Volunteers clear trash and sludge from Islais Creek

photo 1Story and photos by Murray Schneider

Anticipating a winter reprieve from the three-year drought, Rec and Parks gardeners on July 30 supervised six Friends of Glen Canyon Park volunteers in removing sediment from Glen Canyon’s bone-dry Islais Creek.

Each week, the Friends return to the canyon, pulling invasive weeds, performing trail maintenance, collecting seeds for germination and engaging in habitat restoration.

On a Wednesday morning in July, with a department truck at their backs, volunteers threaded their way down the creek side embankment, skirting tangled California blackberry strands that camouflaged poison oak and stinging nettles.

Once there, they formed a human chain, handing off bucket-after-bucket of parched earth to one another. A single volunteer remained above, standing on the side of eucalyptus limbs that served as a makeshift barrier. Reaching for each offered bucket, he emptied it into the truck’s flatbed.

photo 2The morning wore on, the crew removing layers of clothing as the anomalous humidity increased. Morning clouds cleared and the earth became even more sun-baked. In the rutted creek, a gardener continued shoveling loads of hard-baked dirt into pails. A cohort lifted each pail and then passed it to a volunteer who handed it to another volunteer.

When the long-overdue rains appear, their work will allow water from the creek to flow into holes in a cement barrier that takes it to the culvert that runs beneath the Works Progress Administration-built Recreation Center and then underground, eventually spilling into the bay near AT&T Park.

The team worked in what Rec and Parks calls the Levi Site, so named because the Levi Strauss Company donated money to purchase scores of native plants. With the help of Friends of Glen Canyon, dozens of drought tolerant California native plants, shrubs and bushes have been reintroduced to the creek side, each providing vital habitat for local animals, birds and insects.

photo 3As the gardeners and Friends redoubled their efforts, a Steller’s jay lighted on a columbine bush, its chords filtering through thick foliage. Several years ago, before the wilderness work began, one could walk along Alms Road beneath a eucalyptus tree that is home to a nesting mother owl, and see only the creek.

Not now.

Today Islais Creek is canopied with the coffee berry, coyote brush, pink flowering currant and blue elderberry that Muwekema Ohlone Indians might have seen here 400 years ago when they gathered wild cherries here.

The volunteers had been instructed not to descend to the creek from above its west bank so they don’t disturb nesting birds. The sextet, careful not to trip over Cape ivy and Himalayan blackberry, repeated the short journey from the creek to truck dozens of times.

photo 4Eventually the flatbed filled up with debris. Rusted Pepsi Cola cans and a whiskey bottle accompanied the dirt, testimony to an era when Glen Canyon was used as a dump. Even now, volunteers are cautioned to wear gloves, to avoid discarded syringes and broken bottles.

Islas Creek is the second-longest creek in San Francisco, winding through the City’s 70-acre natural area. It is valued for its wildlife and plant diversity, and Rec and Parks views Friends of Glen Canyon Park as its partner in the trusteeship of this open space.

With their annual sediment work completed, the volunteers walked to the eastern side of the creek and turned their attention to removal of invasive mustard.

Mustard’s four-petaled flowers are arranged in tasseled clusters and are pleasing to the eye, but mustard is as inimical as it is colorful. Growing typically to three feet, mustard, traceable to Eurasia and widely cultivated and used for culinary and medicinal herbal purposes, tends to invade intact native plant communities and form a monoculture that inhibits germination and growth of other plants.

Weedy strands of this species have escaped over time, spreading into disturbed areas. With O’Shaughnessy Boulevard, Elk Street and Diamond Heights Boulevard as its westerns and eastern frontiers, Glen Canyon slopes qualify as a disturbed area.

There, mustard runs rife.

The group fanned out, walking along the edges of Alms Road, looking for it. They unfurled empty blue tarps along the path. Everyone carried a mattock and an empty pail.

The mustard had marched up the slope, carpeting the hill in yellow tufts. Steve Uchida, who lives on Monterey Boulevard and Linda Ramey, who’d traveled from Bernal Heights, climbed high above Alms Road and began unearthing it.

Nearby, an incongruous triangle of Naked Ladies, pink and blossoming, flowered among palomino-colored grasses. They served as an aesthetic backdrop to a group of pre-schoolers. The children wore sun hats and were accompanied by mothers and teachers.

The four- and five-year-olds sat on eucalyptus logs, framed by bent arroyo willow. Weaving among them, Kay Westerberg, who lives on Chenery Street, Jean Conner, who lives on Sussex Street, and Mary Huizinga, who lives on Laidley Street, collected mustard and carried armloads of it to the tarps.

The slope sprawls northeast and a stand-alone California oak grabbed the skyline’s attention. Chert outcroppings, craggy and inert, towered above the oak, juxtaposed against the houses lining Crags Court and Berkeley Way. Farther north, recently completed box steps, part of the 2008 – Clean and Safe Neighborhood $900,000 bond, climb the slope, but for now off limits to the public. These steps eventually will become part of the long-awaited $130,000 – 2013 Habitat Conservation Fund “Creeks to Peaks” trail, which boasts a much ballyhooed “corridor” path that will switchback through school district property and end at Portola Drive.

Midway up the hillside Steve Uchida, usually sure-footed, skidded down the hill, finally stopping fifteen feet from where he’d started his slide. Linda Ramey, doing a passable imitation of a Sherpa, bent over, maintaining her balance, immune from a potential accident.

Minor injuries aren’t uncommon. Over the years volunteers have sustained rotator cuff damage, tendonitis, twisted ankles, sore backs and strained knee ligaments. They have endured bouts with poison oak, embedded blackberry thorns that have become infected and assorted cuts, splinters and bruises. A pulled down bill of baseball cap can result in an uninvited knock on the brow from a low-hanging willow limb, and failing to recall where one is standing can result in tripping and twisting a knee where only a cortisone injection can relieve the swelling. Once an intrepid volunteer suffered a hungry wasp flying beneath her shirt, another time, forgetting where she’d knelt, she stood, banging her head on a willow bough and sustained a gash an emergency room doctor had to glue together.

This day was thankfully uneventful in the injury department. After returning rakes, shovels, mattocks and gloves to the City truck, the work party gathered around the truck’s tailgate, chatting and diving into a bag of chocolate cookies and downing cups filled with welcomed water.

A thicket of willow caught their attention. Mary Huizinga pointed at a red-tailed hawk that wheeled above the tops of the trees and everyone scoured the horizon for a look at the raptor.

Steve Uchida had gone missing, and someone wondered what happened to him.

Injuries aside, these friends return to the canyon each week, as much for the stewardship they perform as for the camaraderie they enjoy.

An overachiever, Uchida had wandered off, a step or two from the owl tree, and continued wielding his mattock at recalcitrant weeds. Returning with a fistful of them, he tossed them into the flatbed and collected a cup of water.

The group began dispersing. Some headed for the Sussex Street steps while others walked along the path above the new tennis courts.

A dog walker, who lives on the last block of Chenery Street, passed them. She followed her dog, a black Labrador. A daily canyon visitor, she’s familiar with each volunteer, if not by name than by sight, and she’s also familiar with their routines.

“You’re all leaving early,” she said.

Retired, for the most part, they had the luxury of time but perhaps not infinite energy. While the morning work didn’t make them dog-tired, their exertions had been none stop other than a bit of down time between their sediment and mustard labors.

They watched the Lab fetch its guardian and continued watching as she trailed behind her new dog. She’d return in a day; they’d return in a week. Everyone seems to return to Glen Park’s special place.

Interested in joining a Friends of Glen Canyon Park work party? Contact Jean Conner at 584-8576. For information about the Recreation and Parks Natural Areas Program, contact David Burnet at 871-0203 or e-mail david.burnet@sfgov.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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