There’s always an anchorage around the bend when you’re cruising the rivers and sloughs of California’s Central Valley
Much of our world has lost a proper sense of the journey, but not the world of sail. A friend of mine once told me how he sailed his two boys 80 miles up the Sacramento River from San Francisco. “We went when the boys were 14 and 12,” he said. “Along the way we anchored overnight at places like Steamboat Slough. Then we went to The Meadows, and we felt really far away there, lost in the trees on a sliver of water. At night we watched the stars, and we talked about things you talk about when the world is quiet. When we finally got to the capital city of California I walked the boys around and talked to them about democracy and citizenship, and it took. But if we had buzzed up there in a car it wouldn’t have meant a thing.”
I considered those words as I sailed with my nephew Isaac, full grown and making his first upriver cruise, and he remarked on how many times he had rolled across the California interior, taking bridges at freeway speeds without even thinking about the world of water beneath the bridges. He’s not alone. But quite a world it is. And traveling there, climbing slowly upriver, eventually gazing out across levees to farmland—much of it below sea level—is nothing less than a journey.
For a San Francisco Bay sailor, heading inland is the one sure way to get a dose of warm. The quirky Bay Area climate runs cold at the very height of summer, but just beyond the coastal hills the heat soars, literally. It gets hot out there, and as the air rises over the Central Valley, it leaves behind a vacuum that draws in the chilling sea breeze of the Golden Gate. By the time it reaches the valley, it’s a warm breeze. Our latest excursion, up the Sacramento River, into the San Joaquin, and then into its byways, was part of a long tradition.
Going back a generation or three, sailors began exploring upriver in the summer, tying off to a willow tree in one quiet slough or another with stern anchors set to hold them against the current. I’ve also heard tales of 19th-century yachts that went upriver in autumn and were covered with brush and tule reeds and used as duck blinds. It’s easy to imagine the camaraderie of a few guys (yes, they were guys) stocked with ammo, sour mash, and hubris. I’ve stood close by the eastern shore of the San Joaquin, dazzled by a lineup of migratory game fowl in endless procession, wedge after wedge, horizon to horizon. There are other reasons to sail the delta, but that’s enough for me.
Isaac and I set off with a breeze over the shoulder and hopes of riding a flood tide all the way inland. The Sacramento River begins at an elevation of 14,000 feet and with its 15 tributaries drains 40 percent of California. But twice a day the ocean tide turns the rivers around. The flood-tide crest takes 71/2 hours to push inland from the Golden Gate to Sacramento. It takes 6 hours to reach our own goal, Potato Slough, after diverging into the San Joaquin.
Now believe me, I know that “Potato Slough” sounds in no way exotic. But potatoes were once as good as gold in the Sacramento River Delta—a fast, gasoline-powered “potato boat” was a farmer’s regular transport before the roads and bridges were built—and the valley is still the richest agricultural producer in the country.
Our journey would take us inland from San Francisco Bay, through San Pablo Bay to the right turn into the river system. That’s 60 winding miles to Potato Slough, more or less, depending on whether we chose this channel, that channel, or shortcuts with lurking shoals that are muddy and benign, but oh so sticky.
The turn as we entered the river led us under three bridges at once: one railroad bridge, one old bridge for cars, and one spanking new bridge for cars. This is the San Francisco–Sacramento connection, and I can imagine a day when there will be another bridge alongside, and another. Ahead of us a ship was loading at the red-brick C&H Sugar factory—no, it doesn’t smell sweet—and farther along lay an array of seagoing ships tied left and right. Freighters ply the rivers all the way to Sacramento, or to Stockton via the San Joaquin. Some 14 percent of the state’s agricultural production goes overseas, and one of the thrills (that might be the wrong word) of sailing the rivers is passing close to large ships under way, closer than you would ever dream of going on open water.
Farm country at last. The San Joaquin led us to the False River shortcut late in the afternoon, assuring us that we would make Potato Slough by dark. We sailed to the accompaniment of birds by the thousands chattering at concert volume, cows mooing their way to distant barns, a dog barking.
Let me interrupt to mention we were cruising in a J/109 that I had borrowed from Teri Moore and her husband, Rob, a past commodore at Encinal Yacht Club, in Alameda. I expected a great ride aboard Lunattac, and I wasn’t disappointed. I wanted a hot boat equipped with the essentials for a river cruise: two (or more) anchors, a dinghy for managing the second anchor, and bug screens (especially handy at Three River Reach, where creatures I’ll call slightly-see-ums coated every exterior surface of the boat).
On other trips upriver I’ve followed the Sacramento to places such as Steamboat Slough. It has too many noisy ski boats for my taste (unless I’m skiing myself), but it’s a true summer-in-America experience. Also on the Sacramento and 30 feet below the top of the levee is Locke, a weathered, not-quite-ghost-town now, once home to a thriving community of Chinese laborers who built railroads across all the West and levees in California.
On this trip we stayed in the vicinity of the San Joaquin. I was more aware than ever of how fragile this region is, and how it has been stolen from the natural order. Without the levees there would be little agriculture here. And yes, the levees are at risk from floods and earthquakes, and yes, they have robbed us of wetlands and biological diversity, and yes, they divert natural flows to quench the thirst of sprawling cities, and yes, we who live in those cities depend on the produce of those fields. And yes, the 21st-century water wars are well under way.
I discovered a few sandbars as we wandered about (going aground is part of life upriver), but when the breeze kicked up after my nephew Justin joined the crew, I got to share something that I love, a boat with a raceboat feel. Isaac and Justin had sailed before, but not on a boat with a keen touch; there was nothing accidental in my choice of a J/109. I handled the mainsheet and the guys traded off on that nice big wheel while we explored a straight cut of the San Joaquin and the various meanings of “the edge.”
They didn’t say so, but I think that when I announced we were going to knock off and head for our next parking spot, Justin and Isaac would rather have kept on sailing. But nobody complained when dinner arrived in a timely fashion. The sunset gave way to a night sky of stars, and then came the rising of the moon and the dance of moonlight on water. These are irresistible joys on any cruise: endlessly rewarding, endlessly renewable, and all the richer for me, seeing them through new eyes.
According to the guidebooks there are a thousand miles of waterways in the California interior. That’s too big a menu for one trip, but in the 10 days that I spent cruising with Isaac, Justin, and others, and occasionally by myself, all the days were good. They formed a moment in our lives, much more than a moment in time.
Each day the approaching sunset was accompanied by a chorus of birds and a search for an anchorage, but looking back now I find the sunsets and anchorages running together in my mind. Tule-lined banks play back pretty much the same, but I remember perfectly who was aboard—when photographer Abner Kingman dropped in, for example—and I remember who had a story to tell. But there is one evening that I remember in every particular, the first one, when Isaac and I arrived.
With our anchorage near, it didn’t matter that we were sailing slowly on a dying breeze. These two city boys took turns standing on top of the house, inhaling the scent of plowed soil, looking down on crops and trees and long shadows. The air over False River was soft, nothing like the biting salt air that blows through the Golden Gate. I had 10 days of wandering yet to come, but my sense of the journey was complete. Of course, if I’d buzzed up there in a car, it might not have meant a thing.
In our journey we passed:
- The “mothball fleet” of 74 Navy ships in Suisun Bay, where the engines are oiled daily and only dry air circulates below.
- Yet another new bridge under construction, its horizontal beams still to be connected—a reminder that more and more people are moving to freeway communities in farm country where the richest cash crops now are tract housing and long-distance
- Bleak industrial shorelines backed by golden hills with place names to make you imagine you were anyplace else: Pittsburg, Antioch, Port Chicago, and New York Slough.