Living the wild life
Sacramento River Eco Tours are more than just an outdoor excursion
Reaching over the side of his bass boat into the pea-soup-colored water of a quiet inlet of the Sacramento River, Henry Lomeli gently plucks a mass from a submerged moss-covered branch and turns, grinning, revealing something odd to his guests.
The softball-sized creature resembles a brain, and oozes a watery slime as it’s passed from hand to hand and back to Lomeli, who explains that this part of the waterway is actually an oxbow, an abandoned channel of the meandering river, and the perfect environment for freshwater coral.
Looking the part of half safari guide, half fisherman, Lomeli carefully lowers the coral—a briazoa—to its home beneath the still water. He begins to point out species of butterflies and dragonflies, flora and fauna, and migrating waterfowl that make the riparian habitat their home and an adventure for human admirers.
“If you’re perceptive and watch very closely, you’ll see it’s changing on a daily basis,” he said of the river, as he began this eco tour just outside of Chico.
In the midst of his second year leading these trips as a side-business, Lomeli finds the time during weekends or weekday evenings from March through September for the increasingly popular niche excursions. For five years, he’s also been a fishing guide on this river famous for salmon. Unlike the fishing trips, which are affected by unpredictable conditions, including this year’s moratorium on salmon, the draw of the eco tours remains throughout the season. With an abundance of wildlife, the river never disappoints as participants get up close with nature without taking anything from it.
Back on the main channel’s rushing water, Lomeli heads upriver, passing anglers fishing for striper. During the trip he will drive about eight miles north and ease back with the current, slowing or stopping along the way as wildlife appear on this early Saturday evening.
Along a steep bank abutted by an orchard, Lomeli, whose deep tan reveals his many hours spent on the river, points out dozens of holes in the sandy loam. Seconds later, a bird flies out of a small opening. It’s a bank swallow, he explains, an endangered species whose habitat is often encroached upon by landowners. A few yards away from these cavernous nests lay private property and ripwrap, a crude embankment of concrete blocks meant to stop the powerful river from shearing away land.
He notes that about 90 percent of the species’ population is found along the waters of the Sacramento, and that 17,000 individual burrows were documented during a recent count. When he says that number is down by 3,000 from last year, it’s clear this guide is more than a nature lover. Reluctantly, Lomeli admits he took part in that survey during his day job as a wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Game, which conducted the study in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For the eco tours, Lomeli doesn’t have an official title, but he considers himself a recreational specialist.
“I’m kind of like a river entertainment broker,” he said, while driving his modest four-seat boat.
Motoring farther upriver, Lomeli lends a pair of binoculars to a guest for a better look at avian life, such as great blue heron, great white egrets and a merganser with its ducklings. Many species of birds are sustained by fish. Others feast on a profusion of insects appearing as the sun descends behind the tall canopy of trees.
“It’s not a day on the river until you catch a bug,” Lomeli quips with a wry smile as his guests feel the ping of insects hitting their faces.
Around a bend, a colony of American white pelicans, a protected migratory species, allows the boat amazingly close before shying from a mid-river gravel bar. Lomeli recounts a recent outing during which he watched a pelican swoop up a fish released by an osprey after the former chased the bird of prey with fighter-pilot precision until it tired, dropping the meal from its talons.
“I see a lot of weird stuff, but that’s just unheard of,” he said.
As he drives, Lomeli keeps an eye on the banks. Beavers appear along the length of the tour and a family of four river otters, including a couple of pups, swimming from a fallen tree to the shore, squeak as their heads bob in and out of the water. On the way back downstream, large black seabirds sit silently, perched conspicuously high atop a tree. These migratory birds are double-crested cormorants, a species that returns to this particular spot each year, making their nesting grounds, or rookery.
With each sighting, Lomeli’s encyclopedic knowledge of nature comes off with a boyish charm. Despite spending so much time in this region, he never tires of this outdoor playground. In fact, he often can be found there in his off time, fishing or goofing around with his three sons.
With the sun closing in on the horizon, Lomeli says he hopes his guests are hungry. His eco tours vary from half-day excursions with light snacks to overnight and weekend campouts with all meals prepared. He’s entertained lone individuals up to a dozen people at a time. While the element of surprise works its magic during the river tour, it does so equally as well when Lomeli serves up his “destination river safari dinners.” Even though the menu is determined days before the trip, the delivery still manages to astound.
After rounding a bend, passengers are greeted by an island adorned with flickering torches, two fully screened tent-like structures and other amenities. Lomeli ushers them to an elegantly set table, complete with ruby-colored linens, candles and a wine list exclusively of New Clairvaux labels. He then heads to the other structure, a complete kitchen setup, from which he returns in full chef’s uniform toting a petite sirah and a generous serving of appetizers, such as a savory garbanzo bean salad, fresh focaccia bread and stuffed olives, all homemade.
The contrast from spending hours taking in the natural environment to this ambiance is an experience of its own, something Lomeli hears during each outing.
“So they’re out here on the Sacramento River looking at wildlife, and suddenly it’s like they’re in a fine restaurant in town,” he says.
Night falls quickly and Lomeli scurries off to his kitchen, where he begins fixing a four-course meal by the light of a headlamp. Within minutes, he returns with a tabbouleh-stuffed organic tomato topped with a dollop of goat cheese resting on a bed of micro greens. For the main course (one of four options), filet mignon with delicately sautéed portabella mushrooms in a marsala wine reduction are served with garlic mashed potatoes and crisp grilled asparagus.
For dessert, chocolate lava cake, a dense treat with an oozing center, is served with vanilla ice cream topped with a candied rose petal and port wine. Lomeli experimented with the recipe for a year before perfecting the warm cake with a molten center. Amazingly, he has no formal culinary experience, just a love and passion for cooking.
He watches his guests chat and take in this incredible convergence of nature and a dining experience that equals—and in many instances rivals—Chico’s finest restaurants. And just when the food begins to take over, a thundering crash is heard in the distance.
Lomeli quickly goes from chef back to biologist, explaining to his guests that a fallen cottonwood is responsible for the noise. It reminds everyone exactly where they are.
“You can have a pretty cool adventure close to home,” he adds with a smile.