Thursday, November 22, 2012

Fan-tastic kayaking around Delta's Sherman Island

Kinetic art in a Kondos scene near Sherman Island in the Delta

“This is just like a Kondos painting!” said one of my kayak buds. Sure ‘nuff, the vista unfolding before us looked like an iconic California Delta scene by artist Gregory Kondos. Blue and bluer hues of sky and expansive flatwater. Low hills dotted with trees. Gleaming white, 30-story-tall wind turbines – say what?
We were paddling in the Sherman Island Waterfowl Management Area, near the town of Rio Vista. NorCal Yak pal Frank found this place and picked the perfect late fall day, with neutral tides, virtually no wind, and temps in the 70s. Calm conditions being significant, because there’s a reason why 800 giant wind turbines fan out across the hillsides.  You want to be off-water when these big boys start humming, unless you're a windsurfer.

Windless days perfect for late-season paddling
This is an A-grade paddle trip during non-summer months when winds are light. Let’s run down the rest of the checklist that makes this my fave Delta paddle to date. Start with spectacular views – in one direction, those humungous, electricity-generating fans. Then turn west and scan across the marshlands toward awesome Mount Diablo. And all around the edges of this Kondos-like scene are reedy bogs, gnarly trees and mysterious, twisting channels.
Clear views of Mount Diablo to the west 
Plus there are critters, on the wing and in the water. Soon after we launched, something popped out of the murky depths ahead. Must be a stray seal, we first thought, but no, this was one hecka big river otter.  He had a family, too. Later in the day, we played hide-and-seek as they swam through thickets of bulrush and cattail.
Meanwhile, a large and well-fed hawk lolled in the top of a dead tree, watching over dozens of fishing boats. It’s a popular spot for striped bass, salmon, sturgeon and catfish. Though we saw nary a fish netted during our paddle.
Hawks, herons, otters -- but the most curious critter was yet to come
The most interesting critter we ran across turned out to be a duckbill platypus – but that’s another part of the story.
We spent more than three hours on the water, taking a round-trip of more than eight miles, and yet barely saw a corner of the Sherman Island area. It's that big. With plenty of secluded sandy beaches inviting a stop for lunch, we did so.
It’s a wild place, but hardly pristine. A large, rusty outdoor stove and a trash burn pile decorated the area near our beach. Rotting timbers and pilings from dilapidated docks share the shoreline with a high wall of reeds, broken by the occasional channel opening. A 20-minute exploration of one channel culminated in a dead-end garden of water hyacinth, an invasive species. We turned back before the green monster could ensnare us. 
The final thing that confirmed this as an “A” trip was a post-paddle drive over to Rio Vista and one swell joint – Foster’s Bighorn bar and restaurant. About 300 pair of eyes settled on us as we strolled into the dim room. “Don’t try to stare them down,” I whispered to my pals.
Foster's Bighorn, a different kind of big game preserve
The joint was founded in the 1930s by a big game hunter, William “Bill” Foster, who  needed a place to hold his trophy collection. Yes, there is an elephant in the room. And a giraffe. And a hippopotamus. The stuff PETA nightmares are made of.
Then someone spotted a furry lump with a strange snout...oh no – not a duckbill platypus. Yep, said the bartender, adding that this natural oddball can be as dangerous as its fanged associates on the walls. Incredulous, I looked it up. No lie, the male platypus sports venomous spurs on its hind legs, and the toxin can be devastating.
So there you have it – a great day on a great waterway, an unforgettable joint to visit afterward, and a weird but true bit of critter trivia. Even Kondos couldn’t dream up such a scene. 
First, this is the Delta, where some of those Web maps don’t always get names and places right. We launched from Sherman Island County Park (southern Sacramento County).  Use road directions in this link. (It’s about 1:20 from Sacramento via I-5.) There’s a concrete launch ramp, picnic tables, pit toilets and paved parking. 
For a local wind-icator, who better to consult than the Rio Vista Windsurfing and ShermanIsland Kiteboarding guys? Said club newsletter editor Gil Gaus: “Mornings are often windiest. It is midday that is more consistently less windy. Another factor to consider is the tides. If it is windy and an ebb tide, there are big waves. The windy season is June through September. Other months are maybe windy twice a month or so. We all use for real time wind info." In summer, Gaus noted, a cooling trend in Sacramento and the valley is usually a good indicator that Delta winds have kicked up.
Exploring the back channels -- prepare for dead-ends
Wind farmer SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) also confirmed that winter months may be the best bet for kayakers, if a bit slower biz for turbines. Here's more info on SMUD wind power. 
Even if you’re not into the hunting thing, Foster’s Bighorn on Main Street in Rio Vista must be seen to be believed. Check out the link for the history and a lunch and dinner menu, but don’t try to order tofu.
© Glenn Brank 2012