Secret History: 24 Hours of Life on the Shantyboat

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Snags, river sharks, sudden shifts in direction and gravel beds that came out of nowhere.

We were dodging left, right and left again around various obstacles, including dangerous gravel bars that shot most of the Upper Sacramento River from bank to bank. The skegs of the shantyboat bumped occasionally over rock beds and we made constant right turns around hazards. The last substantial scrape came when most of the river rocketed through a single twisted channel that we survived by slaloming the clunky shantyboat hard left then hard right through a series of gnarly obstacles. We barely squeezed between jagged rock teeth that brushed either side of the boat. Freddy trimmed almost out of the water at full throttle for a measure of control. I was at the helm and Benzy, my shipmate, was on watch duty at the bow. We both felt certain that getting stuck or seriously damaged was imminent.

It was the sketchiest bit of boating I’ve done in a thousand miles and ten years of sketchy boating.

When we launched, numerous seemingly knowledgeable people suggested we’d never make it down the Upper Sacramento, including the Fish & Game people and a series of local fisherfolk. By contrast, Chad the Sheriff and Dave the Mobile Mechanic told us it was “hairy but doable,” which – despite predictions from the naysayers – was totally true.

Despite days punctuated by long moments of sheer terror and intense vigilance, we idled away the days in long floats of serene relaxation and contentment.

Mike the Fish Guide, who set us up with a fine new fishing rod and tackle after seeing our pathetic gear, spends every day year-round on the river. He told us the river had been changed more during last winter’s floods than he’d ever seen. He told us “There are parts of the river that challenge even very experienced boatsmen, but I have confidence in your ability to judge the river wisely.” Thanks, Mike.

The boat is surprisingly well-appointed for a tiny, rustic, floating cabin. We have a cozy but small galley with lots of stores and running water, a big table for work and play, a leather couch, a comfy sleeping loft, and a sizeable library of river history, art books, and trashy reading. It is not unusual for the aromas of sautéing garlic, onion, and potatoes or even a baking pie to waft down the beaches where we camp.

Refreshing cocktails. A meditative hour with a cigar. Floating in the tube to cool off. A few quiet hours spent fishing. A good book in the sun that turns into an afternoon nap. Despite the dramatic moments on the shantytboat, we have plenty of time between piloting the boat and creating an oral history work of the project.

After navigating the trickiest portion of the river we were exhausted. Following a brief nap, we hiked into town on the Dustiest Road in America, picking blackberries and helping ourselves to an overhanging grapefruit tree. After visiting a sleepy little market, we headed back with 20 pounds of ice.

We had barely started back when a driver offered us a dusty pickup tailgate ride. This old fella, another Mike, was a local who came to “our” beach every day and had lots to say about living in a tiny forgotten river town. He agreed to be interviewed the next day.

We were expecting to be joined that night by another shipmate, Jeremiah. He and his small mountain of resupplies got a ride from the same Mike down the long dusty road to the shantyboat. ‘Miah’s arrival was celebrated with whiskey and cards late into the night.

In the morning, ‘Miah and I hiked to the road in search of water to refill our supplies, followed by two long trips lugging two heavy five-gallon containers of water. While we were gone, Benzy picked a bucket of blackberries.

Mike arrived for his interview with friend Al, who gave us a huge bounty from his garden. I talked to Mike about his life, living in the little town of Princeton (pop. 400), fishing, hunting, and his love of the river.

Mike set Benzy up with minnows and showed her how to bait the hook for stripers. She spent the next several hours fishing. Mike asked if we liked “crawdads,” which looked like miniature freshwater lobsters. “Hell, yeah,” we said, and Mike presented us with a trap full for dinner.

As dusk settled in, we are tuckered out, happy and a little drunk from cocktail hour when Benzy announced she had a fish on her line. She fought it to the bank and wrestled in a sizable striped bass.

Our amazing day of unexpected triumph is capped off by a dinner of fresh fish, boiled crawdads and fresh blackberry pie aboard the shantyboat!

. . . and so ends another extraordinary day in a long series of extraordinary days aboard the shantyboat. In this entry I’ve name-dropped a few of my shipmates. Next time, I’ll explain who we are and why we spent the last four summers on the river.