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The East Bay's Most Excellent Adventures

As the days grow longer and the sun shines warmer, take the time to explore the East Bay's unique environs. With expert guides leading the way, Diablo paddled in cool waters, crept through historic mines, and learned useful survival skills—all to bring you the most exciting excursions right in our backyard.


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The three-hour paddle across the Oakland Estuary allows kayakers to get up close and personal with some iconic machinery as well as discover the area's maritime history and picturesque waterfront.

 

Fear Not the Water

Sometimes a moonlit kayaking trip is just as wonder as it sounds. 

By Michaela Jarvis

Kayaking along Oakland’s waterfront under a full moon sounds fabulous. I imagine myself perched between water and sky, the moon reflecting on the surface of the water as my kayak cuts through the gentle waves and fresh breezes of the Bay.

Interrupting that reverie, however, is the recommendation from the outfitter, California Canoe and Kayak, that I bring not one but two layers of quick-dry thermal underwear. Whoa. Under what circumstances might such clothing come in handy? Was this the kind of kayaking where you could tip upside down?

Upon arriving at the meeting spot in Jack London Square, I am in fact wearing the requisite two layers of thermals. Pleasantries and introductions are made among my eight fellow kayakers before we are taught how to put on kayak skirts. Also known as spray decks, these skirts are a flexible, waterproof cover for the boat with a conveniently human-size hole to shimmy into. Luckily, the donning of skirts reveals an important piece of information: Pointed questions from other kayakers prompt our friendly expert guide, Sou Saephan, to reassure us that we will “most likely” not get too wet.

Still not totally convinced, I turn my attention to Sou as he demonstrates some paddling techniques. He keeps it simple, showing us that by placing our hands wide apart on our paddles, with the longest side of the paddle facing up, we will be able to propel ourselves through the water quite efficiently. Slightly amused by those of us with little to no kayaking experience, Sou quips, “The distance we cover will depend on how straight you can paddle.”

While I pray that I have nailed Paddling 101, it’s time to get into the kayaks, which feels a bit like trying to jump through the sunroof of a car that’s lurching back and forth. Luckily, Sou takes pity on the novices and allows us to get into our tandem kayaks while still on an inflatable dock. He gently nudges our tandems off the dock—which is almost level with the water—and into the Bay.

The calm water on our three-hour guided tour provides not only a quiet and intimate connection with the elements but also a dramatically fresh visual perspective on Oakland’s waterfront. Looking toward shore, I feel like I have traveled somewhere distant and new—even though I’ve spent numerous years in the East Bay.

At one point we paddle close to a yacht that once belonged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Sou points out the onboard elevator that accommodated the president and his wheelchair. Turning our gaze to the huge, grasshopper-like shipping cranes nearby, our guide explains that the behemoth machinery was transported to Oakland by passing under the Bay Bridge, which required the ship’s captain to wait for low tide so the massive cargo could fit.

At another juncture, our floating caravan glides over to check out some cozy-looking houseboats docked across the channel in Alameda. As the evening grows darker, the smooth-as-glass water turns into a dramatic reflection of the sky.

By the end of the tour I’m starting to feel the slightest pangs of fatigue. Lucky for me, my kayak mate is both a good conversationalist and a generous paddling partner. At his urging, I relax for a few moments, enjoying the quiet ride as his oars cut through the watered path—almost forgetting that I will need to somehow pry myself out of the kayak without landing in the water.

I shouldn’t have worried though, as Sou holds our kayak stable while I struggle to get out. Despite a graceless exit, my quick-dry leggings prove, thankfully, entirely unnecessary. From $79, calkayak.com.

 

Float On

Check out some additional ways to enjoy a little H²O in the area. 

Sunset Paddles
Delta Kayak Adventures takes guests on a soothing paddle through the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta as they watch the sun set behind Mount Diablo. Great for all skill levels, this tour gives kayakers ample opportunity to spot local wildlife including beavers, otters, and aquatic birds. $54, deltakayakadventures.com.

Red Rock Island Kayak Tour San Francisco Bay
A guided tour to this 5.5-acre island near the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge provides not only an exciting adventure on the Bay but also a peek into Red Rock’s quirky history (legend has it the isle houses buried treasure), including its unrealized plans for a hotel, casino, and yacht harbor. $85, outbackadventures.com.

Lake Del Valle Scenic Boat Tour
Take a powerboat tour of Lake Del Valle and learn about the natural and cultural history of the lake and surrounding Del Valle Regional Park. Set deep in a valley, the lake is five miles long and surrounded by oak-studded hills. Tours run July 4 through September 6; it’s best to book early. $5, ebparks.org.

Stand-Up Paddle Alameda Tours
Explore Alameda island by stand-up paddleboard (SUP) with experts from Boardsports California. A bird sanctuary loop and a sunset paddle are among the four exciting excursions on offer. If you’ve never experienced SUP, take the easygoing beginners clinic first. From $39, boardsports​california​.com. —M.J.

 

In addition to the thousands of tick marks covering the sandstone walls, visitors to the mines can also see 50-million-year-old shrimp-burrow fossils hidden in the cavern’s nooks and crannies.

 

Into the Misty Mountain

Explore the forgotten mines of the Diablo Foothills at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. 

By Morgan Mitchell

On the morning of my visit, Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve—with its thick mist, lush green hills, and loudly bleating sheep—looks like something out of an English gothic novel. There’s a reason for that: “That’s all nonnative grass, brought over by European immigrants,” my knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide, Ethan Sullivan, tells the cold souls who ventured out on a wet March morning for the year’s first tour of the Hazel-Atlas sandstone mine. If nothing else, I think to myself as the light drizzle begins to pick up, we’ll be dry in the mine.

Although we start our 90-minute tour in front of the large Greathouse Portal—which tunnels straight into the hillside—Ethan takes us the long way around. We hike up a series of stairs and hills—he at a brisk trot, the rest of us at a slower plod—to the Hazel-Atlas Portal. I’m drawn to the walls surrounding the gloomy adit (a direct horizontal passage into a mine) with hundreds of carved messages and initials covering the soft stone.

“In the ’60s, before the East Bay Regional Parks took over, teenagers used to come out here after prom and have bonfires in the mines,” Ethan explains. Further evidence of this can be seen just past the mine’s gate (after we’ve been equipped with hard hats, of course). “See all those black streaks on the ceiling?” Ethan asks, pointing up. “That’s not coal. That’s soot from the bonfires.”

The mine is far less claustrophobic and better lit than I had anticipated, but just as cold as the world we’ve left behind. “During the summer, it can reach 110 degrees outside, but it’s always 54 to 58 degrees in here,” we’re told. Considering we’re in the mine for around an hour, I do not envy the uninformed summer tourists who must freeze in their shorts and tank tops.

Packing in facts about the history and geology of the mine with every breath, Ethan shows us a brief slideshow before we wander down the narrow path that generations of miners took before us. Though the information is interesting, I’m more pleased to see the thousands of little tick marks covering the mine, evidence of Black Diamond’s three current resident miners, who prod every inch of wall multiple times a year to ensure no stones are loose.

Toward the end of our quarter-mile journey into the earth, the mine opens up and ceilings soar to 30 feet above our heads. Reckless miners blew this area wide open, scrambling to collect as much sandstone as possible before the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company shut down operations in the 1940s. They intended for the cavern to eventually collapse in on itself, but the Park District stabilized it, Ethan explains, as we explore the cavern for a few minutes.

Before leaving, he quiets us and tells us to listen. We all strain our ears, but there’s nothing to hear—not the wind, not the rain, and not even the sheep. He smiles when we look back at him. “Silence,” he says. “You don’t get that anywhere else.” $5, ebparks.org.

 

Terra Firma

For more interesting land-based activities, try these guided jaunts.

Vasco Caves Regional Preserve Tour
The rock outcroppings that pop up in the golden foothills of Livermore make up the Vasco Caves. In order to protect the preserve’s rare flora and fauna, this tour is only available during fall, winter, and spring. Visitors are encouraged to call ahead or go online to make a reservation. From $30, ebparks.org.

Mount Wanda Full Moon Walk
The John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez offers a variety of seasonal programs including a guided hike on neighboring Mount Wanda. Join National Park Service rangers in June for a moderate mile-long trek to watch the full moon rise over Mount Diablo. Free, nps.gov/jomu.

Private Rock Climbing Trips
If you want to scale new heights, let Outdoor Adventure Club organize a solo or group climbing trip to various locations around the Bay Area, including Cragmont Park in Berkeley. A private guide tailors the day’s activities and provides all necessary equipment. From $400, outdooradventureclub.com.

Discover Diablo Guided Hikes
Save Mount Diablo hosts this guided hiking series that allows outdoor enthusiasts to learn about their wild environs while working up a bit of a sweat. Upcoming hikes include a Marsh Creek amble, a Round Valley sunset hike, and more. Free, save​mountdiablo.com. —Lauren Bonney​

 

Attendees learn survival skills, such as foraging, craftsmanship, and fire building, as well as techniques like batoning (the act of using a baton-like stick to drive a blade into a piece of wood to split or cut it).

 

Survival of the ​Unfittest

A Berkeley-based group teaches much-needed outdoor survival skills to the hapless public.

By Kristen Haney

My first flesh wound occurs roughly five minutes into Trackers Earth’s Adult Wilderness Survival Basics course. It’s an inauspicious start, especially considering it’s a self-inflicted abrasion from jamming my finger in a glitchy public-restroom lock. But if there’s one thing the half day of outdoor survival training at Camp Herms in El Cerrito will teach me, it’s that sometimes learning to stay alive isn’t easy—and seemingly benign things might maim (or kill) you.

As someone better versed in navigating public transportation than our public trail system, I don’t have a high estimation of my aptitude for survival in the woods—and both friends and family have deemed me least likely to survive an apocalypse. So in the hopes of bettering myself (and my chances of not becoming zombie food), I turn to Trackers Earth, a Berkeley-based group focused on teaching survival and homesteading skills, and their newbie-friendly, six-hour basic wilderness survival class.

“I bring no skills,” one of my fellow budding survivalists states without shame as we make introductions. Another glumly reveals that her friends laughed at her when she brought a body pillow on an overnight backpacking trip. “My only skill might be my strength,” says a third, with a well-muscled shrug. It soon becomes apparent that our group of 10—while rich in self-awareness—brings very little to the table beyond gumption and a common desire to “make fire.”

Luckily, our guides, Hannah Sabet and Andy Lawrence, have both skill and a seemingly endless supply of positivity, leading our pack of ill-fitted survivalists through a day of foraging, fire making, and weapon flinging. We begin with a simple hike, plucking growth, such as miner’s lettuce and milk thistle, to munch on as we traverse the path.

“What does this remind you of?” asks Hannah, pointing to a dying shrub that looks suspiciously like fennel. My first instinct to eat it is incorrect, as it’s poison hemlock; if consumed, it will slowly shut down your internal organs until you expire. Foraging doesn’t appear to be my forte.

Following our foraging foray, it’s time for fire. We’re each given a knife to wield, and I’m already nervous, based on how poorly I was able to engage a restroom lock. Thankfully, we just create a pile of wood shavings and prep sticks and branches for fire. When the hard work starts, the group foolishly insists on forgoing the handy flint fire starters in favor of trying to will a fire into being using a bow and hand drills. While I’m great at holding the base of the hand drill, I’m less adept at creating a coal or spark.

Just as I’m about to resign myself to another basic survival failure, I make an important discovery: I am well suited to craftsmanship. The same puny hands that struggled to make fire have nimble fingers just right for twirling rope from sinew and braiding paracord bracelets. (I hope our future society accepts rope as barter for protection.)

And, as it turns out, I have an affinity for a form of defense: archery. Our day culminates in projectiles, including knife and tomahawk throwing and archery, albeit with foam-padded arrows. By the end of the outing, I am successfully dodging the slings and arrows (literally, during a “dodge arrow” fight) that the great outdoors are throwing at me. I return sweaty, triumphant, and slightly more confident that I probably won’t be the first of my immediate acquaintances to become zombie chow.

Will Trackers Earth stop you from shutting your own finger in restroom locks? No. But will it give you the skills to feel slightly more prepared at whatever life—and the great outdoors—has in store for you? Absolutely. $75, trackersearth.com.

 

Adventures in Learning

These informative outings mix natural escapades with education.

Bird Walks
Both novice and advanced birders can learn something from the expert naturalist guides on these monthly excursions with East Bay Nature. Each short hike explores a different East Bay wildlife hot spot (including an upcoming walk in Briones Regional Park in June) and ends with coffee and doughnuts. Free, www.eastbaynature.com.

Ohlone Village Site Tour
Gain an understanding of the East Bay’s original inhabitants, the Ohlone, by investigating the remains of one of their villages at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont. An instructor leads visitors through a half mile of marshlands to the more than 2,000-year-old site to explore Ohlone culture. Free, ebparks.org.

Plants of the World
The 34-acre UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley hosts numerous outings and talks on topics ranging from biblical botany to psychedelic plants, but its recurring tour focuses on the garden’s diversity, showcasing seasonal vegetation and unique aspects of the expansive collection. $12, botanicalgarden​.berkeley.edu.

East Bay Urban Farm Tour
Bay Area Green Tours offers dozens of guided experiences to introduce people to local sustainability in action. The Urban Farm Tour stops at community gardens and market cooperatives in Berkeley, Oakland, and Contra Costa County, highlighting urban agriculture and food accessibility. Pricing varies, bayarea​greentours.org. —M.M.

 

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