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April 26, 2005 > An evening at the marsh

An evening at the marsh

by Aman Mehrzai

Imagine strolling along the bay, thousands of years ago with the Ohlone Indians. Rolling green hills would be covered with large tress of oak-bay and redwood forests. Present concrete jungles would disappear, replaced by native grasses that would stretch to shoulder-height. Nighttime city lights would be absent; a blazing array of stars serves as the lamp of midnight hours. Shorelines would be dotted by prowling bears, scavenging for fish and other sea creatures washed ashore.

The bay would be larger, devoid of landfill. Hundreds of streams and rivers pouring into brooks and estuaries would sustain the richest wildlife in North America, where saltwater and freshwater tule marshes converge to provide immeasurable amounts of pickle-weed and cord grass swamps.

This view of the bay has been almost totally replaced by 200 years of ecological manipulation since the arrival of the Europeans. People, wildlife and landscape were permanently changed as "foreigners" began to reside in the area. Spanish settlers began the transformation and in 1849, the infamous California Gold Rush resulted in an explosion of settlers demanding land, food and change.
Thousands of acres of natural salt marshes were converted into salt ponds. Today, almost 85 percent of the original shorelines and marshes have changed, much of it due to salt mining. It wasn't until legislation was introduced in 1974 to buy acreage of wildlife habitats for preservation and restoration. Congressman Don Edwards was successful in his efforts to create the countries largest urban wildlife refuge; by 1979, the Refuge purchased more than 18,000 acres of land, 15,000 acres of which belonged to the Leslie Salt Company, currently known as the Cargill Company. In the 1980's congress sanctioned additional purchases of land to bring the Refuge to 23,000 acres in seven different areas of the Bay Area.

The Refuge was renamed to "Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge" in 1995 to honor the former congressman's efforts in establishing a place of restoration and refuge for native plants and animal species in a "wildlife island in an urban sea." Numerous paths and trails are available for the public to venture out into a glimpse of the past.

If you want to visit the area on your own, entrance is free and signs will point out trails and distances. However, a memorable stroll for nature lovers is the Twilight Marsh Walk held throughout the year. The walk is along a 1-1/3 mile Tidelands Trail that begins atop a hill outside the visitor center overlooking the bay.

Walkers are introduced to the tour guides, a married couple named Mary and Gene Bobik, and begin a downhill leisurely walk as the Bobik's explain the mission statement of the refuge, "for the public to enjoy and learn from the land" and the difference between a park and a refuge, "In a park, people are first, where in a refuge, animals come first," said Bobik, who along with her husband has been volunteering for 16 years and giving tours for eight.

We stopped to glance at an awesome view of the Bay as sunset approached, where Bobit explained the process of the Cargill Salt Ponds, how it took five years for an entire farming cycle of salt extraction to take place. "Although there is an attempt to converge the salt mines back into natural marshes, the process will take a long time," said her husband. "You can't just dump salt back into the bay with a reclaimed salt pond. It could throw off the ecological system of the whole bay. It will take years to restore the process."

As the walk continued, Mrs. Bobik picked up various rock types and explained the geological formation. "The brown and rusty colored Chert rock," said Bobik, "was a sedimentary rock formed at the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago." Other rocks observed included the California State Rock, Serpentine, which is greenish and softer than Chert.

We walked beneath arching trees and touched the native Sticky Monkey Flower. The California Golden Poppy was partially open, an indication that evening was near; they close in the evening. Also in bloom, were California Black Raspberries, enveloped in little white flowers during the summer months.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, we transitioned from Upland Habitat with more grasses, trees and bushes, to the lower Salt Marsh Habitat, noteworthy for its marshes filled with pickle weed. The color was changing from a brownish tint to green which will reach a vibrant green color in the summer. The pickle weed plants were covered by patches of bright orange dodder, or witches hair, a parasitic plant.

Along wooden handrails of the walkway over the marsh, were variants of lichen of different shapes and colors. At this point, we stopped to listen to the sounds of nature as the sun set. Song sparrows could be heard from the marsh, where these little birds make their nests.

A thin moon rose in the sky, along with Saturn and Jupiter as darkness began to blanket the area. Along the water line, foamy salt deposits blown by the wind looked like tumbling snow across our path. Mrs. Bobik pointed out that thousands of tiny brine shrimp survive in the salty waters of the ponds.

Anyone interested the experience of a Twilight Marsh Walk should call for free reservations at (510) 792-0222. Reservations are required. The next walk will be on May 14, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Twilight Marsh Walk
Saturday, May 14
7 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge
1 Marsh Road, Fremont
(510) 792-0222

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