A group of pelicans sat on the rim of the Lafayette Reservoir dam huddled against the chill of the morning. Preening and pecking at each other, none of them put so much as a webbed toe in the water.
If I didn’t know better I’d think they were stalling, putting off that first dip in the lake. I wouldn’t want to go swimming that early on a cold morning either, but I know they don’t really mind it because the water is a lot warmer than the air. Besides, the reservoir was already populated by mud hens and two western grebes swimming side by side.
On top of the tower that rises out of the lake a few hundred feet from shore was a whole flock of cormorants. Something was up. That was a lot of ocean going birds to be hanging around a small body of inland water.
I was meeting with a few friends to hike the Rim Trail, a moderately strenuous loop that follows the ridges surrounding the lake. And yes, I know it’s not a lake, I just get tired of saying reservoir, and from most of the trail it sure looks like a lake to me. Beautiful wooded shoreline with patches of tules dotting the circumference and a few fishing boats lazing about, it looked absolutely Tom Sawyeresque.
This reservoir was completed in 1928 by the East Bay Municipal Utilities District which still manages it, and opened to the public in 1966 for fishing, hiking and paddle boating. Eighty-five years is plenty of time for brush and trees to fill in, and except for the dam, it looks like it’s always been there nestled into the rolling, oak covered East Bay hills.
Not much was moving on the water on that still, cold morning but on shore it was a whole different scene as people and dogs took off from the parking lot to burn some calories, build some strength or just plain take a walk in the sun on a stunning California, January day.
We headed left, clockwise around the reservoir, initially on a paved path, past lawns and picnic grounds, and a wonderful children’s playground built to look like a wooden castle. Kids were running from rampart to tower over bridges and causeways, screaming their delight and trying for all they were worth to get as far from their watchful parents as they could in the fanciful structure. It’s fenced all around, so they couldn’t get far.
Just past the play structure we turned left up a dirt road and began climbing the ridge. Had we stayed on the paved path, we would have had an easy hike of 2.7 miles looping around the lake, close to shore. If you haven’t walked the Lakeside Trail, it’s one of the perfect places to start that New Year’s resolution to be more active. It’s not an ordeal, and it’s simply beautiful. Muscles that need to be awakened from winter atrophy can come back slowly here. Beside the path, there are lots of places to sit and let the quiet soak in, watch the life of the lake and marvel at being alive yourself on such a lovely day. Imagine all the life that calls this man-made lake home, and realize it’s your home too, at least for a time.
Up on the ridge it’s another story. The Rim Trail is for runners and hikers who are up for a stiff 4.7 miles of rolling and at times, very steep trail. But the views begin immediately; Diablo to the east, the Berkeley/Oakland Hills to the west and the blue water far below. The live oaks ripple, green across the hills making a patchwork pattern with the grey of the blue oaks and buckeyes which have lost their leaves for the winter. The coyote brush is blooming in great fuzzy masses of cream and white fluff, a chaparral shrub with a distinctive smell that always tells me I’m in the hills of home. The day we hiked, lines of wispy clouds set off the deep blue of the winter sky.
My hiking friends were Richard, Larry and Brad, all veteran Diablo climbers who would have no trouble on the Rim Trail, and were out for a good brisk work out. When you hike clockwise on the rim, that work out comes quickly at about a mile and a quarter when you dip steeply down to a saddle in the ridge and then begin the steepest hill in the park. Richard called it “Goliath,” but when I made a regular habit of running the ridge several years ago, we called it something altogether different and frankly unprintable in this medium. It was a certain bit of ghetto slang that fit the butt kicking climb you get on this section of trail.
Ever the engineer, Brad had brought a laser level on several hikes on Diablo in the past and found that one of the “bumps” on the Burma Road was a 43% grade. That’s steep! Goliath is not much less than that and up or down, it’s a work out. He brought his GPS and measured the climb at not much over two hundred feet, so it’s over quickly enough. If you’d rather not climb it, then take the Rim Trail counterclockwise and come down it instead as the climb from the other direction is much more gradual. Another option is to simply take one of several “bail out” trails that lead you down to the Lakeside Trail and an easy walk to the parking lot.
Once on top, we stopped for water at a large tank and took a bit of a break. We had several more miles of trail ahead of us, ups and downs, some of them steep, but none on the level of Goliath. We stretched out into two groups, Brad and I incessantly talking about opera, something that would bore most folks to tears, but which seemed to push our speed ever higher with the excitement of the conversation. So much for taste. I have no idea what Larry and Richard talked about, but they blasted right along at a great pace and much sooner than seemed possible, we descended through the last forest and out onto the parking lot on top of the dam.
The day wasn’t over, however. In the hour and a half we had been walking, things had warmed up and the pelicans were all bobbing about near the western end of the dam, looking for breakfast. Their peaceful flotilla wasn’t peaceful for long as we heard a boat engine roar to life and an East Bay Mud runabout charged through the water taking direct aim at the floating birds who scattered in great commotion.
Forming up together in the air as only migratory fowl can, they swooped out over the lake, looking like a little squadron of planes, easily escaping the noisy chase boat. Swinging left they settled back down in the water on the east side of the dam in the same spot from which the runabout had begun its charge. As soon as they picked their spot and settled into the water, the boat changed direction and charged back across the face of the dam, again shooing those great birds back into the air. Once again they formed their little defensive squadron, soared majestically over the face of the water and settled back down in the spot the boat had just vacated.
It was all very entertaining and we speculated that the lake may just have been planted with fish. A call to Lafayette Reservoir staff confirmed it. The pelicans, cormorants and grebes know the fish truck and descend on the reservoir for easy pickings as the trout recover from the shock of transport. To give the fish a fighting chance, staff run a bit of interference with the district’s boat, and all of us on shore get quite a show. The flock of great birds was magnificent to watch, taking off and landing so close to us all on shore. There was clearly no chance the human in his boat would ever hit one of them, so in spite of all the drama and noise, “No animals were injured in the making of this movie.”
For an easy walk, a spot for a picnic, a great workout or a quiet sit beside the prettiest “lake” in the East Bay hills, take a drive to Lafayette and explore the Reservoir. If you want a bit of drama, come on fish planting day and watch the antics.
“I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found.” John Muir