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Lake Merritt

Lake Merritt

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Lake Merritt, nicknamed “the Jewel of Oakland,” is the largest man-made saltwater tidal lake in the United States. It is situated on the Pacific Flyway, in downtown Oakland, California.The lake was created in 1869, from 155 acres of "dammed tidal water" from the headwaters of Indian Slough. It was first known as "Merritt's Lake," and later Lake Merritt.The shallow lake is an ideal place to enjoy picnicking and bird watching. A popular 3.5 mile walking and jogging trail surrounds the lake.Every night, the stunning "Necklace of Lights" glints around the perimeter of the lake. It consists of 126 lampposts and 3,400 "pearly bulbs."In 1941, the lights, which were first lit in 1925, were dimmed due to World War II blackout conditions. It was again illuminated after a decade-long campaign, in 1990.Many local sports and environmental clubs are situated on the pristine shores of the lake. Pedal boats, sailboats, canoes, and rowboats are available for rent at boating centers.An adjoining park, Lakeside Park is equipped with picnic facilities and a storybook children's park - Children's Fairyland.The Rotary Nature Center and northern California's oldest wildlife refuge are two major attractions at Merritt Lake.The wildlife refuge, established in 1870, allows the public to observe several species of resident and migratory waterfowl at close range.The Nature Center, built in 1953, provides education and information about the natural environment to its surrounding community. It also offers a variety of services such as outreach programs, and summer day camps.

Lake Merritt (Texas)

Lake Merritt (also Brown's Creek) is a small, private manmade lake on Brown's Creek, located about 7 miles north of Goldthwaite, Texas in Mills County. Initially constructed by the Santa Fe Railway Company as a reservoir for their steam engines, the lake is now used for recreation. Found at an elevation of 1,129 feet (344 m). [1]

What's Living In Lake Merritt? A lot, it turns out.

It seems like a hard sell at first, given how much people watching there is to do at the Lake. Lake Merritt on a sunny weekend afternoon is packed with families and friends, joggers, bicyclists, drummers, dancers, ice cream vendors with their tinkling bells. Still, curious folks come to our table to see the shallow tubs we've set up - a PopUp Aquarium - which allows them to see and touch some of the Lake's lesser known inhabitants: tube worms, bubble snails, tunicates, hydroids, anemones.

Reactions follow a predictable pattern: shock, followed by wariness, and then finally, amazement.

First people express disbelief that anything lives in the Lake. Long-time Oaklanders have not-so-fond memories of the Lake as smelly and full of trash. Since Measure DD funds were put to use water quality has improved and marine life has increased. Large fish like bat rays, striped bass, and sturgeon have been seen in the Lake. In August, a harbor seal was spotted in the Lake. Seals and other large marine animals feast on smaller fish and mollusks like the ones we are showing off in our PopUp Aquarium.

"So these creatures come from the Lake?", people ask. I point to a spot near the shore where I had waded in, wearing my rubber boots. "I pulled this rock up right over there, and these anemones were on it!"

Orange-Striped Green Sea Anemone. Photo: Damon Tighe

Everything in the tanks is touchable, nothing will bite or sting enough to hurt a person. Still, it takes coaxing for folks to put their hands in the water. I pull out a compressible yellow-grey blob and place it gently in their hands. "What does it feel like?", I ask. "It feels like a sponge." That's because it is a sponge! Sponges are some of the simplest animals on Earth. They grow in small clumps on the docks along the Lake.

After they connect with one creature, people become more comfortable. It's time to introduce the sea vase tunicate. The sea vase is a translucent cylinder with two translucent tubes arms branching from one side. When I pull one out of the tank, the tubes retract. Its surface is perfectly smooth and soft, like a peeled grape. Pressed gently, water squirts from the lower tube. This never fails to delight. Maybe you've heard the phrase "sea squirt"? Weirder: of all the animals we are displaying- snails, shrimps, worms- the sea vase is the closest relative to humans. In its larval stage, the sea vase has a rudimentary notochord, a structure shared by all vertebrates. In human embryos the notochord becomes part of our vertebral column. Tunicates have no backbone. Their notochord is reabsorbed as the creature develops, leaving the adult a gelatinous, boneless glob. Still, it's a glob that shares a common ancestor with us!

Sea Vase Tunicate. Photo: Damon Tighe

Within a few minutes, folks become believers. The fear of getting their hands wet is long gone. They notice incredible details of the structure and habits of the wildlife. "What's that? Why is it doing that? Is that a shrimp?" It dawns on them that Lake Merritt is full of amazing creatures, and it's been right here this whole time. People leave our table genuinely excited about what they've seen and learned. They continue their stroll or their jog with a newfound appreciation. All in all, a great afternoon at Lake Merritt.

We get lots of questions at our PopUp Aquariums. Here are a few common questions we fielded last week:

How did Lake Merritt form? During the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago, a channel was created that connected a low-lying area to the San Francisco Bay. Bay water flowed in and out with the tides, resulting in a salty marsh surrounded by mudflats. Human development in the last few centuries has dramatically impacted the landscape and ecosystem. Mudflats have been removed. Nonnative species have entered the waterway, often hitching a ride from distant lands via ballast water of international shipping tankers coming to the Port of Oakland.

Is Lake Merritt salty water or fresh? Both. Storm drains bring "fresh" water in the form of street runoff into the Lake. It's a mix of rain-water and all the nasty junk thats on the street (trash, dog poop, motor oil, plastic). If it's on the street, it flows into the Lake! Salt water comes in with the tides through the channel at the south end. Salinity in the Lake varies by time of year - less salty during the rainy season, saltier in the dry season.

Are there fish in the Lake? Yes, I'm just not fast enough to catch them with my bare hands. There are lots of small bait fish living in the Lake. You can see brown pelicans dive-bombing from the air to catch them! Larger fish have been seen, too. Keep your eyes pealed.

Where did you get this stuff? We mostly collect samples from pier pilings and from rocks along the shore. Mussels and algae grow in clumps which act as a microhabitat for other organisms like worms, barnacles, tunicates and anemones. We try to return creatures as close as possible to where we found them.

What kind of shellfish did the Native Americans eat? Ohlone people lived along the marshy banks for thousands of years. They ate clams, mussels, and oysters and amassed the shells into massive heaps known as shellmounds. Hundreds of shellmounds were documented around the Bay, including one at Lake Merritt. Some of these were also sacred burial places and ceremonial sites. For more information about shellmounds, check out the fight to preserve the West Berkeley Shellmound.

Is the Lake getting cleaner? Yes. The restoration of Lake Merritt is ongoing. The Lake Merritt Weed Warriors meet each month to plant and maintain native saltmarsh plants, which restore habitat and nutrients for other Lake dwellers. You can join them at a work day!

Beware Oakland’s Deadly Lake Merritt Monster

If you happen to go downtown, you might find one of the city’s prettiest (and oddest) features – Lake Merritt.

Actually a tidal lagoon, Merritt has the distinction of being the United States’ first official wildlife refuge, an honor bestowed upon it in 1870.

This scenic body of water, which covers 140 acres, boasts a killer jogging path, killer sailing, a killer amusement park and, well, possibly a killer.

Photo credit left: flickr/omar ronquillo right: shadowness.com

Oakland’s Lake Merritt Monster: Oak-ness

Photo credit: loden.cgsociety/Federico Scarbini

Updated 9/19/2019 – Meet Oakland’s Lake Merritt Monster, the frightening creature of legend who, some say, inhabits these waters, preying on small animals that venture too close and – if the rumors are to be believed – occasionally on unsuspecting people as well.

The lake was originally connected to the San Francisco Bay, but over the centuries it gradually became isolated with decreasing tides, and by the mid-nineteenth century it was its own body of water.

According to legends surrounding him, this is when the Lake Merritt Monster, known as “Oak-ness” by locals, originally became trapped in the area.

Stories of Oak-ness date all the way back to before the Civil War, when Ohlone natives lived in the area, and the stories continue today.

Most of the stories, as previously stated, surround the disappearance of animals.

Even today, one usually only hears about missing pets or strays disappearing.

But occasionally there are stories of a more sinister nature.

Something Sinister

“In the summer of 1843,” says a man who prefers not to be identified, but claims to be an expert on the subject, “Ohlone legend states that a party of six hunters went out near the lake at night on an extended hunting trip.

Only one of them survived, and he came back to his tribe with such vivid and horrible tales of a monster living in the lake – a creature with the eyes of a dragon and the teeth of a shark, with the torso of lizard and a fish’s gills – that his fellow tribe members believed he had lost his mind.

In 1862,” he continues, “you hear rumors circulating around about a missing scouting party from an army regiment.

One or two guys come straggling back, telling the same bizarre story of being attacked by some kind of sea creature that was half-dragon, half-fish and all-mean.

And again, history buries it because nobody believes these people are sane.

They’re all convinced the rest of the party has been massacred by natives.

And this just goes on and on, down through the decades,” he says, his eyes animated.

“The creature has been trapped in there a long time,” he concludes.

“And maybe he’s getting old, because the disappearances are rarer.

You would think, these days, that every four or five night-time joggers would be attacked and eaten, but you really don’t hear about it too much.

Don’t get me wrong – you do hear about it, such as the Lake Monster sightings in 2013.

But if the current trend is to be believed, and if it’s even still alive down there, it probably only attacks occasionally.”

Asked why no one hears about these attacks on the news, he just shrugs his shoulders.

About Lake Merritt

The flood control structure
In response to the 1962 flood, county officials built a flood control structure along the channel at 7th Street. It includes tide gates and four diesel powered pumps that can even lower the Lake level during incoming tides. This facility provides protection from the 25 year storm, but not for bigger storms. It can be set to operate in five pump modes:

1. Gravity flow to Oakland Harbor
2. Pumped flow to Oakland Harbor
3. Pumped flow to Lake Merritt
4. Automatic outflow to Oakland Harbor

Normally, the tides gates are kept open.

But when there is a 50% chance of rain in the forecast, tide gates are closed during incoming tides. In this mode, the Lake level is typically at 1.0 foot plus the amount of increase due to runoff.

The pumps are rarely used (only when tide gate operations are insufficient to prevent flooding).

The Lake Merritt Master Plan calls for a by-pass to be constructed around the flood control barrier using the adjacent pedestrian tunnel. This would allow small boats to travel between Lake Merritt and the Oakland inner harbor/SF Bay during low tides. Larger marine life such as sea bass, sea lions etc. would also have access around the flood control structure to and from the Lake.

Fishing at the flood control station

A Natural History of Oakland’s Lake Merritt

The lights around Lake Merritt flicker off. Dawn has opened a shimmering, pink-feathered window in the pearl-gray sky through which daylight begins to pour over the water, dazzling, like liquid mercury. Buses rumble by. The workaday city shakes itself awake. It seems mere moments ago that I shared the dusky waterway with only the trees—humming and shushing in the breeze-laden night—and the lake’s winged denizens: snowy egrets stitching the water’s surface with needle-like beaks black-crowned night herons, wary and aloof a flotilla of coots, suspicious and red-eyed, patrolling the shadowy shallows. Quickly, it seems the pulse and population around Lake Merritt change. Traffic floods the boulevards that surround it. Footpaths fill with folks. Rowers pull their way across the waters. In the space of a few moments the lake is transformed from a wildly silent realm into a populous and shared kingdom, a place where people come to socialize, recharge, and regroup—145 acres of a hard-working natural space fulfilling the needs of a community.

The Rotary Nature Center is open, to, well, everyone. Photo by Stephanie Benavidez.

It hasn’t been this way for long. Less than 200 years ago what is today Lake Merritt was a slough, the swampy north-pointing appendage (sometimes a finger, sometimes a hand) of San Antonio Creek, part of the tidal channel that would later become the Oakland Inner Harbor, and an integral piece of a 3960-acre watershed situated on a wide alluvial plain. Framed by thousands of acres of surrounding tidal marsh, the slough occupied 500 watery acres at high tide and 375 acres of mudflats when the tide was low. Alder, sycamore, live oaks, and California bays lined the banks of the streams that emptied into it. Herds of deer, elk, and pronghorn antelopes grazed the grasslands around it. Foxes, bobcats, coyotes, and mountain lions prowled the hills above it countless numbers of ducks and geese touched down upon its inlets and channels—the skies were dark with them.

Few humans foraged the slough back then, although in the richly forested Oakland hills, Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone Indians seemed to have settled in a village along the banks of Indian Gulch Creek in an area that became known as Trestle Glenn. The Chochenyo fished the estuary, thanking Duck Hawk, the hero and benefactor who had made the earth a safe place for humans to live, for the food they took from it. By 1810, the Native Americans were gone, relocated to Mission San José by the Spaniards who had arrived with foreign presumptions: domination, possession, control. Title to the land passed, for the first time, into human hands.

Human history, unlike its natural counterpart, is written in a fast and spiky shorthand. By 1820 the slough “belonged” to Sergeant Luis María Peralta of Mission San José, part of a 44,800-acre land grant given in return for his years of service to the Spanish Crown. Title stayed with the Peralta family through Mexican independence in 1821 and cession to the United States. By 1848 the Mexican period had ended. Gold seekers swarmed the countryside, set up camp, and settled. It took less than four years for a couple of squatters—led by a sharpster lawyer, Horace Carpentier— to wrest ownership of the property adjacent to the slough from the Peraltas. They laid out a town, sold lots they didn’t own. Peralta won the legal battle that ensued, but the damage was done there would be no turning back. Oakland was incorporated in 1852, Carpentier became its first mayor, and San Antonio Slough became a sewer.

By 1860 the condition of the waterway had become deplorable. From the town’s inception, clever Oaklanders directed raw sewage into the slough, which—due to the natural flushing action of the tides—they deemed exceedingly utilitarian. In time, they devised a system, involving 60 miles of brick and wooden drainage pipes, whereby all of the city’s waste could be channeled into the inlet. The Oakland Tribune called it, “without exception, the most perfect sewerage main in the world, no other city having such natural facilities.” The euphoria was sporadic and short-lived. It generally lasted until low tide, when the slough became a pestilent cesspool of stench.

In spite of its less than fragrant aroma, communities flourished on the marshy lands around the channel—the villages of Clinton and San Antonio on its eastern shore, and the town of Oakland on the west. The only east-west access was across the slough, so in 1853 Carpentier built a bridge at Twelfth Street, across the outlet to the estuary, charging (and pocketing) a toll.

But it was 1868 that ushered in the first human-induced change to the waterway’s hydrology, when Samuel Merritt, Oakland mayor and slough-side property owner, quite literally turned the tide on the slough’s declining appeal, and changing its character forever. Merritt proposed, spearheaded, and—when he found support lacking—personally funded construction of a dam at the Twelfth Street bridge that would control the tidal rise and fall through the inlet. This, he reasoned, would transform the slough from mud flat to lake, from a sewer to a source of civic pride. It didn’t take long for Merritt’s vision to become reality. San Antonio Slough became Lake Merritt, the nation’s largest body of salt water within a city limit.

At that time Lake Merritt still retained its fringing wetlands. Its thickly matted margins teemed with migratory wildfowl and a corresponding bird-hunting contingent who, in the newly possessive light in which the townsfolk now viewed the lake, began to seem more like poachers. Town leaders supported Merritt in his proposal for a wildlife refuge to cut the gunplay and protect the large flocks of migrating waterfowl for which the area was vital winter habitat. There’s little doubt that Merritt’s motives were self-serving, but the outcome was both beneficent and precedent-setting. Things happened swiftly. Merritt used his influence, and in 1870 the state legislature voted the Lake Merritt Wildlife Refuge into being, creating what would be the very first, legally-established public wildlife sanctuary in North America. The change in status made it unlawful to take or kill fish—except by hook-and-line—and prohibited taking birds for game.

There was, however, no provision made to protect the lake’s surrounding marshes, and these began to shrink under the pressure of development. The property around the lake qualified, by this time, as prime real estate. Residences soon dotted its muddy shores, and in spite of the inlet’s newfound popularity, the water quality continued to deteriorate. Two sewer systems were undertaken in 1868, the year Merritt had proposed the dam, but these weren’t finished until 1875. The battle with contamination continued for decades. Then, too, there was a certain natural reality. A mud flat is a mud flat. The “lake” kept silting up.

To city officials, dredging seemed to be the answer, and in 1891 the first dredging began. The dredged material was used to further alter the slough’s topography. It was deposited on the marshes to provide a foundation for a boulevard hugging the eastern shoreline. A stone bulwark was created there. The building of the roads commenced.

Change to the waterway happened quickly over the next few decades. Swept up in a national movement dubbed “City Beautiful,” inspired by the 1893-1894 Chicago World’s Fair, Lake Merritt was dredged, diked, and directed into its new role as a showplace of a recreational park. By 1915 its transformation was, if not complete, then irreversible. Adams Point, where lakeside development had begun less than a century before, had become Lakeside Park, sporting imported trees and shrubs as well as lawn bowling greens and tennis courts. The lake’s Trestle Glenn arm had become Eastshore Park, which included an ornamental boat landing at East Eighteenth Street and an elaborate Pergola at Castro’s Landing where the old wharf, or embarcadero, had once existed. At the south end of the lake, the Oakland Civic Auditorium was created. The roadways brought in heavy traffic, and in 1925—in celebration of the encircling boulevard—Lake Merritt was gifted with its “Necklace of Lights.” One hundred and twenty-six Florentine light standards and 3,400 pearly bulbs would shine from 1925 until 1941, when World War II blackout conditions forced them off. Ringed in concrete, circled in lights, the wild slough had been tamed, tarted up, and made suitable for community entertainment.

Today the lake is working hard. No longer a sewer, it now does duty as a wildlife refuge, recreational center, and a key component in Oakland flood control. More important, it’s still at work for nature as a hydrologic mixing zone where freshwater run-off from the Oakland hills (now channeled through pipes, culverts, and storm drains) mingles, via the outlet beneath Twelfth Street, with the salt water of the Bay. These days, the inlet’s water levels are highly manipulated. To assist in the process and to prevent the kind of flooding that would generally occur in periods of heavy rain, a pumping station was added in the 1970s. In winter, when rainfall and runoff from the surrounding hills is high, the water level is deliberately lowered. Salt water is flushed out salinity decreases. In summer, when flooding is unlikely, the tidal inflow is encouraged salinity jumps accordingly.

But shifts in salinity are only part of what is going on beneath this tidal inlet’s ever-changing surface. Lake Merritt is a virtual bouillabaisse. Ropes of microscopic algae float in and out with the tide. Tiny mussels, crabs, shrimp, and barnacle larvae—and other drifters like bryozoans and jellyfish—graze on the algae. Hordes of silvery anchovies gorge on both kinds of plankton, as do the smelt, those smaller relatives of salmon, that spawn in the lake in spring. And there are tubeworms sluglike, fuzzy-antennaed mollusks called sea hares fat rosettes of mature mussel and barnacle colonies mud burrowing gobies and spiney stickleback—all part of the subaqueous host of squatters competing for the lake’s underwater real estate.

Situated on the Pacific Flyway—the western coastal highway for all migratory fowl—Lake Merritt is still a very popular stop. Its soupy brew draws pelicans and cormorants and terns and gulls and ducks and geese and herons, many of which nest and raise young on five man-made islands just off Adams Point. To really savor the flavor of this tidal bonanza, the fall and winter months—from September to February—are best. Then, the general wildfowl population swells with seasonal visitors. Rafts of feisty American coots scud back and forth over the lake. Fat-cheeked ruddy ducks dabble and dip far from shore. Emerald-headed mallard drakes and their plain brown mates socialize in the shallows close to the banks. Greater and lesser scaups, canvasbacks, pied-billed grebes, and the occasional goldeneye drift and dive in the deeper waters. Robins, starlings, house sparrows, scrub jays, and red-winged blackbirds hop about and hunt along the shoreline, and generations of Canada geese forage on the surrounding lawns. On rainy days the whole crowd’s at its best. Most sensible humans are hiding indoors, and Lake Merritt belongs once more, albeit briefly, to the birds.

Of course, for many Oakland residents the more cherished relationship is not the one with the birds, but the one between the lake and the city it serves. Seventy-five acres of park land provide a buffer between the lake and its inhabitants, and the urban community that surrounds it. A well-used walk around the three-mile shoreline winds past a variety of recreational facilities and civic structures. Ground zero is Lakeside Park on Adams Point where visitors find—tucked in between the 80 varieties of trees, shrubs, and plants—the Sailboat House, the old Lawn Bowling Greens, the James P. Edoff Memorial Bandstand, Children’s Fairyland, and the Rotary Nature Center.

It’s at the Rotary Nature Center where visitors can discover that, in spite of all the changes, Lake Merritt continues to be a functioning estuarine habitat, a small but significant piece of the largest estuarine system on the Pacific Coast. Supervising refuge naturalist Stephanie Benevidez, most recent in a long line that began with Paul Covel (one of the first full-time naturalists in the nation), will explain the natural interactions of a vital ecosystem that has had to change to accommodate man. She emphasizes an approach to nature that is functional rather than academic, honed by years of sharing her knowledge of the lake with several generations of future nature-lovers, easily telling tales of the mishaps and fiascos that have plagued the lake since people first laid hands on it. It’s not a pristine system, nor can it be, given the world that has grown up around it.

Stephanie likes to see humans and nature connecting. “It’s about the cycle of life,” she says. “People raise their young around the lake. The children come back and work at the nature center. I’d like to see a billboard featuring our geese and goslings. It would say, ‘Oakland is a great place to raise a family.’”

Development has not been without its casualties. The changes in hydrology—some from continuing urbanization, industrialization, and utilization of the lake and its watershed, and some reflecting changes in the Bay as a whole—have precipitated corresponding changes in the populations of birds, invertebrates, and fish that make the lake their home. Rechanneling the creeks has cost the lake its population of freshwater fish and made room for other species. Portuguese barnacles, widgeon grass, green mussels, and Pismo clams have all been vigorous intruders, muscling out natives. Mitten crabs and Chinese long neck clams wait ominously in the wings. Indigenous or imported, it’s the more resilient species that persist and since the most resilient species seems to be Homo sapiens, success or failure of the other lake inhabitants depends on an ability to adapt to human presence. That presence can be destructive. Clearing away the underbrush for footpaths has driven off creatures like quail and reptiles that relied on it for cover. Oil slicks periodically foul the lake. Some city residents still pour contaminants into storm drains.

There are also grave misunderstandings: citizens releasing fresh water turtles in what is essentially a salt water system the importation of a colony of gregarious, but not altogether friendly, monkeys the introduction of red squirrels, with disastrous results for the ground squirrel population. Then there’s the tendency to interpret the success of any other species as a threat, as seen in the public frustration with the growing numbers of Canada geese and their waste byproducts. I like to think about the days when flocks of migrating birds darkened the skies, when humans were in the minority, when aggressive geese, their numbers, and their droppings didn’t cause a stir.

Mostly, I’m amazed at how we can’t leave the natural world alone. How we have to domesticate it, shape and control it, maybe dress it up to somehow make it better. Take the Necklace of Lights, for example. It’s back—a sentimental contribution from the citizenry to decorate the lake that they adore.

My friend Susan expresses her ambivalence. “At first,” she says, “I didn’t like the lights. I think I like them now.”

I tell her how the necklace reflects the esteem in which the city holds the lake, how it’s a token of that esteem, a symbol of appreciation but all along, I’m thinking about the cost of that appreciation. There’s something essentially destructive in our personification of the natural world, but I must admit it’s difficult to resist.

It’s nighttime on the lake again. Sunlight snakes crazily across the water, shadows slither from the banks, and gold begins to explode over the surface, chased by oily darkness. The necklace of lights twinkles on. There’s no denying it, the lake’s a working girl. Still beautiful, but with a job to do. Perhaps that’s why I love her.

About the Author

When she’s not on the road, Linda Watanabe McFerrin—travel writer, poet, novelist, and writing instructor—lives and writes in Oakland. She is the editor of Best Places Northern California and co-creator of the popular travel anthology Wild Writing Women: Stories of World Travel. Her story on Lake Merritt appeared in the January 2001 issue of Bay Nature. You can reach her through www.lwmcferrin.com.

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An Oakland lake became a symbol of Black resilience. Then the neighbors complained

People stop to look at Oakland’s famed barbecue restaurant Everett and Jones’ setup during the BBQ’n While Black event in 2018.

Michael Short/Special to The Chronicle 2018 Show More Show Less

Steph and Ayesha Curry marched around Lake Merrit as part of the Walking in Unity event in June 2020. New city restrictions at the lake could make it more difficult to host a similar event in 2021.

Paul Kuroda/Special to The Chronicle 2020 Show More Show Less

A crowd dance on the shore of Lake Merritt during the Juneteenth celebration in Oakland last year, a special time for activism.

Nina Riggio / Special to The Chronicle 2020 Show More Show Less

A group dances at the Juneteenth celebration last year.

Nina Riggio/Special to The Chronicle 2020 Show More Show Less

Onsayo Abram (left) greets Joan Smith during the inaugural 2018 “BBQ’n While Black” event at Lake Merritt. The event was started in response to a woman who called police on a group of Black people, including Abram, for using a charcoal grill at the lake.

Michael Short/Special to The Chronicle 2018 Show More Show Less

A commemorative memorial for Oscar Grant rests behind the Juneteenth celebrations along the shore of Lake Merritt. The lake has been the site of protests, rallies and celebrations for decades.

Nina Riggio/Special to The Chronicle 2020 Show More Show Less

CC and her husband join the festivities at Lake Merritt in Oakland on June 19 last year. The lake has long been a gathering place for people of color.

Nina Riggio/Special to The Chronicle Show More Show Less

It&rsquos a strange experience to be moved from anger to tears to laughter and then want to dance to Bay Area hip-hop in the span of an hour.

That was the emotional space I found myself in during last June&rsquos Hyphy Protest at Oakland&rsquos Lake Merritt. Hundreds attended the event, which was both a somber remembrance of George Floyd, killed a few weeks earlier, and a call to celebrate Black life and culture in the Bay Area. Bass-heavy music thumped through outdoor speakers. Breezes off the lake carried the smell of Oakland mud and the din of laughter from the crowd.

The summer of 2020 was a special time for activism at Lake Merritt. Despite the pandemic and social-distancing restrictions, thousands still turned out to protest racial injustice and celebrate diversity. With the first anniversary of Floyd&rsquos death on May 25 and California set to reopen for the official start of summer on June 15, the lake should be poised for another cultural and political moment.

Residential complaints about Lake Merritt&rsquos protest parties have prompted Oakland city officials to enact new rules limiting crowd sizes and increasing the police presence. For Black and brown residents who grew up celebrating by the lake, the restrictions underscore a long-running battle over who has access to public spaces.

&ldquoAre these (regulations) based on things that are reasonable or are they based on fear?&rdquo challenged Nicole Lee, a lifelong Oaklander and community activist who attended events at the lake in her youth and now helps organize them. &ldquoIn particular, fear of young Black folks.&rdquo

Black Oakland&rsquos activist connection to the lake dates back to at least 1968, when the Black Panthers held a rally there following the funeral for their founding recruit Bobby Hutton, who was killed by police that April.

More than a decade later, Lake Merritt became home to Festival at the Lake, an outdoor fair for what was a more Black city, but that ultimately ended in 1997 because of dwindling attendance and outsize debt. From 1982, when the festival started, to 2015, Oakland&rsquos Black population dropped from almost 50% to around 25%, according U.S. census data.

In 2016, young Oakland activists who wanted to push back against further displacement hosted &ldquo510 Day&rdquo at the lake. The party with a purpose had a goal of combating the erasure of historically Black spaces in the city, like Lake Merritt, by doing something simple: occupying them and having a good time.

Lake Merritt&rsquos cultural significance grew even stronger following the infamous BBQ Becky incident in April 2018. That was when a white woman called police on a group of Black people at the lake for using a charcoal grill in a non-charcoal grill area. The next month, the first BBQ&rsquon While Black was held at Lake Merritt. Four thousand people showed up for it, said Jhamel Robinson, who played a pivotal role in coordinating the 2018 and 2019 barbecues, which served as both pointed and joyous rebukes to the BBQ Becky incident.

Woven through all of this was a movement called #WeStillHere, led by Black and brown organizers involved in both 510 Day and BBQ&rsquon While Black. The hashtag referenced the goal of creating a more inclusive and equitable Oakland. Organizers behind the movement called on the city to stop criminalizing people of color, especially when they&rsquore just trying to have fun at the lake.

&ldquoBlack people can get together and love on each other when we need to,&rdquo Robinson told me recently.

The pandemic kept both 510 Day and BBQ&rsquon While Black from happening as in-person events in 2020. Other activist parties took their place. The Hyphy Protest last June was one of them.

&ldquoThe lake is a place of opportunity,&rdquo reflected Toriano Gordon, a Bay Area rapper and community organizer who opened Vegan Mob, a vegan soul food joint, on nearby Lake Park Avenue in 2019. &ldquoIt&rsquos our spot and it&rsquos one that we try to fill with positivity.&rdquo

Those good vibes could soon end.

As the news outlet Oaklandside has reported, many nearby residents have been complaining of noise, traffic and litter associated with events at the lake. Oakland City Hall responded last month with new restrictions and more police.

&ldquoWe can police ourselves,&rdquo said Robinson, who plans to bring BBQ&rsquon While Black back to the lake in 2022. &ldquoWe can be in those spaces, have a good time and do something that helps the whole community in Oakland.&rdquo

One year&rsquos worth of George Floyd-related protest parties re-established Lake Merritt as a place to celebrate and demonstrate. If Oakland City Hall&rsquos takeaway from last year is to do a better job of policing Black joy and resilience in 2021, then they don&rsquot understand what the lake stands for.

But the people do. As Robinson put it, &ldquoOur goal is to spread love, not hate.&rdquo

The Long, Complex History of Oakland’s Man-Made Bird Islands

Cormorants on Lake Merritt. Thomas Winz/ Alamy

Stand at just the right vista on the shore of Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, and you’ll see what appears to be a big island filled with dead trees, dense shrubs, and majestic birds—depending on the day, maybe double-crested cormorants, grebes, or black-crowned night herons. But walk a handful of paces and the mass will separate, revealing a five-piece archipelago where thousands of waterfowl make a home on their way across the lake or the world.

Although the archipelago is tantalizingly near both the shore and the lake’s boating area, the general public is not allowed within 50 yards, which gives the islands a mysterious appeal. The handful of parks workers and volunteers who have been lucky enough to walk its grounds describe the experience as a rare gift.

“It’s a visceral feeling—I could compare it to my first time traveling overseas, getting off the plane and realizing it’s the same sky, but you look around and everything is totally different,” says James Robinson, who grew up in Oakland and directs the nonprofit Lake Merritt Institute. “It’s a sensory overload, an experience of learning of how to be in the moment.”

The islands, the first of which was sculpted nearly 100 years ago from leftover construction dirt, reflect the political and ecological history of not just the lake, which is the nation’s oldest wildlife refuge, but also the city around it. They are a sanctuary within a sanctuary, hidden just out of view of the street, waiting to be discovered. “When you come inside the park, you see a ton of very cool-looking birds,” says Robinson. “You think, how is all this nature here in Oakland?”

Lake Merritt, c. 1899. Library of Congress/ LC-DIG-pga-05871

Sitting nearly at the geographical center of the San Francisco Bay tidal estuary ecosystem, Lake Merritt is not actually a lake, but a lagoon, degraded for over two centuries by urban development. The Bay estuary, with its mix of salt and freshwater, is so perfectly-located and unusually biodiverse that it is considered both hemispherically and internationally significant by conservation groups dozens of species of birds have, for centuries, stopped there to rest on long journeys down the Pacific Flyway, a migratory route that stretches from Alaska to Patagonia. And within this already unusual ecosystem, the lagoon is unique, its calmer inland environment and smoother waters providing a serene counterpart to rough coastal shores.

Throughout the early 1800s, as Oakland’s original city center grew a few miles away, on stolen Ohlone land, the lagoon became a sewage dump, an olfactory legacy that planners are still dealing with. The slow march toward cleanup began in 1869, when Samuel Merritt, a wealthy former doctor and Oakland’s 13th mayor, convinced the city council to install a dam, hoping regulated water levels would help hide the stench. A lake was born.

Unfortunately for Merritt’s substantial waterfront real estate investments, so was an ideal hunting ground. The lake exploded into an aviary wonderland of actual sitting ducks. Constant gunshot noise and the threat of stray bullets drove Merritt, on behalf of his wealthy neighbors, to barge his way through California’s bureaucracy and demand the lake become a nature preserve. In 1870, it was enshrined as North America’s first wildlife refuge, birthed more of capitalism than conservation.

Lake Merritt, with homes and buildings nearby, c.1910. University of Southern California. Libraries/ California Historical Society/ CC BY 4.0

Merritt died in 1890, but another mayor, John Davie, took up the birds’ cause upon his election in 1915. Nearly four decades as a refuge had made the lake a popular local attraction—more of a people sanctuary than a wildlife sanctuary—and Davie wanted to give the birds back some of their space. Construction of a 20,000-square-foot Duck Island finished on May 9, 1923 the mayor’s opponents, who considered dedicating an island to birds frivolous, called it Davie’s Folly.

Lake Merritt was already on its way to becoming the city’s “crown jewel,” and soon the island itself was a point of civic pride, with every improvement toward a resplendent sanctuary covered by the Oakland Tribune. Locals in 1924 celebrated the first batch of “native-son” ducks born on its shores, a brood that went on to star in a serialized radio play set on Duck Island that aired every Monday at 2 p.m. throughout the 1920s. “The Lake Merritt Ducks” was so popular that every episode got a full-column recap in the paper and, occasionally, fan art. Socialites even took inspiration from the island ducks for Mardi Gras costumes.

Meanwhile, the real birds were learning that the island and surrounding shores were safe places for stopovers free of land-based predators. Beginning in the 1930s, researchers from the U.S. Biological Survey banded ducks for tracking and study, an endorsement of the lake’s unique status: There were few other places that so reliably had so many birds so easily accessible.

“If you go to the lake today and you’re unaccustomed to it, you’ll be overwhelmed by how many birds there are, but in the 1940s and 󈧶s they were counting 4,000 a day that they didn’t get the day before,” says Hilary Powers, a birder who leads walking tours of the lake for the Golden Gate Audubon Society. “Tens of thousands over the course of the season.”

Bird banding operations at Lake Merritt, winter, 1926. Internet Archive/ Public Domain

It was during this era in the mid-20th century that the birds got their most significant champion, although this time, he was motivated by conservation. In 1948, Paul Covel, a former zookeeper from Massachusetts, joined the Parks Department as the city naturalist.

“He was a self-taught ornithologist of the first degree, so in love with the variety of birds and so in love with the lake,” says Stephanie Benavidez, an Oakland native whom Covel hired to work at the refuge nearly five decades ago. “He saw his role as protecting the legacy of the sanctuary and carrying it into the future.”

All of Oakland’s natural environs were under Covel’s purview, but his avocation was the refuge. Between 1953 and 1954, he oversaw the construction of four more islands, this time from landscaping dirt, to join the original one. The first was also rejuvenated. Covel hoped to diversify the bird population, so plants—including Himalayan blackberry bushes, star acacias, eucalyptus trees, and bottlebrush—varied slightly island-to-island to allow birds to pick the arrangement that suited them best.

Feeding at Lake Merritt, c 1930s. Boston Public Library/ CC BY 2.0

Wigeons, pintails, scaups, and goldeneyes began to nest alongside the mallards and canvasbacks. Some years, according to Benavidez, nearly 150 different species appeared over the course of a season. Covel and his staff revelled in explaining them all to visitors. “He knew the importance of making people feel responsible for helping to protect the beauty of what was going on around them,” says Benavidez.

But the variety did not last. Two decades later, as Covel prepared to retire, the bird population had declined to match an uptick in Oakland’s human population. Marshes nearby had turned to landfills for new housing stock, and a once-robust park staff dwindled to a handful. New birds continued to arrive, but their populations never matched the sheer volume of the mid-century flocks.

Benavidez took over as lead naturalist from her mentor in 1975, the same year that a raccoon infestation in the nearby Audubon Canyon Ranch nature preserve forced egrets there to relocate. They chose the islands, white egrets gracing tree branches and snowy ones burrowing into the bushes, pale feathers set off by the verdant green of the underbrush. They were soon joined by black-crowned night herons, and the islands “became a vivid rookery of bird life,” remembers Benavidez.

Young night heron taken at Lake Merritt. Calibas/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Meanwhile, the islands attracted birders by the thousands, from across the country and the world, who would stake out vantages for spotting a Barrow’s goldeneye or a bufflehead duck from much closer than they were accustomed to at home, or even in other sanctuaries. “The ease of seeing things here is unique,” says Powers. “The birds are just right there. They’ll give you the stink eye from [a few] feet away.”

The egret/heron regime destroyed much of the islands’ landscaping. It turned out the eucalyptus trees Covel had planted were no match for guano, or for the brackish mixture roots sucked up when rainwater muddled the lake’s natural saline content. By the early 2000s the trees had gone bare and died, leaving the herons and egrets without foliage for roosting. They moved out.

“It’s been a slow drama over the years,” says Powers, one that continued in 2003, when construction on the Bay and Carquinez Bridges evicted scores of double-crested cormorants from nooks underneath the roadways. Being seabirds that bask in direct heat, they started appearing on the islands’ tree branches, which were conveniently left shorn for maximum sun exposure by the previous occupants.

Since then, the permanent residents have predominantly been cormorants, although naturalists are trying to bring back the herons using decoys and recorded bird calls. Throughout all this, the islands themselves have proven robust, requiring only occasional maintenance and never additional dirt. In 2006, the city spent $1 million to shore up the edges, replace invasive plant species, install a new irrigation system, and add some living trees to attract foliage-loving bird species.

A panorama of Lake Merritt. Garrett/ CC BY 2.0

The biggest problem remains human beings. San Francisco’s decade-long housing crisis has continuously pushed new residents into Oakland, and those people every year push more and more trash into the lake, which can clog the irrigation system and hurt birds. Dissatisfied with being relegated to the shore, some visitors have begun flying drones across the islands to get closer to birds that are already unusually close. “People new to the city sometimes don’t seem to understand how to interact with the wildlife,” says Robinson.

While Oakland voters consistently prioritize the lake in funding measures, nothing can reverse the years of decline of surrounding habitats or increased stress of urbanization. Paul Covel warned of this on the occasion of the refuge’s centennial in 1970, reminding readers of Tribune that his work hadn’t truly “saved” the lake. “If we are to preserve Lake Merritt and the waterfowl refuge without gradual erosion of their natural values, we shall need your help,” he said.

Benavidez, who is now 65 and has been with the Parks Department for 48 years, takes after her mentor: She doesn’t think it’s too late. “The lake and the animals have adapted best they can to the sprawl and the Disneyfication, and this is what Paul was trying to get the staff to understand—it’s our job to get people to become responsible,” she says. “Once they’re responsible and fall in love, they will preserve and protect.”

Bassist Charnett Moffett returns to Oakland

Though the waters continue to teem with wildlife, Lake Merritt has not escaped the effects of urbanization. The most impactful invasive species were the American settlers who founded Oakland and built the city around the lake. In the mid-1800’s, Lake Merritt became Oakland’s toilet: creeks that once filtered water and hosted wildlife were converted to concrete drains that dumped stormwater into the lagoon and by 1884, 90% of the city’s sewage wound up in the waters. Wetland habitats gave way to busy streets, thousands of pounds of trash polluted the water, and the amount of dissolved oxygen, necessary for aquatic life to survive, tanked.

Polyorchis penicillatus, a jellyfish observed in Lake Merritt. Credit: Damon Tighe

Historical Sites

We are proud of our heritage in Merritt and invite visitors to experience it. The Heritage Commission invites you to follow the Heritage Walk.

Baillie House

The Baillie Property is a symbol of the first major urban development of Merritt both residential and commercial / industrial. The house was built in 1908 with all the hope that a buoyant economy brings to a young working man with the prospect of a wife and family.

Coldwater Hotel

The Coldwater Hotel, located in the heart of Merritt, was constructed in 1908 and its copper covered cupola is a Merritt landmark. The hotel is still in operations with a restaurant, pub and banquet facilities.

Quilchena Hotel

Established in 1908, the Quilchena Hotel is one of the Valley’s most historic buildings. Overlooking Nicola Lake, the resort offers visitors a multitude of outdoor experiences: guided trail rides, tennis, swimming, fishing, hiking and a scenic 9-hole golf course. The resort also has an adjacent recreational part with 25 sites offering full hookup facilities.

Douglas Lake Ranch

Established in 1886, it is Canada’s largest working cattle ranch. The ranch is approximately 515,000 acres in size, has in the neighbourhood of 18,000 head of cattle and employs 60 people. In addition, the ranch has two of North America’s top lakes for producing rainbow trout and operates a general store and post office.


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