Colleague Mike Fitzgerald recognized the one-year anniversary of the San Joaquin River restoration by visiting an old dump site now infused with living, moving water.
I will do him one better.
Three hundred and thirty miles upstream from Stockton, my wife and I will take a walk along the San Joaquin to its very source — one of three sources, to be truthful, since the river branches off in the high country.
I don’t want to simply steal a glance of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin. Or even marvel at it. I want to drink from it. Without a purifying pump, without iodine pills. Just me and the water. Maybe it’s an ego thing. I mean, how many people from Stockton can say they took a drink from… (ugh)… the San Joaquin River?
(Don’t try this at home, Stocktonians.)
We pull on our packs and hike out of Agnew Meadow, just north of Devil’s Postpile, on a surprisingly warm morning. I’m sleepy; coyotes wailed half the night. Our route is known as the “River Trail,” a ribbon of soft loam at the base of the wide canyon through which the Middle Fork flows. Although, darn it, the river stays frustratingly out of sight for several miles.
Let’s clear one thing up right away. Much as I would like to report that the San Joaquin spurts from absolutely wild, untrammeled country, I cannot. Both the Pacific Crest and John Muir trails roughly parallel the stream. The former is the Interstate 5 of the High Sierra. The latter is Highway 99. Backpackers, horses, dogs. It’s the Circus Circus of wilderness areas.
Nevertheless, when the river finally comes into view, I am awed.
Even in late September, there is water. It flows. It eddies. It swirls. It neatly steps down a series of sharp, flat rocks, reminding me of an artificial garden fountain.
Up we go, switchbacking over an exposed hillside, then leveling off through groves of aspen not yet cognizant of the coming fall. The river is far below us now, in a gorge so narrow that it must receive sunlight only three or four hours per day. You can hear the water rushing, faintly. What, I wonder, must it sound like in June or July when the creeks and streams are flush with snowmelt?
Eight miles from the trailhead we top a bench and turn to the west. The San Joaquin reappears, quiet and languid now, and then its source comes into view – Thousand Island Lake. Officially, the beginning of the San Joaquin River.
There are, I suppose, not thousands but dozens of “islands” — from the smallest granite humps rising out of the water like dolphins, to larger mounds topped by gnarled, twisted pines blown sideways by the winds from Ritter Pass. I tear my eyes away from all that Tahoe-blue San Joaquin River water and see Banner Peak, one of the more recognizable Sierra summits, still sporting sizable patches of snow. Even now, in late September, the San Joaquin is being fed. Doubtless, there will still be snowmelt coming into the lake as fall turns into winter, and this scene goes into hibernation for seven to eight months.
It is calm and beautiful. But as we sleep that night, a terrific wind begins howling down from the pass. And in the morning Thousand Island Lake is frothing with white caps, not unlike the San Joaquin River near the mouth of the Delta, so many miles downstream. The waves wash up on a sandy beach.
We have plans to move on to a different part of the watershed today. But I won’t leave until we’ve hiked to the west end of the lake, where two snowmelt tributaries — technically, the true headwaters of the San Joaquin — feed this magnificant lake. Clear though it is, I won’t drink lake water without treatment. There are just too many people who camp here.
So we trek another mile and one-half, Banner Peak’s foreboding volcanic head growing larger and larger. We find the snowmelt, tinkling into the lake after meandering through a meadow which earlier in the season must be bursting with wildflowers (and swarming with mosquitoes). We follow its course upstream, until we arrive at the foot of a rocky incline. We must be less than a half mile from those remnant snowfields. The water here is almost certainly safe — the only place on the San Joaquin River from here to Stockton from which I would dare to drink.
I step onto a rock and kneel over the stream with cupped hands. It is some of the best water I’ve tasted in the backcountry.
I pause in thought, wishing all of Stockton could come here. This is the same river through which cargo ships pass on the way to the Port of Stockton. The same river that nourishes 1 million acres of farmland on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley. The same river that has been dewatered for decades in some locations, and where it does flow, is heavily polluted with pesticides and nutrients.
The environment of the San Joaquin has traditionally been an afterthought. But that is changing.
Part of me wants to go on… to take another day, to climb the peak and peer over the west side at the North Fork of the San Joaquin, just as beautiful and even more wild. But we have a half-dozen miles today with full packs before we reach another stunning feeder stream at Ediza Lake. Even in the wilderness, we can’t escape the feeling that we should be adhering to a fixed schedule.
So we turn, somewhat grudgingly, back toward the lake.
It’s already late September. Soon the jagged Minarets, the entire Sierra Nevada, will be frozen and fast asleep until late next spring, when the San Joaquin River will once again reveal its roots. In the meantime, we’ll remember that even a stream as troubled as this one can ultimately be traced back to a babbling brook, in a place where politics don’t matter and the decisions of courts and judges are superceded by the fundamental rules of nature.