Delta discoveries

Enjoy a houseboat hideaway among the many inviting waterways of California's Central Valley

The whistle of a red-winged blackbird awoke my husband and me on our final morning on the California Delta. Golden light slanted through the tule reeds and into our houseboat cabin, and the sky was a crisp blue. The evening before, we'd tucked into a cove west of Stockton as the sun dropped behind the horizon. Our reed-shrouded hideaway was delightfully remote.

It was so peaceful, we could hear the gentle lapping of the San Joaquin River at the boat's stern, but only at the boat's stern. We walked out to discover the bow banked in mud.

That weekend, the delta taught us that even every beautiful moment has its lesson.

From Sacramento to Manteca, the delta's 1,000-mile network of navigable waterways carries nearly half the state's runoff to San Francisco Bay ― water from the American, Merced, Mokelumne, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus Rivers, plus countless creeks.

Dozens of levees ― constructed both by Chinese laborers in the late 19th century and later by mechanical clamshell dredgers ― give order to this watery confusion, carving out 738,000 acres of islands, winding river roads, and dreamy fishing holes. Tucked into the bends, the small towns here are stocked with bait shops and diners specializing in catfish baskets. Glamorous it's not. But it's the perfect place for a relaxing, water-based getaway.

From pears and peat to peaceful retreats

When summer temperatures start to climb, water-skiers, houseboaters, and fishermen converge on the delta to cool down. On summer weekends, in fact, the region sometimes feels like a partyland. But it has its milder side too.

"If you know where to go, it's beautiful and very relaxing," says Jeremy Alling, a ranger at Brannan Island State Recreation Area, where visitors can swim, picnic, camp, or windsurf. On weekends in spring and fall, volunteers and rangers lead canoe trips into less-frequented areas.

Another quiet spot is Cosumnes River Preserve, on the delta's east side, where you can see great blue herons, river otters, and Pacific tree frogs ― but not speedboats.

These refuges offer a sense of what the water and its wildlife looked like years ago, before it was so radically altered by the levee system.

The delta's rich soil, the result of centuries of flooding at the Carquinez Strait bottleneck, earned the region fame in the early 20th century as the world's asparagus capital. The thick peat produced ― and continues to produce ― highly prized straight stalks. Cherries, corn, pears, potatoes, and tomatoes also flourished.

Canneries sprang up to package the produce, and business boomed. Thousands of Chinese immigrants were drawn to the area for its jobs. From Fresno to Redding, hundreds of paddle-wheelers carried passengers and produce along the waterways.

In recent decades, population and industry have declined. Take a walking tour of the now-quiet town of Locke in the central delta ― a 30-minute drive or two-hour boat ride from our houseboat dock ― and you'll see the contrast from its heyday, when gambling houses, brothels, and crowds filled the streets. The only town in the nation originally built and settled entirely by Chinese immigrants, Locke is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Former Locke resident Roberta Yee recalls the town's former bustle in Jeff Gillenkirk and James Motlow's excellent history of Locke, Bitter Melon: Inside America's Last Rural Chinese Town. "During the pear season, everything would be happening in Locke," Yee says in the book. "You just can't imagine, there were so many people there at that time. Every building, every house was occupied. All these people lined up, sitting out on Main Street."

Today the Joe Shoong Chinese School is empty; half-finished lessons remain on the board and books are still on the shelves. The Dai Loy Gambling House is now a museum. Paint peels off Main Street buildings, which house galleries and gift shops, and many businesses are open only on weekends.

Adventures among the reeds

Farmers still grow asparagus and other crops along the delta. The drawbridges stop traffic for sailboats. A ferry will still shuttle you and your car to Ryer Island. And the fishing report is still the most talked-about news in town.

Which is why spots where the fish are biting still get crowded. But coves of varying size along the crenulated riverbanks offer plenty of room for privacy on the water. There wasn't another boater in sight when we stopped to take in a stunning sunset our second evening. That was a relief, in light of our initial foray into houseboating near Little Potato Slough.

When we had set out for our first spin, shadows were long across the calm green water, and the reeds were filled with the chatter of birds. We took a short practice lap and returned giddy with the ease of boating, approaching the marina from the opposite direction, the wind now at our back. What we learned: never underestimate the force by which a delta breeze can push against the boxy, billboard-size side of a houseboat.

After we slammed into a docked houseboat for the third time, a deckhand was able to grab a rope and coach us out of the jam ― with, to our great relief, no damage done.

Frazzled and embarrassed, we relaunched, thinking we'd find peace on the water. And we did ― listening to the birds, watching the sun and the tide rise, knowing that with our newfound skills, our next delta adventure would be full of peaceful moments like this.

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