Noe Valley Voice March 2005

Are We There Yet? Family Adventures Close to Home
Coyote Point Museum

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

"This is it?" Miles and his father whine in unison.

I urge them to be patient as we navigate several blocks of boxy 1970s apartment buildings and inexpensive motels that line the access road along Highway 101 in San Mateo. Suddenly, the road gives way to the lush greenery of a park. Sailboats bob in a modest marina, and picnic tables sit among tall pines that overlook San Francisco Bay.

"This is San Mateo?" asks my husband, who only leaves the city to commute to his job and for the occasional foray through the music stores along Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.

"No, that's on the other side of the freeway," I say.

What we're visiting is the picturesque Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education, located a short drive (about 20 miles) from our Noe Valley homestead.

When we enter the building, it feels like we're returning to an earlier era, before science and natural history museums morphed into theme parks. The atmosphere is calm and respectful.

Our first stop is the Eyes on Earth exhibit (at the museum until May 1), which tries to explain how and why satellites orbit the earth. It includes satellite photos that show the heat patterns in the planet's oceans, the density of vegetation across the globe, and the top of the swirling clouds of a hurricane.

"They look like cones of cotton candy," says Miles, who is 9 and who thinks about food a lot. "Except they're white. Maybe somebody should invent a machine that turns clouds cool colors."

He moves on to a globe featuring a phosphorescent pointer that allows kids to design their own satellite orbit pattern. Miles spells his name across the globe. I point out that his satellite could enable him to monitor the Brazilian rain forest, follow animal migrations in Africa, and zoom in on ice floes in the Antarctic.

"I just like the way my name looks in the glowing stuff," he says. "They should invent a satellite that writes glowing names on the planet. That would be cool."

We check out a display that shows the different views of satellites--both near and far--using a very detailed map of San Francisco as the example. My husband easily finds our street while looking through the near satellite viewer, and makes a remark about not walking around the apartment naked anymore.

Our child runs away, hovering on the edge of a large family that looks as though they never walk around naked, never mind talk about it in public.

We follow Miles as he follows the nice family up a stairwell lined with black-and-white photos of Coyote Point's evolution from a postwar college campus to a 1950s nature preserve (in which the young visitors all wore neatly pressed cotton shirts or jumpers), to a '60s arts center, to its present incarnation as a museum, park, and wildlife refuge.

We enter the beautiful craftsman-style main hall. The varnished redwood floors, walls, and cathedral ceiling glow in the sunshine coming off the bay. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the bay, Oakland, and San Francisco.

The entire room is devoted to displays of different habitats found on the Peninsula--their animal inhabitants, their plant life, and their history.

We learn that "Bay Area Blond" tarantulas won't kill a person, that San Mateo once had a thriving logging industry, and that slugs are really good and important.

Miles eyes his dad as we watch a slug plod across a terrarium filled with compost.

"Do you think you should stop the slug eradication program?" Miles asks his dad.

"I'll transform it into a relocation program," his father says.

"We should just live with them," says Miles, who doesn't like the basil our garden slugs seem to thrive on anyway.

In the grasslands area, we find a display showing the annual dietary requirements of a single hawk. Hand-sewn woodland animals comprise a ceiling-high pyramid over which a taxidermy hawk hovers with a snake dangling from its talons. Miles reads the hawk's yearly intake like it's a specials menu at a fancy restaurant: "One thousand and sixty-nine mice, two weasels, seven snakes, twenty gophers, fifteen shrews..."

"Mmmmm, shrews," I say, rubbing my belly.

Miles eyes the nice family across the room as they share what they've learned about compost. I tell him he wouldn't have as much fun with them as he does with his dad and me.

"They'd never eat a shrew," he says.

We pause at an exhibit that outlines the impact of human life on animal habitats, and includes 1960s hand-drawn pamphlets about the joys of carpooling in which a smiling male executive exhorts us to "Try vanpools! (And carpools too!)"

In the coastal area, two nice docents show us a Bat Star starfish that is trying to crack open a mussel for its lunch. Several fish tanks hold species commonly found along the San Mateo coast.

At the far end of the hallway, two teenage girls remove their iPod earphones long enough to listen to the buzz of bees inhabiting a hive that opens onto the woods overlooking the marina below. Miles notices that the glass windows are splatted with telltale yellow guts, and rushes away, not wanting to witness the moment that a bee meet its demise.

"Maybe he's a Buddhist," I suggest to his father.

"That's not going to get me to embrace slugs," he responds.

Coyote Point also serves as a refuge to more than 150 rescued, non-releasable animals that are native to the area. Outdoor pens hold river otters (with a daily feeding at 12:15 p.m.), a bobcat, and even a coyote who naps on a ledge in the winter sunshine.

As we watch, the coyote leaps from a seemingly sound sleep, its hackles raised, and leers menacingly at some unseen disturbance in the woods beyond its pen.

"Cool!" Miles exclaims. "It must sleep with an eye open."

Our trail leads next to a 4,000-square-foot walk-through aviary, which features a pond and a waterfall, and enough leafy vegetation to provide a comfy home for a pair of golden eagles and several species of songbirds and shorebirds.

A great blue heron stands motionless in the shade of a pine tree, staring into the stream that runs through the aviary.

"It's waiting for a fish," Miles whispers.

A pair of boys tiptoe up, and the three kids watch the bird silently, mesmerized by its patience.

I wonder if they would have been so quiet had the live animals been the first part of their visit to this museum. The effect of moving through the Coyote Point exhibits is cumulative. The importance of the natural world is illustrated in a subtle way, without the bells and whistles that kids have come to expect in their museum experiences. I like it this way.

In a distant tree, a raven squawks, causing the heron to move further into the shadow of a pine tree. The spell of its stillness is broken.

"I'm hungry," Miles announces.

His dad agrees and we head to the Whole Foods store in a new commercial strip next door to an office park alongside the freeway.

"Not much nature here," my husband observes as we sit at a table overlooking the busy parking lot.

Miles points toward a mound of dirt near a construction site across the road.

"There's life in that," he says. "All kinds. Even in a big pile, soil is still important."

We ponder the dirt pile as we finish our lunch and carefully recycle what now appears to be an inordinate amount of disposable wrapping.


The Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and students, and $2 for children 3 to 12. Kids under 3 get in free. The first Wednesday of the month is free, and teachers (with ID) enter for free at all times.

From San Francisco, take Highway 101 south to San Mateo (about 25 minutes from Noe Valley). Take the Poplar Avenue exit. Turn right on Humboldt and drive until you hit Peninsula Avenue. Turn right on Peninsula. Go over the freeway, circle left into the Coyote Point Recreation Area, and follow the signs to the museum. For more information, call 650-342-7755 or go to the web site