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March 22-28, 2006

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Dipsea Race

Photograph by Dirow Miller
Best Reason to Run up 900 Steps: Dipsea Race

The Bohemian's Best of the North Bay 2006

Recreation: Writers' Picks


Local Hero
Dipsea Race
Best Reason to Run up 900 Steps
At just 7.1 miles, the annual Dipsea Race, held the second Sunday of every June, is relatively short compared to many cross-country competitions, but its course is still ranked among the toughest and most treacherous in the country. Starting out in downtown Mill Valley, the race slams its runners right from the start, demanding that they ascend three flights of hillside stairs totaling more than 900 steps. Before the final flat sprint through the streets of Stinson Beach, the race takes its challengers up the flank of Mt. Tamalpais, through Muir Woods, along log-strewn pathways and dangerously narrow passages where a wrong step means tumbling down a steep ravine. The Dipsea Race was named for Mt. Tam's now gone Dipsea Inn, which was reportedly the race's original destination. It is the second oldest foot race in America, and the oldest cross-country running event. Except for a couple of years during World War II, the race has been held every year since 1905, and was the inspiration for the 1985 independent film On the Edge, directed by Dipsea runner Rob Nilson and starring Bruce Dern.

The coolest thing about the race, aside from being counted as one of its celebrated finishers (every finisher gets a medal), is that the race is handicapped, meaning that six-year-olds and senior citizens get a head start on the toned and muscular 24-year-olds. Because of this head-start system, the race has actually been won by an eight-year-old girl and a 70-year-old man whom no one could catch.

In 2003, Jack Kirk—then just 96 and known to other runners as the "Dipsea Demon"—successfully completed the race, as he had done every year without exception since 1930. Kirk (seen here), the subject of a documentary film by Drow Miller about his life and efforts, vows to attempt the race again in honor of his 100th birthday. That's the thing about the Dipsea. You don't have to win it to be won over by it, and once a person has run that course, they can't wait for the next heart-pumping opportunity to run the damn thing all over again. —D.T.

Photograph by Jason Baldwin

Best Geological Oddity
As we grow closer to the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, expect to see more visitors to the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, which is where the San Andreas fault zone shows stunning visual evidence of what took place, geologically speaking, as San Francisco was crumbling and bursting into flames. The Earthquake trail, which begins and ends near the Bear Valley Visitor Center (home of the stuffed puffin!), is a short walk with educational placards explaining exactly what happened that day, as the earth so spectacularly moved. One popular site is the reconstructed historic fence, which was broken and pulled apart along the fault zone and left with an 8-foot gap from one half to the other. This is a demonstration of horizontal offset, or lateral slip, describing the way the ground, during an earthquake, moves parallel to the earth's surface, not up and down as in the movies. Imagine cracking a sugar cookie down the middle and then sliding it half an inch to the left. That, roughly speaking, is what happened out at Pt. Reyes. According to the evidence you can see from the trail, there is one point of the fault that appears to have taken a sudden jog to the right (a right lateral slip). The total lateral slip in the Olema area was reported to have been as much as 26 feet after the 1906 quake. Contrary to popular myth, no gaping crevices were created by the quake, and no unsuspecting cows tumbled in that nonexistent gap. Earthquakes, sad to say, don't do that whole gaping crevice thing. Too bad, too, because that cow story would have made for a very interesting display. Take the Earthquake Trail and other points of interest from the Bear Valley Visitor's Center, Bear Valley Road, Olema. Open Monday-Friday, 9am to 5pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am to 5pm. 415.464.5100. —D.T.

Best Day on the Green
The pallini fly fast and furious in St. Helena's Crane Park where, during bocce season, the mostly senior crowd resolve their disputes with measuring devices that look like disconnected antennae. A swig of wine, a careful aim, then plop, the ball lands on the sandy court and rolls with excruciating slowness to its fateful spot, hopefully near the pallino. St. Helena's four-month-long summer bocce season involves about 72 teams cramming the city's six courts six nights a week. Although the bocce competition is super fierce, an undercurrent of gourmet competition complements the main show. Players scope out each other's picnic hampers, measure up the size of competing grills and judge the number of wine bottles other teams brought. Measuring, always measuring. The St. Helena Bocce Club holds games at Crane Park, South Crane Avenue, St. Helena. 707.963.1663. Visit sthelenabocceball.com to register a team. —B.A.

Best Nuclear Whale Watching
Bodega Head on the Sonoma Coast State Beach is a fine enough visit in its own right. It's a runaway granite promontory from the Southland that is paying the Sonoma Coast a brief visit, geologically speaking, on its endless tectonic way to points north. Gray whales can be spotted making their own migration to the west, seals cavort on Seal Island to the south, there's a secret beach, a hiking trail and panoramic views all around. But one of the greatest wonders of this spot is the historical record that, some 40 years ago, it was slated to be the site of a nuclear power plant. This story, many times told, just doesn't lose its punch with repetition. Just a few years ago I found a news article from 1964 in an old barn that detailed how the PG&E brain-trust planned an atomic reactor on their 225 acres—adding professionally landscaped picnic grounds for the public. The whole shebang would be called an "Atomic Park," gushed the Press Democrat. But by then, the halcyon days of the friendly atom were already waning, besieged by a ragged consortium of a feisty local rancher, ordinary citizens and UC Berkeley geologists. In the end, the Luddites won out, and we can thank them that our view of Bodega Bay is not obscured by a cooling tower that sits only a few yards next to . . . the San Andreas Fault! Yep, that's the kicker. That's the same fault line that, in 1906, for instance, scooted the rocky bluff 15 feet northward in several minutes. I think it's great that we can enjoy this spot now, instead of having to wait until sometime after the next ice age for the radiation to clear up. To the credit of the utility company, they sold it to the state for $1. Sans landscaping. Highway 1, just north of Bodega Bay take Westshore Road. —J.K.

Best Place for e'er the twain shall meet
A highly informative volunteer docent leads the way through 61 acres of exotic foliage at Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen. This little-known but amazing place is home to one of the largest collections of wild-source Asian plants in North America. Since 1987, the garden's staff has collected seeds and herbarium specimens on annual expeditions to places such as China, Japan, India, Nepal and Taiwan. It's important to remember that this is not a public park but rather a strenuously maintained scientific effort. Plan ahead, because Quarryhill is open to the public by appointment only, with docent-led tours offered monthly at 10am on the third Saturday of the month, March through October; groups can schedule a private tour. Tours are $15 general; $5 for seniors or students. Special pricing for groups. For details, call 707.996.3802 or go to www.quarryhillbg.org. —P.L.H.

Best Place to Envy the Canine Life
Do you remember that old joke about the aliens visiting Earth and thinking that dogs are the rulers and we're their slaves? Well, there's no better place in Marin that illustrates that than Field of Dogs in San Rafael. On any given day at the volunteer-run park, you can see at least a dozen owners waiting patiently on benches as their dogs socialize with others. With a kiddie pool for the hot days and more tennis balls than Wimbledon, it's a puppy paradise. As one of the few places in the county for dogs to run free, it understandably does not allow aggressive dogs or female dogs in heat (I can't even imagine what aliens would say about that sight). It's currently in danger of being replaced with a public safety building, but hopefully the community efforts to save the park will succeed. Public safety is a concern here already, evinced by the numerous trash-bag dispensers. Trust me—there's no better sight than dog owners actually rushing to pick up their dog's poop! Field of Dogs is located near San Pedro Road on Civic Center Drive in San Rafael. For more information and to help save the park, visit www.fieldofdogs.org. —D.S.

Best Place to Get Yar, Matey
Take some advice from an old salt: get your sea legs now, feel the wind in your sails, seize the cliché. One Sunday afternoon long ago when I was a mere and foolhardy 30, I fancied to take my lady friend out on a leisurely sail on idyllic Lake Ralphine. With the illusory idea that sailing was 90 percent inspiration, I bluffed my way into renting a sailing dinghy and cast off with my wench for far shores. When the wind unexpectedly began tipping the boat, I panicked and let the sail luff (sailing term alert!). We lazily pinwheeled toward the perilous rocks of Duck Island, 20 yards away. "Are you sure you know how to sail this?" she asked just before we had to be rescued by a 15-year-old in a motor launch.

Kids, listen: Don't let this happen to you. Sailing is a fine, vigorous sport, and it's a splendid good thing that the Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks Department offers lessons in this rich man's pastime for democratic prices. Sure, you'll get your start in a 12-foot dinghy, nothing seaworthy, but you get the skinny on all the jibing, tacking and running that you'll need. And if you're just a kid at heart, an adult group is offered as well. In my class, taught by a good-humored local paramedic and sailor, I was perhaps the junior salt. And now when I set a course out on the sparkling waters of the open pond, I trim my sail with confidence—and rarely have to be rescued by a teen in the motor launch. Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks, 415 Steele Lane, Santa Rosa. Classes start April 1.707.543.3282. —J.K.


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