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Family Adventures: Doing 'Nothing' at Phoenix Lake
By Rosie Ruley Atkins
"Is there anything to do at Phoenix Lake?" Miles asks.
"Hike," I tell him.
In the back seat, Miles and his friends Zoe and Jane groan.
I hear Miles whisper, "I knew this would be boring."
They're still eyeing the adults suspiciously as we drive through Ross to the Phoenix Lake trailhead. The mood changes only when the kids discover a gravel pile next door to the bathroom shed at the trail's main fire road.
"An arrowhead!" Miles shouts, brandishing a vaguely triangular rock from his spot at the top of the pile.
"Gold," Jane yells, triggering a tiny avalanche as she digs out a beige nugget.
"It's white gold," Zoe says with the certainty of a geologist. She holds up a sparkling bit of quartz to prove it.
Our city kids have found the one vestige of industrialism in the Mount Tamalpais Watershed Area. Set on the pristine north side of Mount Tam, Phoenix Lake is one of five reservoirs managed by the Marin Municipal Water District. The setting is beautiful--complete with hawks, wildflowers, songbirds, and, best of all for us fog-weary San Franciscans, sunshine.
We coax the kids off the gravel pile by convincing them that they won't get in trouble if they keep one rock apiece.
"Do you think I can sell this arrowhead?" Miles asks as we head down to the dirt trail on the south side of the lake.
A fisherman looks only slightly irritated when the kids barge into his quiet fishing spot just as he is landing a good-sized rainbow trout. The kids take turns touching its shimmering scales.
"Warn the others," Zoe advises the fish as it flops in the clear, shallow water. "Tell them to stay away!"
We wind along the lakeshore on a narrow dirt trail, stopping frequently to watch the blue-and-red dragonflies hovering just above the water's surface.
"Dragonflies are aliens," Miles says.
"From another galaxy," Jane adds.
With the adults keeping our distance, the kids slip into a natural fantasyland. The geckos and chameleons that sun on rocks become lethal yellow-spotted lizards from the movie Holes. Moss-covered hollow trees become haunted fairy castles.
"Oh no," Miles yells from the top of a rise on the west end of the lake. "Rapids!"
I rush up the hill to find a small brook spilling languidly over a rock and into a gully that leads down to the water.
The kids rush to gather rocks and build a tiny dam across the brook, providing enough safety for us to avoid being washed away as we fortify ourselves with chocolate before proceeding on the trail.
In a grove of bay trees that smells like a gourmet food store, we discover a flowering plant that my friend Laura swears is called a Sticky Monkey. She plucks a leaf and sticks it to her finger like a tiny Post-it note. By the time we move on, Miles has a green goatee, and Jane and Zoe have leaf-shaped bindis on their foreheads.
Crossing a narrow wooden bridge, we find a small, rocky point that juts into the lake. The kids pluck fallen reeds from the edge of the water and start "fishing" with them. We're all amazed when a few trout actually start sniffing around the tips of the reeds.
"These fish aren't so smart," Miles observes.
Jane finds a broken stalk of cat-o'-nine-tails and within seconds has turned it into a snow-making machine. Miles and Zoe hunt down their own stalks and soon we're all covered with the downy seedpods.
Miles starts humming the Star Wars theme, and the denuded reeds are transformed into light sabers for a brief but intense battle in which the Jedi warriors soundly defeat their invisible enemies.
The battle won, the kids find a pile of large rocks, carefully arranged in a natural, balancing sculpture. Zoe plucks one off the top and tosses it into the lake, creating a very satisfying plop, and a new game is started.
She perfects the method of throwing the rock straight up, so that it plops loudly and splashes water on anyone close to the edge. All three kids are soaked and happy.
Laura and I lean back and wait for our legs to transform from pasty San Francisco white to the healthy Marin tan sported by the astonishingly attractive hikers and joggers that pass by every 10 minutes or so.
We leave our private beach and head back to the fire road. At the park's entrance, the kids scramble down the path to the creekside picnic area, which features a storybook stone shelter. In their magical cabin, the kids first turn into pioneers, then into lost children hiding from a witch, then into medieval royalty intent on banishing the grownups from their castle.
Rather than use the bridge to cross back into the parking lot, we opt to cross the creek by stepping across loose stones. The kids are delighted to discover the skeleton of a squirrel at the water's edge.
"A dragon," Jane shouts, "slain by the knight."
"A space squirrel," Miles corrects.
"He was so brave," Zoe says, pushing the squirrel along with the toe of her sneaker.
"We're not keeping it," I say.
They're still discussing fanciful scenarios of the squirrel's demise as we pile back into the car for the trip back to the fog.
"How far was that hike?" Miles asks.
"I think it was about six miles," Zoe says.
I don't let on that in our three hours at Phoenix Lake, we covered about a mile and a half. There was too much to do for us to be in a hurry.
Phoenix Lake is about a 45-minute drive from "Downtown" Noe Valley. From the Golden Gate Bridge, take Highway 101 north through Marin County until you reach the Sir Francis Drake exit in San Anselmo.
Drive west on Sir Francis Drake about 3.5 miles, to the intersection with Lagunitas Road (by the Ross Fire Department). Turn left onto Lagunitas and drive about one mile to the parking lot at the end of the road. Parking is free at the 24 spots.
Some cars were parked in the unstriped middle of the lot, but $30 tickets were plastered to their windshields. A better option is to wait for a spot to open up. On a beautiful Saturday, the wait was only about 10 minutes, and the kids were able to play safely on a bridge and in the picnic area while we waited.
There are two portable toilets in the parking lot and two more just before you get to Phoenix Lake. Numerous more challenging trails are well marked along the fire road.
Writer Rosie Ruley Atkins lives in Noe Valley with her husband, son, big red car, and a rotating assortment of tropical fish. Contact her at email@example.com.