Monday, September 12, 2016

EBMUD LANDS: A Personal History & Love Affair with Our Hometown San Pablo Creek & Watershed

"To watch for, describe, all the divine features which I detect in Nature. My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature  to know his lurking places."
– Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, September 7, 1851
Of a post-rainy spell, the air sweet-scented with the promise of a grand nature ramble, you'll find me prowling about on Oursan Trail near Old San Pablo Trail in the "remote" East Bay Hills.
Yep, there. You know the place.
Where the creek runs below a simple bridge hearkening back to a simpler time. That's where you'll find me, hot on Thoreau's spiritual trail, seeking small miracles and overlooked wonders, "alert to God in nature" and determined as ever to "live in the sunshine, drink the wild air," as Thoreau's contemporary and compatriot Walt Whitman exhorted.
Easy to do in this place. Where subtle beauty manifests in simple ways, and wondrous (but small) surprises await at every turn in lush landscapes of riparian richness and sylvan splendor.
Here, you'll find me bushin' along the sinuous creek, or leisurely strolling through the drought-parched, thistle-choked, burnt brown meadow trolling for bird life on the edges of aromatic pine forests rife with mystery and intrigue.
Albeit all very small stuff.
Here and there, in my dilatory wandering, I chance upon Mother Nature's intriguing detritus:
A jumble of bones on a sandy spit of creek bank.
A gorgeous lone antler.
A reticulated deer skeleton, half-eaten, laid out like an autopsy.
A mess of feathers, perhaps a songbird brought down by a forest hawk.
Evidence of a destroyed and abandoned wasp construction.
A delicate intact skull of a tiny bird.
Distinctive rocks, broken ceramic bits, pretty pebbly sand bars.
And most mysterious, a distant tree holding the likeness of the Virgin Mary.
Here, down on the creek, easily overlooked nuances of life unfold:
Pollen-drunk bees sucking down sweet nectar.
Inspection-worthy scat holding clues to its owner and diet.
Paw prints underwater evidence of a raccoon looking for a crawdaddy to munch down.
Gossamer strands of spider web festooned across bushes.
A turtle with a curious expression making his way slowly somewhere.
A gorgeous cache of colorful acorns.
A small fish with a freshly eaten bite out of its head.
A pair of Kingfishers darting through an opening in the creek.
Followed by the chance appearance of a green heron zeroing in on prey.
And SO MUCH more, right here . . . to be discovered:
Where the promise of simple exploration and small discovery awaits along the intestine-like riparian corridor of San Pablo Creek, flowing for 19 precious miles to San Francisco Bay from its origins in the East Bay community of Orinda.
Siren-like, this winding and twisting creek has cast a spell, hard to shake, hard to explain. Because, well, it's "just" San Pablo Creek, after all. But give the place half a chance and you'll find, like me, a ton of beauty and life packed into the nucleus of a few paltry acres.
One big punch of nature in a largely unknown about, diminutive parcel of land.
Outside of protected and preserved watershed lands, it's been a different story. Thanks to tireless efforts by advocates for stream restoration, critical (urban) stretches of the creek have been rehabilitated, proffering new sprung habitats for all things wild, and educational opportunities to connect with nature for citified kids and adults.
Special shout outs to Ann L. Riley, author of Restoring Neighborhood Streams: Planning, Design, and Construction, and long-time neighborhood activist, Lisa Owens-Viani, Golden State warrior environmentalist / heroes who have been instrumental in saving and protecting several East Bay creeks, such as Strawberry, Baxter, Village, and Codornices.
Imagine the retro-primitive mind set of urban planners years ago, when city creeks were deemed dangerous and worthless, something to hide away and tamp down, instead of revered, cherished and nourished!
As consciousness evolved over the years concerning the many benefits of a healthy watershed to the community, many previously industrialized, culverted sections of San Pablo Creek and her ilk have been successfully rehabbed and brought to the light of day. Much to the ecological and spiritual well-being of  the planet!
That's how important this work is!
Heroes of Friends of Orinda Creeks have brought their former bucolic San Pablo Creek back to life, creating:
" . . . a revitalized state . . . a charming natural setting in the midst of a commercial area . . ."
While it may never achieve pristine status as a place where once (not so long ago) "10- or 12-pound fish that men got with a pitchfork" were hauled out.
The presence of a healthy(er) San Pablo Creek, mainly in its grittier urban stretches (Orinda, El Sobrante and Richmond) offers hope for a return to edenic days, when:
" . . . your children could play . . . where you could relax and have a picnic . . . where you could wander leisurely and enjoy the cool shade, the rustle of birds in a dense thicket of willows, the smell of damp soil and growing things, the subtle shades of green that cloak creekside plants . . ."
From "wilder" spring-fed upper stretches, to (who knew?) Mokulumne River-fed flows west of Bear Creek Road bridge, the creek's protean nature, at every twist and turn, holds marvels and surprises, always enchanting, ever altering shape and character, flushing along, slowing down, grandly pooling, busily finding its anfractuous way to San Pablo Reservoir.
There, it drops over a spillway to begin a different journey, through rehabilitated urban stretches, before debouching in the impressive 300-acre San Pablo Creek Marsh on the fringe of San Francisco Bay.
Imagine how it must once have been, before the days of the retro-primitive urban planners . . . to a time, not so long ago.
Lisa Owens-Viani, publisher of the RATS website (Raptors are the Solution), acknowledges that San Pablo Creek is "a much altered watershed" but she lovingly goes on to describe it as:
" . . . A haven for native wildlife that rely on riparian habitat, including many species of concern, like Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks, yellow warblers and the rare yellow-breasted chats (riparian songbirds), and, in the uppermost watershed, the threatened Alameda whipsnake and endangered red-legged frog.
Unique and uncommon plants, such as the western leatherwood with its pale yellow flowers, the Diablo sunflower, bent-flowered fiddleneck, El Sobrante manzanita, Santa Cruz tarplant, and Brewer's western flax, grow near the creek and its tributaries in the upper watershed.
Black oaks, their sweet acorns favored by the Native Americans, and valley oaks, some close to 100 feet tall and with roots that can grow 30 feet deep to reach water, also grow in the upper watershed. Each of these oaks can have over 300 species of birds  and 5,000 species of insects  living on, in, or around it."
It's so easy to take this unassuming area of land and water for granted, as a mere pleasant backdrop. But it is not stretching the imagination too, too much, to proclaim, one fine day when the creek is flowing  yes!  mightily!  to be suddenly reminded of  yes!  the Navarro River in Mendocino, or Ten Mile Creek up in the Siskiyous.
Anywhere, somewhere . . . where a creek flows free and wild.
Thankfully, the watershed land, and the creek(s) that run through it, have been left to their own devises, free to flow, overrun their banks, or dry up as they please, creating a vital bridge linking tiny but not insignificant biota-rich segments of the creek ecosystem with contiguous "Bay Area Wild" lands, a truly separate reality, here in the 2.5 million strong East Bay population center.
If it's not clear by now, San Pablo Creek is where you'll find me a dozen times a year, escaping the world and all things artificial. Pining for my Indiana-reminiscent backwoods country crick scene.
Where I'm all alone, with the exception of an occasional hiker or equestrian. Ambling thoughtlessly, in a meditative state of peace and joy.
There you'll find me hugging trees, communing with birds and wildlife, lounging by the creek, paying homage to our modern-day incarnation of a millennia-old, (once) pristine, (once) salmon-clogged, (once) grizzly-stalked strip of paradise in the East Bay Hills. As though I'm writing about the Amur River.
Protected for years from the ravages of industrialism and urban sprawl by prescient E(ast) B(ay) M(unicipal) U(tility) D(istrict) water managers, the watershed's 27,640 acres lend the appeal, look and feel of intangible "wildness"Fifteen years of efforts to restore riparian corridor and wildlife habitat have taken hold, evolving and transforming the ecosystem.
Despite being declared a "2002 303(d)-listed impaired waterbody that is adjacent to a Shoreline Park" (California’s Critical Coastal Areas State of the CCAs 2006 Report).
Despite being rife with contaminants  nasty chemicals (the pesticide Diazinon), heavy metals (mercury), and toxic algae and pathogens. (And its fair share of trash.)
Despite being still in dire need of help  cleaning up litter and industrial waste, removing obstacles for the free passage of steelhead trout.
And yet, forgetting these woes, it's the biggest prettiest little creek around, cowboying up as more than just a poseur creek, taking its place proudly as a doppelganger of the Navarro River or Ten Mile Creek.
And still, the disbelievers and noninitiates will pooh-pooh otherwise . . . without ever seeing or experiencing the splendors of San Pablo Creek.
Well, take a look now, will ya!
I know, I know. There goes Gambolin' Man again!
But just take a look at this!
A real wilderness creek, by God!
A true oasis lies hidden beneath a healthy mantel of Oak, Big Leaf Maple, Sycamore, sheltering native plants and flowers, fish, birds and other animals.
The astonishing, elemental thing to grasp, is the recognition / realization that San Pablo Creek and Watershed sustains an everything-hitched-to-everything-else ecosystem of interdependent elements!
Think about that!
Such a design of evolutionary wonder allows animals to crisscross difficult, disparate open space, plants room to pollinate, and affording humans (those who know) access to the calming influence of flowing water and green shady forests, always precious to find in a densely populated urban area.
PLEASE: when entering this environment, always practice Respect and be mindful of principles of least impact. When you visit, please abide by all rules and regulations of the watershed. If Respectful, you can venture on and explore intricacies of EBMUD watershed lands, stumble on hidden natural treasures most will never chance upon.
Without Respect, you're guaranteed to get bitten by a rattlesnake, stung by a wasp, eaten alive by mosquitoes, tormented by ticks, caught in a hailstorm, attacked by a mountain lion, and barring that, contract torturous rashes and blisters from poison oak and stinging nettle. And maybe get your eye poked out by an errant branch.
Love it, respect it, take care of it!
All of the special creeks of the watershed!
Appian Creek, Baden Creek, Barn Creek, Bear Creek, Big Oak Creek, Briones Reservoir, Cascade Creek, Castro Creek, Coal Mine Creek, Clark Creek, Dutra Creek, El Toyonal Creek, Greenridge Creek, Inspiration Creek, Kennedy Creek, La Colina Creek, Lauterwasser Creek . . .

Google Earth view of protected EBMUD acreage harboring a vital stretch of wild and free San Pablo Creek
. . . Leastrot Creek, Lila Creek, Miner Creek, Newell Creek, Oak Creek, Oursan Creek, Overhill Creek, Rose Creek, Russel Creek, San Pablo Reservoir, Sather Creek, Schoolhouse Creek, Siesta Valley Creek, Tarry Creek, Tin House Creek, Wagner Creek, Wilkie Creek, Wire Ranch Creek.
With 35 tributaries trickling down from various gullies and ravines in an earthquake contorted landscape showcasing respectable topography and untouched ecosystems, it's a wonder such a place exists at all in the throbbing metropolitan East Bay.
But it does, thankfully. No questions asked.
In A History of the Watershed, written for SPAWNERS (San Pablo Watershed Neighbors Education and Restoration Society), Owens-Viani remarks (remarkably) how these many feeder streams and arteries of water  dry most of the year  form the life-sustaining aorta of:
" . . . the largest, deepest creek" 'coursing' across the landscape, its flows swift and strong, unaltered by dams or other impediments."
Yep, San Pablo Creek is where you'll find Gambolin' Man getting his requisite dose of action-packed adventure, albeit very small measured up against climbing El Cap, say, or blazing a 3200 ft. trail down to Big Granite Creek from high on, or mountain biking the Flume, or rappelling down a slot canyon, or trekking the Himalaya or scaling Venezuela's tepui mesas; let alone base jumping or back country route finding.
Well, with a changed mindset  and it helps if you love birding and engaging in do-nothing, go nowhere zen nature rambles  you will, I promise, find bona fide adventure and rapturous discovery (got to pay attention!) in a bustling environment of moving water, quaking trees, dancing leaves, birds flitting about and singing their hearts out.
This, I humbly submit, is a kin of Paradise  Greek, parádeisos, "park for animals"  albeit a mean and lowly paradise, in the grand scheme of things. But a park for animals, nonetheless, me and you included.
I will take it any day.
And  this is important  this particular prosaic little parádeiso is as significant in the scheme of things as the great swathes of Alaskan wilderness and Patagonian llanos, Serengeti Plains and Sierra Nevada peaks in the Range of Light.
Sure, sure, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah – there goes Gambolin' Man again ramblin' on in typical hyperbolic (yet believable!) sentiment!
Hard-charging (surprising!) and alternately languid, San Pablo Creek packs an electric charge of unusual riparian "wilderness" beauty . . . I'll say it again! . . . despite abutting a busy roadway with frenzied commuters zooming to and from Richmond to Orinda and beyond.
Splendidly hidden from view, but in plain sight, San Pablo Creek chugs and churns along its primal watercourse draining the beautiful hills, valleys and broad plains of the East Bay Hills. Homeland to families of Bay Area aboriginal peoples. Chochenyo (Ohlone group) speakers.
Peaceful Ones who prospered for millennia in propitious environs in symbiotic relations with the natural world and harmonious interactions with neighboring groups.
This part of California, the East Bay Hills, also supported grizzly bears, mountain lions, condors, and vast herds of Tule elk. Not to mention maybe 300 species of birds.
Things aren't too shabby today, for that matter, for resident bobcats, coyotes, deer, fox, raccoons, opossums, and  still could be!  300 species of birds! (More likely, 60.)
Come! Let's take a look-see!
From the Orinda Connector Staging Area, alongside the pretty country bridge crossing the creek, maybe a quarter mile in, I love to stop and gaze down at the pretty water flowing and pooling and channeling and rippling and lazily backing up in surprising twists and turns.
Lots of languid lounging and slow-moving, fine ass birding await in this small nature area (patience a must!). Plenty of time for dilatory activities. Take note  you can't just come here and walk with a destination, point A to point B, and back, in mind.
Not here. When you come here, plan on spending two or three hours and covering less than a mile and an acre or two in a loopy out 'n back route contained within delimited but eye-poppingly rich and splendidly varied confines.
The other day, hiking too near, and put off by, an ugly array of high-EMF-producing electrical pylons south of Briones Reservoir, I veer the opposite direction, not apparent except for a deer path, and divert down an otherwise impenetrable area of brambles and tropical-like viny overgrowth of green smothering vegetation. Like a little deer, I follow it down to the creek.
High overhead, White-breasted Nuthatches are working hard, and some kind of Woodpecker flies in. Spotted Towhees, Jays and a pair of playful Bewick's Wrens skirt close to the ground. Vultures circle overhead, a Hawk exchanges a shrieking call, or maybe it's a Jay imitating a Hawk.
Here's where I spotted my first-ever Golden-crowned Kinglet a couple of years ago, and a host of other not too often seen birds.
I've explored many stretches of the creek, often a mere few dozen yards at a crack, but what amazing treasures such tiny watery tracts harbor! For the first time, I've made my way to this "S" in the creek contour, whose vistas have eluded me for a previous dozen visits.
That's how much there is to explore in this tiny watery tract!
But here, in the thick humidity of mid-summer, the creek's taken on the persona of a lazy back country Mississippi bayou swampland kind of place. Most surprising, and unusual. If not inordinately intriguing.
Here, the creek is essentially a long and winding yellow-green ribbon of algae, with a surge of water pushing through here and there to break it up. I watch a soccer ball move about twenty-five feet in six minutes. A pretty Flycatcher swoons and preens on a flimsy stick, snatching insects left and right.
I've never seen anything like this here. I reckon upstream, the creek must be choked up by driftwood, causing the water to slow to a crawl, allowing for a mutant sort of photosynthesis to take hold.
And deep in this boggy bosque, I stand alone in reverence, stopped in my (deer) tracks, looking, listening, watching for "all the divine features which I detect in Nature." (Thankee, Henry!)
In the next few minutes, I'm suddenly aware of an incredible symphony of bird song and bird activity about me, a birdtravaganza! Six herons from four different species flush out or fly overhead!
A Great Blue suddenly zooms right in, unaware of me, hidden as I am by overhanging branches alongside the creek. At the last second, the gangly but graceful bird yo-yos up and away with superb control and grace.
Next, an adult Black-crowned Night Heron (impressive creature) buzzes overhead, followed by a Great Blue skirting toward the horizon, letting loose a gigantic stream of streaking white poo in his wake.
A few moments later, a Snowy Egret emerges from the impenetrable bayou depths, scared up and darting off like a specter in a dream.
Where you'll find me in mute wonder . . .
. . . In Awe and Reverence and Respect.
Amid simple, unheralded natural beauty.
Looking down on this parcel of land from a Google Earth perspective, it surely seems to the Yosemite possessed or Tasmania obsessed adventurer, like a little ol' piss-poor patch of Earth, "nothing", really, to get excited about or rave to your friends about or go check out.
You're probably laughing at my pumped-up attempt to write about this place like it's the Amur River or somewhere equally uber-exotic and grand.
And yet.
Once truly grokked, you will come to know and appreciate a very special wildlife habitat and nature preserve.
If only a wee oasis.
If but an unrecognized holy place.
Right in my  our  your midst!
In classicist Thoreau-it-up-there spirit, a place where we have located:
" . . . wildness within civilization."
And like Flannery O'Connor:
"I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing."
Check out more San Pablo Creek / Watershed related posts from Gambolin' Man:
While you're at it, might as well take a peek at Gambolin' Man's Flickr photo album of nearly 1,000 images of San Pablo Creek & Watershed: