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My early days on the “T”, Part II

1983 was a great year to begin working the Tuolumne River. It was a high water year and we ran trips all the way into September. We got to see the river at different levels, learning different routes, and different dangers, thrills and beauty. But the trips all ended the same, with the mighty “T” dumping us unceremoniously into the murky, houseboat infested beast known as Lake Don Pedro. Several miles of rowing lead you to the log jam.

The “log jam” is a phenomenon that occurs on reservoirs when dead trees that were drowned in the filling of the reservoir are blown by winds into the various fingers. The Tuolumne dumps into one of these fingers and brings with it various debris as well. And in a high water year, the “T” scours the riverbanks and can carry quite a bit of dead and decaying vegetation downstream. In 1983, the log jam was huge and deep. The installation of booms could have prevented the jam but that would have been too simple. Eventually it became so deep and wide and full of everything from plastic bottles to logs and unmatched flip flops that it was impossible to get through it. A number of efforts were made to remove it including my personal favorite: An attempt to burn the water soaked logs out of the water they sat in, which, believe it or not, failed miserably.

Eventually, the irrigation district that owned water rights to the water in Don Pedro acquired a craft known as the Log Bronc, capable of breaking its way through the jam. This stout little tugboat-shaped craft was a 12’ long diesel powered brute that broke through log jams like an icebreaker. It came from the northwest where it was designed to navigate through log ponds full of timber. I don’t know if its primary purpose on Don Pedro was to tow rafters through the log jam, but that¹s what I saw it used for. And it was a beautiful sight to see as it rocked back and forth, spewing diesel into the air and shoving logs to the wayside making its way to the inflatable rafts waiting to be tugged back through the jam.

Another reason I was excited to begin working the “T” that year was because no one was sure how much longer it would be open for rafting and I wanted to enjoy it for as long as I could. There was a serious threat of the river being dammed, resulting in our beloved river being de-watered and drowned. The river community was galvanized in the efforts to save the “T”. The Stanislaus had been lost to a reservoir just a few years earlier and no one wanted to see that happen to the Tuolumne. We asked clients to write letters after every trip and the outfitters banded together to formulate a strategy to save the river. I knew, as did all of the guides and outfitters on the river, that if word got out into the press what a wonderful place the Tuolumne was, that public sentiment could affect how legislators viewed the river. Federal protection under the Wild and Scenic program could save the river.

My final training trip, before finally being certified as a Tuolumne guide, was a trip run alongside another outfitter who brought along a couple of writers from Sunset magazine. As before, I would row the boat with gear piled high under blue tarps fore and aft. I’d figured out the routes, studied the river and felt great about getting this final trip done before I’d actually get paid to do it!

We embarked on a standard two day Tuolumne trip and camped at Indian Creek. That night we erected a river sauna and our fellow (and more knowledgeable) guides extolled the praises of the river to the Sunset writers.

On the last day our of the trip, we stopped at the North Fork of the T for lunch. This is a magical tributary with a side hike that’s not to be missed. I stayed behind to put together lunch while fellow guides took our guests and the writers on the hike. I had almost finished laying out the our lunch spread, when the dark thunderheads that had been holding over the ridge began to move into the canyon with a vengeance. No worries I thought, I’ll just grab a tarp, a couple oars and some hoopie and save lunch from becoming a soggy mess. It’s summer in the Sierra so I knew this would be a passing squall. The group returned, wolfed down the lunch and we loaded up and got back on the river. We had a few miles before meeting the Log Bronc to tow us through the log jam, and the squall I was so sure would pass, soon settled into a full-blown thunderstorm. It was the middle of the summer and most of our clients had brought absolutely no rain gear. A veteran guide had convinced me earlier that season to always stash a lightweight rain jacket in my bag. It’s something I’ve done ever since and it certainly kept me comfortable that afternoon. And into the night.

About an hour or so later, we dropped into the reservoir and saw the ominous log jam laying between us and the take out. My summer squall-turned-miserable-thunderstorm continued unabated while we waited patiently for the Log Bronc to show. There was one other river company ahead of us, so we knew we’d have to wait a bit before our tow. I pulled the tarps off the load and sent them over to the other boats so that our clients could shelter under them.

I sat in the rain waiting. It wasn’t particularly cold, just wet. Eventually, I heard the sound of an engine coming up the reservoir. The Old Log Bronc. As it got closer, I realized I wasn’t looking at the Log Bronc. Instead, what I saw was a couple of colorful looking characters in a homemade steel hulled craft with the name “Rusty Sucker” emblazoned across it. It was an open boat with an old Cadillac V-8 near the stern. The powerplant was hooked up to jet drive that was probably salvaged from an old ski boat. Instead of having a deep keel and a sharp iron reinforced bow to clear logs, the Sucker relied on – let’s call him “Jethro”- in the bow with an iron bar to clear logs out of the way. Ricky Bobby manned the wheel and shouted orders to Jethro. It wasn’t the Bronc, but I didn’t care, as it seemed to work just fine pulling the other company through the logjam. That is until the Rusty Sucker was almost at the end of the logjam. At that point I saw Jethro prying and pulling at the engine or jet drive with the iron bar he was formerly using to clear logs from the bow. That didn’t seem right to me, but sometimes when your toolbox only has one tool, well, that’s what you use. Eventually they cleared the jam and were on their way to the take-out while I sat in the rain and imagined Jethro at home adjusting his television set with a hammer.

With nothing but waiting ahead of me, I watched the string of rafts being pulled along behind the Sucker until they disappeared around the bend. The rain kept falling and I looked over at our clients now huddled under the blue tarps. Secretly (and silently) I was glad that I was still a trainee and not a working guide.

Next Blog: The Return of the Rusty Sucker


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