When you think about Alcatraz island, I bet snowy egret chicks and thousands of flowers don’t come to mind. Yet, that is what I found there, to my pleasure and surprise. I also hadn’t realized that Alcatraz is a national park, or more precisely, it is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, as is Muir Woods.
I had managed to score a ticket for 10:30 departure to Alcatraz on my last day in San Francisco. I was well on time at Pier 33, the departure point. I took a few photos of our departure from the harbor and approach to the island, only to realize my memory card was full. As the card holds almost 6000 photos, this is not something that happens often. In fact, this was the second time on my Grand Adventure, which gives an average of about 6000 photos taken over each 6 week period. That is a lot of photos! Anyway, the best course was to delete the whole memory card, as I had transferred the photos from previous day already on my computer, and start over. As I took over a 1000 photos on Alcatraz, I will have to purge my memory card soon again, I fear. There were baby chicks, I couldn’t help myself!
It was another glorious day, bright and sunny. And I found the island breathtaking. Flowers of every imaginable color and shape, snowy egret and seagull chicks. The latter don’t perhaps sound too exciting, but have you ever seen seagull chicks? Me either. They were grey and spotted and fluffy and made the cutest little chirps.
But the real stars of Alcatraz were the snowy egrets. I must have stood there observing, and taking photo after photo, for an hour. I have hundreds of photos to prove it. I think many of them were last year’s chicks, as they still had their parents attention, but several of the adults were clearly sitting in nests, possibly over new eggs. There were some epic fights between two or more of the birds all through the time I spent watching them. Quite spectacular.
Oh, I guess I should mention the prison. You know, the reason I went on the island. The prison was closed in March 1963 as it had become run down and very expensive to run and maintain. The buildings all showed their age and the corrosive impact of the salt air and constant wind.
The main cell block building had an audio tour, which was narrated by four former guards and four former inmates. It was quite fascinating, with details about how it was to live and work there, infamous escape attempts and stories about famous inmates. Al Capone spent time there, and he, like all inmates, inhabited several cells so that they wouldn’t get too comfortable.
Or dig escape tunnels, which of course some did. One of the most famous movies about Alcatraz is “Escape from Alcatraz” with Clint Eastwood, and it was actually shot in the prison. This is the story of the escape attempt with the fake plaster heads, and is quite possibly the only successful one as the three inmates were never discovered. One of the guards interviewed on the audio tour was of the opinion that they all drowned, another that they made it to South America, as all had been learning Spanish. We may never know.
From the descriptions, the inmates were never treated harshly, as long as they behaved. If the didn’t, they got solitary confinement. The inmates were allowed to have hobbies, sign out books from the prison library, take distance learning courses, decorate their cells, have visits from loved ones, and they got three solid, healthy meals a day. The only danger came from other inmates, and if I recall, 18 prisoners died from inmate on inmate violence. Yet, the inmates thought the prison was hell. The saying was that if you committed a crime, you went to prison, if you committed a crime in prison, you went to Alcatraz. The hardest thing for many of the inmates was to be so near San Francisco, to catch glimpses of the city but never get to leave the island, and sometimes even hearing the voices and laughter of the people living in freedom across the few miles of open water.
That, and the fact that many knew they would never leave prison. Sentences in the US are harsh, even now. A life in prison often means exactly that. The new industries building on the island now holds an exhibition on ageing inmates, some of whom had been in prison for 40-50 years. There was a quote by a new guard to a prison (not Alcatraz) being amazed at how they would wheel out 100 people in wheelchairs at meal times.
The exhibition was intended to raise the question whether keeping geriatric prisoners behind bars actually serves the common good. These people had made a mistake when very young, done decades of time, and are no longer any danger to anybody. Yet, they are kept behind bars at high expense. An even increasing proportion of infirm, senile and immobile prisoners is surely not practical, humane or the best use of cell space.
To leave on a high note, the former notorious prison is today overrun with thousands of flowers of all shapes and colors. The flowers were planted by the wardens and managed to survive when the prison was shut down. Trusted inmates were also allowed to garden, and grew edibles in their own little garden patches.
Alcatraz is a wonderful day visit, especially this time of year with the chicks hatching and flowers blooming. The ferry from the city only takes about 15 minutes, and costs 33 dollars. You can spend as much time on the island as you wish, I personally took 4 hours, even with an hour spent observing the snowy egrets.
In winter, in harsh weather, I’m sure the visit would be much bleaker. But today, it was glorious.
There are again many more photos available on Flickr, especially of snowy egrets. Do have a look!