When we go whitewater rafting on the American River, we experience history firsthand, and we even get a chance to become a part of it. This account is a small slice, like a geological cross-section, of the rich stories to be discovered on the American River.
Gradient, rocks, water
A rapid on the American River is essentially water running over rocks downhill. Let’s start with the hill.
The Sierra Nevada mountain range is shaped like a ramp, with a gradual incline to about 8,000 feet on the western slope, and a sudden drop-off on the eastern slope. This makes for excellent boating in California, because the rivers flowing toward the Pacific have a long, varied descent into the Central Valley. Radical mountain whitewater, such as that found on Upper Cherry Creek, thrills advanced boaters, while more mellow Class III, IV runs like the South, Middle, and North Forks of the American are found at lower elevations in the foothills.
We owe this gradient to millions and millions of years of geologic commotion. In the Triassic period (251-199 million years ago), the Pacific Plate was being gradually shoved underneath the North American plate. Both, at the time, were under a prehistoric sea. The magma heated by the friction of the collision formed a massive blob, a granite batholith. This remained as immovable as a batholith sounds like it should be, until about 4 million years ago, when, driven by great earthquakes and other less obvious tectonic forces, it began to hinge upward with the rising crust, and became the Sierra Nevada mountain range. It continues to rise today.
John McPhee, describes this process beautifully in his book Assembling California:
"…when mountains rise, as a result of some tectonic force, they consist of what happened to be there. If bands of phyllites and folded metasediments happen to be there, they go up as part of the mountains. If serpentized peridotites and gold-bearing gravels happen to be there, up they go as part of the mountains. If a great granite batholith happens to be there, up it goes as part of the mountains. And while everything is going up it is being eroded as well, by water and (sometimes) ice. Cirques are cut, and U-shaped valleys, ravines, minarets. Parts tumble on one another, increasing, with each confusion, the landscape’s beauty." (19)
A discussion of rocks on the American river is clearly not complete without mention of the Gold Rush. However, it’s unfortunate that the history of the American river is often, to the short-term visitor, compressed into the sound bite, "Gold, boys, gold!" I will get around to the 49′ers, but first I would like to draw your attention to a particular piece of batholithic granite at the Mother Lode River Center camp:
In the upper section of our whitewater raft camp and outdoor education center on the South Fork of the American River, Mother Lode is graced by a thousand-year old Nisenan Indian grindstone, where women used to pound acorns into flour.
Anybody who visits the grindstone will agree that the women who chose the spot for their kitchen picked it for the view. Coloma, the small valley where gold was "discovered" by James Marshall in 1848, is the English reinvention of the Nisenan word Cullumah, meaning beautiful. The river wends left and right in a succession of small rapids that fling bright drops of gold and silver into the air at sunrise and sunset. Otters cross the river on misty mornings. Kingfishers and heron dive for prey, and merganser ducks teach their young to surf the current. It must have been a magical place to make breakfast 2000 years ago.
A rough estimate of the 1770 population of Nisenan, prior to contact with white settlers, is 9,500. By the 1870′s, essayist Rebecca Solnit reports, the indigenous population of California had been reduced by four-fifths. Those who didn’t die by disease were likely to be driven from their homes, starved and murdered once the gold miners arrived in 1849. A plaque in the James Marshall Gold Discovery Park in reports that Marshall himself was driven from Coloma temporarily for "trying to prevent a massacre of local Indians." There were laws on the (rather slapdash) California books condoning the "hunting" of Indians, along with other minority groups. Coloma legally belonged to the Nisenan, but this fact was acknowledged by the U.S. government only in retrospect, with small payments to the few survivors.
We can safely assume, I think, that the placer gold (placer deriving from the Spanish placera, meaning alluvial sand, but also implying the pleasure to be gained from this easily accessible, "sandy" gold) in the streambeds of the American River would not have lain idly for too many more centuries, had James Marshall not discovered it in 1848.
However, the fact that Marshall disclosed the secret to his employer, Swiss merchant John Sutter, five days before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago was ratified on April 2, 1848, turned what could have been a minor historical role for James Marshall into a pivotal one. For around $313 million in today’s dollars, the U.S. secured in part or whole the states of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, and California. The California Gold Rush ultimately produced an estimated $785 million dollars in gold.
Some of that money went abroad, but much of it fed the U.S. and California economies. The sudden wealth transformed the country. Arguments have been made that the northern states could not have won the Civil War without California gold. The Transcontinental Railroad was drawn, like a charmed snake, across the continent by California’s prosperity. Marshall’s discovery catalyzed what has been called the largest human migration for a single purpose after the Crusades. Without this chaotic convergence, historians argue that California would not be the innovative, norm-busting state that it is.
However, in addition to the cost paid by the indigenous people of California, the environmental and social cost of the Gold Rush was, and continues to be, exorbitant. 7,600 tons of the mercury used in mining during the Gold Rush entered the California waterways, and remains there, a toxic menace extending all the way into the San Francisco Bay. With the hydraulic blasting of 13 billion tons of the Sierra Nevada downstream to the Central Valley and San Francisco Bay, John McPhee writes, "man became a geologic event." The salmon are gone, the Nisenan and grizzly bears who ate the salmon are gone, as well as a once-healthy bay and California wetlands. The California Gold Rush also inspired other equally and even more devastating "rushes" throughout the world, which continue to this day.
However, the remarkable recovery of the American River canyons from their blasted state during and after the Gold Rush is a testament to the hard work of people who care about the area to restore and protect it. Today the American River is seen as an important source of tourism and valued for its beauty and history. One recent accomplishment of the American River Conservancy, for example, was the community purchase of Cronin Ranch, which turned 1,414 acres of land into a public park.
If you live in Sacramento, the Central Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area, or Southern California, there’s a good chance that you use American River water. The Central Valley Project and State Water Project channel American River water to people all over the state. The three forks of the American river begin in the American River Watershed, a 2,000 square mile region in the Sierra Nevada, near Soda Springs, Squaw Valley, Echo Summit, and Carson Pass. The North and Middle Forks of the American River converge northeast of Auburn, and the South Fork joins them in Folsom Reservoir. All the northern Sierra rivers drain into the Sacramento, which combines with the American, the Consumnes, the Tuolomne, the San Joaquin, and the Merced. These eventually reach the Sacramento Delta, and from the Delta, they flow to the San Francisco Bay into the Pacific Ocean.
When folks come whitewater rafting, they often ask, "Why is the water in the American River so cold?" Even in the dead of August, when temperatures can reach 115 degrees, a plunge into the Middle and South Forks of the American River takes your breath away. This is not the case with the North Fork — by Mid-August; the North Fork is reduced to a series of warm, algae-green pools. The reason for the difference is dams: before the Middle or South Forks of the American River reach Chile Bar Reservoir on the South Fork, and Oxbow Dam on the Middle Fork, where we put our rafts in, they’ve already passed through a slalom of reservoirs. These provide hydro-electrical power, irrigation, and drinking water to Californians. The water comes from the bottom of the reservoir, so it stays cold most of the year. The North Fork of the American is undammed, so we get a big flow in the spring as the snow melts, and then it peters out.
Ask a boater how she or he feels about dams, and you’ll receive a mixed response. The dams on the Middle and South Forks of the American make it possible to boat all summer, whereas the season on the North Fork is confined to a month or two in the spring. It’s great to be able to run whitewater almost every day all summer long.
Ecologically, however, dams are destructive. Some are worse than others — it depends on the design — but a dam inevitably interrupts the complicated patterns of flow that have shaped the evolution of a riparian ecosystem. In a dammed river, the natural flushing of sediment downstream is blocked, which can create a scouring effect for habitat downstream of the dam. Fish that once migrated upstream can’t anymore, and this can devastate a population that relies on specific breeding grounds. Dams also inundate the river canyons that form the reservoirs where they are built — a quick look at the skeleton trees and bathtub rings that characterize reservoirs like Glen Canyon or Folsom Dam is enough to demonstrate radical change.
The Auburn Dam is just one example of a controversy over dams in which white water rafters have rallied to protect the river. The Auburn Dam proposed by Senator John Doolittle is legendarily despised as a waste of money, bad engineering, and an environmental catastrophe. So far, the dam’s construction has been halted, but we always keep our ears pricked for signs that building might resume.
Mother Lode River Center has been a mainstay in the fight to protect rivers from damming throughout the state as well, including the North, Middle and South Forks of the American River, the Tuolumne, Merced, Kings, Kern, Yuba, Klamath, Trinity and Sespe Rivers. Even little Cache Creek and the collection of North Coast Rivers including the Eel and Smith have been the subject of our river conservation talks. When you come rafting with us, chances are you’ll hear about current environmental issues, especially those pertaining to watersheds, from our guides. We always welcome our guests to get involved in river advocacy.
Lately, our vision has expanded to include the issue which ultimately brings the greatest pressure to bear on rivers: energy. It works two ways: Global warming, in the Sierra Nevada, but all over the world, threatens water supply for consumption as well as hydroelectric power. As the water supply gets more tenuous, and population continues to grow, the flow rivers of rivers will be even more severely compromised by dams than today, with escalating environmental consequences. As we are all aware, global warming is the result of unsustainable energy consumption. At Mother Lode, we’re trying to address the problem at its source, by reducing our carbon footprint and educating others about how to do so. We emphasize solar energy because it requires no dams and has no carbon footprint. Read more more about our eco-rafting programs.
On a geologic time scale, the upheavals of the California Gold Rush, and the water and energy politics of our time, have happened incredibly quickly. This does not mean, however, that their impact has been small. As in the Gold Rush, when "man became a geologic event," humanity’s impact on the planet’s climate has prompted some scientists to call this geologic age the Anthrozoic Age. This puts us center stage, at least during his chapter of Earth’s history!
At Mother Lode, we see this as a unique opportunity. While geologists often see things on a massive time scale, and politicians tend to think in the short term, it is time to bring these short and long term views together. Through our Solar Rafting Program and Exploratorium, our EcoBus, and our outdoor education, we hope to make short term changes with long term results. When grade school students learn about the water cycle, and rafters inspired by the beauty of the river canyon write a letter to their representatives in favor of solar energy, we believe that participants in Mother Lode programs are making American River history.
We look forward to seeing you on the river,
Emily Underwood and the MaLode Crew