We’ve been looking forward to this trip for a few weeks. As Tom’s family were not able to get together for Easter, Jim, Tom’s cousin, suggested and then booked a Delta Eccotour. Hartland Nursery. on Grand Island, run several boat trips a year and we were booked on the Tule Wilderness tour on June 6.
Tom and I left very early – so nothing new there. We decided to go via Suisun to have breakfast at Bab’s Delta Diner. After another fabulous breakfast, we made our way through Rio Vista and over the two ferries, thus retracing our previous trip.
(Click on the images for larger versions)
After crossing the Steamboat Slough to Grand Island we tuned left and drove a couple of miles to Hartland Nursery. The tour started at 10.00 but we were asked to report in by 9.30. Tom and I arrived just before 9 so we were in good time. Hartland Nursery is mainly a wholesale retailer to landscape and restoration professionals but is open to the public on Wednesday and Saturdays. They specialize in plants native to Northern California’s Central Valley.
Tom and I had plenty of time to wander around. I discovered, in a grove of gated woodland, lots of free range chickens. Later I found out the eggs are for sale and bought a dozen fresh eggs.
The rest of the family did not arrive until just before 10. We were getting worried and beginning to think we would have to go without them. Don and Arlene, Tom’s Dad and his wife, were unable to come at the last minute due to sickness, so our party was smaller than expected.
The boat, the Tule Queen II, is a 45 seat catamaran. Today though there were only 30 people on board. Our driver and guide was Jeff Hart – known as Captain Tule. He is a naturalist and owner of the Hartland Nursery and he informed and entertained us for the four and a half hours of the tour.
We set off down Steamboat Slough and turned right on Sutter Slough. Captain Tule explained that the Delta was fresh water though there are some
who say it isn’t. It’s true that due to higher water levels there is more salt water flowing in.
The folks at Hartland Nursery are experts in growing plants native to Northern California’s Central Valley. They also specialize in an ecological approach to restoring natural wetlands and protecting levees. During the trip Captain Tule pointed out all the places we passed where they have landscaped, using various methods to stop the levees from crumbling. Many methods have been used by a variety of organizations over the years but the most successful have been by using rocks and plants. The roots of the plants attach the rocks to the levees themselves and the rocks stop the levees from being eroded by water and wave action.
On our right was Sutter Island and Ryer Island on our left. Traveling round the top of Ryer Island we entered Minor Slough and Prospect Island was on our right. An osprey was spotted almost overhead. I was hoping to see it hover and swoop but it flew steadily away from us.
Some of the land we passed looked neglected. Captain Tule called it ‘benign neglect’. There is not enough money around to maintain the levees or the land behind them. Due to subsidence, many of the islands are sinking and if the levees are breached, many acres of land will be under water. Then, of course, there is always the danger of earthquakes. The last major earthquake in the delta was before the levees were built. Now, many of them are in such sad repair, that, if an earthquake struck, it could be a catastrophe equal to Hurricane Katrina with Sacramento itself threatened.
Along Minor Slough we saw several interesting things. There was the abandoned fishing boat named ‘Merluccius’ out of Fort Bragg. It’s rusting hulk was grounded on the bank. We also spotted a green heron taking off. Captain Tule pointed out a Buckeye, with a lovely display of white flowers, on the bank.
We came to a waterway junction with the Sacramento River Deep Water Canal, which we proceeded to cross, and entered Cache Slough. Soon we turned right into Prospect Slough and entered the wilderness. On our left was Liberty Island. This was the focal point of our trip. Liberty Island was flooded when the levees were breached in 1998. Hundreds of acres of farmland were inundated and are still under water. It took nearly two hours to circumnavigate the island and it was an eerie trip. Not too many people venture this far up the delta and it is truly a wilderness. Taking a boat through the levees to explore what remains of the island would be dangerous but it would be an interesting expedition for kayakers.
There was no lunch stop as such, we opened our packed lunches and picniced on board, still taking in the breathtaking sights around us. While we were eating lunch someone pointed out a brown head bobbing in the water. Everyone got excited as Captain Tule said it could be a beaver as there were plenty of them in the area. However, when the animal reached the shore, we could see it was just a raccoon. On the bank though there were slides which were created either by beavers or otters. Shame we didn’t see either.
Captain Tule pointed out a tall mast which ospreys had built a nest on last year. As we drew closer, we could see not only the nest but a couple of osprey in the nest. Whether they were the adults or two soon-to-be fledglings, we weren’t sure but it was a real thrill to see them.
The slough took a sharp turn to the left and we entered Toe Drain – well that is what it is named on the map but Captain Tule called it the Zig Zag or Staircase. It was a series of sharp corners to the left and then to the right which led us to Shag Slough. It was also a much narrower channel. It felt as though we were a million miles away from civilization.
We traveled down Shag Slough with Liberty Island to our left and an unnamed island to our right. There were several groups of fishermen on the banks of Liberty Island. We waved merrily to each other but I wandered how they got there as I could see no boats. Ahead though I could see a bridge and Captain Tule explained that the bridge is still open but only to fishermen. The bridge, which can be accessed from Interstate 80 to the north, has an interesting story attached to it.
Some of you will remember Humphrey the Humpback Whale and his voyage under the Golden Gate Bridge and up the Sacramento River, past Rio Vista and finally into Shag Slough in 1985. He made it under this very same bridge but couldn’t find his way back again. For weeks his exploits were closely followed in the Bay Area on the TV news. The truly amazing thing about the whole venture is that whales are not adapted to survive in a freshwater environment. Humphrey was guided back under the bridge and eventually to the Pacific Ocean by numerous fish and wildlife agencies and the Army’s 481st Transportation Company. In fact when Tom first saw the bridge in the distance he said it looked like the bridge Humphrey got trapped behind and how right he was.
Approaching Cache Slough again, Captain Tule pointed out French Island to our right. There are no roads on the island at all but several very nice houses. The only access is by boat from the Rio Vista side.
For most of our journey up to this point we had been traveling at a steady 7 – 8 mph but with our time running out, Captain Tule opened the throttle and we skimmed over the water at speeds approaching 20 mph. It felt as though we were going at 100 mph. We were driving into the wind, so had to hold on tight when we stood up.
We flew to the junction with the Sacramento Deep River Canal and turned right towards Rio Vista. The piers of the bridge could be seen in the foreground with Mount Diablo dominating the background. A turn left into Steamboat Slough, just after passing the ‘Real McCoy’ ferry and we were nearly back to our starting point. A speed boat pulling a large tire with a couple of laughing children gambolled nearby. Soon after passing the second ferry we crossed on this morning, we were pulling into the dock at Hartland Nursery.
It was a truly exciting day and our thanks and appreciation go out to everybody at Hartland Nursery for making it such a memorable experience.
June 23 2009 06:40 am | Special Places