February 23, 2017: It is a little known fact that winter in California isn't over until the rivers run over their banks and the hills slide into the sea. We've seen both events this month, and unfortunately the groundhog tells us that the season still has a few weeks to go, so we'll keep our umbrellas handy and an eye to the weather forecast as we eagerly anticipate the arrival of what we hope will be a much drier spring.
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The heart-stopping events at the Oroville Dam have received most of the headlines, but the indicators that we are very much in the grips of the wet-weather season — our biggest in many years — are everywhere these days, and much closer to home.
Last month we shared a picture of the fishing pier at Big Break Regional Shoreline here in Oakley, taken just a few days after king tides raised the water of the San Joaquin River above the pier’s concrete walkway. We were amazed yet somewhat disappointed that we had missed the rare event, and we assumed it might be years before we had another opportunity to see it. Years actually turned into days, when on Feb. 8 we found ourselves drawn back to the pier after the East Bay Regional Park District mentioned on its website that the river was expected to crest again above the pier deck.
The expectation was that the high tide would arrive around 1 p.m., making its way upriver from Antioch and continuing out toward Bradford Island. We grabbed our cameras and set out for the park, not sure when the event would take place or how long it would last. We were not alone. Despite the chill, many people had turned out with their kids and pets in hopes of experiencing the flood tide. Mike Moran, the park’s head naturalist, ushered visitors to the pier just after 1 o’clock. A Cub Scout troop decked out in their uniforms marched through the soggy gravel with their leader. Two young children played with their mother in the flooded sand pit near the park’s picnic grounds. An elderly couple strolled along in their thick jackets. It was a community happening.
But for all the anticipation, nature didn’t cooperate. The water crept tantalizingly close to the pier’s walkway, and we saw it slowly rise as we waited for more than an hour, but the most we got was a few bubbles as air trapped beneath the concrete deck escaped here or there. A man who passed the time fishing from the observation deck said the fish weren’t biting. It was a bust of an afternoon for everyone. But there was hope. Mike Moran said the tide forecast for the following day had high tides arriving in Oakley around 2 p.m., and because the moon was getting fuller and rain was expected, we might be treated to the show that didn’t happen on Wednesday.
Sure enough, Feb. 9 proved to be the perfect storm for stormy weather and high tides. We trekked back to the park right around 2 p.m. and made the half-mile walk to the pier. We weren’t lucky enough to have sunshine; the rain that had been threatening most of the morning chose this time to make its presence felt. We didn’t have a working umbrella or hooded jackets, so we put on ball caps to block the raindrops as best we could and tucked our cameras in bags and jacket pockets to keep the gear dry until it came time to grab photos.
The cameras didn’t get to stay dry for long. Right away we noticed how much higher the water was than the previous day. Big Break shoreline was designed to include wetland areas that flood naturally when the water level rises. It has been so dry in recent years that the river seldom intrudes on these wetland zones, but not this winter. The water was overflowing the banks of the largest pond and flooding the gravel path leading from the visitor center down to the paved pedestrian walkway to the shoreline. Water from the pond was flowing through a pipe that runs under the walkway and filling the meadow on the other side. We imagined this is what it must have looked like when the area was planted in asparagus nearly 100 years ago.
By the time we reached the pier, the water was already well over the concrete. We declined the offer of galoshes to wade through the flood, opting instead to watch as several young children eagerly did the honors, splashing through the puddles and playing with their umbrellas. At least now we could say we had seen it. Roni chatted with the park docents, seemingly oblivious to the rain that was coming down harder. Glenn sought shelter beneath the fabric shade canopy of a picnic area. The fabric did nothing to block the raindrops. We finally got back to the car half drenched, but we felt like we’d witnessed a part of history, however insignificant it may be in the grand scheme of our state’s epic winter.
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T IS USUALLY around February when our cabin fever starts to get the better of us. In normal years, we would probably already be outside tending to the garden or at least pulling the weeds that have been accumulating since October. But this has been anything but a normal year, so far, with storms battering us relentlessly all winter. We got to the point where we just wanted to do something that didn’t involve staying indoors. It was the morning of Feb. 5 — Super Bowl Sunday, of all days — when Roni decided we should go for a walk. At Cosumnes River Preserve east of Walnut Grove.
That’s not exactly a quick trip. It takes about an hour each way to get to the preserve, then another couple of hours minimum to really enjoy it if you plan to watch the wildlife, which we expected to be in abundance. But it had been a while since Roni last took out her 500 mm lens, and she wanted the opportunity to photograph some birds on what had turned out to be a rare break in the weather, so it was off to Cosumnes we drove on the promise that we would return home no later than 3:30 p.m. to catch the start of the game between the Patriots and Falcons.
And speaking of falcons, we did see a few on our journey along Highway 160 — not to mention several hawks, herons, egrets and various other birds that love flooded fields and rivers pushing the boundaries of their channels. What Roni most hoped to see was Sandhill cranes, which visit the Delta usually between November and late January. We didn’t know what to expect, given that our window of opportunity to see them was steadily closing and we weren’t sure how the heavy rains might have affected their migration.
Our other reason for wanting to visit Cosumnes was that we had seen photos posted on Facebook of the preserve’s visitor center surrounded by a virtual ocean in what otherwise was the center’s parking lot. This was one of the first things we noticed on our arrival, and while there were more than enough places to park in the upper lot, the lower lot was submerged so deeply that it may be months before it dries out enough to use.
The high water was also evident along Middle Slough, which flows through the preserve and is buttressed on either side by flood plains. As you might imagine, these areas do flood during the rainy season — so much so that what normally would be a leaf-covered riparian forest floor was submerged beneath a foot or more of water. A boardwalk takes you over all this, so in a moment we were on the concrete and steel bridge that overlooks the Middle Slough channel. It is generally filled with willow trees, shrubs and cattails at most times of the year, but the plant growth looked especially robust the day we saw it. We looked forward to seeing how the rains had affected the opposite side of the slough and were not disappointed.
What is normally a giant meadow frequented in warm weather months by birds and mammals was completely submerged. It would have been easier to sail a small boat across it than to try to ply the muddy trail at its outer edges, which we and a few other hardy visitors did. In dry times it is fun to hike the trails that loop around the meadow, but on this day those trails were largely inaccessible. The Lost Slough Wetlands Walk ended abruptly in a lake at the end of the trail bridge. The River Walk Trail was buried beneath an avalanche of dead tules, although one couple braved the flood waters and tiptoed through the soggy mess. The only birds we saw were a few finches, sparrows and towhees scrabbling for food amid the brambles. We left much earlier than we had expected, Roni a bit disappointed that she hadn’t seen her Sandhill cranes.
Given that we still had some time, we headed south to the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve, located north of Highway 12 and west of Lodi, where we’d had luck before seeing the cranes. The area was much more flooded this year than we had seen it on previous visits. There were plenty of coots and geese out in the fields, and a couple of determined mocking birds that followed us in hopes that we had food to offer, although they didn’t seem interested in the Cheerios Glenn gave them. But it took some more hunting before we found a small flock (is four a flock?) of Sandhill cranes near one of the orchards. There were others scattered about the fields, so far off that even Roni’s powerful Nikon lens and our digital zooms had a difficult time capturing them. At least we had seen them.
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T WAS ABOUT 2:30 p.m. when we turned toward home. Would there still be enough time to stop for lunch before the Super Bowl? Short answer: no. Longer answer: all right, might as well. Rio Vista was on our way, but even with prompt service and if we scarfed our meal down, that still only left us with about 20 minutes for a restaurant. We hadn’t even considered that some of the places we might normally visit were otherwise closed — or planned to close up early — for our unofficial national holiday. We settled on Lucy’s Cafe until we saw the sign on their door that they’d be closing at 3 p.m. If a restaurant and bar that always has its TV sets tuned to sports wasn’t going to be open for the big game, then what were our odds that other dining spots would be open?
We found our answer in Tortilla Flats 3, located off Highway 12 in the middle of town. It was perhaps one of the only places we had not yet dined in Rio Vista, mainly because we never seem to be in the mood for Mexican fare on our many visits to town. But we were in a hurry and they were open, plus they’d had good reviews online. Seemed worth a shot. Not only were they not crowded, but the food was downright excellent. We ate our fajitas and carne asada super burrito while the Super Bowl pregame activities unfolded on a small TV near our table, the darkening storm clouds brewing over the Delta right outside our window seat.
The game was just getting under way as we finished our meal and headed out of town on deserted Highway 12. The drive south on Highway 160 was equally quiet. Outside of Christmas morning, when else would you find the roadways so dead? Glenn listened to the play-by-play on the radio as we parked along the edge of the Sacramento River to take pictures of the approaching storm, Mount Diablo and the wind farms of the Montezuma Hills adding to the dramatic vista. When we arrived home, the scoreless first quarter was coming to an end. Considering that Glenn had said he might not waste his time watching the game at all, he couldn’t seem to avoid it.
Well, we all know how the rest of the game went. It turned out to be, arguably, the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, with the Patriots falling behind by 25 points in the third quarter before storming back for a 34-28 win in overtime — the first OT championship game in 51 years. Not only was Glenn cheering for New England, but he had picked them to win the game, which marked the first time in six years that he had predicted the Super Bowl winner correctly. So it was feel-good day all around.
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PEAKING OF FEELING good, we hope to be doing some of that this fall when we embark on our first-ever cruise to Ensenada, Mexico. We decided to make vacation plans earlier this year than we’ve done in the past, figuring that we’ll likely want one after all the home improvement projects we have lined up between now and Labor Day. It’s not that we’ve always had a great desire to visit Ensenada, but the price was right for five days and four nights of sailing aboard the Carnival Inspiration. And we figured with this being our first cruise, we might not want to spend the 10 days it would have taken us had we departed from San Francisco. Instead, we now have to figure out how we get to Long Beach, which is our point of departure.
Seeing the Mexican Riviera should be fun, but for us it’s more about getting to take a trip and leave the driving — or in this case, the sailing — to someone else while we enjoy the amenities the cruise line has to offer, like the free buffet and entertainment options. It was what swayed us when we considered we could spent as much or more for a similar length trip driving or flying to our destination, with hotel and rental car costs included. Plus we’d be exhausted at the end of it, as we were after a 2,000-mile round trip from home to the San Juan Islands in Washington two years ago. Guess we’re starting to feel our age. Now we’ll just have to spend the next few months brushing up on our Spanish. Bon voyage! (Well, that would be French, but we’ll learn.)
The aforementioned home improvement projects may need to include fence repairs. After the endless drubbing of rain and wind, the fence dividing us from the rental house to our north has had about all it can take. Glenn had already tacked up its failing posts once this month, then found himself fighting the elements on Feb. 17 when heavy wind gusts started blowing one section of the fence back and forth like a sheet of soggy cardboard. The panel in question had already been compromised from when the neighbor’s tree toppled onto it a couple of years ago. The “repair” it received then had been pretty shoddy, and that too had long since failed. This time the posts were whipping to and fro, and had Glenn not hammered in a couple of 2x4 braces, they likely would have blown over — especially after the neighbor’s fence along the side street did the same. It was the second time this month that their fence had blown over, and sadly came less than a week after they’d hired someone to tack it back together from an earlier storm.
As for us, we can’t wait for this crappy, crazy weather to be over. Every time things appear ready to dry out, another four or five days of rain blows into town. Our reservoirs are at capacity, our ground is saturated, our weeds are double their usual height. Help!
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T HAS BEEN nearly four months since we lost Ben’s cat, Eevee, and the emptiness in the house intensifies with each passing day. Even Katy seems to notice; she has been far more cuddly than usual, and she can’t get enough of our attention. Never one for being held or sitting in one’s lap, she has spent hours cuddling with us, especially whenever we are sitting with a warm blanket or near the space heater. Roni is convinced Katy needs a friend, and while her reaction whenever the neighborhood cats roam through her backyard would indicate otherwise, deep down she probably does.
We’ve been taking tentative steps toward getting our next cat, checking out the pet stores and visiting the local pounds during their free and reduced-cost adoption weekends. Is there such a thing as window shopping when it comes to pets? You pretty much fall in love with them and take one home, or you don’t. Roni would fall in love with all of them, if given the chance, as well as a few dogs we saw at the Martinez Animal Services facility on Feb. 11. Glenn is encouraging her to hold out until spring, when kitten season will be in full swing. We aren’t sure whether we want to adopt one kitten or two, as we did with Katy and Rio (RIP), but we would prefer to start it or them off at a younger age, if only because we think they’d get along better with Katy, or vice versa.
Well, it’s time to put this edition to bed and get it online before our short month ends. There is a patch of sun out as we write this, but we won’t get our hopes up too far because the weather forecast is already calling for another week of rain and near-freezing temperatures as well. Gotta love winter. Not!