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Ramblings - Messing About In Boats
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Rafting is all the rage at this time of year and seeing the enthusiasts buck through the white water rapids or float lazily down the calmer stretches of the Stanislaus River, I’m reminded of my personal experiences of going down a river.

This is a column, is it not? So I’m forced to get personal, reminisce on earlier days, opine on this and that, even “cabbages and kings.”

My first experience on a river was during boyhood in England, kayaking with a friend down the River Wye and camping at night on the banks. We took about a week, often running aground on gravel banks and getting out to drag our boats into deeper water again.

The river winds through a deep valley, with green and tree-clad slopes and some ancient stone castles standing on the hills. This is the border region of England and Wales where the Norman conquerors of England built fortifications against the native Celts whom they had driven into the Welsh mountains.

One of the castles is still habitable and used as a youth hostel. It was worth toiling up the hill to spend one night in the interior. The view alone was fabulous.

The fun bit on the river was spotting the wildlife along the banks, otters, badgers, rats and moles — all the creatures that author Kenneth Grahame celebrated in his classic tale The Wind in the Willows — and avoiding the wild swans that flew low along the river and skidded in to land in a white water flurry like seaplanes.

We’d been warned ahead but were hardly prepared for their attack when we came unexpectedly upon their nest and baby birds in the shallows. They say a blow from their thrashing wings can break a bone. We didn’t hang around to find out.

Forgot to mention earlier that I had built my kayak at home, working to mail order Boy Scout plans, bending strips of wood for the framework and stretching canvas over it.

Wooden boat building still uses immersion in steam to bend the timbers. Not having a steam box, I improvised and carried kettles of hot water from the kitchen to pour over the wood. It was slow going but it worked. The wood bent without cracking and produced a strong boat.

Fast forward to California many years later. There was a holiday trip to the Rogue River in Oregon and a guided rafting trip that lasted a few hours. Bigger wildlife on the banks this time. Plenty of deer and the chance of seeing a bear.

Then to El Dorado County — God’s Own Country as longtime residents insist on calling it — and a bounce down the American River. Rafting on that river is very popular nowadays and profitable for the commercial companies. Professional and amateur photographers snap hundreds or thousands of pictures of rafts in the rapids every weekend. The companies try to photograph every raft, every person going through the white water, as though it was a graduation ceremony. They have the photos printed and ready for the customer by the time they end the ride.

But when I took my first trip some 30 years ago, carrying a camera for the local newspaper The Mountain Democrat, rafting photography was new and my pictures among the first to appear in the newspaper.

They were hard won too. I remember trying to keep the camera out of the spray in a grocery-store plastic bag, scrambling from the raft onto the rocks, grabbing some shots and scrambling back into the next raft through. Dicey stuff. Couldn’t possibly do that now.

Slow fade to the Central Valley and the Stanislaus River. Maybe 10 to 15 years ago. City of Riverbank staff organized an “official” rafting trip from Oakdale to Riverbank for fun and to publicize the delights of drifting down the river to a barbecue at Jacob Myers Park. Then Councilmember — or maybe she was Mayor at the time— Sandra Benitez came along. Sno-white Drive In owner Daryl Daniel commanded one of the rafts. Confident in my seagoing ability, I took the helm of another rubber boat and promptly put us under the low-lying tree branches — a rafting hazard I should have learned to avoid by that time.

Nowadays I am not so brave. I stand on the bank at Jacob Myers Park and watch the rafts drift past, full of laughing, splashing, younger people, wearing straw hats and suntan lotion. Looks like fun. Must try that again sometime. Maybe.


John Branch is editor of The Riverbank News and a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader and The Escalon Times. He may be reached at or 847-3021.