kayak (3)

Kayak the Albion River

Kayaking up stream, the river stirs.  A harbor seal pokes his head above the surface 10474485290?profile=originaland stares back at us.  Overhead, an osprey glides, searching for lunch.  Blue herons perch on limbs of firs, pines, and redwoods on the river banks.  We startle a cormorant.  Madly slapping the river and running along the surface, she takes flight.

The Albion River meets the Pacific eight miles south of Mendocino.  Turn east on the first road north of the bridge, and follow it to Albion River10474485072?profile=original Campground to launch.  We paddled a few miles upstream.  Floating back, we let the gentle current do the work, wanting to savor the joy and serenity of being on the river.

The Albion River Campground, 707-937-0606, rents kayaks and canoes from early spring to late fall.  They have RV and tent sites on the river, or you can stay in one of their RVs.

Walkabout California – connecting with the natural world through travel, outdoor adventure, and hiking 10474485478?profile=originalinn-to-inn.  Savor the journey and the destination. Click here for California inn-to-inn hiking guides.

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Gliding peacefully across Utica Reservoir, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Boulders, deep below the surface catch the morning sun in the clear waters.  An 10474484073?profile=originalosprey circles overhead, intently searching for breakfast.  Our kayaks and paddles are all that disturbs the still surface.

Three easily accessed lakes in Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, Utica Reservoir, Union Reservoir, and Spicer Meadow Reservoir offer wonderful camping, kayaking, and canoeing.  (See directions below.)  There are scores of campsites in Forest Service campgrounds and walk-in, drive-to sites around the lakes.  Or, launch your kayak and find a site along the shore or on one of dozens of islands.  Be sure to bring your own drinking water or a water purifier.

Our campsite overlooks Utica Reservoir.  Its shore is lined with pines, junipers, 10474484097?profile=originaland glacial polished granite.  A pair of paddle boarders pass by as we prepare our kayaks, and a gaggle of curious Canada geese swim over to see what we are up to.
          We launch, paddling along the shore, and when the sun warms us, we stop at an island for a swim.  It is mid-June.  Diving off rocks into the brisk water, we do not linger.  Come July the water will be warm enough for a long swim.10474484472?profile=original

Turning up an arm of the lake, we beach at the base of a stream.  A mother mallard shepherds her brood of eight chicks.  One strays too far and then skitters back across the surface to the safety of mom’s protection. 

We set out on foot up stream to Union Reservoir.  Hiking over raw granite, we spend a few hours 10474483686?profile=originalexploring the shoreline.

A westerly, afternoon breeze has kicked up.  Heading into the wind, the journey back takes a bit more effort, but it is still a joy to be paddling in paradise.


Bring the Kids

The three lakes are great for family camping with or without a boat.  There are endless opportunities for water play and exploring.



The lakes are approximately 3 hours from the Bay Area and 2.5 hours from Sacramento.  Take Hwy. 4 west into the Sierra.  You will pass by Angels Camp, through Murphys and Arnold.  Turn right10474484497?profile=original on Spicer Reservoir Rd., 22 miles east of Arnold.  Turn left on Forest Service Road 7N75 to reach Utica and Union Reservoirs.  Continue on Spicer Reservoir Rd. to reach Spicer Meadow Reservoir.


Equipment Rental

Rent kayaks and paddle boards in Arnold at Sierra Nevada Adventure Company (209)795-9310.  Even if you don’t have a car rack, they can set you up.

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Cosumnes River Preserve – A Birding Paradise

It is dusk, and the pale December sun dips toward Mt. Diablo.  A guttural, trumpeting call comes from a group of sandhill cranes.  They glide in V-formation, long necks extended, legs stretched behind.  Descending to the harvested cornfield, they slow and break formation.  An abrupt turn, wings flapping to slow down, feet hit the ground with two awkward steps, wings fold, and they join hundreds of compatriots for the night.

10474464071?profile=originalThis scene is repeated, one group after another, on Staten Island in Cosumnes River Preserve.  They join thousands of other birds to settle in for the night.  We feel like we’ve stepped back in time to when humans were a minor species, and the skies of California’s Central Valley were darkened with flocks of migrating birds.

Just north of Stockton, the preserve is a short drive from most of the Bay Area or Sacramento, and it’s a nice place to take a break when you’re driving Highway 5.  Outdoor writer, Tom Stienstra, reports that an average of five million ducks and 1.5 million shorebirds migrate through or over-winter on California's Pacific Flyway. The ponds, marshes, river, and fields of Cosumnes are a major stopping point.

But sandhill cranes are the stars.  They stand five feet tall on legs that bend backward at the knee. Their plumage is gray with a red crown of featherless skin that turns bright when they are excited.  With long, stately necks and a seven foot wingspan, they have a dignified, ancient appearance.  Their roots are prehistoric, with fossil records dating back 2.5 million years.10474464457?profile=original

A mated pair begins a courting ritual – circling, leaping with wings spread, calling in a complex duet.  They stretch their necks, toss heads back, and fling sticks and grass in the air – a joyous bonding dance.

Exploring the Cosumnes River Preserve


Bird watching is not the only fun activity in the preserve.  Stop by the Visitor Center for a trail map.  You can stretch your legs and hike three miles on the River Walk Trail as it snakes through oak forests, open fields, on levees, and along the Cosumnes River.  Meander on the one-mile Lost Slough Wetlands walking through marshlands and ponds.  The ½ mile Boardwalk Trail winds deep into ponds for an up-close look at ducks, geese, herons, egrets, and dozens of other species.



Cosumnes River is the last undammed river flowing out of the Western Sierra.  It joins Mokelumne River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, just downstream from the preserve.

 10474464889?profile=original           We put in on Middle Slough, near the Visitor Center, and paddled our inflatable double kayak through riparian forests.  Red-tailed hawks circled overhead.  A great egret with flowing white plumage waded near the shore.  She stopped, leaning forward.  Then lightning-quick, she pierced the shallows with her long beak and snatched a wriggling fish. Gulp.  After gliding a ½ mile of still water on the slough, we came to the river and explored the main channel and backwaters for a few hours.


Bring the Kids

Families with young children and toddlers in strollers were enjoying the preserve on the day of our visit.  The kids delighted in spotting rabbits and ground squirrels.  They shared in the excitement of watching hundreds of birds get spooked, suddenly take off, and circle overhead, or of seeing a skein of Canada geese glide in for a splashy landing on a pond.


Best Times to Visit

Millions of birds migrate on the pacific Flyway from fall through spring.  When winter storms hit Northern California, waterfowl head for the Central Valley and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  The greater sandhill cranes arrive in 10474465097?profile=originalOctober and over-winter on the preserve.  Lesser sandhill cranes pass through on their way to Mexico from their breeding grounds in Siberia, Alaska and Canada.  The best time to see cranes is around dawn and dusk.  Drive Staten Island Rd., pullover, get out, and watch a spectacular show as hundreds fly out of the fields in the morning and return late in the day.


Getting There

The Visitor Center, 13501 Franklin Blvd., Galt, CA.  is approximately 25 miles north of Stockton. 

Driving north on Highway 5: Take exit 493, and drive north on Thorton Rd. to Franklin Blvd.  Continue on Franklin.  Look for the Visitor Center sign

Driving south on Highway 5: Take exit 498, turn left (east) on Twin Cities Rd, right on Franklin Blvd.  Look for the Visitor Center sign.

The Visitor Center will provide you with directions to great viewing sites including Staten Island Rd and Woodbridge Ecological Reserve.

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