Hiking On the Water - An Afternoon in a Kayak at Lake Del Valle
by Bob Coomber
Looking for a new way to spice up a quiet Sunday afternoon recently, I took a few rolls outside of my usual norm. I've been all over the parks this long spring and summer, and wanted to change things up a little. One of my all time favorite venues is Del Valle Regional Park south of Livermore, a park with which I am intimately familiar. I love this place for its long trails and loops, as well as the probability that if I hang around long enough I'll see a bald eagle cruising along the south shore of the lake or a bobcat watching over the busy campground.
I visit this park almost daily, as it's a perfect place to let go of a busy work day. Though I had just a few hours on this Sunday afternoon, I had determined after much deliberation to try my hand kayaking around the lake. Aware that Del Valle has a fantastic kayak concessionaire, I left home with a wonderful anticipation that I was about to embark on something that may ultimately add another piece to my outdoors cred. I had some nervousness, of course - what if I spilled out into the lake? What if my lack of leg strength put me at a disadvantage? What if€¦.aw, heck, I finally decided - I'll never answer those questions unless and until I'm out on the water.
Afternoons are usually breezy at Del Valle, but my few experiences in a kayak had taught me that these low, narrow boats are not nearly as unstable as they might appear. Not only that, but drawing only a few inches of water and being as maneuverable as a fish I would be able to explore parts of the lake I didn't know existed. Even with a moderate wind gusting I fairly flew on my chair across the parking lot to the kayak concession on the north shore near the swim area.
The crew at the kayak shack was knowledgeable and helpful to this newbie. After picking a cool 12 footer, I managed to get in without tipping (I was still on the beach, after all) while kayak staff stowed my wheelchair in one of their containers. As I pushed off the beach I instantly leaned a bit too far to the left, almost dropping into the lake. Ah yes, this newbie needed a little comeuppance before taking off in the open water. My 14 year old paddlin' buddy could scarcely contain herself over my ineptitude, so once balanced I set off to try to keep up with her.
And once I started into the open lake, it got much easier. A few tips from staff and I had the confidence of a long time paddler. There's more to this than arm strength, too - I have plenty of that, but there's a learning curve to finding an efficient stroke. As my partner cruised circles around me as only a precocious child can do, I started to figure it out and headed southwest toward the opposite shore. Approaching the shoreline, we turned to head west in the direction of the dam. That would be a long cruise, so we pushed our way into the wind, the boat's narrow hulls creating a low resistance path even as the wind blew at our faces.
I didn't want to tax the endurance of this young kid too much, so we cruised along the south shore into cove after cove, inlet after inlet; these places are special, and unless you're paddling silently along the shoreline you'll never see them. Above the shoreline was eagle territory. You might see a Goldie or Baldie at any time during the day, and the chances increase the father you push away from the picnic areas. We saw three Bald Eagles this afternoon, and we sat and watched in awe as they cruised higher and higher while barely flapping a wing. If only I could have matched that efficiency as I tried to keep up with my understudy€¦
She had it figured out, though. I had brought in a ringer, a paddler with years of experience despite her years. I could, I told myself, blow her doors off if I really wanted to; yet each time I pushed hard to cruise past her she seemed to get even farther in front of me. We made it to the back of a hidden inlet and stopped to listen to the acorn woodpeckers and quail for a few minutes. With a big grin on her face she asked me if I was doing OK€¦. Me? 4wheelbob, conqueror of 14,000 foot high peaks and wheelchair pusher extraordinaire? Are you kiddin' me?
But she had my number. Brute strength doesn't make you a great kayaker. It does enable one to keep up with a better paddler, but as far as expertise went I bowed to her experience - and almost tipped while bowing. She had mercy on me, as we ambled farther along the lake front and into another hidden inlet. The south shore of Lake Del Valle is a revelation in a small, nimble boat. It would be even better, I found out, if I could keep up with my young friend.
We turned out into the open lake and the breeze. It wasn't too bad, the boats being stable despite the wind. We took our time, making wide turns and squaring up to the wake of wayward fishing boats as they passed by. It was delightful to sit quietly in the wind, most of our bodies settled below the water line as we sat barely above. Because our boats were set up correctly by the kayak facility, we were comfortable and one of us completely dry. You might have guessed by now who the wet one was. I managed to come up with a smoother, more efficient stroke by the time we decided to head back. Not that I managed to keep up any better with my friend, though. She just kept cruising along effortlessly, her arms not tiring a bit as she put some distance between us. I pretended to be looking at a pair of Western Grebes diving alongside me, thinking I could convince her I was slow because I was enjoying nature on the lake. She wasn't buying it. "C'mon, keep up", she yelled. I pretended not to hear her, hoping she would have mercy on this newbie's lack of experience.
As good as my partner was, I was having one heck of a time. There's a lot I have to learn about paddling, but our time on the lake convinced me it may finally be time to take an earnest look into this potential new hobby. Meanwhile, though, I could make the short drive to Lake Del Valle and grab a kayak for a few hours almost any time and enjoy myself immensely. A warm afternoon on the water opened up a number of possibilities for me - heck, the Bay is just 45 minutes away. Big Break Regional Shoreline about the same. I could cruise up the long creek arm of Lake Del Valle toward the campground and watch the quiet places where foot long trout gather to talk shop just a foot below my transom. And to see my eagles, a real treat for those bold enough to explore Del Valle's south shore - that's the clincher.
Next time, though, I'm going to have my homework done. I'm going to learn more about my stroke, more about reducing effort€¦so I can keep up with my 14 year old friend. We'll be out there again soon, and this time I'm leading€¦ Until she flies past me again, that laughing smile letting me know I better get out here a LOT if I expect to keep up. After a day like this, I'll have no problem with that. If you need a change up to your exercise routine, I couldn't suggest a better way to spend a day than on Lake Del Valle in a kayak, exploring another way to get to know one of my favorite regional parks.