Author: Martin, George

Delta memories

We drove up to Isleton last Saturday to spend the afternoon at the Lighthouse Marina, which had invited bluegrass folk to a music-making campout. We didn’t plan to stay the night because I wanted Sunday to relax at home and get ready for a two-gig Monday with my band. We played children’s shows in Stinson Beach in the morning and Point Reyes Station in the afternoon. They were lots of fun, particularly in Point Reyes, where the kids were one “live” crowd indeed. But that’s another story.

We crossed the Antioch Bridge and were driving up Highway 160 when I spotted a sign that said “Brannan Island Road.” I had looked at a Google map of the area earlier that morning and hadn’t expected that road to be there, but I knew the Lighthouse Marina was on Brannan Island road, so we turned right. And that led us on a long, slow trek -- maybe seven miles or so on a tiny levee road, one lane in many places, through a very remote area, indeed.

There are a fair number of real estate For Sale signs up there. I looked at the river to my right, maybe three feet below the level of the road, and at the “real estate” to my left, maybe 20 feet below the level of the road, and I thought to myself, if I was going to buy some real estate, I think I would want some with greater long-term potential to remain as actual dry land.

When we finally got to the Lighthouse I realized I should have proceeded up to Rio Vista, taken a right on Highway 12 and turned off on the other end of Brannan Island Road and we would have been there in just a few minutes. But driving along that tiny road reminded me of the times in my childhood that my father would take me fishing in similar areas of the Delta.

I don’t know if we weren’t very good fishermen or if there just weren’t many catfish around where we were, but I recall fishing a long time for our small string of three or four fish. (Those little catfish were very tasty -- I expect it was the piquant flavor of mercury and other heavy metals.) I especially recall once when my father was trying to get a hook out of a catfish’s mouth that the creature suddenly flipped its body and stabbed Dad with its spiny fin. It was a nasty cut and got infected from the slime on the fish. It gave me a great deal of respect for catfish. And a solemn resolve to use pliers if I ever find myself in the unlikely situation of having caught a cat myself and needing to remove the hook.

When I was about 14 years old my father got a deal on an outboard motorboat that had fallen off its trailer and suffered a puncture wound. He had to borrow a few hundred dollars to swing the deal (I think the outboard motor he bought probably was the major cost item) and he made the near fatal mistake of not discussing it with my mother. His rationale was that the boat and motor was a birthday present for Mom. Pretty sketchy, I know, but her birthday was coming up and it was the best he could come up with.

That loan was his undoing, because the paperwork came in the mail when he was at work and Mom blew a fuse. Although my sister and I didn’t notice anything amiss, my mother stopped talking to Dad for several days. Eventually she calmed down and decided that since we were now boat owners she might as well enjoy it.

Meanwhile, the boat was sitting outside with a hole about the size of a grapefruit in its hull between the gunwale and the waterline. Dad cut a piece of plywood in a square slightly bigger than the hole. Then we scribed that square onto the hull and cut along the line. Then he mounted that square onto a slightly larger square and put the small square into the (now matching) hole, glued it and added some fiberglass.

Then we sanded the whole thing, painted the boat white on top and red on the bottom and it was as good as new. I masked off and painted some spiffy blue trim lines, which looked fine from the side but were revealed as not quite symmetrical if one looked at the boat from the front.

We had a lot of family fun in that boat. It wasn’t very big, maybe 12 feet or so, but it skimmed along on top of the water quite nicely, particularly in calm conditions, which is why we spent most of our water time at Brannan Island State Park, and adjacent waterways.

Mostly we went for rides and had picnics and swam some and occasionally fished, but we did have one Big Adventure.

The boat had a little deck, so Dad rigged up a windshield, a steering wheel, and a remote throttle control he could operate from the front seat. It was more fun to steer from up front, rather than crouching in back holding the outboard handle like a rudder.

One day we were speeding along in a fairly narrow slough when Dad noticed the throttle would not power down -- something was jammed. After messing with it for a while and failing to get it to work, he decided to reach around and pull the fuel hose off the gas tank that sat in the bottom of the boat and was feeding the motor.

Alas, when he turned around he stopped looking where he was going and the boat veered slightly toward shore, hit the mud and plowed about a 20-foot swath through the tules, with us all hanging on for dear life and the propeller still spinning, spitting mud everywhere.

Finally the gas in the carburetor was exhausted, the motor died and there we were, sitting in amongst the cattails in dead silence.

I was in the Sea Scouts at that time and never went anywhere into nature without my trusty sheath knife. So I climbed out and started whacking away at the tules and dragging the boat bit by bit back toward water. I think while I was pulling Dad was pushing, both of us about knee-deep in Delta mud, but my only clear memory is of cutting tules, pulling the boat, and cutting more tules.

When we were once more afloat, Dad disconnected the remote controls and we motored back the old-fashioned way.

This happened more than 50 years ago, and my mother at age 97 has serious dementia, but she still now and then asks me if I remember the time we crashed the boat. I expect I will remember it 20 years hence, when she is long gone and I am the one with the brain of mush.

Posted:  8/12/2010

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