The Channel

The Lake Merritt channel is not pristine land. it has over the years been subject to all sorts of development, and (as the picture at top shows) downright defilement.

Today, as of 2017, we are closer to its natural state then we have been for over 150 years. The end of the channel, near where the stadium is to be built is perhaps closest still to this picture of development and defilement. 880 runs overhead. A defunct poorly fenced bridge underneath that littered with trash. Train tracks further on run mere feet from the tide. A large pipeline crosses it, next to the tracks and the new Embarcadero bridge construction is beyond that.  Further towards the lake, a tide gate and pumping station sits underneath where East 8th meets 7th. BART runs somewhere beneath.

You might notice the garbage collecting on tide gate grills. Or the homeless regulars. If you’re up earlier you’ll find people doing Taichi or Qigong excercises. Parks and Peralta maintenance people buzz by. Cop cars sometimes congregate under 880. Fisherman stand patiently on the banks casting for Striped Bass. Gardners work the in the Laney community garden.

You might notice the birds. Gulls dropping shells on the pedestrian bridge by Peralta, a squad of cormorants working the channel, egrets stalking the sides. If you go there often, you might notice that their numbers change fluctuate, species come and go. A kingfisher chitters by; an osprey snags a branch for its nest; a raven bullies a hawk, crows bully the raven, a Mountain Bluebird peers out of a nesting box, a ground squirrel pops up from below, Buffleheads bob and weave, Coots squeak, Canada Geese lead their goslings, Goldeneyes dive.

If your lucky, you might peer into the water and see a bat ray grace its way through the water, or see a halibut darts by, or fins a school of anchovies wave back and forth at the tide gate, a snowy egret perching on the tide gate waiting to snag the unlucky.

In the winder birds dot the channel from its opening to the lake. It is the tide that carries them, and everything underneath them back and forth from Bay to Lake, Lake to Bay. I overhear people all the time around the lake wondering about the channel, surprised that our lake is not a lake, making fun of the lake birds for being plastic eating birds, or enjoying explaining that our lake is not a lake.

People peer over the bridges, stop to look. Or don’t, they keep talking to their friends, they keep running, walking, talking. The city has spent nearly $200 million dollars, in part, to make it a place that people want to come and spend time by it.

Lake Spot: the Rocky Shore

A couple of years ago they finished the shoreline from the Boating Center up to the Geodesic dome. There’s a nice wide path, some benches looking over the lake, and new landscaping around the parking lot, and a healthy bit of shoreline between the path and water. It can be a good spot to see the comings of goings of birds and boats if you are so inclined.

Parts of the shoreline are still fenced off — letting plants get situated and take good root, I presume, there is a path of old rip wrap and stone set on dirt where one can sit at the shoreline and take it in.

I found myself there the other day on a lovely fall day, I unintentionally flushed a Green Heron from the bank. It did my the favor of sitting on a white float for a few minutes, a rare chance to hang out with the most elusive heron of the lake.

I’d passed a Great Blue Heron earlier in the day sitting in shallow water seemingly unconcerned by the humans stopping to goggle at it. It seems like it is the only Great Blue on the lake but it is often out in the open. Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets come in bunches and are hard to miss, and one can often find a Snowy Egret right at your feet as it forages the edges of the lake.

The Green Heron seems more secretive and has a rather narrow range on the lake (all the iNaturalist observations are in the Northern part of the Lake, though I’ve it a time or two further west).

The little heron flew on a few minutes later, and I settled in to watch a sparrow — before I was graced with a final visit from a White Pelican, flying not too far overhead.

2017 - 132017 - 14


Lake Spot: Pedestrian Bridge

At the southern point of the lake, where the tide flows in and out, there is a pedestrian bridge. This is perhaps my favorite place on the lake.

The bridge is quite new—part of the 2002 Measure DD work—finished in 2012 after a century old culvert was ripped out and the water allowed to flow free. The water underneath connects the lake to the bay, the bay to the hills. The bridge connects people from East Oakland to the Lake Merritt Amphitheater, downtown and beyond.

The other night my wife and I were biking over, and stopped as usual to take in the view. Already there were a few people gathered, including an elderly couple and a young bicycle messenger. I pulled up to the latter and asked, “Striped bass?” (That was the big fish I’ve most commonly seen there.) “No!” he said. “Sturgeon, I think. Seven of them or so.” And there they were lurking, gliding in and out of deeper water. I’d never seen them before. We chatted a while, exchanging observations and information, waiting for another glimpse.

That’s what I love about this spot—that it has its aficionados. We stop and chat, comparing notes. “What do you see?” It might be a school of silversides, a bat ray flying through the water, a lumbering sea hare, or a diving grebe. Birds fly underneath the bridge. Swallows nest nearby. Brown pelicans circle, gulls dive for shells, a gulp of cormorants glides across the lake. A gondola passes. Sometimes there is nothing, the water opaque, the tide calm. But still there are the hills and the Town reflected in the lake—and fellow Oaklanders watching with you.

— Adrian Cotter