Sitting out in the sunshine with your toes curling in the sand and sipping your pina colada while waiting for that ocean breeze to cool you down sounds pretty nice.
Digging in a ditch for a few hours with a shovel that you know is going to make your arms sore the next morning and waiting for lunch time so you can collapse on the grass with a cookie to give you a sugar rush to keep going doesn’t sound so nice.
Both are island adventures and while the former is preferred, the latter isn’t half bad. I should know.
Last month, my company offered a volunteer day on Angel Island. Like Alcatraz Island, I had never been to Angel Island and I have lived in San Francisco all my life. To me, this volunteer day was a chance to check off another San Francisco treasure on my list of places I still haven’t explored in my hometown. It was also an opportunity to get out of the office for a day and get some sun.
In the morning, I was greeted not by warm sunshine but a brutal cold wind that only San Francisco can do right. I rode the ferry with my fellow volunteers from the pier to the island and in a matter of minutes we rode into a pocket of sunshine and warmth hanging over the island – the Bay Area can you make feel you live in different parts of the world simultaneously.
I knew we would be doing some kind of maintenance work on the island but got a little intimidated when I learned we would be digging out dirt and rocks from a waterway to prevent flooding. I have virtually no upper-body strength so I didn’t really think I would have much to contribute. I completely forgot about that fact as we started hiking up to the site. The views of the bay from the quiet roads we were walking on were absolutely incredible. It was very quiet except for the chatter my group and I were making.
The dig site was on a road off the beaten path and I pretty much surprised myself by the work I was doing. It wasn’t hard to be motivated with the view just over my shoulder and I got to know some of the other volunteers who worked in different departments.
After lunch and some more shoveling, we walked back to the dock to catch our ferry home and stopped at various abandoned buildings and learned from the information stands that Angel Island is the west coast version of Ellis Island – a fact I was completely oblivious to. Angel Island was an immigration station in the first half of the 1900s and welcomed immigrants from China, Japan, Russia, Europe, the Philippines, and Mexico.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of Angel Island’s immigration station and it is something that I would never have known about had I not taken the time off from work to volunteer that day. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many other San Francisco natives who are unaware of such an important part of our city’s history. I’m glad I took the time to explore Angel Island and get to know some of my other co-workers. The day was yet another reminder to me that you don’t need to go very far to travel. The new can only be a ferry ride away.
To learn more about Angel Island, check out Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America by Erika Lee and Judy Yung.