Wednesday, April 8, 2009

On Uncertain Ground

Yesterday was a very busy day, and gave a new and exciting cast to the trip.

In the morning I had a long conversation at SFEI -- the San Francisco Estuary Institute -- about their historical ecology projects. In brief, they have prepared accounts of landscapes in the Bay Area and the change that has taken place over time using accounts and photographs from the earliest Europeans to modern times. This work can then be used by governmental or conservation groups to identify what landscapes are able to be restored, and how to prioritize conservation and restoration efforts.

It was interesting to hear that government agencies like Santa Clara Valley Water District have been the chief funders for these projects, reflecting a change in the attitude toward the environment of both organizations and their constituencies. Many utilities' efforts now work to incorporate environmentally friendly practice and to make use of the historical ecology provided by SFEI.

Following this meeting, I met with Ralph Kanz of Alameda Creek Alliance at Arrowhead Marsh in the backyard of SFEI. Ralph showed me around the marsh, pointing out three endangered clapper rails among other birds, and offering a flurry of information about California land, history, and his experience with conservation in the last few decades. There was an honesty and an urgency in Ralph's discussion of the environment that helped remind me of the significance of efforts to improve land conservation and protection. The area is home to clapper rails, but also to his family for the last 150 years.

After several organizational and logistical phone calls, my next stop was the East Bay Regional Parks District office. After introducing myself there, I was offered nothing but kindness and generosity from the folks working there. A special thanks to Tiffany Margulici, Richard Winn, and Karen McClendon, whose interest and help yesterday was crucial for the next week of the walk. Thanks again!

I walked from the EBRPD office through the Oakland Zoo, and up a dramatically steep slope overlooking a wooded canyon, the fringe of Oakland's Knowland Park. Bordered on either side by suburban development, the rectilinear park stretched east for several miles along a creek through hills and canyons, oaks and grasses, rain and sunshine. Around 4 pm I finally had lunch, not having had time to eat since breakfast around 9, and scarfed a whole avocado as I walked through a terrific thunderstorm. Stormy skies hovered over the bay, offering hazy vistas of downtown Oakland, San Francisco, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Balance on the dirt fire roads was tricky in the rain, but I managed to stay on my feet.

At the east end of the park, I cut south through a thin vegetated terrace between two private properties. Perhaps the most frightening part of the day, as I had to crawl, climb, and maneuver through dense tangles of poison oak. After trotting down a driveway (apologies to the owner, whoever you are...) I found myself on Golf Links Road, near the entrance to Anthony Chabot Regional Park. I let the poison oak know aloud what I thought about it, and what I thought about myself for not having avoided it. You can imagine how that conversation went.

Entering Anthony Chabot, the park seemed a world away from the scruffier parts of Oakland I had come from earlier in the day. Abundant trees and grasses, steep ridges overlooking river valleys with long views north and south, all glimmering from the fresh rainfall. I entered at the Woolridge parking lot and made my way across a ridge then down an incredibly steep, muddy trail to grass valley creek and the columbine trail below. I was glad to have learned to snowboard a few weeks ago, as I was sliding down the trail as much as walking. I had a pretty spectacular tumble around one corner, the kind you wish you could witness.

The bottom of the valley was a paradisiacal moist forest of tangled oaks, ferns, and salamanders, causing me to exult and exalt verbally. I followed the trail around the steep ravines above Lake Chabot, finally reaching the family campground at the top of an incline.

With tired feet, I unpacked at the campground, made a small fire of Eucalyptus leaves, bark, and branches, and relaxed into dinner. I got a little too comfortable by bedtime, and assumed that the bad weather was behind. Around 11pm a downpour began again, and I had to scramble barefoot to keep my belongings dry and shove them all, with me diving after, into my small one-man tent. As it turns out, the tent, an old model of my dad's, is not quite as waterproof as it once was, making for a cold night and a morning nearly floating in the puddle on the tent floor beneath me.

The title of this post describes both the slippery, wet, and steep terrain of the day, the unusual ecology of Chabot (dominated by Eucalyptus trees planted in the early 20th century by the water district), and the variety of perspectives I got throughout the day. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature is a book of environmental essays from a diverse group of authors. Hearing from SFEI, Ralph Kanz of ACA, and EBRPD today made for an abbreviated version of this kind of variety, but touched on the difficulty and complexity of resolving environmental issues when so many interests and goals are at stake. With about 60 seconds left of internet at the library, I'll conclude this somewhat rushed post, and hope to expound a bit more on some of what I learned from the day later.


  1. Take your time, take pictures and post them for us. Show us what John saw. We'll know how to blank out anything that wasn't there when he took the walk.

  2. Have a great trip Alex. I have created a link to the blog for your trip on the site we made for our 2006 Trans-California Ramble. Hope you can put a link on your site. Then people can compare our trips and see how much fun it is. I really hope that your walk gets more people interested in walking across California. When I was looking for your web site I found another called Walking Across California. They are walking from the Pacific at Wadell Creek to the snow near Folsom.

    Again have fun and stay dry. We got soaked those first few days.

    Your friends,

    Peter and Donna Thomas

  3. Hi Alex - I read about your trip in the SJ Mercury and it sounds like a great adventure!

  4. Alex, you ARE Survivorman! Do you maybe need a new tent though?
    Gina & Kate

  5. Thanks for the picture! I guess I'll imagine that freeway is a small valley brook that has to be crossed. A good place to stop for some tea and bread.