A beautiful fall morning of 52 degrees – a chilly wind greets me and I am glad to be wearing a sweatshirt as I ride to the Fair Oaks Bridge and along the bike trail. Only one fishing boat is left in the river. The shadows are changing and the sun bright. Ducks swim leisurely in the river. I pass by several scenic picnic areas that face the river. This overlook is a walk to river. Always crowded with fishermen. Even the pigeons know its fall and salmon are coming.
I ride to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery to see the weir that blocks the river so salmon are forced up into the fish ladder. By November, thousands of salmon will be leaping up the ladder. Soon hundreds of students and families will have line the fish ladder watching the spectacle, with their chorus of “oohs” and “aaah” and “wow!”
As a former tour guide, I asked students, “How high does a salmon jump?” “Why do we have dams?” and “How can we help keep the river a healthy place for salmon and other fish and wildlife to live?”
“Will this year be a good Chinook Salmon run?” is what CA Dept of Wildlife staff may be wondering. “What impact will the drought have on this year’s salmon run?” “Is the water too shallow?” “Too warm?” “Too acidic?” “Will enough eggs survive to continue the species?”
As I stand looking at the river, I see a man that could be a grandfather walking with his young grandson. My mind instantly wanders. I wonder what lies ahead for salmon in this boy’s lifetime? What is the future for all wildlife that depends on the health of the American River – and rivers everywhere when the morning begins as a new day.
I see cyclists crossing the Hazel Avenue Bridge – a newly expanded and modernized bridge to accommodate additional cars. I see a complex network of structures – a bridge for cars and bicycle trails, the dam on one side and the weir on the other. Looking at this network reminds me that I am still in an urban area congested with traffic, people, businesses, retailers and a host of other community services and amenities. This place is less than 20 miles from city, county and state government leaders who make long term decisions that affect the health of this river and all other California rivers.
These intersections on the river where salmon come home, cyclists ride, and people drive, is part of the larger story of our environmental challenges – water supply, climate change, urbanization, noise and sustaining healthy habitats. Yet, here where the salmon come home presents so many opportunities to inform, educate and inspire positive change.
As I approach the bridge this late afternoon, a large family poses for photos using the bridge and river as a scenic backdrop. The young women spend more of their time running after the littlest ones who are far more interested in running across the bridge, and petting dogs walking with their owners.
The sun hides behind a dense cloud cover. Fishermen in boats are waiting, kayaks launch and children enjoy feeding ducks on the boat launch ramp. Other people stand on the bridge watching the fisherman.
The evening always brings out people to enjoy the river and watch wildlife, boats and the setting sun from the bridge.
A few years ago various groups and individuals regularly enjoyed picnics on the bridge to sit and watch the moon rise and the sun set. I rarely see people picnic on the bridge. Many walkers, very few “sitters.”
Riding along the parkway this afternoon, I heard the distinctive sound of a woodpecker working in a nearby tree and stopped to watch. We may call it pecking. Officially, woodpeckers “drum.” I watched the woodpecker at work near the top of the tree for several minutes until it decided to fly across the road to another tree.Read more
Despite the gentle rain, roosters are conducting their morning concert. They are still singing when I arrive. They crow hiding in trees from a distance of several blocks.
Pigeons circle the bridge. An egret begins its usual lone morning walk along the shore beginning at the boat ramp. While standing at the boat launch ramp, my daughter and I see a goose with a cocked feather. We have seen this one before. We know these geese call this part of the river their home.
Ducks arrive quietly for their leisurely morning swim. Turkey vultures are sitting on the edge of branches at the tops of trees. Geese are busy eating the remains of a salmon. More Canada geese fly in. None of the waterfowl appear to notice the gentle rain as it falls on their backs and drops into the river.Read more
Drizzle rain stops and starts again. Still very few people outside at 11 am. A warm rain. River is very quiet with cloudy skies and no rain. Ducks search the river for food, wings flap. Faint quacks. Canada geese change position and fly away. A cloudy sky and all is quiet. Boaters sit calmly in the water. The gentle, nourishing rain is a refreshing and welcome change.
Earlier boaters in their rain jackets have sped away heading east toward the weir positioned at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery where the salmon converge to spawn – either in the river or inside the hatchery. Birds patrol the sky. Turkey vultures wait patiently, ready to pounce on whatever has died. I find salmon heads cast off into the rocks. Soon these remains will be consumed by hungry turkey vultures, seagull or other wildlife that find them first.
By the time I park the car, daylight has filled the sky and clouds are gone – all except a few random patches and streaks. Have not seen the moon from the bridge for many days. Each morning there is so much cloud cover. There is no moon today.
It is cool and misty outside. I wear a warm, hooded sweatshirt. My car windows are fogged – as they are every morning. I wipe the windows before leaving home and turn on the defroster.
On my walk to the bridge, I am welcomed by the morning concert from roosters in their usual places – hiding in trees. For the unaware visitor, it appears that trees talk. Without shaking a leaf, the roosters perch on a branch and sing. One lonely and very scrawny chicken emerges from a side street and sings a scratchy song for anyone to hear.Read more
The sky is still dark with only a hint of the approaching dawn. Roosters crow limply this morning. I walk shining a flashlight all the way to the bridge. A very misty morning! Looking at the sky with a few streaks of gray clouds, the dawn seems darker this morning. The orange glow from the rising sun begins to spread across the sky. Two ducks fly east. The river is still. Hardly a ripple. Mist hangs over the river like a canopy in the distance. The coldest morning yet – a chilly 48 degrees.
The American River closed to fishing November 1 through the end of the year. This is my first visit without fisherman lining the river before dawn.
Next week, hundreds of salmon will begin their leap into the fish ladder as spawning begins at the Nimbus Fish Hatchery less than two miles upstream to the east.
Today I ride along the bike trail to watch the salmon traveling upstream. I stand watching them for half an hour, seeing a series of splashes beginning 100 yards away and getting closer. This shallow part of the river presents the richest experience for watching salmon, seagulls and turkey vultures overhead. As I stop to watch a dozen other cyclists and walkers also stop to enjoy the salmon navigating the river and the seagulls looking for their next meals.
Hundreds of seagulls line the river, some walk into the rapids, stand, shout and wait. Thirty turkey vultures fly overhead – more than I have ever seen in one place at one time. I watch as a dozen salmon leap, swim, gather, rest and move on through the rapids to still water.
One dead salmon rests on rocks in the center of the rapids. One at a time, a seagull approaches. It pokes his beak around, pondering what to do and then nibbles on parts of salmon’s underside. One seagull sits in the water near the shore where I stand, open its beak wide and calls to the others, whoever will listen. I watch and I listen as the seagulls stretch their wings before returning to settle in the water. A few ducks swim in the quiet pool of water, apparently unconcerned about the activity.
This narrow section of the river is the same where I watched ducks station themselves to search for food in the water a few weeks ago. Now this is dominated by the salmon and the gulls. The coming of the salmon quickly changed the interaction of wildlife at the river.
I ride east to another overlook where hundreds more gulls line up and wait. This section of the river is far wider and the only sound is the water moving downstream. Seagulls are silent. No turkey vultures fly overhead. The only clue that this river winds through a suburban community is the houses located on the Fair Oaks Bluffs above.
The tip of the thin island where the fisherman used to stand is now even smaller because with increased river flows, the island is thin enough to almost disappear. The gulls have overtaken this space as they wait.
Continuing my afternoon bike ride traveling to the east side of the Fair Oaks Bridge. I approach a tall and long dead tree on the side of the path that I have passed by hundreds of time. The trunk is ghostly gray with a dozen dead branches laying at its feet. Why is this tree still standing?
Riding by the tree I hear knocking and stop to look. A family of three woodpeckers are lined up on the trunk drumming on the tree. The trunk from the ground to the uppermost remnant of the trunk is covered with scars from the woodpeckers. At the very top of the tree are two more woodpeckers. They have created a nest out of the hollow at the top of highest branch. From now on, I will be on woodpecker watch passing this tree.
The sky is awash with shades of pink fading in the sky. As the pink turns slowly gray, I see the mist hovering over the water as if this is Brigadoon hiding its secrets. The southern sky is woven with pale stripes as the sun rises. The mist gently moves along the river towards the bridge. The movement so gentle it reminds me of fog blowing across a stage in a theater in unseen currents of air.
I wear gloves. My hands still feel like ice. The boat launch ramp is empty. A group of four ducks are just now coming out to swim. A single seagull flies west over the bridge. The little bird that used to greet me every morning has returned to sit at the top of the bridge frame and sing its song, “Ti Too! Ti Too!” Geese fly under the bridge, honking, honking loudly, landed on the west side of the bridge in their traditional water skiing style.
Alas, two empty beer cans sit on the bridge. Runners arrive wearing hats, jackets and gloves. The bridge rails are covered with dew. The deck is moist enough to reveal footsteps. An intact spider web is suspended between two bridge rails. Six dead salmon float next to the riverbank to become food for hungry gulls, as Canada Geese and turkey vultures monitor the river.
I walk to the boat launch ramp and stand alongside two Canada Geese pondering what they will do today. One turns around and spies the river. The other stands and whispers, “Honk, honk” to me over and over again. What a treat it would be to know geese language. The best I can do is say good morning in “people speak.” The river’s resident Egret is sitting on the north shore in its usual spot.
A single seagull flies over my head. Its circular flight path is 100 yards long, over and over again. The gull is far too high above me to hear the flap of its wings. Yet I do hear it whistle as it circles above me six times. The two Canada Geese decide to fly over the river and vanish into the mist. Ducks appear, land in the water and quickly liftoff once again to fly away to another part of the river corridor.
I leave the boat ramp and walk back over the bridge, always giving the river a last glance for the day to hold it in my memory. Arriving at my car at 810 am, the morning temperature has only warmed to 49 degrees.