Editor’s Note: Thanks to instructors Jason Montelongo and Jeff Kay and to all the paddlers who went down the river with me. It was a new experience and a very enjoyable one! Thanks too to Tom (canoeist) and John (sea kayaker) who offered support for our first day of instruction.
What is the Cal 100? Actually, it’s now called California River Quest, but the race was created and successfully run by Rivers for Change as the California 100 for four years from 2013-2016, introducing hundreds of paddlers to the beauty and accessibility of the Upper Sacramento River. It’s a 100-mile race from Redding to Chico, California. It is open to all paddlecraft: kayaks, surfskis, canoes, outrigger canoes, and prone and standup paddleboards, and takes place on Memorial Day, May 30, 2021. There are 25, 50, and 100 mile options, so you can get your feet wet by paddling a shorter leg of the race. Profits from the event will be donated to Friends of the River – California’s only statewide river conservation organization that drives protection and restoration of rivers to support sustainable water solutions through advocacy and education.
Why is the Cal 100 important? The Cal 100 raises awareness for the rivers of California in general and the Sacramento River in particular. These rivers water the valleys and plains of California west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Sacramento has its headwaters north in the Siskiyou Mountains near the border of California and Oregon. For millenia these rivers have provided spawning grounds for millions of fish of many species. Salmon in particular have fed countless generations of indigenous people. Today, rivers provide habitat for both native and non-native species. The riparian environments that border the rivers provide habitat for innumerable plants, animals, and birds. They also provide water for the people who live in the cities and towns and the crops that grow on the land today, as well as parks, bike trails, and many recreational opportunities.
Why do the rivers need protection? As someone who has spent a lot of time in, on, and around California rivers, I can say we’ve done a pretty good job keeping them litter-free and fairly clean, largely thanks to collaborations between environmentalists, fishermen, and the millions of people who use the rivers for recreation. But rivers are constantly threatened, mostly from agriculture. I’m not bashing the farming community, especially family farmers. They’re threatened too. However, agribusiness is the ultimate culprit, using pesticides on a massive scale and drawing every acre foot of water that it can from the waterways. Ever since European migrants appeared on the scene water in the West has been a bone of contention. America west of the Rockies is naturally dry, and much of the land that’s ranched and farmed today would still be desert it weren’t for the massive network of dams, reservoirs, aquaducts, and canals that crisscross the semi-arid state like an immense spiderweb.
Statewide, average water use is roughly 50% environmental, 40% agricultural, and 10% urban, although the percentage of water use by sector varies dramatically across regions and between wet and dry years. Some of the water used returns to rivers and groundwater basins where it can be used again. But overuse of the aquifer beneath the San Joaquin Valley has had negative consequences. To give you an example of how much water has been drawn out of the aquifer, since 1920 the valley has sunk 50 feet. Water in rivers that used to provide much more to the environment as a whole is sucked up in order to water crops and livestock, in some years reducing flows to a trickle. The Sacramento River provides the largest remaining spawning grounds for salmon in California. In some rivers, the salmon have ceased to spawn altogether, and according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, about 138,000 adult salmon returned to spawn in the Sacramento Basin during 2020, around 105,000 fewer than the 233,000 salmon predicted to return to spawn.
The U.S Geological Services reports that the Central Valley supplies eight percent of U.S. agricultural output and produces 1/4 of the nation’s food, including 40 percent of the nation’s fruits, nuts and other table foods. According to the USGS website, more than 250 different crops are grown in the Central Valley, and it holds an estimated value of $17 billion per year. According to the USDA, in 2019, 22.2 million full- and part-time jobs were related to the agricultural and food sectors—10.9 percent of total U.S. employment. Direct on-farm employment accounted for about 2.6 million of these jobs, or 1.3 percent of U.S. employment. But California is rapidly losing farmland to urban development. It will be interesting to see how things change in the future. Meantime, climate change has thrown a monkey wrench into the gears of water use. More and more water will be required from all sources as California further warms and dries, and clashes between environmental, agricultural, and urban interests will intensify. This is why the rivers need our support.
Why did I prep for the Cal 100? I wanted to see if I could do the race, and the best way was to paddle the first leg of the course. The two-day clinic I attended did that. The first day was instruction, half on land and half on water, and on the second day we paddled from Sundial Bridge in Redding to Rooster’s Landing in Anderson. Vessels included two outrigger canoes, three sea kayaks (one tandem and two singles of which one was mine), and two stand-up paddleboards. Two other SUP paddlers joined us on Day Two but they were paddling a 40+ mile course and left us later in the day. Our two primary instructors were Jason Montelongo (in a sea kayak) and Jeff Kay (in a hot red OC). It was really cool to see all the different water craft on the river, especially when we started doing maneuvers and hitting the rapids.
Day One: We met at 10:00 at the Rodeo Grounds Boat Ramp in Redding. We unloaded our boats, wrangled our gear, and settled down for a talk and a whiteboard presentation. Jason and Jeff went over lots of useful information covering the river, the weather, what to wear, what to bring, what to eat, how to plan, and what skills are needed to participate. It was an excellent talk, and I learned some new things. In particular, I learned that if I’m likely to hit an obstacle, such as a bridge pylon, it’s best to attack aggressively rather than try to miss it because I’m less likely to be overturned or pinned and wrapped around the obstacle. Similarly I learned that if I’m out of my boat and heading toward a strainer like shrubbery or a tree I should swim aggressively right at it and claw my way over as best I can rather than getting swept through or under and entangled or pinned. Good safety advice!
After questions and a bite to eat, we put in and paddled upstream about a quarter of a mile to the actual start point of the race. We ferried back and forth, entering and exiting eddies. We practiced peeling out and eddying in, taking turns going in and out and around. It was interesting to see how the different vessels handled. The river is much wider than the Rogue River in Oregon where I’ve done my whitewater practice, and the eddies in consequence were larger. The eddylines seemed pretty benign and I found I could punch my way easily through most of them with the bigger boat. Only on Day Two when we paddled through narrower sections and more of the Class I and II rapids did I find anything squirrely enough to cause the X-15 to twitch.
Day Two: On this day we were up and at ‘em at 7:30. We arranged a shuttle, dropping off all the vehicles which would be heading south from the take out in Anderson. Back at the put in, when everyone was ready we launched, paddled upstream to the start point again and then headed down river. It was good to go through the same rapids and get a level of familiarity. Flows will be higher on the day of the race, though, and that’s a good thing because the river will be faster and there’ll be fewer rocks. The water was pretty shallow in places as the river was running at about 5100 cfs.
After about the first six miles we were in new territory. The river was beautiful. The banks were overhung with huge valley oaks, quercus lobata, the largest of North American oaks. This iconic tree ranges over the hot interior valleys of California where there is a water table within reach of the roots. All the trees and shrubs were bursting with new greenery. The air was full of birdsong. We saw herons, egrets, Canada geese, mergansers, mallards, and many other ducks and small waterfowl I didn’t recognize. We even saw four white swans. Vultures and hawks circled overhead and swallows swirled around their nests under the bridges. The sun shone, the sky was blue, and we couldn’t have asked for a better day. The water temperature was about 50 degrees but we got hot as the day progressed. Since I was wearing my heavier wetsuit I went swimming a couple of time to cool off.
River Quest, the sponsors of the race, had held another clinic in March. Because the water level had been so low, they had paddled a lower section, but the higher section we paddled includes all the significant whitewater on the course. As the river travels south it becomes more tame, although there is more of an elevation drop in places so the water moves quicker. The rapids were fun and just enough to give us a little excitement. None were very long. A couple of the SUPs flipped, and on the first day, one of the OCs got its bow trapped between two rocks and sustained a fair amount of damage but a little duct tape goes a long way. Luckily the repair held through Day Two.
The takeaway: This was a great introduction to a beautiful section of the Sacramento River. In the beginning there are elegant homes lining the banks but further downriver the environment seems more untouched. I learned new skills, practiced old ones, and got the chance to take a long boat into river whitewater for the first time. Thanks to previous whitewater experience, I found myself edging pretty aggressively in the rapids and eddylines, something I haven’t done much on the ocean. I never flipped and never scraped. Although we tried to miss the meat of the rapids on the first day, on the second day I felt comfortable being a little less cautious. It was fun going through the wave trains where the water was nice and deep.
Also, I’ve never paddled that far in one day in my life! Even when the Rangers circumnavigated Isla Carmen in 2019 our longest paddle day was about 12 miles. It was interesting to consider the difference between competitive endurance paddling and the Tsunami Ranger vibe where we paddle, play, and party. I wish we could have stopped, got out the binoculars, done some birding, swum around a bit, snacked, and relaxed. But this was endurance paddling and it’s good to know that I can go 25 miles and be just a bit sore the next day.
The instructors were knowledgeable, everyone was fun and collaborative, and I’d totally do it again. In fact, I want to do the rest of the river all the way to Chico. The whole clinic was a treat, but my favorite moments were the times when we were floating down wide expanses of open water and I took a break, arched over the back deck paddle in hand, closed my eyes and reached for the stern, stretching and hearing my spine crack, hearing the birds calling, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face and the kayak sway gently beneath me. Pure heaven.
It was also fun to watch all the different vessels navigate the features. I’d recommend these clinics to anyone interested in this section of the river, whether you plan racing or not. The beauty alone is worth it. There were times when I felt like I was in one of those old movies about explorers and adventure travel, especially when we’d left the stately homes behind and those flights of birds were passing back and forth over the river’s surface. Who needs the Amazon?! The Sacramento River is a priceless gem right in our own back yard.
The third of three clinics offered this year in preparation for the race took place on the weekend of April 24/25, but private outings can be arranged by going to https://www.californiariverquest.com/race-info/pre-race-clinics/
For questions or comments on this post, please contact us below. And support our rivers! Even if you don’t paddle the race, you can donate to the cause at https://www.friendsoftheriver.org/support-for/make-a-donation/