Kids and Nature

Cut Off from Nature or Take the Right Cut-off?

January 5, 2013

This is part of an occasional series of posts about the geocaching adventures of Bay Nature intern Paul Epstein and his son.

 The wetlands defy easy access: crucially important to migrant bird populations and the health of the Bay, they are at the same time sometimes ugly, often muddy, and likely close to large, loud, smelly highways.  Dad always enjoyed the concept of wetlands, though the reality was another matter.  As an undergraduate, Dad had majored in a dead language, deep inside the walls of the Humanities.  Recognizing that there was a larger world out there, Dad promised himself that he would take one class, not just in the adjacent corridors of the Sciences and the Social Sciences, but actually in a different college.  Setting aside optometry, Dad took exactly one course in the School of Natural Resources, Political Ecology, in which he wrote exactly one, very lengthy paper on the loss of wetlands around the bay. 

Dad’s connection to wetlands was not solely academic and cognitive: Having gone to high school in Marin county, and having spent a brief amount of time on the track team, he recognized the loss and devastation that ensued when one of the team’s training routes, around the Corte Madera Marshes, was paved and developed for a shiny new shopping center, directly across the highway from a then-moribund old shopping center.  He also delighted in the magic of halophillic plants.  Pickelweed, a salty plant that grows in salt water.  How cool is that!

Sim After Geocaching
Sim after geocaching

Sim hadn’t spent much time in the wetlands.  He and Dad had visited “Hang on Snoopy” (GC110WD), a tribute to the “funky” driftwood and junk sculptures that populated the Emeryville shores through the ’70’s.  But that geocache was all about the sculpture, not the wetlands itself.  And – for a dad with a 9 year old kid – it was singularly frustrating.  To find the cache meant either leaping from a replica of Snoopy’s plane to a replica of the Red Barron’s plane, or coming at low tide with a ladder and scaling the second sculpture.  They failed to lay hands on this cache.

So when Sim elected to seek out “How do you Get There?” (“How do you Get There?” (GC1MW3Y ), dad was excited and optimistic.  The coordinates suggested a spot close to the shore, adjacent to Highway 80W, just before the toll plaza.  Dad supposed that there would be some obvious pull-off, and they hit the road.  Not only was there no obvious pull-off, Dad neglected to pull into the parking lot at the toll plaza, so, like tourists from New Jersey, the two of them sailed unwittingly across the Bay Bridge.  Dad neglected to recall that the exit for Treasure Island is on the LEFT, so they continued unwittingly all the way to San Francisco.  Then they came back.

Examining the map, they hypothesized that if they parked in just the right place in fenced off, ultra-industrial, Mad-Maxish West Oakland, then somehow they could make their way across the train tracks, under the highway structure (arguably the widest highway in the country), and out into the wetlands.  Parking was easy – big slabs of abandoned seeming asphalt guarded only by scraps and junk that even the homeless had discarded.  However, the fences weren’t passable, and  when they parked as close as could be to the highway, they had to acknowledge that, unlike the MacArthur Maze, a three dimensional marvel, this stretch of highway was flat, flat, flat.  An old spiritual began to echo in Dad’s head, “So low, can’t get under it, so wide can’t get around it, so high can’t get over it, ohhh, rock-a-my-soul…”

Next they paid a visit to the toll plaza offices.  Dad vaguely recalled that his brothers – probably pulling his leg, but no other approach had worked so far – had once told him that there was a tunnel underneath the toll plaza of the Richmond/San Rafael bridge.  How else would the toll collectors get to the right-hand lanes?  Perhaps there was such a tunnel here.  The Cal Trans clerk raised a high eyebrow and told him, no, there was no such tunnel at this bridge.

Dad inquired, “How do you get to the wetlands out there?”  The clerk said, “Take the West Grand avenue exit.”  “But that swoops over the highway and goes the other direction,” objected Dad.  “Turn right,” explained the clerk, “There’s no sign.”  So SimDad headed back to Emeryville, got off the highway, got back on going west, and took the designated exit.  Sure enough, splitting almost invisibly off the banked curve raceway of the West Grand Avenue exit, was a modest little road.  They followed it.  An arrow pointed left, so they turned left.  They had reached the wetlands.

Sim was not as entranced with the marvels of wetland flora as Dad had hoped.  After riding in the car for nearly an hour, in order to get to a spot less than a mile from where they began, Sim just wanted to poke around and find the thing.  Sim, whose knowledge of military history was exceeded only by his passion for making up games about wars and battles he’d only vaguely heard of, transformed a stick into a machine gun and began to clear the jungles of ‘Nam.  Popping in and out of thickets, scanning high and low, Sim found the cache almost immediately.  They signed the book, took a decorated lanyard, and left a tiny toy bunny in its place.

Sim was ready to go home, but Dad insisted on a nature walk.  Sim begrudgingly agreed, although a bag of toys in a homeless encampment and his “machine gun” managed to hold his attention more than the drab surroundings.  Dad mused to himself, “Someday…”

Coming up: Terrain, the difference between maps and reality.  And, caching in the footsteps of Jackie-O and John John.

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