By CARY ORDWAY
First-time California visitors traveling southbound on the freeway sometimes are taken aback when, just about the time they reach Stockton, they see a big ocean-going freighter that seems a little like a whale swimming in your local river. After driving hundreds of miles down California's hot, dry interior, it just doesn't compute that there should be a ship anywhere even close.
Yet ships do call on Stockton - and have for decades - as they make their way to the state's interior through an intricate set of waterways sometimes called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or the Sacramento Delta, or just the California Delta. The point is it's a delta not unlike what you see in the Deep South and, in fact, there are some surprising connections between Louisiana and the California Delta. Anyone who has visited Isleton for its famous Crawdad Festival can testify to that.
It's also eerily similar to the rural roads and towns near New Orleans where levees keep the river from flooding the countryside. In this case it's not the Mississippi that you worry about but the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers that creates a water system carrying 47 percent of California's water runoff. Most of the land of the inner Delta is under sea level, generally between 21 and three feet below.
Parched residents of California's San Joaquin Valley are not about to let all that water go to waste and so what has developed over the decades is a vibrant water recreation area with dozens of marinas, interesting small towns and a network of canals, roads and bridges that makes visitors in this part of the state almost entirely dependent on GPS devices -- or at least a good set of old-fashioned road maps.
The Delta region is comprised of 738,000 acres in six counties, so you could seemingly wander around in there for years without finding a way out. That's especially true if you're navigating a houseboat - as we once did - where relying on your navigation charts is the only way to be sure you'll ever be heard from again.
But that, of course, is the appeal of the California Delta. For those visitors with a little wanderlust, it's easy to get to the Delta from the San Francisco Bay area. After all, one of the Delta's largest cities, Antioch, is comprised largely of people who live in the Delta region and commute daily to San Francisco. From there you just cross a bridge and all of a sudden you're driving on lonely two-lane roads skirting the canals and levees, turning every which way until, voila, there's another little town to explore and check off your list.
On our most recent trip to the Delta we decided we'd spend the night in some rather unusual "waterfront" accommodations: a 40-foot Bluewater yacht with its own dock, located at the confluence of Georgiana Slough and the Mokelumne River. The Dockside Boatel has an Isleton address, but this is one of the places you'll want to call for directions. The owner will be happy to give them to you and will be there to greet you because she lives in a house just a few yards onshore from the dock.
This was a great base of operations for forays into the Delta region and an excellent choice if you love being dockside and enjoy the sounds and slight wave action of the water. We had the dock to ourselves and there are two chairs on the dock perfect for fishing, reading the paper, watching the sunset or just overall taking in the sights and sounds of the Delta tributaries.
A 40-foot boat is a good-sized boat and a chance for non-boaters to sample what it would be like to have a large boat for regular getaways. You're not going to drive this boat anywhere because it's being rented as a floating bed-and-breakfast inn, but it's no more costly than staying in a room at someone's home. The boat has a parlor area, a galley (kitchen), a stateroom with two beds down below, a head (bathroom), and plenty of space out on the aft deck for sitting. (Special note to landlubbers: as boaters know, heads can be a little temperamental and this one is no exception).
Breakfast is delivered to your door at whatever time you prefer, and ours was a well-prepared hearty combination of French toast, sausage, eggs and two kinds of juices. We were impressed with the quantity of food for what we considered a nominal nightly rental rate. Lower priced B and B's are more apt to give you a cinnamon roll and send you on your way.
While there are several small towns within easy driving distance, we especially enjoyed Isleton, where you do start to get the connection with Louisiana. We're told that Louisiana residents actually do come here to live and they seem to bring some of that Cajun spice right along with them. Check out the crawdads served at Isleton Joe's or Ernie's or, better yet, plan your trip for the Crawdad Festival each June. While you can catch crawdads in the Delta, thousands of crawdads are shipped in from Louisiana -- pre-spiced -- for the festival.
We drove many backroads in the Delta where we found numerous marinas, each with a restaurant and some variation of waterfront dining. There were state parks where it was easy to pull off and find a canal-front location to have a picnic. There were draw bridges that were great for photos. And t was fun to see the many variations of boats plying the inland waterways during our visit, including a 19th Century sailing ship that was offering rides from the Antioch Marina.
If you drive along Highway 60, you'll encounter several different towns - Isleton, Rio Vista, Locke, Walnut Grove and Ryde - which will each give you a taste of life in the Delta region and of the history that created this unusual destination. Check out the restored Ryde Hotel, just south of Walnut Grove where you can almost hear the voices of the party-goers who once traveled here by sternwheeler. Or stop by Rio Vista, considered the biggest town in these parts with 5,000 people. This is Bass-fishing Central where the annual Bass Festival attracts 35,000.
We couldn't leave the Delta without getting on a boat - a boat that actually moves, that is - so we dropped by H2O to Go Boat Rentals, located between the cities of Rio Vista and Lodi and rented our own 17-foot runabout for a couple of hours. This was a late-model (almost new, in fact) bowrider that sped us to several locations along the Delta waterways giving us an entirely new perspective of the Delta. Sure enough, we came upon one of those ocean freighters that was headed into Stockton. It was time again to freak out a few more of those travelers headed down the interstate.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The California Delta is generally located between Sacramento and Stockton and then southwest to Antioch or northwest to Suisun Bay. It's easily accessed from all of those areas.
WHAT: The California Delta is where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers converge to take runoff waters from the Central Valley through a channel to San Francisco Bay and then out to the Pacific Ocean. The area has several natural and man-made channels (or sloughs) that have the combined effect of creating a series of islands. The earthen levees in the area have allowed extensive farming throughout the Delta and boating in the Delta area feels like you are driving your boat through farmlands.
WHEN: Boating is best in the summer months, but a temperate climate allows recreation and travel in this area any time of the year.
WHY: The Delta's waterways are fun to explore and the variety of towns, marinas, parks, lodgings and unique down-home restaurants adds to the overall appeal.
HOW: For more information on the Delta, contact the California Delta Chambers and Visitors Bureau at www.californiadelta.org or phone (916) 777-4041. For more information on the Delta's Dockside Boatel, go to www.deltadocksideboatel.com or phone 510-919-2197. To learn more about boat rentals on the Delta, go to www.h20rents.com or phone 209-810-6755.
Please visit California Weekend for more information on California travel .
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway