But the river is not what it seems. Far upstream in the high places of the world it’s a different parent: a stepmother out of mythology, majestic and terrible.
In those high places the river is renewed in a million moments at once, when single drops of melted snow merge with others to form steep trickles that meander down to junctions with other trickles. They find their way to concave avenues like bowling balls find gutters. In a reverse delta spanning mountains, ten thousand rivulets reduce to a thousand streams reduce to a hundred creeks reduce to a dozen rivers reduce to one.
Trace the San Joaquin upstream from Contra Costa County and you take a snaking journey southeast for more than a hundred miles through Central Valley before hooking east toward Fresno and up into Sierra National Forest. Halfway up that journey, 25 miles south of Modesto, the river is joined by one of its tributaries. Follow that tributary upstream to an elevation of 4,000 feet and you find a valley enclosed by soaring walls of granite plumed with waterfalls and streaked by tumbling creeks.
The tributary is called Merced. The valley is known as Yosemite. It’s here that the Sierra’s winter melt is most vividly dramatized.
The Merced’s tributaries are unlike any other: two of the world’s 10 tallest waterfalls – Sentinel and Yosemite, the latter being the tallest in North America – and their retinue, no less magnificent, with names like Bridalveil, Ribbon, Illilouette, Vernal, Nevada and Snow Creek. Right now they’re not so much waterfalls as water cannons, a mesmerizing measure of the water content of this year’s snowpack: 163 percent of normal in the central Sierra.
Judging from the effect of the snow melt of 2006, when the pack was measured at a paltry 143 percent of normal, we can expect road crews to be clearing snow 20 feet deep from Yosemite’s Tioga Road well past Memorial Day.
In 1806, an expedition led by Gabriel Moraga came upon a river after a long, hot and dusty journey. To express his gratitude, Moraga named the river El Rio de Nuestra Señora de la Merced – River of Our Lady of Mercy. In the spring of 2011, there’s nothing merciful about the Merced or its brethren in Northern California. If our snowborn rivers are awe-inspiring, they’re also deadly.
On April 4 of this year, 68-year-old Modesto resident Charles Bennett piloted his newly purchased fiberglass boat down the Tuolumne River to West Modesto. I spoke with Modesto Police Department Detective Steven Stanfield, who said that as Bennett was in the process of throwing a towline to a friend, the boat began taking on water. Bennett tried to prevent the boat from escaping downstream, but was pulled into the current and swept away. His body was recovered in the foliage along an S-curve in the riverbank by Modesto Fire Department personnel.
A river suffused with winter melt is more than a match for us humans. The shock of icy water and grip of hypothermia rob the body of strength and muscle coordination. The mind becomes confused and panic sets in. Aiding and abetting in the assault are the river’s heavy volume and powerful currents, which can carry a victim miles downstream before rescue can be attempted.
In May of 2006, the Truckee River was flowing at four times its volume of the previous year. On May 1, 20-year-old Edward Wilt of Sun Valley and three friends waded to a small island along the Truckee near Painted Rock east of Reno. From there, Wilt and one of his friends jumped into the river, apparently for the fun of it. His friend made it out. Wilt’s remains were found three weeks later near Wadsworth.
You needn’t pull a crazy stunt to be claimed by the river, even down in Contra Costa County. Recreational boaters such as Bennett, plus skiers, swimmers, campers and hikers – all minding their own business – can be vulnerable to a sudden infusion of cold, fast and heavy water.
It was May 21, 2006, a day before Wilt’s body was hauled out of the Truckee. I was at the source, standing on a rock as big as a room overhanging the Merced in Yosemite Valley. Tons of winter melt per second thundered past. Sensing the river’s mass reach out and drag me toward it like a maelstrom drags a doomed ship into its vortex, I got low fast, cross-legged, desperate to drop my center of gravity and dispel the fantasy of falling.
The river was a different creature out of mythology that day: not an angry stepmother but a beast trapped in the cage of its banks, infuriated by my lack of respect, leaping at me and slamming against my granite perch. Two feet to my right the rock dropped away a mere 10 feet to the water. In Yosemite, you can fall to your death from impressive elevations. All I needed was 10 feet.
It was a memorable day in the high country; should I fall, the Merced’s icy embrace would be my last memory. I hoisted myself onto all fours and crabbed my way to the middle of the rock. The river, catching the scent of other prey, snarled on by.