The author and Yosemite Sam the Samurai Dog take a break beside Lake Chabot, their favorite local park.(Courtesy photo)

Getting outdoors: Love the park you’re near

I’ve been needing and visiting the outdoors lately, and I’m not the only one.

Blue-green water greets me again as I start my run around Castro Valley’s Lake Chabot. Every time I run the nine-mile lap around it, I try to improve my time from the week before. That requires a good effort on the first segment from the marina to the dam on West Shore Trail, so I run briskly on a perfect spring day.

I’ve been needing and visiting the outdoors lately, and I’m not the only one. In the first weeks of COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, record crowds descended upon California’s parks. In fact, visitation exceeded typical numbers for even holiday and summer weekends.

So many people flocked to outdoor areas that national parks and many others have closed. One can’t blame stressed and pent-up masses for seeking open space to relax and exercise, but health experts rightly warn that allowing them to gather in popular destinations would compound the pandemic crisis.

Thankfully, many state parks remain open to locals who arrive on foot or by bicycle. Regional parks like Lake Chabot have closed restrooms and other facilities but still allow access to trails. That’s been a salvation for people like me who rely on the outdoors to relieve stress and renew ourselves.

Columbine Trail leads through the woods on my run’s middle portion. This is where I feel closest to nature as I trot up and down hills under a canopy of eucalyptus trees. Bald eagles nest here, though I have never spotted them; maybe today will be the day. Bobcats and coyotes show themselves on occasion. I hit the halfway mark 20 seconds behind schedule.

Usually I have this segment to myself, but lately more runners and hikers have been trekking on the lake’s less-visited side. That’s okay, there’s plenty of trail for everyone. As the pandemic set in, it seemed that a whole new part of the population discovered local parks like Lake Chabot. I often gave directions to disoriented newcomers.

In those first weeks, people nervously looked away as I passed them. But since then, more folks smile and wave even as they keep their distance. To defeat the virus, we need to keep physically apart but not emotionally detached. Perhaps outdoor outings are giving people that awareness.

Lake Chabot has given me an incalculable amount since my first high school track workout here in 1985. Thousands of visits have followed. I’ve had other outdoor loves, like Golden Gate Park, Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite. But I’ve run more at Lake Chabot than I have at all those others combined, making me faster, fitter and happier. How lucky I am to live less than two miles away from it.

Honker Bay to the marina on East Shore Trail finishes my run. I spot the forbidden Live Oak Island and wish for the thousandth time I could explore it. I have to hustle to meet my goal, but I can feel my training paying off. With a moderate effort, I beat last week’s time by 30 seconds, and go home feeling good. Lake Chabot has lifted me again.

If you need a lift from the anxiety of the coronavirus, then getting outdoors might be just the answer. With national parks closed and outdoor communities like Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes begging outsiders to stay away, check out a park near you, either an old favorite or a new discovery. You might find it more crowded than usual, so try to go on weekdays or early in the morning on weekends. Areas closed to cars but open to bikes are a cyclist’s dream right now. Wildflowers are blooming, birds are chirping and spring weather is delightful. Bring your own water, pack out your trash, and thank a ranger if you see one for taking care of public lands and keeping them open.

Running my lake never fails to make me feel better. Running your lake, whatever it is, could help you get through these tough times. There’s never been a better time to love the park you’re near.

Matt Johanson lives in Castro Valley and authored “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light,” winner of a National Outdoor Book Award.

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