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Eric Larkin, Kate Freeman, trash bags, and kayak
Eric Larkin, Kate Freeman, trash bags, and kayak

A Kayak Trip to the Island Ponds

At long last, we have our very first guest post here at Salty Dave’s Wetland Weblog! There is an exciting story below, and I’m doing my best not to spoil it. But I can’t not mention up front how grateful I am for this authorial contribution — and even more for the actual event described in this piece:
A big-time tip of the cap to Eric Larkin and Steve Ochoa from the Western Sea Kayakers Club and to Kate Freeman from Ducks Unlimited for the daring, heroic, and hugely beneficial clean-up work they did!
With no further delay, here’s Eric Larkin…

This was not a posted trip of the Western Sea Kayakers (WSK) club, but on January 18th, club members Steve Ochoa and I joined Ducks Unlimited biologist Kate Freeman as volunteers to scout out Alviso Pond A19 at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge as a potential site for trash pick-up days and to pull out what trash we could ourselves.

I can’t recall how this happened, but Steve and I made it onto someone’s volunteer list. Ducks Unlimited reached out to us and asked for volunteers to visit the A19 pond via kayak to explore the feasibility of collecting debris after reaching it by water. Pond A19 is known as one of the “Island Ponds” because there is no land-based access to it. So, removing trash from there is a challenge.

The idea was that kayaks would be a good way to reach the Island Ponds safely, and most kayaks have spaces for bags of trash and debris to haul out. So we worked with Ducks Unlimited and the National Wildlife Refuge to get special permission to visit a site not normally open to the public and to plan the logistics.

The logistics were not easy: a big constraint is that the closest water access points are several miles of paddling away from Pond A19. Getting in and out of a kayak at low tides risks getting stuck in the very soft bay mud. So we had to time our trip just right.

In addition, the water temperature was 54 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough that “cold shock” and hypothermia were real concerns. We all “dressed for immersion,” wearing either wet suits or dry suits, and carried safety gear like pumps, paddle floats, VHF radios, cell phones in dry bags, a Garmin satellite tracker, warm food and drink, and a change of dry clothes. We had training and experience to know how to drain our boats of water and reenter them should someone inadvertently capsize.  A call to 911 means you’re on your own for at least an hour while sheriff or fire department first responders get their boat into the water and come looking for you. As sea kayakers, getting on tidal salt water is serious business, and not for the inexperienced and under-equipped.

Steve, Kate, and I opted to tackle getting to A19 via two different routes:

  1. Begin at Coyote Creek trailhead, 1425 N. McCarthy Blvd, Milpitas, about 500 feet from Coyote Creek, then a 3.9-mile paddle to A19 against an ebb tide in the morning, and a flood tide in the afternoon. Steve launched from here on a WSK trip in 2011. Steve and Kate opted for this launch point, dropping their boats into the creek and getting on the water around 10:15 a.m.
  2. Launch from Alviso Marina, via Alviso Slough and Coyote Creek, an 8-mile paddle to A19, with a mix of ebb and flood tides. This was Eric’s choice – on the water at 8:48 a.m.

Our destination was the southwestern breach in the A19 levee on Coyote Creek. A Google Earth view of both routes is available here.

We all arrived within minutes of 12:00 p.m., which I thought was pretty good planning (and paddling!) on everyone’s part. After a quick lunch, we got to work with contractor plastic bags, “grabbers,” and gloves, working our way along the inside of the levee. The prevailing afternoon winds are from the northwest, so we expected the southern levee of A19 to be a motherlode of flotsam and jetsam, and it was. Steve also paddled across the pond to the north levee and confirmed the pickings were good where we landed.

We found the usual stuff: bottles (some glass, mostly plastic), styrofoam from food delivery, small cosmetic containers and beauty products, many balls (tennis, soccer, basketball), a spent shotgun cartridge, and a large stuffed animal that was hemorrhaging powdered styrofoam out of fabric holes. We couldn’t take the sad animal, but we bagged it to stanch the bleeding, as it were, of its styrene particulate fluids, for a future pickup.

The most unusual part for me: I’ve been past here before and always thought the numerous white chunks visible from Coyote Creek were concrete fill from demolished road beds or building foundations. They are actually chunks of salt hardpan, from when the pond was an industrial solar evaporator and turned seawater into salt. The rain is gradually wearing the salt blocks away, some into fantastical organic shapes, but it gave the landscape a strange appearance, like other salt landscapes and formations around the world. Photos of them are here.

Our allotted time ran out quickly, and by 2:00 p.m., Kate, Steve, and I were back on the water, with 4 bags of debris lashed to our kayak decks (Kate had a bag fore & aft, Steve and I had one bag each, I believe). The tide had turned! Kate and Steve faced the relentless ebb of a full moon for 4 miles and were off the water by 3:15 p.m. After a boost on Coyote Creek, I faced the same relentless ebb for 4 miles after turning into Alviso Slough, arriving back at 5:04 p.m. to a beautiful sunset.

It was good to visit this area again and see it gradually transform into the living and vital saltwater marsh it was.

Despite the challenges, this trip was fun and rewarding and a successful scouting effort. We are hoping this will be the first of many such trips to clean up this former industrial salt pond, and we will be interested in volunteers from the Western Sea Kayakers or from other groups or individuals.

Special Note on making that a reality: This location is in a part of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge that is usually closed to the public. We were granted special permission as a planned trip with Ducks Unlimited to assist with an active construction project. In addition, the Island Ponds close from February to September for the breeding season of the California Ridgway’s rail, an endangered bird species. This trip and future trips to the Island Ponds require a Special Use Permit in advance to enter this newly enhanced restoration site usually closed to kayaks and most other forms of public access. [Editorial comment from Salty Dave here: we’ll be happy to work with Refuge managers to secure Special Use Permits for these kinds of organized and well-planned group trips in the future. But in case it’s not clear from Eric’s post, please Do not paddle there on your own. It’s unsafe, illegal, and disruptive to wildlife. Thanks!]

Please contact me at [email protected] if you want more information on future trips or on WSK.

Back to Salty Dave here: How about that as a thrilling adventure on the wildly varying tides of the far South Bay?!?! I am honored that Steve, Eric, and Kate took on this task, and I am hoping that I can join their next trip out. Kayaking is an excellent way to experience the more remote areas of the Bay. More of their excellent pictures are available here.

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