Sonoma by Water
Sonoma Waterways (From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA)
From Kenwood to Wingo in a very small boat
I am resting under a canopy of oak and bay laurel in a lawn chair, the afternoon sun filtering through the overstory in thin shafts of brilliant light, a slow squadron of oak leaves pin-wheeling down to land near my feet in the flowing creek where I sit buried to my ankles in cool water.
I am still young to California, still absorbed in Valley of the Moon mystique, living a dream that has pursued me across the continent. I am sitting here now trying to absorb, understand and define it, a little drunk with the impact of all that I'm feeling, the sound and light show massaging my senses, the music of the water, the play of the sun, the dance of the leaves.
I am also sitting here in predatory anticipation, having earlier spotted from high on the bank the large torpedo shapes moving almost arrogantly upstream. I assume they are some form of salmon but I haven't yet learned what a steelhead is or how precarious a hold it has on survival. And I don't have a clue that it is now illegal, in this narrow, shaded, swift and gorgeous creek, forming the backyard boundary of my recently acquired Glen Ellen home, to even think about catching one.
I'd love to do that, but I'm just grateful they're here, which is why I have placed my lawn chair in the middle of their run, hoping for a kind of contact I couldn't explain if anyone asked. All I know is that I'd consider it a sign of divine grace if one of them parked in the eddy behind my foot, or flashed a tail against my ankle while pushing against the current toward Kenwood.
I am not an accomplished angler, although I have fished a fair bit here and there, even spent a summer catching my supper from the pond on a family farm.
Still, I couldn't begin to explain the metaphysical meaning those fish represent, or the atavistic impulse that lures me into their water, a connection, perhaps, to my own subconscious self. Freud could explain it, or Jung. But explanations might deflate the experience. What I know is this: Those big, confident, fish I have seen only in magazines, on supermarket shelves or dinner plates, are living in my stream. It is hopelessly exotic. I thought this only happened in Alaska. I'm an hour from San Francisco and there are salmon in my backyard.
It thrills me when I later learn that a scientific fish count conducted in precisely the section of stream flowing past my house turned up 10 steelhead trout.
Later, and farther up the canyon that borders Warm Springs Road, I am sitting on the edge of Kenwood in a plastic whitewater kayak pondering the wisdom of what I am about to do. The flood has subsided, the water level of Sonoma Creek is now what paddlers would call runnable, and I have scouted the blind corners as well as I can on foot.
Still, there are deadfall downstream, some I know about, some I don't, logs that choke the current, tangles of brush, at least one wire fence that spans the creek at head level. And there's the redwood somewhere below the bridge at Dawn Hill road that has toppled from one bank to the other on the apex of a turn, leaving a triangular passage, that may or may not be high enough to slip beneath, up against the left bank, which is embroidered with a dense blackberry thicket.
The good news is that two deadly logjams have been flushed away by the flood and the rocky run is now a juicy, rollicking class III-IV sluice that scoots past Morton's Warm Springs resort like a Disneyland ride.
Sitting there I feel the familiar butterflies of a first descent. I would be surprised if this section of creek has not been run before by a hard-shell, enclosed kayak. It just hasn't been run by me, which makes it a first, which makes me nervous.
Risk is a relative thing and has to be weighed in the context of skill, experience and judgment. I think I have enough of all three to balance the risk, but for the fact that I'm doing this alone. Some years later two Kenwood boys, innocently ignorant of the risk, will drown while trying to raft this same section at high water.
I would prefer a paddling partner, but no one is available and water levels like this come and go in a day. I've waited a long time for the chance to follow my creek to my house and I can't squander the rare opportunity.
I shove off.
The wire fence forces me to duck but I have inches to spare and as I drop into the canyon I'm glad I took the chance. What had been large rocks are now large waves. There are chutes and drops and tight turns that transform the streambed into a slalom course and my anxiety evaporates. A redwood grove bordering both banks bathes the stream in cathedral light. I discover I'm floating through a fairyland.
A half-mile from home I encounter the fallen redwood and I back-paddle frantically at the edge of a micro-eddy. The banks are too steep here to climb out; at water level it's clear the gap beneath the tree trunk is too low to squeeze under, and the current is pushing straight for the blackberry tangle at the apex of the turn. What to do?
It doesn't feel like life or death but it doesn't feel like mother is at home either, and I don't really have any options. I rehearse a move in my mind, take two quick strokes and, as my nose starts to slide under the tree I lift my left hip, roll to the right so the bottom of the boat grazes the blackberries as I slide under the obstacle upside-down. On the other side I roll up in time to turn the boat down a rocky drop and I'm my way. Five minutes later I'm home.
Sonoma Creek drains a watershed of about 170 square miles, collecting itself on the 2,700-foot slopes of Bald Mountain inside Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. The Mayacamas range is its mother, but sister streams on the opposite side of the valley feed into the flow from the sides of Sonoma Mountain.
From Kenwood it winds down-valley, gathering volume and force from several tributaries and carving a riparian corridor through vineyards and subdivisions, bisecting the 1,600-acre Sonoma Developmental Center and running a southerly course, roughly parallel to Highway 12, on its way past Sonoma to the vast Napa-Sonoma marshes, a ghost town called Wingo and eventual marriage with San Pablo Bay.
It is the vascular system of the whole valley and if you consult a medical textbook you will note how remarkably alike the creek looks to an upside-down femoral artery. And like an artery, the watershed of Sonoma Creek sustains the life of the valley, helping to nourish 14,000 acres of vineyard, close to 40,000 people and a wildlife corridor home to beaver (some of whom have exhibited a preference for merlot grapevines), otter, deer, raccoons, opossums, coyote, ducks, wild turkeys, heron, egrets, hawks, the occasional mountain lion and bobcat, a tenuous but tenacious population of steelhead and (maybe) some even-rarer Chinook salmon.
Given all that, it is something of a wonder that, save for bridge crossings and private backyards, the creek remains largely unseen and invisible to visitors and even to most of the residents of the Valley of the Moon.
Only at a few randomly public places-the Arnold Drive bridge in Glen Ellen, bridges at the Developmental Center, Madrone Drive, Verano Avenue, or streamside access points at Larson Park and Maxwell Farms-does the public encounter, and sometimes develop a peripheral relationship with, that femoral artery.
Outside the community of environmental professionals it is only during floods that public attention is fully focused on the creek. And because of vineyard development and the shrinking width of the riparian zone, the watershed can't hold back as much water, so the creek floods more frequently while cutting ever deeper into its bed. During extreme events, the summertime volume, as little as 1 cubic foot per second, has exploded into a raging river carrying more than 8,000 times that flow.
Rounding a corner on a sunny afternoon, riding the backside of one of those floods somewhere south of Madrone Road, I find myself staring at the creek in front of me in disbelief. It has vanished. I am looking at a massive wall of green, as if someone had erected a leafy dam. For as much as a minute, while I slam my boat into a very timely eddy, I cannot grasp what I'm seeing. Then it dawns on me. An enormous oak, more than 100 feet tall, has fallen completely across the creek, which simply disappears into its branches and leaves.
I make my way to the right bank and manage to crawl out of my boat and tow it through the top of the tree before finishing a trip to Schellville.
On a completely different day, with the vast majority of the creek to my back, I find myself on a flatwater reach mere minutes by road from both Infineon Raceway at Sears Point and the Schellville Airport, but at least a century back in time.
I'm angling under a railroad bridge that once carried Northwestern Pacific trains to Sonoma and Napa (and reportedly will again) and still spans Sonoma Creek about a hundred yards north of Wingo. According to a painted notice on the underside of the bascule-style bridge's massive counterweight, it was last opened in 2007. Given that the tracks are currently bolted together it would take some serious intention to raise it, but with the tracks free to disengage, the seesaw mechanism can reportedly be operated by one person hauling a multi-geared chain.
The bridge is interesting, but it's Wingo I want, a name etched into Sonoma history, subject of myth and mirth and frequent fruitless searches by those without maps, local connections or the right boat.
And there it is, as I coast under the bridge on an ebbing tide, a dilapidated collection of odd buildings, rotting boardwalks, a small dock, one outboard boat in the water and countless remnants scattered among the tules on the bank. It looks deserted, but isn't.
The town is announced with a painted sign that someone must take the trouble to touch up every decade or so because it hasn't faded away, and later I meet a resident named Jim who leases at least one of the houses and isn't terribly interested in talking about a life he would clearly like to live beyond social scrutiny. He says the fishing and hunting are good, which is about all he does.
Wingo would make a great movie set, and at least one music video has been shot here. But seeing it is somewhat less exciting than looking for it.
And for now, Wingo is about as far as I have any interest in traveling on Sonoma Creek, although I know if I were properly motivated, or utterly insane, I could keep paddling all the way to Sausalito, on one side of the Golden Gate, or clear across San Francisco Bay to Aquatic Park at the foot of Ghirardelli Square. There is a certain novelty to that-nonstop from Sonoma to San Francisco by kayak-but knowing that it's possible is satisfaction enough.
As the golden light of evening begins to fade over Wingo and the water of Sonoma Creek turns the color of oil, I am filled with something approaching mild rapture. This water world extends, through all kinds of changing scenery and context and time, to a few hundred feet from my back door.
How incredibly cool is that?
From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA