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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Kayaking After John Muir's Ghost

On the Sacramento River, Fall

Three recent kayaking trips have echoed an incredible water feat of John Muir 140 years ago, and I found myself wondering if I might catch a glimpse of the old fellow’s ghost. Muir is typically remembered for his mountaineering feats in the Sierra Nevada, reflected in his most enduring quotes (“One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books,” and “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.”). Yet he was as devoted to water as rocks, and had as many adventures on water (and ice) as on dry land.

The fall of 1877 is a good example. After leading botanists Asa Gray of Harvard and Joseph Hooker of Great Britain (Charles Darwin’s closest friend) on a botanizing expedition to Mt. Shasta, Muir stayed at prominent northern California rancher John Bidwell’s mansion in Chico. Ever restless, Muir wondered if Bidwell’s carpenter might fashion a craft to carry him down the nearby Sacramento River (California’s largest, both in volume and length).

Thus began a week’s solo journey on the great river, covering the 195 miles to the growing city of Sacramento, below which it flows into the Delta formed by its confluence with the San Joaquin River flowing north from central California. The winter rains had not yet begun in earnest, so the river was dotted by numerous snags, the remains of large trees that had toppled into the river from the crumbling banks. These obstacles were (and are) insidious, pulling your craft toward them and the ever-present danger of capsizing. Muir navigated the dangers and christened his little craft “Snagjumper.”

When my buddy Al and I pushed into the Sacramento west of Chico this past fall, the winter rains had already begun, and the river’s rushing waters grabbed our kayaks and pushed them downstream between banks of valley oaks and sycamores in a thin band. As Muir doubtless had, we quickly saw snow geese, phoebes, kingfishers, and great egrets, though in much lesser densities. Soon a family of river otters overtook and passed us leisurely, pretending not to be interested. After a hundred yards they disappeared into a tangle of riparian shrubs, doubtless the entrance to their bank-side home, to digest a fishy meal prior to devoting the afternoon to playing on the mud slides at the river’s edge.

Wildlife was several orders of magnitude more plentiful in Muir’s day than today, so we can be sure that Muir had seen otters also, except much more frequently than us. Beavers, tule elk, and grizzlies would also have been plentiful along the river for Muir, though Al and I could only hope to see a beaver today—which we didn’t.

After a mile we veered left and entered a slough, paddling into the more placid waters of Pine Creek and heading north, box elders, cottonwoods, and ash lining the bank here. Several hundred yards into the slough, a staggering great blue heron in the shallow aquatic buttercup vegetation caught our attention. “What the heck’s that thing got in his beak?” Al wondered. As we got closer, the answer appeared to be a sizeable fish, probably a 2- or 3-pound carp, flapping desperately. The poor bird had got more than he bargained for. He wove an erratic path to a tree stump, dropped the fish, and began stabbing at it with his 6-inch beak to subdue it prior to breaking it into bite-sized pieces.

Just as things seemed to settle down, with Al as usual in the lead up the narrowing creek, a thunderous noise erupted from the bank to our left and something like 18 large birds exploded into the air and over Al, not ten feet above him. Al reflexively ducked as the air above him clogged with turbulence. I thought “Honkers!” at first, by their size (Canadian geese, or their relatives cackling geese), but then their darkish color registered. Turkeys! The energy produced by their wings lifting the heavy birds on their swift passage across the creek was palpable. Al and I both sat in our kayaks, slack-jawed at the spectacle, before breaking into grins. We had seen something that even the intrepid Muir might have missed.

On his second day of paddling down the Sacramento 140 years ago, Muir passed along a highly-looped portion of the river just above the village of Princeton. When Al and I visited it this past spring, the ox-bow loop had been short-circuited by a long-ago flood and remained as the crescent-shaped Packer Lake. We drove along the levee beside the lake, past cottonwood trees whose white, filmy fruit floated down onto the lake’s dark surface. There was a crude launching site—nothing more than a sloping mud bank with a metal bar running into the water.

On the near curve of the lake we saw white pelicans, unusual in our experience this far from the ocean, as well as great egrets, great blue herons, and pond turtles sunning themselves on logs. But the highlight of the day was a Buttonwillow shrub some 10 foot tall at the far end of the crescent. The shrub was in full yellow bloom, and covered with a thick congregation of pipevine swallowtails feasting on its nectar and pollen, well over a hundred of the glossy black butterflies with glowing orange and blue spots on the wing “tails.” We sat in the kayaks at the base of the tree and enjoyed the glimmering, ever-moving, living cloak of beauty.

Muir in 1877 was so excited by his week on the Sacramento River that he immediately caught a stage coach from Sacramento south, traveling nearly the length of the San Joaquin Valley, to Visalia in the central Sierra foothills. From there he hiked east into what is now Sequoia/Kings National Park, up the drainage of the Kings River. The prominent mountaineer and geologist Clarence King had declared the rugged, rocky gorge of the Kings River to be “inaccessible” between its head high in the Sierras and its foot where it emerged into the foothills—too difficult to traverse, by humans at any rate.

Waving a red flag such as this in front of Muir had the predictable outcome. Along with a young fellow in his mid-twenties who had met Muir on the stage and begged to be included in the adventure, Muir hiked up the ridge above the tumultuous river to its head, dropped down to the river itself, and set off. They spent the next 12 days walking, crawling, jumping, dropping, sliding, and often swimming down the canyon. On day 10 they ran out of food; by the time they emerged from the gorge two days later, Muir was half-carrying his young comrade, who was not as used to rough work on an empty stomach as Muir. But they had proved that the Kings River gorge was accessible, after all—to John Muir, at least.

Mur wasn’t through with his watery adventures. He promptly took train and stage north to Hopeton, where the Merced River emerges from the Sierras. He spent a couple of days gorging himself on food at the home of friends there, then sauntered toward the Merced, located some fallen fence boards, and banged them together into a raft/boat with a rock and nails borrowed from his friends. Soon the “Snagjumper 2” was launched onto the river on a two-week, 250-mile new journey. He paddled down the Merced to its junction with the San Joaquin, then paddled north down the San Joaquin and into the Delta where it met the Sacramento River flowing south from northern California.

The Delta is a huge, marshy wetland--part swamp, part fingers of water comingling with lowland areas in a confusing, chaotic combination of water and land, rivaling the great Pearl River, Yangtze, and Mekong delta regions of Asia. On Muir paddled, determined to emerge from the marshes of the Delta into Suisun Bay, shortly before it merges into San Francisco Bay (via San Pablo Bay) near the small town of Martinez, where he had an open invitation to visit the expansive orchard operation of John Strenzel, a Hungarian immigrant to California.

Muir’s exact route through the Delta is not known, possibly not knowable at all. Yet Al and I were either traversing it or very close on our kayak trip through Suisun Marsh this spring. We hauled our kayaks to Fairfield, then took Grizzly Road south into the marsh, pausing to explore Solano Land Trust’s Rush Ranch, where we spotted a northern shrike, mockingbird, white pelicans, and avocets. Further along Grizzly Road we drove along high ground amongst the marsh, crossing over Montezuma Slough. Near the end of the road, where that slough joins with Roaring River Slough to flow into Honker Bay, we saw half a dozen of the Tule Elk who number several hundred on the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, as well as one of the plentiful river otters in the marsh, this one an impressive 4 to 5 foot long as he loped gracefully across the road from one slough to another.

We returned to a landing ramp on Montezuma Slough, where we unloaded the kayaks and launched ourselves onto the slough. It was low tide, so glistening banks of mud framed the slough, their resident molluscs, crustaceans, and voles invisible to us. Two birds whistled through the air beside us, a red-winged blackbird mobbing a short-eared owl, who sensibly dived into a shrub on the bank. Shoveler ducks were in the slough, as well as more of the blackbirds. Al paddled beside a small boat where Vietnamese fishermen had caught a sturgeon longer than the 10-foot boat and probably heavier. They were at the point of reluctantly cutting the huge fish loose, despairing at being able to land it.

If Muir had paddled along the map’s official “San Joaquin River” designation through the Delta, he would have passed a mile south of where we paddled that day. If he had wandered a bit further north into the Delta’s innumerable interlacings of water and land, he could well have paddled into Montezuma Slough and along its length, past where we were that fine spring day, to reach Grizzly Bay and thence Suisun Bay. These waters are critical nursery habitats for young sturgeon and striped bass to grow and mature before they disperse throughout the surrounding delta and river systems.

Whatever his specific route, the wildlife Muir was passing through in the Delta here in 1877 would have been a hundred times more abundant than remained for Al and I today, a vast pulsating web of life that earns salt/fresh water marshes a ranking alongside coral reefs and tropical rainforests as ecosystems with species diversity and photosynthetic productivity far above that of any other ecosystems on the planet. Though we had a marvelous day being amongst many species of birds and mammals, we knew that our experience was dwarfed by what Muir and earlier Euro-American visitors to California routinely observed—and their experience was itself but a whisper of the Edenesque abundance of flora and fauna in the midst of which the original native Americans sustainably lived for thousands of years.

I never caught a glimpse of Muir’s ghost from 1877 along the waterways we explored on our three trips this past year. But I did experience a shadow, surely, of the experience Muir had on the water. The awesome abundance of life. The stirring diversity of plant and animal life around us on land, in water, and air. The beauty of blue skies, white clouds, sunlight glinting off the water’s surface. Rivers, creeks, sloughs, marshes—all are precious. Ours is a water planet, after all. All must be respected and protected so that our children and grandchildren can experience this awe and beauty at being a part of life’s watery grandeur, today and tomorrow just as Muir did one glorious fall 140 years ago.

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