Health & Fitness

A float down California’s aquatic lifeline

Redding’s Sundial Bridge was the trip’s starting point.
Redding’s Sundial Bridge was the trip’s starting point.

California’s very own Mississippi is our Sacramento River, a sinuous blue line that slices through a huge swath of land as it writhes south from headwaters encircling Mount Shasta. This mighty watercourse is the central fact of the Central Valley, a lifeline (sent south via an aqueduct) that benefits the state’s agricultural industry as far as the San Joaquin desert.

The Sacramento River also nurtures the state’s major salmon runs and fosters the biological health of San Francisco Bay. The Sacramento blesses the well-being of abundant wildlife along its course, including riparian mammals and migratory waterfowl.

All of which makes the big river a prime venue for voyages that are both epic and educational.

That’s why 40 people, clad mostly in waterproof paddling outfits, stood onshore near Redding’s pedestrian Sundial Bridge on a drizzly October morning. Deploying a fleet of SUP boards (stand-up surfboards), canoes and sea kayaks, we were about to start “Paddle California,” a four-day, 100-mile voyage on the river from Redding to Chico.

“This is the launch of our first eco-tourism event,” said Lucas RossMerz, director of the Sacramento River Trust. “At times, you may feel blown away by how alone you are on this majestic river. That’s because, in many ways, it remains undiscovered. This trip is your chance to learn of public lands along its banks, about our river community, and the amazing fish and birds that depend so much on the quality of this water.”

I was paddling a light We-no-nah Voyager canoe and was one of the first to enjoy the slop of cold water over my bow. It made me realize that instead of charging ahead, I had to enter rapids slowly, and keep my paddle blade poked deep in the water to stabilize the boat.

Our 100-mile route on the Sacramento boasted a dozen or so rapids with a mild, Class II rating. But since releases from Shasta Dam plus other inflows totaled 7,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), this water was “pushy.” A couple of beginners capsized their craft early on. While we waited for the guides to get them sorted out, there was plenty of time to admire the swirl of currents, the lush vegetation and the many floating, swimming and flying creatures who call the Sacramento home.

Swallows soaring above the Sundial Bridge gradually gave way to Canada geese, various ducks and even a flock of white swans. The river’s dark surface was stippled by white splashes from river otters, and native chinook salmon returning home to spawn on riffles in the river’s creeks – as well as to be welcomed back to government hatcheries.

After we stroked in to our first camp, at a classic river retreat dubbed Rooster’s Landing near Cottonwood, we’d covered 24 miles. In camp we got a lamplight talk from Bill Kuntz, recreation manager for the federal Bureau of Land Management, overseer of about 80,000 acres in the region. Kuntz told us we would soon enter the last grand expanse of native oak savannah left in California. We might see deer swim across the river, he told us, or wild turkeys flying over it.

“This protected area of the river and its banks will look to you much like it did when the pioneer Jedediah Smith came here in 1828,” Kuntz said.

We did not happen to glimpse any amphibious deer. But we did see various other critters frolicking amid swaths of preserved habitat. Groves of old oaks thrived above clay banks dotted with nest holes for swallows. The wandering river formed broad meanders that enabled its waters to spread out, reducing the potential flood impact on cities downstream. Herons and great egrets flapped languidly beside us, and the purple bulk of Mount Lassen played peek-a-boo through gaps in riparian forest.

This second day’s paddle covered 31 river miles to end at a group camp in Red Bluff Diversion Dam Recreation Park. Here we were treated to stints of restorative massage offered by a pair of talented women from the Chico Therapy Wellness Center. We could also fuel up on fresh and tasty grub from Chico’s OM Foods (“Organic Mama”). And here, I found out that many of my companions were finally finding their river legs.

“I noticed a flyer for this trip in the shop where I just bought my fishing kayak,” said Steve Vigil, 53, a fit, barrel-chested man who owns an air-conditioning business in Concord. “I love a new challenge, and brother, this was it!”

Vigil had flipped a rental sea kayak – much less stable than his yard-wide fishing boat – at the very start of the trip.

“Can’t say I’m now master of all the skills for moving water,” he said, “but I’ve improved. And it’s wonderful to see all these fine river miles.”

Our next day awarded sightings of four resident bald eagles, and improved vistas as the landscape flattened and the river corridor widened. Following this segment of 24 miles, we camped at the Woodson Bridge RV Park. By now, all the paddlers were able to finish a day with a reservoir of energy. Our camp was abuzz with conversation, live music and jokes.

The evening’s lecture featured Ross Merz, 28, introducing his dad, John Merz, who had founded the Sacramento River Trust in 1984, specifically to oppose a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scheme to channelize the river by paving its outside bends with rip-rap (rock armor), thus depriving it of natural movement.

“The Corps wanted to freeze our river in place,” Merz, 66, told us. “Rip-rap doesn’t actually stop erosion, and it hampers flood control, because high water can’t spread out. People can’t protect a river if they don’t really know what it is. How do you find out? The way you people are doing it.”

His son took the floor to say two modern-day battles now loomed on the Sacramento: the raising of Shasta Dam to impound more of its water; and the proposed Delta tunnels project, that could divert more flow away from the Bay to send it south.

“This is one of the most important rivers in the world,” Ross Merz said, “but it doesn’t yet have a conservancy, I guess, because it’s too political.” His eyes twinkled. “However, we soon will have a recreational map for the entire river, so it can get more fans.”

By the time our mob floated across our finish line at Scotty’s Landing – another pleasantly funky river resort – on the afternoon of the fourth day, it was apparent the Sacramento River might have won another set of boosters. “We love the Sac!” they chanted, while posing for a group picture.

Sacramento River tours

River guide Robb Gage (who provided a safety drift boat during our trip) will offer fly-fishing and eco-tours on the Sacramento and Feather rivers during the Snow Goose Festival of the Pacific Flyway (based in Chico), Jan. 27-31. On-river tours travel from Red Bluff to Mill Creek, and cost $125/person or $500 for a full boat of four., or 530-990-3990,

The Sacramento River Preservation Trust will present its Return to the River festival in August at Scotty’s Landing near Chico. There’ll be birding and boat tours, barbecue, live music, educational presentations and more. 530-345-1865,

The Trust’s “Paddle California Adventure,” in cooperation with We-no-nah Canoes and Current Designs, returns to the river, Sept. 29-Oct. 2 in 2016, for a guided voyage from Redding to Chico. Experience navigating on moving water is required. Otherwise it’s fully open to the public. Cost, to be announced, includes all meals, gear shuttle, camping accommodations, entertainment, return shuttle, on-water guides. It will be preceded by a roster of skill-building clinics.

Background information and maps: The Sacramento River Watershed Program is a nonprofit organization dedicated to posting and sharing data about the river’s immense, 27,000 square-mile drainage, which stretches from the Oregon border to the San Francisco Bay,; the Sacramento River Forum posts discussions on relevant issues and provides online recreation/access maps,; the Redding Field Office of the federal Bureau of Land Management, at 255 Hemsted Drive, Redding, 530-224-2100, can also provide an extensive overview of area resources and recreation.