Photo of the month

With calm waters and a clear blue sky behind them, Glenn and Roni pose for a photo aboard the research vessel Robert G. Brownlee during a Delta cruise Feb. 12 sponsored by the Marine Science Institute. The cruise was to recognize sponsors of the institute, of which the Delta Science Center is one, and Roni got to ride along as the DSC's executive director. Glenn was her guest. Photo by Glenn.

February 2011

It's our first barbecue of the year. We pulled out the grill Jan. 22 to cook up some burgers and sausages. Photo by Glenn.

The latest addition to our backyard statuary collection is this garden fairy pushing her wheelbarrow. It's a great rain collector, we've found. Photo by Glenn.

Roni isn't taking any chances while dicing hot peppers Jan. 23. She learned from previous experience that these chiles are potent when inhaled. Photo by Glenn.

We're at the Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley on Feb. 3, and Roni is showing where the Delta Science Center's office will be once the shoreline's new interpretive center is built later this year. The building is the project of the East Bay Regional Park District. Photo by Glenn.

There has been a lot going on at Big Break this fall and winter. Work on a new park is nearing completion. Here is a new covered sand play area. Photo by Glenn.

A worker with Richmond-based Scientific Art Studio maps out what will be a huge mural of the Delta region at Big Break Regional Shoreline. Photo by Glenn.

A pelican swims through Big Break doing whatever it is that pelicans do. Photo by Glenn.

Roni makes use of the fishing pier to take photos... Photo by Glenn.

...And this is one of the sights Roni got to photograph from the pier — a pair of trees reflected off the Big Break waters. Photo by Roni.

On. Jan. 31 we walked out at the Antioch Marina, where we saw the RV Robert G. Brownlee docked at Humphrey's restaurant. As director of the Delta Science Center, Roni has been involved with helping sponsor trips aboard the ship for hundreds of local fifth-graders. Photo by Glenn.

The Brownlee departs east up the San Joaquin River after dropping off its last tour group. Photo by Glenn.

This is the public art sculpture that greets boaters and strollers at the entrance to the Antioch Marina. It is supposed to symbolize sailboats and waves. Photo by Glenn.

Skipping ahead to Feb. 12, we're back at the marina for our own closeup look at the Brownlee. We are going as passengers for a 2-hour Delta science cruise. About 60 people were along for the ride. Photo by Glenn.

Roni models her life jacket, which all passengers were required to wear. Photo by Glenn.

Hayley, one of the Brownlee's crew, demonstrates the proper way to handle the fish we'll soon be catching with a trawling net. Photo by Glenn.

This flounder was netted on a previous trip, but it was on display for cruise guests to see. Most of what we caught were Sacramento splittail. Photo by Glenn.

Kids dig into a scoop of river mud in search of plankton, shells and other hidden treasures. They used hoses to wash the mud through the screen to reveal the goodies. Photo by Glenn.

We got to see this a lot on our cruise — boats of all shapes and sizes drifting past industrial backdrops. This is looking southeast toward Pittsburg. Photo by Glenn.

We're near the end of our cruise, and time for one last picture or two. Glenn was feeling seriously overdressed for the day's springlike weather. Photo by Roni.

Speaking of springlike, if it's February you can expect to see blossom photos in this space. This is one of the larger almond trees on the Cline Vineyard property in Oakley, taken Feb. 13. Photo by Glenn.

A closeup of the blossoms on the tree above. These blossoms are a pleasant pink, unlike most of the almond trees that have white blossoms. Photo by Glenn.

Not all the trees are huge. Glenn stands in front of a younger tree that blooms on the former DuPont property. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn and Ben usually take their annual blossom walk together, but Ben was spending the afternoon on a date at the movies. Photo by Glenn.

A very busy bee contemplates yet another flower on the tree pictured above. Its hind legs are already fat with pollen. Photo by Glenn.

A lot has changed in the railyard since we visited it a year ago. BNSF upgraded the tracks, replacing switches, ties, rails and more. In many cases, they simply left the old stuff behind. Here is another angle of the tree pictured above with a pile of rusted tie plates nearby. Photo by Glenn.

A lot of the old ties were replaced, but it is still possible to find date nails from that era. This 1956 nail was rescued from a splintered remnant of a removed tie. Oldest one seen on this walk was 1942. Photo by Glenn.

Our blossom walks always reveal an interesting comination of nature mixed with industrial decay. Here, even the weeds can be pretty, as with this plant growing at the edge of the grape vineyard. Photo by Glenn.

Piles of grapevine prunings remain in the aisles of the Cline Vineyard. That's the Live Oak Church on Main Street in the distance. Photo by Glenn.

Anyone missing a spa? Someone went to a lot of work to haul that thing to the Cline property, where it got piled with an existing collection of broken concrete. Photo by Glenn.

We'd prefer to look at the blossoms. After all, that's what this walk is mostly about. The flowers explode like popcorn from every branch. Photo by Glenn.

The railroad Maintenance of Way crews refer to this as a red board, which means rail vehicles aren't allowed beyond this point. To us, it represents the end of this year's blossom walk. Photo by Glenn.

Valentine's Day finds Ben distributing an impromptu valentine he drew on the liner of a box of chocolates his dad gave him. Photo by Roni.

What is love? Ask our kittens Katy and Rio, who snuggle up together on their favorite blanket on the living room sofa. Photo by Roni.

We always enjoy hearing from our visitors. We welcome your comments.

Discovering the Delta all over again

February 25, 2011

It is sometimes funny to think how you can live in a place for years and still not know it very well. You get to take for granted the things that are literally right in your backyard, the ones you see every day yet pay little attention to because you are caught up in your daily chores. That’s how we’ve been thinking of the Delta lately, especially since Roni took on her new role as executive director of the Delta Science Center a couple of months ago.

Partly for job-related research, and partly because we really just love the Delta, we’ve been spending a lot of time there lately, both checking it out from our usual vantage points and discovering a few new ones along the way.

On Feb. 12, we had a rare opportunity to climb aboard a boat and spend a couple of hours cruising the San Joaquin River as part of a free program sponsored by the Marine Science Institute out of Redwood City. The institute has been in our area since early January providing science education programs for local fifth-graders. The cruise was a way for the institute to recognize its sponsors. Because the Delta Science Center raises quite a bit of money in order to help fund the educational trips for the school kids, it got to send four representatives and their guests. Roni, as director, got an invite, and she brought Glenn along for the trip, which worked out well because Ben had a birthday party to attend that afternoon anyway.

We arrived about an hour before the scheduled 1:30 p.m. departure time at the Antioch Marina, which left us enough time to grab some lunch at Humphrey’s restaurant next door. Not only was there a tasty seafood lunch involved, but we had a window seat overlooking the dock and the research vessel Robert G. Brownlee, which had tied up following an earlier cruise and was waiting for our group to board.

The passengers slowly arrived, about 60 in all before the check-in. We were lined up in two rows of about 30 people each, then each of us received a number that we had to repeat for the crew as we boarded and headed into a large room that serves as a floating classroom. The walls were lined with chairs piled high with life jackets. We all grabbed one and spent a couple of minutes adjusting the straps. We had come prepared for cold weather on the water, bundled in our winter jackets and sweatshirts. But the weather was beautiful for mid-February. We soon regretted our decision to dress warmly, especially once we were underway and got to walk around on the outside deck.

The cruise, such that it was, didn’t take us very far. In fact, we barely traveled into the water off Pittsburg, less than three miles away. But once you’re out in the middle of the San Joaquin River’s deep water channel you quickly forget how far you’ve traveled. The river is huge, especially where it meets up with the Sacramento River, which flows in from the north. There are acres of marshland in this part of the estuary that normally are invisible from the suburban shoreline, where wildlife of all types make their homes. We saw egrets and hawks aplenty as they flew away from our approaching boat.

The Brownlee slowed at the edge of one of these marshes for the first of the day’s experiments. Oh yeah, with all the sightseeing we were enjoying we’d forgotten that this was supposed to be an educational trip. The crew will happily put the passengers to work for a couple of hours. So it was fortunate that at least half of the folks on board were under the age of 12. Some were guests of the Marine Science Institute’s patrons, while others had found out about the cruise through invitations sent to local schools. In any case, that left us time to observe and take pictures, what we do best.

The kids split into two groups and helped crewmembers lower a trawling net into the water. The experiment was to see what sorts of critters live in the murky waters. With the net lowered, the boat’s captain eased the Brownlee forward through the channel until the kids were told to reel the net in. We were eagerly anticipating a haul of giant bass, salmon or sturgeon, but it was hard not to laugh when the net was brought up and yielded little more than some minnow-size Sacramento splittail. The fish were placed in dishpans that were set around the deck for everyone to see what we’d caught. The crew provided printed reference cards so we could identify what was in the pans.

“Is that the Delta smelt we’ve been hearing so much about?” asked one of the adults looking into a pan. When he said that, everyone crowded around for a better look. But the docent was quick to dispel that idea: “If it were, we’d have to throw it back immediately,” she said. “They’re an endangered species and it’s illegal to catch them.” Turned out it was yet another splittail. Yawn. But a few feet away there was a flounder in one of the tubs that also caught a lot of attention. Had the kids dragged that one aboard with their net? “Actually, it was caught here, but on a different trip,” the docent said. They’d tucked it away to make sure there was some variety to the fish display.

Next up, the kids helped as one of the docents lowered a metal clamshell scoop into the river and hauled it back aboard. They dumped the contents into screens and used hoses to wash away the thick, black river mud in search of plankton, shells and other items. We thought the scoop would be under water for a while before it hit bottom, but it was barely 10 seconds. Turns out the average depth of the San Francisco Bay-Delta is 12 feet, and we could only assume that it is much shallower than that in the San Joaquin River. No wonder so much effort goes into keeping it dredged, because most commercial ships wouldn’t be able to navigate their way to the Port of Stockton if the water were any shallower. We see some large cargo ships near Antioch occasionally, but they are still the exception to the rule.

We had fun exploring the Brownlee and taking pictures from angles we’ve never been able to shoot from before. There were lots of other boats out on the water, many of them fishermen hoping to catch something more than we were able to reel in with our huge net. But all too soon we were back at the Humphrey’s dock, turning in our life vests and disembarking. An enjoyable and memorable closeup look at our Delta.

* * * * *

Roni has her own reasons to be excited about the Delta, beyond getting to go for boat rides. In a few months, the Delta Science Center is looking forward to opening its permanent office at the new Big Break Regional Shoreline Park here in Oakley. As she puts it, she could literally walk to work. The office will be located inside one of the buildings for the visitor center that the East Bay Regional Park District is constructing at Big Break. Right now it isn’t much to see, just some surveyor’s stakes in the ground. However, construction is expected to start sometime this spring and the center will be open in the fall. The building will be constructed from modular components, which makes the quick turnaround possible.

We have been taking walks along the regional trail that runs past Big Break, so we’ve been able to observe the progress that has been made at the site this fall and winter. Crews worked to install shade canopies, picnic tables, an amphitheater and equipment buildings. They laid several yards of fresh sod. And the day we were last there, a couple of workers were plotting out what will be a large tile mural of the Delta that will be built into the sidewalk. It should look pretty cool when it’s all done.

There will also be a canoe launch ramp, although it isn’t clear when it will be built or what form it will take. We’ve never been boat people, but the idea of having a free launch site so close to us made us start contemplating the idea of getting a pedal boat. Dawdling on the Delta on a hot summer afternoon doesn’t sound all that bad.

* * * * *

One of our longstanding February traditions has been taking a day to walk the trails and backroads of our community in search of the first signs of spring, and most often those signs are the blossoms that burst from the branches of almond trees. There are fewer trees these days, but those that remain always put on a good show. Ben and Glenn have made the walk together most years, but this year the day conflicted with Ben’s plan to go to the movies with his new girlfriend, Lea, so Dad made the journey alone.

After dropping Ben off at the Rave theater in Brentwood to meet his date, Glenn got a noontime start on his walk over to the former DuPont property near our home. That’s where most of the best trees can still be found — those that reside behind chainlink fences north of the railroad tracks in the Cline Vineyard. The trees never seem to change much, although some years they have more blossoms than others. On Feb. 13 they were at the peak of their bloom, a few stalwart rows of white and pink blossoms amid sandy soils filled with ancient grapevines.

Every year we take this walk we are reminded that it might be the last time, as developers have long had plans for the former DuPont chemical manufacturing site. Sometime this summer work is supposed to begin on a new natural gas-fired power plant that will displace several acres of grapes on the western side of the property. There are no trees on that parcel, fortunately, but we know the day will eventually arrive when some of the prettiest areas are swallowed up by construction.

Even in a place where there has been little change in the 12 years since DuPont closed, the past year has seen plenty. BNSF, which owns the railroad tracks that bisect the property, invested months and millions of dollars upgrading the old yard so it can better handle the frequent movement of empty intermodal cars. Crews replaced switches, ties, rails and ballast, removing much of the old equipment that gave the place its rustic charm. They left behind huge piles of splintered wood and rusted metal, and buried some of the more interesting artifacts under tons of dirt and rock. The old date nails, which the Santa Fe Railway once used to mark the dates wood ties were installed, have mostly been removed along with the ties they were attached to. We used to be able to find nails from the mid-1930s; the oldest one found on this year’s walk was 1942.

With so much change in the yard, it was comforting to know that most of the familiar sights — trees, grapes, sandy pathways, Delta views — still remain. Glenn came back with plenty of pictures, taken with the benefit of warm, sunny weather. It was a good thing he took them on the day he did, because late that afternoon the sky clouded up and we entered a more winter-like stretch of rain and wind. The blossoms are mostly fading now, so we will have to wait another year and hope the show repeats once again.

* * * * *

So how did Ben’s first date with Lea go? Well enough that a week later they set up a second one, although this one was a bit less formal — the two of them got together at our house on Presidents Day for an afternoon of watching Netflix and playing Pokémon on their Nintendo DS consoles.

The great thing about Netflix is that there are hundreds of streamable movies to pick from. The bad thing about Netflix is that there are hundreds of streamable movies to pick from. After considerable deliberation and some assistance from Mom and Dad, we all sat down to watch "Zombieland" in glorious HD. If that seems like an odd date movie, consider that Lea loves horror films and that Ben and Glenn had both seen the movie once already. Roni, who is less excited by the horror genre, agreed to watch as long as everyone else did.

We had also planned to barbecue hamburgers for dinner, but those plans went somewhat awry when we attempted to fire up the grill and discovered there was no propane left in the tank. Apparently a full refill tank isn’t as full as it used to be when you buy it at Orchard Supply Hardware. Or else we had a serious leak. Not that we’ve ruled out either one, but we expected 30 bucks to get us more than half a dozen cookouts in seven months. Ah well. Roni used the oven broiler to produce similar effects, and the meal went off just fine.

* * * * *

A couple of months ago we shared about Roni’s bid to become a judge for the upcoming RomCon convention in Denver, Colo., this summer. This month, Roni received confirmation that she was selected to be part of the judging committee and has already begun reading the first of the nominees in her category: erotic romance. She hasn’t decided yet whether she wants to attend the convention — which is designed for fans of romance novels — when it takes place in August. There are prizes for the judges, and she could win an all-expense paid trip to the convention. We’ll all cross our fingers.

Glenn recently reunited with his pen pal from elementary school days when he got an unexpected message from him over Facebook. Glenn started corresponding with Rick Svajdlenka in 1976 as part of a class assignment. The long-distance friendship between Washington state and California was active until the mid 1980s, when life got in the way and the two lost touch. Glenn notes that it is a rare thing when two people who have never met in person are still in touch after 35 years. Of the many friends he has reunited with online, this one especially meant a lot to him.

The time has come to put a wrap on another newsletter. We’re currently on snow watch in the Bay Area, with snow levels expected to drop to near sea level this weekend, possibly bringing us a rare layer of powder on our lawns come Saturday. If that happens, next month we’ll surely have some interesting photos to share.

Glenn, Roni and Ben

This page was last updated on Wednesday, March 16, 2011 at 02:13 hrs.

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