Thursday, November 8, 2007

Water truck driving, before the December 1964 flood.

I haven’t seen a sturgeon in the Eel River since the December ‘64 flood. Has anyone seen one lately? Back in the early sixties, before the flood, I lived at Eel rock. It was a picture perfect small community nestled in the Eel River Valley on a bend in the river. There was a great big blue rock in the middle of the river and sturgeon used to hole-up in the deep hole that had been washed around it.

Eel Rock was a logging / railroad town where everybody knew everyone else, literally by name. There was one store, one post office, one railroad stop, one one-room-school-house, one teacher, one drunk, one whore, and I was the one water truck driver. My truck was an old “White” with a two thousand gallon water tank, it had a five speed main transmission, a four speed “Brownie” transmission, and a two speed “Duplex box” behind the transmissions for more gears. All the gears were called “square gears” which that meant that you had to time the shift exactly or it wouldn’t shift.

We logged the hill across the river. There was a riffle that angled for a long distance down the river. We used that riffle as a ford to cross with the trucks. And yes, It was okay with fish and game to ford the river back then. We converted the bunks on the log trucks to ten feet wide with stake-sides to hold the huge off-highway loads. The trucks hauled their logs to the railroad where we loaded them onto log cars to be railed to the mill.

I drove the water truck that watered the roads and kept them free of dust, and gave the road traction. I was fifteen at the time, and I thought that driving a truck was a great big deal. I loved the job, I loved the smell of the woods after a hot day, the smell of fresh cut wood and the drying fir and pepperwood leaves, the smell of the diesel, dust, and mud, the smell of the mossy river, and the indescribable sweet smell of the willow banks. And I liked the thought that I was doing something important. But, I always worried about getting too high or too low on the riffle and getting stuck. So I watched it very carefully, and moving water can be very disorienting.

On one hot, fragrant, late summer evening, as I was coming back across the river in the water truck, with my arm out the window in the warm air, the riffle was boiling with silver colored fish about a foot long, there was so many that I could smell them as I sniffed the air for the sweet willow smell that I like so well. At first I though they might be steelhead, but they were just too silver and flashy. They looked flattish, like a perch only longer, and chrome silver. After I got across the river, I saw a group of the Mexican workers that worked on the Railroad. I asked one of the kids of the people that had worked there, and had lived at Eel Rock for a long time, what kind of fish they were. They got all excited and started talking in Spanish, pretty soon they all disappeared. The kid asked me if I wanted to “go fishing”. I said “sure”.

They came back with a long piece of chicken wire about 75 feet long, and a washtub. When we got to the river it was well after dark, but there was a bright moon in the sky and the light simmered off the warm river water. We could see very well. We took off our shoes, so we could hold the bottom of the chicken wire on the bottom of the river with our toes. While being extremely quite, not so much as to not scare the fish, but to not get caught doing what we were doing, because we weren’t real sure it was legal. And no, It wasn’t alright with fish and game back then. We waded the chicken wire across the river as deep as we could above the riffle. Then the guy on the tail end of the wire started a sweep across and below the riffle. I could feel the fish hitting the wire in a panic. The ones that hit close to where I had my toe in the wire hurt like it might cut my toe. Soon we had a whole wire net full of fish next to the shore. Several people got inside the looped net and started tossing fish onto shore, while others picked them up and put them in the tub. There was much excited talk about “pescadero, agua, and caliente”, and I was “Gringo Pescadero”. I think it was a compliment. The fish turned out to be Shad. The Mexicans brined them in salt and smoked them with a maple flavored Black Oak wood, The Shad were very boney but they were very tasty.

I think those days are all gone when you could do those kinds of things. But what fun! When I close my eyes, I can still smell those days in my mind.


The Rock in Eel Rock that I was referring to was the Eel Rock. And it was aptly named. There were rafts of Eel that lived in the hole, there were also Bluegill and a small fish that I have no idea what it was, but the Mexicans called it a pan fish. It was about three to four inches in diameter it looked a lot like a blue gill, only it was yellowish. Do you have any idea what that fish was? The only place that I have ever seen one was at Eel Rock and Dos Rios. Maybe a crappie? Something that someone planted? A wild Goldfish?

The N.W.P. Railroad blew up the Eel Rock and used it for rip-rap after the sixty-four flood. So my chances of finding those fish again are somewhat diminished.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I find your use of the word whore a
little outdated like the N word.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Thank's, that was the intent... outdated. It was a story about yesteryear. It was an ironic twist one the otherwise wholesome nature of the one person based community. Also, it might be that I'm full of it.

Anonymous said...

Ernie... I have a statement from 1904 that there were sturgeon in the South Fork back then. The Wailaki called Briceland Charlie said ther were a number in the piling hole at the mouth of Salmon Creek. He would fish for them with a line attached to a big branch. Once the sturgeon was hooked, the branch was tossed in the river and the fish towed it around until it tired, then it was hauled in. The piling hole is now filled in with gravel. I have friends who saw two sturgeon between Alderpoint and Fort Seward this year. Around 1980, you could still find shad on the Main River, supposed to be great fighters but too bony to eat. I haven't heard of them in a long time.
Ben

Ernie Branscomb said...

Thanks Ben, I've heard comment about the fact that the sturgeon still ply the main Eel, but they are smaller now than the huge "submerged logs" that we used to see before the '64 flood.

The other thing that is missing is the huge deep sandy bottom holes that were washed around the large rocks in the water course.

Anonymous said...

If you haven't seen them, how do you know?

J said...

hey there...

joe said...

just read this story and find it wonderful and poetic! I love your evoking all the smells and feelings.
Thanks for sharing it. Poor Mr Anonymous needs to get a life.

joe said...

just read this story and find it wonderful and poetic! I love your evoking all the smells and feelings.
Thanks for sharing it. Poor Mr Anonymous needs to get a life.

Anonymous said...

And if you're ever curious about the sturgeon in the Main Fork of the Eel River you might ask one of the Satterly's who own the largest ranch in Humboldt County that the river flows through.