A stroller and an office chair stood defiantly in the middle of Cerrito Creek.
"Here's an office chair, if anyone wants it," offered Susan Schwartz, who was leading a Friends of Five Creeks walk along Cerrito Creek and up the steep trails of Albany Hill.
The potential for enjoying the tranquility of nature in an urban setting was somewhat marred by the pieces of litter, empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cases and shopping carts that lay abandoned around the nearby Creekside Park, which is distinguished by a small playground and colorful murals painted by the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. At this moment, it looked like it was used by teenagers desperate to escape their parents for a party and a sneak puff of bubble kush, though perhaps it's well to remember that Cerrito Creek and the surrounding marsh were filled in the past with garbage, slaughterhouses, dynamite rubble and other equally pleasant organic compounds.
Fortunately, more uplifting prospects lay ahead on the early evening hike Tuesday. A couple of participants paused and placed the more portable garbage into plastic bags and disposed of it before moving on.
The aim of the walk, for which participants were asked to bring flashlights and sturdy shoes, was to help educate people on the pedestrian and bicycle opportunities in the area, as well as improve connections for cyclists and residents living on the hill. This was the third and final walk in a series. A public workshop on making Albany a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city will be held at 4 p.m. Sept. 14, at the Albany Community Center.
Starting from the Peet's Coffee and Tea on San Pablo Ave, Schwartz and five other participants walked down to Creekside Park. She noted suggested improvements, including a bicycle bridge on the south side of the trail on Adams Street, and a bridge further ahead connecting the more urban Creekside Park in El Cerrito to the wilder park in Albany. Schwartz later explained to me that the bridges are for safety in addition to convenience. She described how a man once slid into the creek on the Albany side during a storm. "He was in about to his waist, the creek was high, and there was no way across," she said. It took half an hour to reach him. "So after that, I became very serious about getting that bridge," she added.
The group crossed a wooden plank to the base of Albany Hill, which Schwartz referred to as "the big piece of nature in the middle of the city." The visitors made the steep climb through a dense thicket of oak, monkeyflower, hazelnut and poison oak. The poison oak bursts out of the trail's edges and seemingly swallows the lower half of the hill whole, threatening anyone hiking this trail in shorts and a T-shirt with a bit of itching the next morning. Clearing the poison oak -- along with the building the bridges and cleaning up Creekside Park -- is part of an "infinite list of Eagle Scout projects," Schwartz said.
Another problem that Schwartz pointed out on the way to the top were "switchback cutoffs" -- likely carved out in the past two months. "The switchback cutoffs worry me," she said with furrowed eyebrows. "I would like at the very least to try to find a Boy Scout project to fix those, as quickly as possible."
When you build a trail up a steep hill, it needs to switch back forth, left and right, so it doesn't end up too steep. It's always tempting, she explained, to go straight down, which is referred to as cutting the switchback. "When you do that, and there's a lot of rain, you can easily get a canyon. And this will wash out the existing trail, sometimes wash out the hill."
The large grove of eucalyptus at the top of Albany Hill beckoned the visitors to continue onward. Schwartz explained that the trees were planted originally to muffle the blasts from the dynamite factory, no doubt a memorable chapter in California's explosive growth. The trees are imposing, and the view -- the Bay on one side, Albany, El Cerrito and the Berkeley Hills on the other -- is especially impressive.
The group paused for a break at the large clearing on top of Albany Hill. A young mother watched her daughter frolic on a nearby rope swing. As everyone admired Albany and El Cerrito below, Susan told the group about El Cerrito's infamous gambling scene and whorehouses -- existing even as late as the 1940s. Dave, one of the participants, cracked that El Cerrito was the Tijuana of the East Bay. The others laughed in agreement.
Gerlind of Marina Bay, who's gone on three or four previous walks with Schwartz, found out about the hikes at the Albany Senior Center. "I think she's great," said Gerlind, who was born in Germany and has lived in Albany for seven years and El Cerrito for 25-plus. "I always liked nature, even as a little kid. I was happiest outdoors."
The group traveled down Albany Hill along Taft Avenue, past Catherine's Walk and the highrises on the other side of the hill back to San Pablo Avenue. As the hike drew to an end, I was struck by the role that stewardship and regard for the history and beauty of Cerrito Creek and Albany Hill can play for hikers and homeowners alike. I was struck also by the small number of participants.
"I wish more people would love nature," Gerlind said, "and not sit in front of the television, or computers, or race with their cars down the street."