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Orange County | Orange Peeled A LOOK AT LIFE INSIDE

Aquatic Haven Reveals Itself to Paddlers

July 12, 2004|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Upper Newport Bay is quiet and still.

An adventure is about to begin for a handful of people at Shellmaker Island: They will spend two hours canoeing the upper reaches of one of Orange County's aquatic treasures.

"I was going to take everyone to Long Beach to kayak," said Dorothy Rennick, a retired postal worker from Costa Mesa. "But this is better. Plus it's cheaper."

For $10, novices and experts alike can canoe or kayak and check out egrets, great herons and other wildlife, including an endangered species or two while making friends with boat mates.

Upper bay tours are sedate, with discovery of the environs and not tipping over the primary goals.

That's what attracted Rennick, who was accompanied by her niece Brenda McCrae and McCrae's husband, Sean, from Irvine, and Rennick's great-nephew, Jake Wagner, who was visiting from Chicago.

By the end of the tour, even Jake, an energetic 11-year-old, couldn't stop talking about the jaunt, especially when he was the first to point out a seal.

"At first I thought it was an otter," he said. But as the seal broke the surface again, it showed its flipper and telltale big round eyes, giving its identity away.

"I didn't even know we had seals in the upper bay," Rennick said.

An ecological reserve since 1975, the upper bay is one of the best-kept secrets in a county with such attractions as Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, and hundreds of cinemas and arcades.

"It's the least-discovered, wonderful resource in the city of Newport Beach," said John Scholl, a state environmental scientist at the reserve.

Most visitors know very little about the bay's aquatic habitat, protected areas and history, he said. "They're surprised we have this many birds, especially during migrations," said Arline Parker, a volunteer naturalist. "They're also surprised because it's not developed back here."

To naturalists like Vikki Swanson, the bay is "mother's kitchen," an estuary where fresh- and saltwater meet, and home to nearly 200 species of birds as well as numerous mammals and fish.

On a recent Saturday, Swanson guided a tour that included Rennick's relatives and other visitors. Before the outing the group was briefed on water safety and canoeing tips. Rental of canoes, paddles, flotation vests and Swanson's time are included in the tour price.

"OK, let's carry your canoes to the dock," she said as she kept a watchful eye when visitors got into the canoes. "If anyone is going to fall overboard, near the dock is the place."

On the tour, Swanson identified more than a dozen bird species, pointed out geologic formations and talked about the bay's ancient settlements.

To ease the dry moments, she offered up puns: "What kind of bird is that overhead? A seagull? Right. But since it's flying over a bay, it's a bagel [bay gull].

"Look at the tern! Since it's flying left to right, what kind of tern is it? Yes! A right tern."

For seven years, Swanson has led tours as a volunteer with the Newport Bay Naturalists and Friends. She said it's fun to point out snowy plovers and endangered light-footed clapper rails to hundreds of visitors because it gets her mind off the numbers she crunches in her job as an accountant.

On the tour, she introduced the group to the work of Frank Robinson. To a new generation of bay adventurers, the name may not be recognizable.

To Swanson, it's all part of the upper bay's lore.

Frank Robinson is regarded as the granddaddy of upper bay environmentalism. Through nearly four decades of work, Robinson and his late wife, Fran, helped preserve the area for public use.

In one well-publicized battle, Robinson and other Newport Beach homeowners thwarted plans by the Irvine Co. to develop the upper bay. The company lost a court fight to Robinson's Orange County Foundation for the Preservation of Public Property, which argued that tidelands are part of a public trust that cannot be handed over to developers.

The developer eventually negotiated to sell 750 acres to the state for $3.5 million, and the Upper Newport Bay preserve was born.

"It's my favorite story I love to tell," Swanson said.

Information about upper bay activities is available on the Internet at www.backbayscience and www.oc parks .com.

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