Our ship finally came in (and we managed not to sink it)
October 18, 2012
The California Delta is a huge place, but you don't realize how huge until you see it from the water. In the almost quarter century we've called this region home, we can count on one hand the number of times we have set out on a boat to take in its beauty, and there would be still fewer appendages required to keep track of the times we had piloted a vessel of our own, content to let someone else navigate the waters while we relaxed and watched the world float by.
Okay, now you can count them on one finger.
It was probably bound to happen that one day one of us would wake up and say, "Hey, why don't we rent a boat today and go sailing?" We always thought that person would be Roni, who as executive director of the Delta Science Center has been most interested in such things, but it turned out to be Glenn. Of course, his idea of the best way to see the water and hers were somewhat different.
Roni's vision was to rent a small fishing boat with a trolling motor and spend the day exploring the river's most inaccessible reaches where she hoped to find wildlife photography spots. Glenn, on the other hand, got turned on to the idea of kayaking after seeing a group of people on an East Bay Regional Park District expedition paddling around the serene waters of Big Break Regional Shoreline. How easy it would be to take one of those small boats into a tule forest and park amid the egrets, ducks and pond turtles.
The park district trip is part of a regular program that teaches visitors the basics of using a kayak, but unfortunately you have to reserve space and we always seem to be late or the class is held at an awkward time. Still, Glenn lobbied for this activity for a couple of weeks, going so far as to watch a series of YouTube videos on the subject and staking out several places in the area that rent kayaks by the hour, one of which is at the Big Break Marina just half a mile from home. But without the introductory class Roni was not so easily sold. She had heard tales about how difficult it is to paddle a kayak, which requires a straight back and the physical stamina to paddle against potentially difficult currents. It's not that the San Joaquin River is comparable to the white waters of the mountainous American River to our northeast, but it is known for its navigational challenges and Roni wanted to be aware of the safety basics before heading out. On this she would not be swayed, and so the idea of kayaking would have to wait for another day.
That did not preclude the possibility of renting a motor boat, which she felt more comfortable using having spent years fishing the Delta on weekends with her dad. So comfortable, in fact, that as a teenager she had grown to detest those weekly fishing excursions. Like most teens, she wanted to hang out with her friends and enjoy her own activities, none of which involved being stuck in a boat for hours at a time. Now she sometimes gets nostalgic for those long-ago days. It was that nostalgia and Glenn's disappointment at not being able to go kayaking that led us to the Sugar Barge marina on Bethel Island.
The Sugar Barge is so named because it was once the spot on the river where barges loaded with sugar beets were moored during the harvest season. You won't find barges there these days, but it is a popular destination for campers, diners and water enthusiasts, and is one of the few places in our area that rents boats. We went there Oct. 4, a Thursday, while Ben was attending his classes at Los Medanos College; a self-avowed landlubber, he didn't envy us our trip. We found the marina office and perused the menu of options for our excursion. We could rent anything from a jetski, kayak or pedal boat up to a houseboat that would comfortably hold a dozen people. This being our first time, we wanted something affordable and easy to handle, so we settled on a 17-foot Triumph fishing skiff with a 50hp Mercury outboard motor, signing up for the 4-hour minimum. That would give us just enough time to explore a little and hopefully not get ourselves into too much trouble.
Vince, one of the marina's staff, had our boat in the water and waiting for us by the time we had finished filling out the rental agreement and found our way to the top of the levee. He gave us a quick introduction to the boat's controls and procedures while we settled ourselves and our gear into the craft. Even though life jackets were optional for us because we are over 16, we slipped them on just in case our confidence was higher than our skill level. With Roni at the helm, we eased out into the beckoning waters of Piper Slough.
We had chosen the perfect time for our adventure. The summer crowds have faded away and there were few people out on the water on a Thursday afternoon. That meant fewer objects to run into while we figured out how to steer in the unpredictable currents. Even so, it's hard to go too wrong when you're motoring along at 5 mph, which is the speed limit in the no-wake zone close to the marina and along the populated shoreline of Bethel Island. Roni turned the controls over to Glenn before we hit the fast water, and he took us slowly onto Franks Tract, the single largest body of water in the Delta.
Franks Tract didn't start out as a lake, but it became one after a levee gave way in the 1930s and was left unrepaired. The area was once used as a bombing test range for the Navy, and most recently it has been designated as a state recreation area popular with water skiers and fishermen. Being that we were neither, we sort of wondered why we had chosen this as our first destination, other than that we had heard about it for years and just wanted to see it. In a small boat, it might as well be the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Without the protection of the levees here, we were jostled about by the choppy waves as we put the motor through its paces on the shallow lake. The weather had been much hotter earlier in the week, with temperatures into the 100s and the wind nonexistent. The river waters had been glass smooth, but not today. The waves lapped against the sides of the boat and sprayed us. It might have felt good on a warmer day, but we were around the mid-70s and didn't need the refreshing shower. We shared the captain's chair, clinging to each other against the spray.
Roni took over the helm and figured out how to use the boat's fish finder, which provided us with other useful information such as our speed and the river depth. We had found ourselves some pretty shallow water on Franks Tract, with the depth dropping to 2 feet in spots. Roni wanted to check out a flock of small birds we saw sitting in the middle of the lake, but we thought better of it when we realized they must be sitting on something fairly shallow, and we didn't want to get stuck there until high tide. She pushed forward on the throttle and we picked up speed until we were whipping along at close to 15 mph, a far cry from what we'd expected we could do on the open water. Perhaps we could have gone faster if the water were deeper, but we could hear the engine straining and decided not to push it.
We decided we'd had enough of Franks Tract and Roni started to take us back toward the Sugar Barge. It was at this point we realized navigating landmarks from the water is not the same as identifying them on land. We oriented ourselves toward Mount Diablo and sailed in what we thought was the right direction. "Where is the entrance?" Roni asked. "It should be right between those two trees," Glenn said, pointing at a promising bend along the shore. But as we got closer we realized that the bend was a dead end, as were the other blind curves we'd thought might lead us back to Piper Slough. So instead of retracing our original course, we hugged the outer levee and cruised north up Franks Tract to see what we could see.
It was as we started passing unfamiliar buildings on shore that we thought to use the GPS map on Roni's iPhone. True, we weren't on the roadways, but GPS works just as well on water, and the map can be scaled for better viewing. It showed we were... in the middle of nowhere. Oh yeah, we could see we were still traveling near Piper Slough, but how to get into it?
We'd been out for nearly two hours when Roni decided we should find a quiet spot to anchor and have lunch. Really, that was our only objective aside from getting some seat time in the boat. We had wandered to the north end of Franks Tract, where we at last found an entrance into Piper Slough. Our bearings set once again, we attempted to anchor near some tules, out of the way of other boaters who periodically roared by us in their more luxurious craft.
Our first mistake was deciding that we should use the anchor. Glenn found its chain near the bow and hoisted it over the edge into the murky waters below, waiting for it to hit bottom. He kept playing out the chain until he reached the nylon rope that was connected to its last link. He let the rope play out a few feet as the boat continued to drift in the light current. "How do I know if we're anchored?" he asked. "We should stop moving," Roni said. Seeing that we weren't, she went over to the rope and began to pull it in. She pulled and pulled some more, until the chain was in view once more. Then the pulling became more difficult. "Maybe we were anchored after all," she said.
But by now she'd reeled in so much of the chain that we decided to forgo that idea and simply let the boat drift while we ate lunch. We worked together until we at last brought the anchor back on board, covered in an unrecognizable mass of mud and egeria densa. For those unfamiliar with egeria, it is a water weed commonly sold by pet shops for use in aquariums. Somewhere along the line it found its way into the Delta, where it grows mostly unchecked. In the summer months it forms dense mats of green vines that can foul boat propellers and, as we discovered, steel anchors. Roni scraped the gunk off the anchor and returned the invasive weeds to the river.
The current carried us farther into the middle of Franks Tract, so even at 2 mph we drifted quite far from the Piper Slough entrance we'd staked out. We ate our Raley's deli sandwiches and contemplated what life might be like if we did this boating thing more often. Perhaps if we shared the boat with others. The skiff is rated for nine people, but perhaps four would fit comfortably.
By the time we'd finished eating we had drifted back toward a sea wall that we discovered also had a small opening to Piper Slough. Roni pointed us toward it and we motored through into the no-wake zone. It turned out that we were just a few hundred yards away from the Sugar Barge. "Are you ready to head back?" she asked, realizing we'd only been out for about two and a half of our four hours. "Heck no," Glenn said, "I want to get our money's worth." There were no refunds on the four hours we'd been billed for.
Taking the com, Glenn sailed us past the marina docks and we found ourselves on the same stretch of the slough we'd started on before turning for Franks Tract. This time we continued due south, which brought us into a series of channels called Sandmound Slough, which separates Bethel Island and Holland Tract. Of course we didn't have any navigation charts with us, so it all looked like a watery version of a cornstalk maze you sometimes find at Halloween pumpkin patches. Tall thickets of cattails disguised the channels and shrouded our view of the shoreline. We weren't sure how close we could safely venture near their edges where hyacinths and Delta primroses overgrew rocks and sand bars.
That didn't stop us from taking advantage of our situation to get a closer look at the wildlife that call these waters home. Roni is forever after a good photo of an egret, and there were dozens of them wading in the shallows along our route. Moving slowly, Glenn guided the boat near to a patch of hyacinth and cut the engine as an egret watched us warily. On land, they seldom let you get close, but on the water perhaps they felt safer, and we were nearly on top of them before they took flight.
The problem is that we both wanted to take pictures, which isn't easy to do when you are in the driver's seat. Unlike a car that stops for you instantly when you tap the brake, a boat set to drift continues to drift in the direction you've angled it, influenced somewhat by the current. There were several moments when we panicked as we saw the shoreline drawing closer during a photo shoot and had to turn hard to starboard to avoid becoming part of the levee. Even at 5 mph it was like trying to turn the Titanic away from the iceberg. Somehow we avoided colliding with anything more than a few reeds.
The sun was beginning to set as we powered our way back through the main channel toward the marina. Roni was content to let Glenn drive while she racked up more photos of herons and cormorants and unusual river objects, and Glenn was feeling confident behind the wheel. Then it was time to dock. We were told to tie up near the gas pumps so Vince could top off our tank at the end of our run. Glenn slowed the motor and angled us toward the dock, but as he got close the river current began to carry the boat north and he didn't have enough power to steer us in. He tried to reverse the engine. Too late. Thump! The boat struck the corner of the dock near the middle of the port side. It wasn't a hard hit, but it got the attention of a couple of fishermen next door who gave us curious looks as we tried to tie up like a couple of Keystone Kops.
By now, Vince had come to our rescue and grabbed hold of one of the ropes to tie us to a cleat on the dock. We were home safely, and the boat amazingly was still in one piece. We hopped off for some final photos as Vince topped off our tank and rang us up for the $13 in gas we'd consumed, which we paid for at the marina office when we checked back in.
In all, it had been a great day and a positive experience that left us eager for more water-based adventures.
We didn't have long to wait until our next date with the Delta. Just two days after we took our rented boat on Franks Tract, we found ourselves at Driftwood Yacht Harbor in Oakley for the annual Make-A-Wish charity cruise. Since the mid-1980s, the yacht club has sponsored an event to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, featuring a barbecue, entertainment, and an opportunity for guests to go on a Delta cruise aboard one of the members' boats. One of our friends, Mike Painter, owns a pretty good-sized cabin cruiser that he is always encouraging us to take a ride on, and being that he was participating in the fundraiser, it seemed a great opportunity to finally take him up on the offer.
We were told the cruise was to depart at 10 a.m. sharp on Saturday morning. The harbor was hopping with activity when we arrived, as other cruisers were boarding their assigned vessels and skippers were making final launch preparations. We boarded Captain Mike's ship, the Black Pearl, and took seats in the stern while he and his wife Pam made sure we were good to go. We were soon joined by another couple, Mike and Connie, who own a pest control business in Discovery Bay. The six of us would be shipmates for what was supposed to be a 2-hour cruise along the San Joaquin River with no itinerary other than to return to port around noon in time for lunch.
Things started off well enough as we cast off and motored gently through the harbor to the open water. It was another gorgeous day, if not a little cooler than it had been for our Thursday trip. There was just a bit of cloud cover, and we were sheltered enough sitting in the back of the boat that we didn't get too cool in our shorts and T-shirts. Mike cranked up the twin outboards, pointed us west, and we zoomed through the deep-water channel under the center of the Sen. John A. Nejedly Bridge. There were several other large boats ahead of and behind us, so it felt a bit as if we were part of a watery parade as we cruised toward Antioch.
Captain Mike had tempted us with promises that we would get to see some of the backwater features one doesn't normally get to see from shore, so we had armed ourselves with camera gear in anticipation. He detoured us off the main channel and into a slough that runs along the southwest edge of Sherman Island, where crews were performing levee work with a couple of barges and a huge clamshell crane. It was odd to see them working on a Sunday, but they were. We returned to the river and continued west until we reached the outskirts of the Antioch public marina. Mike berths his ship in nearby Pittsburg, but we weren't going that far. It was already time to turn around and start back for Oakley.
Before we began our leisurely drive back along the Antioch shoreline, there was time to head inside and check out the food Mike and Pam had served up for everyone. Pam and Connie had been chatting over plates of salami and cheese, spinach dip, chips and fresh pineapple and strawberries. Glenn found the brownies and cookies that were sitting near the galley. The main passenger compartment was large enough for all six of us to gather around the buffet, and we did for a few minutes while Mike let the boat circle slowly in the middle of the river.
Heading back through the gap in the Antioch Bridge, Captain Mike told us to get the cameras ready as we sailed into another hidden treasure, the back side of Big Break. We had seen the front side often enough on our walks to the Big Break Regional Shoreline observation pier, but without a boat there is no way to see what lies to the north beyond the tule covered islands in its middle. Big Break used to be an asparagus field until a levee failure in the 1920s turned it into a lake. Next to Franks Tract, Big Break is the second largest body of water in the Delta. It is also one of the shallowest, with depths topping out at 5 feet much too shallow for a big boat like the Black Pearl to handle with confidence. Mike took us to the outer edge of where the levee used to be and let us gander at the various beached artifacts from the past century of Delta river navigation.
Big Break takes its name from the huge hole that was left when the levee gave way in 1928. At the height of the Great Depression there wasn't much money available for the scope of repairs that would be needed, so the break was never repaired. As time went by, Big Break became a dumping ground for obsolete boats and farm machinery. Some of those are still visible from the park's pier, but if you come in from the river you can see evidence of other abandoned equipment, such as the skeletal remains of the overturned hull of a large wooden cargo ship. Inside Big Break there are also abandoned barges, a century-old clamshell dredge, and at one time a World War II landing craft.
When the electronic fish finder started giving us readings in the 2-foot range, Captain Mike informed us that we would have to turn around. An experienced seafarer, he joked that he knew most every sandbar on the river because he had hit them once or twice. Not a laughing matter if you get stranded on one at low tide, as he did years ago when the boat was new and had to spend the night on it. The depth of the river varied broadly as we continued west toward Franks Tract, rising to nearly 22 feet in some spots that were just a few yards from places as shallow as 3 feet. You have to bear in mind that massive cargo ships rely on these waters to deliver goods to the Port of Stockton, so the deep water channel is kept in good repair.
We were gearing up in anticipation of another look at Franks Tract when all of a sudden a loud knocking noise came from below. "That does not sound good," we all said in unison. Captain Mike clammered down from the bridge, cut off the outboards, and opened the hatch to the engine compartment. A big cloud of steam billowed up from the left outboard. He pulled out the dipstick and checked the oil level. Bone dry. "It's got a leak somewhere," he said. It was done for the day. "Good thing we've got two engines." We turned around and limped back to the yacht harbor, watching enviously as other folks in their fancy racing boats sped past us on the fast water. At least we weren't all stranded.
Back at the harbor Mike had to use all his skills to navigate into port on just the one engine. He got an assist from shore as several guys grabbed his mooring lines and tied the boat up. The engine problem aside, it had been an interesting and fun trip. We bid the Black Pearl adieu and went inside the Driftwood clubhouse to check out the silent auction and grab some grub. Roni bid $12 on a couple bottles of wine and some coasters that we later won. The food was incredible -- tri-tip cuts, mac and cheese, dinner rolls, grilled chicken, and something billed as chili that had the consistency of a meatball soup but was very tasty.
Has all this boating activity made us eager to take the plunge and get our own boat? While having the freedom to explore the river is great, there is nothing like being able to kick back and relax while someone else does the driving. We'll probably stick to having our fun in small doses.
Late September and early October traditionally are vacation time for us. Glenn usually takes a couple weeks off of work and Roni puts her business life on hold so we can enjoy a few activities together. It has been a few years since we've taken a long fall trip together, and with Ben now in college it was impossible for all of us to get away for a family adventure. Instead, we stuck close to home and enjoyed time to relax.
We started the vacation in a low-key way with a drive to the Napa wine region on Sept. 23. Roni had really wanted to get up that way in the spring to take pictures of the mustard plants that grow in the grape vineyards. There is no mustard in the fall, unless you count what is available in bottles at dozens of boutique wineries and gift shops in the area. Still, she was quite happy to finally get to explore again a place we have been many times in years gone by.
Our first stop was Peju Province in Rutherford. We used to go there for bottles of our favorite wine, Carnival. But on this day we were just dropping by to check out the art. Like many of the wineries in the Napa Valley, Peju Province has several sculptures on display in their handsome courtyard. It was while we were looking at these, photographing the statuary and garden arrangements, that Glenn happened across something even more exciting. Partially hidden behind a row of hedges was a long stack of half wine barrels, the kind that typically find a second life as garden containers (at least in our yard.) They were in beautiful shape, just slightly used, and far cheaper than at the local home improvement stores. At $20 each, we knew they were a bargain we couldn't pass up.
So while other Peju visitors were walking out with bottles of wine tucked under their arms, we were wrestling a pair of oak half barrels into the back seat of Glenn's Toyota Corolla. They just fit. It was a warm day and we had the front windows down as we drove, but even so, the aroma of freshly fermented grapes soon filled the passenger compartment. We joked about how we might explain ourselves to any police officer that pulled us over on the drive home. "Open container? Uh, well, sort of..."
Fortunately, the only pulling over we did the rest of the way was when we voluntarily stopped at a couple more wineries. Roni had read something about Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga and wanted to check the place out. It is situated atop a hill just off Highway 29, and you have to drive up through the surrounding vineyard to find it. Many people obviously did so, because the parking lot was nearly full when we finally arrived there in the early afternoon.
Castello di Amorosa, loosely translated, is "Castle of Love" in English. We were instantly in love with this spectacular structure crafted from real stone blocks and made to resemble an old world castle that might be found in Europe. We would have been content to wander the grounds and take a few pictures from the outside, but temptation got the better of us once we climbed the massive staircase and stepped through the huge oak doors and learned about self-guided tours that could be had for $18 per person. It might not have been Disneyland, but this appeared to be a magic kingdom worth the price of admission to explore, so we willingly paid up for the two of us, along with a few bucks more for a small bag of biscotti that we split between us to tide us over until lunch.
The castle has at least three floors, two of which we were allowed to explore on our tour. We walked up a spiral staircase that took us to a turret with a sweeping view of the valley below. Everything in the building is made of stone, iron or thick slabs of wood, and there was so much beautiful architecture that to document it well would require a website of its own. We headed out of the turret, through a large courtyard, and into a hallway where a large banquet hall was located. The inside of the hall resembled the Cistine Chapel, with Renaissance style artwork covering every wall. What a fine place it would be to have a grand feast, which was exactly what the long banquet table in the center of the room had been set for.
Across another courtyard was a small church sanctuary that was more subtlely splendorous. Separate portals led to the castle's wine cellar and wine tasting room/gift shop, which was where our tour eventually ended. We partook in the complimentary wine tasting that was included with our tickets, savoring every drop of such varieties as Gioia Rosato di Sangiovese, late harvest Gewurztraminer, and Napa Valley Merlot. They were generous with their pourings, perhaps a little too much so for us on our nearly empty stomachs.
We departed the castle and headed south through St. Helena, where fortunately for us we found food in the form of Gott's Roadside hamburger stand. We laughed that one would balk spending $20 for a couple of burgers and shakes at a place like McDonald's, yet willingly fork over nearly twice that much for the same thing at a place like Gott's. The food was good if not spectacular, and at least our bellies were full when we continued on our way.
We picked up the Silverado Trail that runs parallel to Highway 29 on the eastern side of the valley, trying to drive slowly so as to enjoy the vineyards we were passing. Tough to do when all nthe locals drive the road like a freeway. We were glad to finally exit the road at Darioush winery, which Roni had also read about. It wasn't as ostentacious as Castello di Amorosa, but it certainly comes close with its rows of Persian columns that line the walkway to the front entrance. While a testament to a landscape architect's abilities, we found Darioush to be long on flash and short on substance, although we never actually sampled any of their wines. We surely felt underdressed in our touristy T-shirts and jeans.
Aside from the winery tour and our pair of Delta boating adventures, much of our vacation was spent doing things we might do other times of the year. Roni, despite trying to limit her work schedule, is busier than ever right now, particularly with her work for the Delta Science Center.
On Sept. 22 she operated an information booth at the soft opening of the new Delta Visitor Center at Big Break Regional Shoreline. The East Bay Regional Park District had a grand opening for the center Oct. 13, complete with state and local dignitaries and attended by a couple hundred members of the public, but the September preview was more informal. The visitor center is the district's first to open in 38 years and attracted press coverage from as far away as Modesto. NBC from San Jose came out to tape the grand opening because one of the speakers was state schools superintendent Tom Torlakson, and they tied his appearance to a segment they did on Proposition 30, the California school tax measure on the November ballot. It is exciting to finally have the center open to the public, even if the DSC won't be able to have a permanent office facility there as originally planned. The DSC and park district staff still plan to collaborate on some activities at Big Break.
The DSC also operated an information booth at the Sept. 30 6k Walk for Water event at the Dow Wetlands Preserve in Antioch. The goal of the annual event is to raise awareness about the number of people worldwide who do not have easy access to clean drinking water, many of whom are women and children who must walk up to 6 kilometers a day just to find water. Dow organizers set up a 6k course around the wetlands property, and visitors were encouraged to walk it to experience first hand what it must be like. Given that the temperature that day bordered on 100 deegrees, you couldn't help but suffer along with them.
Glenn walked a bit of the trail, if not the full 6 kilometers. Roni spent the entire afternoon holding down the fort in the DSC booth, where the featured attraction was the zooplankton we scooped out of the wetlands mud in a huge bucket. We placed droppers of the water on magnifying plates so the kids could view miniature crawdads, boatsmen, fish and other critters paddling around in the muck. While a worthwhile event, the day was too hot for many people, and our booth mates from the Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek said they counted just 38 people who came by.
On Sunday, Oct. 14, we attended the Rio Vista Bass Derby festival for the first time in perhaps two decades. Glenn had seen a preview of the festival T-shirts and really wanted one, so rather than spend $29 to have it shipped to us, we decided it would be just as easy to hop in the car and take the 15-mile drive up the Delta to see the show in person. Finding the festival proved much easier than finding the Chamber of Commerce booth where the shirts were sold, and we strolled up and down Front Street at least twice before we found it. By then, we had listened to karaoke singers at the pole barn stage, checked out most of the merchandise booths, chowed down on linguica sandwiches, taken several dozen photos of the Helen Madere Memorial Bridge (also known as the Rio Vista lift bridge), and watched the parade along Main Street.
The folks in Rio Vista really get into their parade. There were several dozen entries, but they were spaced so far apart at times that the crowd wasn't sure whether the event was over or just at a lull before the next group of performers strolled by. Political season is in full swing, and many of the entries carried a patriotic or campaign theme. The Democrats, Republicans and the local Tea Party chapter all had booths hawking their favored candidates.
Among the day's highlights was getting to check out the Rio Vista Museum. Normally open for just a few hours on weekend afternoons, the museum kept extended hours to appeal to folks who'd come just for the Bass Derby. The museum isn't as large as some we've seen in other towns, but it did have a huge collection of farm implements and newspaper front pages from pivotal moments in history, as well as sports and military memorabilia.
We found our festival gear at last near the corner of Front and Main streets, at a booth we both swore had not been there during the parade or we would have seen it. Being it was the final day of the festival, the shirts were discounted to $15, tax included. We'd easily spent much more than we saved by getting the gear in person, but the fun we'd had was priceless.
Time to wrap up this month's newsletter, which has run much longer than we expected. See what happens when we actually have time to go places and do stuff? For now, it's back to Halloween preparations, politics, and watching the Giants run for the World Series. See you in November.