Cali Paddler Exploration: The Sacramento River

This article written and contributed to Cali Paddler by Adam R-T (NorCalPaddler on our Community Forums). Join us below on the first of many journeys where we explore the waters of our great state. Ocean, Lake, Rivers and Bays...we love them all and one day hope to paddle every inch of them. If you would like to share your paddle stories, contact us.

The Sacramento River Delta. also know as the California Delta is made up by the confluence of several rivers, the main rivers being; The Sacramento, the San Joaquin, the Calevaras and the Mokelumne with the Calaveras and Mokelumne being tributaries of the San Joaquin.

Now, taking those rivers, plus a few minor rivers that also dump into the delta, you come up with about 700 miles of river. That adds up to a lot of really nice flat water paddling if you stick to the delta. Further up the mountains, the flat water gives way to some of the best whitewater runs in the western United States. But right now I will deal with what I know and write about paddling the Sacramento River. If you find this of interest and slightly useful, keep an eye out as I will write about a section of the Mokelumne River in The Sacramento Delta and the Kinetic Sculpture Race in Arcata.

Typical water of the Sacramento River below Mill Creek on the way to Ord Bend. Current averages about 3 miles per hour with faster current in the shallows and on the outside of the river bends. Watch for snags, sweepers and strainers. Even when the water looks like this there can be tree trunks and branches just under the surface.

Over the years I have paddled the Sac from Mill Creek to Colusa and Colusa to the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. With a team I used to belong, I have also traveled via river from The American River to Brennan Island. By far the prettiest part of the river, I find, is the section from Mill Creek to Colusa. I haven't paddled the sections above Mill Creek but i have heard that section, while being just as pretty or more so, has some class two rapids and a portage is necessary to get around the Keswick Dam. The section of the river between Mill Creek and Colusa is usually is more shallow than from Colusa to Sacramento, so the river runs a little faster and the wildlife is more abundant. Read that as not as many houses and habitation close to the river.

For centuries the Sacramento River did pretty much as it wanted. Over the millennium, It would flood every year or so and change course. Then along about 1850, congress passed the Arkansas Act allowing the delta islands to be sold, with the condition the buyer would reclaim the land. That brought about the building of levees on the river and from 1850 until about 1870 Chinese laborers built levees and began the control of the rivers. In the early part of the 20th century, dams and levees were constructed to help alleviate the flooding and since then the Sac has remained pretty well within its banks, with the exception of a few major floods. What an you say? Ma Nature just won't be contained at times.

What does this history lesson have to do with kayaking. Not a darn thing if you happen to be into whitewater. But if you are into flat water paddling, it has everything to do with it as we now have all those river miles waiting to be explored.

Put-in at Millcreek. Notice the protected water between the shore and gravel bar. Further out is the current that will drive you toward the bridge downstream

Traveling about two hours north of Sacramento on Highway 5, you will come to exit A11, also known as Gyle Road leading to the town of Mill Creek. Follow Gyle Road eastward to Tehama Road and turn right into the town of Tehama. Continue along and you will cross the Sacramento River and just a bit further along you will come to Mill Creek Park and Boat Launch Facility. A nice place to start a kayak trip.

As a warning, the summer temperatures in this area can top triple digits and stay there for weeks. While on the river the heat is negligible as the water temps are in the fifties but leave the river and walk just a few yards on shore and it feels as if you have walked into an oven.

The park is well shaded, with plenty of parking, a pic-nic area, softball diamond, volleyball courts and of course, a boat launch. The boat ramp leads to a small inlet protected by a gravel bar. This allows paddlers and boats to start out in protected waters.

Once on the river, the fun begins right away as it is necessary to navigate under a bridge about 150 yards downstream. The same bridge you crossed to get to the park. The river at this point is moving at about four to five miles an hour and as you get closer to the bridge the current increases. Not to worry. The deep part of the river is on the far side, so just paddle like the devil and take the bridge between the far two uprights. If you miss it stay straight. The river can be shallow on the near side but if you are paddling a roto-mold with a flip-up rudder you have it made. If not you will hear your boat tell you about the bottom. ROCKS!!!!

As you paddle down river, at times you will feel as if you are a thousand miles from habitation but that is not the case. Agricultural land is on both side of the river with Highway 5, at times, no more than a few yards beyond the shore. That does not mean this part of the river is not pretty. Quite the contrary. On this part of the river you will encounter islands. Most of them can be passed on either side but beware, there are a few that have very narrow channels if you do not take the main channel. So you are not taken completely by surprise, check out the website . This website is a complete atlas with information on boat launches, parks, pic-nic areas and put-ins and take-outs all along the river. The website also has aerial views of the whole river from above Lake Shasta (whitewater country) all the way to Brennan Island (definitely flat water paddling.) The website also lets you know where private property and BLM land are so you don't end up camping on some farmers property.

The river flows pretty well when leaving Mill creek. As you paddle, if you turn around, you can actually see the drop in the river. A slight drop to be sure but noticeable. As the river is flowing well here, you will hear what sounds like rapids at times. What these are is nothing more than a long runs of riffles in the shallows. The only real danger on this river, in this area are the snags, sweepers and strainers. The river is fairly wide but It is necessary to keep an eye on the river. There are logs under the surface that if hit just right may hole your boat. You may also find downed trees laying in the river. Steer clear and you won't have a problem. Nothing puts the whamee on a paddling trip like one of the group being caught in a strainer or sweeper. Something else to watch for is the channel leading to a diversion dam. There is a sign at the opening but if you miss it you will be headed for a long paddle back out. Be careful and watch for the sign.

Paddling down river during the end of June you may see nesting Golden and Bald Eagles. One year while paddling we encountered eagles that were getting ready to learn to fly. The eaglets were perched on the edge of the nests stretching their wings facing into the breeze. You may also see beaver, river otter, many kinds of birds and as a special added attraction, as you float downstream over the gravel bars you may see large salmon.

Beached for lunch. This is one of the islands in the river. Toward the top of the picture you can just see the entrance of the smaller channel going around the island. From here we could see three Bald Eagle nests.

Along with the islands, there are also side channels and sloughs to explore. One year we paddled into one of these sloughs. The entrance was a sand bar and just deep enough to get the boats across. Once in the slough the bottom started to slope away. There were fingerling trout in the shallows. As the water became deeper the fish got bigger. The entrance was so shallow no fishing boats could make it across the sand bar allowing the protected fish to grow unmolested. As we continued further into the slough, the water became deeper, eucalyptus were overhanging the banks. Lilly pads with large yellow and purple flowers were floating on the surface with dragonflies buzzing and alighting on the pads and flowers. Sitting and floating, enjoying the quiet and solitude a carp, the size of a small sub, appeared out of the dark depths, made a slow roll and headed back to the bottom. I would tell you where to locate this slough but... Well.... Somethings are best left to find by exploration. Did I mention the fishing is usually pretty good as kayaks can get into places the fishing boats can't. Also, fishing along the rock levees will get some good bites.

So, hopefully this has given you an idea why this is one of my favourite paddling trips. The river flows at about three miles an hour, faster in the shallows and around the river bends,so making distance is no problem. Add in a nice easy paddle rate of another three miles an hour and your are covering some river miles. Along with the islands on which you may camp (make sure it is BLM land) you can pull-out and get a room in Chico for the night. Again, check Some folks enjoy a hot shower, good meal, cold libations and a comfy bed before hitting the river again in the morning. Then again, others just like to camp and enjoy the outdoors. BUT!!!! If you camp near slow moving or still water you may be serenaded by bullfrogs that sound as if they are about six feet tall and weighing in at sumo wrestling weight. I have never personally seen these beasties but I have lost a nights sleep listening to them talk back and forth across an inlet.

So, load up yer boats. Pack up the truck. Head on up to Mill Creek & start your trip. You'll be glad ya did.

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