When I was brand-new to journalism, in the summer of 1999, I wrote my first profile.
It was about Bob Madgic. I knew nothing of the guy, except that he was an avid fly-fisherman and he lived on the banks of the Sacramento River near Anderson.
Sadly, the story has long since been lost somewhere in the cobwebs of early Internet archives. But I still remember sitting in Bob’s living room as the retired school administrator explained to me — with a boyish enthusiasm that is typically absent from school administrators — what it was like to be able to walk down to the river after dinner and fly-fish for rainbow trout until darkness set in.
No one loves a river like one who lives along it. Which probably explains why Madgic chose, for the topic of his latest book, his own Sacramento River.
Madgic isn’t a new writer. I own “Pursuing Wild Trout,” in which he tells some great tales about his family’s own adventures in the rugged and remote North Fork Mokelumne River drainage, and elsewhere.
Then there’s “Shattered Air,” a much different kind of book, which recreates in stunning and disturbing detail the 1985 tragedy on top of Half Dome in which two hikers were killed by lightning and three more injured.
No, Madgic has already proved he’s a versatile writer. “The Sacramento: A Transcendent River” is a third kind of book entirely, a big and beautiful coffee-table style volume that takes us on a journey from the Mt. Shasta-area headwaters of the stream, all the way to the Delta. This is not a mere sportsman’s guide with pretty pictures; Madgic honors the river’s natural heritage, but also turns an appropriately critical eye to the role humans have played in the watershed (sometimes to its detriment) and explores management issues that continue to baffle Sacramento River scientists today.
“Despite its vital significance, no major publication has yet been produced on the Sacramento River,” he writes in the introduction. “This void — combined with my devotion to rivers generally, but especially this waterway — prompted me to undertake this book project. It has been the most challenging of personal endeavors, for I soon realized I was dealing with many of the biggest and thorniest issues facing Californians today.”
Madgic is no mere unattached observer of these issues. He is an environmentalist, and his book tilts toward environmentalism. But anyone can appreciate his description of the Sacramento as it “boils” with jumping trout in the evening — none of which are willing to take what he offers. “What are they eating?” he asks, as sport fishermen have asked for generations.
Anyone can appreciate his stories about the bobcats, and the osprey, and the river otters that he has observed from the back door of his very home.
Anyone can appreciate his telling of the prehistoric condition of the Central Valley, when the swollen Sacramento would flood the flatlands and create a massive inland sea.
Madgic also captures in detail the American Indians’ close connection to this stream.
“They (the Winnemum Wintu) reveled in the river’s presence. The simple act of drinking water became a rapturous experience as they plunged into the river, spraying water high in the air… tribe members submerged in the river to bathe their bodies and purify their souls.”
White settlers were also enthralled, even if the Europeans would not be as careful stewards as the Indians were. Madgic talks of Jedediah Smith’s journey up the Sacramento — then known as “Buenaventura” — and tells in almost painful detail the eventual harnessing of the river, and many of its tributaries, during and after the Gold Rush.
It’s not that Madgic opposes human utilization of the resources the Sacramento River has to offer. He praises the partnership between the $1.3 billion yearly rice industry and waterfowl hunters, who have benefited from the farmers’ flooded fields. He celebrates the tradition of the great steamboats that once came upstream, like the 550-foot Antelope, which carried up to 300 passengers. He even introduces us to a Sacramento River-inspired arts community, including filmmakers who saw an opportunity to use Delta waterways to imitate the mighty Mississippi.
Madgic does, however, clearly have concerns with the continued diversion of the Sacramento to farms on the desert-like western flank of the San Joaquin Valley, and in that sense his work is one of advocacy.
And yes, Madgic attempts to unravel the complexities of the Delta, giving a detailed account of the legal battles over just the past several years regarding how much water the estuary can safely provide the rest of the state.
While pessimistic at times, Madgic’s work on the whole is one of optimism — a wonder that this resource exists for us at all, diminished though he considers it to be. His suggestion is that we stop seeing the Sacramento as a river to be managed and subdued, and instead strive to live with the recognition that we are but one species benefiting from it.
“It really comes down to whether people possess the will to abide by Aldo Leopold’s proposed land ethic ‘where lands and organisms are treated as a community, and humans act to preserve its integrity, stability and beauty… Such an ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from one of conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.’”