Monday, November 28, 2011

Kayaker winter holiday all about the birds

A great blue heron and its bird's eye view of Lake Solano
The difference between a kayaker Thanksgiving and a landlubber holiday? For the latter, you sit around and stare at the carcass of the guest of honor, dreading yet another meal of leftover turkey. Kayakers do the decent thing – take the bird out for a paddle and dump it overboard with barely a burp.

Okay, kidding. But after a few days with a full house of friends and relations – plus the aforementioned fowl – a kayak outing is just the ticket to shake off that holiday daze. Chances are some guests may want to tag along but have little experience on the water. Look for a low-stress, easy paddle to accommodate them. Nothing strenuous or tricky. It would really put a damper on the holidays to have an empty chair at the dinner table where Uncle Jack was supposed to sit.

So consider a place like Lake Solano, near the valley town of Winters on a mild winter day. Once off Interstate 80, meander down some picturesque country roads with orchards, farmhouses and views of the coastal mountains. Then you can spend a couple of hours on quiet water, enjoying flocks of birds that still have their feathers and giblets intact.

Egrets aplenty stalked the shoreline
On a pre-Thanksgiving weekday, we pretty much had the area to ourselves. A small concrete boat ramp – the park’s only convenient launch spot – was a bit muddy and mucky, so boat boots came in handy. And there was a fair amount of vegetation in the lake itself, so we headed upstream toward Putah Creeka waterway rich in valley history and environmental activism – not to mention the inspiration for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River.”

At this time of year, before winter rains and releases from Lake Berryessa replenish Lake Solano via the creek, the water is low and the current slow, nearly imperceptible for the mile or so that we paddled. There were signs that beaver had been busy gnawing on waterside saplings, though we saw none at midday. The area also is known for river otters, deer, foxes, coyotes and other critters. Plus a peacock on hand to greet us in the parking lot. On this unseasonably warm day, it was all about the birds.

What's for dinner? Not him

Goldeneyes at rest, above, and roaring into flight, below

Great blue herons and egrets stalked the shoreline. At least a couple of egrets were still teaching their young the finer points of fishing. Mallard couples shyly eyed us as we cruised by. And with sheer numbers and aerial acrobatics, flocks of goldeneyes stole the show. These small-to-medium-sized diving ducks resembled mini-penguins on the water. But they became black and white rockets when they exploded off the surface and whizzed over our heads on whistling wings.

Osprey stands guard on Putah Creek
Toward the end of the creek run, as the banks narrowed and the water became too shallow to go further, we spotted an osprey – or more accurately he spotted us – bobbing his head and clucking his disapproval at our presence. No worries, fella, we had already invited another bird home for dinner.


Paddlers who become casual birdwatchers may find a basic guidebook helpful. Try "Birds of Northern California," a reasonably-priced, well-organized text with color-coded sections (waterfowl, hawks, etc.) and nice illustrations. 

Check out this description of Lake Solano County Park, which also features hiking, fishing, and camping. Day parking costs $5, no extra charge for a kayak.

Here is the official way to get to Lake Solano. People who know the local roads will tell you that there are other, better ways to get there, but I can get lost in department stores and would prefer that you cuss your GPS instead of me.

The most important thing, route-wise, is that you go by way of Pedrick Produce, off I-80 at Pedrick Road between Davis and Dixon. As the online commentators attest, this two-story Quonset hut is a mecca for farm fans. And what’s a drive in the country without stopping at a produce stand?  
The squash bin at Pedrick Produce
© Glenn Brank 2011