Outdoors in San Francisco

Outdoors in San Francisco

Best of the Bay 2007
By Amanda Witherell

Like many before me, and probably many to come, I arrived in San Francisco with almost nothing: rope-burned palms, a seabag full of molding, salt-crusted laundry, and the stub of my one-way plane ticket in the back pocket of my only decent pair of jeans.

I’d spent the past month aboard a 130-foot wooden schooner, the Harvey Gamage, known with scornful affection among the crew as “Heavy Damage.” I’d gone to sea for the same reasons I’d always gone before – because I loved being on the water and I wasn’t sure what else to do. I had it in mind that once we got to Charleston, S.C., I would know if I should find another berth or if it was time to move on with my life. There was a boy I loved who’d left me for UC Berkeley, and I had a feeling he might be too good to let go of.

The Gamage lived up to her nickname that trip – we dodged a couple of hurricanes, splintered a mizzenmast spar, nursed a generator through the later stages of cancer, and lost crew at every port of call. By the time we made fast the dock lines in South Carolina, I had made up my mind. I would swallow the anchor.

And so I came to a town that’s surrounded by water. The beloved boy came and went, but I got another pair of jeans, a place to call home, and a few spare furnishings. I called my dad and told him to sell my car and ship my bicycle, which has become my solitary mode of transport and my primary source of recreation. When I gave up the sailor’s life for the reporter’s pen, I also traded long, raw days among the elements for a stuffy office and a flickering computer screen. At the end of the day, I need to get outside.

My favorite ride is along the 30 or so miles of our perimeter. It’s a patrol of our borders, a self-guided tour of our varied coasts, and a visual lesson in the true cost of development. First I “wiggle” my way out of the center of the city into the Panhandle and head west, hanging a left onto Sunset Boulevard, looping around Lake Merced, and hitting the open road of the Great Highway along Ocean Beach.

From there I point north, up the heights of Sutro and into the Presidio via El Camino del Mar, through a landscape that always feels slightly haunted to me, as if everything that lives and grows here must be prepared to die at any moment – from the US Army base that once occupied it to the rare native species trying to reclaim what is now a national park.

There’s a stiff breeze coming in through the Golden Gate, making the stretch along Crissy Field a downwind leg, my jersey puffed forward like a spinnaker, drawing me east. Fisherman’s Wharf, no matter the hour, is like running the gauntlet, but I usually emerge onto the Embarcadero only slightly battered.

Here’s where it gets interesting, where I start to wonder what will become of this city. The southern waterfront, really everything past AT&T Park, is the abused ex-lover of industry, shipping, and the military. Redevelopment has been scattered and slow, starting with the UCSF Mission Bay campus, more redolent of some futuristic fortress than a lofty center of higher education. Nearly everything else around it is either Superfund or super-underfunded, with great swaths of coastline dominated by empty warehouses and vacant lots locked away behind chain-link fences.

Tucked away here and there are the holdouts of a living coast – the Bayview Boat Club, where the word “yacht” curls the lips of members; the Agua Vista Public Fishing Pier, where it’s possible to actually get up close to the water and, if you dare, dip your feet in; Heron’s Head Park, where the diligent work of volunteers has supplanted a toxic waste site with a migratory bird bar. But high-rises are beginning to rear their blocky heads, and every day the air is filled with the shudder and thunk of construction as these buildings become a wall between the city and the sea. The wall blocks more than the view. It halts the flow of air. It pushes away the smell of the sea, the damp feel of the fog.

Still, there’s a certain spot along Third Street, around where 18th Street stutters to an end, that still smells like the ocean. You have to be out in the air, walking or running, skating or pedaling a bike, to catch it, and it has to be early in the morning – before the hot press of human industry cranks into high gear. That smell stops me, a girl who gave up her life on the sea to be here, in my tracks.

That special scent, which always reminds me of the white flesh of a very fresh watermelon rind, is actually dimethyl sulfide, a gas that’s released when phytoplankton die. The higher the concentration of the minuscule sea creatures, the stronger that ocean smell. Phytoplankton are the lowest of the low on Neptune’s food chain, but their death is the herald of life. Seabirds tune in to it when they’re searching for food, and as any good whale watcher or fisherman knows, you follow the birds if you want to find something worthwhile.

So to me it’s a sign of hope to stand among the spoils of industry and still be able to encounter that particular smell, slipping in through the construction sites. It gives me hope that some visionary leader or driven community activist will smell it too and develop a real plan for restoring our eastern edge. Once upon a time high-rise condos were the vision for Fort Mason, and Alcatraz Island was going to host a casino. We have Rep. Phillip Burton’s prescience back in 1972 to thank for Golden Gate National Recreation Area and all the beauty of our western and northern shores. Who will we thank, I wonder, for the restoration of our eastern one?

Originally published July 18, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian