Posted by: Ginny Prior | January 30, 2013

A San Francisco Treat: Seeing the City by Duck Boat

"Captain Jarvis" pilots the "boat"

“Captain Jarvis” pilots the “boat”

By Alexia Jarvis

Diving into water? Sure.  But driving into water?  Usually that is something you aim to avoid, unless you are safely tucked in an amphibious World War II vehicle called a DUKW (Duck) boat.  So when the captain of my DUKW boat tour pointed the would be bow towards the grey water, and the wheels slowly rolled into the bay part of me was certain the metal behemoth was going to plop into the bay and sink like a rock.  But it did just the opposite.

Located in San Francisco California near the famous Pier 39 are functioning historic replicas of amphibious World War II vehicles.  The DUKW boats are not affectionately named for their unique abilities, but each letter stands for the model’s designation. Yet the appropriate naming is not lost on the “Ride the Ducks” tour company in San Francisco as each passenger is equipped with a “wacky quacker”, that allows every passenger to quack like a duck.

Rumbling up and through the city streets, our tour guide and Captain is Doug Perry, otherwise known as Captain Grumpy.  He has a quick wit popping puns and jokes and a testy foot on the brake as he pauses in intersections so we can snap the best shots of the bay sans buildings.

As we climb the hill past Ghiradelli Square towards Little Italy I can feel the weight of the vehicle willing us back down, in which Captain Grumpy’s shares that the hills of San Francisco were too steep for horses, which prompted the invention of the Cable Car that still runs today. Not only weighty, the girth of the vehicle becomes apparent as we weave through unaligned intersections and narrow streets and the bulky DUKW seems more safari friendly than city friendly.  Nevertheless Captain grumpy navigates the choppy asphalt littered with cars and pedestrians past remnants of the Beat Era.  Poets and artists thrived in the Little Italy neighborhood in the 1960’s, and as Grumpy informed us City Lights bookstore was a product and hub of the Beat poets as well as the first bookstore to only sell paperbacks.

Not two turns away the coffee and garlic aroma of Little Italy fade and the rustic Italian storefronts mold into Chinese markets.  Freshly plucked ducks hang in windows of butchers and signs are written primarily with Chinese characters.  Captain Grumpy says this is the largest Asian community outside of Asia.  A fact that seems to be true since most of the dialogue on the sidewalk sounds Chinese.

Feeling as if San Francisco is a grid of the world, we turn into a tunnel, promptly leaving China Town as we arrived, without passports.  The high rises now tower around us as we cut through Union Square, named in support of the Union during the Civil War.  Passing the Dewey Monument, which commemorates Admiral Dewey and immortalizes model and art collector Alma Spreckel.  Growling past department stores and shops into Mission Bay, Grumpy shares that this part of San Francisco wasn’t always above ground.  The now growing streets of Mission Bay were sea water that was filled to the brim with landfill.

Then the big moment arrived.  We drove into the water, and the boat was afloat! To my very relief.  The briny stone water was calm, yet teeming with fish from the smell of it.  Captain Grumpy admitted to seeing Dolphins on account of the fish the bay offers “When you see a dolphin it is always on porpoise” he jokes since the dolphins follow the fish.

Bobbing along the shore, into McCovey Cove near the Giants Stadium and around the central bay, Ride the Ducks offers something different from any other tour of San Francisco, for when you climb onto a DUKW no view of the city is off limits.


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