Paddle to the Sea

This is a guest blog post co-authored by the Tuolumne River Trust’s three Paddle to the Sea Principal Paddlers (Luigi Ryan, Monica Greene, and Aly Cheney), all of whom recently completed the Trust’s annual paddle from the Sierra to the Sea. Edits made by Rebecca Stievater, Paddle to the Sea Event Coordinator at the Tuolumne River Trust.

Paddle to the Sea is the Tuolumne River Trust’s annual paddle-a-thon from Yosemite to the Golden Gate Bridge. It funds the Trust’s many wonderful programs, including restoration efforts for both the watershed itself and in the area affected by the 2013 Rim Fire, environmental education programs, and advocacy work to support sustainable water use. The event takes paddlers through the whitewater rapids of the Sierras down into the Central Valley, through the cities of Modesto and Stockton, out into the Delta, across the Bay, and finally under the Golden Gate Bridge. For our 2015 event, we had a total of 18 on-water days between May 9 and June 13.

Paddle to the Sea can be a hard event for people to wrap their heads around. As a Principal Paddler and intern for Paddle to the Sea it was even hard to conceptualize what the event would entail before starting my journey down the Tuolumne. Through the experience however, it has proven to be a quintessential example of “learning through doing” and a form of experiential education.

Sailing team gets ready to embark on the first sailing leg, out of Andreas Cove Yacht Club in the Delta
Sailing team gets ready to embark on the first sailing leg, out of Andreas Cove Yacht Club in the Delta

The event is so much more than just a paddle-a-thon to raise money for the Tuolumne River Trust. The river itself connects the rafters, fly fishermen, and hikers of the Sierras, to the farmers of the Central Valley, to the millions of people in the Bay Area who rely on the Tuolumne for their drinking water. Paddle to the Sea brings together so many people of different backgrounds and environmental needs and connects them through a celebration of this wonderful river. Everyone who paddles with us learns about the rich history of this state as it relates to our use of natural resources as well as the riparian ecology associated with each leg. Paddlers who do multiple legs learn the ways in which the water changes throughout the trip; they come out with a “big picture” understanding of how interconnected all the water users throughout California truly are. Although most paddlers only do one or two legs of the journey, the three Tuolumne River Trust interns (Luigi Ryan, Monica Greene, and Aly Cheney) paddled the whole event this year.

This is their story of the end of the 2015 journey, crossing San Francisco Bay from Benicia to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Aly and Tex navigate the waters of the San Francisco Bay-Delta
Aly and Tex navigate the waters of the San Francisco Bay-Delta

Sunday, June 7, 2015: Leg 16, Sailing into San Francisco Bay

Soon after we left Benicia Marina we found ourselves entering San Pablo Bay, which would mark Paddle to the Sea’s arrival into San Francisco Bay. Here we were fortunate to be able to sit back, soak up the sun, and admire the beautiful surroundings, while moving along at a speed of 6-7 knots. The landscape had opened up dramatically – the water met the sky on the horizon, and there were scenic rolling hills on either side. We had the radio on for this stretch – although I was still getting my head around the availability of such luxuries, as further up river you couldn’t even get cell coverage. Ron Kuris, our captain, described the days weather as ‘perfect sailing conditions’, and told us that this was by far the best day of sailing he had enjoyed in this part of the Bay.

A picturesque sunset approaching Benicia
A picturesque sunset approaching Benicia

As we left San Pablo Bay behind and continued out into San Francisco Bay, we started to feel those winds that we had been lucky enough to avoid thus far. The Bay feels so vast and expansive (especially compared to the narrow, winding stretches of river we canoed on earlier in our journey), making it vulnerable to winds from all directions. We could just make out the outline of San Francisco peering through the Richmond Bridge – some of the views here are a photographer’s dream.

As we came out around Point San Pablo, we suddenly found ourselves in a race with a large cargo ship to get around the two little islands just ahead. One of these islands is called ‘The Brothers’ – Ron told us there was an exclusive bed & breakfast on the island. You could imagine waking up looking out into the Bay from your own little piece of paradise. The other island next to it, which was not privately owned, was serving as a temporary home to various migrating birds – pretty cool!

First view of San Francisco, through the Richmond Bridge
First view of San Francisco, through the Richmond Bridge

As we approached the Richmond Bridge, Ron and Monica made some alterations to the sails in preparation for the Bay conditions ahead, and I took the helm. Next, we came upon Red Rock Island, which was exactly as you imagine – red and extremely beautiful, with its own little sandy beach. Ron told us that they used it as a stop off point to enjoy lunch in prior years of Paddle to the Sea, when participants actually kayaked these legs! In recent years we have decided to sail these legs due to safety concerns.

As predicted, the water became more of a challenge as we neared the Berkeley Yacht Club. We didn’t have a whole lot more tacking to do, but we did have to keep a watch out for the smaller sailboats, as Ron informed us that there were beginners out getting lessons with sailing schools.  We noticed people having to sit on the high side (the side up out of the water). and even though I had taken the wheel myself in these choppy waters, I had to tip my Paddle to the Sea hat to them.

Sea kayaking along the Oakland estuary, getting ready for our bay crossing, led by California Canoe & Kayak
Sea kayaking along the Oakland estuary, getting ready for our bay crossing, led by California Canoe & Kayak

Friday, June 12th: Leg 17, Sea Kayaking, Oakland to San Francisco

After a few days of following the sailing legs, on Friday, we met up at California Canoe and Kayak in Oakland and were fit into our kayaks by our guide, Matt Krizan. It was a beautiful day with the sun shining brightly. The seven of us (three Principal Paddlers, plus some Tuolumne River Trust staff members and guests) started in the estuary between Oakland and Alameda and we immediately had to be aware of our place in the water as we were next to a sailboat making its way out into the Bay. It was interesting to be so mindful of ourselves: we were so defenseless and had to be conscious of our locations at all times. This was quite a change from our previous position of kayaking down the river without a care, the only boats out there at times.

Here we saw a Coast Guard ship getting some hull work done in a dry dock. Tiny kayaks for size comparison!
Lots of activity on the estuary – here we saw a Coast Guard ship getting some hull work done in a dry dock. Tiny kayaks for size comparison!

It was fun to see all the happenings going on in the estuary that day, as we paddled right by the Port of Oakland with its huge cranes and multi-colored cargo containers. We made our way out to the opening of the Bay, and as we approached, the water conditions changed drastically. The calm and smooth waters of the estuary quickly turned into tricky currents with strong winds. Our expert guide navigated the waters, and while the route was not obvious to the untrained eye, he was working with the currents to get us across in the most efficient manner. At one point we paddled directly in front of a tanker and it was incredible to be so close to something so massive, especially when we were in such small vessels ourselves. With the sun shining and the current fighting with us, we made it through the last stretch to reach the shores of San Francisco.

Getting ready to launch from Aquatic Park for the final leg of Paddle to the Sea 2015
Getting ready to launch from Aquatic Park for the final leg of Paddle to the Sea 2015

Saturday June 13, 2015: Leg 18, Sea kayaking to the Golden Gate Bridge

Our put-in location was ideal for the last leg of the journey. We had a lovely stretch of sandy beach down at Aquatic Park in San Francisco. There are many similar little beaches stretched out along the shore line, in addition to some lovely parks and green areas for people to sit and enjoy the views. Joining us Principal Paddlers on the water for the final leg of our journey were over twenty kayakers, signed up as one-day participants for Paddle to the Sea. It was so great to have them out with us as it made it feel like a big celebration to be out on the water. And in many ways, it was! We had paddled (and rafted and sailed and kayaked) all the way from the Sierra to the Sea.

Even this early in the morning, Aquatic Park was a hub of activity. There were people out swimming – I don’t mean they ran in, had a dip, and ran out; they were swimming laps along the buoy line in the protected cove. There was a great buzz about the place, and once everyone had received their gear, provided by California Canoe and Kayak, we sat in our kayaks as Matt and the volunteer guides ran us through a fun and informative safety talk. As an aside, I would highly recommend California Canoe & Kayak to anyone interested in learning to sea kayak or looking to do a lengthier trip like we have just done – they are the best and will open your eyes to the beauty that surrounds this fantastic Bay!

Our first objective was to maneuver around the swimmers that were taking full advantage of the cool morning. They weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves as there was plenty of life out on the water. We saw sailboats, ferries, and hats off to the windsurfers and racing kayakers we observed taking full advantage of our glorious natural resource for recreational enjoyment. I was aware of the sea lions that rested at Pier 39 but I was still startled by the sudden emergence of a sea lion’s head above the water no more than a few feet from my kayak. Unfortunately not the best place to try to whip out a camera in a hurry so I didn’t get to snap a picture!

The paddlers made it to the Golden Gate Bridge!
The paddlers made it to the Golden Gate Bridge!

Once we reached the Golden Gate Bridge, we all gathered together side by side for a group photo. As for us Principal Paddlers, Monica, Aly and I, this is where it felt that we had truly made it! We had paddled from the Sierra to the Sea. I never for a moment thought that the best views of the city would be from the water, but sitting in the water at Golden Gate Bridge, it was truly breathtaking, and I would recommend to everyone to get out here and experience the beauty, fun, and friendships that come with these kind of activities. We didn’t hang about here long as the current was picking up, with small white caps forming on the waves. It was exhilarating to feel the kayaks surf the waves as they whisked us along. I almost found myself capsizing, with my initial reaction to hold out my hand. I quickly remembered our safety talk and leaned back to hold my head centered on the kayak, and thankfully I didn’t have to go for an involuntary swim.

Turning in around the pier towards the shore, it really triggered mixed emotions. Even words at times proved difficult to express what we had experienced on our journey down through the Tuolumne watershed, from the Sierra, into the Central Valley, down through the Delta, across the Bay, and out to the sea at the Golden Gate Bridge. The flashes of life along the river on our journey were nothing compared to the hub of activity that was evident across the Bay even first thing in the morning. It was great to see so many people out enjoying recreational activities on the water here in the city. Little by little, we made our way back to the shore to a chorus of cheers from Tuolumne River Trust members, staff, volunteers, and even members of the public just passing by on foot or on bikes, of which there was quite a crowd developing.

Safe and sound back on dry land - Paddle to the Sea 2015 is a wrap!
Safe and sound back on dry land – Paddle to the Sea 2015 is a wrap!

The day was made even more special as we were treated to a lovely picnic (special thanks to Tuolumne River Trust Board Member Camille King for putting this together). A great finish to a great day, and an even more memorable event. With organizations like the Tuolumne River Trust and Save the Bay, I know California’s water and watersheds are in good hands, but they can’t do it alone. Please support these two causes as much as you possibly can, and make sure not to miss the fun next year for Paddle to the Sea.

If you are interested in participating in Paddle to the Sea in future years, please visit paddletothesea.org for more info, or contact paddle@tuolumne.org. If you’d like to read more about our paddlers’ 2015 journey from the Sierra to the Sea, check out our full blog at paddletothesea2015.wordpress.com.

2 thoughts on “Paddle to the Sea

    1. Thanks for your great work! Maybe next year we can share part your journey in person. 🙂

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