The sun is beating down on Islais Creek, a small marine channel in Hunters Point that opens out into the Bay. Homeless camps, graffiti, and factories surround the area, but there’s also a small, quaint park with native cherry trees and a gravel boat launch. Bo Barnes, a laid back man with shoulder length hair and an easy smile, is getting ready to take me out kayaking on Islais Creek.
“Why don’t you grab the other paddle there and hop in?” he says, as he holds the boat in knee-deep water. Once secure, we push out into Islais Creek and head east. Crumbling piers surround us, and the rumble of I-280 drowns out most other sounds. But as we get further and further from shore, the water gets calmer, the air crisper, and the sounds of the city become a distant hum.
“If you get 300 yards off the shore it’s like you’re in the Sierra wilderness. There’s nobody there,” Barnes says. “And you kind of wonder, 200 years ago, this is exactly what it was like right here right now, nothing has changed; you can’t change it.”
While the tidal pull of seawater into and out of the Bay and marine channel might be same as it was a few centuries ago, pretty much everything else about Islais Creek has changed.
The waterway was once one of the biggest in San Francisco. It started as a trickle near twin peaks, then slowly gained volume as it coursed through Glen Canyon and down what’s now Alemany Boulevard, before exiting out into a huge wetland on the Bay. At one point, most of the city tapped Islais Creek for drinking water, and dozens of small farms used it to irrigate their crops.
After the Goldrush a handful of slaughterhouses set up around Islais Creek and began dumping sheep guts and pig carcasses into it.
“They would butcher the hogs, throw [the refuse] in the water,” Barnes explains. “So this place smelled like high heaven for many years.”
There’s even a story that the water itself used to run red.
By the mid 20th century the slaughterhouses were mostly shut down, and Islais Creek became a magnet for metal scrappers and people down on their luck. Homeless camps cropped up, and even a few floating meth labs moved in.
At a certain point, the community got fed up and united around a common goal: to build a waterfront park on Islais Creek and clean up the area.
One of the activists is Derek Green. For decades Green and his late-father Archie have tried to renovate a now defunct cargo crane on Islais Creek, which used to move dried coconut, or copra.
Until the mid-1970s Islais Creek’s copra industry was bustling; for a time, dried coconut meat was one of the city’s most imported commodities. Today, though, the only thing left of the once booming industry is the crane, which is broken into five pieces and gathers rust along Islais Creek’s shore. Green is working with various labor leaders and the city to have it reassembled and turned into a worker’s landmark, with a nearby museum attached.
“The people in the Bayview district, Dogpatch area, this part of San Francisco, this creek belongs to them,” Green says. “And they’re entitled to a clean waterfront, a waterfront you can walk through with what I call a little eye candy. You’ll be looking at a 60-foot copra crane that was utilized 50 years ago in San Francisco.”
As Bo Barnes and I paddle back into Islais Creek from the Bay, we can see the copra crane’s old pier ahead. After passing under the Third Street Bridge, the sounds of factories and freeways come back into earshot; it feels like we’ve returned to the city.
The neighborhood surrounding Islais Creek doesn’t have too much open space; it’s known more for its industry and pollution. Which is why Barnes is trying to make space for people out on the water. He’s president of Kayaks Unlimited, which gives free kayak lessons to novice students on the chilly bay, and occasionally takes out young people from the Bayview.
“We want to give them an experience that they’ve never had but is so easy to get,” he says. “You can actually get out in the water, paddle out there, birds are out there, it’s a complete awakening for them….And I love it.”
Tek Li is one of the many people now taking advantage of the waterway. A longtime Bayview resident, he used to skip rocks at Islais Creek. But now he practices dragon boating here—a type of competitive racing that has become popular on the waterway.
“I remember when I was younger no one would ever come out to see me, no one wanted to come out to Hunters Point,” he says. “But getting youth paddlers practicing [on the waterway] provides a purpose to come here, and hopefully Hunter’s Point is in for good improvement.”
After more than a century of neglect, and a few decades trying to renovate it, Islais Creek has become more than just a forgotten backwater. It’s now a gateway into nature for the Bayview.