The northern Sacramento River: A riparian adventure

Our canoe had barely been afloat for five minutes when we spotted our first bald eagle. He perched atop a bare sycamore snag and watched with regal disdain as we drifted by below.

Andrew Fulks turned from the bow and said, “I sense we’ll have a lot of wildlife viewing opportunities on this trip. Think we could get jaded?”

Fulks is assistant director of the arboretum and public garden at the University of Calfiornia, Davis, as well as founder and president of Tuleyome, a Coast Range conservation group.

He was right on the first score. The panoply of eagles, ospreys, beavers, otters and other critters that paraded before our gaze over our nine hours (including 30 minutes for breaks) on the Sacramento River between Hamilton City and Butte City far exceeded our hopes. Yet far from growing blasé on this trip, we were exhilarated and eager to explore more stretches of the river.

Many possibilities are available, since the Sacramento is like our state’s Mississippi. This riparian behemoth extends over 400 miles from the Oregon border to San Francisco Bay, drains more than 27,000 square miles between the crests of the Coast Range, the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada, and sends more water rippling toward the Pacific than any river in the lower 48 states except the Columbia, on the Oregon-Washington border.

The Sacramento is California’s most robust producer of salmon and its principal conveyance of water for farms and cities. And particularly since environmental values began to influence its management, 30 years ago, it also provides a broad strip of wildlife habitat and a human recreation zone of growing importance.

Despite such charms, the Sacramento for too long has been a Rodney Dangerfield of streams – falling perhaps a tad short on respect. But lately, that’s begun to change.

Kurt Renner lives in Oregon, and has been an avid fan of this river for decades. A two-time national canoe race champion, he’s paddled many reaches of it, from low flows to flood stage, and has mounted many races and tours to familiarize people with the resources here.

“I had a heated discussion with a paddler in the city of Sacramento recently, who hates the river, calls it, ‘just a ditch,’ ” Renner says. “From Colusa downstream, maybe he’s got a point. But upstream? It’s beautiful, natural and clean, with spectacular fishing and camping, an outstanding place to paddle. Few waterways in the country can equal it.”

From Colusa down to the Delta, many high banks and levees armored with rock rip-rap – designed to shield the California’s capital and large area farms from floods – inflict a stark and foreboding appearance.

However, from Colusa northward, different perspectives apply. Rip-rap barriers are rare, while numerous are oxbows and meanders and shoreline preserves where high waters can naturally expand. This results in many stretches of lush riparian forest, tall sycamores and massive cottonwoods draped in wild grapevines, and willow thickets rife with birdsong.

Fulks and I picked the 32.5 river miles of the Sacramento between Hamilton and Butte cities because they are scenic and also because the launch ramp at the state park in Colusa is high, dry and closed at present.

Along our float, we saw an osprey nest with three young and two adults, a swimming beaver, many cavorting otters. Great egrets lifted their wings over green marshes, killdeer fluttered and chittered along the shore, giant trout finned away from our canoe’s shadow, and blue herons stalked the shallows. Flocks of white pelicans gathered on gravel bars like snowdrifts. For anyone who loves to photograph wildlife, a place like this can be paradise.

“Each of those trees draped in vines creates an entire miniature ecosystem,” said Fulks. “And each of those natural clay banks provides nesting areas for bank swallows. Even erosion has a role, dropping trees in the river that become snags and then fish habitat.”

Of course, it’s not all unalloyed natural bliss. We also saw orchards right up to the water’s edge, where a few of the trees ready to tumble in were mature walnuts. We often heard the drone of diesel pumps, slurping up flow for irrigation.

Fulks estimated that a quarter of the flow at our put-in (8,000 cubic feet per second) was subtracted by the time we reached our take-out. Water development does reduce flows here, as it does dramatically in the Delta, yet paradoxically it also adds. The Sacramento gains releases from more than 40 major dams, including the mighty Shasta Dam of the federal Central Valley Project.

The river we travel today is vastly different from the unharnessed, wild stream of two centuries ago, which bulged with floods in winters, shrank thin and low in summers, and always meandered at will. A subsequent, decades-long effort to format it for industrial uses began to be mitigated in 1984 when the Sacramento River Preservation Trust was founded.

Today the organization is helmed by Lucas RossMerz , who two years ago stepped into the river-running sandals of the trust’s founder, his dad, John Merz.

“The trust accomplished a lot in its early years by supporting the establishment of refuge lands and riparian preserves, and bringing together partners to work on these projects,” RossMerz says. “Now, instead of only advocating, we hope to show how special this place by inviting people to come see it and celebrate it, and begin to support it that way. Then with a new popular base established, we can bring it to the next level.”

An initial move in May was helping to host the “California 100” elite downriver paddle race, from Redding to Chico. The follow-up is a conference for the general public, “Return to the River,” which in August will feature river tours, seminars and a barbecue with live music.

At Kurt Renner’s Paddle California, which in October features a three-day, 100-mile downriver float and festival, RossMerz plans to introduce a new map detailing all recreational resources, from Redding to Colusa. These resources range from big holdings such as the 17,000-acre Sacramento River Bend Outstanding Natural Area near Red Bluff – administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management – to more modest but useful sites such as Glenn County’s Ordbend Park, a picnic ground, river access and launch ramp between Hamilton City and Butte City.

River advocates hope a guide to existing public sites can stimulate increased use and spur establishment of many more facilities.

For elite paddlers like Kenny Howell, long-time program director at the California Canoe & Kayak stores, that improvement can’t come soon enough.

“The Sacramento is an amazingly beautiful place, with plenty of access points, but it can always use more,” Howell says. “Because of pressure from competing interests, this river needs people to love it. As the old Sierra Club philosophy goes: Only those who discover a place will care enough to protect it.”

At the Glenn County launch ramp in Butte City, Fulks and I ended our trip, tired yet happy, moderately sunburned, and slightly mosquito-bitten.

“It’s ironic,” Fulks said. “The Sacramento flows the way it does, even during the summer of a drought year, due to society’s focus on getting water to farms. But the Sacramento shows us that we don’t have to lack environmental or recreational benefits, as well. All these things can be managed together in concert, and produce an excellent result.”