California’s Biggest Estuary

California’s biggest estuary is called the San Francisco Bay.

It truly is a bay—and a great harbor—so it makes sense to call it a bay. Indeed, the New Oxford American Dictionary identifies the San Francisco Bay as an exemplar in its definition of the term “bay.”

From an economic point of view, the San Francisco Bay provides a world-class harbor on a rugged, foggy Northern California coastline that otherwise has few natural harbors and nothing nearly as large and accommodating of commercial water-born transport.

From an ecological point of view however, the San Francisco Bay might better be regarded as a vast estuarine system that includes the San Pablo Bay, the Suisun Bay, Richardson Bay, and the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta complex. Seen as an estuary, it is California’s biggest and most impressive place where fresh and salt water mix and mingle.

I like thinking about it as an estuary. As degraded as it is from an ecological perspective, it is still an important ecosystem in the lives of much of California’s wildlife. Its ecological importance to natural systems seems to me to be analogous to the the Bay Area’s current importance economically speaking today as the home to Silicon Valley and the birthplace of the tech revolution.

The Estuarian in me loves visiting San Francisco Bay. I feel happy just to be in the midst of the hustle and bustle of all the human and non-human activity there.

A very good way to see this estuary is to go paddling there, as I did with my nephew, John when we paddled on Richardson Bay from Sausalito not long ago.

If you don’t have a boat or are not inclined to paddle, there is another a great way to see this estuary/bay:

Ride a bike around it.

GGB on 8:24:16

Yesterday, to celebrate our 42nd wedding anniversary, my wife and I rode our bikes on the Tiburon/San Francisco bicycle loop which, in my opinion, is among the best bicycle rides in the world. (We were married on Angel Island in 1974, taking a ferry from the same terminal.)

We got an early start yesterday. Our journey began in Tiburon. We rode the $10 one-way Tiburon Ferry Express to San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal.

Most of our fellow passengers were commuters on their way to work. They settled in on the lower decks, many nursing coffees, staying attentive to their phones and/or laptop computers. Captivated by the virtual world displayed on their screens, the commuters appeared to be oblivious to nature’s splendor outside.

Sarah and I opted for the outdoors. Despite a nippy and chilling wind, we left warmth of the cozy cabins crammed with commuters and climbed a stairway to the wind-swept top deck.

The ferry crossed Raccoon Strait and zoomed past Angel and Alcatraz Islands. We took in spectacular views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges and the San Francisco skyline. The scenery called to mind a Langston Hughes’ children’s poem that my daughter used to recite when she was in preschool:

“I went to San Francisco,

I saw the bridges high,

Spun across the water

Like cobwebs in the sky.”

Upon arriving at the Ferry Building, the Peet’s Coffee Shop there proved an irresistible invitation to warm up. Sipping lattés, we watched ferries land and depart at the San Francisco Bay Ferry Terminal.

The previous Sunday we had ridden this same ride in the opposite direction. Everywhere it had been CROWDED with tourists. Riding across the bridge on weekends can be dicey. Too many visitors crowd the sidewalks. To relieve weekend sidewalk congestion the Bridge District opens the west sidewalk to bicycle traffic Saturdays and Sundays, but it still can be very busy, especially in the afternoons.

Yesterday by contrast we enjoyed the early start on a weekday. The San Francisco waterfront was comparatively quiet early on a Wednesday morning. The ride across the bridge Wednesday morning was uncrowded and pleasant even with bicyclists and pedestrians sharing the east sidewalk.

We started across the bridge under a leaden sky. As if on cue, the sun broke through and melted the gray fog away revealing bright cyan skies.

Once across the bridge, we zoomed down Alexander Avenue into sunny Sausalito, stopping at Dunphy Park for a thermos of piping hot tea made at home. We also some victuals purchased from Molly Stone’s Market in Sausalito as we passed by.

Thus fortified, we continued to make our way around Richardson Bay back to our car in Tiburon.

We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Servino’s Italian Restaurant, sharing a quiet table for two overlooking the ferry landing.

Rivendell & Ferry

Bike & ferry at the end of the ride

You don’t need to own a bike to do this ride. There are many bike rental outfits that can rent you wheels and maps and apps to guide you on this ride. One of them, Blazing Saddles, made this video. It will give you a good idea of what this ride is like.


A map of our day:

Russian River Estuary, August 22, 2016

It was quiet, cold, and foggy at the mouth of the Russian River this morning.

I paddled down to the estuary’s mouth to find it wide open. The tide had finished ebbing before I arrived. Cold, relatively clear briny water from the ocean had begun to make its way through the mouth and into the lower river.

8:22:16 Mouth is Open

Several Harbor Seals and Pelicans swam in a zone just inside the mouth where the waters from the ocean and river swirled, mixed and mingled. They were after fish.

Nearby, at the downstream shore of Penny Island, a small group of White Pelicans sat near a small group of Brown Pelicans. I’ve never seen the two species group so close to one another before.

Brown & White Pelicans Jenner 8:22:16

A half dozen of Turkey Vultures—including this immature individual—loitered along the southern shore of Penny Island. They preened and posed, sometimes stretching their wings out to be warmed by a sun not quite strong enough to break through the overcast.

TV Penny Island 8:22:16

A Great Blue Heron fished along the northern shore.

GBH Jenner 8:22:16

I paddled a short way upriver to a gravelly beach to stop for tea and lunch, hoping for something dramatic, interesting or unusual to happen.

Lunch on the Island 8:22:16

But nothing did. The sun tried to break through the coastal fog without much success. Birds commonly seen in the estuary flew or swam by, none close enough for a good photo.

After an hour I paddled back to the launch, lifted by kayak back on the car and headed home.


Sausalito with John

John at Sausalito 8:16:16

Fog and sun mix to make pleasant summer weather

Yesterday I took my nephew, John, out to paddle on Richardson Bay from Sausalito. It was good to catch up with him and introduce him to the pleasures of kayaking.

John is an engineer who is looking to relocate from Palo Alto to Oregon where housing costs aren’t so impossible. I hope he’s successful in his quest. It would be fun to visit him up there explore the Portland/Hood River area where he hopes to settle.

After our trip to a hot and humid East Coast to visit family it was great to be back in the Bay Area where cold summer fogs play tag with the golden summer sun.

A map of our paddle:

Estero de San Antonio

I’ve only paddled the Estero de San Antonio (ESA) once before—more than 32 years ago.

ESA is the little brother of the better-but-still-little-known Estero Americano immediately to the north. There is no public access point for the Estero de San Antonio; it is almost unknown to the paddling public.

Peddalin' Paddlin' Home 7:26:16

To paddle ESA you’ve got to know someone who knows someone who owns land out here to get permission to drive on a ranch to launch your boat.

George Curtis at Launch 7:26:16

George at our launch site on Cornett’s ranch.

Recently I met George Curtis, a semi-retired pharmacist who was born in nearby Santa Rosa. George knows a lot of people, among them one of the sheep ranchers in West Marin County, Chris Cornett. Cornett is a fifth generation sheep rancher running 1400 sheep on more than 800 acres along the Estero de San Antonio.

George invited me to paddle from Chris’s ranch to the coast. At first the going was tough, especially for George’s Mirage Drive-powered Hobie kayak. Algae growing in ESA fouled the propulsion fins on the keel making it inoperable. For the first stretch, George had to resort to paddling.

Gamely Paddling thru Algae 7:26:16

George gamely powered through the first couple of miles of the trip out to the coast.

Half an hour into the trip we made it to the Middle Road bridge where, soon, an algae-free path began to open in the middle of the channel.

The bridge at Middle Road 7:26:16

We passed the remnants of the railroad bridge that once spanned ESA on its way from Sausalito to Duncans Mills.

Railroad Bridge Ruins 7:26:16

There was wildlife to see along the way including this Great Horned Owl, one of three family members living in eucalyptus trees.

Great Horned Owl 7:26:16

Whitaker Bluff loomed above us as we neared the halfway point in our journey to the coast.

Whittaker Bluff 7:26:16

About halfway out to the coast we passed under the last bridge, the Valley Ford-Franklin School Road bridge.

Franklin School Road Bridge 7:26:16

From this point on, the hills got bigger and steeper making the paddle both more dramatic and more mysterious.

Coastal Hills 7:26:16

At times it seemed impossible that this small splendid ribbon of water could wind its way through such steep hills and find its way to the coast.

Way Home 7:26:16

Then, suddenly it air chilled and we knew we were close to our goal. We paddled past an abandoned seaside farm, just a few yards inland from the ocean.

Derelict Ranch Building near Coast 7:26:16

And made our way into the coastal fog,

Fog at Coast 7:26:16

and onto the beach. We shared a sandwich. We didn’t linger there long as it took us more time to make it out the the beach than either of us had anticipated.

At Bodega Bay Beach 7:26:16

The trip back was pleasant. A friendly breeze blew in from the coast. I had remembered to bring my sail which made some sections of the estuary effortless. George spotted a TV watching us from atop a post.

TV Watching Us! 7:26:16

We cut short the trip to avoid the algae-clogged last mile or so and pulled our kayaks out under the watchful eye of a Holstein bull.

Homestretch 7:26:16

Luckily, the bull didn’t seem perturbed by our activity and we got home in time to enjoy a beer at George’s place with his lovely wife, Shannon and her visiting parents. Our paddle took us almost four hours on the water and covered just a little more than 11 miles.

Here is a map of our adventure:


Dawn Paddle, Russian River: River Otter Attacks Heron

At dawn the usual gray overcast from the coast was absent. Camp was still and quiet. I got dressed and wheeled the canoe down to the river directly—without stopping for coffee.

Dawn Paddle 7:20:16

The River was glassy and warm enough to send mists curling aloft from the surface and toward the sky. Dawn is magical.

A female Mallard was breakfasting in algae growing on near the island downriver not far from camp.

Female Mallard, DMCC 7:20:16

A Great Blue Heron worked the nearby shallows .

Heron in Mist

It was watching me carefully as I took its photo. I got too close, and it flew away downriver. We encountered each other repeatedly—like the Heron, I was making my way downriver, too.

GBH 7:20:16

The Heron posed again and again.

GBH 7:20:16-2

Near the end of Freezeout Road the Heron stood along a heavily wooded section of the river bank. Suddenly, out from the cover of the brushy woods, a River Otter sprang out at the Heron and came within it whisker-length of biting its legs. The Heron leapt straight into the sky, as Herons do, and flew upriver, squawking loudly and repeatedly in its hoarse, raspy voice. It had had enough of me.

The River Otter’s attack happened suddenly and was over so quickly that I was not able to capture it on film.

Cute as they may be, River Otters are ferocious creatures. This was the first time I saw a River Otter attack a bird. I have read that they sometimes hunt together and take Brown Pelicans. There is video from the River Otter Ecology Project of a River Otter in a standoff with a Coyote on Tomales Bay.

As I returned to the beach in late morning, a bird not seen that often flew overhead and landed on the island near camp: a Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagle 7:20:16

The rewards of paddling early in the day are well worth the extra effort.

And, after a brisk morning’s paddle on the Russian River, the coffee tasted especially good.