Isle Be There
Don't get me wrong, San Francisco is swell. But after nearly a decade here, I'd started feeling restless. I've been to the tourist traps. I've seen the weird, obscure hillside gardens. I know all about quirky neighborhood touches like the junk sale at SCRAP the gay country dancing at Sundance Saloon, and the Lovers’ Lane bridge in the Presidio.
But my inner cartographer was starting to whine. It had been a long time since I experienced that thrill of seeing something different for the first time. Had I explored everything?
But then it hit me: If San Francisco is like its own weird little planet, maybe it's time to visit the satellites.
Chances are good that you've seen Yerba Buena Island and its neighbor Treasure Island. Together, they form that green outcropping between the Oakland and San Francisco sides of the Bay Bridge, and thousands of people speed through the Yerba Buena tunnel every day. Looking for adventure, my friend Jacqui and I bucked convention: rather than whizzing across the islands, we swooped onto the off-ramp.
We sped past the crags of Yerba Buena, which are mostly off-limits Coast Guard property. Neighboring Treasure Island was also military land for most of its life, built in the 1930s out of landfill and handed over bit-by-bit to SF starting about a decade ago. These days, most locals only visit for the Treasure Island Music Festival, but its grounds boast amazing views of the San Francisco skyline year-round, mainly from a grassy park near the entrance.
A road connects Treasure Island to Yerba Buena, but the two neighbors could not be more dissimilar. The latter houses rocky, tree-lined hills, while Treasure Island's meticulous flatness is like an army buzz cut.
Jacqui and I stopped in at a tiny café by the island’s entrance. "What's good to see here?" I asked the tattooed bartender. There were two other men at the bar, both ordering shots at two in the afternoon."Check out the abandoned buildings," one of them said. "There's tons of 'em."
The northern end of the island is blanketed in low-income housing, abutted by decaying buildings, broken windows, broken-up asphalt, and not a single human in sight on the day of our visit. After much exploration, we finally spotted life: a man hosing down a plastic utility cart near an open warehouse door.
"Hi," I said, and because our presence seemed odd, added, "we're just exploring the island."
"Want to see the winery?" he asked.
As it turns out, not all of Treasure Island is derelict. Treasure Island Wines is nestled in the army's old food-processing building, where fine Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels are bottled. The cool, damp weather is perfect for aging vino in the wooden casks lining the wall.
Owner Jim Mirowski showed us around the machinery, wires, and dials, the gleaming metal equipment looking like something out of a ’50s sci-fi film. He said he enjoys having company, and hosts frequent tastings that are cozy, down-home affairs, complete with a winery dog and nearby BBQ facilities.
Jim’s stuff is no Two-Buck Chuck – the wines are lovingly crafted. He works with suppliers and vendors to customize the crushing and fermentation to their exact specifications.
Along with nearby distillery SFvodka, Treasure Island Wines is quietly transforming the former military base into a haven for fine booze.
How could I top the fun of discovering Treasure Island Wines? With a scavenger hunt, of course.
Angel Island is a huge outcropping in the bay near Tiburon, about an hour's ferry ride from the city. Getting there proved to be a bit of a challenge. When I arrived at the Ferry Building, the Blue & Gold Fleet ticket-taker informed me that the tickets I purchased online could only be picked up a mile away. The boat was leaving in 15 minutes, and I briefly contemplated sprinting to the ticket pickup and back, but ultimately just wound up buying new ones. (Blue & Gold later kindly apologized and offered a refund after I sent them a disgruntled email.)
On this trip, I was joined by three friends and a GPS system. We spent the day hiking and searching the island for geocaches: inconspicuous sealed plastic containers that can only be found by measuring your exact geographic coordinates.
But the caches took a backseat to the idyllic scenery. Gentle sweeping hillsides yielded views of the Bay in every direction as we worked our way around the perimeter of the island. There were few structures, and even fewer people. We were alone with nature.
Once again, that feeling of isolation washed over me. But it felt somehow safe: relatively alone on an island, further from human habitation than I've been in a decade, I didn't feel lonely. I felt free.
Finding the first cache was easy: "near the benches," said a clue on a geocaching site, and as we neared its position, we spotted a film canister tucked in a tree stump. Victory! We signed our names to the discoverer's log rolled up inside.
Our luck was mixed with subsequent caches. Searching for one, we nearly tumbled over a cliff into the ocean, and retrieving another sent us into an ant swarm.
We were distracted from our fourth cache by two tall deer that walked across our path. Deer are known to swim to the island from Tiburon, and these two seemed none the worse for their trip – or for having grown up on an island, if they were descendants of deer that made the swim.
After a few hours of climbing trees and wading through tall grasses, we poked our heads into the small Cove Café near the docks. Delightfully, mimosas are available during summer months, and we lounged on the sunny docks and enjoyed the weariness of a day's hiking.
As we began the slow ferry ride back to San Francisco, a soupy fog swept over the city. The skyscrapers vanished into a gray that eventually consumed our boat and once again left me feeling perfectly invisible and alone.
That miasma had thickened by the next day when I set off for Alcatraz on my own. As the ferry docked, a wind picked up and grew into a chilly wet spray that clouded my glasses as quickly as I could clean them.
On the dock, I met up with Marie and Logan, two Alcatraz customer service folks who write Maganrord, a blog about the island's vicious cycle of life. The battles aren’t between guards and prisoners, but between herons, gulls, cormorants, and the occasional falcon.
Ravens are particularly cruel, Marie and Logan explained as we passed two ancient cypresses. One tree held a raven's nest and the other the carcasses of birds the ravens have killed.
Gulls can be murderous as well. If a young bird, just learning to land, accidentally winds up in a neighboring colony, he'll be set upon and killed. I didn't see any deadly squabbles, but I saw the aftermath: gull carcasses littered the cliffs, and nesting areas were lined with bones.
Despite the gothic chill, we relaxed in the Gardens of Alcatraz, which once grew produce to feed the prisoners, and chatted about the philosophy of ecological stewardship. Is it better to strive toward erasing human impact altogether or to manage a balance between humans and nature? What exactly is the difference between humans and nature, anyway? Heavy.
I also got a peek behind the scenes: Marie and Logan took me upstairs to the infirmary area, which looked like a torture chamber. A rusty operating table sat in a grim cell, and an x-ray room was still painted pitch black. There was a tub on the floor for "hydrotherapy" – which amounted to submerging boisterous prisoners in ice water until they fell asleep from hypothermia.
Visitors can check out Al Capone’s cell or see the Rube Goldberg machine that operates the doors, but you need to know who to ask. Seek out a park ranger, and they’ll take you up to the restricted second level.
I spent a little time just standing amidst the cells, watching tourists on audio tours. Decked out in headphones, the crowd milled in near-silence like a flock of sleepy pigeons.
We're entering a quieter season for Alcatraz. As the cold and rain approach, the regular nesting birds will vanish, and other species will pass through as they migrate to summer spots. Tourists will dwindle, too.
"We might get peregrines," Logan said. He's looking forward to the quiet of winter. "At that point, it's like it's my island and it's full of weird birds."
I knew what he meant. I'd set out to explore the islands in search of something new, but what I found most appealing was the isolation and emptiness. Out there on the water was something no city can provide: peace, quiet, and a blank map waiting to be drawn.
Yerba Buena and Treasure Island require a car, and are just a short drive along the Bay Bridge. Contact TI Wines at 415-FYI-WINE to schedule a tasting, and bring a picnic. Just remember that you’ll need to prepare yourself for a nerve-racking reentry when it's time to come back home, due to merging traffic. Angel Island tickets are best purchased at the Ferry Building in person and cost $16 round-trip. Alcatraz tickets should be obtained a few days in advance, and will set you back $26.