Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Harvest Festivals Around the Bay

Two weeks ago, San Francisco's Chinatown kicked off the fall season with the Autumn Moon Festival. With my girls, I walked up and down historic Grant Avenue, pedestrian for two days, looking up at rice paper lanterns hanging on blue skies.
Streets were more crowded than usual but the bountiful moon cake displays, mystery herbal remedies in cellophaned packages, lion dancers and the China Dance School & Theatre show of rare ethnic dances, totally made it worth the parking nightmare.

Energized, I left summer behind and am now looking forward to my favorite season of the year and some fantastic Bay Area fall festivals . On top of my list come two outstanding celebrations of the fall. Autumn at Filoli will take place this coming Saturday October 3rd from 10am to 3.30 pm when one of the most gorgeous gardens and orchards of the Bay Area will open its doors to the public. This 1917 property, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is Woodside's glory and a short 20 minute-drive down 280 from the city. True to October, Filoli volunteers will organize children's activities including Halloween crafts in front of the Georgian mansion. Expect pumpkins, hay stacks and face painting. The horse-cart hay rides in the field adjacent to the house are also a family favorite. Hopefully Filoli's beekeeper will be there to show pictures of Filoli's beehives and bees, and give a taste of honey to the young ones. On an autumn note, there is always a long line for children eager to make apple juice on an old-fashioned wooden apple press.

However to me, the highlight of the day is a stroll through the historic apple and pear tree orchard and gardens decorated with whimsical scarecrows and gentle witches. I've never seen such well-crafted garden creatures anywhere else. Explore the walled garden, look for flowers around the sunken garden and southwest terrace, say hello to the birds in the garden and by all means, don't miss the pool. No you can't swim in it, but you'll sure wish you could.

Ardenwood Historic Farm's popular Harvest Festival on October 10 and 11 from 10am to 5pm comes pretty close to farm heaven for rustic life lovers and corn-picking maniacs. This Victorian ranch turned into an educational farm about 1870s farming practices is a peaceful oasis in the sun-drenched East Bay. As you come in and walk through the park, you follow the path on the right and get to the beating heart of the farm: the farmyard. Listen to folk music, pay a visit to the blacksmith, card and spin some wool, go pet the sheep, or take advantage of the crafts and activities. There's always something fun to do and my girls' favorite is sneaking to the outdoor kitchen and raising their hand just high enough above the table to snatch a freshly-baked cookie coming out of the wood-burning stove. The best thing about these cookies is that they are made with corn and wheat grown and ground on the farm directly - and the cookies are prepared under your eyes by volunteers in period costumes.

For my friends, the highlight is always the corn field. Sure you've seen corn fields before, but ... have you ever picked jewel-like indian corn off the stem or dried corn that you'll be able to pop in your kitchen next month? Now, that's heaven. If you feel like baking with locally-grown whole grains, buy a bag or two of the corn or wheat flour to bring home. They come in charmingly quaint fabric sacks and you might even see them ground in front of you.

If you can't make it to either of these two, there are loads of great options for fall festivals and I will mention a few here, but don't hesitate to let me know about yours in the comments section. I'm always looking for non-strictly-pumpkin harvest & fall events.

Other Bay Area events:

Hoes Down Harvest Festival at Full Belly Farms in Capay on October 3 from 11am to 11pm. What better place to celebrate rural living than at a farm? The 22nd annual Hoes Down Harvest Festival at Full Belly Farm offers educational farm tours, a magical children’s area, hands-on workshops, farm products and an abundance of organic food, live music and good times!

Harvest Festival at Slide Ranch on Saturday October 10 from 10 am to 4pm. Take a hike in this wonderful coastal and educational farm part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in Marin. There, breathe in the sea breeze and spin some wool, milk a goat, make bread with herbs you pick in the garden, or participate in craft activities. Slide Ranch is always a hit with my girls.

High Grounds Organics Harvest Fair in Watsonville on October 10 from 10 am to 4pm. A few years ago, it would have seemed impossible to conjugate strawberries and pumpkins in the present tense. And yet... this unique harvest event takes advantage of Watsonville's gentle climate and abundance of strawberries and apples.

Fall Masquerade Festival at Green Oaks Creek Farm and Retreat near Ano Nuevo on October 17 from 1 to 11pm. Suggested by a member of GreenMoms, this event promises to be great. Here is the description: Local art, live music, farm fresh crepes, local brew, u-pick tomatoes, raffle prizes, farm tours, workshops, fun for kids and more.

Harvest Festival and Halloween Mask Workshop at the Marin Headlands Visitor Center on October 25 from 1.30 to 4pm. The Marin Headlands is possibly San Francisco's best green idea over the Golden Gate Bridge and I never fail to take my girls to the Marin Headlands for nice coastal hikes - sometimes on iffy twilight hikes. This festival will have your family make masks for the season using non-native materials found around the Headlands and sample heirloom apples.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Escape From The Rock 2009: Veni, Swimmi, Termini!

It didn't really dawn on me that it was perhaps a crazy idea until ... a minute after I jumped off the boat. There I was, in my wetsuit, floating in the low 60s San Francisco Bay waters, east of Alcatraz, with 600 swimmers ahead of me following an ebbing line of kayakers. A big "Warning" sign shouted "Keep off this island" in bold official letters. Now what? I was dumbstruck. It's like I was waiting for an off-screen voice to take control and narrate that "now the last of the swimmers has jumped and the first is already half way through the Bay breaking through the waves..." In a haze, I processed the early morning events, the ferry ride to Alcatraz and figured out the next step. It really helped that it was starting to feel lonely with everybody else way ahead. Time to swim back to shore, time to get cracking!

On Sunday September 13, 2009, a few hundred (600?) people took part in the 29th annual Escape from the Rock Triathlon. This triathlon is known as the poor man's "Escape from Alcatraz" because anybody can sign up (no lottery, no qualifiers) and it's a lot cheaper - with a comparable course. Basically, you start with by crossing the Bay from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco, then you run, then you bike, then you run some more. I only signed up for the swim part and believe me, that was enough to keep me busy all summer. Even after four months of training, I was in no danger of winning. I was just about to fulfil a San Francisco ritual that very few San Franciscans achieve: escape from Alcatraz by way of water. My only concern was being so sluggish that I'd be carried away to Japan by the currents. Well, obviously I made it back to the city of locally-grown whole-grain organic pizza! That, in itself, is a small victory.

The training
I was fortunate to find a swim partner early in my training in my friend Christine. That's her on the lawn at Aquatic Park. She really helped keep the momentum going. Honestly, there's nothing like dragging a good friend in a potentially unpleasant adventure. The two of you can commiserate together. Plus, Christine was a competitive swimmer in her (distant - teenage) past so she was really an asset in the general scheme of things - and a friend, because she signed up without blinking twice. I was the one who needed coaching. Last May, I couldn't swim two 25-yard pool laps freestyle without suffocating.

So together, we attended Swim Art's Wednesday evening open water swims at Treasure Island every other week and met for Sunday morning swims at Aquatic Park. Swim Art is really a whatever-swim-level-friendly support system to Bay Area open water swims, as this article proves. I've seen beginners like myself as happy as advanced swimmers. If you want to swim from Alcatraz or in the Bay and don't know where to start, Leslie and her team are the answer to your dreams.

Plus, swimming at Treasure Island is kind of funky. You navigate your way in a cove between boats, most anchored, some sunken, and you get to see the future Bay Bridge from a rare angle. Aside from the Bay, I followed a pool training too. By myself, I haunted the Brisbane Community Pool twice a week, following Leslie Thomas' 8-week training plan for Alcatraz. As instructed, I printed it and inserted it in a ziploc bag for poolside reference purposes. I only rescued it once from the bottom of the pool when the wind acted up.

For more pizzaz and on two occasions, Christine and I strayed from the usual gig and swam across Tenaya Lake in the Yosemite National Park, and in the Bay from St Francis Yacht Club to Aquatic Park. It was like Star Trek in open waters: to boldly swim where.... It all felt very adventurous to me.

After the summer, not only was I prepared to jump into salty cold water with 1-foot visibility (see murky self-portrait through water for illustration) and aquatic life around, I was asking for more. Fortunately, the race provided a sane reality check on my path to the Olympics.

Race Day
Escape from the Rock is really a race. I'm saying that because I made third worst and because my only goal was to get to the finish line without becoming shark food - although really, man-eating sharks are a myth in the Bay. They're only in this text for cheap thrills. Coming back to the race element, the fastest swimmer completed the 1.5 mile race in a brilliant 28 minutes 37 seconds and I'm in total awe.

On the morning of the race, I got up at 5.30am. We were to meet at the San Francisco Maritime Museum between 6 and 7am to register. My roadie family got up too. They don't like to get up early to freeze their toes off by the beach but they were gracious about it. At Aquatic Park, they dropped me off and I walked into the last of the night to the museum.

The place was buzzing with white lights and people. It felt outlandish. A volunteer asked me to make two fists and scribbled my entrant number in black ink on my hands: 488. I registered and followed the line of people to the far western end of Aquatic Park. By the Dolphin Club, a guy was checking the kayaks. Christine arrived and we sat on the lawn area designated for "Swim Only" participants. At that point, I pretty much felt as casual as if I was going to a party. I sensed no nervousness around me, just anonymous faces looking eager to start.

I fixed the timing chip around my ankle, wondering how it was going to get activated. At last we got going. At 7.15am, we all walked to Pier 39 to board a ferry. Seeing hundreds of swimmers in wetsuits, some half naked some barefeet, around Fisherman's Wharf must have been quite a sight for the tourists. Christine's husband snapped shots of us before we lined up with the "yellow and orange caps." I daresay, the adrenalin was kicking in.

Oh, how calm and tranquil the waters seemed on the ferry ride. Alcatraz, the prison island - the island that was so well protected by its treacherous currents that only one successful inmate escape is recorded. I took a breath. The air was fresh but not cold. The wind picked up slightly. A Yang Ming tanker crossed the Bay in the distance and made big waves.

We circled around Alcatraz and got in position behind the line of kayakers. The boss of Envirosports kept telling the kayakers to move another 50 yards. There, we were good.

The San Francisco Fire Department boat Phoenix shot huge arches of water up in the sky and opened the parade for us. Show time. 1, 2, 3, jump! People started jumping on both sides of the ferry. Yellow caps bobbed up and down the water. Some started head first freestyle in the Bay, others warmed up swimming butterfly. Knowing I'd be amongst the slowest, I waited for everybody to be done so I could jump last. In hindsight, that was a mistake because once you jump, you still have to swim a hundred yards to the kayakers. A strong swimmer will cover the distance in no time and reach the kayaks at the second horn sound. Not sluggish me.

We heard a first long blast off of the ferry horn warning us to get ready, then a second one to signal the real start of the race. I was way behind the kayaks, in front of the big "Warning" sign. For Christine's water camera, I flashed a smile. We parted ways.

The next second I was all by myself. The trouble was, I had just realized that my goggles were leaking. Too loose maybe? I tried to tighten them, to no avail. Why oh why? All summer I'd been fine and today, the goggles were acting like salt water tanks for my eyes. @@##!! Fine, I had no other choice but to swim anyways. Stroke time. Ah, but the currents at Alcatraz kept me at the same spot. It took me forever to leave that island. It's the only moment in the entire race when I really asked myself "Why"?

As I slowly saw Alcatraz grow smaller in my periscope, some swimmers went past me. Every three strokes, I stopped to empty my goggles. It was a royal pain and because I lifted my head so much, my wetsuit was rubbing against my neck harder than usual. Sometimes I pushed it to six strokes but the salt really stung my eyes. The city seemed so far away.

Since there were no buoys to indicate the way but hundreds of yellow caps scattered in the water, I followed Leslie Thomas' advice on sighting: "for the first 2/3 of the way, sight on and aim for the Jeremiah O'Brian Liberty Ship. When about 2/3 of the way across, begin sighting on the Balclutha ship - this is the 3-masted ship docked in Aquatic Park. Follow that the rest of the way, and you will end up exactly at the opening." You see, getting to the opening is the tricky part because of a very strong current right before Aquatic Park. You miss it, you'll have a tough time fighting the tide to get back in. You aim too far, you lose time. Ah, strategy.

Despite my somewhat dampened spirits because of the leakage problem, I was glad to be in the Bay and exchanged greetings with a nearby kayaker. Yes I was doing fine. I was on the right track? Great. Galvanized, I plunged my arm. The deeper waves took me on a roller-coaster for a long time.

Christine told me later that she opted to breathe at the top of every wave. That's an idea not to swallow too much Bay water. Mechanically, I just tried to keep a steady rhythm and wasn't bothered by the choppiness. About half way through I felt some cold spells. My right hand tingled, I wondered if I had crosssed paths with a jellyfish. No, it didn't sting. I took a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. At long last, the big orange buoy marking the entrance to Aquatic Park got closer and I heard the tell-tale sign of shore getting close: the sea lions barking at Pier 39. Yeepee! Pelicans flew overhead.

I was in! Safe at last. Safe in the sense that now I could not get carried away to Japan by the current. All I had to do was finish and meet my little girls and husband on the beach. I swam twice as hard but by then, I was already wiped out. Forget the stylish Raquel Welch getting-out-of-the-Bay. Forget the clean finish sprint. I was tuckered out.

When I got to shore, I almost stumbled to get to the big electronic clock gate. An hour and 18 minutes. That's how long it took me to swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco. I was 3 minutes overtime compared to the official guidelines. However the reception committee with my family, my friends and my landlord was well worth the effort. I got my fair share of hugs and congratulations.

After I changed and drank a cup of hot tea, I felt like a (tired) million bucks. I'd done it! Now my goal is to do better next year. Alcatraz anyone?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Western Pacific Railroad Museum: A Train Museum on Real Wheels

Are you a train lover at heart? Among your childhood fantasies could be this one: where can you operate a vintage diesel locomotive with a private instructor? Say, an EMD F7 streamlined road unit or an EMD TR-6 locomotive? Your dreams can come true at Portola's Western Pacific Railroad Museum (WPRM) through the Run-A-Locomotive program. This program allows you to rent a train car for an hour or more and to operate it on the museum's tracks under supervision of a trained train driver. Alternatively, you may just show your family one of the West's best train collections. Won't your junior engineers love it?

The WPRM is a terrific train museum to visit - when you get there despite the somewhat confusing road signage (check the map on the website before you go). Between Reno and Quincy, Portola is a little town in the Feather River Canyon, Plumas county, north of Lake Tahoe. You might as well say in the middle of nowhere.

With a census of 2,227 people and local news on livestock auctions, it's puzzling to find there one of the largest railroad museums in the Western United States. The list is impressive: 37 diesel locomotives, 1 diesel locomotive, 1 steam locomototive, more than 10 passenger cars and numerous freight cars, many ready to roll on the museum's 37 acres and 2.5 miles of tracks. If trains are your thing, then you have to go.

As you drive past Portola's historic downtown and you enter the train yard, big signs warn the visitor: any of these machines could get moving. How cool to think that you are stepping in a place that's about historical railroad equipment yet is not frozen in time. These trains are made for rollin'.

Inside the great depot, machines getting repaired await visitors or train buffs footsteps to come to life. The California Zephir open-dome passenger car is almost entirely gutted out, yet you long to see it glide along scenic routes of the Sierra Nevada or Colorado River. Being able to see trains neatly restored and in the process of is a rare behind-the-scenes feel, like you're an insider walking up with your oil can to get cracking on the engine.

Outside the building is the greatest collection of cabooses with wacko internal layouts that made our children's eyes pop out of their heads. Between hidden beds, elevated beds, corner desks, drawing cabinets, empty cupboards and spinning chairs, there was enough decor to pretend play forever. "All aboard!" kept yelling the children, following their arm & whistle gesture by a huffing "chugga-chugga-choo-choo." The guy who sat in the chair 10 feet high right underneath the ceiling really had a great view - both inside and outside. Stepping down from one caboose to climb up in the next was probably the best part of the visit, until we heard a loud whistle.

A train was coming! Obviously, the museum is by the Feather River, its tracks running parallel to the actual train tracks. We all climbed on the lookout to admire the freight train passing by. As it came to a stop, a glance to our left revealed the biggest collection of train spare parts we'd ever seen. We started walking down the alley, the children fascinated by rusty twisted nails, bigger-than-life track nails, stacked up barrels and springs of all sizes. That's not even mentioning the open freight cars used to stock metallic beams and wooden pieces, with stick calendars on the back wall reminescent of Woodie Guthrie's Dust Bowl.

Now look at your calendar and cross out all the weeks between November and April because the museum closes in the winter. If you want a chance to climb aboard these great machines or if you are dying to drive your own train with your junior engineers, you better hurry because winter's coming fast. Your only other opportunity this winter will be the Santa Train on December 5th and 12th, after the museum has undergone a "winterization" makeover. Then it's hibernating time and the snowplow train will be sleeping too. Anyone for a train ride?