August 24, 2015: The last day of the Delta Science Center's Summer Kids Club was going to be a blowout event. Roni had arranged for her group to go kayaking on the Delta at Big Break Regional Shoreline, and given that we'd never ventured out on the water in a kayak before, we were eager for the opportunity, especially being that it was free. But as the saying goes, you get what you pay for, and our first kayak adventure fell somewhere between "Gilligan's Island" and "Titanic."
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Because we were getting the free version of the basic kayak instruction the East Bay Regional Park District normally charges folks for, we had to accept the late-afternoon time slot they found for us — 2 p.m. on a hot Friday in July. Our group met at the Big Break Visitor Center where we were greeted by naturalist Mike Moran and a large bottle of sunscreen that we were encouraged to use before heading down to the kayak launch. There was only room for 12 people in our group, which normally wouldn't have been a problem as the kids club seldom drew that many participants on any given week, but this being a special activity attracted more interest than usual. A couple of the member kids' siblings wanted to join the trip, as did a parent and us. So we easily filled our dozen slots.
With camera gear in hand, we trooped down to the shoreline where we were joined by the park district's Nancy Kaiser, who took us through a 10-minute session on how to hold our paddles and use them properly. She had us spread out in a large circle on the lawn and demonstrate our newfound knowledge of strokes that could make us go forward, backward and turn. There was also an important lesson about how to paddle in tandem, given that all of us would be kayaking with a partner and that the person seated in the rear of the boat would be acting as a rudder; you have to work together if you want to get anywhere in a hurry.
The instruction part over, it was time to grab our life vests and head down to the water and our waiting boats. We were told to choose the craft that felt most comfortable. There were five standard tandem kayaks in which passengers are seated inside, and then there was one sunny yellow ride-on-top model that Glenn and Roni chose because we sort of gravitated to it. Glenn had his big camera bag and Roni thought sitting on top might be somewhat easier given that this was our first kayak ride. The huge disadvantage was that we had worn shorts and the boat wouldn't be protecting our sun-exposed legs. Should have used that bottle of sunscreen!
We launched just fine. Mike Moran and his assistant Kevin steadied the boat for us while first Glenn climbed into the bow and then Roni seated herself in the stern. A hearty shove from the ground crew and we were off and sailing for... the tules. Paddle left! No, no! Right! We were already flirting with the water weeds and we hadn't even left the launch channel. We corrected course and pointed ourselves toward the fishing pier, where Nancy Kaiser was waiting for our group in her red solo kayak. She is a seasoned pro at this, so her job would be to play chaser and make sure the rest of us didn't encounter any problems while out on the water. Not that any of us would. Short of capsizing in two feet of water, about the worst that might happen was getting stuck in a patch of egeria densa, a vigorous water weed that thrives in the Delta this time of year. We grabbed a few photos while we waited for the rest of the group to catch up. This would be a breeze.
Well, that was about the last time we got to relax and enjoy the scenery. What followed was 90 minutes of pain, strain and frustration as we quickly discovered that while kayaking may look easy, it can be a lot of physical exertion.
With Mike Moran leading the way, our group followed him through the channel and over to the remains of an old barge where a couple of the kids planned to shoot some video while he lectured about the local wildlife. We fell into line after the rest of the paddlers passed us, and promptly managed to get ourselves caught in a thick patch of water weeds. Nancy offered her advice on how to get out of our predicament, which was to use small strokes to paddle so that we weren't so much paddling as pushing our way through the muck. We wanted to go left, but for some reason we were turning right, so Glenn would paddle a couple of times on the right side for every stroke on the left, which threw Roni off her rhythm and so that we seemed to go nowhere.
By the time we freed ourselves from the weeds and rejoined the rest of our group, Mike was just finishing up his talk and it was about time to move on to the next site. We barely had enough time to take a couple of selfies before we were turning around and following the rest of the group back into the main channel and northwest toward the nearby marinas. Emphasis on the word "following." The other paddlers all seemed to be gliding effortlessly and keeping up with the group, but even in open water we were slogging along and falling farther behind. It was very frustrating. Roni was complaining of feeling queasy, mainly because Glenn's convoluted rowing method was making it difficult for her to keep in rhythm. Nancy kept us company the whole time and offered encouragement, but it was clear that we were at a disadvantage for whatever reason, and our fatigue was showing.
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HE OTHER PADDLERS had crossed a fast-water channel, dodged a speed boat, and were already on the opposite side resting while Mike talked, and we hadn't even reached the channel despite Glenn paddling with all his might. We were so far behind that the rest of the group was starting to head back to home port by the time we reached them. Mike noted we had already been out for about an hour and it was time to get back. So off the rest of the group went while we started the now painful process of turning around and rowing after them.
This is the point at which Nancy paddled up next to us and asked if we had any strong ropes or bungees to tie onto. She wanted to hook us up to her craft so that she could tow us back to shore. She wisely surmised that we might not get back to the launch ramp before nightfall at the rate we were going, so giving us a tow would make life easier for everyone. Or would it?
Even with her muscular arms and experience, Nancy's assist did more to slow her down than to speed us up. The tow rope got tangled in egeria densa, making it impossible for us to paddle the direction she was trying to tow us. Glenn tried to pluck the rope out of the water to remove the accumulated water weeds, but it was difficult to do that while we were in motion. Nancy radioed Mike, who was already back on shore with the rest of the group, just to let him know we didn't need a Coast Guard rescue yet. No, that's not really what she was doing, but we wondered if that is what she may have been thinking.
We arrived back at the ramp 15 to 20 minutes after everyone else, exhausted and frustrated, sunburned, butts and equipment bags wet, thankful to be done with our ordeal but wondering if there was something we had done to make it more difficult than it should have been. "Does this happen often?" Glenn asked Nancy, feeling guilty that we had delayed things so badly. "Yes, a lot," she said. We wondered if that was more for our benefit. We also wondered if the fact we were in the ride-on-top kayak made a difference in how fast we could paddle. Whatever the case, the jury is still out on whether kayaking is for us. Next time, we'll try the conventional models.
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ONTRAST OUR KAYAKING misadventure with our visit to the Delta Pear Fair in Courtland two days later, where a typically great time was had by all. It was our 27th visit to the little festival that could, and what keeps drawing us there each year is the small town atmosphere and the awesome food you can seemingly find only during the one-day show, which is always held the last Sunday in July.
We arrived there a little later in the morning than in years past, having to drop Ben off at work by 10 before the hourlong drive up Highway 160. We made sure to make our first stops at the souvenir table, the Lions Club's pear bread booth, and the pear pie booth run by the Walnut Grove PTA. Those are always the things that seem to be in short supply, and we are always glad to have those items safely tucked away early in the day so we can take our time to stroll around and enjoy the rest of the show.
Usually we don't have specific plans for the fair aside from eating pear foods and enjoying the "pearade" with its procession of pear queen candidates, pear blossom princesses, floats, fire trucks and high school bands. But this time Glenn had his eyes set on the hat vendor who comes to the fair every year with a huge selection of styles to choose from. Not being a hat person, Glenn has been interested lately in getting something other than a baseball cap. Maybe it has something to do with turning 50. He tried on a few of the styles displayed, deciding that he definitely needs a large or extra-large to fit his big head. He also narrowed his choice down to a couple of "crushable" Aussie outback hats and a Stetson he likes, but he couldn't quite bring himself to part with the $110 the vendor was asking, especially not being sure how often he might wear it. In the end, Glenn didn't get a hat, but Roni found a lovely sun hat for $14 that she wore around the fair.
The one thing missing from this edition of the Pear Fair was the classic car show, which we had come to expect every year. Not really sure what happened to it, but hopefully they'll bring it back for 2016. One of the recent additions that did return was the farmers market, and for the first time we stopped by to check out the fresh Delta-grown produce. Of course they had pears for sale there, so we picked up a small bag that took about two weeks to ripen. We also bought some delicious melons, including a ripe, juicy watermelon that cost a mere $3. What a bargain.
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JUST SIX DAYS after Courtland we were on the road again to Martinez, where the Delta Science Center had a booth at the 8th annual Martinez Beaver Festival. Much like the Pear Fair, it's the atmosphere that keeps us returning, and this was our fourth trip in the past five years. Instead of pears, the theme of the event is beavers, and there are many ways the iconic mascot is featured at the show — from the guy dressed up in the adult-sized beaver costume to the very real beaver dam that occupies Alhambra Creek next to the park where the festival takes place.
One thing that sets the Beaver Fest apart from other shows is that there is no charge to set up a booth there for the nonprofits, and it is pretty much the same group of environmental causes that returns each year. Our booth was sandwiched between the National Parks Service and a group trying to save sea turtles in the Amazon. We had a great view of the music stage, which was what kept Glenn entertained for the six hours we were out there that gorgeous first day of August.
The time flew by. We chatted with many nice folks who stopped by our booth to ask questions and passed out coloring sheets to families with young kids. There was even time enough for each of us to break away from our booth and check out the others at the festival, something that can be difficult to do at busier shows.
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AST MONTH WE mentioned that we were considering purchasing a small foldable trailer to hook up to Roni's car so we could more easily haul the recycled water we've been collecting from Ironhouse Sanitary District to water our yard. We looked seriously into what it would take to accomplish that, but in the end we decided against it for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Roni's Toyota Corolla isn't designed as a towing vehicle, although others have reported success using it for such. Glenn also balked at the challenge of wiring the car for the required lighting kit that has to be hooked up to any trailer we might want to connect to the car, as well as because the trailer itself must be assembled from scratch and comes only with 12-inch wheels that aren't durable enough for high-speed hauling on the freeway or for great distances. And the final deciding factor was that even though the trailer would allow us to carry larger containers for our water, it might not be able to handle the heavier loads of newsletters we pick up from Oakland every few months for Roni's work. That capability would have justified the cost of the trailer, saving us about $120 each trip that we currently shell out to rent a U-Haul pickup truck.
We were thinking about this Aug. 15, the Saturday we had to drive to Oakland to collect the latest newsletter for the Ironhouse Sanitary District. Our plan was to rent the truck early and get to Oakland before noon to collect the print job, but that wasn't what happened. Instead, the guy who had been running things at the sanitary district's water recycling station quit a few days earlier to take another job, and Roni had somebody new she had to train Saturday morning. The station is open on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon, so we changed our reservation time on the rental truck and planned to head over to Oakland after Roni got the recycling station closed for the day.
Of course she didn't get finished up right at noon, so by the time she returned home for us to get on the road, we were running late. The printer closed promptly at 2 p.m., and that left us about 70 minutes to check in at the U-Haul rental place in Pittsburg and drive the 45 miles to downtown Oakland. We'd be cutting it close — if we made it at all.
The weather was uncomfortably hot, and that seemed to have everyone on the roads seeking escape from the high temperatures. We hit heavy traffic on Highway 4 near Antioch, and then again on Railroad Avenue in Pittsburg as we had to drive into town to reach the rental place. There was a line of customers ahead of us, even though it was already after 1 p.m. by the time we arrived. The counter clerk told us she'd have her assistant drive the truck up to the front for us so we could do the required walk-around to check for damage, and he poked along for several minutes before going out to the lot for our vehicle. Ugh!
By the time we finished at the rental place, slogged our way back through heavy traffic on Railroad Avenue and reached the freeway, we had less than 35 minutes left. "We'll never make it. Maybe we should just wait until Monday to go to Oakland," Roni said. "Well, we've come this far. Hang onto your seat and I'll try to make time," Glenn said. "Just don't do anything crazy to get us killed," Roni admonished.
Well, it's hard to get too crazy when you're in bumper-to-bumper traffic, as we found ourselves. Glenn lamented that on any given weekday people think the minimum freeway speed is 70 mph, but on this day no one wanted to do over 65. Even though our big 8-cylinder pickup was capable of doing much more on the open road, we pretty much fell in line with everyone else and prayed we wouldn't hit anymore traffic snags. We got fairly lucky, bogging down again just for another minute or two once we reached the merge from I-580 to I-80 and the Bay Bridge. We slipped onto San Pablo Avenue in Oakland with just 5 minutes to spare and a lot of signals and stop signs to negotiate.
We still aren't sure how we did it, but we pulled up to the print shop just before the stroke of 2. The man running the store just happened to see our truck pull up on the street, so he held the door for Roni as she ran through the gate toward the lobby. She slipped inside and there was a click behind her. "Did you hear that?" the clerk said, "The door automatically locks at 2 p.m." She had just made it inside, with not a second to spare. Phew!
With our 26 boxes of newsletters safely loaded and our heart rates returning to normal, there was time to stop at Panera and grab a bite to eat before getting back on the road.
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ORMALLY WE WOULD take the newsletters home, unload, and then quickly drop the truck back at the rental place to avoid having to take it back the following day, but we had extra plans for the U-Haul this time. We decided that the weekend would be a good opportunity to finally get rid of the piles of old wood and junk that have been taking up space in the side yard since our big garage cleaning in March 2014. We made the truck rental for two days, to allow us to make a run to the dump on Sunday morning and perhaps a second one in the afternoon.
It was so hot on Saturday that Glenn waited until evening to start loading up the truck, and he only had a couple hours of daylight left in which to work. Most of the payload was quickly filled with decaying wood left over from the original retaining wall that came with the house when we moved here in 1991, and with pieces of the old gazebo we tore down when we dismantled the spa. We barely scratched the surface of the accumulated debris, although we were able to get rid of several bulky items that had been trapped under the honeysuckle that is taking over the side yard.
We decided to ask Glenn's brother Sean if he wanted us to bring our old clothes dryer out to him in Hayward while we had the truck for the weekend. He said yes, so we decided to just do the one dump run on Sunday morning knowing that we wouldn't have time for another. The dump visit cost us $54, but we got rid of a lot of stuff. We may plan another trip the next time we have the rental truck in our possession.
By the time we returned home from the dump, Sean was on the porch waiting for us. The dryer is heavy, and Roni didn't think the two of us could lift it ourselves, so we had Sean drive out to help load it. It took some maneuvering with Roni's handtruck, but we were able to move the old LG dryer from the porch to the truck's bed without too much difficulty. Next we loaded up Ben's old ping pong table, which we had offered to give to Jenny and Tom for our nephew Allen to enjoy. It had just been taking up space in the garage, so it was time for it to go.
We followed Sean over to Jenny and Tom's house, unloaded the ping pong table, then went on to Sean's place where he and Tom hooked up the dryer in Sean's garage. Turned out that Tom was putting stuff out for a curbside trash pickup the next day, so Sean made use of the truck to take some of his junk back to Tom and Jenny's place. We loaded up his old, broken washer along with a couple of other objects and then all headed back across town.
By the time we finished and said our goodbyes, it was late in the afternoon and we were both hungry. We decided to check out one of our favorite haunts from many years ago and stopped in at Kasper's hot dog shop at the corner of Hesperian Boulevard and Winton Avenue. We weren't even sure if they would be open late on a Sunday afternoon, but luck was riding with us. We were the last customers of the day, as the owners had decided it was too hot and business was too slow to justify staying open any later. They had already packed away some of their supplies, so the kraut dogs we ordered came without sauerkraut, and they only rustled up some macaroni salad that Glenn wanted because he shared how we used to eat there 30 years ago while we were dating in college. We ate our meal in the cab of the pickup, enjoying the food as much as the fond memories it brought back.
On Monday, we used the pickup one more time to run the newsletters off to the post office, then we topped off the tank and it was back to Pittsburg to drop off the rental. With the gas and mileage fees, the two-day rental came to $237. Not too bad, considering that we hadn't done the best job of consolidating our trips. We got a lot of objects moved, cleaned up part of our yard, and enjoyed a smooth ride in air-conditioned comfort on one of the hottest weekends of the summer. Almost like a mini vacation.