Petaluma Parks: Alman Marsh at dawn gives nature a closeup
At the trailhead that marks one edge of Petaluma’s Alman Marsh Open Space, there are already a few cars parked in the corner of the Marina parking lot closest to the river, in the shadow of the Sheraton Hotel. Just after sunrise on a not-too-cool-but-not-too warm Monday morning, a jogger comes into view, half-sprinting across the bridge that stands a short ways up the trail, slows as he passes the kiosk that marks the entrance to the park and bird sanctuary, and stops to stretch a moment at his pickup truck.
“Nice morning out there,” he says. “Not a lot of people here yet.”
Considering its proximity to the much-used Shollenberger Park, which abuts Alman Marsh on the opposite end from where the jogger has begun and ended his daybreak workout, “not a lot of people here” could be the motto of Alman Marsh. Despite its convenient placement directly between two busy destination points, there have generally been far fewer runners, walkers or cyclists choosing to explore the 24-acre wetland area. It’s true that, from the trail at Shollenberger, where a bridge over Adobe Creek leads into Alman Marsh, and even from the Marina side of the preserve, it doesn’t look like much.
One has to step inside and begin wandering the well-sculpted, surprisingly nonlinear pathway - one flat but meandering mile to the course’s conclusion at Shollenberger - to truly appreciate how special this sometimes-soggy slice of ecological significance really is.
The marina-side kiosk and bench, according to Alman Marsh fan Susan Kirks, was funded by a $10,000 gift courtesy of the Madrone Audubon Society. A sign near the trailhead says, “This kiosk, funded by the Madrone Audubon Society, was built as a memorial to Doug Ellis, a superb naturalist and birder. Ellis, points out Kirks, was one of Sonoma County’s most knowledgeable owlers of all time.
At dawn, no owls are present, but the place is nevertheless a raucous riot of birdsong, the music makers a bit easier to hear than to see as you follow the path over an array of wooden bridges, across the occasional elevated walkway above what can seasonally be a swampy mush of mud and water. A network of channels and waterways open up here-and-there to show ducks at work or play, surface-skimming birds, and warblers trampolining from perch to perch along the water’s edge. Careful visitors can sometimes spy river otter, foxes, snakes and lizards, and deer among the grasses. The diminutive Black Rail lives here, too, as does the once-notoriously controversial Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse, peacefully unaware that its very name and endangered classification have been the topic of heated debate on numerous occasions in the halls of power in Washington, D.C. as well as in Sacramento.
Purchased by the city of Petaluma in the 1980s, the space was used for various purposes - including pastureland and a dumping ground - until it was returned to its natural wetlands by breaching the old levee near the river. Now a blend of brackish tidal wetlands and pastural uplands, the place is considered biologically sensitive - one of the reasons no dog are allowed in Alman Marsh except on a leash.
The entire wetlands area, including Shollenberger and the Ellis Creek area on the other side of it, has been designated an environment of international importance, so-named by the Union for Conservation Nature in Switzerland. The designation reportedly puts Petaluma on a list of other significant major environments including The Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil.
This morning, though, as a pair early-rising fisherwomen set up for a morning alongside the river, and a mother coaxes her sleepy children along the riverside boardwalk with promises of seeing baby ducks in the channels, Alman Marsh seem like its own world, away from everything and (almost) everyone else.
As the light spreads and the temperature rises, the walk across the marsh is deeply pleasant and contemplatively serene. Not that it doesn’t bring the occasional challenges, as the trail is quite narrow in several places - less than three feet for considerable stretches - making one glad there are not more people present, since basic courtesy and social distancing pretty much requires a person to step into the sometime thick grasses to avoid violation anyone’s personal of epidemiological space.
Just before the bridge that links Alman Marsh to Shollenberger, stopping beneath a half-canopy of high bushes, the birdsong grows even more vivid. Hundreds of birds can be seen across the field, along either side of - and occasional into the watery coolness of - Adobe Creek. Closing one’s eyes, you can imagine you’ve entered a city of birds, its residents industriously springing to life at the start of a new day.
From here, a visitor could either take the two-mile loop around the pond at Shollenberger, or walk the easy mile back to the Marina. With so much to see and listen to right here, however, it hardly seems necessary to rush the decision. For a few minutes more, why not just stand still, eyes shut, lingering a moment longer in this city of birds at the edge of a marsh of international significance?
There are few better ways to start a new day in Petaluma.