Thursday, November 3, 2005

Postcards from Suisun Slough

From Daily Republic // Nov. 3, 2005

By Ian Thompson

SUISUN CITY - Trish Abbatiello kayaks among the reeds of the Suisun Slough because the quiet gives her the peace she needs to heal from her job as a crisis counselor.

Bob Onate never had any time for fishing when he was working in the construction industry. Now, it's his daily enjoyment: Dropping a hook into the Suisun Slough and figuring catching a fish is just icing on the cake.

Monique Liquori spent two decades walking the pathways along the slough, explaining its lifecycle to young people, many of whom gave it little thought, only seeing it as a dirty brown ribbon of water.

The slough was the site in 1999 when Crystal Middle School teachers Jim Stevens and Greg Fisher needed a place for their school rowing club to practice.

Abbatiello, Onate, Liquori and Stevens are a few of those who made the slough a part of their lives, either on its waters or along its shores.

The slough has long been a center for Suisun City from its founding in the 1850s as an agricultural port to now with events using its waters. The bathtub derby that was once held every year is a thing of the past, going the same way the aging piers and wharfs did when the city redeveloped the waterfront.

There is still the Christmastime lighted boat parade that brings in Santa to light the city Christmas tree and the blessing of the fleet.

And for the past six autumns, the harbor has been visited by a tide of small jellyfish, an occurrence that Harbormaster Gus Barkas is at a loss to explain.

“Sometimes there is a seal out there that has come up here chasing salmon,” Barkas said.
‘From lawyers to the homeless guy'

Every waterway and coastal area seems to have a Deadman's island, point, rock, river or slough, Barkas jokes. Suisun's slough is no exception with Deadman Island, not far down the waterway from the city.

There are also pieces of the slough's past that are lost to history, such as why one point of land near the Rush Ranch was named Japanese Point, a question that stumps even the Solano County Land Trust, the ranch's owners.

As always, it is the fishermen who are the most frequent users, always found in their favorite spots from the walkways near One Harbor Center out into the marsh itself.

“Now that I am retired, I fish,” said Onate, who can usually be found with his pole in the water at any spot between the convenience dock near the plaza and the public restrooms. “I think that the one that got hooked was me.”

He is one of the changing cast of a couple dozen fishermen found along the shores of the slough on any decent day with a line in the water.

“They go from a lawyer to the homeless guy,” said Onate of his fellow fishermen leaning their poles over the railings. “There are a wide variety of people.”

Onate is one of the early birds, heading to the water at 5 a.m. for three to four hours of fishing, making a point of timing his fishing with the incoming morning tide.

He has a boat in the marina, one he bought in Suisun and sometimes takes to other lakes. He's glad the 24-foot-boat is small enough to do that.

“A lot of those guys are stuck in that marina because their boat is so big,” Onate said.

His only sadness is there are not as many fish as when he was younger; he remembers fishermen hauling home fish that would make today's catches look sparse.

“It's a shame,” Onate said.

Students touring the marsh

The fishermen on the shore near the public boat dock pretty much ignore the occasional groups of schoolchildren who troop by them to the trails leading out into the marsh.

These hikes, led by docents from the Suisun Wildlife Center at the end of Kellogg Street, have been going on for the past 20 years, ever since the center moved there.

This time it was a group of Dan O. Root Elementary School third-graders from Marlene Schafer's class led by center director Monique Liquori.

“We have these a couple of times a week, more in the spring and we are just starting to get more in the fall,” said Liquori, just before starting to explain the uses of pickleweed.

She asked each student to taste the plant and was only put off for a second when one child asked if it was poisonous.

“If it were poisonous, would I feed it to you?” Liquori asked, trying to keep the kids' attention to teach them about the marsh and its denizens.

Kayaking for peace

The slough not only attracts the large boats that tie up at the docks, but also the small boaters such as Trish Abbatiello.

Abbatiello runs the Sunset Bay Kayak rentals. She calls her work organizing tours of the slough and the marsh's waterways a needed balance to her work as a crisis counselor.

“It gives you a chance to feel the quiet,” Abbatiello said of paddling into the seclusion of the marsh.

She has been renting kayaks for the past seven years between April and October. She got the idea when vacationing in Hawaii.

The brown, brackish waters are a far cry from the ocean blue of Oahu, “but you kind of tend to forget the water underneath you when you find the pockets of seclusion and quiet,” she said.

Her naturalist tours point out the elusive otters and beavers, and likens the slough to a kidney whose job is to constantly clean the ecosystem of the largest remaining marsh in the country.

Abbatiello is a little sad the kayak season is over, saying fall is an interesting time of year in the marsh.

“This time of year, the Canadian geese are flying by, close enough that you can see the muscles in their wing structure as they fly above you,” Abbatiello said.

Crew team finds home water

It is where Stevens puts his two dozen student rowers through their paces to get ready for regattas. It's also where the middle and high school students go oar-to-oar against college and private teams.

Crystal student Isaac Braker is one of the students who gather every Saturday morning on the slough, which he says has “good distance” for the long narrow craft.

“It is a great spot,” Stevens said, noting the wind seldom bothers them. “Being there at sunrise on glass water in these boats is just tremendous.”

Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or at

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