Reflecting on our very American River

Rob Thayer paddles on the American River.
Rob Thayer paddles on the American River.

In 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in an upstream tributary of the American River in California, an event that changed the course of history.

Today in Sacramento, one may visit Discovery Park, where the American River of mining lore finally enters the Sacramento River en route to the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate.

“Discovery,” “American,” and “Golden Gate” are words that speak to our state’s origins in the Gold Rush, where the American River watershed took land from the Nisenan and Miwok and created an “effluence of affluence” for newly arrived white settlers.

Many of the place names come from fluvial bars of sediment washed down from the hills by the giant monitor mine nozzles as they eroded whole hillsides of gold-bearing sands and gravels.

So it is with considerable irony that, in the year 2015, the lower American River near Discovery Park is largely inhabited by those cast off as byproducts of the wealth creation of the early 21st century.

Their campsites are well-known to us now from reading the news. There is even a new genre of homeless people who live in discarded boats run aground or anchored just off shore of the riparian banks, where they are able to dodge the park rangers and the laws against illegal camping.

A new genre of homeless people live in discarded boats run aground or anchored just off shore of the riparian banks.

I frequent the river as a paddler of a kayak or outrigger canoe. I launch at Tiscornia Park, paddle 4 miles of quiet water upstream past auto and rail bridges and the makeshift campsites of the long-term homeless who, in a manner befitting their continued good judgment in the absence of funds, choose this amenable riparian forest of cottonwood, valley oak and native grasses in which to reside.

I often hear the impassioned, angry rants of people who might benefit from medication, as they wrestle with their imaginary demons. It is a sound as mournful as a wolf’s howl.

Occasionally, on summer and holiday weekends, large powerboats anchor in the middle of the American River, in the quiet water just up from the confluence. Some of these vessels are large and expensive, and quite fancy, and occasionally raft up together.

The barbecues, beer and sunburns come out. The cocktails and American flags fly, but these boats stick to the middle of the river, as if to stand out. I paddle by between them and the camps of homeless people, caught in a kind of middle current.

On this metaphorical path, I suspect I am not alone. Most of us would fit into this channel between the ultrawealthy and the homeless. It is an American River, indeed.

Rob Thayer is a retired UC Davis professor of landscape architecture and lifelong paddler.