By Johnny Hubris | Contributed
New to Fresno this past spring, I was eager to check out the lay of the countryside, and drove north on Highway 41 past Herndon, Nees and Friant.
Rolling downhill, I crossed a long bridge – a newer one – running parallel to an old bridge it had replaced, now a dead end. Midway across, I caught a flash of sun on water below and spotted folks paddling kayaks. Taking the next exit, Rio Mesa, I looped back south, finding myself riding across that old castoff bridge and found a way to get to waters I could hear below. Parking on the wide shoulder, I skittered and stumbled down a steep rough-hewn path to a new world, the San Joaquin River.
This land was claimed several hundred years ago by the Spanish, more than 8,000 years after Native Americans had already made it their home. Then the Americans took this whole state and much more from Mexico in 1848. This river has seen it all.
At 350 miles long, it originates in a small lake deep in the heart of the High Sierras, gets corralled downhill at Millerton Lake whence it flows past Fresno. It eventually curves north up the Central Valley – with a long bone-dry stretch in summer months when irrigation projects siphon off the last drop of water for agriculture. Somewhere below Stockton, the river comes into its own again, flowing unimpeded to the blue Pacific.
Our lush area of the river enfolds a patchwork of lakes and marshes – large and small – virtually all of them man-made over many years, built for irrigation and farming and fishing too. The lakes flow one into the other and meander in and out of the river’s current as well.
Levees keep these wetlands going year-round, supporting wildlife of all hue. Here waterbirds rule. On my first visit, I spied a pair of Great Blue Herons who subsequently flapped themselves airborne with a grumbling squawk, mournfully heading away. A flotilla of Coots paddled by, lovable ducks, white billed clowns. Several solitary Great Egrets, long-necked hunters of fish and white as snow, were unmoved and held their ground as I pretended not to notice. A variety of songbirds and raptors took turns chasing each other in soaring circles, serious conversationalists. Behold private lives and dreams of birds.
Long and short trails can take you down either side of the river. The gravel road on the north side between river and bluff is wide enough to be driven. It winds a mile and a half before it dead-ends in water too deep to breach – then inexplicably continues northward 20 feet away on the far side.
Somewhere else along that gravel pathway, straddling two telephone poles. You might see remains of a huge basket, an osprey nest seven or eight feet in diameter, woven of countless sticks and branches. Ospreys, larger than any hawk, prefer fish over mammal flesh. Two fledglings were peering out from the nest and I whistled a simple tune. They did not whistle back but looked at me hungrily, intently, with that old raptor stare, as the parents swooped low with a message for me. They have since earned their wings and flown the coop with mom and pop and the nest slowly unravels.
On the north bank of the river I came upon Terry, a lank man of grizzled cheeks and the strong hands of a workman, sitting under the shade of a big sycamore tree while his dog swam the waters. A long rope swing hung down from high in the tree, but there were no takers for soaring that day.
Terry’s home is up on the bluff and he walks down often with his water dog. Advanced retinal detachment prevents his driving and it is unclear whether he will lose all his eyesight. Neither angry nor sad, he is a sanguine man at peace, it appears. A Coast Guard veteran, he did his year in Vietnam in the ‘60s piloting patrol boats carrying small squads of Marines up waterways, picking them up hours or days later, usually under heavy enemy fire. Now, with only one bullet to dodge, he takes life day by day, with grace and good cheer.
Heading west, now on the south side of the San Joaquin, the trail eventually angles uphill, away from the rive, past a big two story home, solitary and closed up. But for one drape drawn back, revealing only shadows. Here the dusty trail segues into gravel road. Down 100 yards further by another lake and virtually out of sight, a young man lounges with his fishing rod beneath low leafy trees on waters edge, invisible to all the world but me.
I do not disturb him and wonder who can own the land.
I keep walking.