Whispers of the Past - The Camp Nine Section of the Stanislaus River

On Monday I dragged myself out of bed. It was 40 degrees outside. I was sick. I could not breathe through my nose and my lungs sounded like a coffee peculator. I threw my boating gear in the truck and away we went. 

When John K asked me the day before "you wanna go run Camp Nine?" I did my usual sigh and slumped a little in my seat. I really wanted to go rafting, but at the same time running Camp Nine is, well, a little depressing. 


Camp Nine is a nine mile section of the Stanislaus River near Sonora, California.  It is where commercial rafting started in California. For guides like John and I it represents a romantic time that we are striving to recreate.  In 1979 the section was condemned and subsequently disappeared under the New Melones Dam

Camp nine has been exposed in recent years because of the drought in California and even after years of being drowned under the lake, the river is still a remarkably beautiful place. I paddled a tiny raft with my good friend Chris, John went in an inflatable kayak and a few other friends were in a variety of crafts. It sort of feels like an adventure kids go on.  We pushed off from shore and were soon enveloped in the canyon. I was instantly filled with a sense of levity and calm. The rapids are really fun and not at all scary. A few miles down cathedral like limestone walls loom high above. I always hold my breath here, squint my eyes and try to imagine what it looked like before the lake scoured the cliff side.

 A bald eagle sat at the mouth of Rose Creek. In the handful of times I have been on this run over the last couple of years, I have never seen this creek awakened. It was buried under sediment. Twenty feet of silt now slants steeply toward the roaring clear water. It is beautiful. Stunning. And a shadow of the place it once was. In the '70s rafters would hike  up the creek to soak its beauty in. The rapids and falls are epic. One of our companions hiked his pack raft (a very small light weight inflatable) way up the creek to run some of them. It may be the only time he ever does. Chris and I carried our little raft up the mouth of the creek to play in a fun surf. It was really cold but I had this sense of a once in a life time opportunity. A sense that we were travelling back in time. 

As we drifted down the rest of the river we were often silent. Mesmerized by the stalactites and the skeletal forest. Bones of trees that died under the lake decades ago line the banks. But what always fills my mind on the Camp Nine run is the fact that in the '70s rafters would take three days to complete it. They would camp out and look at the stars. Hike up creeks. They would just hang out and be together on the river. The 9 miles can easily be done in a couple of hours but they didn't just rush down it to check it off a 'bucket list'. 

Seeing a beautiful place is different to experiencing it. It is different to letting the magic of a place interweave itself with your being. But it takes slowing down. Mark Dubois was a guide and activist for the Stanislaus in the '70s. When he ran the Stanislaus recently for the first time in decades he recalled the effect the river had on him;  "turquoise waters (were) dancing around...butterflies were dancing, the dragonflies were coming, the grapevines were reaching out, the wildflowers blooming, and in a moment, I just felt the life of that place."* 

The day quickly darkened. By the time we hit the old bridge that is dwarfed by its enormous successor I was shaking uncontrollably from cold. The road is a half mile up a hill and with strained breath I helped Chris hike our craft to the car. From the top of the hill in the clear January twilight I saw how the river was settling back into a lake.   I couldn't help but feel silly for not wanting to go. It is sad to see a river so destroyed but at the same time the magic, the beauty and the life of that place is still there. 

Sarah V

This blog was used as a source for an article in the Sonora Union Democrat