Are We Going To Die on the Sacramento River?

This is the fourth year of the project. The shantyboat has traveled over 1000 river miles and 20,000 miles by land. We’ve conducted nearly 100 oral history interviews spanning hundreds of hours of video, exhibited a dozen times all over the country and talked to thousands of people about the river.

This year, I bring the project home to California to run the historic Sacramento River, a river I am deeply familiar with after three different homemade rafting trips on the river. The Sacramento History Museum is hosting a month long exhibit about the project. When we reach Sacramento with the shantyboat we are exhibiting the boat itself.

There are a few things that worry me. Because of the very wet California winter, water levels are high and I’ve heard flow rates are intense. Additionally, the Sacramento River, unlike the other large navigable Army Corps-managed rivers we’ve traveled, is full of hazards including snags, sweepers, strainers, rocks, stump fields, and eddies.

It looks like the current discharge is very near the average, despite the wet winter. That may be because the flow is managed to a degree by at least two upstream dams. The other hazards however, are less easily dismissed.

On the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Tennessee, the banks have been fixed by the addition of riverside levees and millions of tons of revetment, large rock that prevents natural erosion at the river’s edge. This keeps the river from naturally meandering. Unconstrained, rivers tend to cut away at the outside of every bend, often cutting off the loop and forming oxbow lakes. To serve navigation and land ownership, revetment freezes a river in place transforming it into little more than a canal.

The Sacramento River is different. The upper river above Colusa has very little revetment. Levees sit a considerable distance from the river itself. That allows the river to meander and flood without affecting the largely agricultural areas outside of the levees. It means there are steep banks and natural sandy beaches. It also creates a wild corridor in which critters flourish.

However, in many places there are agricultural fields and orchards inside of the levees and the river frequently erodes the bends and pulls almond trees and collapsed banks into the river.
This can make navigation on the Sacramento River a bit terrifying. You might come around a bend and see that there are freshly downed trees in the water with the bulk of the river flowing through them. On our homemade rafts, this initiated a flurry of desperate paddling. On the shantyboat, we’ll have the new Mercury engine (that we’ve named Freddy) to hopefully power us out of any difficult scrapes.

On the Sacramento, we regularly encounter underwater trees, barely seen underwater hazards that seemed to swim right for us as we barreled downriver. We playfully termed them “river sharks.” In the shantyboat, our draft is about 10 inches (15 counting the skegs). So river sharks are a substantial danger.

We’d already talked about the possible need for a full time watch when we are under way on the upper river, a person to aid the pilot and just point out and help the pilot avoid hazards in the river.

Perhaps that will be enough. Perhaps not. But we will always keep in mind our motto: “I won’t drown.”

About A Secret History of American River People

A Secret History of American River People is a project to build a collection of personal stories of people who live and work on the river from the deck of a recreated 1940s-era shantyboat over a series of epic river voyages. The project explores the issues facing current river communities, the long history of people who have lived on and adjacent to the river, and basic river ecology.

The shantyboat is a homemade wooden-hulled barge-bottom houseboat made from mostly reclaimed materials. After several years of using an occasionally balky 1978 20hp Mercury outboard, with Mercury Marine as our official engine provider, we are running with a 2017 FourStroke EFI Mercury 30hp.

For more info about the project, visit

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