This week I had a chance to travel by kayak down 23 miles of the San Joaquin River just south of Mendota, CA with CNN reporter John Sutter, who is undertaking an ambitious journey to explore the River's entire 360 miles - from high Sierra to the sea.
Before I met up with John at Skaggs Bridge Park near Kerman, CA he had already logged an impressive trip to the headwaters of the San Joaquin at Thousand Island Lake, toured Friant Dam, visited the salmon reintroduction fish hatchery, and paddled over thirty miles of river. He even lost a camera when his boat went over in some bushes and had his food raided by a raccoon as he slept beside the river.
Over the course of his travels, John had already seen firsthand many of the challenges facing the River and learned about efforts like the San Joaquin River Restoration Program that are helping to address these issues in the coming years. But what was more captivating than his learning about recent subsidence from overdraft of groundwater or finding that there are very few places where one can access the River was hearing about the people that John has met along the way. He saw a wedding and met the father of the bride who chose to get married on the river’s bank. He witnessed a baptism in the Rivers’ cool waters. He has talked with farm workers that are struggling to make ends meet as well as farmers who are fallowing land and paying painfully high prices for water. He met a raisin grape farmer who grew up along the river during the Great Depression and can tell stories about how, as a young boy, he and his brothers would fish for salmon that would run so thick he thought he could walk across the river on their backs. And then there are people who simply come to the river – from as far away as Tulare (~80 miles) - because the water is “fresh and cold” and just sit and relax in beach chairs under the shade of a cottonwood while their kids splash and play in the water.