SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine kayaking by starlight or the wash of a silvery moon as the skylines of San Francisco and her sister cities glitter around you. If you can't imagine that, don't worry. Just sign up and do it. The outing is one of the guided kayak trips offered by Sea Trek in Sausalito, and even beginners are welcome to come along. Such an excursion was one of my first and most memorable paddles on San Francisco Bay.
Among the tours offered by California Canoe & Kayak in Oakland is a paddle up the gentle waters of the Oakland Estuary toward the marshes of San Leandro Bay, where you are treated to views of basking harbor seals, wading herons and snowy egrets, a host of shorebirds and occasional flights of sandpipers.
If San Francisco's dynamic waterfront is what you want to experience, City Kayak at South Beach Harbor is your launch point. A scenic tour past McCovey Cove and the San Francisco Giants' ballpark, the soaring towers of the Bay Bridge and the historic Ferry Building will be your reward.
Prospects for paddling explorations seem endless, as San Francisco Bay (technically an estuary, because 40% of the state's water drains into it via the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers) covers 470 square miles. It includes urban areas, wildlife preserves, historic sites such as the prison on Alcatraz Island, and many scenic vistas.
The bay's central lobe, which sees the most commercial, sailing and paddling traffic, is crossed by four soaring spans: the Golden Gate Bridge, Richmond-San RafaelBridge, Bay Bridge and San Mateo-Hayward Bridge. Each is exciting to paddle beneath.
I mean, when conditions are benign. Otherwise, it can get a bit too exciting. Beginners should seek the judgment of experienced guides about the best way to relate to prevailing circumstances. Water currents in certain areas of the bay can exceed 6 mph. Winds can surge from a hard blow to gale-force blasts with scant warning. Drifting fog that may seem romantic when viewed from shore can be blinding when you're on the water.
The bay has many moods. Reading and adjusting to them is a requirement for safe, enjoyable paddling.
The best way to start? Take a lesson in basic skills and safety procedures. After that, take a half-day paddle in the sheltered water of the Oakland Estuary or Richardson Bay. Then enjoy a daylong trip, perhaps to the Golden Gate Bridge, or Angel or Treasure Island. Once you've acquired the knack, outlying areas such as Half Moon Bay, Tomales Bay and the Elkhorn Slough are possibilities.
As you progress from intermediate to expert status, grand adventures beckon. My best foray on San Francisco Bay seized the advantages of tide and wind (I had mounted a sail on a touring kayak) to voyage all the way from Angel Island to my home waters of Redwood Creek. On that day, I covered 38 miles in a grueling but glorious nine hours.
No matter how often you immerse yourself in the bay's charms, you'll never wear out its options. New possibilities are exposed at every turn.
The San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail, long a gleam in the eye of local activists, was adopted as a state project by the Legislature in 2005. That means at least 112 launch, landing, picnic, camping and lodging sites around the bay will be united in a comprehensive system for use by kayakers and others in non-motorized boats. The project now is orphaned by California's budget crunch, but once its draft environmental impact report is revised and re-circulated, development should proceed.
Meanwhile, many existing facilities, planned for inclusion, are ready for use.
To find out more, go to the California Coastal Conservancy at www.scc.ca.gov (click on San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail).
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Bay Area kayak choices
San Francisco Bay resources for kayak rentals, guided trips, and classes:
Sea Trek: Schoonmaker Point Marina, Sausalito; (415) 488-1000, www.seatrek.com
California Canoe & Kayak: 409 Water St., Jack London Square, Oakland; (510) 893-7833, www.calkayak.com
City Kayak: South Beach Harbor, San Francisco; (415) 357-1010, citykayak.web.aplus.net
Greater San Francisco area resources
Current Adventures: Offers outings at Elkhorn Slough,Cosumnes River Preserve and the bay delta; (888) 452-9254, www.currentadventures.com
Half Moon Bay Kayak Co.: Pillar Point Harbor, Half Moon Bay; (650) 773-6101, www.hmbkayak.com
Blue Waters Kayaking: locations on Tomales Bay at Inverness and Marshall; (415) 669-2600, www.bwkayak.com
Kayak Connection: locations in Santa Cruz Harbor and Moss Landing (Elkhorn Slough); (831) 479-1121, www.kayakconnection.com
Monterey Bay Kayaks: locations at Monterey Bay and Moss Landing (Elkhorn Slough); (800) 649-5357, www.montereybaykayaks.com