"All good things are wild and free." --Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Redwoods, abandoned fairgrounds, and the Russian River

This summer we went camping with a whole posse of children and parents at a funky campground in Guerneville, two hours north of San Francisco, on the banks of the Russian River. I had said to my friends, "Come on, let's check out this campsite I've never been to!"

Have I mentioned how hard it is to find a campground that takes a large group? Throw in the criteria of no motorhomes, and it's really hard.

"I need to warn you," the campground proprietor said over the phone, "this can be a party place on the weekend."

"Our little kids can make a racket too," I assured the gentleman.

Let the good times roll.

The campsite was full of cool shade and green trees, and there was even a creek, but it was almost a deal breaker when I nearly pitched my tent on a human turd, or maybe it was a dog turd. My sweet husband scooped the offal into a blackberry bush.

We pitched our tents at a campground that had two enormous dogs--one of them a mastiff with a drippy eye and two big swinging balls--who seemed highly attracted to our campsite. Small children with peanut butter breath and messy faces did not help. Imagine mothers snatching up their young, standing their ground, all hotdogs and children held high.

This not-to-be-named campground wasn't all that bad; after all, they did accommodate our large group of rocking toddlers. We used an 8-person tent as a play room and a chill room. Though the campground was noisy with revelers on Saturday night, all kids slept well and it was quiet as could be on Sunday.

Of interesting note, the bathroom was situated in an adjoining abandoned fairground, something both cool and creepy. As I stepped out of the sad shower in a dilapidated room with a broken lock, and smelled the ripe mushroom scent of mold, it reminded me of a squat except that I was paying to stay there.
Credit: wikipedia

If I could party all night without a kid, this would be the campground to go to. The shirtless proprietor, a friendly guy who whistled his dogs away from us numerous times, even surprised us with a great show one evening, visiting our group to breathe fire. You should've seen the toddlers' mouths drop open.

Russian River
Johnson's Beach in its less crowded days
Russian River was a short walk from the campground, and every kid loved splashing in that cool water, and didn't care one fig about having to tread through major algal scum along the shore. I'm talking about Johnson's Beach.

Cheap ice cream and beer were for sale, as were hamburgers and pretzels and boxed candy. People dominated the beach--there were more big pasty-white bodies rolling around on the rocky beach than you could shake a stick at. Skinny guys smoked weed across the river, and tunes from a boombox floated downstream. Canoes and kayaks were available for hire, but it looked like a traffic jam on the water. My word, it was as American summer scene.

My recommendation is to not swim where the hullabaloo is, meaning the main beach close to downtown Guerneville (a dichotomous place that is both quaint and seedy). Instead, stake out a quieter spot upriver and bring food and water.

Just upriver of downtown

Armstrong Redwoods Park 
Armstrong Park
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve is a short drive from downtown Guerneville, and filled with all kinds of trails on its 805 acres. I must note the lovely that a lumberman preserved this place in the late 1800s.

Sequoia semperivens
There are numerous habitats in the park, and in a few hours we went from redwoods, with banana slugs slipping through the fernyundergrowth, to mixed evergreens and Doug firs, where wood peckers rat-a-tatted the trees, to oak woodlands and native grasslands on the sunniest ridges.

Kids love hugging trees, and shrieking over banana slugs. (I remember being urged to lick a banana slug when I was a youngster, and I will not be passing on that uselessness.)

Of final note, the park's visitor store had some fantastic museum displays, and was a great place to bring a child. If you're a sucker like me, you'll leave with books about redwoods, stickers, and maybe even a T-shirt or a patch.
Credit: lawhaha.com

Useful Links
Guerneville's Visitor Site
Armstrong State Park--official site

Armstrong Park, East Ridge Trail
When a hanky doubles as a hat
Guerneville to Armstrong State Park

Friday, September 14, 2012

Map of Heron's Head Park for the walk on 9/15/2012

This should actually read "Heron's Head Park & India Basin Playground" as we're checking out both places, connected by a trail along the water's edge. 

The walk is from 10 am to noon, but flexible; come and go as you please. 

A clean port-o-pottie is near the EcoCenter building at Heron's Head.  

No need to print this--I've got you covered with copies already made. 

--Jess  :-)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Day on the Southern Trails of McLaren Park

            To experience a hint of what San Francisco was like before it became a vibrant city—hills covered in wild grass, raptors soaring overhead, butterflies alighting on lupines—venture to the rarely-trodden southeast corner where you’ll find McLaren Park with its magnificent views and wildlife. 

The lovely southern side of McLaren Park

        John McLaren Park’s three hundred and seventeen acres make it the second largest park in San Francisco after Golden Gate Park, and it is far less impacted by human touch. Mansell Avenue bisects the park into two halves: a wild and wooly southern side, and a far more groomed and irrigated northern side. Both sides have virtues and should be explored, but the southern side is the gem, the wild-at-heart.

Adventure Begins on Leland Avenue
            Start by taking the Third Street Light Rail from downtown San Francisco, disembarking at Leland Avenue and San Bruno Street in Visitacion Valley. Leland Avenue has a funky selection of neighborhood stores, a gorgeous library, and a post office. Stock-up at the Latin bodegas like Leland Avenue Market and Casa Maria, where you will find pyramids of fruit, delicious queso fresco (fresh cheese), homemade pico de gallo salsa, tamales and sandwiches; or sample a huge plate of Chinese noodles at G and L Bakery; or buy a sizeable mojado burrito at El Buen Sabor Taqueria; or drink your morning coffee at Eat Drink Play. For the best experience, bring sun block, hiking shoes, snacks, a printed map, and water. Coming soon is Eire Trea, a combination Eritrean and Irish place. 

Up the Visitacion Valley Greenway
Herb Garden in Greenway
            When you’re ready to ramble, start at the Hans Schiller Plaza on Leland Avenue, which marks the beginning of the Visitacion Valley Greenway, an award-winning series of small parks that are perhaps the best in San Francisco. There are port-o-potties at the plaza, but a block up Leland the remodeled library has brand-new bathroom facilities. 

           Walk your way through the Greenway, moving uphill through the Community Garden with its path bordered by flowers, the Herb Garden in bloom with lavender and a hillside of roses, the Children’s Play Garden with its grassy field and playground, the Agriculture Garden with rosemary pressing against the fence, and finally the Native Plant Garden with the most impressive amount of lupine flowers I have ever seen. 

              You will emerge on Tioga Avenue at the northernmost point of the Greenway. Walk to the parallel street, Wilde Avenue. Where Wilde intersects with Ervine Street, one block to the west, you will find one of the most sublime and humble entrances to McLaren Park.

The Southern Trails of McLaren Park

My favorite route begins where Wilde Avenue meets Ervine Street and dead-ends at McLaren Park. You have two choices: go up the meandering concrete path to the defunct observation tower where Monterey cypress trees grow at the top of the hill, or go to the end of Ervine Street and take a right turn onto a narrow dirt trail that traverses the southern flank of the hill. (Note: If you have a stroller or a small child, you might choose the concrete trail, as the dirt trail is uneven and has a steep pitch.)

The views are beautiful from either trail—there is the spectacular geography of southeastern San Francisco with its valleys and hills, like Bayview Hill, the sleeping giant of San Bruno Mountain to the south, the peaks along the East Bay, and Mount Diablo to the east. Wind and moisture funnels down Geneva Avenue, which cuts between McLaren Park and San Bruno Mountains, making phenomenal low-cloud patterns. 

At sunrise the San Francisco Bay turns golden and a stream of seagulls ride the airwaves; at sunset sinuous tongues of fog creep in from the Pacific. Many a night I’ve sat with friends watching Venus chase the sun down, or the moon rise over Bayview Hill, with stars winking overhead.

Explore the dirt trails running along the southern sides of McLaren Park, through grassland and groves of blue gum eucalyptus and Monterey pine. Find the wide east-west fire road on the far side of Visitacion Avenue, a street that runs north-south. The fire road starts almost directly across from Visitacion Valley Middle School, and take it all the way to the Excelsior where you can find a beautiful little community garden and soccer fields.   

Of important note is Philosopher’sWay, a new series of trails in the park with granite markers pointing directions, and some plaques with environmental quotes engraved on them. 

You can find some of the Philosopher’s Way trail system leading off of the fire road. There is a controversial plan to have a disc golf course in this area, which might impact hiking, especially with children. Please research this, form your opinion, and speak up.

            In the many years I’ve wandered around McLaren Park, I have never encountered a coyote, but my husband has seen them twice on evening jogs. Common sense tells us to leave wildlife alone, and the same respect and distance should be followed in a city park. 

          According to Friends of McLaren Park, there are more wild birds than any other animal here. Keep an observant eye out for falcons, hawks, kestrels, and if you are really lucky, a great horned owl (my husband saw one once; me, never—I must be looking at my shoes), especially if you visit in the late fall to early winter during migration season. 

            The bird list on the Friends of McLaren Park shows at least three different species of hummingbird, warbler, flycatcher, gull, hawk, sparrow, heron, and blackbird in the park (though some only in the riparian areas on the north side). Winning combinations of luck, observance, and silence might allow one glimpses of wild animals like raccoons, skunks, grey fox, and opossums, all who have been noted as living in grasslands and woody areas of the park; yet the animals I’ve seen in McLaren Park by and large, when I see them, are human and dog.

Casey Allen discussing flora
            McLaren was originally grasslands and scrub, according to Casey Allen, president of the Yerba Buena Chapter for the California Native Plant Society, on a recent walk. There are quite a few native species in McLaren Park, according to Allen, such as owl’s clover, coast live oak, purple needlegrass, lupines, and coyote brush. Coast buckwheat, the host plant for the larval stage of the Green Hairstreak butterfly, is one of the most important natives; a good amount of it grows alongside the paved trail leading uphill from Ervine and Wilde.

            The Monterey pines and eucalyptus are invasive species, as well as wild radish, French broom, ice plant, acacia, poison hemlock, Siberian grasses, and many more. Invasive species can easily be found along the roadsides from the “edge effect,” where passing cars help transport seeds from the swirling air. Some of the edible non-natives include wild mustard, wild radish, and Himalayan blackberry. 

           Casey Allen has the good idea that two goals can be accomplished (eradication and nourishment) if we could devise recipes for edible harvests of the invasive plants.

Other Features
Jerry Day Festival in August
            There is much to explore in this park, so the following is a partial list of possible destinations: Herz Playground and Coffman Pool, a phenomenal pool with cathedral ceilings and a glass wall (Visitacion and Hahn Streets); Yosemite Marsh, the start of a creek that is now covered by homes and streets; the 80 foot blue water tower with views of the Pacific on a clear day; the reservoir for dog swimming; McNab Lake with nesting ducks and coots, and the adjoining Louis Sutter Playground (University and Woolsey Streets); tennis and basketball courts (along Mansell); Jerry Garcia Amphitheater, an impressive hemisphere with hints of Greek architecture, and a public restroom in a nestle of eucalyptus trees and blackberry bushes; and the peace signs dug into the earth on a northwestern knoll, relatively close to the spiral labyrinth on top of a hill that looks over downtown, Mount Tamalpais, and points north.

Trail’s End
            End your day-hike where you began—making your way back to Leland Avenue for another chance to buy a mojado burrito or some homemade Chinese food that you passed up earlier in your eagerness to enter McLaren Park. Your dogs will be barking (those holding you up), and you’ll feel accomplished for having explored part of San Francisco that still feels rural and wild.

Note about Urban Hikes in General
            Living in a city makes me crave the outdoors, and the more remote, the better, I tend to think. Give me flowers and fields, forests and craggy hills, and all the while the comfort that I’m close to any convenience. However an urban hike is still in a city and subject to any of a city’s problems. For this reason, I recommend:
--Hiking with another adult.
--Carrying a cell phone.
--If you have trepidation, follow your intuition and leave the hike for another day.
Fire road left, trail right

Relevant Websites
Note: This article was published in Visionary: A Journal of San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley, summer 2012. A shorter version of this article was first published in 52Days.com, October 2009.

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Monday, September 10, 2012

A few tips for hiking with kids

The Tots and Plans blog first published this article of mine as a guest post. 


I once asked a friend what her best childhood memories were, and she replied, "Taking trips around the state with my family." I agree, and I hope one day my daughter looks back with fondness on the walks we've taken. 
As a lover of the outdoors but also a somewhat lazy gal who doesn't like to carry more than necessary, I have compiled a list of what I think are essentials for any hike with a child of any age. With things on hand that are listed below, my kid and I could explore the outdoors anywhere.

Seven Tips for Hiking with Kids of All Ages

1. Cut a sheet in half and bring it as a picnic blanket. It can get filthy and stained on your hike, but who cares since you can wash it later.

2. Water and snacks, of course. Great foods that don't need to be kept cool for a day hike include nuts, raisins, fruit with skin to peel, celery sticks, dried fruit, dried seaweed, full sized carrots, rice cakes, salami and cheese. A friend suggested frozen blueberries. Another friend suggested freezing half a bottle of water overnight, then filling it up with fresh water before setting out.

3. Sun protection in whatever form you like best. I wear a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. My kid refuses to wear a hat, but she accepts a colorful handkerchief folded in half and worn like a babushka.

4. Comfortable shoes. This doesn't mean big boots with major ankle support, though some people swear by it. My husband and I walked a pilgrimage trail for days across Spain in running sneakers, but these days we wear synthetic sandals, like Tevas, for day hikes as they keep my feet cool.

5. A small garbage bag. Pack it in, pack it out, is the philosophy, whether it be orange peels or gum wrappers. Perhaps more importantly, we can instill in children the idea that throwing trash on the ground is lame. There are many, many times I wish I had brought a garbage bag to pick up other people's litter.

6. A handkerchief. Instead of disposable napkins, a handkerchief works great to wipe snot or drool. It also doubles as a hat (see tip #3).

7. A pocketknife. If you or your partner don't own one, they are one of the most useful things to carry on your person. My husband has a Leatherman on his belt, and he's constantly using it to open wine bottles, cut cheese and more. You can use your handy handkerchief to clean it (see tip #6).

Three Tips for Hiking with Babies
Babyhood is a great time for hiking-take advantage of the fact your kid is still small enough to be carried. Soon you won't be able to go far at all. Taking a baby on a three mile hike on a weekend afternoon can be the best date you and your partner have had in a while. Here are a few tips to make a walking adventure extra smooth.

1. A baby backpack with an internal frame gives ventilation for you and the baby, as opposed to a long piece of cloth or a traditional baby carrier, which keeps the baby right up against your hot, sweaty body. You can also duct tape or tie a small umbrella to a baby backpack, providing ample shade.

2. Carry two or three extra diapers, and a bag to carry the dirty ones in.

3. Using dental floss or string, attach little toys to the top of the baby backpack.

Three Tips for Hiking with Toddlers 
1. Learn a version of "The Three Little Pigs," "Goldilocks" or some legend you like. When your toddler gets crabby and needs to be carried, a dramatic rendition of a story will captivate him or her for the span of at least half a mile. Believe me, this works, but you may need to make loud, funny voices.

2. Choose a short hike. You can't get too far with a toddler. (If you can get far, tell me how you do it.)

3. Pack light but essential. When your toddler gets tired, you'll have a thirty pound backpack of live child to carry back to the starting point. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Group Hike at Heron's Head--Saturday, September 15th, 2012

From the air, this park looks like a bird's head, and so it was named after the heron. Our next group walk is Saturday, September 15th at Heron's Head Park in southeast San Francisco. Please join, and bring your kids!
Heron's Head

Meet at 10 o'clock by the Eco Center, the off-the-grid building next to the parking lot at Cargo Way and Jennings Street. I will distribute maps showing where we'll have our picnic lunch, and include a trail to India Basin, which is a great flat walk for adults, older children, and babies that can be carried. The walk ends whenever you want, but I will be finished around noon.

This walk is stroller friendly, breastfeeding friendly, free, and public. I recommend bringing a picnic blanket and something to share. The route is flat and easy.

Please spread the word. The more people who know about phenomenal places like Heron's Head--once destined to be a shipping terminal but now a protected Salt Marsh--the sooner great environmental changes will happen in our city (like the Blue Greenway, a 13-mile corridor that will connect parks like this one to the rest of the city by bicycle and pedestrian paths).

Also, it's just fun to hang out with new and familiar faces, and let the kids play the old fashioned way, under the sunshine, in the fresh air.



The EcoCenter and Literacy for Environmental Justice Websitea site that is not to be missed

Port of San Francisco's Web Page about Heron's Head Parkwith a link to a bird field guide specifically for Heron's Head Park

Bay Natives, a great native plant nursery, is right across the street from the EcoCenter

Blue Greenway, a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly corridor that will connect Heron's Head and other waterfront parks in the city

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Pier 94 Marshland: sea lions, pickleweed, and a tenuous environment

With some trepidation and a whole lot of doubt, my friends, my daughter, and I drove down the most industrial street in San Francisco, called Amador Street, in the Hunter's Point / Bayview neighborhood....
looking for Pier 94

There couldn't be marshland down here! We rolled past a massive abandoned silo-looking building, a rendering plant (or something nasty) that stank to high heaven, and enormous piles of aggregate for making concrete.
Big Industrial Momma, what were you in times past?
Now, I'm a lady fascinated with industrial plants, and abandoned ones are even more cool, but when I'm on a search for marshland, the industrial sector leaves me doubtful.
Cranes to inspire (or scare) the children
Flowering Pickleweed

Yet Pier 94 was at the end of Amador, its entrance marked by a lone port-o-potty and a printed placard posted at the far end of the most unlikely looking parking lot.

Greenery spread for acres beyond the chain-link fence, and beyond that was the shoreline with cormorants, pelicans, gulls, and even one beautiful sea lion.

It is a tidal marsh that has become protected in large part by the Port of San Francisco (see their link here).
The Pier 94 Marshland is a gorgeous five or so acres surrounded by the heart of industry in San Francisco.

One day it will be part of a connected series of green spaces along the perimeter of the city, the Blue Greenway.

Right now, Pier 94 could use some visitors and attention. 

According to the fellow from Audubon Society who my husband and I met last Saturday morning, during the Audubon Society's monthly cleanup and caretaking of this site, this was a dump of flotsam and jetsam a some years ago.  Even last Saturday, he hauled a soggy mattress away.

I wandered around with my garbage bag and my kid, but there was barely any trash. Instead I saw pickleweed galore, flowers, and birds. I saw mud and slime, and lots of rocks.

Then my daughter and I sat at the water's edge and a sea lion poked its head out of the water and watched us for a minute. We were very impressed! 

Pelican and gulls
Just going out to Pier 94 and acquainting yourself with the marshland restoration situation in San Francisco is great. Nobody has to "do" anything, as sometimes the best action is to just appreciate something.

I'm starting to realize I should always carry a plastic bag to pick up trash when I hike with my kid. It's good practice, so I recommend it to you too, whether you come here or elsewhere.

The first Saturday of the month is a volunteer workday. To get involved with restoration, see this page on the Audubon website. You could always just show up at 9 in the morning.

My husband and I came with our toddler. While Marshall worked on digging up invasive weeds,  the kid and I did what we could, which wasn't much! I picked up trash but mostly ogled at the wildlife juxtaposed with the incredible man-made structures.
Homo sapiens, mom and daughter
Look for this sign!

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