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Petaluma Parks: A morning at Shollenberger

THE PARKS OF PETALUMA

This is No. 19 of a multi-part series, taking an in-depth look at the parks and park-related facility in the town of Petaluma. You can reach David Templeton at david.templeton@arguscourier.com. To learn more about the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance, and to order a copy of the Petaluma Wetlands Field Guide, visit PetalumaWetlands.org.

The parking lot at Shollenberger Park, or what’s left of it, is full.

At just after 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning, exactly half of the existing parking spaces have been closed off to vehicles, an attempt at minimizing the number of people congregating at this popular nature trail and birdwatching spot. Visitors do not seem to be dissuaded from dropping by, however. With the remaining spots filled, folks are simply parking outside the lot on adjoining streets, then moseying in for a daytime jaunt around the mostly dry pond that still boasts a fair number of birds doing bird-like things in the warm May sunlight. For many, it’s their first time at Shollenberger since the park closures were lifted, and though roughly half of those here are wearing face coverings, it’s the only clear sign that the well-used Petaluma park is operating under strict pandemic restrictions.

A small notice strongly suggesting social distancing and masks is posted at the entrance, near the still-closed bathrooms at the edge of the parking lot. On a warm, welcoming day like this, it’s clear that many of the folks visiting today are seeking a sense of normal by grabbing some fresh air, some exercise, and some gorgeous views of the natural world.

Primarily a -2-mile unpaved walking trail around a 228.7-acre expanse of wetlands, the park in its current incarnation is the result of dredging spoils deposited here to create various berms and habitats. Named for Richard Shollenberger, a former Parks Chief, the spot was once known as Cader Lake Ponds, and is accessible primarily through an entrance off Cader Lane, not far from Lakeville Highway. Opened to the public in 1995, Shollenberger Park has become a huge tourist and resident attraction, drawing around 150,000 visitors every year. It’s also a huge attraction to birds, many species of which use the area as a wintering spot, during the months when rainwater fills the recessed expanse.

Much of the area usually filled with water is dry today, the result of low rainfall during the winter period. For those who have been unable to visit, Shollenberger is gorgeous regardless of how full the pond is.

“This is my first time back here for months,” points out John Shribbs, President of the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance, which oversees much of the park’s educational programs and trail upkeep. Shribbs has ridden his bike here today, and is looking forward to inspecting the trails for the first time since the park was shuttered in March. “We just allowed a couple of our maintenance guys back in here,” he says, “using social distancing of six feet, and always wearing mask when they work. We help maintain the trails, and we do the benches and informational kiosks. We do education tours and all that, but for two months, we haven’t done a thing, so I’m interested to see what condition the place is in.”

Shribbs is the co-author of the Petaluma Wetlands Field Guide, a bestselling local manual describing all of the birds, animals and plant life that can be found at Shollenberger and its adjoining open space areas, the Alman Marsh and the Ellis Creek water treatment facility. This makes Shollenberger the only park in Petaluma that has its very own guidebook.

“One of the last times I was out here was the start of March, when we did one of our classroom programs here,” says Nora Pearl, a longtime docent at Shollenberger and an active board member of the PWA. “Most of us docents are seniors, so when things started getting serious, a lot of us stopped coming out here, as much as we love it, because of how narrow the trails are. With the mustard growing alongside the trails, they are even narrower now, so a lot of the docents have realized that, with so many people using the trails but not wearing masks, coming within a few feet of others, it’s just not safe anymore. It’s very sad, because a lot of us have worked so hard to make this place such a wonderful place to visit.”

For that reason, Pearl doubts there will be any docent-led activities at Shollenberger this summer or in the fall, when schools traditionally come out for field trips.

“We generally run about 20 to 30 classroom visits out here,” says Shribbs. “That’s about 800 students, learning about the wetlands and importance of environments like this one. We usually do Saturday morning walks, twice a month. But we may not start that up again for some time. We’ll probably err on the side of safety and just keep them closed down to it’s a little safer for the at-risk population.”

The average volunteer base for those activates is about 70-years-old, estimates Shribbs.

THE PARKS OF PETALUMA

This is No. 19 of a multi-part series, taking an in-depth look at the parks and park-related facility in the town of Petaluma. You can reach David Templeton at david.templeton@arguscourier.com. To learn more about the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance, and to order a copy of the Petaluma Wetlands Field Guide, visit PetalumaWetlands.org.

“It’s a highly compromised group,” he adds with a laugh, “so we have to be very careful.”

A leisurely walk around the park gives credence to Shribbs and Pearl’s concerns.

Numerous family groups are present, on foot and on bike, and apparently assuming there would be plenty of space to allow for social distancing, many of them are without any face coverings. This leads to countless incidents, within a one-hour period, of people forced pass each other, many breathing hard as they ran or jog by, on paths that are rarely 6-feet wide at the most.

For those able to take their minds off the constant threat of exposure on the trail, there are plenty of sights to see. Red winged blackbirds in the trees and grasses, some perched improbably close to the trail for optimum photographic proximity. Along the river, cliff swallows by the dozens are scooping exposed mud into their beaks, then flying up into nests they’ve made beneath the observation and fishing structure that juts out toward the water. On the side of the pond where there is still quite a bit of water, ducks and swans and other birds form clusters and patterns across the glassy surface.

“It’s really a beautiful place,” says Pearl. “Eventually, once things get back to normal, we have some nice things planned, for children and all the other visitors.”

Shribbs points out an area near the entrance where a small amphitheater has been given approval to be built, with classes and the occasional special events taking place there.

“Till then,” he says, “a lot of the visits and education things we do here will probably have to be done virtually. We’re looking into starting some virtual tours, so people who are concerned about safety can at least get a little bit of enjoyment out of this place, which really was built for everyone.”

Asked if there’s any chance that the park could be shut down again, Shribbs nods.

“I hope not, but let’s see how people do at following the distancing guidelines,” he says. “If people don’t use the park with respect for each other, and not just themselves, than it’s always possible the county will close it again. I’m hoping for the best, myself. I really don’t want to go another two months staying away.”

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