Many of us spy the Sacramento River daily from a freeway overpass or atop a levee – move along, folks, nothing special to see here – so why am I recommending a road trip north to gaze upon photographs of such a recognizably brown body of water?
Maybe it’s precisely because we are so overly familiar with the river that we fail to see, really see, its humble grandeur, its fluid interplay with the landscape, its often subtle symbiosis with wildlife and its not-so-subtle interaction with the humans who try to tame and tap its water for their purposes.
All aspects of the Sacramento River, from political to playful, are wrought beautifully and starkly in Geoff Fricker’s photo exhibit, “Sacrament: Homage to a River,” on display now through the end of the year at Turtle Bay Exploration Park, which just so happens to be located on the banks of the Sacramento River.
For three decades, the Chico artist has mounted his old-timey 8-by-10-inch sheet-film camera on a hydraulic lift from his truck. Sending it 30 feet skyward, he’s given the Ol’ Man Sac River its Ansel Adams-like star treatment, rendering in tactile black-and-white everything from lush riparian sloughs to teeming tributaries to spawning salmon and splashing Chico State students astride inner tubes.
What’s that, you say? The Sac River is to Yosemite what Ernest Borgnine was to Paul Newman – an interesting if unglamorous character actor clearly not ready for a close-up, especially when compared to a handsome marquee star.
Check out these Adams-worthy photographs, and then get back to me.
The exhibit – a companion coffee-table book will be released next month by Berkeley’s Heyday Books – also could not be more timely, coming as it does in the midst of yet another battle royal over water uses and rights, this time the construction of diversion tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Though Fricker, who grew up in Fair Oaks, did not begin his decades-long project with any preconceived political ideology, spending so much time viewing the meandering waters through a viewfinder definitely changed his point of view.
“Definitely, over time, I came to be concerned about protecting the native species and the environment and trying to make people aware of the unintended consequences,” Fricker said. “Some of the exhibit (shows photos) that go back to mining days, when there weren’t environmental concerns. It was a fresh frontier. What I liked about using those pictures, rather than more recent things, is we can look at that as having really been formative for creating the value system we still have today.
“I don’t point our fingers and blame anyone; I just see it as what happened. But at the same time, those same values of harnessing nature for profit play into it today.”
Whereas Fricker’s photos merely imply a political stance, nature writer Rebecca Lawton’s accompanying prose excerpted on gallery walls (and printed in essays in the book) is more pointed. “Every time we fail to address demand and simply increase supply, demand rises to new heights,” she writes. “Worse, every time we increase supply in the old ways, we over-tap the life-giving river.”
Regardless of which side of the river your politics lie, Fricker’s portraits resonate. He has divided the exhibit into five categories – fisheries, flooding, watershed, recreation and mining – each expressing a different aspect of the Sacramento’s personality. Being a longtime Chico resident and Butte College professor, Fricker focused on the upper portions of the Sacramento, leaving the Delta and more urban segments for others to document. In a way, though, the Sacramento is all of a piece; what happens up river affects the whole.
“Up here,” Fricker said, “the Sacramento is really the lifeblood, not just for humans but a lot of wildlife. I live just off a tributary, and there are cougars, deer and salmon that run. You start to see the river as a living thing.”
One of the most visceral photos on display, blown up to fill most of a wall at Turtle Bay’s gallery, shows the naturally evolved, lush riparian forest lining the banks of Murphy Slough on the Sacramento River south of Chico.
“That forest at Murphy’s resulted from flooding over an 80-year period,” Fricker said. “You get cottonwoods growing and staircasing over time. That’s the cool thing that happens when you let the river do its thing. It becomes sterile if you try to (tame) it.”
As if in juxtaposition, Fricker cranked his hydraulic lift as high as it would go and photographed the Western Canal Water District Dam on Butte Creek, where the flow is stemmed by a portable “flashboard” structure to siphon water for six months of the year.
By far his most arresting images are dedicated to the periodic, yet seemingly inevitable, flooding that occurs along the changeable river banks. Fricker’s series of overhead portraits of the collapsed Centerville Bridge in Butte Creek Canyon, a washed-out Butte County road with only a “Speed Checked By Radar” sign sticking up out of the water, and a flooded prune orchard west of the Butte City Bridge, all taken in 1997, show that, for all man’s attempts to tame the river, to build levees to stem the tide, nature wins in the end.
“Like the Dutch say, rivers need room to flood,” Fricker said. “Most people think of the river as a channel. And it really is a dynamic thing with a flood plain. There’s a whole host of cool things that happen when the river is allowed to flood. A lot of farmers up here are providing easements for the water. That flooded orchard now has been replanted with native grasses (by the Nature Conservancy).”
As serious as the exhibit can be as times, it is in the end celebratory. Fricker doesn’t scold people for recreational use of the waters. In fact, his panoramic shot of the annual “Polar Bear Swim” at Chico Creek is quite festive, as is the portrait of throngs of bare-chested men and thonged-bikinied woman with legs and arms dangling off huge inner tubes at the annual Labor Day bacchanal on the river in Chico. Fricker calls it a study in the “interaction of culture and the landscape” and how it’s possible to coexist.
For, in the end, the exhibit suggests we can appreciate the river, allow it to serve our recreational desires and agricultural needs without messing with the environment and its natural meandering flow. Lawton is eloquent in expressing this harmonious relationship in the excerpts of the essay, but let’s leave the last word to Hap Carlson, self-identified “river rat,” whom Fricker photographed canoeing above Butte Creek’s Baldwin Rock: “If the sonsabitches would just leave it (the river) alone, it would be all right. They might not be, but it would.”