When we were in Red Bluff, numerous knowledgable-seeming people suggested we’d never make it on the Upper Sacramento River, including the Fish & Game people and a series of fisherfolk. By contrast, Chad the Sheriff and Dave Benedict the Mobile Mechanic told us it was hairy but doable, which despite the naysayers, was totally true.
We had a date to meet a local TV news crew in Hamilton City and so we camped just above the tiny little town about a half mile from the river. We weren’t looking forward to the long walk into town but needed a few supplies. As soon as we hit the Hamilton City boat ramp, we met a Mike Rasmussen the Fish Guide who immediately adopted us and gave us a ride into town. Mike set us up with a new fine fishing rod and tackle for catching striper.
We did a brief TV interview on a local FOX affiliate which was kinda funny. Benzy gave her name only as Benzy and showed up in the news report as “a woman who refers to herself as Benzy.”
We had lunch at a bombass taco truck in Hamilton City with Mike who pointed out places on our map where we were likely to run into trouble. These pins (marked “Watch the fuck out! Stay left!”) which spanned 30 miles of river and the advice for dealing with them saved our trip. Mike spent every day year-round on the river, and told us the river was more changed after the last winter of flooding than he’d ever seen it in in a lifetime on the river. There were parts of the river that challenged even very experienced boatspersons, but he had confidence in our ability to judge the river wisely.
We set off downriver nervous but ready to tackle this wild river.
We spent the day having moments of peaceful idyl and floating, punctuated by long moments of sheer terror and intense vigilance. When we got to Mike’s first pin, we hewed left as suggested. Was it the right way to go? We’ll likely never know because we never got to see the alternative. The left side was barely passable. We were immediately dodging left right left around dangerous gravel bars that were shooting the water back and forth across the stream. One foot of water or less, with Freddy2 trimmed up and the prop barely in the water! The skegs of the shantyboat bumping occasionally across rock beds. Tight tight turns around snags and gravel beds. A powerful stream around a final rock bed at a ninety degree tight turn to the riverbed. Full throttle for a small measure of control through a final gauntlet of jagged snags bumping the boat on either side.
It was the gnarliest bit of boating I’ve done on a thousand miles of rivers over ten years.
After that we were exhausted. We had further hazards and more blissful floats, but when we got to Princeton, we beached the boat and passed out.
After a brief nap, we woke up craving sandwiches. We hiked a ways into town up the dustiest road in America, picking blackberries and helping ourselves to an overhanging grapefruit tree. We got sandwiches as the sleepy little market in Princeton and headed back with 20 pounds of ice. Soon as we started down the road, a driver in a pickup offered us a ride to the beach.
That night we expected Jeremiah to arrive for a visit and the driver, another Mike, Mike Frawley, offered to shuttle him, a small mountain of resupply and Mr Johnson to the boat. Princeton Mike was interesting fellow and he agreed to an interview the next day. Miah’s arrival was celebrated with whiskey and cards late into the night.
The next day, we had a series of tasks to work on. We had run out of fresh water earlier, and Miah and I hiked to the road to forage water. A long trip carrying two heavy 5 gallon containers of water. Twice. With 20 gallons we thought we were pretty good.
Miah had taken Mr. Johnson home in a futile attempt to get him serviced. With our new knowledge about the mysteries of Bad Gas, we drained the carb and got him started right up.
Somewhere in here, Benzy went and picked a huge bucket of wild blackberries.
Mike came to his interview with his best friend Al who immediately gave us a huge bounty from his garden. We love fresh fruit and vegetables and we crave that when we are on the river. I talked to Mike on-camera for a while about his life, living in the little town of Princeton (pop. 400), fishing, hunting, and his love of the river. Al who was sitting nearby, occasionally jumping in the river with whoops, weighed in now and then on Mike’s answers to my questions.
Mike set Benzy up with minnows and showed her how to bait the hook for striper. She spent the next several hours fishing for minnows with worms and fishing for striper with minnows. Mike asked if we liked crawdads, like little miniature freshwater lobsters. Hell, yeah, we said, and Mike presented us with a whole trapfull for dinner.
In the meantime, we met Joe Lorenzo, who people around Princeton just call River Rat. After talking for a bit, we realized it was Joe’s old pontoon boat that was featured on Secret History postcards and posters the first year of the project before we’d even put the shantyboat in the water.
So after an amazing day of unexpected triumph, when we were all tuckered and happy and a little drunk from cocktail hour, Benzy is reeling in her line and realizes she has a fish on it. She fights it to the bank and wrestles it out and we realizes she has a sizable striped bass!
The beautiful river. Surviving the Whitewater Rapids of Death in a beast of a barge-bottomed houseboat. Great company of friends. Great interview. Gifts from strangers. Surely, that’s enough and plenty for a lifetime, right?
Next morning it was Jeremiah’s birthday and we woke to great coffee and baked him a wild blackberry pie right there in the shantyboat.
Next time, Colusa.