The South Fork of the American River - By Bill Center

When John and I took over River Runners in 2015 we could only do so with the support of the Centers. Bill and Robin Center own Camp Lotus where River Runners operates. For years their tireless work on the camp ground has provided a beautiful green oasis throughout the dry hot summers. John and I have lived and worked in their space for many years, absorbing all the good advice and good examples they have been willing to share with us. In 2017 we were devastated when Bill passed away. Over the past year we have begun to find comfort in the way Camp Lotus is still imbued with his presence. Bill was a great conversationalist and orator who was often invited to give talks about the South Fork of the American River. Yesterday I was sent a hard copy of his South Fork talk. For those of you interested in the rich history of the South Fork of the American River this is a great read…enjoy!

Sarah V

Vice President and River Guide

The South Fork of the American River

by Bill Center

We are standing here today, by the South Fork of the American River in the Coloma Lotus Valley, both because of, and in spite of, a series of migrations, and journeys.


We are here because of the migrations of continental and oceanic plates. Over the last hundred million years the collision of the Pacific and North American plates created the great Sierra batholith, a mass of granite 400 miles long, over fifty miles wide, and several miles deep. Within that mass of granite, as it was cooling far beneath the earth, quartz migrated upward and crystallized out with another migrant, gold, pushing into the cracks of the rocks above -which themselves had journeyed from as far away as the coast of Peru.


We are here because an odd and independent bubble of that granite batholith journeyed upward and westward to emerge as the Coloma pluton. We stand in the middle of this broad open granitic valley, with a thousand foot deep slate canyon just upstream, and a series of fissures, faults and gorges just downstream, because these granite headlands are uniquely susceptible to being slowly melted by millions of years of rain and vegetation, even while the river next to us is unable to cut down through it and so meanders lazily back and forth, instead of persistently plunging through rapids and falls as it does in the softer slates and greenstones which form the canyons up and downstream.


More recently, we are here in spite of a great migration which filled the Americas with over 100 million people, starting over 10,000 years ago as people much the same as you and me walked along the shores of a Pacific Ocean; shores that lay many miles west, and many fathoms lower than they do today. These peoples followed the retreating glaciers up great river valleys through a landscape being changed by fire, hunting, gathering, and being made incredibly fecund by millions of pounds of migrating salmon dying and fertilizing a great temperate rain forest ecosystem. Possibly because of this landscape’s new residents, it changed, and became void of woolly mammoths and saber tooth tigers while filled with elk and grizzly bears and five hundred year old trees.  The first people to see this valley walked and canoed up the great California river, the combined waters of what we call today the Sacramento, the San Joaquin, and the Tulare Lake Basin, from its mouth well beyond the Golden Gate, through the valleys which are now the San Francisco Bay, across the rich delta and great central valley into the foothills. Following the river and the salmon, some settled in this little valley filled with ancient oaks and pines, a rolling landscape which lay above the persistent tule fogs, below the freezing snows, and next to water that always flowed. They lived in this valley, and others to the north and south, for millennium, evolving their own language in which their name for themselves, as people, was Maidu.


This migration of people and differentiation of cultures and languages was driven by a search for food, shelter, and open space, and the cultures and languages which came to lay upon the landscape were as varied as the ecosystems that existed, and their borders matched those ecosystems in a wonderful and significant way. California then, a thousand years ago even as today was home to a hundred languages, but unlike today the languages were largely homegrown. 


The lingual and ethnic melting pot that is California today has grown from a much later series of migrations that came long after this first great migration from Siberia. These migrations were set off just over one and a half centuries ago by a discovery in a millrace a few miles upstream, 


Thousands and thousands of very individual journeys merged into the flood known as the Gold Rush, driven by a search for wealth and power, and focused not on food, shelter, or open space, but on acquisition of that odd metal which to the first people of this land had no value, as it was soft and held no edge, and was not as beautiful as a shell or as useful as a basket. But to the civilization which first grew to power in another Mediterranean climate halfway around the world this metal was just rare enough yet still common enough to serve as the consummate symbol for wealth and power, and that civilization, already well planted in North America, was moving west rapidly from  the hardwood forests of the east and grass plains of the midwest. When James Marshall discovered gold in January 1848 it was still uncertain whether California would be controlled by the rag-tag coalition of ranchers, trappers, traders and soldiers of fortune that had recently wrested its nominal control from Mexico, or would be retaken by Mexico, or claimed by Russia, or reclaimed by Spain, or would become a pawn in the looming battle between the Confederates and the Yankees.


30,000 immigrants and 32 months later, as the very pointed gold-seeking tip of the pyramid of world power came to bear upon this valley, the question was answered. California became the 31st state of the union.


We often think of processes – geological, social, historical – as being somewhat slow, constant, inexorable. But even in geology, much of what changes the land, sea and air scapes occurs in a tiny percentage of time. Volcanoes, floods and tsunamis, comets and solar flares, catastrophic singular events change the world in massive episodic counterpoints to the slow grinding of glaciers and rocks worn by wind blown sands.  History is no different. Particularly when it experiences a confluence of events such as the gold rush. In a thousand days ten thousand years of human history was erased as completely as the twin towers. The world changed.


Ten years later the gold was gone in this valley and almost everyone moved on. Left behind was a different landscape, void of trees, with the river choked with silt and boulders washed down from hundreds of square miles in the frenzy to find gold. Also left behind were hundreds of miles of miners’ ditches, which were quickly converted to irrigate hops, and grapes, and orchards, as the valley and the county became renowned for beer, then wine, then pears shipped east in boxcars full of Donner Lake ice. The river, essentially undammed and free to fix the abuse it suffered in the 1850’s, reestablished its bed and once again carried salmon in clear water and spawned cottonwoods in winter and spring floods even as cattle walked its banks. Later it filled with swimmers lounging on huge sand beaches drawn by the warm and lazy summer flows. Slowly valley ranches were subdivided and became home to Aerojet executives and retirees seeking five acres above the fog and below the snow.


This valley also attracted the attention of the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers. An era of unbridled dam building, briefly interrupted by World War Two, was on the march, and the next big American River reservoir site was seen by some as sorely needed even before the ink had dried on the final authorization to build Folsom Dam. The engineers’ eyes landed not on the steep canyon below Auburn where the North and Middle Forks come together. They landed on this great open bowl, a valley that could store millions of acre-feet of water with a dam no larger than Folsom. But their timing was bad. In 1950 the California legislature was no hotbed of conservationists, but they had just participated in the hundredth anniversary of the discovery of gold, and were making plans for the state’s hundredth birthday. The Federal government was not going to crash the party, and a constitutional amendment was passed which protected Coloma from being drowned by a reservoir.


Twenty years later a new set of immigrants, riding on rafts not much different than those in use today, discovered the joys of a river which had boatable flows year round. A new set of dams had just been built, storing winter and spring run-off high in the river’s headwaters and dropping it through a staircase of lower reservoirs in the summer and fall to power and water a growing California capital. Finally, between the third and second of nearly twenty major dams on the river the water was allowed to flow bank-full and free for twenty miles. 


Having been one of those new immigrants, back when I had a head and face full of hair and found Class IV fun and Class V delightful, I was caught up in the rush of history also. When not on the river we seemed to battle with the County power structure over everything. The Board of Supervisors banned all forms of navigation on this river in 1975; the water agency and irrigation districts proposed four dams on the river between Chili Bar and Folsom Reservoir, leaving only Coloma unflooded; five more dams were proposed upstream. In a public meeting at the fairgrounds in 1975 river runners were described as doing nothing but Fornicating, Urinating and Defecating on the banks of the river by an individual we considered one of the Good Old Boys. The battle lines were drawn, between the F.U.D.s and the G.O.B.s.  But ultimately, no dams were built, the rafting industry and the Coloma Lotus Valley prospered, El Dorado county continued to grow and grow, and a rafter was even elected to the Board of Supervisors – but just for one term. Today, despite the scar tissue that exists from those recent battles, County officials, boaters, local residents, and even some F.U.D.s and G.O.B.s, sit at the same table, engaged in discussions about how the now nearly fifty year old dams built by Sacramento upstream, will be operated over the next few generations.


These are not small discussions. And frankly, their outcome remains as uncertain as the future of California was in December of 1847.


What is certain is that this valley will continue to be inhabited, and visited, loved, and fought over, enjoyed and coveted, and simply rested in, by people, and flora, and fauna for the foreseeable future. And time spent here will lead to a greater understanding of what makes it special, and a greater likelihood that those special things and places will be available for future generations to enjoy.


It is for this reason most of all that I welcome your journey here today. Whether it is the first, or five hundredth - it is yours, and therefore it is the most important journey of all. I hope some of the rich history, the wonderful sets of migrations - of rock and water, of peoples and processes, the beauty and exhilaration which the river both flows through and creates, will remain with you and will encourage your further journeys and explorations into this part of the world.


Thank you for coming. Thank you for sharing your time with us, the newest set of immigrants to this special valley.