Friday, January 02, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO BAY TRAIL: Nature Refuge, Wildlife Haven, Avian Sanctuary (and Killer Views) Within Easy Reach at McLaughlin Eastshore State Park

Near Emery Point, I pop off my bike at a seaweed strewn, sandy brown beach to watch dozens of Sanderlings devour flies and gnats at shore’s edge. Rhythmically attuned as a single organism, the frisky flock is dancing to and fro to the ebb and flow of gently lapping waves, hungrily stabbing at the receding waters' exposed sand with short stout black bills. Then - an oblivious dog owner arrives and sets her pooch loose, creating panic and havoc as the small sandpipers lift up en masse and skitter away in a flurry of bleeping disapproval.
Near busy University Avenue and Frontage Road, glistening mudflats attract hundreds of Gulls, Coots, Killdeers, Avocets, Willets, Whimbrels, Wigeons and Mallards, one and all convivially joining the “feast”-ivities of rich pickings upturned by roiling tidal action. Terns circle and dive bomb in the calm bay, surfacing with limp fish clutched in their beaks. Pole sitting Cormorants flash wings in garish displays of territorial bragging rights, or maybe they’re just airing things out. A troupe of Gray Pelicans flies overhead in graceful V-formation, much prettier air-borne birds than they appear in their awkward terra firma mien. A motionless White Heron stalks near the freeway in stony silence next to a discarded old tire, hoping for a tasty meal of fish, frog or snake. I wait a full five minutes hoping to see the old boy strike, but the Heron remains laser focused on his phantom meal, a fixated and statuesque creature of the wild not a stone’s throw away from roaring six-lane I-80 traffic.

I bike north past the bird sanctuary and outdoor art museum (aka the Albany Bulb), continuing on to doggy heaven (aka Point Isabel). Here, I accidentally enter the NO BIKES ALLOWED park through an unsigned hole in a fence. Everyone’s giving me the evil eye, so I dismount, walking slowly, captivated by spacious views and the joie de vivre of so many unleashed dogs running freely after sticks and tennis balls. Near the main parking area, a ranger hails me (nails me) with a friendly nod and mild warning, thankfully, because it’s a $275 ticket waiting to happen. Got it, sir, yes sir! (This place sure has gone to the dogs!)
By now much of the Bay’s inner shoreline is laid bare, a tidal phenomenon exposing primordial mud-caked, provender-rich pasturage for hundreds of birds enjoying nature’s bounty of insects, worms and micro-organisms. The outlet of three East Bay creeks converging here creates auspicious foraging grounds. When the tide's out, and conditions are right, an inconceivable 20,000 individual birds might be spotted in this rich habitat.

Excited yet? Well, maybe not – but choose your own adventure then, for options are unlimited along just one teensy, itty-bitty section of the envisioned 500 mile long San Francisco Bay Trail (67% completed). No matter what you do, the Trail is a ridiculously accessible nature magnet and great get away from the chaos and stress of urban living. It’s enjoyed daily, no matter the weather, by outdoor lovers and adventurists of all stripes - skaters, hikers, strollers, joggers, dog walkers, power walkers, kite fliers, fishermen, wildlife viewers, en plein air painters, and nature aficionados - room and more for everyone! Including, you’d think, birding enthusiasts, given such avian diversity. Today, though, I’m the only peculiar species out and about sporting binoculars and ticking off the birds – at least those I’m able to ID.

For views, history, recreation, and exemplary urban development in natural, sensitive areas, the San Francisco Bay Trail is nonpareil. Years of behind the scenes efforts by dedicated individuals have resulted in successful habitat reclamation up and down the Trail, providing foraging and breeding territory for coyotes foxes, deer, bobcats, skunk, raccoon, and many reptiles and amphibians. Notably, birds and native plants have struggled to regain a foothold in once endemic nooks and crannies of the long abused shoreline. Working with various land agencies and private entities over the years, trail architects have secured easements and connected disparate stretches to design a multi-use trail system passing through urban areas, reclaimed wetlands, marshes, swamps, and rehabilitated upland meadows.

The ultimate goal - a contiguous 500 mile trail around the entire Bay Area – is within reach, an amazing accomplishment paying dividends to all. Millions of urbanites benefit from the healthy pleasures of a world-class mega-playground, and for hundreds of species of animals and birds an especially providential matrix of habitats has been preserved. These vulnerable creatures’ literal existences in the highly industrial Bay Area depend on preserved and protected tracts of land - and lots of it - to thrive and survive. Despite set-backs and innumerable threats to their existence, by all measures, the birds are doing a great job thriving and surviving in the San Francisco Bay. Viva Aves!

The stretch of trail from the Berkeley Marina Overpass south to Emery Point is a vivid contrast between gritty urban on one side, and beautiful nature on the other. On one side, it's cringe-worthy big rig clogged traffic inching along the I-80 corridor with a horrendous backdrop of boxy warehouses and graffitied factories of West Berkeley.

But – wait! – on the other side, a panorama of iconic sights greets you, dazzling scenes capable of recharging the spiritual batteries and recalibrating jaded mental attitudes in a hurry. Take gorgeous little Angel Island; or the spanking new section of the beautiful Bay Bridge; Mount Tam’s purple mountain’s majesty; and the capper: non-stop views of the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge spanning the spectacular Marin Headlands and the city of seven hills, San Francisco,
glimmering like a string of pearls in the sky beyond Treasure Island. The omnipresent awfulness of I-80 traffic, noise and urban sprawl ceases to exist, just so long as you can keep your neck craned westward the entire time in blissful contemplation of the vast, undulating domain of island, sky, sea, mountain, our Bay Area wild.

At the Berkeley Brickyard area, I stop to see what it’s all about, what I did not know I had been missing all these years of never once having checked it out. Turns out, this little spit of landfill peninsula, slated for imminent development, blew my friggin’ mind!
Graced with an accessible curvaceous shoreline, shallow waters, tidal mudflats and sandy stretches of pretty beachhead, for decades the area has been a go-to escape scene for the harried masses to wind down, amble slowly about, take things in, soak it all up. . .

. . .in a former dumping ground – a dumping ground! Concrete, rebar, and hundreds of eponymous red bricks litter the shore, but nature has reclaimed the rubble over the years, shifting and shaping and transforming industrial detritus into natural features of the landscape so that you hardly notice, it hardly matters.
Somewhere around here, you look for where Strawberry Creek drains into the bay. Stymied by billion dollar views, you can’t help but stop every five seconds for extended oohs and aahs, in between all the birding and photographing going on. For now, but not much longer, the Brickyard Area remains a place apart, where nature forms her own rules and dictates her own design. A network of dirt trails crisscrosses the small peninsula, narrow pathways spilling out to secretive trysts with intimate shoreline, unknown about little places rewarding with astonishing beauty at every turn. An hour passes easily here, just lolling about, in giddy wonderment at the –

nature of things! In mock chagrin at – never having been here before! A small rise of land offers up a final stunning 180 of the pretty Bay, rugged ridges and peaks, the Golden Gate, and surrounding silhouette of a gleaming urbanscape. Yours, there for the takin’. . . until it’s taken away by -

I feel a twinge of sadness at the inevitable changes to come. Why must anything be done with it atall? Why not just leave it alone? (Well, pardon my Pollyanna idealism.) But of course such places can’t remain wild and unutilized, got to coax max economic benefits out, right. Thankfully, city planners assure us that development at the Brickyard will "make the waterfront part of Berkeley's vibrant urban community, attractive to and usable by Berkeleyans, neighboring bay area residents and other visitors."

Let us hope so. Five million dollars are already earmarked for the design and restoration of the Berkeley Brickyard. Development is happening now, bulldozers are getting ready to smooth out the small rise whose wide vistas will soon be enjoyed from some second story Bay view restaurant window.

Before long, the Brickyard Area, as it exists now, will be unrecognizable, cleaned up, prettified, made into a complex of tony shops and foodie joints, well-integrated with the natural elements, no doubt, but, I wonder, what is lost in the process. How many birds and amphibians and reptiles and mammals and invertebrates and arthropods and insects will be displaced. . .maybe not all that many, who's to say, except the developers, city planners, and environmental impact researchers. So, do tell!

Opposite University Avenue and Frontage Road, an intriguing gateway exhibit welcomes visitors to explore a unique feature of California’s newest jewel, the 1854 acre McLaughlin Eastshore State Park. I’d never noticed the gateway before, and frankly, was only vaguely aware of the alliance between municipalities and other agencies to create the gorgeous park a few years ago that spans five cities along an 8.5 mile corridor of shoreline through the heavily urbanized Bay Area. A diorama commemorates the park’s namesake, co-founder of Save the Bay, Sylvia McLaughlin, and tells the story of a unique natural feature.

Ever heard of the Berkeley Upland Meadow? It's salvaged habitat near the Marina once characteristic of Bay ecology up and down the shoreline. Harbored within fenced-in acreage, tracts of brush and copse, meadow and swale form to create, at first blush, a relatively uninteresting, prosaic even, landscape, but on closer scrutiny you come to see it’s a skillfully terraformed intervention of a modest and subtle land once in crisis, now rehabbed and again attracting birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles – an ecological treasure and birdspotting wonderland in our urban midst! An easy ninety minutes fly by here lolling about the few acres, engrossed by the “small miraculous” happening almost unnoticeably before my very eyes, deeply appreciative of the land’s simple and sacred, primal beauty. (You might have to look hard to see it, but it’s there, in plain sight.)

The San Francisco Bay Trail meanders through areas where coastline and meadow and marsh and brush and tree meet – our Bay Area - providing easy and instant access to the various environments found along the way. Always a field day waiting to happen. On the look-out, too, for evidence of Native American shell mounds and burial grounds, for much development along the East Bay shore was built on top of Ohlone sacred ground, sad as that is.

Remembering a mural on the Ohlone Greenway bike path in Berkeley, a composite life of the Bay’s First Ones comes to mind - animal skin-clad nature animists tooling around in tule reed canoes, kinfolk gathering to shuck shellfish, others engaged in simple survival pursuits of hunting, gathering, harvesting, tending the hearth. A satisfying life in which every act was imbued with ritual power, every phase of life filled with cosmological significance, every relationship a sacred connection with all beings in the Universe.

Read more about the history and inspiration behind the San Francisco Bay Trail and McLaughlin-Eastshore State Park @


Sanderlings at Emery Point:

San Francisco Bay Trail Ride:

Extra Footage @ Flickr:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

BIG BREAK REGIONAL SHORELINE: Paddling the Wind-Swept "Inland Coast" of the Great California Delta

A great blue expanse beckons from beyond the shallow trough of water gently lapping at your old-school Radisson docked at Big Break Regional Shoreline's alluring put-in. What better place to sweat out an adventure, rekindle awe, and stoke curiosity than in these 1648 acres of brackish tidal and fresh water marshes, sloughs, ponds, creeks, alkali grasslands and meadows.

Big Break essentially is a rehabilitated parcel of once-industrialized, long-neglected land in the much-abused California Delta, not all bad news. Today, park stewards have created a model for shoreline reclamation efforts, with recreational possibilities galore in a big water zone situated in the Pacific Coast's largest estuarine ecosystem created by the merger of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, two of California's great arteries that drain half of the state's watershed.

But decades of man-made manipulation have degraded and transformed the pristine estuarine ecosystem, today characterized by the EPA as having been replaced by "sub-sea level, levee-protected islands and simplified, deep, wide, armored waterways." Still, with a little help from human friends, the resiliency and adaptability of life is on remarkable display at Big Break, a place of profound beauty, where (forgive the EPA's prosaic description) natural rhythms and processes occur in a world-class marine / riparian environment of ancient Egyptian-looking tidal sloughs (third largest in the Delta), labyrinthine estuary channels, and tributary outlets draining Mount Diablo's 128 square mile Marsh Creek watershed (itself in dire need of rehab).

In the waaaaay waaaaay back, though, before the advent of agriculture changed the way people related to their world, Native First Peoples lived off the succulent fruits of the Delta's bounty, established seasonal and permanent villages, tooled around in Tule canoes, hunted deer and gathered salmon and acorns. They lived in harmony and intimacy with Bald Eagles, Grizzly Bears, Mountain Lions, Coyotes, Wolves, Condors, Rattlesnakes and Elk, thriving for 10,000 years of dream-time in which the only intruders for 500 generations were late-arriving Spanish explorers, French fur trappers and traders, and intrepid interlopers like Jedediah Smith and merchant marines from around the globe, who sailed their seagoing vessels into the heartland as far as Stockton and Fresno, even, in the Central Valley, a dusty crop town (at the time) not immediately calling to mind a port-worthy destination.

As the gold fueled frenzy of the 1850s petered out, the losers in the Motherlode ore wars fled the played out foothills to seek a more felicitous fortune in cheap farm land "there for the taking" in eastern Contra Costa County.  Inevitably, "progress" took its "natural" course as enterprising, capitalistic men (civilized, by god) set about terraforming the land for enormous economic benefit. These gold diggers turned potato diggers were soon making a killing off fertile vegetable, fruit and nut orchards (think of John Muir's genteel farmer days in Martinez), and in the process forever altering the hydro-eco calculus of Delta politics.

But first things first, of course. Cultural disruption had begun long before the mid-nineteenth century; by 1806, Ohlone villages no longer could be found in the East Bay. Years of military occupation and forcible relocation, in tandem with ruthless efficiency in eradicating the Grizzly and Black Bear, Mountain Lion, Coyote, Elk and any and all creatures deemed threatening or verminous, forever ensured a Manifest Destiny victory. And not to be outdone in shooting all the fish in their cornucopia barrel, these geniuses killed off nearly every fur-bearing mammal native to the Delta.
Soon, Mother Nature, as Mother Nature is wont to do, reared her ugly head and flooded the holy crap out of the tidy plots of money trees, so to allay future disastrous flooding to their precious crops, the newly minted landowners imitated a resourceful local denizen - the beaver - and erected crude levees, creating a patchwork of raised, contained and protected plots in which to grow a substantial portion of the world's breadbasket of earthly comestibles. No doubt about it, the advent of the White Man to the Delta was a major overhaul and game changer, ushering in the final death knell to the old ways of the ancient cultures. The ensuing wetlands reclamation carried on, until by 1930 the winners in the land grab had constructed 57 islands and vastly transformed a half-million acres, rendering the Delta unrecognizable from its natural idyllic condition, in the waaaaaaaay waaaaaaaay back when Ohlone and Volvon Native Americans ran the show, in synch with natural rhythms, in harmony with all the creatures now wiped out. Sadly, it was not all that long ago, as measured in "many moons".

You'd been to Big Break a year ago, blown away by the  beauty, surprised by the remote feel of the place fronting the 16 square mile town of Oakley, California (40,000 pop.), some 40 miles northeast of Berkeley, but cultural leaps and geographic bounds away. Big Break naturally sits at the aquatic ecotone, the boundary of salt and fresh water, where the "edge effect" supports diverse birds and other wildlife populations. Considered an "ecological treasure" by its protector, the East Bay Regional Park District, Big Break and adjacent areas are part of a 1970's era push for wetlands restoration. Today, conservation partnerships with the Delta Science Center, Delta Conservancy, the Delta Protection Commission, Bay Delta Conservation Plan and other organizations have successfully rehabilitated shoreline, created wildlife habitat, and collaborated to build EBRPD's first recreational / educational center in four decades. A must see, of course, but somehow you miss it. Oh, well, there certainly will be a next time.
Big Break earned its name in 1928 when a levee protecting an asparagus farm busted and unleashed furious waters. From your canoe-bound perspective, it's hard to see evidence of farming activity or artificial berm construction, surrounded as you are by water, water, and more water, endless, rippling, swirling, amazingly blue water; bobbing around out in this vast expanse like a paper bag in the wind is not something to take lightly. This is big speed boat territory, a place to ply manual craft with unerring caution and sober judgment. On temperate days, a brave kayaker might slip beyond the protected inlet at Big Break's pretty launch, but only fools - or boyishly enthusiastic older guys - would dare to tempt the fates and venture out into the big open void of a hybrid river monster pushing down with Amazon force and strong headwinds toying with you like a kite in a gale.

Like all good Sirens, Big Break invites a gentle launch in a mellow little cove to go forth and explore her blue expanse of plant-splattered, undulating water. The day has warmed considerably from the foggy chill typical of coastal Bay Area summer. Here on the eastern edges of dry Contra Costa County, the sun is beating down on your un-SPF-protected skin, and relentless winds are pasting you to thin air. Mount Diablo and Morgan Territory Ridge, birthplace of Marsh Creek, loom to the south, almost unfamiliar landmarks from this rarely seen vantage point. Looking northeast invites a brilliant eyeful of stunning archway bridge and wind turbine "seascapes".

Settling into the canoe, you paddle rhythmically toward the middle of the protected inlet, at first so gentle and inviting an illusion; soon, you're a mere dot in the great blue beyond. And wouldn't you know it - big winds are kicking up, threatening to whisk you to places you don't want to go. It's definitely a struggle: the old men and the "sea". Look, seriously, all hubris aside, this is a big, engulfing body of water that is absolutely frightening in its capacious ability to swallow you up, you in your little speck of a canoe, paddling futilely against 30 mph headwinds determined to blow your lackadaisical ass to Rio Vista or into the blustery waters of San Pablo Bay. And then what?

Your charted course is a couple of miles out and across a tough stretch. You've really got to cast off the lazy effect of those IPA treats and dig, dig deep, and paddle hard, hard, straight across a seaweed-clogged swathe, toward a distant shore that seems like the farthest mile away you've ever known. Muscles burning, a pawn of the wind, you strong-arm the canoe to set your course. High fives and whoops ensue for your powerful, coordinated, sustained paddle strokes, because one let-up, at the mercy of a dictatorial capricious wind pattern, and you're a goner.

In your own little Walter Mitty heroic moment, you make it to far shore in a triumphant display of old-boy prowess and grit, and steer the canoe to shelter and safety among calm, secretive, tule-choked areas where you hang your legs over the sides of the canoe and float motionlessly on shimmering cobalt waters reflecting wavy cattails and the deep infinity of a cloudless azure sky. In these pretty, hidden coves and riparian areas, you're respectful and careful of breeding Western pond turtles who lay eggs in secretive incubators; of ecology-shaping beavers who build their dams; of muskrats and mink who reproduce and den; of playful otters who frolic and hunt. (For the record, you see a grand total of zero of these delightful creatures.)

These back channels offer serious down time from all the rigorous paddling - you wish like hell, though, for somewhere to dock and get out, stretch, explore on foot, jump in the water to cool off, find purchase on a sandy bar to kick back and bask in the sun. You think about plopping overboard, but getting back in would not be a pretty exercise as there really is no "bottom" to the peat-packed sinky soil of the Delta, and capsizing the canoe would be not fun. Besides, swimming is not permitted at Big Break (as if you didn't know), and especially not in protected beach areas, where hard to spot buoy signage announces PROTECTED AREA: STAY OUT! And rightfully so for this is Western Pond Turtle egg-laying territory and Yellow Chat nesting grounds. (However tempting, do not let the Siren of the protected, off-limits, undisclosed cove's gorgeous little scimitar shaped brown, sandy beach, rife with lip-staining blackberries, killer chill factor, and luscious swimming, lure you to break the law, by any means necessary. If you could even find the place again.)
You're hoping to spot some cool birds and a furry aquatic mammal, like the hard-working beaver who lives in the Delta in great numbers, or a rarely if ever seen muskrat, or - just think! - an amazing encounter with a mink! Last time - first time - here, you spotted a pair of otters swimming near your docked canoe, a special sighting, and recorded your first-ever glimpse of the reclusive American Bittern, a wading predator heron known to frequent reedy habitats and keep under cover. Being a major stop-over on the Pacific Flyway, bird populations, naturally, are impressive at Big Break, with up to 200 species recorded, including the sensitive Clapper Rail (recently renamed to Ridgway's Rail), Brown Pelican, and Yellow Chat. Given the "edge effect" and general amenable nature of Big Break's variegated habitats, dozens of birds can be spotted on a casual outing without even trying: Herons, Egrets, Kingfishers, Black Phoebes, Doves, Sparrows, Warblers, Mallards and countless other waterfowl and seabirds.You get lucky and spot your very first Swainson's Hawk, an Argentine winterer known to patrol the skies in ever increasing numbers at Big Break. In a lazy back area, a couple of Great White Herons are perched on tree branches, and a Great Blue Heron flaps skyward, and - sweet! - a pair of Belted Kingfishers zip by like a CGI mirage, skittering off into their private, unknowable world.

Finally safe and sound and out of the canoe, it's time to wander around the beautiful place - Big Break's terra firma. Although small in extent, there's much to see and explore. Well-integrated eyesores of decrepit cranes and machinery have been left in place as reminders of a historic past. Stretch your legs, bird watch, walk the fishing pier, investigate a small pond, check out the Visitor's Center and educate yourself, read the many interesting dioramas to get a sense of history and feel of place. For the meanwhile, though, you find a soft patch of ground perfect for throwing your body down to dreamily escape under breezy Cottonwoods for a well-earned rest. After a nice lunch, you're now finally roused enough to check out the Delta Experience - a 1200 square foot 3-D ground map with embedded satellite images of the region's cities - Stockton, Tracy, Galt, Lodi, Sacramento - showcasing the vast network of intricate arteries and waterways and how they flow and carry water through the Delta. It's like the Land of the Giants, you straddling Mount Diablo and lording over a domain covering 1153 square miles of epic territory. Definitely a down to Earth perspective.

The story of the Delta continues to fascinate and unfold, and will forever be controversial and attractive. Today, the system of levees and dikes protects a half million residents in rural and urban communities. But fractious California water politics; long-tenured battles over ownership and rights; the fate of the endangered Delta smelt, striped bass, and salmon; worrisome contamination from heavy metal run-off (legacy from the Gold Rush days); pesticides and bacteria tainting; invasive species; and the specter of a decaying infrastructure eroding a thousand miles of decrepit levees, does not paint a pretty picture for the region's future. And now Governor Moonbeam is pushing for some kind of panacea plan to dig two massive tunnels to divert ever more water from the Delta to thirsty agricultural communities clamoring for their "fair share."

Political wangling, big agro's deep pockets, "the best laid plans" - all are guaranteed to lose against Mother Nature's dictating whims, especially now with California in a fourth year of severe drought and life-giving Sierra Nevada snow pack at all-time lows, and the promise of an El Nino year up in smoke. Depreciated water flows in the Delta would not be good. A fifth and sixth year of severe drought would be unsustainable. Water diversions would dwindle significantly, crops would fail on a catastrophic scale, a Mad Max local scene would explode tensions and fears, and a national calamity would unfold on a scale greater than the Dust Bowl. Forget about saving water by cutting down on your luxurious 15 minute shower; the real "water shortage" problem is an over-emphasis on the unsustainable agro-industrial "bread basket" model leading with the best of intentions to chronic mis-use and waste, and an unfair allocation system that prioritizes ownership of our public water resources based on archaic and irrelevant precedents (to today's economic reality).

But short of California returning to pre-World War II days, population-wise; short of a mass overhaul of our food production system, where everything eaten is grown locally; short of hellish Mad Maxian visions, what's to be done? Two tunnels and a prayer seems to be the plan, but let's hope it's more than that. Let's hope our noble stewards of the Delta - those many enumerated agencies who deserve our financial support and voice - will find creative and long-lasting solutions to preserving and protecting the great California Delta and its many wonderful environments like Big Break Regional Shoreline.

Check out cool interactive site @