It’s hard to believe this used to be a dump. I am in Alviso, California, the northernmost spit of land attached to San Jose before the southernmost tip of the San Francisco Bay. The morning has started off cool, the marine layer (Bay speak for fog) in over my head, but signs of it clearing are present in the tiny spots of blue to the east. Alviso isn’t a place most locals come, let alone tourists like me. But they should. Here, less than twenty minutes from downtown San Jose or the sprawling campuses of Silicon Valley’s tech giants, lies a truly hidden gem of the Bay Area: the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Up until the 1970s, this part of the Bay was active salt ponds, where Cargill Salt used a system of dykes to siphon off salt water and evaporate the water, leaving only the salt behind, which was then collected and sold. However, while the company still operates today, it does so only in a few areas. Adjacent to the salt collection ponds is beautiful – to my eyes – marshland, which was once a trash dump. Dumps and salt ponds… yes, that is what human “progress” brought here to the San Francisco Bay.

Salt marsh that was once a dump

I am walking the Mallard Slough Trail, a 3.3 mile loop along the remaining dykes of what was once a large salt collection pond. Today, it is water, sand bars, and birds. Thousands of birds. Located along the Pacific Flyway, the migratory path that extends from Alaska to Patagonia, the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National a Wildlife Refuge (what a mouthful!) is home to more than 280 species of birds, from ducks and pelicans to herons, cranes, ospreys, and more. They are everywhere, in singles and clusters, floating, flying, standing, and walking. Their sounds fill my ears and the city seems so distant.

So many birds!

The trail is more of a dirt road, wide enough for vehicles (although only rangers use it) and easy to walk, sloping down to water and marsh plants on both sides, and this morning – a Monday during the school year – few others are on it. The occasional bike passes, and few other walkers and joggers, but mostly it is just the birds for company. And that’s fine by me!

The plant life here is also fascinating, with species able to drink in the salt water. They in turn become food to marsh rodents unable to drink salt water, but able to get their moisture from the plants. Those provide sustenance to foxes and birds of prey. It is the full circle of life.

Even the plants here are awesome!

The sun comes out and I remove my sweatshirt. The white of the pelicans flying over me now contrasts with blue skies. Marsh grasses and willows grow as tall as I am along the northern side of the slough, hiding their treasures from my sight, but not from my ears, as chirping, croaking, and a dozen other sounds surround me on the light breeze.

This gorgeous guy let me get close

In 1974, 30,000 acres of salt marsh and sand bars were to become the first urban National Wildlife Refuge in the US, named for Congressman Don Edwards, who was instrumental in getting the protections for this area put into place. In a sign that maybe humans could undo some of the damage we so foolishly caused to our environment, the trash was cleaned up, the ponds were opened to the tides, and native plants were brought back in. Now, nearly a half century later, only the dykes and train tracks remind us of the less-than-ideal past of this beautiful area.

A peaceful pathway over a marsh

The birds are back, the marshes are marshy as ever, and wooden walkways over them allow visitors to get close to the dazzling array of greens and browns of the mud and algae. Today, I am the alien here among nature, not the other way around. I am a visitor here in this paradise. I close my eyes to the now bright sun, inhale the breeze, let the sounds of nature fill my lungs and my soul, and I am happy.

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