End of an Era on Brooks Island, January 17th 1998.

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Fred McCollum, the resident naturalist who lived on Brooks Island with his wife Patty, has retired recently. The island is in San Francisco Bay just off the coast of Richmond, near Albany. It is a seasonal home to nesting Caspian terns, geese, herons, and egrets. Permanent home to a rare native Californian rodent, a relative of the gopher which does not dig holes. The island has fabulous displays of spring wildflowers and remnants of California native grasslands. Fred has lived on Brooks Island for sixteen years and before that he did his graduate research there. So he has been associated with the park for over 26 years. Fortunately for Fred (unfortunately for the rest of us) he is able to retire while still young enough to move onto his sailboat and think about sailing around the world. Actually they don't really have grandiose plans like this and Fred says "We may never get farther south than Catalina Island". A group of BASK paddlers organized by Barbara Kossy held a surprise party for Fred on the island recently. Because it is a sanctuary, landing on the island is forbidden without a permit from the county parks department. Or permission from Fred for a personal visit, which Barbara had obtained without giving away the party nature of the trip. The weather didn't co-operate and we had to postpone the trip until the last possible weekend before Fred left. On this Saturday, however, the rain stopped and the sky cleared just long enough for us to paddle out, spring the surprise, and spend a nice afternoon on the island.

When the first group of us arrived Patty was taking advantage of the break in the winter storms and the high tide to load up a pile of stuff on the Zodiac and run them to shore. She didn't have time to deal with us and didn't realize the magnitude of the invasion until two other groups of kayakers approached from different directions. She continued loading anyway, since they were moving off the island in four days, and made the run to shore. When she came back later she was in a better mood to party. She was seen smiling in her half of the his-and-hers pair of BASK T-shirts that the club gave them as going away gifts. They were also presented with a book that has text and photos by Leo Lebon (a BASK member) and a mounted photo of Fred and Patty giving a talk to a group of BASKers on the island last spring.

In typical BASK fashion we brought a gourmet spread of food. There were several bottles of wine and a bottle of celebratory champagne. "Pinniped Pizza" (handmade pizza pockets made in the shape of little seals by Bill Steigert), bagels, smoked fish, eggplant dip, cheese and fruit. Lots of chocolate and cookies of course. Even a carton of milk to go with all the sweet goodies!

When we were satiated at the table we worked a small part of the calories off by walking up to the top of the island. Perhaps for the last time in a long time. Fred can never be replaced, of course, and the county is still scrambling for a way to make do. Fred's combination of caretaker and naturalist has made it possible to protect the island and teach visitors the natural history conveniently for the last sixteen years. The current replacement plan so far is to have maintenance staff sleep on the island every night and have a naturalist from Berkeley paddle out to the island to give tours to groups with permits. This is going to make getting those permits a little more difficult than before. So we stood on the on the top of Brooks Island and made sure we enjoyed the view of San Francisco Bay laid out around us. If you get the opportunity to visit this rare local island you should jump at the chance.

Don Fleming and I left together and paddled around the island before heading back to shore. We took a shortcut through a gap in the spit where the old part of the breakwater is washing away. When we got back near the mainland, we turned and went down a narrow channel in the artificial shoreline of Albany. This is called the "Dog Channel" by Barbara because the park land on both sides of it is a popular place for dog owners to take their dogs for exercise. A popular sport is to toss toys in the water and make the dogs charge into the water to retrieve them. Several of the dogs were very upset to see people paddling by in the water and barked at us. At the end of Dog Channel, the water went under a pedestrian bridge and spread out into several natural channels in the marshland between the park and the freeway. We turned back soon and went back to our cars. We found out later that this marsh is another sanctuary and there are lots of signs in the park telling walkers and dog owners to stay out. But there were no signs facing the water warning kayakers about this.


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Mike Higgins / mike@kayaker.net