* Editor’s note: In December, we plan to publish a series on the history of Putah Creek, focusing on the 1990s lawsuit that helped guarantee water for the creek and the restoration efforts that have revived it since. Reporter Elizabeth Case will write occasional shorter posts about moments in her reporting, leading up to the stories’ publication this winter.
The first time I visited Putah Creek on my own, I ended up there by accident. I was pedaling along Russell Boulevard, where the sidewalk is a bike path, its asphalt bumpy with roots. An avenue opened to my left, and metal pegs that blocked cars invited bicyclists and pedestrians to wander in. Under old olive trees, a couple strolled hand in hand; an older man without a shirt ran with perfect form.
I was too warm in my jeans, which clung to my legs as my feet moved around and around, but I wasn’t ready to go home. The evening hung easy around me.
Farther along the path, past Hutchison Drive, a sign warned “No Outlet,” so I kept riding, veering right around a bend and slipping between two crumbling concrete barriers. Maybe a quarter-mile farther, the road intersects with Hopkins Road, and I turned left, headed vaguely to a produce stand, a couple of exits down the freeway from my house.
Along Hopkins, antique tractors stood a stoic watch, a jack rabbit perked up its ears and bounded off. The sun hung low over the vineyards and then suddenly: the tree line, the fence, the creek. I’d been here once to tour restoration efforts, but someone else had driven. I swung my leg over my bike and hopped down.
An opening in the guard rail led to a wide picnic space, yellow and dusty from the summer and the drought. I spotted an isthmus of dirt below, flat and worn, jutting into the water. I laid my bike next to a tiny path and slid down through some brambles.
The birds twittered, the herons fished, the spiders skittered, and I sat, sandals off, feet in the water. Wiggled my feet in the mud, laughed out loud.
Twenty-five years ago, the only mud would have been cracked and dry. The only fish, skeletons, or trapped in puddles of pooled water along the overdrawn creek beds. Ten years before that, vegetation and ecosystems upstream were regularly bulldozed, part of the normal care of the creek between levees that controlled the water flow.
Fifteen years after Putah Creek Council, UC Davis and the city of Davis won a lawsuit against Solano County water interests, restoration efforts — partially funded by Solano, enacted by volunteers from the three plaintiffs — have revived the creek ecosystem into a singing, rustling, sighing orchestra.
The tinny sound of country music floated up the river. Hmm.
To my left, a hundred feet away, a man stood in the water in yellow camouflage bib overalls and a black T-shirt. Maybe mid-20s, short cropped brown hair, he held a fishing pole that he wound up, flicked back, let sail. An easy rhythm, fishing not to catch, not win, just to fish. He saw me and nodded, and I nodded back.
He waded upriver.
“What are you fishing for?” I called out.
“Bass,” he said.
“I caught one this big, earlier.” He stretched out his arms a foot, a foot and a half, grinned at the memory.
He kept going upstream, slowly, water up to his waist, each step starting with his hips, then knees then shins and feet. Then he’d pause for a minute, flick his pole back, let it sail. When I couldn’t see him anymore, I could still hear him, humming along about whiskey and girls as the sun sank below the trees.