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This was my twenty-first bike ride on my quest to travel 350 miles of the San Francisco Bay Trail completed so far. The Bay Trail vision is a single trail of 500 miles that encircles the entire Bay, going through 9 counties and 47 cities.
In early September 2022, not far from the Las Gallinas Valley Wildlife Loop where I rode on Ride #20, I followed Map 21 along the southwest shore of San Pablo Bay through the China Camp State Park.
One can drive along San Pedro Road through the park and stop at various meadows and points to pick up walking/biking trails. Or one can park at Back Ranch Meadows and begin the Shoreline Trail that spans the park.
First, at the north end of the park, I pulled off on a road that led to the Back Ranch Meadows campground. Throughout the park are signs advising that parking is $5 for the day and that one must purchase an additional $3 pass for trail use, to be carried while on any trail. I believe the $3 goes to the Friends of China Camp organization. The State map I picked up did not show many of the parking areas that exist, so I had to do quite a bit of exploring to find a spot where I could park and unload my bike. The Back Ranch Meadows area does have a parking area and the trailhead for the Shoreline Trail. But it was clear to me that the trail was heading up into the hills, while I wanted to get down near the water. I also noticed bushes of leaflets three (let them be!): poison oak turning red as fall approaches. I preferred not to encounter more poison oak up in the hills.
California Quail are my favorite birds. While I was at the Back Ranch Meadows area, a large covey of quail hurried by. They run quickly and disappear faster than lightening, but these seemed habituated to the presence of people. I’ve heard the term “habituated” used to describe wildlife that are not tame but have learned which actions of humans pose no threat. The quail wandered around some empty picnic tables and gave me a chance to get a few shots, if from a distance.
The terrain in this area is primarily oak woodlands, one of the habitats most favored by wildlife and particularly rich in bird life. 160 bird species have been observed here, including bald eagles, golden eagles, and great horned owls. Over one-third of the 60 species of mammals in California depend on oaks. These include mule deer, squirrels, bear, mice, woodrats, gophers, feral pigs, the gray fox, coyotes, mountain lions, skunks, and raccoons. More than 80 species of amphibians and reptiles also call California’s oak woodlands home, including legless lizards, arboreal salamanders, western toads, gopher snakes, ring neck snakes, and western skinks. The western skink is a small, smooth-scaled lizard that measures from 4 to 8 inches in total length (body plus tail). Its diet includes spiders and beetles.
While acorns are the obvious food resource the oak habitat provides, there are other forms of food for wildlife here: oak twigs, catkins, leaves, buds, sap, galls, fungi, lichens and oak roots. Other important foods for wildlife grow in the oak environment: redberry, coffeeberry, toyon, mistletoe, poison oak, ceanothus, manzanita, and various grasses.
Interpretive signs describe four types of oaks growing in this area: the blue oak, the valley oak, the interior live oak, and the coast live oak. The blue oak is a medium-sized tree that loses its leaves in the winter. The valley oak is a large tree with a wide trunk and large leaves with rounded lobes. It also loses its leaves in the winter. The interior live oak and coast live oak are evergreens. Both have flat, dark green leaves with spines on the edges. The leaves of the coast live oak have a tuft of hair on the underside. The tree’s bark is gray with deep furrows.
After leaving Back Ranch Meadows, I drove through the entire China Camp State Park before unloading my bike, scouting the length of Point San Pedro Road. The park has picnic and BBQ facilities along the shoreline at Buckeye Point, Weber Point, Five Pines Point, China Camp Village and Bullhead Flat. Trails can be accessed at each location. An interpretive sign states that China Camp State Park “contains one of the most complete mosaics of wetland and upland habitats along the entire San Francisco Bay shoreline.” In 2003, the wetlands were incorporated into the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve to ensure the wetlands are understood and protected.
To complete my scouting, I drove south out of the park to McNears Beach, walked around, got a few photos, and then returned to China Camp. McNears Beach is a favorite spot for kayakers and stand-up paddlers. It is located in a sheltered cove along the San Rafael bayfront.
Once back in China Camp, I turned into the parking area at China Camp Point and followed a short, steep road down to China Camp Village, where historic buildings, a small and very informative museum, and a dock preserve memories of shrimp fishing 150 years ago.
Chinese workers began immigrating to North America during the California Gold Rush, about 1848 – 1855, mining gold as well as laboring to build the first transcontinental railroad. When gold became scarce, the Chinese worked in restaurants and laundries in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The story of China Camp Village begins in the 1860’s, when the Bay, teeming with shrimp, created a thriving economy for the Chinese shrimp fishing industry. Emigrants from China’s Kwantung (Guangdong) province came to live and fish here. Of the 12 or more such fishing villages around the San Francisco Bay, this is the only one that has survived.
In 1870, 76 men lived in China Camp Village. In 1880, 469 people lived here, including 30 women, 31 children, a doctor, a barber, a school teacher, and a gardener. There were at least 28 structures, including three general stores.
Between 1860 and 1910, the residents sailed in junks – Chinese boats with a long wooden design — to catch shrimp in handmade nets. The fishing boats were made of redwood. A reconstruction of one of the junks is on display at the village’s pier. Junk Grace Quan is 42 feet long. For those who understand nautical terms, it carries a single, five-batten lugsail. It features a daggerboard forward of the mast and a rudder which can have its depth adjusted from one foot to a five-foot draft. When wind was calm, the fishermen used oars rowed from the bow and a long sculling oar, called a “yuloh,” worked from the stern, to navigate the junk.
Triangular nets were staked in the mud with long lines. The net’s opening was positioned directionally to catch shrimp swept along by the current from the oncoming tide. At low tide, the shrimp was dumped into baskets stored in the boat’s hold. The nets were set in the opposite direction for the next tidal cycle. After two cycles, about 12 hours, the fishermen returned to camp to process the fish.
The baskets of shrimp were brought to shore. Camp workers boiled the entire fishing catch, sorted the shrimp by size, and spread them to dry in the sun. Workers then crushed the dried shrimp to loosen heads and shells from the meat. The Chinese had developed “fan mills” to winnow grain in China for over 2000 years and used them to winnow the shrimp. The fan’s wooden blades were turned with a hand crank. The crushed shrimp fell from a hopper into the resulting air current. The light heads and tails were blown away from the heavier shrimp meats. The shrimp and shrimp meal were then bagged for shipment. Most left China Camp Village bound for China as well as other foreign markets.
Competitors and state officials began to apply pressure on the Chinese fishermen, causing the shrimping activities to decline. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. for 10 years. This Act followed the Angell Treaty of 1880, which revised the U.S.–China Burlingame Treaty of 1868 allowing the U.S. to suspend Chinese immigration.
The prohibition of the Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed as the Geary Act through 1902. This was the first time federal law had prevented entry of an ethnic working group, taking the position that local order might be endangered. New requirements prevented Chinese resident aliens from gaining citizenship and allowed deportation.
After World War I, immigration to the U.S. from around the world increased. Congress’s Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act and the National Origins Act) limited each group immigrating to 2 percent of that nationality already living in the U.S.
During World War II, Congress repealed the exclusions acts when China became a member of the Allied Nations in 1943. However, Chinese immigrants were still limited to 105 per year.
Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1965, followed by the Immigration Act of 1990, providing the most comprehensive change in legal immigration. In 2011 and 2012, Congress “condemned the Chinese Exclusion Act and affirmed a commitment to preserve civil rights and constitutional protections for all people.”
After the creation of the Chinese Exclusion Act, as the California State Fish Commission responded to pressure from competing fishermen, California began passing more and more restrictive laws on Chinese labor. By 1900, the population of China Camp Village had declined to 122, with only 79 fishermen. In 1901, the fishing season was closed during the best fishing months. In 1905, the export of dried shrimp was banned. In 1911, the use of the stationary, or “bag” net – the most efficient way to catch shrimp — was prohibited, due to complaints from other fishermen that the nets caught too many small fish and disrupted the Bay’s food chain. Since demand for shrimp continued, by 1915 some restrictions were eased and bag nets were permitted once again. Between 1915 and 1930, California’s Division of Fish and Game estimated that over 20 million pounds of shrimp were caught.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, shrimp fishing continued. In 1930, the Division of Fish and Game documented two Chinese shrimp companies in the north San Francisco Bay that used 19 men to guide 19 boats, fishing with 38 beam trawls used to scrape fish from the sea bottom. In south San Francisco Bay, 12 Chinese shrimp companies used 54 men to work 16 boats, fishing with 504 Chinese shrimp nets.
China Camp Village’s last living resident was Frank Quan, who died at the age of 90 in 2016. During his life, he and his brothers heated shrimp-cooking vats with heating oil rather than wood. They used a shaker table, a winnowing machine, and gas-heated air to dry shrimp indoors. Occasional shrimp fishing still occurs in China Camp Village to this day.
In the 1960’s, river water destined for the San Francisco Bay was re-routed to Southern California, causing the Bay water to become too salty for the shrimp.
In 1977, Quan worked with a developer to transform the 36-acre village into a State park and living memorial to the Chinese-American history. In 2003, the Chinese junk replica, the Grace Quan, was named after his mother.
A sign in the museum announced the annual China Camp Heritage Day, which I just missed. The event features lion and dragon dancers as well as arts and crafts and food.
From China Camp Village, I drove up the hill and parked at the China Camp Point parking lot, where I finally unloaded my bike. The Point separates Rat Rock Cove to the north from the China Camp Village and Beach to the south. The Village Trail is not shown on the State park map, but it leads north from this parking area to connect with other trails that are shown on the map. It’s a narrow dirt trail. Not too far along, I came to a turnoff headed down towards the water via Rat Rock Trail. The trail is steep for a bit and leads one near the shore where green waters lap at the beach in Rat Rock Cove.
Backtracking the short route, I picked up the Village Trail and followed it north until it crossed Point San Pedro Road. On the other side, the trail becomes switch-backs that take one up in elevation quite quickly. In fact, the trail at this point was too steep for me to ride, so I pushed my bike up the hill and wondered if I had ever calculated how much my bike weighs.
Further up the hill, the trail intersects with the Shoreline Trail, which I followed along the side of the hill. This trail was also quite narrow, with a steep slope falling off downhill to the right. Since I don’t feel comfortable riding my bike in those kinds of situations, I continued to walk.
Several mountain bikers rode past me as I pushed my bike. Each one stopped to make sure I didn’t need any help. Then they continued on, at what seemed to me like break-neck speeds.
Once over a hill, the trail descended quickly via more switch-backs until it reached the level of the road again. A park ranger station was nearby. The parking area for Bullhead Flat was across the road. A sign on the road announced the Peacock Gap Trail, which one can access further up the next hill.
Small biting flies had been following me from the start. Here there was a very strong, cool wind that blew away the flies, so I stopped at this point for lunch.
The trail continued to wind in and around the hills, often shaded by a variety of oak trees. The aroma of green oak leaves baking in the sun floated through the air. The cool wind was a steady and welcome companion, as I was escaping a severe heat wave by staying close to the Bay’s edge.
Since I had spent quite a bit of time scouting the park and exploring the China Camp fishing village before I ever unloaded my bike, I had less time to follow the Shoreline Trail. The views of the San Pablo Bay and China Camp shoreline from the hillside were spectacular, if infrequent. Much of the time I was walking in the shade of the oak woodlands which blocked any view of the water.
I came across a wooden structure with a sign reading, “Mtn Bike Repair Kit.” Another sign read, “This box is brought to you by a Girl Scout Gold Award,” currently maintained by the Friends of China Camp organization. The tools originally placed in the box to help mountain bikers with repairs included a wrench, bike pump, tire levers, and a multi-purpose tool for bike chains, with spoke wrenches, Allen keys, and Phillips and flathead screwdrivers. A sign provided a phone number to call if there has been damage to the box. When I opened it, I found all the tools were gone. I’ve called the organization to let them know.
I walked my bike back the way I came. Walking meant I covered less of the Bay Trail than I would have if I’d been riding. The Bay Trail website warns that only experienced cyclists should ride along Point San Pedro Road, as the two-lane road has no room for a designated bike path and rarely has shoulders. I think it should include a statement that trails such as the Shoreline Trail are for experienced mountain bikers only but make great hiking trails. There were many more trails shown on the maps to be explored another day.
Driving north to exit the park, I stopped at several points with parking lots overlooking the shore. High tide brings sturgeon, striped bass, flounder and other sport fish to the area. Just below the mudflat surface live mud crabs, burrowing shrimp, worms and other small animals. San Francisco Bay is on the Pacific Flyway, the north-south route millions of birds follow during their annual migration. Here we will find canvasback, bufflehead and lesser scaup. The endangered clapper rail also makes this place a home.
At the pull-out for Buckeye Point, I walked along the south edge in search of views to photograph. A large black bird – a crow or raven — sat on the branch of a tree nearby. As I approached the bird, I said, “Hello.” Yet neither my walking nor my greeting phased the bird. It sat, unmoving, looking out over the water, clearly habituated to the visitors passing through. I took my photo and retreated, unacknowledged by this local wildlife. I decided not to take it personally. Would the bird have noticed if I had?
Not counting the time I explored the China Camp Village and museum or drove down to McNears Beach, I spent about two hours riding and walking. My total ride was 5.88 miles this day, about half of which was return miles. My odometer had reached 290 miles. Another great adventure along the Bay Trail!
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Funding and sponsor organizations and contributing partners:
China Camp State Park: Friends of China Camp; National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior; Marin Chinese Cultural Association; San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve; California State Parks
China Camp State Park: Heritage Day Friends of China Camp; the Marin Chinese Cultural Association; the Redwood Empire Chinese Cultural Association
Girl Scout Gold Award sponsors (mountain biking repair tools): Friends of China Camp; Golden State Lumber; Mike’s Bikes of San Rafael; Caesar’s Cyclery of Marin; TAP Plastics; Marin Ace Hardware
California oak woodlands: The California Oak Foundation; the Wildlife Conservation Society
S.F. Bay Trail website, Map 21; interpretive exhibits (information boards) along the Bay Trail; Wikipedia – western skink; Wikipedia – Chinese Exclusion Act ; Government Archives – Chinese Exclusion Act