Monday, April 5, 2021

Take These Broken Wings

Photo by Tom Muehleisen

A study published in the journal Science in 2019 found that bird populations in North America have taken a nosedive in the last 50 years. By crunching data from citizen scientist counts and surveys, scientists found that there are three billion fewer birds than there were in 1970.

One species that has taken a heavy hit is the tricolored blackbird, whose population has plummeted from several million in the mid-19th century to less than 180,000 today, according to Audubon California. In response to the population crash, a band of individuals and conservation organizations are finding creative ways to bring this bird back from the brink.

Learn more in my article for Bay Area Monitor about what's being done to save this California bird.

 


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Nourishing Alameda's Encinal Beach

Photo by Richard Bangert

It's not an easy place to find for non-locals like me, but find it I did.

A short walk on the San Francisco Bay Trail brought me to a good spot to view the only custom-built haul out designed for harbor seals in the world, and the only spot in the East Bay between Yerba Buena Island and Newark where they haul out.

They like it. When we humans were social distancing, the Alameda Point Harbor Seal Monitors counted 86 seals piled onto the 500-square-foot raft on December 14. That's a lot of seals.

Read about it in Estuary News here.



Thursday, February 4, 2021

Forging Layered Trails of History

When I'm hiking on a trail steeped in history, I like to think of the history as layers beneath my feet.

I contemplate the people who lived there along with the corresponding natural and cultural histories, and then with my imagination place them in layers and set them in motion all at once. 

Read my latest in the Bay Area Monitor, Forging Layered Trails of History, that highlights the San Francisco Bay Trail in Richmond, Big Basin Redwood State Park, and Patwino Worrtla Kodoi Dihi.

Patwino Worrtla Kodoi Dihi
by Aleta George


Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Slow Bells Could Not Prevent Ferry Disaster

Today’s ferryboat commuters and recreational passengers can relax and enjoy the expansive views of the San Francisco Bay, trusting that technology will keep them safe from collision with other vessels.

Photo by Aleta George
In addition to traveling in designated lanes, modern ferryboat captains can rely on radar, electronic chart plotters, an automatic identification system, and backup from the U.S. Coast Guard. “These safeguards reduce chances of a collision to as close to zero as you’re going to get,” says Jim Swindler, deputy general manager of the ferry division of Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.

These technologies were absent during the ferryboat heyday when as many as 25 ferry companies crisscrossed the bay transporting people, goods, livestock, and even railroad cars. From the 1850s until the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges were built, a captain relied on a compass and his senses in fair or foul weather, skills that proved inadequate to prevent the worst ferryboat collision on the San Francisco Bay.

The Sausalito, Sausalito Historical Society
On Saturday, November 30, 1901, in tule fog denser than anyone remembered having seen, the 1766-ton Sausalito left its Marin County slip 90 minutes after sunset. Five minutes later, the 692-ton, jewel-box San Rafael cast off from San Francisco with an unusually large number of children who had been to the matinees.

Steaming against a strong ebb tide, the captains of the Sausalito and San Rafael plowed their usual routes across the bay under slow bells, a go-easy signal rung from a device on the bridge known as an engine order telegraph that communicated the desired speed of a vessel to the engine room. By necessity, captains and their crews were fluent in the language of bells, and knew the meaning of whistles blasted from other vessels that told of a boat’s location and a pilot’s intentions.

The San Rafael, James Bard, 1877

The pilothouses were dark as was the custom at night, and crew members were stationed on deck, their ears strained to hear other vessels. Somewhere near Alcatraz Island, with both ferries blasting their whistles, the Sausalito and San Rafael were upon each other. Both ferries ordered three reverse bells, but it was too late. The Sausalito rammed into the side of the San Rafael, fatally pinning a waiter in the restaurant beneath crushed timber. Another passenger, who lost an ear from a felled post, later said he’d still have two ears if he had been in the bar where he belonged.

The crews acted quickly. They tied the boats together and laid a plank so that the passengers on the sinking San Rafael could board the Sausalito. During the 20-minute rescue, the majority of the 250 passengers on the keeling boat stepped safely onto the Sausalito, but about eighty souls fell into the icy water, either upon impact or because they jumped in panic.

San Francisco Call, November 31, 1901

The ferries launched rescue boats and lowered lanterns to pluck swimmers out of the dark water. One man was close to losing consciousness before he was rescued. Another wasn’t so lucky. His life-jacketed body was found on Angel Island a few days later. Without a detailed passenger list, the number of casualties could only be estimated, with up to five people reported dead.

The San Rafael went down with her lights still burning, but the Sausalito returned to work. Four years later, Jack London transformed the infamous ferry boat accident into a dramatic opening for one of his bestselling novels, The Sea Wolf.

In 1934, a year after the bridges opened, the Sportsmen Yacht Club moved the retired Sausalito to Antioch, where the bar is still open to members.

Sausalito pilot house, drydocked in Antioch.

Although the popularity and use of ferries is nowhere near what it was in its heyday, usage will likely increase due to the passage of Regional Measure 3 in 2018, which calls for an expanded regional ferry system. And when the fog rolls in, as it inevitably will, Golden Gate’s Swindler says that even with all the layers of advanced technology, ferryboat captains will continue to put staff on the bridge to “look and listen.”

A longer version of this article by Aleta George was originally published in the December 2020 issue of Estuary News.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Lockstep with Nature: A new bill will help veterans find healing outside

Veteran Maury Argento
Photo by 
Bhavya Thyagarajan Photography

United States Army veteran Maury Argento prefers to get her exercise outside.

Sometimes she hikes with her family, but more often than not this businesswoman and mom climbs San Francisco’s hills and outdoor stairways with her two dogs and infant child. Captain Argento has been out of the military for nearly 15 years, after having served for six years with specializations in weapons of mass destruction and communications.

Primarily stationed in Germany, she was also deployed to a Saudi Arabia combat zone for a time, and after returning to civilian life was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. “I was on medication, but the most effective thing for me has always been exercise and being outdoors. I suffer substantially if I don’t get exercise and get outside,” she said.

Argento found her way outdoors for healing, but not all vets do. More of them may be following in her footsteps, however, thanks to the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors (AVRO) Act.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Imperiled Islands of the San Francisco Bay

Climate change and sea level rise are not going away, even as we cope with everything else. That is why, when my editor Alec MacDonald and I discussed topics for the October/November issue of Bay Area Monitor, we settled on the effects of sea-level rise on the islands in the San Francisco Bay islands that I love, either those we all visit like Angel Island, or those we look at from afar by land or ferry, knowing they are vital habitat for birds.

There is no topic more important than climate change. We need to see it and think about it. We need to make changes now for our kids, our grandkids, and all the young adults who feel adrift about their future.

That's why I wanted to write about the islands in the bay and how they will be affected by sea-level rise. This is home for us and we need to look at the changes that are coming with eyes wide open. Read the article here.

Photo courtesy of the Angel Island Conservancy.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Jack London and his wife Charmian roam the San Francisco Bay circa 1910

Jack London aboard the Roamer. Courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
Jack London was known for his world adventures, but his training ground — and lifelong love — was the San Francisco Bay. As a boy he learned to sail a skiff in the Oakland Estuary, and at sixteen he ran with the oyster pirates before jumping ship to crew for the California Fish Patrol. London wrote The Sea Wolf aboard a sailboat purchased from the sale of Call of the Wild, and in his final years he and his wife, Charmian, spent a month a year exploring and feasting on the bay and in the Delta

"Always I come back to the sea,” wrote London. “In my case it is usually [the] San Francisco Bay, than which no lustier, tougher sheet of water can be found for small-boat sailing.”*

One of the primary sources for my book in progress about Jack London and the San Francisco Bay is Charmian Kittridge London's diaries. To coincide with the publication of the first full-length biography of Charmian London (written by friend and colleague Iris Jamahl Dunkle), I wrote an article for Estuary News about Jack and Charmian's explorations of the bay from 1910-1914.

Read my article in Estuary News here.

* London, Jack, "The Joy of Small-boat Sailing," Country Life in America, August 1, 1912.