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Living and Writing in the Natural World

A "People's Tour" of Marin and Napa counties

China Camp village on San Pablo Bay

The entrance to San Francisco Bay through the Golden Gate is narrow, fog-shrouded, and laced with ship-ripping rocks. No wonder all the original European explorers of the Pacific Coast missed it, from Cabrillo in 1542 to Vizcaino in 1602 and others a further century on. Once you’re in, though, what a series of immense, sheltered bays! San Francisco Bay proper to the south; San Pablo Bay to the north; and to the east, beyond the even-narrower Carquinez Strait, blossoms Suisin Bay. This third bay is the life-blood of the whole system, as it conveys massive (originally) flows of fresh water from California’s two mightiest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, into the three bays via the Delta.

As Al and I drove south through the Sacramento Valley, two kayaks strapped atop the car, our goal was a campground at the edge of the salt marshes of San Pablo Bay—specifically China Camp State Park, site of the old shrimp-fishing community formed by Chinese prudently abandoning San Francisco as the vicious anti-Chinese measures of the 1880s took hold. Here, on the shores of San Pablo Bay, sheltered by rolling hills from the hatred in close-by San Rafael and near-by San Francisco, some 500 sturdy souls gathered shrimp from the (then) bountiful bay, dried them, and shipped them to China.

To reach this old sanctuary of simple living, though, we had to pass through three of the ritziest, Mercedes-driving, hot-tubbing centers of affluence in the world: California’s Napa, Sonoma, and Marin counties. Thousands flock to this region to tour the wineries, eat fancy wine-lubricated meals, and stay in deluxe hotels where the rooms start at $300 a night and zoom much higher very quickly.

Our “people’s tour” of the region was very different, from the first day’s lunch. Leaving Interstate 80 for state highway 12, we veered onto Old Napa Road south of the famous center of the wine country and pulled up at a corner delicatessen surrounded by pickup trucks. As we approached the entrance to Vineburg Deli, I was intent on a healthy lunch featuring fish or fowl. But a silver-haired gentleman in front of the establishment beamed at us from a classic black-barrel barbecue, where smoke was wafting up from three thick hunks of tri-tip.

Al greeted the fellow in his customary friendly manner, and before we knew it, two slices of the meat were carved off and offered to us. What could we do? The moment I conveyed the morsel to my mouth, all notions of fish and fowl wafted away with the smoke. Moments later, both of us sat eating tri-tip and caramelized onion nestled within a toasted ciabatta bun, a mustard-mayonnaise sauce helping the food go down (not that any assistance was needed).

It’s important to occasionally give in to temptation, I explained to Al. All around us, carpenters, plumbers, clerks, and irrigation and vineyard workers were enjoying the fare, Spanish spoken as freely as English. Though wine was on the shelves, our comrades were washing things down with soda or beer. We were a long, long way from the 4-star Michelin restaurants to the north in Napa.

After winding through the Napa Valley countryside, we hit highway 37 curling along the north end of San Pablo Bay, followed it to 101 and turned south toward San Francisco. At the exit to central San Rafael we bore east to the state park, and soon the old Chinese shrimping village was before us, a collection of some dozen century-old grey wooden buildings along a cobble beach. We enjoyed the displays and history depicted in one of the buildings, but were dismayed by the waves breaking upon the beach. Our arrival was timed to coincide with the high tide necessary to launch the kayaks beyond the mud flats and to explore the salt marshes—but the robust white-caps on the water told Al (the more experienced water-man) that we had no business on the bay that day in our recreational kayaks.

Bummer. But there was another high tide before dawn tomorrow morning, so we set up camp a bit inland and spent the afternoon hiking the oak-woodland hills skirting the salt marshes of the Bay. Dozens of blacktail deer watched us walk by, except for two bucks too busy vigorously locking antlers to notice, and turkeys nearly as plentiful. The notable diversity of microhabitats in these bayside hills, particularly one dubbed “Turtle Back,” gave us the gift of four species of oaks in a hill’s circumambulation: Valley, black, coastal live, and scrub. Not to mention a tall species of manzanita, its red bark complementing the rust of madrone trunks nearby, and lots of Bay trees. Scrub jays and red-tailed hawks called amongst the trees, as egrets and great blue herons silently stalked in the pickleweed and salt grass of salt marshes below us.

Unseen by us, we knew that the marsh vegetation held ghost shrimp and crab, and the rich black mud underneath was packed with clams galore (gaper, butter, little neck, jack knife), moon snails, and a myriad of annelid worms (both Echiuran fat inkeeper worms and the polychaetes). The abundance of all was reduced, due to pollution and the upstream diversion of the two great rivers’ waters to farms inland, making the bay waters saltier and colder than before—but still the marsh habitat was packed with life.

As we trudged back to camp in the fading light, we noted the water quieting down a bit in the bay. By dawn, we assured ourselves, it would be utterly calm, a sheet of glass. Calm was not what the night had in store for us, though. After a Vietnamese dinner in San Rafael, we enjoyed Scotch around a roaring campfire (the remains of a fallen oak from Al’s country home), Al with his corncob pipe, I my cigar. We admired the brilliant stars, and settled into our tents for a much-needed night’s sleep—half of which we got.

The calls of owls, coyotes, and foxes (“yip-yip-YIP”) lulled us to sleep, but a couple of hours after midnight an unholy commotion of screams, hisses, and grunts erupted outside. Emerging groggily, my light beam captured a trio of raccoons fighting over—my food bag from the locker! They seemed particularly to be admiring my peanut-butter-laden crackers and a fuyu persimmon from last week’s farmers market.

The bag’s contents were all I had to fuel me for our dawn kayak session, but somehow wrestling the bag and its drooled-on food from the raccoons did not inspire me. They were probably hungrier than me, I concluded, as I watched my carefully-stocked bag disappear. I had noted the inadequate latch of the food locker earlier in the evening, but not thought much of it. Now I thought a lot about it as I tried to settle down in my tent.

It didn’t seem that long until an hour before dawn, when we dressed warm, and one of us ate some food (I declined Al’s offer to share). The sky’s shift from black to grey was well underway as we got to the launch site on the bay and unloaded the kayaks and gear. The sun was just about to rise over the Oakland hills many miles to the east when we eased the kayaks into the frigid water, splashed aboard our vessels, and began to paddle away from the shore.

The water wasn’t glassy. It was, in fact, nearly as rough as the day before. We explored a sheltered cove to the north and paddled through the cord grass of its marsh. The waves were slapping hard against the kayaks, and we constantly fought to keep from being forced parallel to the incoming swells, where swamping was a real possibility.

We turned to the south, to round the point that would take us to the famed “Rat Rock” facing the old China Camp. Forcing my way forward, my pants were soon soaked by waves splashing over the side. I looked at Al. He shook his head, decisively, and we fought our kayaks around and headed back. This wasn’t our day, or morning, for exploring San Pablo Bay.

On the other hand, we enjoyed a grand sight of the sun cresting the hills on the far eastern side of San Pablo Bay and glinting on the water between Oakland and us. And I had benefited from a very practical lesson in “when water is too rough to safely paddle in a recreational kayak”—without capsizing as part of the experience. Perfect. Maybe a touring kayak with a spray skirt next time?

We tied the kayaks back atop the Subaru, and after a delicious (raccoon-free) breakfast at the Depot Cafe in San Rafael’s old downtown, retraced our journey up 101 to 37. At Sears Point on the north edge of the bay, we visited the Sonoma Land Trust’s recent conversion of 1000 formerly grazing and oat-hay acres of the old Sears Point Ranch to San Pablo Bay tidal marsh—its original state in the mid-1800s. Earth-moving equipment and hard-hatted engineers were still finishing up the project, but they didn’t stop us from entering the area and enjoying the interpretive signage that was already up, and viewing the waters of the bay’s newly-submerged marshland.

We followed a country road paralleling the Petaluma River up from the bay towards Petaluma, using Al’s Google Map on his iPad to locate where we could put kayaks onto the river on a subsequent trip—an abandoned marina (Giraldi’s) behind an abandoned tavern (“Papa’s”) that a young new owner was busily resurrecting from his perch atop a backhoe, with weathered shacks along the river being re-roofed. “That’s where I could happily live,” Al proclaimed, admiring the dilapidated riverside shacks. I replied that I’d need a handier toilet than the shacks seemed to possess.

In Petaluma, we wandered the old district along the river, now being infused with new life in the form of cafes and trendy shops. Following Washington Street out of town, we stopped at another of Al’s favorite Mexican restaurants, a former bright-orange food truck now elevated in life to a bright-orange building on the east edge of town: El Roy’s Mexican Grill. Again: no wine or star-ratings here, just common folk enjoying uncommon food as we all followed the “futbol” match on the television, excited Spanish commentary blaring forth. Al raved about his pork-stomach tostada, and engaged the cook regarding the secret of the cheese topping (complement the Monterey Jack with a crumbly white queso fresco, he was advised, available in any Mexican market). My chicken fajitas were different than any I’d had before, more onions and less bell peppers, and some sauce that rendered everything divine.

We meandered along Old Adobe Road to the east, hit highway 12, and soon were hurtling north to home on interstate 80. It hadn’t been the deluxe tour, we hadn’t even thought of wine, though on the back seat were several bottles of Devoto orchards hard cider we had picked up at a Whole Foods store in San Rafael. We were two happy fellows as we rolled up to Al’s garden-ringed country home in the waning light of, surprisingly, only the second day of our trip—another good one, choppy waves, midnight raccoons and all.

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