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Cruising down a river


There is something liberating about the wide open vistas of a great river, something that encourages a person to break through the normal restraints of civilized society and expand outward — sometimes in ambitious directions, but as often as not along eccentric lines in isolated regions.

I witnessed this even before I got out on the river myself, back when I was taking long bike rides along the Sacramento River. On one of these trips I encountered Jim Clove. When I met him, Jim was in his early 60s, with the slender, wiry build of a man who'd been active all his life. He had been around boats from his earliest years, had grown up on Santa Catalina Island off the Southern California coast, had built yachts as a young man and sailed charter ships down to Mexico.

So his life on the Sacramento River was an extension of all that, but he had taken it to new heights: He had built himself a replica of a 16th century Spanish galleon, with full rigging and sails, and had assembled a crew that consisted of six dogs, two goats, a rabbit, about 60 pigeons, and a sparrow hawk with a broken wing that Jim was nursing back to health.

There was a hint of sadness about him, due I think to the recent departure of a woman companion. Perhaps that was why he'd taken on all those animals, but I'd like to think that the river also had something to do with it, that it had given an already generous spirit room to grow.

I did not really begin to understand a river's subtle influences until I got out on the Sacramento for the first time in a small kayak. A great river is a world unto itself, and to be part of that world you have to approach it in a bare, stripped-down way, preferably in a canoe or kayak, camping every night on its sandbars, immersing yourself in its languid rhythms, its muted colors, the constant traffic of waterfowl, otters and other inhabitants of a long, meandering village of interdependent creatures.

The river is constantly telling you, soothingly but persuasively, that this is a new world, nothing like the one you've come from, something much more basic — "a rebirth backward in time and into primeval liberty," as Edward Abbey described his own experience boating down the Colorado.

My second extended journey on the river, a 136-mile kayak trip from Chico to Sacramento last October, was longer and slower than the first. This time the river really began to take hold of me, my inner vistas expanding to match those around me. I fantasized about exploring exotic rivers for National Geographic, or at least writing an adventure column for the local paper. I discovered that a big, wide river is like a nurturing parent: comforting with its gentle flows and softly colored scenery, but inspiring and challenging in its quiet power.

It can be a seductive place, one that's hard to leave: On this last trip I found Jim Clove again, living in a quiet slough just off the river's main stem, 20 miles upstream from where I had last seen him 18 years ago. Beavers gnawing on the hull had sunk his galleon after he'd sailed it to this spot, so he moved into a battered trailer high up on the slough's banks, living with his dogs and a few chickens. During the winter flooding, he and his animals have to flee from the trailer to several small boats moored nearby.

Jim's nearly 80 now, but still slender and fit and his old spirited, feisty self, at first barking his annoyance when I call him out of the trailer but quick to express his pleasure when he recognizes me. It's plain to see that life on the river has been good to him, a resourceful, independent life with a steady diet of catfish.

My encounter with Jim occurs near the end of the journey. That night there is one more campfire. Already mental images from the trip are crowding each other in a kind of riparian collage: soaring ospreys and hawks, flying squadrons of geese, cormorants gracefully skimming over the water.

But two images stand out in bold clarity: one lone bald eagle in its nest high above the river, and Jim Clove standing on the bank of the slough. Both of them rare, both of them gloriously untamed.

Tim Holt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Dunsmuir, California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].