Shaking the shivers of a beloved bay

Swimmers know they're taking risks going into San Francisco Bay, but meeting up with great white sharks isn't one of them. Those scarifying fellows prefer hunting in ocean waters outside the Golden Gate.

There are inevitable questions about the water's purity, however, and this causes many people to hesitate. No one expects the water to meet the standards of Perrier, for goodness' sake! But is the bay water even reasonably clean - clean enough for a little dip occasionally?

The bay's most renowned swimmers, members of the Dolphin Club and the South Bay Rowing fellowship, try not to think about it. Despite the oil spills and sewage leaks that menace their beloved estuary, members jump in without apparent fear. The lure of the bay - the romantic sense that it's a kind of wilderness only minutes from a great city -is irresistible.

For many years I have listened to ugly stories about pollution here, about the sadly diminished fish population and the seemingly insatiable developers destroying more than 95 percent of the wetlands. Millions of sandpipers, cranes, blue herons, terns, and egrets once made their homes along these shores. Now most of this rich society of wading birds has been forced to look for other accommodations.

During the winter, an estimated 2 million birds visit the Bay Area. But now a large company of them must fly three miles east for food and shelter, to the friendlier sloughs and channels of the Sacramento River delta. Old-timers mourn the near-absence of delicate shrimp that once teemed in these waters.

Despite this gloomy picture, conditions are improving. A few shoreline parks have been set aside for the public. Bear Island has been preserved for waterfowl by the doughty citizens of Redwood City, who made developers back off. And the stench of sewage that plagued the East Bay for many years has largely disappeared.

Some of the worst toxins that used to flow into the bay have been outlawed. As a consequence, I see more sanderlings on the food-rich mud flats. This tiny bird, with his potent little beak like a leather-worker's awl, searches in flocks for microscopic crustaceans in the oozy sand. Hundreds of them working together as fast as a concert of sewing machines is an amusing and touching sight.

Two years ago, I watched a man well past retirement age rise from the water at a beach near the Hyde Street Cable Car. He looked to me as red as a steamed Dungeness crab. His long hair, tied by a piece of twine into a ponytail, had the color of streaked sand. As he stood up at the water's edge, I called out to him. "Is it OK to swim here?"

"Better than just OK," he said in a growly sea-captain's voice. "I've been swimmin' here nearly every morning of my life. Yep, I expect by now I look like one of them old sturgeons out there."

"What about the pollution?" I asked.

"Do I look like I've suffered any?" he scoffed. "Pollution never bothered me. This bay is my girlfriend, and I ain't gonna hurt her feelings by wrinkling my nose every time she don't smell like a rose!"

This salty comment strengthened my faith a little, and before I left he said, "You know somethin'? Every day, 800 million gallons of fresh Pacific seawater rushes into this here bay, courtesy of the moon. So don't worry."

When I heard this, I thought "Oh well, let's go swimming."

Next day, having put aside all anxious thoughts about pollution, I headed for the beach at Crissy Field, a former Army installation within a 10-minute walk of the mighty Golden Gate Bridge. Here, I took off my shoes and walked out on the sand.

Dozens of brown pelicans flew in formation close enough for me to see the leathery pouches under their beaks. They reminded me of dignified senators on their way to a joint session of Congress. Pelicans had been endangered for several years out here. You used to have to search with binoculars to see just one. Now multitudes of pelicans have returned.

I watched them fishing. They fly about 30 or 40 feet over the water, heads held high, models of perfect posture. When one of them sights a perch or smelt, there's an astonishing collapse of wings. He suddenly looks like a $5 umbrella caught in a high wind. He plummets to the water, sort of like a slapstick comedian, and splashes in to claim his prize.

I had brought cutoffs and a towel in my pack. The beach was isolated. Not another being in sight. This was it. I was ready to do it. The lively surf was foaming at my feet. "Come on," it invited. I put on the cutoffs and prepared myself.

The water is cold, but not icy cold. For anyone leaving the subtropical warmth of a goose-down quilt to go for a morning swim, however, it seems glacial! People can easily put their hands in water this cold without flinching. They'll even throw some on their faces to feel refreshed. But to know what a full-body, sudden immersion in San Francisco Bay is like, try filling your bathtub with 48-degree-F. water (the usual temperature of the Bay, most days) and hop in. If you're not instantly catapulted out again, you must be a polar bear.

"Why not go in gradually?" I asked myself. "Dip in a toe, wade up to the knees, pause five minutes, venture tentatively to the waist, and so on up to the nose?" Well, you may not want to do it this way for the same reason you don't strip off a bandage, millimeter by millimeter. You do it all at once.

So, in a fine show of Olympic-champion intrepidness, I jumped in headlong and went at it with flailing windmill strokes. I advanced about 10 feet into deeper water before it became clear that I'd made a monstrous mistake. The coldness was an enveloping, primitive cold. It was the essence of cold, the meaning of cold. I had to get out of there fast.

I made it back to the beach in maybe ... oh, 2-1/2 seconds. I fell on a warm sand dune. Ah! But it wasn't warm enough. I squirmed around desperately to bury myself in the sand like a crustacean. That was better. I remained there like a beached whale for an hour to recover.

I had learned an important lesson. During the ensuing weeks I went at Bay swimming more gradually. In good time I became used to it - the way you can attune yourself to cold showers.

Now I can report that I dive in every day, swim for an hour, and come out feeling like a lion. But, like my friend who got me into this, I probably look more like a steamed crab.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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