A Front-Row Seat at Oakland's Middle Harbor

A wooden bench, not 20 feet from the water passing with the tides behind Jack London Square. My seat faces the narrow channel and, on the other side, warehouses on Alameda's industrial north end, the legacy of the Navy's 60-year presence. To my right, hulking container ships bound overseas are loaded and unloaded by a pair of Oakland's iconic cranes. They dwarf the passenger ferry that loads and unloads here, too, from a short pier a few hundred feet away.

They also block the view of San Francisco and Marin to the north, but no matter; what counts here is right in front of me: Calm, composed waters of the Middle Harbor, the corridor of water running south from Oakland's main port in that critical gap between Oakland and Alameda. From this vantage point, where I visit almost daily after a short walk from my office a half-mile away, it's but a sliver in time along the water's path. Sailboats move in toward the harbor a short way down or out toward the wide open bay, as do tugboats, flat-bed barges, small personal fishing boats, the occasional kayak. Watching them passes my time.

It's nothing but a dredged shipping channel, really, with artificial riprap shores on this side and wooden piers extending from 90-year-old bay infill on the other. Where I sit, noxious fumes and engine noise emit from the idling container ships, a distant freeway roars on the wind, and AmTrak and cargo trains rumble down the old tracks a block behind me, horns blasting at rock-concert levels to alert drivers and pedestrians. Within this industrialized tableaux, a nature scene plays out.

Three coots, chicken-size waterbirds, paddle amiably just beyond the water's edge, first one way, then the other, like the sailboats farther out. Their black bodies and white bills float in stark contrast on the water's shadowy ripples at dusk. One dives to cleanse itself, surfacing seconds later between the others. In the distance a brown pelican soars, then swoops down to skim the water, graceful wings fully extended, its angular neck and bill an unmistakable silhouette. Once I watched a pelican float here in front of me for 20 minutes, never taking flight, under the ferry pier and back, all the while following or being followed by a single double-crested cormorant, another jet-black bird. Like the brown pelican, the snake-necked cormorant hunts here regularly -- one above the waterline, the other below. Gulls are prevalent, too, but not it any unnatural way. They're welcome.

Such is these birds' life amidst unnatural signifiers on all sides: industry, pollution, noise. I can only imagine the din underwater created by the cargo ships and frequent outboard motors on smaller crafts. They go on about their business, and I come to watch them, and the boats, as they do the same.

Two summers ago I came here every lunch hour to read a book on fly fishing. I don't fly fish, but it changed my life. It was about fly fishing as an way to experience and understand and order and frame wilderness, in the grand sense. The author spent most of his time near his home in wild Montana, but his accounts opened my eyes to what was right in front of them, and to a new way of writing. I have these memories with me on my bench.

On my walk here and back to the office each day, I pass a shallow inlet, where the USS Potomac, FDR's former personal yacht, is docked year-round. The rocky riprap banks are forever strewn with waterborne litter and debris. Not all is right in the world, but from my seat at the edge of Oakland's Middle Harbor, things are good enough.

The next day, the massive ship is still there. The coot family has grown to six; they’re still by the shoreline, paddling back and forth and diving a few inches down to pull algae from submerged rocks. They resurface with pale beaks full of vibrant green. A seventh floats fifty feet away, alone. But between them is another bird family I don’t recognize, and that I don’t believe I’ve seen here before: waterbirds with snow-white necks and chests. Their necks are long, elegant, and snake-like, like the cormorants; the tops of their heads are as black as their arcing necks are white; and their pointed beaks, muscularly sculpted isosceles triangles a few inches long, complete their features. Their tail-feathers, when extended, protrude in a fan shape six inches behind their bodies; I’d love to see them in flight. They’re beautiful.

They float silently, patiently, their heads tucked back into their grey-feathered wings. Nine in all. Later I identify them as either Clark’s grebes or Western grebes -– in either case, a species that leaves large inland lakes to overwinter on the Pacific coast.

These grebes, nine of them, intermingle with the coots foraging for food all the while. They preen. They tuck. The float. The wind blows. Massive arms swing back and forth on the shipping port cranes, large metal birds grounded year-round. The arms move cargo off the ship, one container at a time, onto trucks that wait in line below, near the ship’s hull. I hear distant sounds of engines running, the freeway roaring, metal clanging and crashing and banging, port utility trucks backing up with that telltale beep-beep, gulls calling. A train passes by, horn blaring. A man and a woman clean a fishing boat called the Sanity Check, docked with dozens of other small vessels not a quarter-mile to my left. The sun shines on my face, and on the water, on the crests of tiny waves, on the backs of the coots, and on the grebes. And life goes on.

A 20-foot sailboat with a two-man crew glides in on a light breeze, followed by a barge loaded with a 50-foot crane, at a crawl. It leaves a small wake. Three finches race across the scene before my face in a mad flurry of chirps, then disappear. Another sailboat goes out.

As I stand up to leave, a brown pelican -– the same from yesterday? -– soars in from nowhere. It passes before the sun, and I lose him. He’s gone again. A black plastic bag, caught aloft, floats on an offshore breeze to near the end of the ferry dock, where it sets down on the water like nothing so much as a seabird. I watch as it drifts further out, to the middle of the channel. Will a bay or sea creature mistake it for food?

I’m joined here today, like most days, by other people. A man stares to the horizon from a nearby bench. A couple cuddles beneath a blanket behind me on the manicured lawn. Two men walk by and marvel at the container ships as they’re unloaded. I watch the water, and life goes on.

One of my favorite things to do in the world is eat a warm curried tofu banh mi sandwich on a bench here, facing the water. I do that today. It's as good as ever. The ship is still here, as are the coots (still foraging), and the nine grebes (still tucking, still floating). New watercraft, though, enliven things: a 12-foot aluminum boat, coming in; two paddle-boarders, heading out of the middle harbor and into the bay; and a solo jet skier, also headed out, as if this were some resort. From my vantage point it may as well be, but for the roar of industry. Such is life at Oakland's Middle Harbor, and I'm part of it.