One year we camped on the sand dune on the opposite shore from Basin Creek. A large tumble of rocks juts into the river and behind it the water slows and the particles of sand and silt that it carries at high water fall out and form a perfectly flat dune, visible when the river recedes. The dune across from Basin Creek is about half the size of a football field. Its been there for many years, either renewed every year it floods or resisting the wind that blows the sand up stream. Sometimes it is bare of life, other times there are small willows taking root in the sand.
This is a big trip, 25 people and at least 10 tents and twelve or thirteen canoes. We hit the beach early enough to eat lunch and take off the rest of the day to hike, swim, sleep and chat. We spread across the dune and set up our tents a polite distance from each other. The south side of the canyon cups the dune with a wall of grape vines and blackberry making me think of Sleeping Beauty’s sleeping castle. I am not interested in tackling the thorny hedge to climb off the dune to visit the abandoned railroad tracks that follow the river for 60 miles through the wilderness. I am also not attracted to the hillsides covered with poison oak.
It had been a long day kneeling in our canoe and I wanted to stretch my legs, so I scrambled through the pile of rocks that formed the dune and started walking upstream on a long gravel bar stepped by the rise and fall of floods. Some of the ledges were fifteen feet above the next lower level, telling a story of a long period of flooding in the last ten years or so.
A branch had gotten tangled in some rocks and submerged except for a branch that stuck up into the air six inches, creating a bubble of air as the water rushed past it. The bubble would make a funny gurgle as the river played with the stick making it bow and flip in the current. It sounded like river laughter, wet and gurgly Ha! Hahaha Ha! Hahahhah Ha! I laughed, too. Laughter can be reflexive like yawns.
On another warm winter day on the American River I sat for four hours while the paddlers came to me at the take-out. I was resting my shoulder from an injury and brought a book to entertain myself while I waited. It was unusually hot for February and I couldn’t sleep although I was drowsy, so I put my camp chair in the river and sat there with the river up to mid-calf and watched the river.
I felt the mass of the water as it sped by, a huge long moving thing, miles long and yards thick and deep and filled with life. I was a speck compared to the bulk of the water before me. Sometimes it seems a miracle to me that the whole solid earth hasn’t been flattened by water. How could my little feet penetrate something so real?
The winter sun couldn’t pull away from the horizon so the river surface shimmered in silver. The flow was high enough that the cobbles didn’t make any noise so all I could hear was a noise like static on a radio telescope aimed at a distant galaxy. It was the sound of a billion grains of sand slamming into a million pebbles tumbling over the river bottom, dragged by the current.
The band of silver before me rose over the cobble bar, the water pushed up by the water behind it. In the distant channel it raced downstream in bands, the deep places fast and dull silver and in places near the shore it slowed and shone brightly and sometimes the water was so still it shone like a mirror spinning slowly on a turntable.
I was hypnotized for hours, unaware of my body except when a fly buzzed me or something brushed against my feet in the water. I had prepared myself to be bored for hours while I waited for the boats but ended up startled to see their dark silhouettes arrive at the thin bead of light where the river rose out of the earth and then drift slowly down the silver path to meet me on the shore.