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On a morning in late November 2021, I went on my eleventh bike ride on my quest to travel 350 miles of the S. F. Bay Trail – those miles completed so far of the total of 500 miles planned, this time continuing north on the east side of the Bay, following Map 12.
As I was about to leave to begin this ride, my Mom called. She remembered I planned to ride in the Emeryville/Berkeley area and wanted to warn me that a strong wind had come up that morning. Those strong winds impacted the Berkeley area often, the kind that whoosh under the Golden Gate Bridge, across the Bay waters, up Rose Street past my Mom’s house and into the Berkeley hills, scaring the neighbors by bending 30-foot palm trees lower than any tree should be allowed to lean.
But I was already loaded up and ready to go. I decided to chance it.
I unloaded my bike in a small parking area next to Powell Street on the south edge of Emeryville Marina Park. The park is a narrow peninsula that points north on the west edge of the Emeryville City Marina. This area is home to fancy restaurants, apartment buildings and sailboats. I encountered light wind as I approached Emery Cove Marina, but not too strong so far.
On the north side of the peninsula I passed an expanse of green. From here one can see the University of California Berkeley’s white 307-foot Sather Tower, known to locals as the Campanile, in the East Bay hills. It is the third-largest bell-clock tower in the world and has a 10,500 pound “Great Bear Bell” which tolls every hour. When I was growing up, the tower’s bells would play simple tunes at noon that could be heard for miles. They probably still do. The Campanile once played a piece my step-father composed.
I turned north past Emeryville’s Shorebird Park. I rode along the edge of the Bay, part of the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, named for Save the Bay co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin. The State park includes 8-1/2 miles of shoreline from Emeryville to Berkeley, Albany and Richmond, including the Albany Bulb and Point Isabel peninsulas. The trail passes Point Emery and Barkley Beach on its way to Berkeley.
Along this section of the Bay Trail, the shore is on the west side of two-lane Frontage Road. A barrier separates Frontage Road from the 80/580 freeway (a/k/a the Eastshore Freeway) which is at least 5 lanes in either direction and always packed with cars and trucks approaching the Bay Bridge toll plaza.
Between Emeryville and Berkeley, someone has placed a small sculpture of a sailing ship, named the “Ghost Ship,” on some kind of support so that it appears to float on the water just offshore. Years ago, many such works of art were placed here. When I was a kid, my Dad and I would drive along Frontage road at low tide to see what new creation had been added to the collection. The most memorable was a red bi-plane that looked like something Snoopy’s nemesis, the Red Baron, might have flown. There was no wind riding north on the Bay Trail beside Frontage Road on the way to Berkeley. So far so good.
Ahead I could see the Berkeley bicycle/pedestrian bridge which crosses over the 580/80 freeway at University Avenue, affording walkers and cyclists access to the Berkeley Marina and Cesar Chavez Park and great viewing of the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Beyond the bridge, in the distance I could see Albany Hill in Albany, the next town north after Berkeley.
At University Avenue, the Bay Trail turns west to circle the edge of a small peninsula, passing through Berkeley’s Shorebird Park, the Berkeley Marina, and Cesar Chavez Park. I started on the south side. One passes what used to be Solomon Grundy’s Restaurant. The empty building and parking lot have been that way a long time, appearing abandoned for years.
Curving north along the shore, lined with boulders, one sees the Berkeley Pier ahead, stretching out into the middle of the Bay. It seems to point directly at the Golden Gate Bridge. The pier was built in 1926 by the Golden Gate Ferry Company. After ferry service ended in 1937 due to the opening of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge, it was used as a fishing pier.
Years ago, storms damaged the pier and a section in the middle collapsed. Locals and fishermen continued to frequent the eastern portion. In 2015, a cyclone fence was put up at the entrance blocking access to any part of the pier. We don’t know why. The stretch between the old Solomon Gundy’s restaurant and the Berkeley Pier is a favorite viewing spot for watching July 4 fireworks launched from a small barge floating next to the pier.
Just beyond the pier sits Skate’s at the Bay, a restaurant with all windows on the west side affording views of the Golden Gate Bridge when it isn’t obscured by fog. Those dining there watch sailboats and cormorants float by.
I continued along the water’s edge past the entrance to the Berkeley Marina. There are many houseboats docked here as well as the usual sailboats, plus a yacht club and one hotel. I arrived at the square peninsula called Cesar Chavez Park. Consisting of 90 acres, the park hosts a kite festival every July. When I was a kid, we used to take stuff to the “Berkeley dump.” Later, the landfill became a park, renamed after the celebrated labor leader Cesar Chavez in 1996. He led the green grapes strike to unionize farm workers in the 1960’s.
When I came around the park and headed east on the north side, I found the wind against me, as strong as my Mom had predicted. All had been quiet until now. Finishing the circle around Cesar Chavez Park, I came to an area fenced off to protect the Western Burrowing Owl. Every December my Mom and I walk here to look for the visiting owls. Information signs warn photographers not to point telephoto lenses at the owls for any length of time, as raptors surveying the area have learned that the lenses point to the owls. This gives them an unfair advantage to hone in on the little birds.
The Western Burrowing Owl is a California “Species of Special Concern,” protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the California Fish & Game Code. This means it is illegal to harm or disturb these birds. The owl is 8 to 10 inches tall with long legs. It is crepuscular, which means it is active in the early morning and evening hours.
The owls arrive in the fall and stay until spring. They find shelter in nests dug by California ground squirrels or in crevices between boulders and large rocks. They prefer areas with low, sparse vegetation so that they can spot their predators from afar. They hunt insects, rodents, and other small prey.
Once past Cesar Chavez Park, the Bay Trail continues east along the edge of what’s called the Berkeley Meadow, consisting of restored coastal scrub, grassland and natural upland habitat.
Past the meadow, the Bay Trail turns north again. It passes the Golden Gate Fields racetrack on the right (east) and then turns west to circle another peninsula, much larger than what I had encountered in Emeryville and Berkeley. This is called the Albany Bulb. It is also landfill, mostly concrete and rebar construction debris. Some of those discards are still visible. The Bulb and nearby Albany Beach have become one of the most heavily used outdoor recreation sites on the Bay. There are a couple of fairly wide dirt trails to follow to explore the Bulb, some higher elevation than others.
Coming out of the Albany Bulb, one heads east on the Albany Waterfront Trail, Albany’s portion of the Bay Trail, alongside Buchanan Street. When I stopped to read an interpretive sign, my uncovered legs were attacked by biting flies, something I’ve never encountered in all my years living in the area. I hastily moved on.
The land here borders the Albany mudflat. One interpretive sign says it hosts 24 species of shorebirds, 13 species of waterfowl, 10 kinds of gulls, 4 types of herons and egrets, as well as loons, pelicans, cormorants and kingfishers. This area also protects burrowing owls. At low tide, more shorebirds are attracted here than anywhere else in the central San Francisco Bay. 11,000 individual birds have been counted here at one time, including grebes, terns, herons, egrets, red-tailed hawks, ospreys, merlins and peregrine falcons.
At high tide the mudflat is under water. Cordonices and Marin Creeks empty into the Bay here, draining down from the nearby East Bay hills. During the early outbreak of Covid, public swimming pools were either closed or had limited access. Many of the heartiest swimmers came here, wearing wetsuits, to swim in the Bay’s frigid waters.
Western sandpipers, a member of a group of small shorebirds affectionally called “peeps,” are the most common shorebird here in July and August after breeding in the Alaskan tundra. Some remain to winter here; others continue on to South America. Other shorebirds include dunlins, dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, American avocets, marbled godwits, willets, and long-billed curlews.
The trail turns north again, passing the Albany Mudflats Ecological Reserve, still flanked by highway 580 to the east. This Reserve includes the Bay shore from the Albany Bulb to Point Isabel peninsula. Consisting of 160 acres of tidal mudflats, it has a narrow band of pickleweed and cordgrass in a salt marsh which supports shorebirds. Herons and egrets feed on the mudflats at low tide while diving ducks, gulls and terns forage at high tide.
The property was acquired by lease from the California State Lands Commission in 1982 for the purpose of protecting wetlands and associated fish and wildlife. It was designated as an ecological reserve by the Fish and Game Commission in 1986.
One soon passes Albany Hill, elevation 310 feet, populated with several high-rise apartment buildings, on the east side of the Eastshore Freeway. This hill is part of a range of hills on the Pacific tectonic plate lifted up long before the East Bay hills appeared.
Reminders of the Ohlone native people have been found north of Albany Hill. In 1820, the Spanish granted soldier Luis Peralta land from San Leandro Creek to Cerrito Creek. Much of the land was lost to squatters or lawsuits after the 1849 Gold Rush. Southern Pacific Railroad tracks along the shoreline were completed in 1878. Although the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroads later acquired most of the shore and tidelands, the Santa Fe Railroad remained the main property owner until the 1990’s.
The history of the explosives industry I’d encountered on previous Bay Trail rides appears here, too. (See Ride #6 .) Explosive powder was needed during gold mining. One of several powder plants opened in Albany in 1879. Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize, invented dynamite. The Nobel train depot, built north of Albany Hill for rail access, was named after him. The shoreline of Albany was renowned for explosions until the powder plants were closed in 1905. A grove of eucalyptus trees was planted on Albany Hill to muffle the explosions.
What is now the Golden Gate Fields racetrack, a little east of the Bay Trail and south of Albany Bulb, used to be a peninsula called Fleming Point. During WWII, the U.S. Navy used the site to recondition landing craft used in battles in the South Pacific. In 1997, the Santa Fe Railroad sold the land to the racetrack owners and the rest of the waterfront property to the State of California: 5 miles of shoreline and 2000 acres of tidelands and uplands.