Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Finding adventure on the delta

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Finding adventure on the delta

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 | Monday, Jul 25 2011 01:47 PM
Last Updated Monday, Jul 25 2011 01:49 PM
Three days in the Delta
The types, times and durations of California Delta visits are limitless. The following is just my favorite itinerary. Note: Wherever there is a river, levee or slough, there is a road. This trip can be taken by boat or car.
I'm a wimp. For me, roughing it is booking a budget motel. I tow Old Smokey, a 1983 outboard motor boat, behind an aging Tahoe from Bakersfield to my "base camp," a budget motel at the Richards Boulevard off-ramp of I-5 in Sacramento. The motel is located near a ramp to launch the boat into the American River, at its intersection with the Sacramento River.
Monday: Leave Bakersfield in the morning. Drive north on Highway 99 for about 280 miles, or about five hours, non-stop. Arrive in the late afternoon. Check into the motel. Slide the boat into the river. Power up to the Virgin Sturgeon, a shoreside restaurant on the Sacramento River. The Virgin Sturgeon isn't much to look at, but it has a great name and to-die-for food. The restaurant, which is located on Garden Highway, can be reached by car. After dinner, return to the launch and pull the boat out of the water. Call it a day.
Tuesday: Get up early. Eat breakfast. Head the boat down the Sacramento River to Walnut Grove. If you are in a car, drive south on I-5 and turn west at J11. A farming community, Walnut Grove has a few shops, a couple of good restaurant, fruit stands and fuel. Follow the road as it loops north and you will reach the city of Locke, an old Chinese community with interesting shops, restaurants and Al the Wop's, a well-known bar and grill.
The day will be spent exploring Walnut Grove and Locke, as well as Grand Island, on the other side of the Sacramento River. Just down the river from Walnut Grove is the Ryde Hotel, a Prohibition-era speakeasy that is now open for weddings and weekend stays. Other river stops include Isleton and Vieira's Resort, where food and fuel are available. The Delta Daze Inn in Isleton, the Ryde Hotel and the entire city of Locke are reported to be haunted. But that's another story.
Rounding the corner from the Sacramento River into Steamboat Slough reveals Hidden and Snug harbors. These are private resorts. Anchored along the slough are large, live-aboard motor and sailboats. Less than a mile before Steamboat Slough completes the circle around the island is the Grand Island Mansion, a four-story, 58-room Italian Renaissance villa built in 1918 for Louis Meyers, an orchard magnate who entertained luminaries of the arts, as well as the politically powerful. It is now used for private functions, such as weddings.
Boating back to Sacramento can take more than an hour. The trip is shorter by car. It's been a full, sun-soaked day of exploring. Dinner and sleep sound good.
Wednesday: Drive south on I-5 to Highway 4, south of Stockton. Turn west toward Holt to reach Whiskey Slough Harbor, a boat launch and restaurant. From there, launch your boat, or follow the vaguely marked levee roads in your car as they snake their way across McDonald Island and Lower Jones Tract to reach Bethel Island, the location of many resorts, marinas and restaurants. This is a genuine taste of what farming is like in the delta. The first time we took this route we got lost. We were able to find our way out of the high-walled maze of levees and into the more defined San Joaquin River only because we had a GPS and stopped at a marina, where we bought a map with coordinates. Return to Whiskey Slough Harbor to begin the trip back to Sacramento.
Thursday: Head home to Bakersfield with plenty of delta tales.
Talk about the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta these days often deteriorates into a heated water rights debate that is simplistically depicted as a battle between saving some stinking little fish and delivering much-needed water to thirsty Central and Southern California.
But this decades-old water war, which is far from being settled, has overshadowed a California treasure that is unknown to many of the state's residents.
Considered to be the most extensive inland delta in the world, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta features approximately 60 islands that are protected by 1,100 miles of levees. It is home to 3.5 million people, including 2,500 family farmers. While most of the region is devoted to agriculture, the delta offers an abundance of boating, fishing, hunting and tourism opportunities, including wildlife viewing and photography. Its natural beauty and colorful history recently spawned a proposal to establish the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Natural Heritage Area.
A left turn somewhere near Lodi
But for those of us who love to jump into our cars and go exploring, the delta provides an unparalleled back-road adventure.
Fresh out of college and a newbie refugee from Southern California to the San Joaquin Valley, I discovered the delta in the 1970s, while living in Hanford. With nothing to do one boring weekend, my husband, Jack, and I climbed into our Volkswagen van and headed north on Highway 99. A left turn somewhere near Lodi landed us in the middle of a snarl of levee roads that led to an old Chinese settlement called Locke.
It was love at first sight. We had stumbled onto a piece of California that we never knew existed. It was like stepping back in time, where the pace of living was oh so much slower, the hospitality was genuine and the food -- including my first taste of crawdads -- was delicious.
The twist and turns of levee roads expose funky old stores, delicious ice cream shops, haunted hotels and scruffy old guys selling asparagus from the trunks of their cars.
The years that followed our first visit have been filled with many more bumpy rides along narrow delta roads that are interrupted by drawbridges and ferries that lift travelers across rivers and levees.
A move to Bakersfield a decade later and our purchase of a 16-foot outboard motor boat from Galey's Marine Supply has meant that our annual delta excursions now are done from the surface of the many waterways that eventually empty out into the San Francisco Bay.
Crawdads washed down by a cold beer a summer delight
Whether it's from the seat of a car or bow of a boat, visitors will never forget their trip down the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, across bays named Suisun, Honker and Grizzly, and around islands named Grand, Staten and Empire. A trip to the delta is simply unforgettable.
There is no "good time" to visit the delta. Each season paints a different face on the rivers, sloughs and towns. The delta hunkers down in the winter, comes to life in the spring, bustles with activity in the summer and braces for the cold, wet months ahead in the fall. A bowl of crawdads washed down by a cold beer is a summer delight. But as the cold and fog set in, the smell of bacon and eggs sizzling in the roadside cafes is the draw for townsfolk and visitors, alike.
There are many ways to visit the delta. While hotel rooms are scarce, hearty travelers can find an abundance of campsites and rustic cabin rentals in several resorts, with one of the largest being Vieira's Resort on the Sacramento River, near Isleton. Go to www.deltaboating.com for lodging and visitor information. Additional information about visiting the delta can be found on the Chamber of Commerce's website at www.californiadelta.org. The chamber also produces an email newsletter, the California Delta Scuttlebutt, which lists activities and events.
A delta visit requires a good road map and a marine map. Both will provide critical navigation information, including GPS coordinates, as well as the location of rivers, sloughs, levees, marinas, resorts and services, such as food and gas. Whether you are in a car or boat, knowing the distance between fuel stops is important.
Keep in mind that where there is a levee, slough or river, there generally also is a road. And those roads lead to picturesque bridges -- stationary and drawbridge. They also lead to ferries, which were once the most common way to hop between islands.
They run on delta time
Today, four ferries remain in operation, but only the "free running" Real McCoy, which crosses Cache Slough to Ryer Island, and the cable-drawn J-Mack, which crosses Steamboat Slough, are accessible to the general public. There is no set operating schedule. When the pilot sees a sufficient number of cars waiting at the shoreline, he loads them onto his ferry and takes them across the water. Don't be in a hurry. Just about everything, including the ferries, operate on Delta time.
The farms, towns, bridges and ferries that stand today are reminders of the delta's rich history. Originally the area was a swampland occupied in dry months by the Miwok Indians. But folks who tired of looking for gold in the 1850s recognized the delta's rich soil and potential for farming.
These early settlers built levees and reclaimed the first parcels of land. After the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, the levee-building was turned over to an abundance of Chinese laborers. The delta town of Locke, which still stands and now is the focus of a redevelopment effort, was built by and for these laborers.
Many of the fragile levees and sloughs that comprise the delta were dug from the dirt by hand more than a century ago. The heated debate over the delta's future was best summarized earlier this year by David Hayes, deputy secretary of the federal Department of the Interior. Hayes noted the delta is "one seismic event away" from collapsing, halting the flow of water to Southern and Central California, and washing away delta islands, farms, businesses and homes.
Agreement over a "fix" to preserve this California treasure -- likely requiring the construction of a canal or tunnel to divert water around the delta and take pressure off the fragile levees -- is caught in a heated fight between competing interests. Regrettably, no end to the fight seems to be in sight.


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