Discover the Sacramento Delta, land of enchanted islands and meandering waterways, where the current of time runs slower.
Though California teems with more than 34 million people, it's remarkable how remote the heart of the Sacramento Delta, centered on Highway 160, still feels. Drive across the Antioch Bridge, which sweeps up and over the San Joaquin River, or drive south from Sacramento and soon freeways, shopping centers, and housing developments seem a million miles away. You start to see flocks of migrating birds darkening the sky or gawky great blue herons foraging in open fields. You notice oak trees reflected in water and the ghostly diffusion of early morning light through an orchard. The pace of life slows—you're on Delta time now—as you enter a world where houseboats laze along shady sloughs and fishermen endlessly angle for striped bass or sturgeon. From fall through spring, the Delta is a quiet getaway for people in search of back-road adventures and towns that haven't changed in 50 years. In summer, the waters call and the Delta hums with water-skiers, windsurfers, and boaters.
The mouths of major rivers are often important agricultural, wildlife, and recreation centers, and the Sacramento Delta is no exception. Located northeast of the San Francisco Bay, the Delta contains an archipelago of fertile islands; below sea level, they are protected by levees. A collection of workaday bridges as well as a pair of tiny public ferries link the islands to one another and to the outside world. Highway 160, which has a two-lane stretch called the Delta Road, hugs the Sacramento River, connecting the string of small towns and marinas along its banks. The Delta is also a major stopover for migratory birds such as double-crested cormorants and northern shovelers. You may spot a mallard seeking a resting spot in sloughs so narrow that even a failed Little Leaguer could get a stone across. If you're very lucky, you may sight a white-faced ibis or a green-backed heron.
You can't be in the delta for even a few hours without noticing the open feel of this land. Except for the sight of slope-shouldered Mount Diablo, which stands like a southern sentinel over the landscape, your views can stretch unimpeded from the blue Coast Range to the snowy peaks of the Sierra. "You get a 360-degree view of the horizon out here," says artist Marty Stanley, who for the past 20 years has painted his native Delta—obsessively, some would say—and its many moods. Stanley is keenly aware of its horizons and the seasonal peculiarities of the light, a result of humidity in the air and the changing angle of the sun. Sunrises often appear through early morning mists, and the evening colors—especially in spring and fall—can be spectacular.
History runs deep in the Sacramento Delta. Originally it was flood-prone swampland occupied during the drier months by the Miwok Indians. Out-of-luck gold miners, looking to raise food, settled in the early 1850s. They reclaimed the first parcels of land, but after the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad, the backbreaking job of digging channels and building levees was turned over to thousands of Chinese railroad laborers working in "wheelbarrow brigades." A huge leap forward in reclaiming land for agriculture occurred with the 1879 introduction of the steam-driven, barge-mounted clamshell dredge.
The pace of life slows—you're on Delta time— as you enter a world where houseboats laze along the shady sloughs and fishermen endlessly angle for striped bass or sturgeon.
The rise of agriculture in the Delta led to a rise in river commerce, with hundreds of paddle wheel steamboats eventually hauling passengers and goods. People made fortunes and built beautiful homes, many of which still stand amid their vintage palms. Among the most impressive is the Grand Island Mansion. Built in 1917 for Louis Meyers, an orchard magnate, the four-story, 58-room Italian Renaissance villa entertained in its early days such luminaries as actress Jean Harlow and author Erle Stanley Gardner. The property, restored down to its parquet floors and gilt mirrors, is now used mainly for weddings and other private functions, though it is occasionally open to the public for Sunday brunch from March through December.
For a casual visitor, the riverfront towns along Highway 160—Isleton, Rio Vista, Locke, Walnut Grove, Ryde—provide the best places to get a sense of the region's past and its sometimes colorful characters. At the restored Ryde Hotel, a peach-colored 1928 landmark a few miles south of Walnut Grove, you can still see the peephole in the door through which Prohibition-era party hounds were scrutinized when the Ryde was a speakeasy, a casino, and even a reputed bordello. Revelers arrived by paddle wheeler, and the big-name guests reportedly included Dashiell Hammett and Al Jolson.
Another spot with a colorful history is Foster's Bighorn, a bar and café on Rio Vista's Main Street. Opened in 1931 by Bill Foster, a bootlegger on the run from the law, its walls are filled with heads: a full-grown African elephant, a walrus, and a giraffe, as well as some 250 other stuffed and mounted wild game trophies, most of them shot or trapped by Foster. If you think the elephant's ivory tusks look quite brown, you're right. "That's what 50 years of sitting in a smoke-filled room will do to you, honey," says husky-voiced waitress Janie Wisnom. Rio Vista—the Delta's biggest town, with a population of approximately 5,000—swells every October when the Bass Festival reels in more than 35,000 people.
One of the most evocative towns along the Delta is Locke, built in 1915 by and for Chinese agricultural workers. Known in its heyday for worldly attractions like gambling, hooch, and opium, Locke was also a vibrant Chinese community with its own grocery stores and school. "I remember in 1929, when I was 8 years old, my aunt took me to see a Chinese movie that played at Locke's Star Theater," says Connie King, who has lived in Locke since 1949. When the town was conceived, the Chinese workers, because of antialien laws, could own buildings but not the land on which they stood. Even after the laws were found unconstitutional in 1952, the land remained in the hands of the original owner and, later, a development company. Though for many years Locke has felt like a ghost town, change may finally be in the offing. The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency recently bought the town site and intends to sell the lots to the buildings' owners, allowing them to obtain bank loans for restoration work.
The Sacramento Delta is known for its water-related recreation, such as sailing, fishing, waterskiing, and windsurfing. Scores of small resorts, including a few that have seen better days, offer amenities ranging from campsites and a boat ramp to comfortable cabins, full-service marinas, and sit-down restaurants. Houseboat rentals are popular, as is "gunk holing," the practice of tying up to a tree or some other unofficial anchorage and settling in for a spell. Motorboats often ignore the no wake zone signs as they happily plow up the wide river.
Just before dawn one spring morning at Vieira's Resort on the Sacramento River near Isleton, Elaine Alexander is busy selling bait while fishermen launch boats or finish a breakfast of linguiça and eggs at the Rusty Anchor restaurant. "There's good fishing and cruising most of the year," says Alexander, a member of the family that has owned Vieira's for three generations. "But if you want to see this place busy, come back in the summer."
Raising crops also remains an integral part of life here. From the tops of levees, you look down onto acre after acre of orchards and fields. "The Delta is still 90 percent devoted to agriculture," says Ronald Otsuji, a Walnut Grove-based agricultural biologist with Sacramento County. "The region used to be under-water, and this soil—it's called peat dirt—is filled with settled organic matter. That's one reason why things grow so well here."
On a drive around the Delta, it's easy to spot the significant crops, among them corn, wheat, and wine grapes. Grass grown in the region carpets countless California backyards as well as Pacific Bell Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants. Pears, particularly Bartletts, do well in the more mineral-rich soils of the northern Delta around Courtland, according to farmer Doug Hemly, whose ancestors first came to the Delta in 1850. Every July, Courtland's Pear Fair celebrates the city's heritage with pear smoothies, pear fritters, and the crowning of the Pear Fair Queen.
Sprinkled throughout the Delta are transformed remnants of what used to be. In Clarksburg, the hulking, brick sugar beet plant sits abandoned. Asparagus, which was once king in these parts, has largely gone elsewhere. Isleton, the erstwhile "Asparagus Capital of the World," now hosts a crawdad festival every June in true Delta fashion, boasting that some 22,000 pounds of crawdads will be consumed by the time the last plates of gumbo and jambalaya have been served.
Though the soil, the history, and the people of the Delta have played important roles in forming its unique character, in the end you always come back to the water. It is a fact of life here as much as the big valley sky. For many years, before the bridge-building days of the early 1900s, dozens of ferries worked the rivers and sloughs. Today, two public ferries remain, both free. The Real McCoy chugs approximately 325 yards across Cache Slough, while the J-Mack pulls itself along a 450-foot cable anchored to opposite banks of Steamboat Slough. Neither takes more than eight cars, and there's no schedule. The ferries run when the pilots spot vehicles to be carried.
The Real McCoy and the J-Mack are evocative holdouts from the Delta's past, but the two small vessels also remind you to take life a little slower. As hurried as you might be, you sometimes have to wait five minutes for the boat to get you to the other side. They're precious minutes, a gift from the Delta, allowing you to take a few breaths, look at the water and trees, and realize you're on Delta time.
Photography by Margot Hartford
This article was first published in May 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.