"The Port of Oakland is now entirely committed to creating a [sustainable] salt marsh," assures Hutzel as surrounding brows begin furrow. "It will be slightly elevated and provide a much-needed nesting and feeding area for the shore birds." The periodic roar of planes taking off from the nearby Oakland airport drowns out Hutzel's voice, but she carries on with an unflappable, Olive Oyl-like mien that is useful for the school field trips she usually leads for Save the Bay's "Canoes in Sloughs" program.
"The San Francisco watershed is like a giant bathtub," explains Tara Reinertson, a science instructor for Save the Bay, who spreads out a vivid aerial photo. "It starts in the Shasta Mountains and follows the western slope of Sierra Nevada to the Tehachapi. The dirty, clogged-up bathtub drain is the San Francisco Bay." (The drain, Reinertson points out, also looks exactly like a mermaid with a pointy nose and a long, wind-swept braid.) The wild-bird call of several endangered clapper rails makes the crowd impatient to get on the water, but there are a couple of other facts that need presentation: There are 12 million people living in nine counties surrounding the bay. The population is expected to double by 2010. There are 50 sewage treatment plants surrounding the bay. Most rain drains directly into the water, untreated. The San Francisco airport wants to construct two large runways extending into the bay that, according to one self-professed environmentalist, will be five times the size of Angel Island.
Over a small bridge, a truckload of eight canoes is waiting. Even though bay fish should not be eaten regularly, several young fishermen stand between the cement blocks of the riprap embankment, shirts off, laughing as they bait their hooks. Flocks of tiny shore birds swoop in low over the beach. We are handed garbage collection bags, and Bob Birge -- a large, Hemingway-esque retired physicist -- is used for a canoeing safety lesson.
"If Bob's canoe flips over, and he falls in the water, he should not try to stand up in the mud or swim to shore," explains Reinertson. "He should just float there until Amy and I fling him back into his canoe." Birge's profile makes the potentiality seem highly unlikely, but the point is taken.
"Canoes smell fear," says Hutzel. "They can flip without any reason at all."
After her experience on Lake Chabot, Heidi Guttman looks pale with fear, but she and her biochemical engineer beau push off without mishap. The remaining canoes are lowered wobbling into the shallow murky water, and we paddle through into the slough. Two Canadian geese scream at our intrusion and fly low over our heads, settling a few feet to our right. In the canoes, mallards are nearly at eye level, making them look majestic as they bob for brunch.
We paddle through the wetlands, happening upon views that are more than a little discordant: On one side, marshland covered in cordgrass buzzing with short-billed dowitchers, marbled godwits, and dozens of transient birds, stopping over during their migratory flight to Alaska; on the other side, stacks of bright orange cargo containers, speeding cars, and the belching smokestack of Integrated Environmental Systems, where medical waste is incinerated around the clock. As we eat a floating lunch, setting is really just a matter of perspective: We could focus on experiencing birdsong, or heavy metals and dripping garbage.
As low tide forces us to push out from our lunch spot, Lloyd and Sheila Andres point to a large black bat ray, moving under our canoes like an underwater seraph. We reach into the water and pull up handfuls of silky-fine bay mud filled with broken clam shells and barnacle-encrusted twigs. A large turkey vulture settles on the ground as we paddle around the cast lines of growing numbers of fishermen. Someone crosses his fingers for the ray.
Like the "Canoes in Sloughs" bunch, the group gathered on Mike Manly's 50-foot yacht can't wait to get on the water. Opening Day isn't as significant for boatmen in California as it is for those on the East Coast or in Britain, where boating season is really limited by weather, but it's a rich hundred-year-plus tradition, and the Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association takes it seriously.
"There are 880,000 registered boats in the state of California," says George Neill, 1996 PICYA commander. "Eighty-five percent of those are on trailers. In San Francisco, 97 percent of the boats are 26 feet long or shorter. So, the wealthy yacht owner that people associate with Opening Day is really a minority."
This is the first year that non-PICYA members have been allowed to join in the expert-judged decorated-boat parade. Oddly enough, the invitation hasn't draw any wacky art-boats to the San Francisco Bay. In fact, the only unlikely official entries are from the Cal Sailing Club, and they're not decorated. Still, there are 169 boats registered for the parade and hundreds of others taking part in the blessing of the fleet in Raccoon Strait, and hundreds more -- including a couple of kayaks -- just tearing through the water for kicks.
It's a steel-gray afternoon, but the bay is calm. A bright red San Francisco fire boat leads the parade, shooting 80-foot plumes of water into the air. Power boats follow, decorated in this year's gold-rush theme, with water-powered wagon wheels and mining carts, blaring songs like "My Darlin' Clementine." Sailboats follow with fun-loving yacht-lovers dressed as saloon girls and frontiersmen. Roosevelt's Potomac, with on-board elevator and formidable smokestack, makes its stately way across the water while tiny power boats zip back and forth like gnats. A breathtaking schooner called the Hawaiian Chieftain shoots harmless but impressive-sounding cannons at near-by boats, while a hay scow and tugboat follow humbly in its wake. The bay is sprinkled with tiny triangular sails that appear, from a distance, to be peacefully gliding through the water, but closer inspection reveals near-90-degree angles, with starboard decks licking the whitecaps and laughing children hanging from the port sides.
As Neill points out, there is no speed limit on the bay, but there is a new law against tossing water balloons at other boats. Someone ruptured an eardrum recently.
"It's good to be on the water," says Neill, "in the wind and the sun. It's a healthful lifestyle."
As long as you don't drink it.
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By Silke Tudor