Cover photo: Bruce Slocum
on the Eel River,
by JIM HIGHT
THE WATER IN THE EEL RIVER DELTA IS A GRAY AND GREEN CANVAS painted with endless tiny ripples. Our boat drifts and turns slowly with the breeze. The cloudy sky hangs low, and curlews and willets stand on the shore.
Our guide, Bruce Slocum, tells us that the birds are resting while they wait for the tide to go out. "Then they'll feed by probing with their long bills in the mudflats to find little insects and crustaceans," he says, gazing at the flock through binoculars.
In the midst of this tranquil scene, Slocum has destruction on his mind.
He fires up the motor and pilots his boat toward the mouth of the river, then stops when he spots a couple of old wooden pilings in the water. "That's all that's left of the little town of Camp Weott," he says.
"It was mostly a summer recreation area, with hunting and fishing in the fall," he says. "But by the early 1950s there were some nice two-story houses along here." Slocum pulls out photos that show a jumble of cabins and boats tied up at docks, and an aerial photo showing the town on a peninsula between two river channels.
He told us the town began to disappear after the big flood of 1955, which rearranged the lower Eel so that it began slicing the peninsula into two islands. Cabins were abandoned or torn down, then the tremendous 1964 flood wiped the islands clean of structures.
"There was still about an acre of land in back of the pilings here, covered with brush and trees about 20 feet tall," he says. But in October 1984, a huge storm and an extraordinarily high tide came together for a final assault. "The sea was so rough and the tides so high that 12-foot waves were coming up from the mouth of the river," says Slocum, pointing west at the ocean, which roared behind the fog. "[The breakers] shredded all the vegetation out there, and since then all the original land has eroded completely away."
It was hard to imagine that a town had existed in this misty bayou, or that floods and storms violent enough to wipe it out had pounded this tranquil spot where we floated.
But Slocum had lived through it all, fishing from the public docks in Camp Weott, watching the river eat the earth out from under the buildings, and even going out in his boat to retrieve a dock that had busted loose in the storm that finished off the ghost town.
Slocum, 62, is an eyewitness to five decades of history in this 10-square-mile network of sloughs, bays, channels and islands northwest of Ferndale, where the Eel River meets the Pacific Ocean.
And on his two-hour guided tour, Slocum weaves his own memories together with centuries, even millenia, of history -- history he has learned from older residents, from books and journals, from old maps and back editions of the Ferndale Enterprise, and from teachers at Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods.
"At any one place, you're only going to find one guy with that kind of wide range of knowledge and skills," says Curtis Ihle, director of the Humboldt County Resource Conservation District, an agency that works to protect natural resources. "In the Eel River Delta, he's it."
"Bruce has lived and breathed the dynamics of the Eel River and the Eel River Delta," says, Karen Kovacs, Department of Fish and Game biologist. [photo at right] "And he has a gentle and effective way of getting a message across about their value."
GROWING UP ON THE RIVER
Slocum started his Camp Weott Guide Service in 1975 because he wanted people to see "how much neat stuff is out here," he says.
But his love affair with the Eel River Delta began when he was transplanted to Humboldt County from Seattle at 10 years of age.
His father, Don Slocum, had already introduced him to boating and fishing on Washington's Puget Sound. Soon after the family moved to Ferndale, the elder Slocum bought a boat, and father and son fished for salmon on the lower Eel River near Fernbridge.
Young Slocum quickly learned about the downriver town of Camp Weott, and he often rode his bicycle there to fish off the public docks that were maintained by the County of Humboldt.
His ability to travel the delta increased significantly a few years later when he unearthed an old redwood seine skiff. Made from thin planks of redwood bent around a frame, such boats had been the standard vessels of the river's salmon fishery. With a new plywood bottom and a motor, Slocum's boat became his ticket to fish and explore up and down the delta and lower Eel River.
In the catastrophic 1964 flood, Slocum joined in search and rescue operations. He promptly lost his boat and almost became a casualty himself. "I was just outside Ferndale at the Ferndale highway, going to rescue some people, when my motor got tangled in the new wire fencing," recalls Slocum. While his heavier comrade steadied himself in the current, slightly built Slocum had to pull himself along the wire fence back to higher ground. "An interesting time was had by all," he says.
Despite this inauspicious start, he continued volunteering for search and rescue operations. Today he is captain of the marine unit of the all-volunteer Sheriff's Posse Search and Rescue organization.
Slocum worked as a mechanic at local auto and farm shops, and he attended Humboldt State University for a couple of years. Then he found a career niche using a skill he'd honed at Ferndale High School: drumming.
"I spent the next 20 years being a musician," he says. "The farthest I got away [from Humboldt County] was West Texas. I played either rock and country, depending on the band. I was kind of a jack of all trades for music." He still plays today in the classic rock band Taxi.
But the delta remained his home. In 1969 he moved to a house on a ranch adjacent to what was then the delta's main channel. Much later, he moved into his wife Nancy Kaytis-Slocum's house closer to the mouth of the river.
Slocum's guiding career got started by accident.
In 1975, birdwatching had a more limited following in Humboldt County than it does today. But Slocum knew two brothers, originally from the East, who were trying to build enthusiasm for birding here. One was his family physician, Clarence Crane, and the other was, Bill Crane, the high school band teacher who'd helped Slocum learn drumming.
Exploring the delta one day, Slocum noticed some snowy owls patrolling the shores for rodents. He knew the area's winged inhabitants well enough to grasp that these downy white predators were very unusual visitors, and he thought the Cranes would want to see them.
He invited the brothers out in his boat. They were thrilled, and Slocum's interest in birding was piqued. "They got me to do the [Audubon Society's] Christmas bird count that year," he says.
"Then I just kind of decided that since people liked [touring the delta] so much, maybe they could help me pay for the gas," he says.
Slocum has run his Camp Weott Guide Service ever since, and he has no plans to stop.
But the part-time business is slow at best. (Slocum also has a government day job.) Recently, his tour trade has dropped to a trickle. "This is the slowest year since I started," he said.
"Almost everybody who goes out in the boat thinks it's a wonderful thing out here," says Slocum. "Finding new people who are interested in seeing it has always been a stumbling block for the business."
READING THE WATERY LANDSCAPE
After booking a 1 p.m. tour with Slocum in mid-August -- the hour being coordinated with high tide -- I follow his directions through several miles of dairy farms and cornfields to a small private dock on a piece of the delta known as Morgan Slough.
Dressed in layers of faded green, his face shrouded by sunglasses, a salty beard and a baseball cap, Slocum is not effusive in greeting my companion and me. But he shows his warm side as he hails some birds. "Hey guys," he says to a pair of yellowlegs swooping by.
"They winter in the area," he explains to us, "and they're just getting here in the last few weeks, like a lot of the shorebirds."
After we board his 16-foot motorboat, we push off into the wide, full channel, and Slocum begins to interpret the watery landscape. "For many years, this was the main channel of the Eel down through here," he says. "In 1960, the river cut back of Cock Robin Island over there, where the tall trees are," he says, gesturing across the water to the north.
"The main channel was still here on this side until a big flood in `86 deepened that back channel," he says. As the river flowed more slowly in this secondary channel, it deposited more sediment -- the dirt and gravel which the Eel River transports in prodigious quantities.
Slocum explains that sediment begets soil, which begets vegetation, which traps more sediment. He points upriver to a sandy spit of land nearly spanning the channel, with shrubs and trees encroaching on both sides. Slocum predicts that the spit will collect more sediment, grow larger, become more thickly forested and eventually block the river's flow entirely. "That's typical of what happens with these old river channels and meanders," he says. "The river goes somewhere else and leaves them behind."
But at this time of year, this back channel, the main channel and all the reaches of the delta are filled by the ocean, not the river. "This is tidewater down here," Slocum says. "The [water level] goes up and down twice daily with the ocean tides."
Slocum points to a log dotted with tiny barnacles. "In midsummer, with the low flows in the river, it pretty much becomes a salt water bay. You get mussels and barnacles growing. [Then] invariably, in the winter, all these plants and animals are killed off by the large flows of freshwater," he says. "Unlike a true salt water bay, it has to start its colonies of plants and animals over again every year. The larvae and the seeds and spores, et cetera, float in with the tides, [and] every year they're regenerated."
As we ride farther into the delta, we pass islands thick with willows and alders. On the shores of the mainland, sedges and rushes line the banks, and cows, barns and towering cypress trees drift by in a dreamy panorama.
Most of the barns house active dairy operations, but some of the land has been abandoned by farmers. "A lot of this land right along the coastline that the pioneers claimed for agriculture turned out to be too marshy, even though they diked a lot of it," Slocum says. "The main reason being that even though the [river] sediments build it up, the earthquakes settle it back down again."
Slocum had already shown us how an earthquake in the year 1700 dropped the land 10 to 12 feet relative to the sea. The evidence: the stump of a spruce tree almost entirely covered with ocean tidewater.
Now he points to Seaside Island. Shrouded with willows and alders, the island sits just inland from a line of dunes that hides the sea. "The north end of this island settled about a foot and a half in the 1992 earthquakes," he tells us.
Once the site of a thriving dairy, "It's gone pretty much back to its original wild state, a salt marsh," Slocum says. He tells us that the island is home to raccoons, otters, skunks, bobcats, porcupines and a small herd of deer whose members commute from the mainland by trails or by swimming.
"It's really amazing how fast a deer can swim with those little feet," he says.
"Years and years ago, there was a really old buck out here ... I saw him down at the mouth of the river one time, which happened to be the opening day of duck season," remembers Slocum. "I guess he was spooked out by all the duck hunters shooting down here. Anyway, he jumped into the river and against the outgoing tide swam all the way up to Camp Weott. Probably close to a mile."
HOPE FOR THE SALT RIVER
We soon reach a narrow little slough that was once the navigable Salt River. Two-and-a-half miles upstream, Slocum tells us, is the site of Port Kenyon, the 19th-century port where ships called to deliver manufactured goods and pick up lumber, salmon and farm products. "They used to bring ships up to 175 feet long up this channel," he says. "Hard to believe now."
Today the tidewater falls a quarter-mile short of the site of Port Kenyon, says Slocum, who learned this when he surveyed the channel recently for the city of Ferndale.
Slocum doesn't envision ships navigating the Salt River again, but he and many others would like to see the channel reopened to allow salmon to reach the creeks that drain into the channel and to lessen the flooding that plagues much of the lower Eel River Valley.
"Salt River is not actually a river itself," he explains. "It's an old abandoned channel of the Eel" that once carried water from the mainstem some eight or nine miles up the valley. "I suspect it had been abandoned by the Eel not long before [Port Kenyon was established in the late 1800s] because [the port] was still so deep, 13 feet at low tide."
If not for a levee built after the 1964 flood, the Eel River would regularly push water over its banks and down the Salt River during periods of high flows. The highest flows still crest the levee, but without the more regular flushing effect of big water, sediment from the creeks and from its own eroding banks has filled the Salt River in.
"It's part of the natural process of sediment filling old river channels that occurs all across the delta floor," Slocum says. "It's just that this particular infilling happens to impact the fish and a lot of people."
With his expertise in the river's history and behavior, Slocum is an advisor to the Resource Conservation District, which is planning the Salt River restoration program along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He's optimistic that a fix can be worked out.
"Some are talking about taking the levee out," says Slocum. "That's undoubtedly not going to happen. It protects too many ranches at the upper end."
Instead, he envisions "a floating dredge starting at the mouth or an excavator moving alongside the channel. They won't have to take out a huge amount of dirt ... just enough [to create] a channel so water can flow down and fish could get up."
ABOVE: Living with big water.
Floods like this one in 1970 frequently inundate the former Port
DAMS AND LOGGING
Discussing sediment and the Eel River leads inevitably to the question of whether -- or how much -- Pacific Lumber Co.'s logging practices have increased erosion in the Eel River watershed, where most of the company's operations take place.
"It's a point of fact that they've logged more since the [Maxxam] corporate takeover," says Slocum. "How much that has impacted particular areas, I don't know. It may be that, overall, whatever they're doing is still less than what was going on in the `50s and `60s, when there were 150 sawmills and logging companies in the area.
"Because the whole Coast Range is such a young range, we have a tremendous amount of sediment coming down the river," says Slocum. "It was like that before Europeans arrived here, and it will go on for tens of thousands of years. In the upper watershed, there are a lot of major slides going right into the river."
Slocum is less agnostic about the impacts of Pillsbury Dam and the Potter Valley Project, which take water from the upper reaches of the river's main fork and divert it to Sonoma County.
"The dam takes 95 percent of the water out of the Eel River in the summertime. That has to negatively affect any fish trying to get up there in late fall before the winter rains raise the river, or smaller fish coming down in spring," he says. "It is also cutting off 120 miles of spawning streams past the dams."
While the diversion doesn't affect the delta -- which is fed by all the river's forks and filled with ocean tidewater during summer and fall -- Slocum says, "I'd like to see the dam go away so it would help the fish. In the 50 years I've been around here, I've seen the salmon fishing go from real good to nothing."
But as we continued our tour, riding to within about 50 yards of the breaking surf at the river's mouth, then up the main channel where riparian forests shelter bustling rookeries from the northwest winds, Slocum explains that the decline of salmon fishing has had a surprisingly beneficial effect on the delta.
"It used to be you'd go over here around Cock Robin island and there'd be 10 or 20 boats out there, if not catching anything at least drowning worms," he says. "Now we're not seeing it. Even on a really nice day, there's hardly anyone else out here, just the occasional kayakers and canoeists."
"Compared with even 100 years ago, there's so little use of the area now," says Slocum. "At the turn of last century Port Kenyon was still a port, with all kinds of docks and industrial things and canneries."
"I think it's in very good condition now. There are no particular pollutants, no farming operations that put a lot of pesticides in the water," Slocum says. "The dairy waste everybody is concerned about now, that's being pretty much controlled with waste ponds."
In an ironic bend in Slocum's own story, the health of his beloved delta has been most improved, in his estimation, by the destruction of the very community that he memorializes in his tour.
"The turning point was losing Camp Weott," he says. "Those people who were out here fishing, hunting and camping had all kinds of impacts.
"Now it's mostly an untampered-with ecosystem," says Slocum. "All these areas are growing up, going back to the way they were before."
Jim Hight is a freelance writer based in Arcata. He is working with videographer John Gammon/River Sky Media to produce an educational video documentary about Bruce Slocum and the Eel River Delta. For more information, contact Jim at 822-2628 or .
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.