As the three of us pushed off into the American River near the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, there was a slight hue of smoke to the pale sky. The result of late-summer forest fires still lingering across northern California. As summers went, mine had been full of plan Bs. Only a few months before, the motor on my '99 Taco blew up on a cross-country road trip. My wife and I found ourselves semi-stranded in my hometown, a familiar land full of strangely expensive used vehicles.
After she flew back to the east coast for work, I found us a pricey replacement that possibly ended our impressive dirtbag credentials. I had to cancel several trips, as I began picking up any and all jobs I could find to fund our new high-class electric-windows-and-door-locks lifestyle. The one remaining trip that Sanch and I had been eyeing was a self-support overnight on our old raft-guide haunt, the South Fork American River. But fire concerns meant camping was banned. With the summer of a low-water year coming to an end, our options were dwindling for our now-annual reunion trip.
That's when Sanch suggested an idea he'd been kicking around for years. An urban overnight on the lower American River. A Class I-II float better known for inebriated semi-nudes and poorly choreographed brawls caught on summer newscasts than paddling adventures. (Or so we'd heard, not like we'd ever been or anything.) Sanch would take a ducky and his daughter, with optional blinders, while I opted to strap some drybags to my new paddleboard and hope for the best.
Sure enough, running the very first rapid, where current piles into a clay ledge, went about as chaotic as an adventure from our younger and more extreme paddling days. A gust of wind hurled Sanch's sun umbrella into an eddy, where it promptly sank. I paddled into the eddy just fine, but when the umbrella zoomed downstream, I botched my peel-out and gave the ledge a close inspection beneath the surface. For a straight-forward rapid with little chance of upset that still managed to ring my bell, I give it a few dozen stars. By the time I dove down to recover the thing, it was clear to anyone watching that this latest weekend expedition might present more challenges than anticipated.
We spent the afternoon paddling our way through occasional raft flotillas. For a late-summer Saturday, the crowds were relatively thin and well-behaved. We watched the snorkeling regulars hunt the waters below riffles for lost sunglasses and escaped beers. We scanned the tree-tops for ospreys and red-shouldered hawks. Watched the waters for playful river otters and increasingly red-shouldered floaters. At San Juan Rapids, where we learned to playboat (still learning), we traded attempts with the de-rigged paddleboard in the shallow standing waves. Listened to the sheriff's helicopter circling overheard, probably critiquing our form while warning co-eds to stay off the private property.
An hour before dusk, we passed the typical floater take-out and entered a section where the river gradient drops and the channel braids between many islands. We played the occasional riffle as we passed a popular picnicking beach and disappeared into tall grasses and willows. Tucked into a small bay, away from the main channel, we found a small beach and set up our clandestine camp.
Sequoia played along the shore as we shared memories of our guiding and early kayaking days, while police helicopters zipped above the city. Suddenly, a loud KERPLUNK erupted across the water. Another. And another. A family of particularly possessive beavers began circling the bay, trying to scare us off. It made for a great sunset water show, all the better from passing a flask of rye whiskey.
The next morning, we paddled through a section of slow-moving river that we'd never seen before. Long pools split by occasional riffles. Signs of Sacramento increasingly appeared. The rising levees and the water intake tower. The buildings of downtown jutting above tree-line. The train bridges, which carried Amtrak's Capital Corridor and freight trains that entertained Sequoia to no end. The homeless encampments and trash along the lower river, where drug abuse is frequent. The pleasure yachts near Discovery Park.
At the confluence, we ferried into the wide and muddy Sacramento River. As speed boats ripped past, we crossed wakes beneath the Delta King paddle-wheeler, now a floating hotel and restaurant. We tied up to the dock in Old Town Sacramento. And, as we carried our boats up to street level, a full-size steam engine tooted along the tracks on a tourist ride. It was a fun trip, both noticeably urban and surprisingly wild. The type of trip that's entirely unexpected, but one we might even do again someday.
Photos by Sanch and Bez.
Read more by Mike Bezemek, who writes and photographs the series Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters and, now, Weekend Expeditions for C&K. He is author of Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route and Paddling the Ozarks for Falcon Guides and Twit Lit Classics® for Skyhorse Publishing, a book series which reimagines classic works of adventure literature as tweets for a 21st century audience. Learn more at mikebezemek.com.