Marsh through Time
Just as there are many different kinds of bird-oriented activities that take place in the early morning on a tidal wetland like the one at Sears Point, where the avian residents can be seen standing, strutting, floating, diving, digging, soaring, landing, lunging and taking off into the air, the human visitors to this lush wildlife refuge at the far end of Lakeville Highway tend to sort themselves into similar categories: the walkers, the runners, the bike-riders, the dog-walkers, the bird-watchers, the picture-takers and the folks who simply sit on a bench quietly and watch it all happen.
To get there, most Petalumans drive out Lakeville to where it meets Highway 37, and instead of turning left or right, simply motor across and onto the small-ish Reclamation Road that runs between two large fields until it dead ends at the parking lot. Though not technically a Petaluma park, so many locals are discovering it, a visit to the Sears Point Wetlands seemed appropriate in our nearly-completed series of locally centered parks and opens paces.
On a recent Saturday morning, around 9 a.m., the fog was still hanging heavily, with a slight chill accompanying it, making new human arrivals glad they’d thought to wear a heavy jacket. But less than an hour later, scrappy patches of sunny blue began appearing through the gray overhead gloom, and within 30 minutes, with the sun bearing down hot and unhindered by clouds, the jacket soon seemed like a bad idea.
One gets an immediate hit of humanity-meeting-nature at the expansive park, which primarily consists of long, straight, flat, even and unencumbered paved walkways along the levee that separates a marshy portion of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge from vast fields of farmland and recently reclaimed wetlands. In the 1800s, farmers built the levees to convert pieces of the marsh into farmable fields. Now the various levee trails - and other linear infrastructure such as a railroad line and small road - run parallel to the marsh spreading out for miles, just one piece of the 20-square mile refuge that touches Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties.
In 2016, a new trail along the Dickson Ranch property, 1,000-acres of which were purchased by the Sonoma Land Trust and intentionally flooded by a strategic levee breach in October of 2015, was officially added to the refuge. The multi-million dollar project was made possible by an alliance of organizations that include the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and the Dickson family.
The Dickson Trail gives fantastic views of how nature is already reclaiming the former pastures. Native pickleweed spreads far and wide, lined here and there by waterways cutting through the vegetation, an abundant array of flowers and brush adding random colors, like a painter’s dropcloth drying in the sun. The habitat created by the five-year-old levee breach is already the home of countless species, from clapper rails, osprey, song sparrows and common yellowthroats to salt marsh harvest mice, coyotes, jackrabbits and wandering shrews. On the mudflat side of the trail, views extend all the way to Marin County, while closer in you can see scores of shorebirds working the tide, with countless green-and-brown marsh mounds jutting up like tiny islands out in the open water. Careful viewers can sometimes see river otters hunting for fish and crabs.
In the opposite direction, the Baylands Trail heads 2.5 miles along the marsh in the direction of Vallejo, providing wide-open views of the mudflats and exceptional nature-watching opportunities on the farmland side. You might spy on turkey vultures, for instance, perched on fenceposts like a row of feathered scarecrows, drying their outstretched, fog-wettened wings in the sunshine. Turning toward the mudflats, you could see an amorphous cloud of tiny birds swarming like insects over the surface, while mysterious objects (is it alive?) bob in and out of the water further in.
Speaking of insects, they live here too. And they are hungry. Also, there is no shade-cover at all here, so experienced visitors, many arriving in family groups with bicycles and leashed dogs in tow, all appear to have proper head coverings and water in their possession. The trails here tend to be wide enough for good social distancing, with plenty of spots to step out of the way of passing pedestrians, and a scattered number of benches and interpretive nature displays to add to the experience. Of those visiting last Saturday, with almost no exceptions, the majority seemed to be sporting face masks when approaching others on the trail.
Though seemingly distant and remote, the Sears Point wetlands area is clearly doing for people what the great ecosystem has done for animals and birds for centuries. It’s bringing them together - though distant and respectful- in one of the richest, wildest, most diverse and meditatively gorgeous spots in the North Bay.