Oakland students find treasure in Lake Merritt

Some of the pieces found by the sixth-graders are displayed.
(Richard Bailey / Lake Merritt Institute)

OAKLAND— They weren’t the strangest things ever dragged from Lake Merritt, a refuge for wildlife and city dwellers alike that is patrolled regularly by volunteers who scoop up this city’s ample detritus. That honor probably would go to the dead gerbil in a tiny casket, which trumped the Uzi, sawed-off shotgun and bowling ball, combined.

But during their regularly scheduled community service session last week, the sixth-graders in Susan Porter’s science class pulled two canvas bags full of loot from the 140-acre tidal lagoon:

Rings and antique pocket watches, gold medallions and silver candlesticks. Booty, apparently stolen, and so heavy that it couldn’t be fished out of the brackish water with a simple net.

The boys and girls of St. Paul’s Episcopal School had hooked themselves a mystery.

Lake Merritt and its ring of grassy parkland is playground and lunchroom, athletic field and science project to the middle-schoolers. For the last 15 years, it’s also been the heart of their campus’ service learning project.

In Porter’s class, they have mapped its watershed, studied its storm drains, investigated its hydrology and pondered its politics. As Porter put it: “Here’s this great thing that the city uses to promote itself, but can’t keep clean.”

So every Thursday, the kids in Room 201 head down to the lakeshore. They have scooped up driver’s licenses, hypodermic needles (used), condoms (also used), tennis balls and clothing.

Leah Winer, 11, spotted the submerged sacks first. Thinking they were empty, she tried to fish them out with her net. They were even too heavy for Porter to drag to shore. So Richard Bailey, executive director of the Lake Merritt Institute, tugged on his boots, waded in and retrieved the bags.

“I was going to dump them out,” Leah said, “but Ms. Porter said we might damage it. So I pushed the sides open and there were all these jewels. Not technically jewels, but gold. And I started screaming, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s gold in here!’ ”

Others took up the OMG chorus. A passerby lent the group his cellphone to call the police. And they sifted through the booty, awe-struck.

“I just felt amazed,” said Nathan Karchmer, 12. “Wow, this was the coolest thing that ever happened to me in St. Paul’s.”

Lake Merritt has graced what is now downtown Oakland since the end of the last Ice Age. But, officials said, the waterlogged bags probably had been submerged in the shallow water for only a matter of days.

Every month, a tightly scheduled army of volunteers pulls thousands of pounds of garbage from the water. And this area — on the lake’s northwestern corner, near the mouth of Glen Echo Creek — had last been cleaned March 27.

The bags, one emblazoned with a Wells Fargo logo, “weren’t horribly dirty,” Bailey said. “There was not a lot of silt. Somebody obviously dropped them right next to shore. They’re much too heavy to be washed in from the creek.”

The lake is flushed out twice a day by nature’s cycle of high and low tides. In addition, water comes in from 62 storm drain outfalls around the lake, and debris washes in along with it. Then, of course, there are litterbugs and pet owners who hanker for burials at sea, or something as close to it as possible.

“We get thousands of plastic bags, cigarette butts, plastic peanuts,” Bailey said. “Lots of rubber duckies, a big box full of balls, a hat collection. Boomerangs — they don’t always come back.... And pacifiers. Littering starts at an early age.”

Theories about who might have tossed the bags in the drink abound in Room 201. Thieves on the lam is a class favorite. Maybe someone who spied a police car and didn’t want to get caught.

“Or maybe it was a drop spot,” Leah posited. “One person left it, and another would pick it up at, like, 3, but we got there first.”

The students wondered about the possibility of thieves, but also worried about whoever might have owned the loot in the first place.

“I was robbed a few years ago,” Leah said. The burglars who broke into her house “took my computer with years and years of photos on it. I wish I had it back. They took my allowance. I know what it’s like to lose something and really, really want it back.”

Officer Johnna Watson, spokeswoman for the Oakland Police Department, said officers took possession of the goods Friday and will hold them for 90 days. Anyone with knowledge of the jewelry should contact the property crimes unit.

“If the property is not claimed, and there are no additional investigative leads,” Watson said in a written statement, “the property will then be returned to the finders according to state law.”

Which will leave the sixth-graders with another conundrum: what to do with their newfound bounty.

“We might use it for the things we need,” said Julian Olyaie, 12, between bites of cold macaroni and cheese from his lunch box.

“School supplies,” Nathan said while nibbling on an Oreo. “Like maybe new math books.”

Added Julian: “We’d just like to make the school a better place with it.”