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Drivers in the unrelenting traffic streaming along Interstate Highway 280 Thursday were probably unaware of the adventure pending below them.

A group of youngsters were getting ready to plunge into Mission Creek on their first-ever kayak trip, paddling along nearly a mile of urban wilderness –  native plants, industrial miscellany, a little bit of garbage, and sparkling new housing developments.

Thursday’s group of 16 high school students  and two teachers hailed from June Jordan School for Equity, a small school in the Excelsior District.

They arrived here on the north bank, where the space under the highway – once a large homeless encampment – has been converted to a manicured park, with a sand volleyball court, dog park, and a unusually clean public restroom.

Over the next several hours,  the 13 to 18 year-olds would learn the basics of kayaking and get the chance to spot a sea lion, great blue heron, or bat ray from their two-person kayaks.

“The high likelihood of flipping over is if you’re a teenage boy,” said Ivonne Garcia, who was coordinating the trip for UCSF. She also takes youngsters and UCSF researchers on other outdoor excursions like backpacking.

“It’s really hard to get anything crazy to happen,” Garcia said, because the boats are so stable.   She’s only witnessed one teenager fall in the water, but he was horsing around, she warned.

Garcia and another trip leader, Becky White, showed the kids the basics of paddling and how to put on a life jacket. Then the pairs stashed their jackets, picked a kayak, and carried them down to the little dock.

As they geared up, a night heron hunted for snacks along the banks below them.
Glen Botha, one of the two teachers, dispensed his own sunscreen to those who wanted protection; the weather had broken from the week’s rain and the skies were clear and the air warm.

It’s also possible to walk the Creek.MisssionCreek.org

Everyone was a little quiet until they set foot on the boats, unsure if the kayaking would be tiring or treacherous. Any anxieties melted as the kids hit the water, boat by boat, easily tooling around by the houseboats while they waited for the rest of the group.

The youngsters waited patiently,  considerately holding boats for each other without being told to. Once in the water,  they exchanged tips about how to steer, stop, and coordinate strokes with a partner.

“Oh no,” one girl pretended to scold as another pair’s kayak headed straight for hers. “No, no, God no!” Clunk. The boats bumped harmlessly, and all four kayakers laughed.

In addition to the wildlife,  the trip offers rare angles on San Francisco’s ballpark, the Bay Bridge, and the Oakland Port.  It’s part of June Jordan’s intercession – three weeks during which kids are taken hiking and on outdoor trips all over the Bay Area for P.E. credit.

June Jordan doesn’t have enough staff to offer physical education to all its students, so those that don’t take the class during the year can fulfill it during intercession.

Botha said it’s his favorite time of year. In the past, his students have taken trips all over the region, including Marin. Even though many of the students were born and raised in San Francisco, “for a lot of them, it’s the first time they’ve gone across the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said.

On the water, the students headed under the highway overpass end of Mission Creek, the air turning foul because of the sewage treatment facility.  But as the trip progressed eastward to open water, the air smelled better, and the noisy highway was left behind.

The kayaks glided under Third and Fourth streets, past the sagging remains of Carmen’s Restaurant on its stilts, and beyond China Basin, pairs of paddles dipping in the green water in unison.

As the group passed AT&T Park, the leaders asked if everyone wants to go a bit farther out.

“Heck yeah!” one teenager yelled. Others agreed. “My butt has been wet for like half an hour,” Botha, the teacher, noted.

On the return trip, arms tired but spirits remained upbeat. One girl sang as she paddled by the houseboats.

“These people in the houses should be happy, I’m singing to them,” she joked to her partner.

The trip was part of UC San Francisco’s outdoor programs, offered free to low-income Bay Area students and funded by the California Department of Boating and Waterways.

More than 200 low-income kids took the trip last year. UCSF expects roughly another 240 to take to the water this year.

You don’t have to be a student to kayak on Mission Creek.

Lab groups from UCSF and others can also schedule trips here. It’s also possible to paddle to pancakes at the Ramp Restaurant, a brunch spot on the water at Mariposa Street and Terry Francois Boulevard. UCSF charges around $35-40 per person for anyone with a large enough group, around 12 kayakers.

The best part?

“Going really fast and feeling the wind in your face,” one boy said, grinning.

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Anrica is a science reporter and twice Cal grad, with a degree in engineering and a master of journalism. She's a Bay Area native and lives in Oakland. She's enjoyed wide-ranging professional endeavors, including shoveling manure, researching human signaling proteins, volunteering in a leprosy hospital, using an atomic force microscope, and modeling the electricity grid.

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