Up-River Reconnaissance Voyage: My First View of The Delta

When you’ve sailed your boat across the Pacific and back, the thought of steaming up the Sacramento River seems … well, scary. Where do you turn when a freighter comes around the bend? What do you do when you get stuck in the shallows with a battering-ram tree coming down the river? By comparison, sailing downwind for a few thousand miles on the wide Pacific seems as easy as falling off a dock.

So just back from my solo adventure from New Zealand to the Golden Gate I had to have a look at this treacherous destination. I decided to sail up before summer set in and with no one else on the water.

A good sailor is patient and waits for the right tide and weather. To hell with that. I steamed up the bay on an adverse tide with only a puff of wind, landing at Benicia Marina’s guest dock in a gray wet drizzle. I searched the town and found good seafood, Oysters Rockefeller and Anchor Steam beer. I made a mental note of the upcoming Friday night Ghost Walk down Main Street and vowed to read Jack London’s John Barleycorn.

Next day I steamed further against the ebb and arrived at Owl Harbor on Sevenmile Slough just as a brilliant sun was kissing a horizon of wind mills. I’d avoided the freighters, shoals, and floating logs. But it took a few moments to get used to the orientation of thousands of acres of farmland fifteen feet below Pamela’s waterline.

What a way to see this place. Can you imagine a thousand miles of sloughs and estuaries, built 150 years ago to convert a vast inland sea into a San Joaquin fertile crescent? The grazing sheep and cows lull you into a rural daydream; meanwhile, the image of a cargo-laden freighter ghosting over the green farmlands tells you you’re not far from the open ocean.

And the birdsong: how is one to sleep past 07:00?

I’d read someone’s post about Owl Harbor. “The best marina in the world,” they’d claimed. I chortled, then read on: “with fresh eggs and produce every morning.” Sure enough, Devery offered me a two-yolk Goliath of an egg. She let me pick a plump onion from her garden which I baked into a loaf of bread. She loaned me a bicycle to explore the levees and sent me off with a dozen more eggs.

Thirty years ago I cycled along the levees of the famous Loire. No people, no cars, just a rolling river and green trees. Parts of the San Joaquin in April reminded me of just that, and asked gently whether I would take that long-imagined voyage through the canals of France before I died. I lay for a long while in the grass and stared at the sky.

For now the sun is setting behind Mt. Diablo. All is quiet. The evening wind is full of privacy, perhaps more privacy than is good for an honest man. I’ll pull out my old guitar and strum a few measures before retiring, for tomorrow I must be up at the crack of dawn to ride the tide back down to Benicia for Oysters Rockefeller.

Cycling along the San Joaquin River in the heart of the Delta
Cycling along the San Joaquin River in the heart of the Delta