Marin’s Islands Offer Insight on Local History and Wildlife

The Bolinas Lagoon from the western edge of Kent Island (Photo by Frederick Huxman)

With a blast of its horn, a ferry pushes back from the Tiburon Ferry Terminal, cutting into the Raccoon Strait. From here it’s a quick jaunt to Angel Island’s Ayala Cove. Even the short boat ride is an impressive reminder of the area’s maritime geography: lagoons and coves carve out the coastline and islands bespeckle maps of Marin.

In their isolation, islands are a world apart from the everyday bustle of the mainland. For the likes of Homer and Shakespeare the mystery of islands made a perfect seabound stage for stories, and in Marin, islands present an equally intriguing mystique. Around the county, they contain unique natural and cultural histories and are bringing communities of people together to conserve and experience them.

“It’s amazing what an island does,” says Greg Reza, Marin County Parks volunteer coordinator, who leads conservation and restoration efforts on Kent Island in the Bolinas Lagoon. “There’s something mentally that happens when you get onto an island that makes you feel disconnected from the mainland, so people are much more open and free.”

On Kent Island, where Reza has worked for more than 10 years, a community of volunteers has emerged around the restoration work. For school groups and regulars, a day of boating out to the island, removing invasive species and sharing a meal brings participants together. “They are now connected to that space,” Reza says of volunteers. “People from year to year have that sense of accomplishment and then they are motivated. You see what was once dominated by ice plant turn to red fescue grassland, salt grass, marsh rosemary, all these other native plants.”

Kent Island and its lagoon are a rare phenomenon on the coast. Typically, such lagoons become filled with sediment over time, but due to its location around the San Andreas Fault, the body of water has deepened, maintaining the ecosystem and island. Kent Island provides important habitat in the tidal zone due to the ongoing project to restore it from being overrun by invasive species. The restoration project has facilitated the return of native plants and nature all the way up the food chain to egrets, herons and cormorants that now raise their young there.

Southeast of Kent Island, the largest natural island in the San Francisco Bay is home to not only plants and animals but also a small group of human residents. Casey Dexter-Lee, state park interpreter at Angel Island State Park, is one inhabitant who experiences island life in the midst of a vibrant metropolis: “I have access to the benefits of living in an urban area — like better food — but I also have the benefits of living in a rural area where it’s quiet,” she says.

As an island, the place has lent itself to a long history of unique-use cases. Subsequent to its first Miwok residents, Angel Island was a center of immigration and military activity, which Dexter-Lee and the state park team describe to visitors today, including its unfortunate use as an immigration detention center in the early 1900s and for Japanese internment in World War II. In addition to the good and bad cultural histories, the island also contains distinguished biodiversity, as represented by the Angel Island mole, which has become something of a mascot for the place. With thousands of years’ separation from the mainland, the Angel Island mole has genetically evolved into a subspecies that is slightly larger and darker than its mainland broad-footed mole counterpart. “That is something that happens with island ecology: small animals get bigger and big animals get smaller over time,” Dexter-Lee says. In addition, some animals common on the mainland are absent on the island, such as squirrels, skunks, opossums and rabbits, while birds and seals and even deer and raccoons (both excellent swimmers) have made the crossing.

On some scale, a visit to islands around Marin provides a portal to a different world, one that has evolved and unfolded apart from our mainland home.  “There’s that boat ride that mentally prepares people for an adventure,” says Reza. After traversing the sea, visitors to spots such as Kent and Angel Islands get a wholly new perspective, even when looking back on very familiar places.

Stinson Beach and Bolinas Lagoon
Stinson Beach and Bolinas Lagoon ( Photography)