(This arti­cle may or may not con­tain affil­i­ate links. What does that mean?)

a kayaking adventure 

San Fran­cis­co’s nick­name is The City by the Bay, so when I trav­eled to San Fran­cis­co last Decem­ber with my two teenaged sons, we decid­ed it would be fun to see the city from the bay.

Touring San Francisco from the bay
A Dif­fer­ent View — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

“San Fran­cis­co is a great place for kids,” says Cas­san­dra Costel­lo, a moth­er of two and Senior Vice Pres­i­dent, Pub­lic Pol­i­cy & Exec­u­tive Pro­grams for San Fran­cis­co Trav­el. “There is so much room to roam, and even though it’s a city of 800,000 peo­ple, there’s lots of access to nature.”

Thanks to San Fran­cis­co Kayak & Adven­tures, fam­i­lies can eas­i­ly access San Fran­cis­co’s nature by explor­ing the city’s water­ways in 2‑person tra­di­tion­al closed deck – or “sit in” – kayaks. Unlike “sit on” kayaks that fam­i­lies might be famil­iar with from warm weath­er beach vaca­tions, these allow pad­dlers to sit inside a cock­pit with a water­proof spray skirt that keeps most of the water out – and because we were pad­dling in cold weath­er (and there­fore cold water), this was an extreme­ly impor­tant distinction.

Thanks to several layers of clothing - and a kayak skirt - the cold weather was no problem - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman
Thanks to sev­er­al lay­ers of cloth­ing — and a kayak skirt — the cold weath­er was no prob­lem — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

We were advised to eat before we pad­dled, so of course we went to Fred’s Place, a Sausal­i­to insti­tu­tion since 1966 and home to the famous “Mil­lion­aire’s bacon,” sweet and spicy extra thick apple wood-smoked bacon baked with brown sug­ar, cayenne pep­per, black pep­per, and chili flakes – and a word to the wise: don’t let the price tag deter you from this “must try” side. The egg dish­es are all great, so you real­ly can’t go wrong, but a plate of “Fat Fred” deep-fried French toast or thin Swedish pan­cakes “for the table” is nev­er a bad idea.

Millionaire's bacon makes you feel rich eating it at Fred's Place
Mil­lion­aire’s bacon makes you feel rich 

With full stom­achs and sev­er­al lay­ers of warm cloth­ing (because: Decem­ber), we were ready for our pri­vate 3‑hour kayak tour of Sausal­i­to’s Richard­son Bay led by San Fran­cis­co Kayak & Adven­tures’ Lead Guide Chris Young. As we quick­ly dis­cov­ered, this was not only a fun and active way to start our day in San Fran­cis­co (and burn off that Mil­lion­aire’s bacon), but we also learned the his­to­ry and lore of the area – includ­ing a few salty tales of gold rush­ers, rock stars, and beat poets – as well as lessons about wind, ocean cur­rents, and native sea life, so it was def­i­nite­ly a full-ser­vice fam­i­ly activity.

Before we started paddling, Chris gave us instructions (basically Kayaking 101) - Photo Credit Samantha Davis-Friedman
Before we start­ed pad­dling, Chris gave us instruc­tions (basi­cal­ly Kayak­ing 101) — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

“A Guid­ed Sea Kayak­ing Tour is a per­fect activ­i­ty for fam­i­lies with teens because the guides will instruct, teach, enter­tain, and endeav­or to keep teenagers off their dig­i­tal devices long enough to rec­og­nize that there is a beau­ti­ful, mag­i­cal, tan­gi­ble, and real water-based world that they are a part of,” Chris said.

As we pad­dled, Chris talked about the areas sur­round­ing the bay. The first thing we learned is that the name Sausal­i­to is a deriv­a­tive of the Span­ish word sauza­l­i­to, mean­ing small wil­low grove. Chris explained that ear­ly Span­ish mariners saw wil­low trees on the shore­line and knew that wil­lows were signs of fresh water, so the trees let them know that they could refill their water bar­rels here.

One par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing – and his­toric – spot Chris point­ed out is Angel Island, which he described as “the Ellis Island of the west coast” because it was an impor­tant immi­gra­tion cen­ter dur­ing the pre WWII peri­od.  Also on Angel Island is Camp Reynolds, a Civ­il War Union troop sta­tion. I don’t know about you, but when I think of Cal­i­for­nia, I don’t usu­al­ly think of the Civ­il War, but after the start of the gold rush in 1849, a lot of the gold com­ing out of this area was going through San Fran­cis­co, so in the 1850s, Union troops were sta­tioned on Angel Island and in the Pre­sidio area of the city to pro­tect all that gold. Even my old­er son – a self-pro­claimed Civ­il War buff – did­n’t know that fun fact!

Angel Island
Angel Island the West Coast’s Ellis Island

Today, the island is man­aged by the park sys­tem as Angel Island State Park, and offers spec­tac­u­lar 360-degree views of the San Fran­cis­co sky­line and the bay. Chris offered a great local tip that Angel Island is one of the best places to see fire­works on the 4th of July because you can see five shows from one van­tage point at the top.

Anoth­er thing Chris says is unusu­al here is what they call the “anchor-outs.” 

A moving foundation - anchor-outs

“We’ve had peo­ple liv­ing on boats anchored off­shore since the gold rush,” Chris explained.  “When peo­ple from all over the world start­ing com­ing to San Fran­cis­co to explore the gold oppor­tu­ni­ties, a lot of the them lived on boats so they could eas­i­ly make their way up to the gold mines.”

Nowa­days, most peo­ple live on these boats to avoid the high cost of liv­ing in the bay area’s water­front com­mu­ni­ties. The acces­si­bil­i­ty of solar or wind-gen­er­at­ed pow­er has made this a much eas­i­er way of life than in pre­vi­ous years when they had no source of pow­er. And you can’t beat the view.

There are oth­er bay res­i­dents that also choose to live in float­ing homes, but, unlike anchor outs, Sausal­i­to’s estab­lished float­ing homes – the largest such com­mu­ni­ty on the plan­et – are tied to a dock and con­nect­ed to city util­i­ties includ­ing Inter­net and cable (which my teens were relieved to learn). Plus, they have offi­cial postal address­es to receive mail.

Floating art - Photo by Floating Homes Association
Float­ing art — Pho­to by Float­ing Homes Association

Accord­ing to Chris, the float­ing homes com­mu­ni­ty was cre­at­ed in the 1960s by non-tra­di­tion­al­ists, so many of the peo­ple who’ve lived here over the years are writ­ers and artists, includ­ing Shel Sil­ver­stein, the poet and writer of “The Giv­ing Tree” who was a res­i­dent in the 1970s. Because of the com­mu­ni­ty’s artis­tic roots, some of the homes also have very cre­ative archi­tec­tur­al fea­tures like one that incor­po­rates two old train caboos­es into its construction.

Shel Silverstein
Shel Sil­ver­stein

Some of the oth­er ves­sels we saw in Richard­son Bay also have pret­ty cool for­mer lives, includ­ing a very rare 110-year-old Dutch barge that trans­port­ed goods along Euro­pean water­ways before mod­ern truck­ing routes were estab­lished, and a 100+-year-old wood­en “Steam­boat Willy”-style tug boat named The Go Get­ter. We were also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Fre­da, the old­est sail­boat on the West Coast that dates back to 1885.

“When you own boats like these, you become a cus­to­di­an of some­thing that is his­toric and beau­ti­ful,” Chris noted.

One of the most famous ves­sels in Richard­son Bay is The Valle­jo, which start­ed its life as a fer­ry­boat in Port­land and lat­er became the loca­tion for lec­tures about Zen Bud­dhism by Alan Watts, a famous British philoso­pher who intro­duced East­ern phi­los­o­phy to West­ern audi­ences in the 1960s. The lec­tures attract­ed mem­bers of the San Fran­cis­co artis­tic com­mu­ni­ty like Tim­o­thy Leary, Janis Joplin, Car­los San­tana, and the Grate­ful Dead, as well as Otis Red­ding who wrote his famous song “Dock of the Bay” after spend­ing time here.

The Vallejo, which started its life as a ferryboat in Portland sits in Richardson Bay as a floating home
Pho­to by Jeff Greeenwald

As we con­tin­ued pad­dling, we passed The Bay Mod­el Vis­i­tor Cen­ter (which is free to vis­it). Chris told us that there is a two-foot­ball-field-long hydraulic scale mod­el of the San Fran­cis­co Bay and Sacra­men­to — San Joaquin Riv­er Delta Sys­tem inside that was built in the 50s – com­plete with reg­u­lar tides that change every 14 minutes.

A park ranger at the Bay Model Visitor Center leads a group of visitors - Photo by Brandon Beach
A park ranger at the Bay Mod­el Vis­i­tor Cen­ter leads a group of vis­i­tors — Pho­to by Bran­don Beach

“When water goes around an island or hits a shore­line, it obvi­ous­ly starts to do dif­fer­ent things than just flow in and out,” Chris explained. “So, to fig­ure out how the water actu­al­ly moves and in what direc­tions it flows, The Army Corps of Engi­neers were tasked with recre­at­ing the bay on a small scale and cre­at­ing a pump to move water through each cycle like the tide.”

My two sci­ence lovers seemed par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in this infor­ma­tion, so I made a men­tal note to vis­it after our tour. 

Before head­ing back to shore, Chris took us to the edge of Richard­son Bay, where it flows into San Fran­cis­co Bay, for a spec­tac­u­lar panoram­ic view of the city’s skyline.

A panoramic view of the San Francisco skyline was the perfect reward at the end of our 3-hour tour - Photo Credit Samantha Davis-Friedman
Sweet reward — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

It was a great way to get a sense of where we were – and was the per­fect reward for com­plet­ing the 3‑hour pad­dle. As an added bonus, Chris rec­om­mend­ed Bar Boc­ce’s amaz­ing wood-fired piz­za for lunch (and it was def­i­nite­ly amazing!)

Even with the slight­ly nip­py weath­er, we all agreed that it was one of our favorite fam­i­ly out­ings of all time.

I was lucky enough to paddle with Chris, so I got to take a few extra breaks - Photo Credit Josh Friedman
I was lucky enough to pad­dle with Chris, so I got to take a few extra breaks — Pho­to by Josh Friedman

Richard­son Bay tours offer rel­a­tive­ly mild con­di­tions, but fam­i­lies can also choose a more urban set­ting and pad­dle on the San Fran­cis­co Bay to McCov­ey Cove and the Giant’s World Series Cham­pi­onship AT&T Park; how­ev­er, because this is a more chal­leng­ing water­way with stronger cur­rents and larg­er boats, it may not be a good option for inex­pe­ri­enced kayak­ers or fam­i­lies with young kids.

There are oth­er uncon­ven­tion­al ways to see the city. One is through an ETuk ride!