Sunday, August 15, 2010

SF Bay Trail: Bayfront Park (Menlo Park) & Dumbarton Bridge

Sunday 8-10, 2010
SF Bay Trail: Penninsula - Bayfront Park & Dumbarton Bridge
9.7 miles SF Bay Trail, plus 7.4 other miles

Sunday was a beautiful, tumultuous day, too many unplanned things competing for my attention, and a fundraiser to get to as well.  I ran out of the house, grabbed the bike, and hit the road--accidentally leaving all of my Bay Trail maps and my camera behind.  (I "borrowed" these pictures off the web until I can take some of my own.)  I headed south of my last ride, and my first one, looking for a good place to start.  I thought I would hit the Baylands in Palo Alto and took a likely exit from Highway 101, ending up back at Bayfront Park in Menlo Park.

Five or six weeks earlier I'd been there, when I first started thinking about how to get in shape.  I was going to hike both the Bay Trail and the Ridge Trail and was scouting Foster City.  I thought it a little boring for a walk, and wound up at Bayfront Park where I hiked the 2 mile+ perimeter and over the top.  Even that short a distance on pavement in hiking boots convinced me to crosstrain by cycling the SF Bay Trail segments while hiking the Ridge Trail ones.  Almost the entire trail is paved and I'd be doing each one twice, out and back.

In my truck I scouted the route from Bayfront Park south to the Dumbarton Bridge, to make sure it was long enough, and realized that the Baylands I had been trying to find are actually south of the bridge.  I've really been filling in gaps in my knowledge of the Penninsula with these rides.  When I got home and looked at the maps, I saw how it all fits together, and made the area south of the bridge my goal for this coming Sunday.  The Dumbarton Bridge is accessible, though, with a bike/pedestrian path, so it seemed like a cool idea to ride over to the East Bay and back.

Changing the World...
The root of most environmental problems is over-population. Ironically, the solution to a lot of these issues is density: enough people nearby that a critical mass develops, enough people fall in love with a place that they become its champions, or are concerned enough by a problem that they become its solution. Most of the time it happens the same way; a few people get together, become leaders, and start a movement. My organization was formed in a similar fashion nearly 40 years ago. One visionary, recognized by a nuts and bolts guy, who then gathered others. Today we have more than 7000 members.

The park, at the foot of Marsh Road, is a convenient place to park and there are bathrooms.  Like many of the hilly parks along the bay, "Bedwell" Bayfront Park in Menlo Park is an old garbage dump capped in the mid-1980s and turned into a park.  It's not as well designed as the parks in San Mateo, or even as manicured as the shoreline strips in Foster City or Redwood City.  Just grassland slopes and some mostly non-native trees.  What it really strikes me as is a blank canvas, a quarter section (that's 160 acres, or one quarter of a square mile "section") waiting for something.  It's "new" land so there really are no historical precedents, it comes down to what the public wants.  I imagine native plant introduction and slopes of bunchgrass, seed wands blowing in the breezes.

So I google the park name, and there they are: They have a brochure, too: .  The first big decision has already been made:  the old dump becomes a park rather than some other form of development.  That's not unusual with old landfills, they often leak methane and are still 'settling.'  But what kind of park?  "Various development proposals have threatened the park’s open space and wildlife, including development of a golf course and playing fields. These proposals have since been withdrawn or defeated by voters, and the park today remains as public open space."  Evidently there are burrowing owls and lots of other birds. 

There's also an interesting art/cultural installation.  "THE GREAT SPIRIT PATH - This unique art installation in the park is a stone poem in four stanzas inspired by Native American pictographs and designed by Menlo Park artist Susan Dunlap. Installed along a 3/4-mile long trail in the park, the Great Spirit Path is composed of 53 rock sculptures grouped into clusters, each representing a phrase in the poem. The largest sculpture of its kind anywhere, it is made of 892 rough natural stones weighing more than 505 tons."

The "Friends" will work for awhile, gather strength and expertise, defend the park, raise money.  I'd be willing to bet that eventually they'll start introducing native plants, if they haven't already.
Bayfront Park to Dumbarton Bridge
It's 2.3 miles on the paved path around the park, part of the SF Bay Trail, past an old sewage plant, with salt ponds east and west, and marshland to the north (the shoreline has curved at this point so what seems north is actually west.) The park is surrounded on three sides by the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1974 and now includes around 30,000 acres, or 47 square miles.
A lot of that acreage is made up of salt ponds, another nearly blank canvas, and they really dominate the south (and north) parts of the Bay Trail.  You may have seen them from the air, like large rice paddies, surrounded by sinuous levees and multi-colored with algae and brine, from blue to green to red.  They've transformed a natural landscape of tens of thousands of acres of marshland interspersed with open water ponds, to tends of thousands of acres of salt pond fringed with marsh.  They have some wildlife value but mostly they represent hope.  Nearly 90% of the bay's original 187,000 acres of marshes have been lost, and a third of its area, but it's doesn't have to be permanent.  16,500 acres of salt ponds were purchased 5 or 6 years ago--for $100 million--with plans for restoration.  It will take decades.

The ponds were located where salt was naturally produced in shallow areas.  Salt collection by Indians and early settlers for spice and to preserve food evolved into a hundred years of industrial salt production for all kinds of chemical uses.  Salty water was moved from pond to pond as it evaporated, concentrated and collected, leaving behind a toxic briny concentrate called bittern. 

Imagine reassembling Yosemite, or the Everglades. It's not an easy task.  You can't just break the levees and let the bay water in; the brine concentrate would poison the bay.  In some shallow ponds, letting in more water just continues the process of evaporation, and makes the ponds even more salty.  Restoration has begun a piece at a time, slowly, starting with pilot projects which are monitored and from which lessons are learned to apply to the next project.  Some are allowed to return to marshland or mudflats, some to remain as open water.  There's not just one kind of marsh either, there are many, influenced by tides, by freshwater creeks and springs, by sewage outflows, by differences in elevation of just a few feet, or even inches.  Salty, brackish, fresh.  The ponds and marshes have conflicting functions too, from managing flood waters and extreme tides, to providing recreation and wildlife habitat, all at a time when sea level is rising.

There are historical influences; during the gold rush huge quantities of sediments decreased the bay's depth by a half to two-thirds and layered in from then on were heavy metals like mercury and other pollutants. On the other hand, some of the ponds have subsided as much as ten feet.  There is a balance to be achieved between enough tidal flow to keep sloughs open and enough sediment to raise the bottoms of the ponds to elevations at which marsh plants can grow.  Blank canvases don't just get filled with art, either.  Ponds recconnected to tidal flow are vacuums which can be filled with aggressive, invasive non-native plants and animals too. They have to be controlled.

You can read more about the salt ponds and the restoration at:

It should be no surprise that preservation of 30,000 acres of the National Wildlife Refuge and addition of another 16,500 acres was the brain child of just a few people, just like the Friends of Bayfront Park.  In the late-1960s Florence and Philip LaRiviere formed Citizens’Committee to Complete the Refuge.  Sure there were many others involved, and organizations like Save the Bay, but there are always a few catalysts who lead the way.

Reminds me...I nominated the two co-founders of my organization for a national conservation award a few years ago and they won, and went back to Washington D.C. to get the award, where there was a presentation about them.  The Awards organizers called for photos, quotes and other information. 

One founder was the visionary and we had lots of great quotes from her.  The other, the nuts and bolts guy, was arguably more important.  He's a taciturn mid-westerner; even though he had accomplished many great things, he'd never said anything all that memorable.  So I was trying to prompt him into giving me some pithy summaries of all that had happened.  The best I could get was "the squeaky wheel gets the grease," and one that has really stuck with me:  "if you do anything for 30 years, you'll make a difference."  So it is with him, so it is with the LaRivieres, so it will be with the Friends of Bayfront Park, if they last that long.

All this a long winded way of describing a bike ride with potential.  I left Bayfront Park headed east paralleling Bayfront Expressway.  There's a long strip of grassland (what they call "upland habitat") mowed and studded with ground squirrels, along a slough--one of those marshland fringes seperating the trail and slough from salt ponds waiting to be liberated.  It's been a rare Bay Trail ride that didn't include feral cats among the wildlife and I saw one with a mouse in its mouth--hopefully not an endangered Salt Marsh harverst mouse.

The trail wraps around Sun Microsystems, then parallels Highway 84, jogs across the about-to-be freeway at University Avenue to the south side, sandwiched between more salt ponds, then climbs onto the Dumbarton bridge.  It's low rise, and at 1.6 miles only a little longer than the much higher Martinez-Benicia bridge near home.  Its 1927 draw bridge predecessor was the first vehicular bridge across the bay, and the shortest; parts of it remain at either end as fishing piers.  An old railroad bridge is just south; together they bound the smallest part of the bay, circled with salt ponds. 

I dropped to more salt ponds and, just past the KOIT radio towers and building, turned around and headed back.

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