Heaven Is a Slow Houseboat to Nowhere

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THE gentle swaying of our 47-foot houseboat was working its magic. Reeds shushed outside our little window and the dark river purled underneath. Northern California's peaceful Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta had lulled me into a deep, far-from-the-city sleep.

Around midnight, my eyes shot open. We were moving.

My shipmate Erik and I met on the bow, pulling on clothes and fretfully assessing the situation. The boat had blown out into the center of the slough and was gaining speed. Working by starlight, we hauled up both anchors and threw them out again, but they wouldn't catch. More hauling and throwing, hauling and throwing. Harrison Ford rented this very boat months earlier, the manager at the marina had told us. Indiana Jones wouldn't have thought much of our efforts.

An anchor will fail and fail, we learned, then suddenly take hold with perfect sovereignty. By 1 a.m., we'd nailed it -- or at least felt too tired to care anymore -- and toddled back to bed. When we woke the next morning, we found the boat hadn't budged. With new cockiness we retrieved the fishing rods, but that was pressing our luck: not a nibble. Presumably we'd bonked all the fish with our anchors.

Having survived the "Cape Fear" portion of our weekend excursion, our group was now free to settle into the true houseboating experience. This involves an 80 percent slower heart rate, for starters. When they're not breaking loose in freak windstorms, houseboats don't move much faster than regular houses. Indeed, it wasn't a need for speed that brought us to the Delta, nearly a thousand miles of lovely, winding waterways that comprise the largest estuary on the West Coast. What we hankered for was deceleration. Locals speak of living on "Delta time," and if it took a nine-ton floating shoebox to slow our progress for a weekend, I was on board.

Too often, Bay Area residents -- or visitors -- point the car north or south when seeking variety. Marin, Napa, Santa Cruz and Monterey are all wonderful, but I was looking for something with an entirely different vibe. Joined by my crew, of sorts -- my wife, Amy; our toddler; plus Amy's sister; her husband, Erik; and their two kids -- I headed east toward the Delta. In just 90 minutes we were on another planet.

It was a hotter planet. The temperature had risen 25 degrees by the time we got to Stockton, our point of departure. The cultural differences were even starker. The Delta is a realm of muscular trucks hauling sleek Jet Skis, of cherry stands lined with American flags. If Ritual Roasters coffee and tidy Priuses lurked, I saw none. From a certain vantage point, naughty mud flaps can seem perfectly refreshing.

"The minute you have left the dock you have arrived at your destination," Erle Stanley Gardner wrote about houseboating on these waters in his 1969 volume "Drifting Down the Delta" -- my selected reading during our trip. Decades ago, Gardner, the best-selling detective novelist, had been a regular out here, and more than once he stepped away from Perry Mason and his other characters to celebrate the region.

As Gardner made clear, piloting a boat is a breeze. After a brief orientation from the rental company, we were steering ourselves out through Disappointment Slough. If you can drive a very slow car, it turns out, you can drive a houseboat.

Undoubtedly, kayaks, canoes and regular motorboats would also have floated admirably. A car puts you at street level in the wonderfully funky surrounding Delta towns. But there's something about the bygone pastime of houseboating that gave our weekend the whiff of another era. Once these channels were jammed with pokey tubs like ours, and the sweet clinking of martini glasses at sunset. Now, all but one of the houseboat rental companies have vanished, and it's mostly glittery bass boats and elaborate yachts that scoot past.

What does one do in a pokey tub? With Nemo-like authority I'd demanded clearly stated goals from my crew before the trip. Melissa, my sister-in-law, declared she would identify at least one bird from her bird book. Erik hoped to achieve such leisure that his innate ability to guess the time of day would be thrown off by at least two hours. Their son, Elio, 5, would catch his first fish. And Amy wished to rediscover dormant juggling skills.

One goal easily attained during our three days and couple dozen miles on the water: admiring the scenery. Cranes, pelicans, geese and seals mingled with discarded farm equipment -- and the occasional abandoned Datsun -- on the banks. Here we'd pass a gleaming ski boat, there a half-buried shanty. One moment we were in the Louisiana bayou, another a pristine lagoon on Martha's Vineyard.

"An interval of restful contemplation," Gardner called his time on these waters. I agreed: Traveling 3 to 5 miles per hour means you can set the steering wheel, wander back to the kitchen, mix two parts whiskey with one part soda water and return to your post without losing your train of thought. When restlessness hits, entertainment surrounds. At a secluded cove, Erik yelped and plunged in off the stern, and soon we were all backstroking under a hazy, slow-motion sunset.

Gardner eventually came to travel with not one but two houseboats, one for men and one for women -- including one or two secretaries. (The women, he explained, could "watch television, discuss clothes, dress and undress as they please.") I happened to have zero secretaries, but no matter. We meandered during the day, pausing occasionally to throw in a line, or bake a little on the roof. Amy juggled, Elio sought bass. "Cormorant," Melissa ventured without confidence. We passed spots with wonderful names: Potato Cut, Prisoners Point, Three River Reach.

This is the middle of nowhere, one might think. But in some ways it's the middle of everything -- arguably the most significant acreage in the state. It's from the Delta that about two-thirds of all Californians and millions of acres of farmland get their water, thanks to the engineering marvel that is the state's water delivery system -- though few experts consider the arrangement wholly sustainable.

Then there are the crumbling levees that converted this marshland into arable tracts over a century ago; some scientists now fear another Katrina. A breach of the levees -- by earthquake, by rising sea level -- could decimate the region, and send ocean water surging into the water system. It's no exaggeration to say that the economic and environmental future of California hinges on the stuff we were floating on.

The Delta happens to be a terrifically calm place for contemplating such disturbing scenarios. We'd come in May. Supposedly spring-break types flock to certain corners of the Delta in the hotter months, but no hedonism interrupted our peace. Indeed, when we heard Creedence Clearwater Revival emanating from up around a bend at one point, we made a beeline for what proved to be a genuine river bar. None of us had ever set foot in one, but we liked its suggestion of dark, swampy intrigue.

Inside, a mass of Bud-swilling bikers suggested something more straightforward. We mingled, then left -- not our scene, strictly speaking, but a welcome break from more typical Bay Area gatherings. I saw no fleece or microbrews. We motored on.

Mellowness was always just around the corner, and soon we were in another hushed little cove. As dusk fell we watched a tree in the distance go white with egrets. I started the grill and Amy poured whiskey. Someone asked Erik the time and he barely understood the question.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

The Paradise Point Marina, where you pick up a boat, is a 90-minute drive from San Francisco. (So are the neat little Delta towns of Locke, Isleton and Rio Vista, if you have time to kill.)

THE BOATS

Seven Crown Resorts (800-752-9669; sevencrown.com) rents different sizes of houseboat, for up to 10 or 12 people, starting at $750, plus gas, for two nights. (We guzzled 35 gallons over three days.) The vessels are simple to operate and -- knock wood -- unsinkable. Bring food, water, bedding and toiletries.

If you'd prefer to leave the driving to someone else, Delta Ecotours (916-775-4545; deltaecotours.com) offers guided day excursions with an emphasis on the history and ecology of the region. Tours start at $35.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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