeaway, but soon I began to hear the barking of non-canine voices coming from below. Excited, I took the first little turnoff through the madrone trees.

Behold, below me were two dozen sea lions on the concrete boat. It was high tide. The creatures grunted, bellowed and barked. It felt like a blessing.

I was too far away to discern individuals, but I could see movement in the water as some sea lions fished or sought better positions. A salty fragrance rose from the Nisqually Reach, convincing me I was not imagining this party of pinnipeds just four miles from my house.

I watched from several different vantage points until the extraordinary became commonplace, then returned home to continue with my pedestrian suburban life.

In late February I walked DuPont’s Sequalitchew Trail with a handful of military spouse friends. At water’s edge, we squinted at the concrete boat from a new perspective and strained to hear the sea lions over the roar of a stiff breeze. But they must have migrated to a new destination.

Our human conversations moved to our own relocations, past and future, and the weight that’s felt when making a new home in a new place. We all resolved to get outside more to enjoy this region’s natural wonders while we have the opportunity.

The wider horizons of Puget Sound still feel like a blessing.

Sarah Becking of JBLM is a military spouse, volunteer and one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Email her at SarahLibrary@yahoo.com