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...As seen in The Press Democrat

"A fascinating look at the islands all around us"

Sara Peyton
Article Published:12/10/2006


``The Islands of San Francisco Bay'' (Down Window Press; $55), a newly published coffee-table-sized book of uncommon beauty, is, in its conception, much more than a fabulous collection of dramatic nature scenery. With striking photographs by Marin County photojournalist and rock climber James Martin -- who conceived and produced the book with the help of Petaluma native and fellow rock climber/photographer Michael Lee -- their collaborative effort aims to capture the wildness of the island habitats in the hope of boosting environmental awareness of San Francisco Bay's unique island ecology.

Surprisingly, the bay islands, 48 in all, started out as hills. ``Fifteen thousand years ago the islands of San Francisco Bay were tall pyramids cloaked in green forests of cedar and pine,'' writes San Francisco Chronicle outdoor writer Paul McHugh, one of 10 writers contributing essays to the new book. ``These hills jutted up from a broad rumpled plain, where Pleistocene bison and horses wandered, as well as camels and saber tooth tigers. Valleys between the hills were threaded by glittering creeks and one mighty river.''

The idea of huge, wild animals once roaming a plain that is now the bay fascinated Martin. ``In essence, my book is just everything I thought was interesting,'' he said in a recent interview. Driven by passion, Martin traveled the globe on photo assignments for magazines including Outside, National Geographic, and Nature Conservancy. A die-hard rock climber, he can be found clinging by his fingertips to something most weekends -- indoors in the winter, outdoors in warm weather -- with Yosemite a favorite haunt. He's also scaled every Bay Area bridge, including combing the Golden Gate Bridge multiple times -- a sport he gave up after 9/11. ``Because of a barbed wire fence you can't even get to the bottom of the Golden Gate now.''

The same unrelenting passion fueling his love of rock climbing drove Martin to create this book. The idea came to him many years earlier but he didn't act on it until he was recovering from a rock-climbing fall in 2000. While recuperating, he began evaluating where his interests were taking him and recalled his enjoyment photographing the Marin Islands 12 years earlier. It hit him, then, that his own back yard -- the bay islands -- could provide as much adventure as more exotic locales. He began photographing them in 2001. Now, five years and 500 rolls of film later, no other work has gathered in one place more information, text and photos of the bay islands.

Martin focuses on island ecology -- the birds, animals, plants and island topography. He challenged himself to bring fresh insights and imagery to familiar tourist destinations. ``I didn't want my book to look like all the others you see in the Alcatraz bookstore about the prisoners that escaped,'' he said. So, readers learn about Alcatraz's unique environment and its rebirth as home to wildlife.

``Alcatraz's deepest and most vital secrets don't involve its notorious human past,'' writes McHugh in an essay about the island. In fact, the isle's aboriginal inhabitants are returning. ``Western gulls, three species of cormorants, black-crowned night herons, and even a pair of brave and persistent black oystercatchers are enjoying a renaissance here.''

One of Martin's favorites is Brooks Island, which sits off the shore near Richmond. ``It's the only island with fresh spring water and Native Americans lived there continuously for 3,000 years.'' The water is funneled from the East Bay hills into an aquifer under the bay. Bing Crosby briefly owned it for a duck hunting retreat. Litter from his clay pigeons and shell casings remain to this day.

Another Martin favorite, Station Island, formerly bustled with saloons, hotels, brothels and gun clubs yet today is essentially a ghost town with 24 empty cabins. One of its last residents, ``Shotgun Nellie,'' held out into the '70s. An old photo reveals a dazzling young woman, in hip boots, ducks in one hand, a shotgun in the other. ``She only left in 1974 when vandals passed through her barbed wire fence and she had to fire off a couple rounds to scare them away,'' writes essayist Jonah Owen Lamb.

So for those who think island adventures always involve impossible sums of money and long, cramped flights, here's one book to rouse you out of your armchair and into your car, canoe, kayak or commercial ferry to begin to explore our own nearby island turf. Bring binoculars to view the wildlife that helped inspire Martin to devote five years creating a valuable resource and a book to treasure. ``Islands of the San Francisco Bay'' is available locally. Or find it online at www.islandsofsfbay.com.

Sara Peyton is an Occidental free-lance writer. E-mail her at sara@monitor.net.

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