The river seems endless.
After eight hours in a kayak, my arms burn with every stroke of the paddle.
For the last few miles, we have seen little new.
The Mokelumne here is a stagnant olive highway lined with stately oaks and a tangle of blackberry briars. The monotony is broken only by an occasional duck flapping overhead.
We turn yet another oxbow in the river and it appears.
A fire pit.
We silently beach the kayaks and creep on shore like a pair of curious Miwok Indians discovering a pioneer encampment.
More signs of life: A fishing line. A shoe. A bike.
As we crest a berm at the top of the bank, we chance upon the owner of this hidden habitation. He has a billowing beard.
And a large knife.
It begins as just a trickle of snowmelt high in the Sierra. It ends, 160 miles away, in the watery maze of the San Joaquin Delta. Along the way, the Mokelumne River floats lazily past Lodi. On its course to the Delta, the river provides power, water and recreation for millions. A Miwok name meaning "people of the fishnet," the Mokelumne remains a river of life, teeming with salmon, trout and other fish.
See a complete photo slideshow of this feature.There are only seven places on the 60-mile stretch through San Joaquin County where a law-abiding citizen can dip his feet into the cool river water without trespassing on private land.
For many in the Lodi area, the Mokelumne is truly a question mark.
News-Sentinel photographer Brian Feulner and I recently paddled the entire lower Mokelumne River from Camanche Dam to the mouth to explore the river between the few parks and bridges that reveal the waterway to the public.
On our three-day kayak odyssey, floating in motorless boats in the quiet of dawn, we surprised deer, coyotes and otters who could not hear our stealthy advances.
We discovered a river that many people will never see - the hidden Mokelumne.
Day 1 - Slums and palaces
At 6:30 a.m., the sun is just rising over Camanche Dam as we pull into the Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery parking lot.
Before East Bay Municipal Utility District built the Camanche and Pardee dams, the river here was wild and flooded annually.
Now it is only as fierce or tame as the district's hydrographers allow.
We heft our kayaks through the hatchery property to the edge of the river. After this spot, there is only one public access point until Lodi, 25 miles away.
We put in a few feet from the fish ladder at the point where the churning water flows out of the massive dam looming above. We suck in the fresh, crisp morning air scented with oak. I slide my sleek red Dagger into the cold water.
We listen to the water as it tumbles over yellow stones in the shallow river bottom. It is a peaceful sound, drowning out all thoughts. The swift current dislodges our boats from shore.
We begin the journey.
Floating on this river for the first time is invigorating. It is also a little scary. I do not know what awaits around the next bend, but I am excited to explore the unknown.
For the first three miles, the river is full of playful rapids and blackberry bush-lined banks. The speedy current takes me from rock to rock and I am forced to paddle hard to stay away from treacherous downed trees in the river.
"Watch out for that log," Brian yells back to me over the noisy river.
"What log?" I yell back as I hit the underwater snag and nearly capsize.
Vultures eye our floating expedition from woody perches. White egrets stand stoically on downed driftwood. A duck buzzes over our heads in a beeline down river like a flyby from an F-16. Black angus cows peer down on us from raised banks.
After an hour, we pass under the Highway 88 bridge. An hour later, we pull into Stillman Magee Regional Park at Macville Road.
Stillman Magee is popular with rafters and anglers because it is the only river access between Camanche and Lodi Lake.
Frank Densmore has seen them all. The 72-year-old park caretaker lives with his wife in a small trailer on the river. He dresses casually in T-shirts and baseball caps. His face is rough with stubble. Densmore says as many as 5,000 people use the park and enjoy the river on hot summer weekends.
Last fall, construction company George Reed, Inc. submitted a proposal to the county to turn the park into a gravel mine. Next door to the park, the company's earthmovers have turned the riverside into an excavation. Pits scar the landscape. Piles of rock dot the property.
This will be the scene at Stillman Magee for at least three years if George Reed takes over.
Densmore says shutting out the public here would be unfortunate.
"If you take the access to the river, you are taking away from the whole community," he says. "This is really a secret river. It's well worth seeing and well worth saving."
Below the park, the river slows. The lazy river is completely still - a sheet of green glass.
As we propel our boats in a silent rhythm, something on shore catches my eye. A cross. A closer investigation reveals that it is a memorial.
A few dead flowers and a rosary drape the faded wood. An inscription carved into the cross reads, "RIP Alfredo Romero 1985-2003."
Romero was a Galt High School senior. Born in Sacramento, he spent most of his 17 years in Mexico. He was described by friends as a joker who smiled a lot, although he could also be very serious and shy.
He was also, sadly, a poor swimmer.
On Sept. 1, 2003, Romero and four friends went to Stillman Magee Park to cool off in the river. He was last seen alive drifting away from the Macville Road bridge in the middle of the river, and his body was recovered by Sheriff's divers in 11 feet of water.
The cross is a reminder of how dangerous the river can be. During years with heavy rain, the rushing waterway becomes unsafe and county officials close the river entirely to the public. Fortunately for us, it has been a dry year.
We pass under Elliot Road in Lockeford and see our first coyote lurking among the thick bushes and oaks along the banks. We also spot a school of trout in the calm green water, and we startle a great blue heron.
The heron is a massive bird with a long neck. In flight, it resembles a pterodactyl.
As the day wears on, the sun heats up. I am sucking hard on my Camelbak water pouch. We stop for a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Brian lathers his bright red arms with a thick layer of sunscreen.
The river begins to look inviting, but I'm not planning on taking a dip - until I hit a submerged log. My craft begins to tip and fill with water. It feels like slow motion and I can do nothing to stop the increasing flood from gathering in by boat. Finally, I spill out into a swirl of foam and debris at the base of a snag. The cold water is both shocking and invigorating.
My gear floats away.
I manage to madly grasp most of my things and swim to a fallen tree trunk in the middle of the river. Only my $10 sunglasses get away from me.
Flotsam for the river gods.
Perched on an ant-covered tree trunk in the middle of the river, holding on to my waterlogged kayak, it takes 20 minutes to bail water out of my vessel before we are moving on the river again.
It's hard to imagine, but steamboats plied these waters from San Francisco to Lockeford during the gold rush. Somewhere in this section of the river, the steamer Pert sank in the 1860s. We peer into the murky water as we float by looking for remnants of the sunken ship.
All we can see, though, is the skeleton of a discarded Jeep.
In the afternoon, we pass under Bruella Road near Victor and come upon Ryan Lane and his golden retriever, Sunny, sitting in a tree in the middle of the river. The 26-year-old from Victor wears green shorts and no shirt, revealing a tattoo armband on his right bicep.
He is an account rep for Visa, but he is taking a long lunch to play in the river. He grew up near the Mokelumne and loves the refreshing solitude of a cool dip in the river. He says he comes down here for a swim every other day. To get to the river's edge, he has to cross through vineyards but says that the landowners don't mind.
"They're all cool. They don't care at all. I wave to them when I go by," he says before diving into the river and vanishing.
When he reappears on shore, we are already downstream.
Floating under the California Traction railroad tracks, it feels like we are getting close to Lodi.
We pass a sandy flat with a few burnt logs in a fire pit. Pulling off to check out this camp site, we find Ron Geiszler waking up from a nap.
The homeless man has long hair and a gray and brown beard down to his chest. He wears tattered jeans, no shoes or shirt, and his round belly is red and cracking from the sun. He has a hunting knife clipped to his belt.
He invites us over to chat as he rolls his sleeping bag.
Geiszler has been living along the river on and off for years, since he lost his job at the Pacific Coast Producers cannery in Lodi after getting injured. He collects disability and probably could afford cheap housing.
The 50-year-old says he prefers living here on the river.
"You can get up and take a bath," he says. "You always have water. Plus, there is always fish to eat."
Geiszler averages a trout a day. He says landowners where he camps have never given him problems and if other drifters are there, he camps somewhere else.
He has to leave now, he says, to ride his bike into Lodi and buy bait for his fishing line.
This river denizen prefers to be alone. We shove off.
At 4 p.m., we paddle under Highway 99. We are into Lodi proper now.
Here, the river snakes past some of the priciest homes in the county. These million-dollar mansions have private beaches. Some have fancy gazebos. Most have boat docks. This "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" neighborhood just downriver from the homeless camp is in a secluded slice of Lodi that most people will never see.
Paddling hard now, we sense we are almost home. Teenagers in rafts are out for a lazy float with a cooler and a stereo.
"Where are you going?" one of them asks.
"Lodi Lake," Brian says.
"Where have you come from?" he asks.
"Camanche Dam," Brian says.
"Wow. That's a long day," the teen says. "Are you going back?"
We laugh and continue slicing at the water with our paddles.
Stroke. Stroke. Stroke.
Finally, as we round another countless oxbow in the river, we come into Lodi Lake, tired and weary, 10 hours after we left.
Day 2 - Golf balls and trout
The morning sun sparkles on the choppy water spilling over the Woodbridge Irrigation District Dam. We board our boats a bit stiff from yesterday's efforts. We are excited to see a new part of the secret river. After the Woodbridge Regional Park, the next public access to the Mokelumne is in the Delta. So this section of the river is seldom seen except by the farmers who till its banks.
At 7 a.m., the river here is absolutely still and peaceful, the solitude broken only by the distant drone of a lawnmower manicuring the greens at the Woodbridge Golf and Country Club.
We peer down, through the water, and see small orbs.
Golf balls. The result of errant tee shots.
The river here is choked with downed trees and snags. Fish and Game officials like these trees. They provide a rich habitat for steelhead, bass and other fish.
Farmers, however, think differently. When trees fall, they take part of the levees with them. Besides making it difficult for recreational boaters to pass, the fallen trees collect and funnel the river water toward the banks, eroding the levees.
For landowners, removing one problematic tree involves pages of governmental applications and at least a $1,000 fee. Farmers think this wild river should be tamed and have called for more maintenance on the Mokelumne and its banks.
At an elbow in the river, we gaze forward to a stunning vision: A sprawling Mediterranean-style villa. It has beige walls and an orange-tiled roof. Large arching windows provide views straight down the Mokelumne. The landscaped backyard is terraced in three layers. There is a patio with ornate iron railings and lanterns. No one is visible here, in the riverside palace.
We drift silently past the estate, surely among the most magnificent - and secluded - homes in San Joaquin County.
Continuing into the heat of the day, we pass the confluence of the Mokelumne and the Cosumnes River at the Cosumnes Preserve. We glide under noisy Interstate 5 and the river widens and speed boats begin to fly past us, kicking up foamy wakes. Another five miles of flat water paddling and we finally reach our destination at New Hope Landing, a flotilla of house boats near Walnut Grove, where we land our kayaks at a restaurant called Wimpy's.
Mokey, the playful Mokelumne River otter who lived her life in
two states, died in April. She was 16.
She was only a pup when she was found in the Mokelumne River, abandoned by her mother after difficulty learning to swim. She spent some time in a rehabilitation center before she was driven to Bend, Ore., where she lived out her days at the Bend High Desert Museum.
"She acted more like an otter than the others," museum wildlife specialist Kristi Wheeler said. "She slept most of the day and liked to play in the water. She was a big fan of being in the stream."
River otters live all over the U.S., including central Oregon, where Bend is located, but the museum doesn't have any local otters, Wheeler said. Once otters are abandoned and taken into rehabilitation centers, they usually remain in captivity in zoos and museums.
Mokey lived in a large enclosure that included a 10-foot deep pond, a stream, a waterfall and a den. She ate fish and a mixture of ground-up rodents. Wheeler said Mokey was loved by all the museum visitors.
"Our otters are our biggest draw," she said. "She had a great life. It was sad for us when she died."
Mokey is survived by her companion, Thomas, a river otter from Louisiana.
Day 3 - Yachts and otters
Two straight days of paddling have left my arms screaming and I look forward to the morning paddle to loosen up. The river here is wide and treeless - not the lush, hidden river of the last two days - but I am still excited to be back on the water.
We start at dawn again in hopes of finishing before the heat of the afternoon. The only other people on the river at this hour are a few fishermen trying to hook a striped bass.
The Mokelumne splits into two branches for 10 miles, circling a large tract of farmland known as Staten Island.
We take the north branch. The river widens to about 200 feet and the banks are treeless and rocky levees slope 15 feet above the water line.
To break the monotony, we scramble up a levee and peer down on Staten Island. We see endless rows of green corn sprouting for miles toward the horizon and a small farmhouse in the distance. This 9,200-acre island is owned by the Nature Conservancy. In the winter, it is an important habitat for more than 120 species of birds, including Sandhill Cranes and the threatened Swainson's Hawk. Now it is an emerald sea to be turned into feed for local livestock.
We return to the dull-flat section of river.
Then, suddenly, a head pops up.
And then another.
Soon, eight river otters are bobbing up and down, their wet, furry, whiskered heads glistening in the morning sun. These playful creatures live all over North America, including up and down the Mokelumne. They eat fish, small animals and birds.
We track the family of curious river otters as they swim just ahead of our boats. Then, as quickly as they appeared, they vanish into the gray water.
The river here in the Delta is swayed by ocean tides. By mid-morning, the tide is muscling against us and we have to paddle hard just to keep from being taken back upriver. This, combined with a strong headwind and choppy water, make for difficult paddling. Brian struggles to fight the current and keep up. My arms are weary now and aching.
Yachts the size of whales motor past us, sending giant wakes crashing over our dwarfed boats.
As we pass under the Highway 12 bridge, it begins to rotate to allow a tall ship to pass. I marvel at this feat of engineering - a 600-foot roadway spinning silently on a huge gear until it is parallel with the river.
Now, with only three miles to go until journey's end, we decide to explore some of the first wilderness we have seen on the river in a long time. We carve through a patch of tall reeds and find a micro-world. A hidden pond full of lily pads, bull frogs and ducks far removed from the noisy jet-ski playground on the other side of the reeds.
We relax a moment, then paddle on. Wending through a tangle of reeds, we come out at Pirate's Lair, a resort at the river's mouth. We paddle through boat docks in the harbor for another mile before the Mokelumne unceremoniously ends, spitting us out into the half-mile wide San Joaquin River. Exhausted, we stagger onto a beach on a small island at the confluence of the two rivers.
We share a celebratory bag of trail mix.
I am tired but also elated by our achievement - traveling the entire 60-mile lower Mokelumne. I am also a bit sad. Over the last three days, the river has become my home and I loathe the thought of having to go back to the office on Monday.
I look wistfully down the San Joaquin River and contemplate continuing. In a few more hours, I could be at the confluence of the Sacramento River.
Why stop there?
I could continue on to Antioch and Vallejo.
Why not keep paddling into San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean? I could become like the vagabond we met camping along the shore, moving with the flow of the river.
A large yacht roars past and I am nudged from my reverie.
Our journey this day is over.
The river will flow through me forever.