Closest Thing to Civilization Between Red Bluff and Sac

Since we left Red Bluff on July 2nd, we’d been looking forward to our arrival in Colusa. Not only was it the largest town on the Sacramento River between Red Bluff and Sac, but it was also the furthest south I’d ever been on the river on my three earlier raft and canoe trips. So everything from here on out would be completely new to me.

Shantyboat beached north of Colusa

Despite the imposing levee, Colusa is easy to spot from the river with its giant twin water towers bringing to mind old-fashioned coffee percolators.

Colusa’s iconic water towers. Photo by SL Benz


Mike Garofalo had written a few days earlier offering us a hot shower, cool A/C, and vehicle to get around Colusa with. He met us as we beached on the north side of town. Mike turned out to be an amazingly sweet guy. We accepted his shower and A/C offer and got a chance to check out his place in old storefront in what was the old Chinatown. It was a beautiful old brick building that he and his wife had filled with historical treasures, exactly the kind of aesthetic that fueled the shantyboat. Mike figured that at one time, his house has been a brothel, opium den, gambling hall, or all of the above.

Colusa water towers. Photo courtesy Mike Garofalo

Mike collects old photos and postcards of Colusa and beyond, available on his Facebook page Colusa County Historic Photos. We looked at all the photos he’d collected and others contributed, though we didn’t find any photos of the rumored shantyboats that used to jungle up along the banks of Colusa.

We be rollin’, country-style.

It was exciting to have a vehicle to get around. Mike loaned us an old early 80s Ford F150. It brought back memories of my old Ford. There was a Best of Credence CD in the radio so every time we started the truck, it was like the soundtrack of our lives. If felt amazing to drive around on a warm evening with the windows down.

Ananda of ABC10 does some gonzo journalism

A few newspapers and an ABC10 news crew found us in Colusa. For the TV cameras we did stupid human boating tricks and tried to say clever things between keeping the news crew from drowning themselves when we went out on the water. It was an educational experience as always. Not to self: When dealing with TV people, set good limits and establish boundaries before hand.

Best burgers in town. Truth.

The Colusa Bowl alleged to have the best burgers in town. We don’t know because we didn’t try every other burger, but true, it was a damn fine burger for a great price. We are big fans. Benzy and I went back twice, bowling progressively worse, and her consistently kicking my ass by a wide margin.

First game on Lane 10. Benzy easily broke 110, I stumbled up to 97

We also discovered the quirky Sportsman Club on a Monday night. Just a few people in there, but they were more than making it up for it with their volume and frenetic running about, mooning and filming each other, and making introductions to us. If we were looking for a bar where we could quietly and anonymously get a beer, we needed to shift our expectations.

Ballin’ at the Sportsman Club

I worked for days to get interviews with a bunch of great people. Here’s the list of interviews that I didn’t quite get:

I really wanted to talk to members of the Cachil DeHe Band of Wintun Indians of the Colusa Indian Community. For months I’d been writing and calling to no avail. In Colusa, we were able to drive up to the Colusa Rancheria and talk to folks. Uniformly people said, they are really private people. I kept suggesting that they may know one person who loves to talk and tell stories, but no one could point me to that person.

One of my emails to a tribal member looked something like this:

Everyone I’ve talked to has told me that the members of the tribe are generally very private. I understand and appreciate that desire. I also understand that you and others have little experience to trust me in particular or know my intensions.

Perhaps it also feels there is much to lose and little to gain by talking to me, but I hope that others may benefit tremendously by hearing native voices and experiencing an archive in which native voices are privileged. An archive of river people is woefully incomplete without the voices and stories of the descendants of people who have called this place home for thousands of years.

The interviews we conduct are about people’s personal stories and experiences. I know that no one can speak for a community or a tribe. I seek to listen to these personal stories from individuals about their lives and connection with the place and the river.

I hoped that perhaps you or someone else might be able to point me to someone from the tribe who is excited to share their experiences.

I talked a bit to the director of the Outdoor Adventure program for the tribe, who had some leads that never quite manifested in an interview.

I also hoped to get an interview with George Graham who was one of the original Colusa Floaters, a group of people with such a humble mission it feels deceptively simple to mention it. The floaters who have been going strong since the early 70s get together several times a week and float the river in tubes and drink beer. They talk and watch the river wildlife and become slower friends through this shared ritual. They also experimented with psychedelics in the 70s as detailed in the underground chronicle My Sunday Lobotomy. I never got an interview with either George or another floater we met Charles Yerxa.

Lastly, I wanted to find one of the older Chinese-American Colusa residents who remembered the old Chinatown. The Lee Family, for instance, owned a market right downtown for nearly a hundred years that closed a few years ago. I remember walking around Colusa in my punk raft days 10 years ago and going to the Lee Market.

Mike Garofalo knew 50 years of Colusa history

However, we did get a great interview with Mike. He grew up in Colusa, lived elsewhere for a bit, and then came back here to live. He had stories of hanging out at the river and at the railroad tracks as a kid. He described the economic ups and downs of the town, and the general improvement in the health of the river and its critters. He knew so much about the history of the town, and recalled so many details of his own history in this river community.

Interestingly, Mike remembered when there were shantyboats along the river in Colusa. Charles Yerxa had told us that he remembered river hobos living there on the shantyboats, living on what they fished and hunted.

Calm river below Colusa

After what seemed like a fairly extended stop over in Colusa (in reality only a few days, but, well, river time), we pulled out. It felt weird like we’d made this place home for a while.

Hazel steps up to being ships hound.

After four years, it seems like Hazel is finally becoming a river dog. Instead of hiding in the cabin, she comes out on deck bathes in the sun, and watches the sky and the water and the birds.

Shantyboat and the Milky Way

The night we were expected to have a passel of friends arriving late, Jeremiah back for his third visit and our neighbors the Goodmans. So we lit all of our nav lights and tried to make the shantyboat look spiff. I took a few photos out under the stars.


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