Noe Valley Voice April 2000

Family Adventures: Camping on Angel Island

By Janis Cooke Newman

It's pitch dark and we're surrounded by pairs of glowing orange eyes.

"It's the hounds of hell," I whisper.

"What?" asks my 5-year-old son, Alex.

"Mommy said it's raccoons," says my husband. He shines a flashlight into the dark around the campsite and we see eight masked faces staring at our chicken-and-lamb sausages. "Hurry up and eat," he tells us, "before they make a lunge for the chutney."

We finish our dinner surrounded by our raccoon audience, while just over the ridge we can see Coit Tower, the Transamerica Pyramid, and the lighted necklace of the Bay Bridge.

This is what makes Angel Island such an unusual camping destination. Only 40 minutes by ferry from the city, it combines wilderness adventure with a city view. And with the farthest campsite only about a mile and a half from the ferry dock, it's the perfect backpacking adventure for a certain fellow camper whose legs are only 18 inches long.

Camping on Angel Island is a bit like having your own private island. Once the last ferry pulls out, taking the spandexed bikers and most of the island staff with it, Angel Island is yours for the night. It's a deliciously scary feeling, like sneaking into someplace you aren't supposed to be.

After dinner, we wrestle a huge tree stump on top of the trash can where we've thrown the paper that was wrapped around our sausages.

"You think that's really going to keep them out of there?" I ask my husband.

"Do you see that thing?" he says, pointing to the stump. "They'll never be able to move it."

The next morning the lid is off and the butcher paper is gone. We can't even find the stump.

We drink our morning coffee up on the ridge, watching the fog clear over Alcatraz. While we eat our instant oatmeal, a deer runs through the campsite.

The campsites on Angel Island are kept pretty private. The trails leading up to them are unmarked, and the rangers only give maps to campers when they arrive on the island -- it's sort of like being in a secret club.

Our site has a big sprawling Monterey cypress that's ideal for climbing, a spooky concrete bunker named Battery Wallace that was built in the early 1900s, and a bridge-to-bridge view of San Francisco. It also has a few prosaic but eminently practical features like running water, a food locker, a picnic table, and a pit toilet.

After breakfast we hike out, passing a couple with matching pierced eyebrows playing Frisbee in front of the wooden buildings of Camp Reynolds, which was built during the Civil War. During its history, Angel Island has been the site of Miwok villages, a camp for Russian sea otter hunters, a smugglers' hideout, a dueling spot, a quarantine station, a prisoner-of-war camp, and an immigration center.

It's this immigration center we're heading for. Before it was shut down by fire in 1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station processed nearly 175,000 Chinese immigrants. Arriving in the land they called "Gold Mountain," these new immigrants were met by officials who took away their luggage, separated husbands from wives, and confined everyone to prison-like barracks with barred windows.

Today these barracks are a museum, and my husband and I follow Alex through the old wooden building across gray-painted floors. In the dormitory, long metal poles that run from floor to ceiling divide the room every few feet. During the years the Chinese immigrants stayed in this building, bunks were attached to these poles three high and so close together that a sleeper could reach out and touch the man or woman beside him.

While the Chinese waited to see if they would be allowed to enter San Francisco, they carved poems onto the barracks walls. Many of these poems remain to this day. As we walk through, a disembodied voice reads the poems in both English and Chinese:

Sadness kills the person in the wooden building. Up to now, I am still trapped on a lonely island. Even if it is built of jade, it is still a cage.

Outside the barracks, a tram tour drives by, filled with Chinese-American senior citizens who gesture at the barracks building with half-eaten apples and cans of soda. Some look old enough to have once been detained in this building, and to have slept on the cramped beds. They smile and wave as they pass.

We continue hiking along the perimeter trail, a five-mile loop that takes us around the island. Over the past couple of years, the forest service has cut many of the island's eucalyptus trees in order to give native species like madrone and manzanita a chance to grow. The landscaping has opened up some wonderful views of the bay. As we walk, we can see big houses tucked into the trees on Belvedere, the pink-and-white waterfront restaurants of Tiburon. Looking down into a sheltered cove, I spot a woman sunbathing topless on a sailboat.

Before boarding the ferry back to the city, we stop at the Cove Cafe, which sells sandwiches and beer from microbreweries. My husband and I sit in the sun and drink cold amber ale. Alex has ice cream.

When the ranger shouts "Last ferry for San Francisco!" the three of us head down the metal gangplank. From my seat on the top deck, I can see a couple standing on the dock. They've got enormous backpacks and smug expressions. I consider warning them about the raccoons, but decide to let them find out for themselves. After all, it's their island for the night.