Open water was ahead for miles. A bright, fresh wake trailed behind.
In a boat, any boat, all that water in the Sacramento River and the delta represents one of the great escapes in Northern California: enough water to explore for a lifetime and not see it all.
In a rare synchronous moment this week, all the key factors aligned in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta: warm windless blue-sky days, the unofficial preholiday start to the delta boating season, and good fishing for striped bass near Isleton and Rio Vista before the fish head downstream to San Francisco Bay for summer.
The delta is just down the road, as we say, from 7.15 million residents in the Bay Area and another 2.5 million in the Sacramento region. That is 9.65 million people, most of whom spend at least some portion of time stuck in jammed traffic, that are within an hour of jumping ship to claim freedom.
No traffic jams. No stop lights. No cars ahead of you with brake lights on, or behind you riding your rear bumper.
Out on the delta, there is none of that. When you have a seemingly limitless amount of open water, rivers, cuts, sloughs and backwaters, nobody cares whether you go slow or fast. You venture wherever your heart takes you. And it's so close for so many: We launched this week from Rio Vista, 60 miles from San Francisco, 50 miles from Sacramento. Dozens of other access points may be closer to where you live.
After a windy start to spring, early-summerlike conditions took hold this week. As fog enveloped San Francisco on Tuesday evening, the delta air was crystal clear and near windless with temperatures in the mid-70s. For Saturday, the forecast is for the mid-80s.
The timing is perfect. Fishing guide Barry Canevaro, who has spent 35 years on the water, said he found schools of striped bass on the Sacramento River this week between Isleton and Rio Vista, but they should be headed for the bay before long. With the tip, my fishing buddy Bob Simms and I headed out in our boat Tuesday to find them.
The delta has left a deep imprint on me. I've been going out there since I was a small boy and my dad started the Stienstra Navy. We'd rent a boat and head out to Frank's Tract and around Bethel Island. Later we'd explore the San Joaquin River to Sherman Island, then maybe up to Decker Island, Three-Mile Slough, or perhaps beyond to Rio Vista and Isleton. When I hear the song "Born on the Bayou," I don't think of Louisiana, like so many across America, but instead of a day in the backwaters of False River; John Fogerty, who wrote the rock anthem, grew up in nearby El Cerrito.
If you don't have a boat, you can still explore the area on the network of two-laners atop levees, linked by 70 bridges and a few free ferries. Watch for a mix of California history and vintage Americana. The levees and 55 islands were built in the 1800s by Chinese laborers, and later by clamshell dredges. Towns such as Locke resemble a ghost town, while Isleton looks like it was still the 1960s.
If you feel the magic or start humming "Born on the Bayou," soon you'll be out here in a boat. You see all kinds, from kayaks to yachts, fishing boats to wood cabin cruisers out of the 1950s. We spotted boats named "Fuzwaz" (the guy was a retired cop), "Never Again," (love that one), and "Sea Ya" (fairly clever).
From Rio Vista, we ventured upstream toward Isleton. The first things we noticed were the serenity on the water and the bird life. Blue herons, giant egrets and small squadrons of mallards and mergansers bobbed around sheltered coves edged by tules.
We trolled for striped bass, landed a few and lost a beauty, as we felt the sun wash over us like a magic tonic. Everybody we talked to in other boats was happy and relaxed.
No matter where you go on the delta, Mount Diablo looms on the horizon. Its double-peaked silhouette gives a timeless feel out here.
That's because it is. For those in the Bay Area and Sacramento, the delta is the ultimate close-to-home escape hatch from life in the pressure-cooker.