Delta Doo Dah
Latitude 38

Delta Debut, circa 1985

"It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day." - Bobbie Gentry, Ode to Billie Joe

Well, it was June 8-11, 1985, but the rest applies. Hot, windy, friendly and homey also apply. If you’ve never been to the Delta, you are missing one of the truly unique experiences in boating anywhere.

I was one of the less fortunate until last month. It’s funny how you can live in one place for so long and never realize the adventure that lies right in your backyard; sort of like living in Anaheim and never going to Disneyland, I guess. Well, I had heard so many stories about the Delta from friends and acquaintances that I knew I had to go soon or risk falling from their graces. So I got the books and the maps and the recommendations and sat down to plan out a four-day trip.

This is not as easy as it sounds. We’re talking 1,000 miles of waterways here. There are 47 sloughs, five rivers and who knows how many cuts and canals in this 45 by 50-mile chunk of real estate to the north and east of San Francisco Bay. And every one of them offers its own blend of anchorages, restaurants and scenery. I finally decided to pick three definite goals using the following criteria. Sacramento was one of the first songs I ever learned on the guitar, so I wanted to see the “banks of the Sacramento”; I’m half Italian, so I had to eat at least one meal at Al the Wop’s; and I wanted to spend one night at the Meadows just because it sounded like a neat place. Letting my fingers do the cruising through Hal Schell’s book and map, I was happy to discover that, at first glance, the trip could be choreographed around these constants pretty easily. I’d just play the rest by ear. The resulting 60-miler (from the Carquinez Bridge in) is one of the most enjoyable trips I’ve ever taken on a boat, and one I highly recommend to virgin Deltoids like myself or seasoned river rats who have from four days to (preferably) a week or more.

Delta Map

Preparation commenced like most trips, although I packed more shorts and T-shirts than polypro and foulies. (Don’t leave those home, though: you’ll need them for the trip back). I’d be singlehanding my Bristol 29 Rosebud for the duration, so I went fairly light on the munchies, intending to pare down the spare tire a tad. Absolute necessities, and this is the voice of experience talking now, for a Delta trip are: a good sunblock and/or suntan lotion; sunglasses and the strap thingie that holds them on when you bend over; a sun awning; an air horn to let the bridge operators know you’re coming; bug repellent, a good set of charts, Hal’s $1.75 map and lots of fresh water. Optionals are a windscoop, dinghy, mosquito screens, and some of those light air drifters or reachers that are gathering dust in your garage. If you really want to blend in with the natives, tow up a blown, supercharged metalflake dragboat to tool around the tules in the afternoon.

As with any Bay Area trip, it’s nice to plan your trip to coincide with the tide. I jumped on the flood going by Richmond just before noon on Saturday and enjoyed a wonderful beam to broad reach across vast and all but empty San Pablo Bay. Once you pass under the Carquinez Bridge, a state of mind and body called Delta Mode takes over. Off come pile jackets and out go the sails. The wind takes on a decidedly more benevolent nature and begins to warm up. By the time you pass Middle Ground it feels like you’ve come home, gone back and sidewheeled right into the middle of a Mark Twain novel. A cruise to the Delta is not one of Lorans, stormsails and man against nature. It is one of meandering, sunbathing and enjoying the people, places and sights along the way.

I couldn’t help feeling a little intimidated, though. I was approaching my first stopping point, you see, and that meant anchoring the boat in a way I never tried before. All my sailing experience was on salt water where you set one or two anchors with good scope and try to sleep while worrying that they might drag. In the Delta, though, as often as not you can secure one end of the boat to a tree on shore. I’d seen the pictures, I’d heard the recommendations, I thought that I could do it; it just seemed somehow, you know, unnatural.

"A river without islands is like a woman without hair. She may be good and pure, but one doesn’t fall in love with her very often." - Mark Twain

Mayberry Cut is a really two parallel north-south slices out of Donlan Island, one of scores of small islands that dot the Delta region. Located just east of where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers converge, Mayberry Cut is perhaps a half mile long and 30 yards wide, and I never saw the current run any way but south the whole time I was there. The drill, I’d been told, was to drop a stern hook about mid-cut, then nose into the bushes on the west side (of the west cut) and loop a bowline around one of the many trees or bushes there. Okay, sounded easy enough. I chose my tree, dropped the anchor opposite it and swung the boat toward shore, whereupon I knew I was in trouble. The current was stronger than I anticipated and was going to do with the boat what it pleased.

Rosebud made her contact with the bushes slightly down from the branches I’d been aiming for, and with decidedly less finesse than I’d planned. There were lots of snaps, crackles and pops and twigs flew everywhere as I dived into the fray with my bowline and looped it around a stout looking branch before the boat bounced back into the waterway. I pulled my head out of the bushes to discover mangled greenery all over the foredeck, and about a million little spiders scattering every which way over the deck, jib, windlass and pulpit. Although I appreciate the entertainment other boaters provide outside the picture windows of any large waterfront restaurant or yacht club as much as the next guy, I was glad no one had seen this particular show. Unfortunately, it was not over.

The next morning the spiders had set up housekeeping in almost every nook and cranny on the boat and I now had about a zillion gossamer telltales sparkling from the shrouds. At least the flying beasties that attacked at dusk were gone. Was about to scare up some breakfast when I heard a crunch, crack, POW! and bolted out the companionway see a good size hunk of the tree I had tied to come slithering out of the underbrush and into the water. There wasn’t much I could do in the few seconds it took the boat to complete its down-current swing, and since it hung there pretty comfortably the tree branch was an excellent drogue - I just went on with breakfast and watched the Sunday morning skiers zing by on either side.

The Delta is many different things to the many different people who frequent its waters and banks. Fishermen pull up striper, catfish and sturgeon from its murky water, and they say you can catch crayfish with a simple trap and perforated can of cat food for bait. Swimmers and sunbathers abound, too, on sandy public beaches or on some isolated tule berm. Dogs like retrieving sticks from the local slough while some of their owners dig for clams at low water. Kids play hooky from school by swinging from ropes above the local swimming hole. Water skiers, sailors, houseboaters, Jet skiers, boardsailors and powerboaters ply the waterways next to ferries, barges and deep laden freighters headed up the deepwater channel for Stockton or Sacramento. Life along the river is a never ending panorama of activity.

"There’s plenty of gold, so I’ve been told, on the banks of the Sacramento." - Sacramento

In fact, it’s been a major panorama ever since gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill, up where the Sacramento and American Rivers come together. You don’t get many panoramas of activity like the Gold Rush anymore. Drawing on the rich texture of that era was Bret Harte, who became the sort of father of romantic western books and movies. In later years, Mark Twain, Jack London and Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason, also lived and wrote in the area. The Delta also became one of early Hollywood’s most extensive backlots, forming the backdrop for such movies as All the King’s Men, God’s Little Acre, Cool Hand Luke and Bound for Glory. One of the best remembered among the old timers, though, had to be Steamboat ‘Round the Bend. In that 1932 production, five of the Delta’s best steamboats churned the Sacramento muddy in one of the greatest races ever filmed.

My first civilized port of call was Rio Vista, which is about 25 miles up the Sacramento River from the Carquinez Bridge, and a little more than that below Suffer’s Mill. I wasn’t there for gold; I needed ice, a shower and lunch, not necessarily in that order. The Delta Marine Yacht Harbor in Rio Vista is one of the largest, best protected and modern marinas on the Delta. Facilities include a gas dock, showers, marine hardware store, transient docks; even a “dog head” a small patch of astroturf surrounded by fencing. The Point Restaurant there came highly recommended.

So did Foster’s Bighorn, and I chose to walk the short distance into town to chow down at this local landmark. The food, though good, is not the big attraction at the Bighorn: The place itself is the attraction. Located on Main Street just down from the River, Foster’s is the home of one of the largest and most diverse wild game trophies this side of Nairobi. The story goes that Bill Foster apprenticed under foundryman Henry Snow, who also happened to be the first big game hunter to bring movies of African wildlife to the U.S. in 1918. Snow’s example so inspired young Foster that he shipped out as cabin boy in 1919 to see the Dark Continent for himself. When he came home, he started saving his pennies for the return trip. The first of many big game safaris to all parts of the world came in 1928, and Foster’s collection of trophies began.

Foster established the Bighorn in 1931 as a place where the public could view the animals of the world. Although the premise might draw some ire from naturalists nowadays, there is no denying the uniqueness of the place. Diners and drinkers are stared down at by the lifelike eyes and often sinister expressions of more than 300 wild animals, birds and fish from every part of the globe, including jaguars, rhinoceros, wolverine and bear. A world record moose head (antler spread, 76 inches) is in the collection, as is one of the few mounted giraffe heads (and neck) and the “largest mounted mammal trophy in any collection in existence”: a full grown African elephant that extends 13 feet out from the wall. Each tusk weighs 110 pounds. Bill Foster died in 1963 and the Bighorn is now owned by Tony and Dorothi Brown and son, who have done a superb job of preserving the flavor, both in the food and the atmosphere of this unique eatery.

From Rio Vista, with jib and main winged out on a hot afternoon breeze, I continued north and east on the Sacramento, planning to cut over the Cross Delta Channel at Walnut Grove to the North Fork of the Mokelumne and proceed to the Meadows for the night. Okay, I can hear you river rats out there chuckling to yourselves. Salt water sailor that I am, I never dealt with bridges enough to know that some are too low for sailboats. The vast majority of the bridges on the Delta do open, but not the two on the Cross Delta Channel, so the Meadows was out until next time. I have since read, and it’s good advice, that you should mark low, non-opening bridges on your charts in red before you leave.

Several other options were open, the most favorable of which seemed to be proceed a few miles north to the anchorage at Steamboat Slough or spend the night at the Boathouse at Locke. Not having any particular aversions to docking for the night, I chose the latter. An imposing structure from any angle, the Boathouse was built in 1906 as a fruit packing house for the Southern Pacific Railroad, which ran outside its landward entrance until 1950. Today, the belly of the beast houses several shops, including a dinghy-maker and a little store where you can get ice, beer and so on (there are lots of these all over the Delta); and lots of trailered speedboats. Old farm tractors arrange the trailered boats in neat rows and an aircraft carrier-like elevator gets them the 50 or so feet to the water and back. It’s quite an operation. At river level is a good sized dock where you can gas up at one end and pay $.25 per foot to stay overnight at the other.

With the combination of wind and current running by Locke, I was able to arrange my spring lines so that the boat never touched the dock all night. I also noticed an almost complete absence of bugs, a condition I attributed to the legions of swallows attending their mud nests under the structure. The droppings on the boat the next morning were small price to pay for an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

"When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography I take a warm, personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before - I met him on the river." - Mark Twain

The bleached bones of Locke are just a few steps from the boathouse, and after I spent the morning planning the next steps of the trip, I walked over for lunch at Al’s Place. Locke has been known as “Chinese Town” since its inception in the early part of the century. When the Chinese section of Walnut Grove, a mile or two down the road, burned down in 1915, the people moved upriver to start a new settlement on nine acres of former pear orchard owned by George Locke. In its heyday, Locke was home to a dozen odd stores, gambling houses, a whorehouse or two, even an opium den and a profligate (but some say undeserved) reputation.

In 1930, former bootlegger Albert Adami came up from Hyde, bought a building mid-Main Street in Locke and called it “Al’s Place”. Before long and ever since, however, it’s been known as “Al the Wop’s”. There are no menus at Al’s. Then and now, the only meal served is steak, thick and juicy. The lunch version, called steak sandwich, consists of a plate of sizzling New York and a plate of cheese toast. Locals gob peanut butter and/or marmalade on the latter. Go there hungry.

Men in business suits bump elbows with truckers and farmers at the bar. A Western theme mural covers the back wall. They say Al used to have a small office behind it where he could go and relax. When someone came in and yelled for him to come down, he could look through a peephole - located under one of the horses’ tails - to see if he wanted to make an appearance or not. Overhead, the ceiling is papered with hundreds of $1 bills. It’ll cost you one more to find out how they get up there.

"I can hear the bullfrog calling me home; Wondering if my rope’s still hanging to the tree". - John Fogerty, Green River

One thing you should not be on the Delta is in a hurry, especially on a slough as sleepy and gentle as Georgiana. This next leg of my Delta initiation cruise began as Rosebud entered Georgiana Slough right below Walnut Grove, and passed by the swinging bridge. With just a headsail up, the warm wind and current carried the boat along at an ideal pace. This was Monday, and I only saw four or five other boats on the whole 11-mile passage down this narrow slough. But there was plenty else to enjoy: the scenery, the wind in the trees, the kids at the local swimming hole, the fishermen trying their luck around the remains of an old pier. Everybody waves to you on the Delta, be they boaters, bridge tenders, picnickers, farmers or drivers traveling the roads atop the levies. It’s great.

My last stop was Potato Slough. In season, this is one of the more popular stopovers for sailors on the Delta. Now, on a weekday early in the season, there were people on only one of the four boats there. I could see them watching to see how I was going to do on my anchoring this time.

Compared with Mayberry Cut, Potato wasn’t bad at all. There was little current to contend with and a quick look at the other boats secured bow to the trees revealed the easiest way to do the job. I donned an old, dilapidated pair of tennis shoes, dropped the anchor over the stern and motored toward shore. A few yards out, I threw the engine into neutral and let the boat thunk into the mud. Then it was simply go forward, climb through the bow pulpit, walk (well, slog) over and attach the bowline to a tree trunk - a good size tree trunk this time. Then I climbed back through the pulpit, left my muddy shoes on the foredeck and went back and winched the boat out to a comfortable position with the stern rode. It worked like a charm. Wish I’d had more of an audience that time.

Once secure, I swam over to the occupied boat to say hi. All over the Delta, the cool water is a wonderful respite from the heat of the day. Bob and Kathy Camarena on Tule Frog were up from Stockton for the week, and we exchanged pleasantries and a beer or two. When sunset came, we headed over for a dinner at Moore’s Steamboat, another well-known Delta eatery located on the Mokelumne around the corner from Potato.

The Steamboat’s claim to fame is just that: it is the last survivor of 250 similar vessels that used to ply the rivers loaded with hay, potatoes or whatever. In her day, the Sutter was a brute of a diesel river freighter, with 3-inch thick decks and a pair of Atlas direct-reversing diesels to turn the sternwheel. Against most advice, “Captain” John Moore bought the retired Sutter and moved her to her present position in 1961. He did most of the conversion and preservation work himself and the result is a unique restaurant accessible from either the land or water. Guest docks can accommodate a dozen or more small boats. A full menu is offered, but if you want a little of the true flavor of the area, order the crayfish, the little fresh-water lobster caught locally.

Moore’s went through a minor crisis last year when new owners took over. They made the mistake of removing the collection of women’s panties that hung from the rafters. The regulars protested vehemently. In compromise, the new owners re-hung the choicest examples over the bar section. The rest of the place is decorated with pennants from local clubs.

"Whoever tasted of the lotus plant wished not to see his native country more, but to remain in this land forever." - Homer, The Odyssey

The next morning, I said goodbye to Bob and Kathy, who had rafted onto Rosebud for the night, and headed back west via Washington Cut, False River and the San Joaquin. The drive home from any vacation is not fun, but as I’m sure everyone has heard, the way out of the Delta is particularly bad. Every word of it is true. The closer I got to San Pablo Bay, the harder and colder the wind blew and the more clothes I put on. Even the spiders headed for cover. By the Carquinez Bridge, the wind was about 20 right on the nose, the first salt spray hit and Delta mode dissolved pretty quickly.

But some really pleasant memories linger. The Delta grows on you quickly. My next trip is already planned. Now that school is out and summer’s in, the place will definitely be more crowded, but that’s half the fun and besides, there’s plenty of Delta to go around. The best part is, it’s right in our own backyard.

- latitude 38 / jr / July, 1985


This story was reprinted from the July, 1985, issue of Latitude 38. We actually have at least one copy available, lightly used and a bit brown around the edges. To order it (complete with photos in living black & white), use the subscription order form, and specify the 7/85 issue, or just drop us a note with a check for $7 to Latitude 38, Attn: Christine Weaver, 15 Locust Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941.


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Stockton, CA

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