• Cheryl Anne Stapp

The Sacramento: River of Gold


At 447 miles in length the Sacramento River is the longest river that flows through California, with a watershed that encompasses more than 27,000 square miles. Some say it is the mightiest and most important river in the state. Yet—in human eyes at least—its origins are humble: a steady trickle that ripples over small rocks near majestic Mount Shasta, within today’s Mount Shasta City Park.


Originally glacier melt from a long-ago epoch, the headwaters spring from Big Springs Aquifer, an underground body of porous rock, after more than fifty years of filtration through volcanic rock, before exiting through the side of Big Springs Hill. From an initial north-east course the river turns south, through glades of ferns and wild azaleas and mountain meadows. It flows in and out of Lake Shasta and through forests of fir, pine, spruce and cedar. Below Red Bluff the river enters the Sacramento Valley, coursing through low hills and flat grasslands. Along the way hundreds of springs and creeks spill into the river—and the Sacramento further swells in volume as each of its principal tributaries the Pit, the McCloud, the Feather and the American converge with its flow.


Meandering through the expansive, inland California Delta and estuary, it meets the San Joaquin River, ripples through Suisun and San Pablo bays, the Carquinez Strait and San Francisco Bay, and on through the Golden Gate to join the Pacific Ocean. The indigenous Native Americans lived and traded along this river for thousands of years. The first outsiders to actually explore, and realize the river’s breadth and power, were Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga and his crew, in 1808. Moraga named it Rios de los Sacramentos, “River of the Blessed Sacrament.”


During the California Gold Rush the Sacramento River was a busy highway trafficked by steamships and smaller watercraft, transporting prospectors to the upland mines and freighting their gold back to San Francisco banks. Then it was called “the river of gold,” navigable from San Francisco to Marysville, although during floods steamships might chance going as far upriver as Red Bluff. However, debris from hydraulic mining operations raised the river’s bed so high that by the late nineteenth century, large ships could go no farther upstream than the city of Sacramento.


Although native bird populations on the river have declined since the nineteenth century, today the river supports 135 species of native birds including egrets, great blue herons, and bald eagles. Nearly sixty species of fish—among them bass, trout, salmon and steelhead—live in the Sacramento River, offering seasonal year-round fishing opportunities for anglers. Campers, fishermen and day-trippers may also spot otters, beavers, gray fox, bobcat, a variety of reptiles and amphibians, and western pond turtles.


Occasionally, marine animals wander into the Sacramento River looking for food or refuge, and get lost. Sea lions, for example, have been seen and rescued from places far inland. Whales, of course, are another matter: two “lost whale” dramas have played out fairly recently, completely enthralling the general public. In 1985 a lone humpback whale, affectionately dubbed “Humphrey” by the media, traveled 69 miles up the Sacramento River. In 2007 two humpback whales, thought to be a mother and her calf, swam even farther upstream, to the vicinity of the deep water ship channel at West Sacramento. All three creatures were eventually coaxed back to the Pacific Ocean, safe and sound, through the efforts of the Marine Mammal Center, and the United States Coast Guard.


As rivers go, the Sacramento is considered young, perhaps only three million years old. Does the once-celebrated “river of gold” have any gold of its own? The Sacramento flows well west of California’s rich gold regions; but, after all, it is fed by the Feather River and the American River, both gold-bearing streams. However, given the distance from a known gold source plus the Sacramento’s swift-moving current, if present the mineral would be as finely textured as sand and widely diffused, not worth the cost and effort to prospect. So far—from the nineteenth century Gold Rush era to the present—no one has tried.


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