Below Mount Diablo on the edge of the Delta is a wondrous place, a place where great waters converge, where wild creatures flourish, where people explore and study and play. Big Break Park, it is called.
There are numerous parks and museums in and around the Delta. Nothing captures the natural wonders of the region, though, it’s culture and history, as does Big Break. It is quintessentially Delta. Above the park soar herons and egrets. In its waters swim bass and salmon, bluegill and minnows. A sprawling topo map of the Delta, as much a work of art as cartography, is a centerpiece.
Big Break offers much to many. It is a haven for kayakers, hikers, birdwatchers, fishermen. It draws morning dog-walkers from adjacent subdivisions and nature lovers from throughout Northern California.
And school kids, merry hordes of them.
“Big Break is all things Delta,” said Michael Moran, regional interpretive and recreation services manager for the East Bay Regional Park District. “People have heard about farming in the Delta, and fishing, the Native American heritage, and the variety of wildlife and so much more – and they can experience all of that at Big Break.”
Still, the park is not widely known.
“We call it the hidden gem of the Delta,” said Wyatt Moore, the park’s supervising naturalist. Moore spoke as he provided a walking tour of the park, located in Oakley east of the Antioch Bridge and in the shadow of Mt. Diablo. The location is ironic; a place that nourishes nature smack dab next to housing tracts and industrial manufacturing sites. It’s what Moore calls a WUI, a wilderness urban interface. “We are right in people’s backyards,” he said.
Bass, books and good vibes
Big Break offers birds and fish and mammals, and something more: Good vibes.
By design, the park operates as a community hub. In the visitor center, the staff is knowledgeable and unflaggingly friendly. Visitors learn about the native people who first lived here, the Ohlone, Delta Yokuts and Bay Miwok, whose story is central to the region. Bass, goldfish and carp, all found in the waters of Big Break, swim in a large fish tank.
Community groups are welcome to use the meeting room.
There are bookshelves brimming with books and magazines on nature, conservation and native cultures. Visitors are welcome to choose a title, sit a spell, and relax. Or if they want to take a book home, they can check one out with delightfully few restrictions.
“We try to make sure everyone is greeted with a ‘hello, how are you?’ We want people to feel as comfortable here as they are in their own living rooms,” Moore said.
Bright and amiable, Moore has a passion for teaching children about nature. In a recent session, he and colleagues led students in gathering leaves and acorns and helped the children understand the natural cycle of decay and new growth.
There was a bonus: The kids got to leap into the big piles of leaves they’d created. There is a spirit of adventure among the staff at Big Break. Also a spirit of inclusion and trust.
“When we design programs and events, we like to dream a little bit,” Moore said. “We aren’t afraid to experiment. Will it work? Well, let’s try it.”
The name Big Break comes from a levee break in 1928 that flooded an asparagus field. In a few places, you may still see green shoots of asparagus rising from the soil.
Lacking funds, the owner never repaired the levee. At one point, according to anecdotal history, the owner made money by allowing folks to scuttle their old dredges and boats in the waters of Big Break.
“That’s one reason we don’t allow swimming,” Moore said. “We don’t know everything that’s down there.”
Some of the skeletal remains serve as platforms for plants and small trees. “We say they are `flower pots,'” said Moran, who served as supervising naturalist at Big Break for nine years before being promoted to his current job.
Climbing Mt. Diablo in a flash
There is plenty of space for boating, as the vast majority of Big Break – 1,608 acres – is under water. Only 40 acres are terra firma. Kayaking is especially popular, as there’s a launching ramp and kayak carts are available free.
Beyond the visitor center is the 1,200-square foot one-of-a-kind map of the Delta. It was completed in 2011 by Scientific Arts Studio, the same company that created the huge baseball mitt near the outfield at the Giants’ Oracle Park.
The map is colorized poured concrete, sort of like a topographic patio, and visitors are welcome to walk all over it. So, if you like, you can climb Mount Diablo in the blink of an eye or hike from Brentwood to Sacramento in a few seconds.
As the Delta is constantly changing, the map is updated, too. In 2019, fresh color was added and Liberty and Mildred islands were revised, as they had flooded.
Getting out and about, whether a gentle amble or a brisk hike, is encouraged at Big Break. The Levee Top Trail meanders through marshland and offers up-close views of birds and water. The Big Break Regional Trail is longer though not as close to the water and includes segments fronting residential areas.
Sometimes on their traipsings, visitors come across surprising discoveries.
Kelly Zaldana, a student aide at the visitor center, recounted a hiker bringing in what they thought were smallish eggshells.
“As it turns out, they were crawdad shells. The crawdads were eaten whole by otters, which then pooped them out. The sun bleaches them so they look like eggshells,” she said. Besides otters, minks and muskrats dwell in the marshlands, along with snakes, frogs and turtles.
The diversity of wildlife at Big Break is extreme. That’s in part because it lies in a zone where salty seawater mixes with snowmelt and runoff from the Sierra. The mingling of salty and fresh flows creates an “edge effect” and supercharges the variety of species and habitats.
Whether hop-scotching across the Delta map, gazing at an egret in flight, or cruising through cattails on a kayak, Big Break is a place to stretch both the sinews and synapses.
It’s a place where one can sense the unique magic of the Delta.
“Big Break may not be especially well-known,” Moore said. “But it is well-loved.”