The saying, “There must be something in the water,” couldn’t be any truer than in Portola, California. This tiny urban outpost clings to the banks of the Feather River like a fragile raft. Noted by tourists for quaint train-themed attractions, Portola, northwest of Lake Tahoe, is also known for the 1996 dispute between the locals and the California Department of Fish and Game. That dispute ended when the Department “poisoned” Lake Davis to eradicate pike in favor of native trout.
No wonder that Jessie Raeder, an idealistic and energetic high school student at the time of the first bitter pike-trout dispute, became the director of Paddle to the Sea, an annual month-long “paddle-a-thon” that begins in June during which hundreds paddle portions of the 241-mile river from the Sierras to the San Francisco Bay to support efforts of the Tuolumne River Trust to “protect and restore” the Tuolumne River. I spoke with Jessie today about her own watery journey to champion the river.
Q: You grew up in Portola —
Raeder: I grew up on the middle fork of the Feather River.
Q: How did this affect your interest in water-related issues?
Raeder: My very first political activism was around the poisoning of Lake Davis. The Department of Fish and Game was proposing to poison the lake because northern pike had
been found in it, and the lake was known as a trout fishing lake. This seemed like a terrible idea. They were going to poison our drinking water. I was 16 at the time and became very active in the movement to stop this. There were rallies and meetings. During a candle vigil, my best friend’s dad was tied to a buoy in the middle of the lake.
Q: How did you make your way to the Bay Area?
Raeder: Growing up in a small town in the Sierras, I felt very connected to San Francisco. There definitely is a flow between the Sierra and the San Francisco Bay.
Q: What are the goals of Paddle to the Sea?
Raeder: To get as many people as possible to connect to their watershed and think about where their water comes from; to highlight the interconnectedness of our ecosystem through living rivers.
We have this amazing system in California. Water is stored in the Sierra Nevada, then melts and trickles into little creeks and streams that become our major rivers, the arteries of our ecosystem. Then they flow down and converge in the Delta and flow out to the Bay. To get people to know where water comes from, and goes to, and how it works. And to get people to come out and have a personal experience of the river so that they’ll be that much more invested in protecting it.
To connect the various communities that are involved with the Tuolumne River. One of the things that I love about Paddle to the Sea is that we have people from the Bay Area, the Sierra and the Central Valley. It’s a great way for our different constituencies to mix, and to really see how connected they are.
And, to highlight the plight of the salmon. We’re following the journey of the salmon as they go out to sea. We get a lot of opportunities to think about how that keystone species has connected the mountains and the ocean for so long; and how that’s blocked right now.
Q: What are the high points of Paddle to the Sea?
Raeder: It depends on what you’re into. Some people like whitewater. Clavey Falls, where the Clavey River joins the Tuolumne – there’s a rapid just downstream of that, a big class IV exciting rapid.
The lower Tuolumne river, which has a riparian corridor all the way along – people have told us that it is the best wildlife watching they’ve seen on rivers — river otters, all sorts of bird life.
Q: What other outdoor interests do you have besides paddling?
Raeder: I’m a hiker and a birdwatcher. I work on fish, and I love fish, but they’re very hard
to see. And I’m not really much of a snorkeler. My main passion is bird watching. It’s incredibly fun. It brings me to all sorts of new places I wouldn’t necessarily go. It really makes me think about habitat, what’s good habitat and what’s not.
Q: What is your favorite hike or water excursion in the Bay Area?
Raeder: The Five Brooks Trailhead in Pt. Reyes, for bird watching. You get to go by a pond. There’s all different kinds of habitats.
Note: The pike-trout conflict continues even today. The Department of Fish and Game presents a point of viewmarkedly different from that expressed by others in this interview.
Learn more about Paddle to the Sea.