My friend and fellow cyclist Bruce Berg and I took a long driving trip to reconnoiter a route for a 24-hour ride we’re planning for mid-April. Our route takes us across the Sacramento Valley on back roads between the towns of Colusa and Yuba City. Here’s part of the route — Pass Road, about 10 miles west of the little town of Sutter. The suggestion of a mountain rising into the clouds on the left is one of the Sutter Buttes, a pocket mountain range that rises up from the table-flat valley. Needless to say, I hope, we took a look at the road here and decide that even though it didn’t look too deep for the 400 or 500 yards that the pavement was covered, we probably didn’t want to venture in.
Just to be clear: This isn’t the river proper, but the Sutter Bypass, one of a number of engineered channels that divert water from the main stream when the Sacramento is near flood stage. It’s a reminder of the natural state of the valley before settlers arrived and went to work improving it: In the wintertime, all the water running into it from the upland rivers would collect and turn it into a giant shallow sea — hundreds of miles long and as much as 120 miles wide.
An example: We noticed a historical marker yesterday for Johnson’s Ranch, renowned as one of the earliest American settlements in the valley and as the place to which the Donner Party survivors were first brought after their rescue. In looking up some details about that story, I found an account that talked about the flooding in the valley in the late winter and early spring of 1847:
“At Johnson’s Ranch there were only three or four families of poor emigrants. Nothing could be done toward relieving those at Donner Lake until help could arrive from Sutter’s Fort. A rainy winter had flooded Bear River, and rendered the Sacramento plains a vast quagmire. Yet one man volunteered to go to Sacramento with the tale of horror, and get men and provisions. This man was John Rhodes. Lashing two pine logs together with rawhides, and forming a raft, John Rhodes was ferried over Bear River. Taking his shoes in his hands, and rolling his pants up above his knees, he started on foot through water that frequently was from one to three feet deep. Some time during the night he reached the Fort.”