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Sonoma Baylands, the ‘big sky country’

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Sears Point Wetlands

Since the new segment of the Bay Trail opened in May, the Sears Point Wetland Restoration site along the northern edge of San Pablo Bay has become a scenic destination for recreation seekers. Here are a few of the opportunities available:
Walk: Up to 10 miles of trails along the evolving marsh are open sunrise to sunset. Take a cell phone audio tour of Sears Point using the Point by Canogle app, which downloads free at Google Play and iTunes Store.
Paddle: Take advantage of a put-in in the new tidal restoration site for a several-mile jaunt around the marsh mounds.
Birdwatch: Hundreds of thousands of birds migrate to the San Francisco Bay estuary each winter. Set up your spotting scopes along the levees or take advantage of the Winter Bird Walks on San Pablo Bay, first and third Saturdays December through February, 9:30 –11 a.m., free, register at sonomalandtrust.org.
Learn: Docents offer Tidal Marsh Interpretations 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays, no registration needed.
Where: Access all of these activities on Reclamation Road, directly south of the Highway 37 / Lakeville Highway intersection. Park on the east side of Reclamation Road and follow a short trail to the restoration site.

Editor’s Note: To the south, Sonoma and Napa counties melt into San Pablo Bay, a coastline of many marshy miles. When healthy, those wetlands function like natural sponges, filtering toxins and absorbing water from tidal surges and rising sea levels. Since 1996, the Sonoma Land Trust has been working to restore portions of that marshland, often breaching levees built by farmers to keep the water out. Here, historical ecologist Arthur Dawson explains the land’s history and its valuable environmental attributes.

The Sonoma Baylands have been nicknamed “big sky country,” and they are. Standing by the edge of the bay, there is a delicious sense of solitude. Millions of people live nearby, but you may not see a single one of them, even though the horizon stretches all the way to Mount Diablo and Tamalpais.

It wasn’t always this way. Fifteen thousand years ago you would have seen a wide valley, greened by countless creeks and dotted with the villages of the First Peoples. Across that valley flowed an enormous river, carrying half the runoff of California. A tremendous roar filled the Golden Gate, as all that water poured over a steep cascade on its way to the ocean, which lay beyond the hills that would become the Farallon Islands.

As the last ice age ended, the sea slowly rose and that valley was transformed into San Francisco Bay. Vast tidal marshes formed as pickleweed, tules and other salt-tolerant plants colonized the water’s advancing edge. This rich habitat attracted myriads of fish and birds. By necessity, the First Peoples periodically moved their villages to higher ground, but stayed close to the marsh because it was such a good place to hunt and fish.

With such abundant resources, the Bay Area was more densely populated than almost anywhere else in the Americas when the Spanish arrived in the 18th century. Groups along the marsh edge soon began losing their people to the missions. Some were taken forcibly, others chose to leave. Introduced diseases, against which they had no immunity, also took a heavy toll.

The first alaguali, who lived near Sears Point, went to the San Francisco Mission in 1811. Three years later, they were joined by petalumas, who lived east of modern Petaluma. Some came to live at the Sonoma Mission after it was founded in 1823.

During the Mexican era, the Baylands were considered worthless. George Simpson, of the Hudson’s Bay Co., described lower Sonoma Creek as a “mere marsh” where it was impossible to walk. Yet the place was incredibly alive, and Simpson “saw and heard thousands upon thousands of cranes, geese, ducks” and other birds.

With the Gold Rush, San Francisco, now part of the U.S., grew exponentially. The hungry new city fed itself on waterfowl, tule elk, oysters and other wild game. Modern Petaluma started as a hunting camp next to the marsh. Once the easy Sierra gold was gone, hydraulic miners blasted away the mountainsides. Sediment from that practice washed down and settled, raising the bottom of the bay several feet.

Eventually the Baylands were seen to have potential value, and laws affirmed “if you could drain it you could claim it.” At first, levees were built by manual labor. By the 1880s, steam dredgers had taken over, doing the “work of a thousand men” to “reclaim” the tidelands. Senator Jones, his fortune made in Nevada’s Comstock Silver Lode, bankrolled three dredgers and began pushing back the sea and turning the Sonoma Baylands into farmland.

Sears Point Wetlands

Since the new segment of the Bay Trail opened in May, the Sears Point Wetland Restoration site along the northern edge of San Pablo Bay has become a scenic destination for recreation seekers. Here are a few of the opportunities available:
Walk: Up to 10 miles of trails along the evolving marsh are open sunrise to sunset. Take a cell phone audio tour of Sears Point using the Point by Canogle app, which downloads free at Google Play and iTunes Store.
Paddle: Take advantage of a put-in in the new tidal restoration site for a several-mile jaunt around the marsh mounds.
Birdwatch: Hundreds of thousands of birds migrate to the San Francisco Bay estuary each winter. Set up your spotting scopes along the levees or take advantage of the Winter Bird Walks on San Pablo Bay, first and third Saturdays December through February, 9:30 –11 a.m., free, register at sonomalandtrust.org.
Learn: Docents offer Tidal Marsh Interpretations 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays, no registration needed.
Where: Access all of these activities on Reclamation Road, directly south of the Highway 37 / Lakeville Highway intersection. Park on the east side of Reclamation Road and follow a short trail to the restoration site.

Hay grew well on the former marsh. Before the automobile, the City needed thousands of tons of it every month to fuel its horse-drawn transportation. To work his new land, Jones set up six “camps” with bunkhouses and barns. Cultivating the thick clay soil was hard work — laborers ate five meals a day, and plow horses lasted only a few hours before reaching exhaustion.

Because of this, the Baylands became a testing ground for “continuous tread” tractors, the precursor of modern Caterpillar machines. Plowing and planting began after the first fall rains. Harvesting got underway once the weather dried out in the spring. The hay was cut and left to dry, brought to a hay press, made into bales and shipped out by barge.

Besides the workers in the camps, few people ever lived in the Baylands. The tiny settlement of Wingo grew up on Sonoma Creek where the ferry met trains bound for points north. There and elsewhere, people came to spend weekends at fishing shacks and duck clubs. Hunting was so popular that the bird life Simpson described was nearly gone by the 1920s. Around the same time, Highway 37 began as a dirt track with a toll taker at the Sonoma Creek Bridge.

By 1935, more than 12,000 acres of Sonoma Valley’s tidelands had been reclaimed. Similar efforts transformed nearly all the salt marsh in other parts of the North Bay. As the reclaimed tidelands dried out, organic material in the soil decomposed and the land sank as much as eight feet. Levees also changed drainage patterns; Schellville’s first flood occurred shortly after Jones’ dredges finished a levee nearby.

On the eve of World War II, the Navy built a facility at Skaggs Island. Its purpose was top secret but is believed to have been gathering intelligence from radio communications. To support the men and their families, a small town was built, complete with a bowling alley, swimming pool, movie theater and a general store.

Jones’ work camps were eventually abandoned as machines replaced the crews of men and draft horses. While the annual rhythm of planting and harvest hasn’t changed, other things have. Fifty years ago, Bayland farmers often started baling hay at 2 a.m.; now, the warming climate has raised the humidity, and they have to wait until morning for the right conditions. Because of sea level rise and subsidence, places once drained by gravity now require pumps to remove water trapped behind the levees. Highway 37 is expected to flood with increasing regularity, and the problem doesn’t lend itself to an easy or cheap fix.

In recent decades, a ferry terminal, an airport and a casino have been proposed for the Baylands. None have come to fruition.

The Navy closed Skaggs Island in 1993. With agriculture becoming increasingly difficult, some families have sold the land they loved and worked for generations. With mixed feelings, they have seen it restored to tidal marsh.

Looking forward, more and more former marshland is in line for restoration, and public access is increasing. A visit to the Baylands is a chance to witness the rhythms of nature in the shifting tides and the return of migratory birds. It’s a place to find wide open spaces close to home and reflect on this ever-changing landscape and our role as human beings in the midst of it all.

Arthur Dawson is based in Glen Ellen. Contact him at baseline@vom.com.

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