Excerpt Three: The Benicia Belle

Clint loved the sea, loved the smell of it, the beauty and the fury. He had spent twelve years on the world’s great oceans before being shipwrecked north of Santa Barbara. A wreck that had brought him to California – and one he now, in a strange way, considered propitious, for he loved California as much as he had the sea.

He was learning to care particularly for the great delta area where the Sacramento worked its way through California’s central valley and merged with the smaller San Joaquin, Calaveras, and Mokelumne rivers and the confluence of valley-bottom sloughs formed from many rivers originating farther south in the Sierras – all of which dumped into the great and nearly impassable wetlands that filled the wide fertile rift between the Sierras and the coast range. At Carquinez Straights, the river broached the coast range of mountains and fresh water met salt. The great push of water, still carrying the cold of snow from fourteen-thousand-foot-high mountains, clashed with the equally unrelenting tidal force of the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific. The Pacific entered the central valley with its brackish salt water via an eight-knot tidal rush, through the narrow Golden Gate into wide San Francisco Bay, then north into San Pablo Bay before clashing with the snow-cold fresh at the straits.

As if that confluence of ocean and great river at Carquinez wasn’t wild and roiling enough, the Napa River came in from the north at almost the same spot to add to the confusing tempest of fresh and salt.

The area inland, above the Carquinez and on the edge of the river bays, was a maze of sloughs and smaller creeks, mud flats and channels. Tules and occasional stretches of willows and cottonwoods rose in the few spots where solid ground offered root hold.

Salmon ran all the rivers and sturgeon cruised their depths, nourishing Miwok, Maidu, Wintun, Yocuts, Pomo, and Costanoan Indian tribes who had claimed the shores for many thousands of years and who now tenuously shared the waterways – bays, sloughs, rivers, and creeks, which were the essence of their way of life – with thousands of Argonauts moving across into the goldfields of the Sierra. Argonauts who used the waterways and shores only for transportation and cared little whose land they crossed or who claimed its bounty.

Cattle, too, roamed among the tules, cattle that belonged to the Mexican dons who had claimed the land for the last two hundred years.

And all was observed by deer and tule elk and black bear and otters and muskrats and millions of waterfowl – and the king of it all, the mighty grizzly.

Nature’s forces and man’s cultures clashed in the delta. Water against water, mountain tempest against ocean squall as winds met and mixed. Mexican against Anglo, Mexican against Mexican, Anglo against Anglo – and all men of all colors against the red man, the only one of the cornucopia of mankind living in harmony with nature’s force.

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