Tuesday, August 24, 2010

SF Bay Trail: Baylands again (Palo Alto)-8-21-10

Saturday 8-21-2010
SF Bay Trail: Penninsula - Baylands (Palo Alto)
6.55 miles SF Bay Trail, 14.45 other miles.

Last Sunday I hiked a section of the Bay Area Ridge Trail then a friend and I cycled eight miles in the Baylands in Palo Alto.  I wrote "The Baylands in Palo Alto are the most beautiful bay wetlands I've seen since I moved here in 1981. Bar none."

The first trip we only managed to circle one of 5 or 6 parts.  We started late and there was so much to see.  Six days later I went back.  It was equally beautiful but also different; the first trip was nearing high tide, this one was at low.  Sloughs and open water ponds had shrunk to threads of water and mudflats.

San Francisquito creek
{I'm listening to Pandora while I type this blog entry; a song just came on, "Here Without You" by 3 Doors Down, that was used for a friend's memorial video.  Roger Epperson was the Supervisor of three of the parks I work to expand.  He drowned in a kayaking accident in Hawaii and year ago December.  It's equal parts tragedy and reminiscence: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iioW74JO6X8 . I lead a memorial hike in March that I designed in his honor. Ironically this year's hike helped convince me how much I'd let myself get out of shape.}

Quite a tangent, eh? Well Baylands is also about tangents. Anyone who doesn't allow him or herself to get side tracked is going to miss a lot. It won't matter, there's so much to see.  This is a place to return to over and over.

What is it that's fascinating about marshes?  If you've seen one, you've seen them all, right?  There's not the topography of hills and ridges, it's mostly flat.  There's a great diversity though.  All that flatness is a great foundation for a changing sky, sunrises and sunsets.  Then there's the water--we've got some kind of genetic connection to water, it's just a pleasure to be in it or near it.  Bay marshes have all kinds of varieties of water, creeks, sloughs, ponds, open water, all of influenced by the tides.

And all kinds of marshland from fringes to expanses, freshwater, brackish, to salt, to salt pond.  Wetlands are so productive that they're loaded with life.  You can hike hills all day and not see much wildlife but visiting marshlands without seeing some pretty impressive wildlife is almost unthinkable.  Then there's the unknown; they're connected to the bay and through it to the deep blue sea--almost anything could show up.

I've waded in the shallows only to find dozens of rays (relatives of sharks) swimming around.  I've lay on a dock examing the styrofoam floats, completely covered with invertebrates, anemones, algae, etc.  Kayaked and had a harbor seal surface a few feet away, those quiet, liquid, shy eyes trained on me.  You can imagine the likely things you rarely see, like twelve foot sturgeon, and the unlikely ones, like white sharks and whales.  Best of all, the vanished things returned, like native oysters, spawning herring or, hopefully one day to return, like sea otters.  There were once so many oysters in the bay that dozens of miles of beaches were made of their shell fragments and the indians created huge shell mounds, some of which were sixty feet high and covered hundreds of thousands of square feet.

Last week I started at Terminal Boulevard and San Antonio Road and circled the main Baylands area between Charleston Slough and the Palo Alto airport.  This time I started north, at Embarcadero and Faber in a small industrial park/commercial area.  Embarcadero leads to the Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center and Sand Point.  I wasn't sure I'd have time to bike the two marsh segments to the southeast, bayward of Shoreline Amphitheater, but I wanted to hit the three north of Embarcadero including Ravenswood Open Space Preserve just south of Dumbarton Bridge.  Little did I know.

I'm a smart guy now; bike north first against the wind then use it to make the return trip easier.  Last time I started later and returned on the loop's edge closest to the freeway, with the light almost gone.  This time I'd do the opposite, the less interesting part closest to development first.  As it turns out, I'd end up retracing the exact same route along East Bayshore back to the truck, in the dark, though in reverse, northward against the breeze.

at the Nature Center
I followed Geng Road to San Francisquito creek.  The Bay Trail follows it north, then crosses at an outlet where water dumps into the creek; the main treated wastewater outlet is south at Matadero creek, so I'm not sure what this one was.  It's an interesting creek though, a fringe of wetlands on either side, and native bunchgrasses along the trail.  San Francisquito creek is also the boundary between San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.  Originally it was also the boundary between the lands of the Spanish Missions at San Francisco and Santa Clara.  Higher up the original redwood for which Palo Alto is named still exists on the creek's banks, 1070 years old.  The creek rises to include about 22 tributaries as it climbs into the Santa Cruz mountains.

Along the bay the creek is also the boundary between affluent Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.  The difference is palpable.  The striped paved trail turns east toward the bay, you cross north and the pavement ends as you thread your way behind vacant lots and industrial sites.  Clearly East Palo Alto doesn't have the money of Palo Alto, or doesn't make as big a priority of regional trails.  It's only a matter of time though.  Regional trails blur the lines.

I saw lots of people walking out to the marshlands--in Palo Alto they were white and Asian/Indian often with kids but the kids were never alone, in East Palo Alto they were latino or black and there were a fair number of kids on their own.  My own childhood was like that; we played in the woods and creeks near home by ourselves, sometimes creating trouble but mostly doing fine.  Both kids and adults, no matter what their economic class will be influenced by their experiences.

Sand Point
The wetlands are smaller too, as you head north, though still appreciable in size.  The main part of the Baylands is large, the sloughs are large and a lot of water flows in and out with the tides.  That's more like the bay's natural state, long sinuous channels with many branches and all the variation that includes, mudflats, water, cover for wildlife.  The sloughs are at sea level and dendritic--branched like a tree--and kept open by the tides flowing in and out.  Some are also outlets for streams which rip through the marsh in floods, but a lot of that water is dammed and diverted now.  The shorter and smaller the sloughs the easier it is for them to fill in and for the marsh to be starved of flow.  Water is life, so less flow means less life, fewer nutrients, less force to keep channels open.

stilts and avocet
The marshes have another problem besides size, also related to flow.  Imagine them as mudflat closest to the sloughs and bay, through cordgrass, to pickleweed flats a little higher--literally inches-- in elevation, then grassland a little higher, "upland habitat."  San Francisco Bay's cordgrass marshes, Spartina foliosa, occupy a distinct zone.

In 1973 the Army Corps introduced an Atlantic species of cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, to the bay in an attempt to reclaim marshland.  Maybe it was from an area with much stronger surf and erosive power--it took off in the bay, forming stands so dense as to be sterile for wildlife, catching sediment and extending into the bay in circles of growth that resist erosion, and turning productive mudflats into meadows, choking the dendritic sloughs, threatening to crowd out endangered species, and moving uphill to compete with the picklegrass.

Worst of all, it's hybridized with the native cordgrass to spawn a variety of subspecies.  All of this means that the thousands of acres of salt ponds gradually being restored to the bay could just as likely become non-native cordgrass stands, contributing ever greater numbers of seeds floating out on the tides.  The only way to remove the invaders is labor and to hopefully to catch new stands early, before you need a backhoe or toxic chemicals--which you inevitably also need.

Luckily in 2000 the San Francisco Estuary Invasive Spartina Project was formed, and has been having success in getting the problem under control.  It'll be an ongoing effort, to put a fine point on this:  open space acquisition is just the first step.  1) Stewardship (management), especially in an urban area, is ongoing.  2) Introduction of non-native species is bad, bad, bad.

All that to say, I pay close attention to the size of wetlands, and speculate whether they get enough flow to maintain the size of their channels and flow.

When the trail reached Bay Street, just on the verge of entering Ravenswood Open Space Preserve, I was stopped by a ranger because I wasn't wearing a bike helmet.  Zounds! Stopped again on my second try.  Despite my best 'I'm a park professional, can't you look the other way this one time' he held firm.

I wasn't that disappointed.  I want to go back.  Just as I was already plugging into time of day and direction of breeze, this bike ride was really exhibiting the choices related to the tide table.  I'm also starting to pay attention to events and milestone dates of all the restoration that's going on.  I already knew that there are some dates coming up at Ravenswood.  The salt ponds are no longer just "salt ponds" to me...they're Ravenswood, Eden Landing, Alviso, they're pond A-19, A-21, etc.  I now knew that part of the Ravenswood Open Space is north of the Dumbarton bridge by Menlo Park's Bayfront Park, ponds that I thought might still be privately owned.

northern shovelers
On my way across the bridge, on the west side, I could also see what looked almost like a construction site just to the south, with big cranes and raw dirt on the white salted moonscape.  Islands are being created.  240 acres are being enhanced to create a 155-acre pond with 30 islands for nesting and resting shorebirds, and 85 acres of habitat for snowy plovers. (Pond SF-2)  Volunteers have already scattered tons of crushed oyster shells to camouflage the plover eggs from predators.

There's supposed to be a dedication in September 2010 of a new trail segment and at which the levee is to be breached to allow the water in.  When the Ravenswood ponds are fully restored there will be uninterrupted wetlands from Redwood Shores south to Mountain View.  I want to be there, to see the levee being breached and to watch water flowing back into an area that's been imprisoned for decades.

I turned around and retraced my route back to San Francisquito creek, crossed the bridge into Palo Alto and this time turned east on the trail to follow the creek to the bay, and back to the Lucy Evans Baylands Nature Interpretive Center.  This part is where I could really see how low the tide was, lots of mudflats exposed, lots of birds feeding on them.  I stopped at the nature center, walked the boardwalk again, rode out to the put in spot on Sand Point.

Then back around the bayward side of the main bulk of Baylands, which I had circled the week before, but this time when I got to the head of Charleston Slough on the levee sandwiched between it and Adobe Creek, I kept going east, along two more sections, past Mountain View Slough towards Stevens Creek and the Nasa Ames Research Center.

The trail is paved and a little more manicured as you pass Shoreline Lake, Shoreline Amphitheater's canopies visible from time to time, and signs indicate that some of the grassland is burrowing owl habitat.  On the map the area bayward looks like land but it's really three more leveed salt ponds.  I couldn't really tell if they're connectd to the bay but the levees looked inviting.  As you reach the east side the smell of the water gets strong--is it windblown treated sewage or just salt pond smells?  I think it was iodine and brine.  It reminded me of the brine smells of salty Mono Lake east of the Sierra.

You wrap south along Stevens Creek.  To that point, almost 30 years into my bay area experience, Stevens Creek was just a name used in radio traffic reports.  I cycled out a short distance on the west side levee to a gate, then looped back and across a bridge to the east side levee and back toward the bay.  This route is longer, along the edge of more salt ponds and past an intersecting levee my map tells me will be a future section of the SF Bay Trail, bypassing Nasa and Moffett Field on the way to Sunnyvale.  I hit another gate, further out by the Bay and turn around as the sun drops below the Peninsula ridgeline.

Retracing my route, I make the best time yet although now I'm riding into the wind, back to Charleston Slough, back along East Bayshore, finally back to Embarcadero in near dark.

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