rafting - VIEW FROM THE RIVER
What happens when a writer in a cheap raft just starts drifting down the American River?
It was still early enough in the morning that I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the ghost of Sailor Bar. As the story goes, the apparition of a young man—who either drowned there or got killed in an overseas war and returned to his favorite fishing spot—occasionally reveals itself to passersby, who glimpse it standing along the south bank of the American River somewhere around mile 21.5 of the bike trail.
However, it was just after sunup, and that rising hot ball of light on the eastern horizon had burned off any semblance of theatrical horror-movie fog to be found. So it wasn’t the opportune setting for one of Sacramento’s more famous specters—according to local resident paranormal researcher Dennis William Hauck in his 1996 book, Haunted Places: Ghostly Abodes, Sacred Sites, UFO Landings, and Other Supernatural Locations—to make an appearance.
But that’s OK, because this isn’t a ghost story. It’s a river story, a look at the Sacramento area at the dawn of a new summer from the perspective of the river. Or rather, from my perspective as I drifted aimlessly along, chronicling whatever I saw.
After a few false starts, I pushed my inflatable raft into a placid inlet of the American River near Sailor Bar, a little more than a mile downriver from the fish hatchery at Hazel Avenue, south of Nimbus Dam. Tiny salmon fingerlings were jumping about, and, aside from some rather horny waterfowl (more about that later), I was alone—no ghosts, and no live humans either.
The river was moving slowly, or more slowly than I’d remembered it moving. Still, at the first set of “rapids,” I pussied out—not because it looked life-threatening or anything, but because some guy at American River Rafting had winced a little too theatrically when I told him I’d opted to buy a cheap raft at SportMart instead of one of his, ahem, slightly more expensive models. He warned me that going down the river in my inflatable hooptie might not be such a swell idea.
So, rather than shred el cheapo rafto on rocks so early in the day, I elected to portage it across an island to deeper water on the other side. I was glad I did, too, because that rock-strewn island was littered with some really nifty pieces of driftwood, which, upon closer examination, were the gnarled, decomposing remains of many dead salmon.
A half-hour or so later, after the first boaters of the day—two guys in rented kayaks, one with a pony-tailed mullet—passed by and shot through a fast-moving shallow section, I figured it might be time to go for it. Wheeee! And contrary to one expert’s opinion, my trusty craft maintained its integrity.
Then the river got placid again, meaning I had the choice of rowing or sitting dead in the water. I rowed—past a fisherman standing on rocks in the river’s middle, then underneath the old Fair Oaks Bridge, now exclusively reserved for bicyclists and pedestrians; after that the busy Sunrise Boulevard bridge and then Jim’s Bridge, a low pedestrian crossing named after a man who championed the parkway’s creation. I saw three or four people on the south shore, each of them playing fetch with their hunting dogs, perhaps getting them up to snuff for duck-hunting season come fall.
Many cities have a dominant geographic characteristic. San Francisco is surrounded by water on three sides. Los Angeles has a mountain range that cuts across its middle. New York’s urban center is on an island. Sacramento is bisected by a river.
The Sacramento River pretty much forms the western border of the urban area that shares its name; unless you’re traveling westward, you can ignore it. But the American River, which flows into the Sacramento north of Downtown, dominates the city’s landscape, effectively dividing the city in half.
In 1962, civic leaders authorized the creation of the American River Parkway, which extends from Folsom Lake in the northeast corner of Sacramento County to Discovery Park north of Downtown. Today, the parkway covers more than 5,000 acres of land, most of it undeveloped habitat. You can ride a bicycle from Beal’s Point at Folsom Lake some 33 miles down to Old Sacramento—or float downstream from Nimbus Dam at mile 23—and in many places you’ll see few signs that you’re in the middle of an urban area.
Such is the beauty of the parkway, the closest thing this city has to a Central Park. But the parkway, in some ways, is also a bane: Between Watt Avenue (mile 10) and Sunrise Boulevard (just below mile 20), if you are driving, you can’t cross the river. Period. Our civic planners must not have envisioned the future development of Sacramento along the wishbone-shaped freeway corridors defined by Interstate 80 to the north and U.S. Highway 50 to the south. And, given the expensive homes in Carmichael along the river’s north bank, and the presumed political pull of those homeowners, it’s a safe bet that no bridge between Watt and Sunrise will get built in the near future.
East of Sunrise Boulevard, a high mud cliff topped by homes forms the river’s north bank. Then, below the three bridges, the north bank flattens out into Sacramento Bar. Along the south bank is a nice wooded section of the bike trail. Roughly two miles below the bridges, the river takes an elbow turn north.
It was here that my trip took a decidedly pornographic turn.
No, there were no people openly copulating on beaches, as far as I could see. But there were a couple of ducks that decided to hang out near my raft. At first, it seemed cute: The brown, wood-colored one, which I assumed was a female, was being escorted by a green-headed mallard, which I figured was a male. They blissfully paddled around the raft, quacking affectionately.
Then trouble arrived.
First, another greenhead dived out of the sky and landed on the water nearby. He got right on the tail of the brown duck, thus pissing off the first greenhead, which flapped its wings like it was flexing its muscles before flapping its wings across the water and diving into the action—gallant mallard to the rescue.
The second greenhead was not deterred, though, and soon he was joined by a third and then a fourth. The new arrivals shared the same drunk-in-a-singles-bar approach with greenhead two. The river’s placid environment quickly devolved into a mess of splashing water and obscene quacking.
Then the usurpers took turns hopping on the hapless female, knocking her head under water, and gallant mallard was helpless. It was the duck equivalent of a biker bar gang rape.
And, I’m sorry, because the adult in me knows that there’s nothing funny about gang rape, but these were ducks, and I was laughing so hard I almost tumbled out of the raft into the water.
For reasons I couldn’t decipher, the female duck assumed that my raft was some kind of safety zone, so she followed me around the bend of the river. Unfortunately, her rowdy suitors, now five in number, were in overheated pursuit. After a while, it stopped being funny and really started getting on my nerves
By this time, I was approaching the San Juan Rapids, one of the few mildly challenging parts of the trip. The rush of water flowing over rocks grew louder, and I spotted the two guys on kayaks; they were taking turns shooting through before they paddled upstream to do it again. The water pulled me toward the rapids on the right. I braced myself, shot over a huge boulder and was momentarily airborne before my cheap raft slapped down hard on the churning pool below.
Then the river elbowed hard to the left and got quiet again. Along the north bank, I spotted eight beautiful white egrets, which took off in flight as I approached. On the south bank, near the El Manto Drive boat ramp, eight yardbirds, either wild turkeys or turkey vultures, were loitering on the gravelly beach. It was one of those “uh-oh: oo-wee-oo” moments, later confirmed when I spotted eight kids on the bank near the Effie Yeaw Nature Center section of Ancil Hoffman Park in Carmichael, some fishing and some skipping rocks across the water.
Eight. What does it all mean?
I pondered this as I paddled toward a shallow, faster-moving section of water. (Deep = slow, shallow = fast. Duh.) I poured more sunblock on my exposed skin, caught a nice flow as the river elbowed left, then right as the water slowed down again around mile 16, with Cordova Park now on my left and Ancil Hoffman Park on my right. By this time, it was around noon, and there weren’t many people along the banks on this particular Sunday, most likely because the first Kings playoff game against the Lakers was just getting under way.
The river’s flow sped up after leaving the parks; soon Goethe Park was on my left and some expensive-looking homes were on my right.
It was a woman’s voice, and I wasn’t sure she was yelling at me.
“Hola!” she called out again, and I looked up to see a woman wearing a huge sombrero.
“You talkin’ to me?” I asked her.
She wasn’t holding a cocktail at the moment, but she looked as if she’d downed her fair share recently.
“It was some party!” she said. “Hell, it’s still going. You shoulda been there.”
“Cinco de Mayo,” she explained after waiting a beat, which I took as an implied, “Hey, gringo loco, how can you be so dumb?”—although her blond hair and fair skin looked slightly more Minnesotan than Mexican.
Then I saw the little American and Mexican flags, and the man sitting next to her under a gazebo roof, holding what looked like a pretty good-sized tumbler. The woman and I chatted, exchanging pleasantries before I drifted away and under the bicycle bridge near mile 14.
In the past, this is where I got off; a few people had told me that the rest of the river was dead slow, and my arms were already tired from rowing. They were wrong.
Below the bike bridge, the river splits in twos and threes, with islands in the center. I aimed for the center section, hitting a long and reasonably exciting section of rapids (remember, we aren’t talking about whitewater rafting here). Aside from the San Juan Rapids, this was the most fun I’d had all day. And the river didn’t die after that; there was a good mile or two of fast-moving water beyond the bridge.
For a short distance, there were houses along the south bank, in an area I figured was north of Rosemont. Then the river slowed, flowing into an area with thick woods on both sides. I was in the river’s southern channel, and perched along the shore of the island to my right were dozens of loud geese, which sounded like they were pretty much in the same libido-in-overdrive state as the ducks.
By this time, the river’s glassy sheen was littered with small white balls of fluff; dunno if they came from insects, arachnids or plants. I was paddling hard, trying to keep ahead of a gray raft that had sped by me earlier in some rapids upstream, during the day’s sole wipeout—there was an uprooted tree in the rapids on the left, and much as I tried to row away from its twisted roots, the water pulled me right into them.
I was out of water. I was out of energy bars. The sun was hot, and I was starting to feel a slow burn on the few patches of skin where I’d neglected to slather on the sunblock. The Watt Avenue bridge loomed ahead. It was around 2:30 in the afternoon and I was in that state where I wanted food and drink. Immediately. In the shade. And, preferably, in front of a television, watching highlights of the basketball game I’d just missed.
The cheap raft was still fully inflated as I pulled it out of the water before carrying it across La Riviera Drive to a supermarket. Maybe next time, the rafting guy will be right and it won’t hold up, and I’ll be back to get one of his better-quality rafts. Maybe not.
And perhaps, next time, I’ll see the ghost of Sailor Bar.