Mike Wolfe "The River Queen Refit"
Trip To The Meadows:
The Meadows I’ve heard is one of the few Mecca’s of the houseboating world in River Delta country. Seems like anyone who’s been around these winding sloughs long enough has made the pilgrimage at one time or another and has a good story all about it . My earliest accounts of it come from the books of "Earl Stanley Gardner" who wrote TV mysteries in the 1950’s and 1960’s. On working vacations to the Delta he wrote three different delta books over the years, about traveling around in his beloved "River Queens" (Yes, he had more than one.) He wrote about where he went, what he did, and who he saw… (Writing about a River Queen boat in the Delta? Who would do that?)
The draw, I’m told, to this particular location is the rare fact that there are large old trees that run along the shoreline and hang out over the water. Making it possible to bow-in nice and cozy under the canopy. Providing shade most all day while nosed in to a rural park-like setting. Calm waters and hiking trails. Fragrant floral and fauna. Sounds like a good destination to me, but seems kind of far to go…
Now that our boat is able to make way… One newly rebuilt engine installed, tried and true (20 hours or so)… I made a vow to my family that this was the year we’d actually get to use the darn boat and not just work on it all the time. Well I’ve made good on my promise for the most part. We’ve been making small junkets here and there, as well as some close in overnighters to work out the kinks of logistics and operations. Not all work on the boat has ceased however. My wife Deborah has made some wonderful advancements on the looks and feng shui (pernounced "fung-shway") of the interior. Some of it is cover-up and not permanent but good enough to get us by for now. Yes, she is shaping up nicely! (I’m still talking about the boat here.)
I wasn’t sure if the old boat was ready for such a long trek north with the new engine. We had never ventured so far away before. I wrestled with myself. What if this? And what if that? I found myself talking me out of it. Maybe it might be better to wait ‘til next year, once I get some more hours in on the number 1 engine. By then I may have number 2 installed. I was just about sold on the idea of a local trip for vacation this year. That’s when everybody ganged up on me! Good friend Barry said… "Don’t be a chicken. I’ll come to your rescue in my speeder if you need it." Then the next day good buddy Daryl said basically the same thing. That if I was to get into any trouble he would be happy to come and offload the women, libations and perishables and speed them to safety. It then only took "please-please-please" from my wife and kids in unison and harmony for me to relent and agree to go to "The Meadows." But if I was going to do it, I was going to do my way (after all I’m the one in charge...right?). I wanted to do it in two days, not one.
As good luck would have it our dock neighbors Kevin and Cheryl were going on vacation at the same week we were and were interested in traveling along with us in their boat "Sea going." Safety in numbers you know. The more the merrier? ( A third metaphor would fit nicely here but I can’t think of any more.) Our plan was to push off on a Saturday morning, early as possible to get the maximum amount of time away from the dock. But as time grew closer to our departure date, the stress of being ready on time was too great. A 24 hour push was well received by all parties involved. We left by 11:30 A.M. Sunday. Adventure awaits us all!
The first leg of our journey was old hat. It was the standard run out from our home waters, (Disappointment Slough), to the deep water channel. Then a short run North to the Eastward turn to pass Herman and Helen’s Marina. Then trekking north up the South fork of the Mokulmne river. Slow and easy we kept our rpm’s to around eleven hundred. Just enough for good steerage and no wake. To quote a fellow boating friend Joe, "Once we leave the dock, we are in no hurry." He’s so right. The trip is every bit as important as the vacation itself. No need to rush.
I insisted everyone take their turn at the helm. Steering a large boat with a wide beam and only one engine is a little tricky. It involves constant attention and continuous course corrections. I think it’s important for everyone of my crew to get some stick time in and get a feel for the boat. For some reason, I’m a lot more relaxed when someone else is driving. I hover around and monitor the engine and keep a good look out.. We kept in constant contact with our traveling buddies on the Sea-Going via a set of low power walky-talky’s which worked great while we were in close proximity.
Kevin and Cheryl and their Sea-Going.
Upon reaching the opening to the back side of Potato Slough we said "Ta-ta for now" to Kevin and Cheryl. They were going to continue on north to Wimpy’s and pick up their Jet Ski’s where they had dropped them off earlier by car. Then they would continue on to "The Meadows" to find a good spot.
Our side trip up Potato Slough took us Northwest up past three or more long islands. The view pretty much stays the same out in the delta. You have a high levee to hold the river in on both sides. Usually topped with a dirt road. Most all are lined with rocks and chunks of concrete (rip-rap) to help hold it together and miles of farm land beyond. But the islands are way more interesting to look at. They are thick with trees and vegetation. The bigger islands always have some kind of structure. Mostly you see ramshackle shacks with barely hanging together docks with signs that say "Keep Out." Other times you see very nice clubhouse’s with spacious picnic grounds with wonderful looking docks with signs that read "Private Dock." Some are very old to be sure.
We went as far as the Deep Water channel where we looped around a channel marker and headed back in on the Southern side of the slough. We had the delightful pleasure to have spied several small vintage steam boats making their way North. You just never know what your going to see out here…
As we headed back we looked for a good place to drop our hook for the night in preparation for our rendevous and dinner with Barry and his lovely wife Elizabeth. We found a nice protected spot on the south side of some tall reads on the lee side of the second island in what some people call the "second bedroom." I didn’t look at the time but my best recollection tells me that it took us about three and a half hours to get there.
There’s a magic time for me that is just the best! It happens right after the anchor is set and holding fast. I check the bilges and find them dry and I switch off the engine to find the full quiet of the afternoon. I hear the wind in the reeds and birds chirping as they dive in and out of the lightly rustling trees. The sun was still fairly high and temps were still rather nice and warm, 85f. The fish were jumping. What a lovely Indian Summer afternoon we have here.
On the VHF radio we were able to still stay in contact with the Sea-Going and follow their progress as they continued North. All was well for them. Now we could also pick up Barry on his handheld VHF at about three miles out. He and Elizabeth were coming in on their sailing vessel "Yammer" (I’ll have to ask him about the name Yammer)? And in no time at all they were along side and boarding with the enthusiasm of Buccaneers on the raid! But instead of setting their hair on fire, clutching daggers in their teeth and brandishing cutlasses, they boarded with flavored coffee, cookie treats and dessert wine. No plundering or pillaging to be had that afternoon. We only talked like big bad pirates. Arrr…as we nibbled on appetizers and sipped our imported beers.
Barry and Elizabeth arrive!
After hors d’oeuvres and libations Barry took my boys, Max and Sam and myself out for a sailing lesson. "Arrr! Adventure awaits!" Barry ran the sheets and I was put on the tiller. The boys were lookouts. I was a very bad helmsman. I kept getting the steering "bass ackwards" and sent us reeling toward the rocks (more than once) on a "close tack." We’d have to "fall off" and try again. After several frustrating attempts to get back up wind past some boats at anchor and the rocky rip-rap, the lookouts were tired of yelling "look-out!" The boys and I were pleading with Barry to drop the sails and motor us back in to safety. I knew it was my bad seamanship that kept us from achieving our objective back to the mother ship but the good Captain of the Yammer decided to blame it all on the constantly shifting winds, tidal currents and the moon’s wrong position on our failure. To our relief the sails were furled and the kicker got kicked and back we went back under power. Ahh Lovely power.
Upon our arrival we commenced to cook a salmon dinner that couldn’t be beat. We drank good wine ‘til our "grins grew broad" (Or is it the other way around?) and told tall tails of the sea and did more talking like pirates, (it was in fact "talk like a pirate day") Arrr! Twas a wonderful gatherin’ it twas… Just before nightfall, after manly handshakes and hugs, Barry and Elizabeth pushed off for their home port of "Owl Harbor." We most certainly will have to do that again, minus the "me sailing the boat" part. Shortly after full dark we heard from Kevin and the Sea-Going on the VHF, saying that they had arrived safely at "The Meadows" and had acquired a great vacation spot! Definitely good news. Then some time later Barry checked in also with the news of a safe arrival at his home port. Not a bad start for the first day of vacation. Not bad at all.
The wind blew fairly well that night but both Danforth anchors held firmly in place in the delta muck. The early morning was very quiet and still. This was obviously due to the fact that we were locked tight in tulle fog. We could only see but fifty feet around us. All was very still and quiet except for the calling of birds that were swooping in and out of the rushes and around our boat. The sun was just rising, shining through the fog making everything bright white and seem slightly unreal and mysterious. The misty wet cloud surrounding us meant I could just sit back and relax all morning and do nothing except wait for the white swirling mist to dissipate before our departure...… What was that?…..A little noise?… A whimper? ..... Maybe a whine? ….Looking down I see my little dog Speck.....Our eyes locked.....Her little brown eyes looking at me pleadingly......Was she trying to tell me something?......She was telling me to get off my ass and get dressed, fire up the tender and take her to do her morning business! "Poor dog" I made her wait just a bit longer while I finished my coffee and looked around soaking up a few more minutes of stillness. In due time Max, Speck and myself were in our rubber tender and crossing over to the levee. On a mission of mercy.
As our River Queen disappeared in the fog behind us the south bank was slowly coming into view. We were at a low tide and the rocks and rip-rap were slimey and steep. Great care is necessary when attempting to ascend such a thing as a slimey rock embankment holding a little dog with a full bladder! But we picked our steps carefully and up we went to the road at the top of the levee. The dog was most pleased. Four times pleased! As the three of us walked along the levee road the fog began to fade away and things were starting to ghost into view. Standing there in the quiet, gazing about I told my son Max to stop a moment and smell the air, look around, listen to the sounds and remember it good. "This is going to be a boyhood memory with your dad." I said. "These are the things you’ll look back on when you’re older and wish you had looked harder and longer." The fog was lower now and our houseboat was just now visible in the distance looking like it was floating on a cloud of gold and white. Should have brought a camera. By the time we got back to the mother ship the fog was all but gone and all we were left with was a marvelous looking Indian summer morning and two (maybe three if you count the dog) new fond memories. My wife looked at me funny when I told her next time I’m taking the dog for a crap I’m taking the camera!
We said good bye to our little anchorage by 09:30 that morning and in no time at all we were North bound once again up the Southern fork of the Mokulmne River. We made contact with the "Sea-Going" on the VHF to let them know we were under way. Our next way-point was Tower Park Marina at the Highway 12 bridge. It’s fun to pass the big marinas and see all the different types of water craft about. Tower is a real nice marina and I have been there many times in the past, mostly for the annual boat shows, (by car) but I have never been further North of here by water. When we passed under that Hwy 12 bridge, we were busting into new unseen territory for me. The adventure begins anew with sights unseen. Arrr! (Sorry, still hooked on the pirate thing.)
We were following our course closely on the chart as we made our way north. Using a small piece of metal to signify "our vessel" on the chart like the little boat on a Monopoly board, we crept along looking for the next course change and expected bend in the river.
"Introduction to plotting, charting and navigation 101." To the boys it was like turning the boat trip into a board game. We purposely left the electronic hand held games at home or they would have been lost in a digital dream world for sure and miss the whole trip!
For the next hour or so it was slow going and not too much to see other than ranch land, levees and water. This would have been a good time to head up to the fly bridge for a good look around. It’s a whole other perspective from up there. But alas I had disconnected all the controls and steering up there until I’ve had a chance to do proper maintenance on it. It was a cool breezy morning anyway and it was nice and cozy inside. Any other boat traffic was practically non-existent with the exception of bass boats and fisherman here and there. Our next way-point was the fixed bridge on Thornton Road at Wimpy’s. This bridge had worried me for some time.
Earlier that month my wife and I had taken a car trip out to see it first hand and literally size it up. The chart had said it was 13 foot at mean high tide but we felt better by going to go see it in person. Yes, there it was at high tide… Looked kind of low for 13 feet to me? Looking down I noticed the current was flowing at a faster clip than I’m used to. I also noticed several people in fishing boats here and there in the middle of the way through the narrow passage on the north side. Salmon season is in… Well I’ll tell ya we left there and went straight back to our home dock to measure the height of our boat. (11 feet, 6 and ¾ inches.) I decided to round up to 12 feet. Looks pretty tall when you’re standing next to it… Anything less than 12 feet and I would have to slam on the brakes. (Does a boat have brakes?) God I hope we fit!
Deborah points to the low bridge.
As we progressed north we noted and marked our progress on the chart. We noticed an increase in the number of trees along the way and the river started to meander back and forth a bit more, with little islands in the middle here and there. One such little island bend in the river caused a little excitement when we went a bit shallow and kicked up quite an amount of mud. I should have known to stay to the outside of a river turn. When traveling at low tide on a river, one needs to stay sharp and keep a close eye on the waters condition. Sand bars and rocks and snags. (Lions and tigers and bears) Oh my!
Ever pressing onward the trees got thicker and the river got narrower. At the end of every bend we watched closely for signs of the dreaded low fixed bridge. We were close, very close now. Time to put down the antenna. One more turn…and… There it was.
700 feet and closing… My hands were clammy on the wheel. Deborah had the spy- glass at hand to read the level marker on the piling. 14 feet showing! Good. But it still looks a little short too me... I can see boats milling around in the way on the other side! Salmon fisherman! 7 or 8 boats worth. It was time to slow down now but not so slow as to lose making way. The kids were asking if they could go above and watch the bridge go by "No!" I said. Visions of kids being scooped off the top by the bridge’s lowest members ran through my head. "Sorry boys, please stay below or the bridge will cut your heads off." This gave them a reason to stop and look at each other in disbelief. So with a mutual nod they headed instead for the safety of the bow. I gave off one long horn signal for general purposes before we passed under the bridge. This I hope, was to get everyone’s attention hanging out in the way. As we proceeded under I was listening very hard and pleased not to hear any crunching sounds as we past under the small river bridge. A slow turn to port and there was the small fleet of fisherman. Some were already moving out of the way and the others getting ready too. Of course one old goat had to wait ‘til the very last minute before he moved. I had to give him an additional "Toot-toot" on the horn. Then I heard him respond "Aaahh I see ya." We made the last Northward turn there and cleared away from the last of the cluster of fishermen as we moved into the wide open again. I felt a lot better from that point on, not quite realizing I had been stressing so hard about that last point of our trip.
Continuing Northward back up to our normal 1200 RPM’s, we could see Walnut Grove Marina off to the west as we slowly made our way under the shadow of the huge Twin City’s Towers. Man are they tall! One I’m told is over 27 hundred feet high. That’s taller than Mission Peak in Fremont where I grew up. Modern marvels, they’re pretty cool and every one should get a chance to get a good close look at them. But you don’t need to be close to see them. Especially at night when they’re all lit up, you can see them from just about any place in the valley on a clear night.
From this point we had moved off of our nice chart and could no longer see where we were going. I knew we were close to the end of our journey but we still had some close in navigating left to do. Never fear, I had found a good satellite picture of the area on the internet. (dated Aug 10th 2000.) It showed everything I needed to see and more. Technology, got to love it… A word to the wise though. I had printed the all important satellite image at home from my computer and felt rather smug about getting such a good picture in liew of having to spend money for a new chart. When I went to refer to my print out I found to my dismay that it had been dribbled upon by a glass of water and had smeared completely in places! Luckily the little portion I needed to look at was undamaged and still readable. (Close one.) Next time it’s going into a zip-lock baggie! Better yet, just spend the money for a proper chart.
So close now to our destination. The river had taken a bend or two and the banks had grown thick with old tall trees and brush. The river continued to narrow to the point that if another big boat were to come the other way we would have to squeeze by one another. With the sun overhead now and a clear blue sky, the tall green trees and thick vegetation seemed to close in around us giving the feel of the jungle ride at Disneyland. Really quite different from the flat open farm land delta we’re used to. Everyone was smiling and in eager anticipation of the next bend in the river and what we will see next. From the satellite picture, we knew we were heading into more open waters now and that our left turn into the meadows was moments away. We were starting to spot other houseboats in the distance now and after the last turn West into "The Meadows" proper we knew we had arrived…
Nosed into shore
Among the many houseboats we saw there parked in a row we could spot the "Sea-going" easy and were able to pull in right next to them under the shade of a big old acorn tree. Wow, what a spot! It didn’t take long to get the hook in the dirt and a stern anchor out the back and set. Once the hustle and bustle of getting set is over and the engine is shut off, the boys were off like a shot to venture forth and explore! Quiet returns. Now for my favorite part. Being "there." Not having to watch the oil pressure and temp gauge, or listen for odd sounds coming from the engine compartment. I took the usual peek down in the bilges to confirm that we’re not shipping any water and all is nice and dry. Then and only then do I have my beer or alcoholic drink. Wow. We made it… There are lots of boats everywhere but where are all the people?
"The other boats are all empty" says Kevin. "People come here and move into all the best spots. Then leave all there stuff laying around and go home to where ever knowing that they have a good spot here for as long as they want." Well that doesn’t seem fair I thought. After a short time Deborah and I jumped into the inflatable and took a putt down to the end of the row of boats and back for a better look see around. The trees and surrounding fauna were indeed wonderful. We could hear and see the wind up high in the trees but all along the waters edge was protected and calm. This truly was a nice place to go. It would be even better if it weren’t such a long term parking lot. Clearly all the best places were taken up by grub stake’s with big signs that said "stay off" and "keep out." Many had brought along their own docks and make shift ramps to shore. By the end of our little tour we did see two other boats that had people on them. Two occupied boats out of about twenty five or thirty. Well what the hell, we’ll make the best of it as we always do and get back to having a nice visit with our friends. Good food, drinks, and good company. Leaning back in my favorite chair propping my feet up on the gunnel in the shade. "Ah yes, we have arrived." Time to relax.
I had just sat down and was reflecting on how lucky we were to get this nice quiet spot with a large clearing out front. No other boats too close to obscure our view of the water. Then in pulled a big houseboat next to us. Not forty feet away. Music blearing, people talking loud so they can be heard over the music and little babies crying, (more than one) and portable generators strapped down to the roof (more than one) running. Well, I guess I can’t really blame them. Everyone over there seemed excited and happy as they moved about there boat getting comfortable and getting their anchor set. I’m thinking it’s time for a long walk in the other direction…
We gathered as a group and started our walk on the well beaten path Westward, to follow along the river. To our left, a stones throw away was the water and about every other hundred feet was moored an empty houseboat tied to the shore. It was nice walking along the path with the high canopy of trees all around. To our right (North) you could see the foot of a hill or berm that ran to the West as well. It must be the reason for the good wind deflection. You could see and hear the wind roaring in the tree tops but it was nice and calm where we were as we walked along. Plenty of under brush and berry bushes with long vines and sharp thorns kept us on the path but every five hundred feet or so would be an open clearing or "meadow" if you will. Big enough for a large gathering of campers. This was painfully obvious due to the amount of trash filled home made fire rings. They were dirty and over filled from broken bottles and burnt trash. Speaking of trash. It was everywhere. In places you could not walk ten feet without seeing a cigarette butt or a plastic straw or foil or something! Some campers had brought in bits of furniture and rolled up and stored large pieces of carpet. This must be one busy place in the summer time? On the other side of the coin, as we travelled further we came upon a nice little meadow where the trees were trimmed up neatly. No trash. Clean fire pit. There even was a Bocce-ball game set up and a dart-board and darts. Max and Sam said this is where a mean old man ran us off earlier and told us to go away! What’s up with people today? Something inside me wanted to go find this guy, but I’m on vacation and maybe it’s best to just keep moving on and leave well enough alone.
As we walked along the trail moved more to the north and away from the water. We encountered less and less camp spots. Finally we picked up a trail that led up the hill one hundred feet or so to the top of the small ridge that provided all the wind protection for the area. We headed back in the direction of our boats East along the wide ridge trail. During our walk on the back trails I told my wife Deborah that I bet my mom and dad would like this place. I can see where lots of people would like to come here. Calm protected waters, room for the dog to run and have a fire at night.
Because we were up on the top of the hill the wind whipped around us quite hard. In one clearing there at the top the wind was blowing hard and steady. I could see why. All to the North of us was nothing but wide open farm land for miles and miles. Nothing for the wind to do but blow along the flat ranch and farm lands till it hits this one hill. definitely a good natural barrier for the boats nestled in and among the trees down below. At this place all trails lead to home. They all loop back eventually and in no time at all we were back at our spot.
The next three days would have been better had that other boat not pulled in so close. Most everyone on their boat was younger than us. Ok, let me rephrase it. Everyone on there boat was younger than us. You could tell by the loud music, hoots shouts and over all general revelry. But hey, they were on vacation too. I was their age once and could relate. "Been there, done that." I would have to say that my two young boys were receiving large doses of adult content from next door. They had a guy over there we all quietly called "loud mouth." The man had a voice that carried. It was a radio announcer kind of voice that no matter how low he spoke could still be heard clearly. It was doubly hard to ignore his alcohol induced half wit rambling or the cloud of pot that continually floated past our bow.
We talked about moving once but all the other spots were taken up by "empty" boats! We were lucky to get the good spot that we did!
Well by the third day, "Ass hole" I mean "Loud mouth" had a big blowout fight with his wife and brother’s wife. I guess they had about enough of him too and by 10:30 everyone was gone!
The next three days was blissful peace! I took back to back naps, ate good food and drank good wine with friends and family. Maybe you need to taste the bad to help you appreciate the good! We caught fish and told stories.
Yes indeed the remainder of out stay at "The Meadows" was quite nice.
Maxwell and his crawdad trap.
We cleaned our camp site better than we found it (standing family rule), and departed at 10:00 AM on a bright and sunny Sunday morning. There was a bit of a breeze to our backs and the trip was fairly uneventful. We missed our left turn to Wimpy’s so I thought we could make our way around Walnut Grove Marina and Dead Horse Bend ‘til we saw the low bridge there and had to backtrack all the way back around. (Lesson learned.) We had a guy in a small boat jump in front of us then stop as we past Wimpy’s. That caused some concern due to the swift current and lining up to cross under the bridge. But we got through ok and once we were a mile or so down river everything was quiet and fair sailing once again.......’til we got to H &H. The cable ferry at Herman and Helen’s I find pulls out whenever it feels like it. I was keeping a watchful eye on it as a big farm truck loaded on the ferry and I thought it would wait for me to pass before it would pull out. No such luck. To add insult to injury it stalled mid channel and took some 15 minuets to get going again. All the while I tried to maintain station in a stiff crosswind with just my one engine.
After that it was an easy shot home. We had the pleasure to spot a good number of classic Chris Craft’s passing by. It had to be a club or gathering of some sort. They sure are pretty.
My wife Deborah and the boys had been cleaning and putting things away as we made our way home and by the time we arrived at our home port the bags were stacked and coolers were dumped and consolidated and the boat was clean, (inside). If I had a wash down pump we could have had the outside clean as well. We pulled in, tied up and shut down. Success! We made it back in one piece. Nobody got hurt. Nothing broke, and the food and water lasted. Adventure threw us a few curve balls this trip, but you know what, we enjoyed every minute of it. Now I’m just really looking forward to a hot steamy shower and bed.
If I had it to do over again I don’t think I would have done anything different.
It was a wonderful trip with my family and friends, and a good first long run for our River Queen. She did very well and I am most pleased.
"The Meadows" was all that I thought it would be. Plus more. More trash. But what can you expect when you go camping in a place that has no official care. Of course people are going to take advantage of a good thing and keep all the good spots for themselves. Then leave crap strewn all over the place. It’s that same old adage we learned in school. It only takes a small number to ruin it for everyone else. I heard a rumor awhile back that the State Parks were looking to take it over. I’m not one to give up my freedoms easily but I think they would have my vote. Will I go back? Maybe, but I have other places I’d like to go see first.
Mike Wolfe Winter 2003.