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Stories from the valley

American River Journey, Day One

Contributed by Lewis Kemper

4:30 AM and my alarm is going off. Groggily, I reach over and turn off the alarm, cursing under my breath how early sunrise is in the summer. But sunrise is my favorite time on the river, and I remind myself it will be worth it once I get moving. After my first cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast, I’m prepared to spend the next several hours out in my kayak on the American River. I grab my camera gear, water bottle and binoculars and head out the door.  Fortunately I live within a quarter mile of the river, so I unload my kayak from the rack and place it on my Malone Kayak Cart, load in my gear and wheel my way down to the river. It’s still dark out, but I like to be down on the river’s edge when the sun comes up. It’s a trip I’ve made hundreds of times, so I can stumble my way down the trail, in the faint light of dawn, as my body gets used to be awake so early.

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Standing on the bank of the river, I notice the pink and lavender light of predawn building to the west, so I head over the peninsula of land that connects the main river to the backwater pond like area to the west.  From here, I can see the pink light reflecting in the pond and notice the absolute stillness on the water and the mirror-like reflection of the trees on the opposite shore. The morning seems so still and full of promise at this hour.

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As it gets brighter and brighter in the east, I head over that direction where I’ve already placed my kayak in the water. As the sun bursts over the horizon, and the star-like rays of light filter through the trees, I begin taking pictures. In a few minutes the light show is over, the sun has cleared the trees and is now beating down on the river.  It’s time to launch!

Sunrise not only brings a great light show, it’s a great time to be on the river because it’s less populated at this hour.  As far as I could see, I was the only person out at this time, but shortly I would see a few other hearty souls, mostly fisherman. I figure only fisherman and photographers have the willpower to get up this early!

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The wildlife is up early, and very quickly I spot ducks, geese, and herons basking in the warm sunlight. I’m amazed how close I can get to the wildlife when I’m in a kayak as opposed to being on land. Most of the waterfowl don’t even flinch when you get within a few feet of them.  In fact, I can tell which animals have experienced a well intended, although totally unhealthy, handout from humans, as some geese and even ducks will swim up to the kayak expecting a handout.

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As I cruise down the river, I’m always looking for some of the smaller details that stand out. I’m especially attracted to interesting light and watch the way the light plays across the grasses, or how the light catches one cluster of blackberries along the shore.

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As the morning passes, I see a few of the river regulars out and about.  There is Mike Koe from American River Guide, out fishing, fellow photographers Gina and Denise, who spend more time photographing the river than I do, and other fisherman that I say “hi” to quite often but have never exchanged names!  These people all feel the spiritual and healing forces of the moving river and have made it an intricate part of their lives.

The best part of this morning came as I was heading back to my put in location. One reason why I love to kayak this section of the river is because although the river is flowing steadily downstream, the elevation drop is very gradual. This means I can paddle back upstream with a little effort and take out at the same location I put in, so there’s no need for multiple vehicles or any special arrangements.  In fact, with the kayak cart and my close proximity to the river, it’s totally pollution free recreation. I just walk to and from the river to home! As I headed home, I came into the backwater pond-like area from the west and there was a large gathering of mostly female Mallard ducks.  Mallards are very fearless and let you get quite close, which afford some nice close up photos. 4010-160709-_7D_1537 copyThe bonus was there was one juvenile male Wood Duck, swimming with the Mallards.  Usually wood ducks are very shy and one of the most difficult of the waterfowl to photograph. But this guy was taking his cue from the Mallards and swam very close to me and never seemed alarmed, allowing me to get some good photos of him!  You never know what treats you will get if you spend time on the river!

Lewis Kemper is widely recognized as a photographer, writer, and instructor, lecturing and teaching throughout the United States. He served as Canon’s Explorers of Light for 10 years and now serves as an Explorer of Light Emeritus.