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Secret History: The Crew of the Shantyboat Dotty

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Secret History: The Crew of the Shantyboat Dotty

Here I was on a rushing river, no moon and a thousand stars above me, alone in our little johnboat. I was trying to find where we arranged to meet, the tiny stretch of clear shore in the dark. My feeble nav lights illuminated a tiny circle of inky black water around me. Beyond that, I couldn't see a thing. Benzy and Hazel were safely aboard the Dotty, and I was out on this flimsy tender on a dark river. Why in the world was I making this sketchy night river rendezvous?

I've told you already that I built a rustic shantyboat and spend every summer collecting stories of people who live along the river. I want to introduce you to a few of the people who are crazy enough to join me on these journeys.

I'm lucky enough to have my partner Benzy join me for the last couple years. She's an animator and new media artist. She's also a top-notch shipmate and an excellent novice fisherman. I knew she'd be great when she eagerly learned all her knots and stepped up to do all the spring maintenance, including clambering up on the roof to fix the tin roof of the shantyboat.

Hazel is the ship's hound. She's been on every expedition and has 1000 river miles under her collar. People ask us if she's much of a water dog. Not really. Her only concerns: Where are her people? Where's her bed? And will she get fed? After four years, she’s finally becoming a river dog. Instead of hiding in the cabin, she comes out on deck, bathes in the sun, and watches the sky, the water, and the birds.

Earlier that day, we'd camped on a beautiful sandy beach above the town of Grimes. Benzy, Hazel and I walked into town and scouted out a good place to meet our friends who were coming to crew the boat for the weekend. It was a pleasant walk down a long dusty country road picking blackberries all the way. Jeremiah and the Goodmans, our California neighbors, weren't expected until pretty late that night, so I was going to johnboat downriver and pick them up, thus the sketchy night rendezvous.

But as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. They had come down the steep bank in a different place and I almost missed them in the dark. We managed the tricky shuffling of four people and a pile of baggage in a small boat and motored upstream to the shantyboat under a meteor shower.

Jeremiah has been shipmate on every journey over the last four years. He takes the job very seriously and is the self-appointed Safety Officer as a counterpoint to my more cavalier attitude. On the Sacramento, he came up almost every weekend to resupply the boat, help with interviews, and drink whiskey and play cards with us.

As we floated closer to Sacramento, the character of the river changed again. The water was wider and more placid. Sandy beaches were few and far between with long treeless stretches. We still found places to swim and even a rope swing now and again.

After a weekend of good food and whiskey, it was time for our friends to leave us. At Knight's Landing, we were back on the river and back to work, just our skeleton crew headed for big city life in Sacramento.

The project is all about meeting river people. Next time, I'll talk about some of the people we meet in the river communities through which we float.

Follow Wes on his adventure on the Sacramento River and check back every month. Or find out a lot more about the project at peoplesriverhistory.us.

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