By Andrew Fulks
It’s summer, 2012.
The slap, slap, slap of Cache Creek drums on the bottom of my boat as I paddle down the North Fork. Bobbing, weaving, head down. Branches have grown since last summer. The North Fork is the first couple miles of the Wilderness run and the vegetation makes for more difficult obstacles than further down on the main stem of the creek. Flows are high this year, despite the drought. It’s an artifact of human water management.
With less water in Clear Lake this year after a meager Winter, Indian Valley reservoir is releasing more to make up the difference for the thirsty farms in Yolo County. I have to thank the farms for this experience. If people hadn’t changed the water regime, this creek would be mostly dry in the summer. Makes me reflect on what it means for things to be truly ‘wild’. But, that thought is cut short by my scanning an Arundo on the shoreline.
A quick turn, paddle in deep, pulling off on the left bank. Arundo: also known as Giant Reed, False Bamboo, cutter of hands and eroder of streambanks. Another human artifact. Planted as an ornamental and for erosion control, escaped to the ‘wild’, and invades ecosystems. Our hubris about ‘fixing’ nature has broken it. Ironically, I’m here doing the same thing. Tuleyome’s been battling this weed within the Cache Creek wilderness for the last 7 years, and have the infestation down to less than a handful of plants. This one escaped my detection until now. A quick herbicide spray, and we’re back on the river. Where there used to be almost 100 of these giant weeds here in the wilderness, we’ve reduced to a handful. Soon there will be none. The system is broken, though, and hidden upstream sources will continue to fertilize our shores with little plants. We’re in this for the long haul.
The native willows and cottonwoods sway in the slight breeze. Rushes and sedges line the banks, forming a ribbon of green contrasting the bright yellow of my kayak. There’s a rumble up ahead, warning of a rapid. I’ve run this so many times in the last dozen years, my reaction is automatic. Back paddle, pick my line, hit it straight, dig hard, and avoid the tree branch. A Great Blue Heron unfolds his wings and heads downstream. He’ll be our travelling companion for the rest of the trip, always staying ahead of the interlopers. Turtles on streamside rocks give us a sideways glance. Some are stacked on each other. King of the mountain gets the sunlight. Some slip into the water as we get closer. They’ll emerge downstream on the next rock that is to their liking.
We pull off at Trout Creek. Even though it’s summer, there’s a steady flow coming out of the side canyon. We know the spring-fed creek will be flowing late into the summer.
We also know what’s up the canyon. Scrambling up the rocks and ducking under the willows, we pick our way toward the sound of falling water. I’ve been here before, and many times. A large stream of water shoots off a rock ledge, falling vertically into a perfectly round pool. Behind the pool is a grotto. Water droplets drip from rocks onto ferns. This oasis is largely unknown, save for a few boaters that follow the bear path up the canyon. No roads, no trails. Wild.
Back on the water, the breeze picks up. We’re floating downstream, but getting pushed backwards. Time for the arms to start working again. The drumming of the water gets an accompaniment with the swoosh of paddle strokes. The rhythm is broken by the crunch of branches. Mother bear and her cub run up the hillside, their bronze fur rippling with each stride. The exhilaration of seeing such a creature is replaced by the analytical mind. Bear, check. Turtles, River otter, Bald eagle, Osprey, Green heron, Blue heron, garter snake, deer…all, check.
Later, as we drag the boats up to the car, I reflect on the human infrastructure that was required to allow me to enjoy this wilderness. Cars, gas, rubbers, plastics, and a sinuous serpentine asphalt ribbon. It’s paradoxical, and uniquely human. The artificial gets me closer to the natural. It’s a paradox, but also a balance. Preserving wild areas provides that balance.
Andrew Fulks is the president of Tuleyome, a regional conservation nonprofit, and is presently the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve Manager for UC Davis, managing 6 miles of stream and several hundred acres. His interest is in open space preservation and public access.
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