A kayak, a river, and John Muir

John Muir described the grueling climb up Mount Shasta (14,162 feet tall) as a "long, safe saunter." He took perverse pleasure in hopscotching over Alaskan glaciers laced with crevasses. He once rode a wildly swaying fir tree in a Sierra storm just for the fun of it.

So I was skeptical when I read, in one of his letters, that a five-day boat trip on the Sacramento River was "one glorious strip of enjoyment."

"Enjoyment" for Muir could well be misery for the rest of us. Still, it did seem to be one of his more accessible adventures, and I live fairly close to the spot where he started his river trip.

So on a warm Sunday afternoon late last September, almost 127 years to the day after Muir started his trip, I put in the water at Chico, Calif., bound for Sacramento.

I would be traveling solo in a two- person inflatable kayak. I had never done anything like this before, and had in fact spent very little time on the water. So it was by no means certain that I would complete the 133-mile journey.

Muir had encountered rapids on the first 50 miles of his trip; fortunately there were none on mine. Instead, what I experienced on that balmy afternoon was a smoothly flowing river, surrounded by lush green banks. I felt wrapped in the river's soothing embrace.

I soon mastered the simple technique of steering the boat by rowing on one side or the other. Before the first hour was up, I was already beginning to feel at home. I put my oar up and grabbed a sandwich from my sack. While the boat drifted along, its nose turning this way and that with the current, I enjoyed a leisurely lunch and watched the banks pass by.

I was drifting backward when suddenly, looking over my shoulder, I saw a large snag looming directly in my path. It was too late to row away from it. Within seconds the boat was stuck fast, pushed sideways up the snag by the current.

Muir encountered so many of these hazards on his trip that he christened his boat the "Snag Jumper." By his account, the light little wooden boat had easily skimmed over them - except for the time when it reared straight up in the water, and then quickly righted itself. But now here I was, one hour into my Muir adventure, snagged and going nowhere.

First I tried rocking the boat from side to side. That didn't work, so I started pushing as hard as I could with one foot, then the other, against the snag, nudging the boat an inch at a time.

Finally, the boat drifted free. Having learned an important lesson about the wily river, I carefully paddled to the first broad sandbar I could find and gratefully settled in for the night.

All the next day I was on the watch for snags. Often they can be detected only as ripples in the water, where the stub of a branch or trunk barely rises above the surface. At other times, particularly in the narrow channels around river islands, there are virtual forests of them arranged in all sorts of weird shapes and configurations.

You have your work cut out for you to weave around them. I actually came to enjoy this challenge; the tamer stretches of the river seemed boring in comparison.

Muir notes that his little craft was an object of great interest to the birds and other wildlife along the banks. They also showed a keen interest in my 11-foot, bright-blue kayak.

Muir wrote that some birds, when they saw his boat, "[took] flight with loud screams." These were probably blue herons, which have a loud, shrill cry and which seem to have a lot to complain about. In the wilder, upstream portion of the river, blue herons, turkey vultures, and snowy egrets were common.

Birds weren't the only wildlife i encountered on my river journey. I had never seen a fox up close before, but there one was, watching me intently from the bank in front of its lair. Another time, a large round object I took to be a piece of driftwood slowly unfurled itself and swam upstream. It was very likely a beaver.

A family of river otters swam by - close to my campsite - one morning, perhaps looking for a stray fish or two.

Mine was the only human-powered craft I saw on the river, and as such an object of interest to my own species as well. "Hey, Lewis!" yelled one fisherman. "Where's Clark?"

Muir's trip took him five days; mine took six. It wasn't exactly "one glorious strip of enjoyment." There was that encounter with the snag, lots of mosquitoes, and many weary hours of rowing.

As I got close to Sacramento, the world beyond the river's banks began to emerge in the form of fast boats and jet skis - and the green banks were replaced by homes and other signs of human activity.

But this was only on the last 15 miles of the 133-mile journey. Most of the time I was in a different world, one with its own languid rhythm. It was a landscape painted in shades of green, echoed on the water; one long teeming village of interdependent creatures.

Thanks, John Muir.

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