"And you know I'll be where my heart feels free, and my thoughts are free to fly.
Oh mama, please don't make me lie, I need my freedom, need my open sky." ~Railroad Earth

07 April 2014

Keller Beach 'round Point San Pablo to the Chevron Refinery

After our nature-drenched paddle on Saturday, Jeff and I stayed close to Berkeley and checked out the developed shoreline of Richmond in San Francisco Bay. After kayak polo we loaded ourselves + our wet butts into Tess (my blue Subaru) and drove 15 minutes up I-80 to Miller Knox Regional Shoreline. Some of my colleagues are working on a project to restore a pond in the park, so we went for a brief stroll around the pond to take photos. The pond used to be a coastal lagoon/inlet before a railroad was built along the entire shoreline, cutting off connection with the Bay and converting the tidal lagoon to a scummy pond.

After the stroll we parked at Keller Beach, just north of Miller Knox, to launch our boats. A park attendant pulled over in his truck to inform us that we were launching in a very inconvenient location. Rather than take his advice to launch further south, we stubbornly carried our boats down and up the large hill, including multiple flights of stairs. We do this partly for exercise, right?

Keller Beach, the launch site. Warning: you'll have to carry your boat up and down a huge hill if you decide to launch here... 
Armored shoreline railroad running along the front of Miller Knox Regional Shoreline 
We launched from the seaweed-covered beach and paddled north towards the Chevron Pier. In my mileage estimates the night before I assumed that we could paddle through/under the many piers extending from the Richmond shoreline. Alas, Chevron does not allow us to paddle underneath its 48" diameter oil pipeline, so we added a mile (and some stress) to our trip by detouring around the parked oil tankers at the end of the pier.

A barge passing a parked oil tanker. Golden Gate Bridge and Angel Island in the background.
Multiple signs warned us to stay 300 yards away from the pier.

Some machinery at the end of the Chevron Pier. 
Jeff checking out the oil tanker and miscellaneous equipment.
We eventually made it past the pier (which extends ~1 mile into the Bay) and under the Richmond Bridge. Since you can't paddle anywhere in California without seeing seals, we ran into (not literally) some seals propped up on Castro Rocks, underneath the bridge. 

Under the Richmond Bridge. You can't see it here, but we were greeted by a number of ornery seals who were basking on Castro Rocks. To the left of the photo is Red Rock Island, where I paddled a week earlier.
We stuck fairly close to shore on our way north, exploring a number of historic sites along the way, the first of which was this castle between Point Molate and Point Orient:

Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot (decommissioned) 
The castle was originally constructed as part of a winery - the largest winery in the U.S. prior to prohibition. During Prohibition the winery tried to survive on grape juice, but eventually had to shut down, along with a number of other industries along the Point Richmond shoreline. Subsequently, it opened as the Point Molate Naval Fuel Depot in 1941, and later closed in 1998. Point Molate Beach was opened to the public last October (2013) for the first time in 10 years. Currently there are major efforts to convert the castle into a casino, which would be very sad, indeed. Here's a sketch of it back in it's heyday as a winery:

Photo from http://www.pointrichmond.com/pointsanpablo/graphics/

Dilapidated buildings on the west shore of Point San Pablo.
More piers that have collapsed into the bay, leaving behind creosote piles that take ages to degrade.

Apologies for all the kayaking selfies recently. This is the easiest way to deal with having one camera in the group. Also note extensive salt stains on my arm...  
As we rounded Point San Pablo, the main Chevron Oil Refinery came into sight. 

The Chevron Oil Refinery: site of a major fire on August 6th 2012 that sent 15,000 people seeking treatment at local hospitals.
We had lunch nearby on a rebar-filled breakwater protecting a landfill (glamorous). This spot is pretty exposed, so strong winds kept us from a leisurely lunch. Lacking enough vegetables, we finished the hummus with a spoon and were on our way. The afternoon waves tend to pick up in SF Bay, and Sunday was no exception. We paddled hard into the wind until we again rounded Point San Pablo. Across from the Point are two islands (The Brothers), where a lighthouse constructed in 1853 still stands and is also managed as a bed and breakfast.

East Brother Light Station on Brothers Island: Built in 1853, the light house is still maintained and run as a Bed and Breakfast. Reservations start at $315/night!
The return trip was uneventful - I sang bad pop songs to keep up morale (or maybe kill it?). When we rounded the Chevron Pier, the waves had picked up and we tried to surf our way back into shore. We sadly loaded up our boats after the last paddle of our bingeyaking weekend and commenced post-kayaking-logistics-madness, which I won't bore you with but involves a couple hours of driving and washing and drying and showering.


Date: April 30, 2014
Time: ~ 4 hours?
Distance: ~15 miles

06 April 2014

Kayak Polo Uniforms

Last Sunday I brought Jeff with me to Kayak Polo practice at the Berkeley Marina (see this post for an explanation of the sport). Since it was a "rainy" weekend (see photo) everyone else cancelled the night before, and we ended up in a private class with coach Peter. Since there have been exactly zero updates to my kayak polo education/skills, I just wanted to share the ridiculousness/awesomeness of our outfits+gear.

Looooookin' good:


05 April 2014

Moon Snails, Loons, Seals, Sea Stars, and Fish Heads: Tomales Bay Never Disappoints.

Starved of salt water and kayaks longer than 10 ft, Colorado Jeff flew to San Francisco for a weekend of bingeyaking (my second favorite verb, after sponyaking). The bingeyaking was certainly not spontaneous, as we spent two weeks planning our routes and finding ways to squeeze as many miles into one weekend as possible.

Friday evening logistical madness (read this in fast-forward):
(1) Nena picks up foam blocks at undisclosed location in Oakland.
(2) Nena picks up Jeff from train station.
(3) Nena and Jeff visit Doug to deliver unlucky (I had no idea) lava rock from Hawaii and pick up kayaking gear that Doug generously let Jeff borrow for the weekend. 
(4) Doug gives Nena and Jeff final clue in the pre-kayak-logistics-scavenger-hunt: address of missing sea kayak.
(5) Nena and Jeff drive across Oakland to sketchily retrieve Orange Crush at other undisclosed location.
(6) Nena and Jeff purchase fruits and veggies for the whole weekend. 
(7) Nena and Jeff have a quick dinner at purple-noodle-place (I can't remember the name) and soon return to the Glen House for a brief night's sleep.
(8) Nena wakes up and makes homemade hummus. (Or did that happen at night? it's a blur)

Jeff and I packing up the car in rainy Berkeley on Saturday morning.
Okay that's enough of the 3rd person. We had planned to paddle Estero Americano (i.e. Americano Creek) from Valley Ford Road to its confluence at Bodega Bay. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was looking pprreeettyyy miserable for Saturday, with heavy rains guaranteeing that the mouth of the creek would be open (flowing directly into the ocean instead of ponding behind the beach). The tides and creek current would both be against us on the 6-mile return trip, and we worried we might never return. We reassessed on Saturday morning and ended up a bit further south, on Tomales Bay. 

Nick's Cove. Photo taken from the launch dock. $5 Parking

We arrived at Nick's Cove around 11am on Saturday morning (a leisurely start, to let the rain pass by). While it wasn't raining, the sky was grey and we had the launch site completely to ourselves. Nick's Cove is a remote little tourist destination with a restaurant serving locally-caught fish and cottages right on the water. The whole places is owned by one person, but the boat launch is public.  I've paddled on Tomales a couple times, but always starting from points much further south, so I was excited to check out the north end of the Bay. We paid $5 for parking, launched from the well-kept dock, and headed north. We hugged the east shore and explored the little bays and inlets as we made our way towards the mouth of Tomales Bay. Along the way we found some treasures, like this massive, perfectly-severed fish head. 10 points for the person who can tell me what kind of fish this is!

Monster fish head on the beach. No eyeballs left.
As we rounded Tom's Point, we encountered some beautiful windswept sand dunes. We spent a while between Tom's Point and Sand Point to take pictures of dunes and loons and seals and tule elk (er... cows):

Fuzzy sand dune

Huge sand dunes near Lawson's Landing

A loon! We were surprised to see one in the salt water.
Seals glaring.
Jeff saying "Hi Seals! Happy you're not sharks!"
Nena saying "Hi Cows! Sad you're not Tule Elk!"
We finally peeled ourselves away from the mammals and birds and paddled up to Sand Point, which marks one of the narrowest parts of Tomales Bay. The tide was going out rapidly, and we found ourselves riding the tide towards the mouth of the Bay (and the Pacific Ocean). Ocean waves propagate into the Bay, and with the ebbing tide this made for some tumultuous conditions. The tide was trying to escape and the waves were trying to enter, leaving churning/confused standing waves. We were later informed that this is prime breeding ground for great white sharks. Jeff went and played in the waves while I swiftly crossed the bay and searched for a lunch spot.

Jeff playing in the standing waves at the mouth of Tomales Bay
We realized the tide was ebbing at the same speed we were paddling, so after ~20 minutes of a kayak treadmill workout we decided to pull over for lunch and wait for the current to slow. While snacking on hummus, pita, cucumber, tomatoes, carrots, and fruit, we watched fisherman zip back and forth in little motorboats, emptying traps filled with massive crabs and other critters. Eventually, we returned to the tide treadmill and made it to a wider part of the bay, where the currents slowed. Here we took a few minutes to star gaze:

Red star fish! We also saw sea urchins and anemones.
We stopped briefly to look at these marvelous white cliffs, which offer many caves for exploring during low tide.


Jeff in cave
We stopped at Hog Island (also described in this awesome trip) in the middle of the Bay. One side of the island was carpeted with sea lions, so we gave them some space and instead found some MASSIVE snails, also known as Moon Snails. These snails are predatory, attacking most other shelled mollusks, including fellow moon snails! They envelope their prey and then bore through the shell, sucking out the insides. If I had known this before, I probably would not have put it on Big Purple... This one glommed right onto my boat:

Moon snail!
When we returned to Nick's Cove, we walked to a little shack at the end of the wharf. Smoke curled out of the chimney from a wood stove inside. The shack was humble (I guess most are...), with one large wooden table and some nautical decorations. The phone on the wall is used to order take-out from the restaurant onshore. I'll be back!


Date: April 29, 2014
Time: ~4.5 hours?
Distance: 11 miles

25 March 2014

Escape from San Quentin to Red Rock

Alice and I made reasonably spontaneous plans to paddle yesterday (no cancellations and only planned 2 days in advance - that's real progress). Since we were both tired of driving, we decided to meet in the middle, at San Quentin. Yes, San Quentin State Prison. There's an easy launch spot called Jailhouse Beach that's sheltered by the prison on one side and by the Richmond bridge on the other. There are only a few parking spots along the side of the road, but we had no trouble. It's 1-hour parking, but in Alice's last 3 visits she hasn't gotten a parking ticket. Shhhh!

Alice excited for a night on the water

We met at 4pm but chatted away 30 minutes because we both had some big life updates. At 4:30 we brought my boat (Big Purple always goes first since she's quite heavy - it's all muscle) and set it on the wide, flat beach. The waves were calm, so we set her down and headed back up the stairs. We scampered back with Alice's little boat a few minutes later to a scene of confusion on the beach. Big purple was gleefully slipping down the beach, filling with wave after wave of water. Some dog walkers were frantically grabbing at deck lines and toggles, trying to drag the increasingly heavy boat up the beach.

Landed at Red Rock

For a moment I considered abandoning ship [kayak] and fleeing in embarrassment. Instead I ran up, claimed my novice mistake, and wrestled her to safety. I sheepishly put on my drenched, sandy sprayskirt and PFD. Never leave your boat on wet sand, even if only for 3 minutes!

Embarrassing situation complete, we spent the typical 10 minutes trying to seal Alice's cheap hatch cover and finally launched into the little waves - much to the amusement of our canine audience.


We paddled east along the south side of the Richmond Bridge. Never have I felt less confident about the bridge's ability to withstand an earthquake. It looks like something I would have built with tinker toys at age 10: as tall as possible without much regard for strength. According to Wikipedia, the bridge was built in 1956 and retrofitted between 2001 and 2005 to withstand a 7.5 magnitude earthquake on the Hayward Fault and 8.3 on the San Andreas Fault. [I also read that the third lane of the bridge was used to pump water to Marin in 1977, during one of its worst droughts in history!] Anyways, I haven't paddled along a major highway before so the possibility of a car flying off the road and land 200 feet below was new and exciting. The roar of the traffic made it hard to chat though.

We arrived at Red Rock about an hour later. Red Rock is a completely undeveloped island in the middle of the Bay - and the only privately owned one. Apparently it used to be mined for manganese. It was purchased in 1964 for $50K and is now for sale for $5M (no one wants to pay buy it). Based on this interview, the owner thinks it's a very ugly island. We spent some time exploring and taking pictures, and I disagree. Alice made it 90% around before she reached an impassible headland. The boundaries of 3 counties converge on this rock, so Alice was in Contra Costa, Marin, and San Francisco Counties in the span of a few minutes.

The shores of Red Rock


Red Rock in the background

On the way back we managed to avoid a ferry and monstrous shipping barge. I probably wouldn't choose this paddle again any time soon because it requires passing one of the two main shipping channels in SF Bay, and big boats have little regard for kayakers. Sunday was a good choice since there was very little boat traffic.

Returning to San Quentin at Sunset.

The wind had picked up on our return, and the current was still drawing us towards the bridge. I'm quite sore as I write this post, but excited to be using kayaking muscles again :). We aimed for San Quentin, arriving just as the sun was setting behind Mount Tam. When we realized the guards in the towers were watching us paddle along the prison seawall, we tried to look less sketchy by taking off our sunglasses.

I leave you with some fun facts about San Quentin that distracted me from finishing this post last night:

Fun facts about San Quentin:
- Oldest prison in CA (1852), all men
- California's only death row: 700+ men on death row. Largest in western hemisphere.
- Apparently it has hosted concerts for the prisoners (Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Metallica)
- It is currently at 137% of capacity

Sun hiding behind Mount Tam. Guard tower watching us closely

San Quentin State Prison

Just escaped from San Quentin! Paddle fast!
Date: Sunday March 23rd, 2014
Time: ~ 2.5 hours
Distance: ~ 7 miles


Had to go with the old USGS map because it labels San Quentin so prominently!

02 March 2014

Kayak Polo: A Lesson in Clumsy

I've always loved the graceful aspects of kayaking: wake-less drifting, a perfectly-carved turn, an effortless roll, a silent lake. Kayak polo throws elegance out the window in favor of aggression, throwing, tackling, and yelling. But it's different, it's fun, and I'm hoping to stick with it.

A few weeks ago I stumbled across a Berkeley Kayak Polo Meet-up group. Okay, I didn't stumble - Google is just good at advertising. It seemed too good to be true: young kayakers, $5, all gear included (makes logistics much simpler), 10 minutes from my apartment (a rarity in this crowded/spread out Bay), and not already filled to capacity (also unusual for outdoorsy meet-up groups). The sessions are run by the Bay Area Kayak Polo Club (BAKPC) and meet at the Berkeley Marina, in this sheltered area:

The playing field. The goals are the tall floating structures on either end.
Kayak Polo (also called Canoe Polo, which confuses me very much and can be blamed on the British) is a young sport, with the first world championship taking place in 2009. The game is like most polo sports: two opposing teams try to throw a ball into a net on either end of a swimming pool or open water area (in this case, the Berkeley Marina). It's most popular/competitive in Europe. Interestingly enough, the meet-ups have been attended by an international crowd: a French couple, a Belgian guy (see Stijn in previous Berkeley kayaking post), a British guy, a Ukrainian guy and his daughter, and other accents I didn't recognize.

The beginner practice starts at 8:30 am and ends around 10:30, when the advanced game begins. There's really no better way to wake up at 9am on a Sunday morning than to roll your kayak in the frigid Bay waters! It's better than coffee.

The meeting spot.
Since I already know how to paddle and roll, the hardest part is throwing the ball (soccer-ball-sized). Since your lower body is fixed in the boat, all momentum must come from torso rotation, arms, and wrists. My initial attempts have been pitiful. You also have to make sure your boat is pointed in the direction of the throw, or else it's almost impossible to throw it more than 4 feet.  If you want to turn your boat while in possession of the ball, you "chicken wing," which involves holding the ball under your elbow while attempting to turn the boat with your paddle. It's all very messy and awkward because you only have 5 seconds before losing possession. An alternative is to dribble the ball, which involves tossing it few feet ahead of the boat (out of arms reach), taking a few quick paddle strokes, picking it up, and tossing it ahead again (repeat...).  Once competition increases, tackling (pushing someone over) becomes permitted. I haven't mentioned this yet, but everyone wears a helmet with a metal face guard - a necessity with all the paddle flailing and collisions.

Anyways, I hope to keep attending when I can (practice only happens every other weekend), and accepting the fact that it's going to take some real work to get good at this kind of kayaking! My friend Jeff (see previous Colorado post) will be visiting during the next practice, and he's much better in a whitewater boat so I'm sure everyone will be impressed!

23 February 2014

"Wringing" the New Year with the King Tides

[This post has been in draft form for 1.5 months, so I figured it was time to accept its imperfections and wrap it up. Lindsey, my fellow king-tide tour-guide also wrote a post, available here]

Choose inundation over inebriation** and celebrate King Tides because it's much more exciting than celebrating the New Year. Why? [Thanks to Lindsey for helping brainstorm this list]
  1. The party don't stop: They happen for 3 days, so you can "Cheers!" and wish everyone a HAPPY KING TIDE at least 3 times. And since they happen in different places at different times, you can chase the tide and have that exciting moment multiple times in a day.
  2. The party don't stop #2: Another good reason to drink at the Embarcadero 
  3. Play; Splashing in puddles an getting hit by waves in normally dry places.
  4. Excitement: Fleeing men in golf carts
  5. See the future: See what the world will look like every day with sea level rise. 
  6. And, because this is a kayaking blog... Expanded kayaking territory. As the water rises, it moves into nearby low-lying areas that are not normally wet, creating new spaces for kayakers to explore. 
** A wonderful expression coined by James Jackson

What are King Tides?
King Tides are the most extreme astronomical* tides that occur every year. A couple times per year, the earth, moon, and sun align in a way that creates the largest tide range. These days it's common for people to compare King Tides to sea level rise. The high tides that we see during the 2013 King Tides will likely happen on a daily basis in ~50 years (and the future King Tides would be even higher!). This year I decided to visit the coast during the King Tides so I could get a sense of what sea level rise might look like (on a good day, without storms).

* Sometimes non-astronomical forces, like weather/waves/storm, can raise tide levels for short periods of time. These changes are less predictable, while King Tides are regular and predictable.

Lindsey, Doug, James, and Barry were my tide-buddies for this year's celebration.

King Tides at the San Francisco Embarcadero (12/31/2013)
On the morning of New Years Eve Lindsey and I snuck out of the office and walked a half mile to the Embarcadero waterfront in San Francisco. The king tide was scheduled for 9:48 am (a 7.07 foot tide). We went to Pier 14, between the Ferry Building and the Bay Bridge, where the King Tides have flooded the Embarcadero in the past. Here are some photos:

Stairwell flooded, and waves breaking onto the sidewalk.

A video of waves lapping over the Embarcadero:


We (Lindsey, Barry, and I) also returned later at the very lowest tide of the day (during King Tides, the lowest tides get very low, so it's a great time to go tide-pooling!). We ran into one of Barry's friends who promptly offered me and Lindsey a ride on his bike-taxi to the Embarcadero. We celebrated the low tide with a six pack of beers, and cheers-ed! at 4:42 pm, when the tide hit -1.35 feet. Here's one of many low-high comparison photos we took:

Extreme low tide:


Extreme high tide:


And the view of San Francisco at sunset wasn't so bad either:


King Tides at Beach Boulevard in Pacifica, CA (1/1/2014)
The next day, Lindsey and I picked up James and Doug for our first King Tide tour of 2014. Our first stop was Beach Boulevard, CA. We also decided to form a band called the King Tide Kids. Cover album:

The crew: James, Doug, Lindsey, and Nena


No beach at high tide, with waves crashing on the massive revetment
We watched a group of kids standing at the edge of the railing daring each other to stay when big waves crashed over the seawall. 
Big waves rolling under the Beach Boulevard Pier

King Tides in Redwood City (1/1/2014)
Our final stops were in Redwood City, where we discovered a dock completely bent out of shape by the extreme high tide:


We (ok, I) decided to jump this fence to get a better view of the Bay at the end of the levee. Minutes later a small golf cart came bumbling along, catching up with us when we finally reached the view point. Two very angry men questioned us: "What was going through your mind when you walked past the 'No Trespassing' sign?" Thankfully Lindsey and Doug fielded the questions while I carefully avoided eye contact.


To learn more, and see much more dramatic photos, check out the California King Tides Initiative!