|Canoes Races, George Catlin|
It was going to a long wait along the South Fork of the American River. I had lost the coin flip and was delegated to being the shuttle driver for my paddling companions coming down river. I picked up some coffee, beef jerky and some caramel popcorn on the way down to the river access and settled in for a long tedious wait. Sitting back along the bank of the stream I was hypnotized into a trance as I watched the dancing billowing waves stream over the rocks and then subside into a quiet pool at the takeout.
"You know this used to be more of a pit-stop than the finish line the first time paddlers came down this river." said a voice behind me. It was the grizzled old Storyteller who had told me tales one evening around the fire while at Loon Lake.
"It all began with a big race that started way up there past what they call Chili Bar now," he continued, "In those days they didn't have dams or give the rapids names for that matter. And they raced non-stop for about 100-miles all the way down to the confluence of the Sacramento River or as one of the area tribes called it "Nome-Tee-Mem", meaning, water from over the hill."
|Under the Falls, The Grand Discharge, Winslow Homer|
"You see Native Americans inhabited the American River valley for at least 5,000 years before the Spaniards and Americans showed up." said the Storyteller, "They called it Kum Mayo, which means "roundhouse" and used its resources for everything. The oaks and pines provided shelter while the deer and fish provided food. And to honor the Kum Mayo and the river spirits that brings the salmon back from the sea to spawn and later die. A race was held to show the young salmon the way back to the ocean since they have no parents to guide them."
A long paused followed. He straightens his Fedora. Then took a flask from his jacket's pocket. Opening it, he then and took a swallow, then looked at me and then back to the river.
"A great adventure is what lies ahead of them, he whispered,
"Other than walking," the Storyteller went on to explain, "Canoes and rafts were the primary methods of transportation for the tribes and they relied on them for hunting, fishing and trading expeditions. And of all the area paddlers, Tahoe was the best of the best."
"Hold up there," I interrupted, "You mean a guy was named after the lake?"
|Lake Tahoe, Albert Bierstadt|
"Now there were three types of canoes used," the Storyteller reminded me as he continued his story, "Dugout, birch bark and reed canoes and all them crowded beach come race day. Tahoe's canoe was a sturdy and heavy dugout. He craved it from an oak tree and painted it with streaks of fire. He and his craft would surely be unbeatable."
"A cheer of exuberance came over the crowd as a young warrior toted a small narrow watercraft down to the river over his shoulder. Constructed with whalebone-skeleton frame and animal skins stretched over its hull, the boat had a covered deck with only a small opening on top. Carrying a double-bladed paddle the young venturer was known as Two Paddles."
|Father and Son Out to Sea, I.E.C. Rasmussen|
"That's right kid and I'd estimate there have been about million or so since," asserted the Storyteller, before he continued his tale.
"Now Two Paddles was the bravest of all the braves. He had paddled area lakes and rivers and had even traveled to the far north where he had learned to paddle like the Inuits, perfecting a technique that allowed the kayak to be righted after rolling upside down."
"Tahoe scoffed at the narrow little boat with two points and said to Two Paddles, "You will be crushed on the rocks where the Water Babies reside then eaten by the Water Lynx."
"Two Paddles laughed and said, "I will fly over the Water Babies' rapids like the wind and hurtle past the great water cougar where the river become one."
"You see aside from distance and rapids, the paddlers would face three crucial challenges in finishing the race," revealed the Storyteller, "The Water Babies living in the rapids of the gorge, the Water Lynx that lived at the confluence of the north and south forks of the river and the Fish-women at Suicide Bend. All could prove to be deadly."
"Water Babies, sea monsters and mermaids?" I questioned.
|The Water Babies, Jesse Wallcox Smith|
"The Water Lynx, " he continued, "Was a powerful mythological water creature that was something of a cross between a cougar and a dragon. Those who saw it, and not many who did survived, said it was an enormous monster with a long prehensile like tail made of copper or gold that could snap a canoe in half drowning its paddler."
"And last there was the Fish-Women," the Storyteller smiled, "These were beautiful half-naked creatures with fish tails and the upper bodies of goddesses. They would sit on the rocks at the edges of the deep pools or above swift rapids combing their shimmering long black hair while singing alluring love songs to young warriors encouraging them to jump into the fast-moving stream. The name stuck. They still call it Suicide Bend."
"As expected Tahoe took the lead at the start of the race," the Storyteller emphasized, "His heavy canoe smashed through the rapids, waves and even through the rocks of Kum Mayo leaving behind the armada canoes. Two Paddles even had difficulty keeping up with Tahoe's canoe at first."
|Courtesy of Weird U.S.|
"Only a handful of paddlers emerged from the gorge. Tahoe was in the lead and Two Paddles was at the very end as they approached the confluence of the two rivers," the Storyteller pointed out, "It's all dammed up now with Folsom Dam, but back then, past the peninsula where the two rivers met was the home of the Water Lynx."
|Courtesy of Cryptomundo|
"Two Paddles and his kayak race past the splinters of the sinking canoes," emphasized the Storyteller, "Only to have the lynx catch sight of him and give chase. It was a game of cat and mouse as the dragon-cat ran on top of the water in hot pursuit. But Two Paddles was just too fast as he rolled, weaved and somersaulted across the water. The Water Lynx soon tired of the hunt and made one last pounce, but Two Paddles slipped away by a whisker has creature dove into the deep underneath him."
"The race was three-quarters of the way over and only three paddlers remained," the Storyteller explained, "As they approached a bend in the river they heard the most beautiful sound they had ever heard. It was the song of the Fish-women. Legend says that these sirens had even bewitched the river here by confusing it to turn sharply to north creating a vibrant wave train of chaotic churning water over a clay ledge only to make it turn again with a sharp pivot to the left, sending the stream backward in a circular boil. It's still the river's last rapid and the place where the Fish-Women set their trap for the unsuspecting."
|Mermaids, Jean Francis Auburtin|
"Their song is as lovely as they are," yelled Tahoe, "I must get up to see them, to hear them."
"Don't listen to them or look at them," warned Two Paddles, 'They will only bring you death."
"But, Tahoe was spellbound and had to stop to gaze at them and when he did the creatures grabbed his boat from below and started rocking it violently trying to make Tahoe fall into the stream. But, his canoe was too heavy for them and Tahoe used his paddle to knock them all away. The other paddler, however, wasn't so lucky. Under the same spell, he also stopped paddling and capsized in the circular eddy of the last rapid. He was quickly pulled under by the Fish-Women and never seen again."
"Now only Tahoe and Two Paddles were left," proclaimed the Storyteller, "There would be no more rapids or monsters, now only the river tested their endurance. You see, in those times the river there was a boundless string of marshes and wetlands giving it the appearance that they were traveling through a chain of lakes. It was here that Two Paddles and his lighter craft was able to catch Tahoe and his lumbering heavy dugout. For the first time in the race, they were side by side."
"The setting sun was blinding as they approached the finish line, the brown silty water of "Nome-Tee-Mem." Faster and faster they paddled, with each stroke the river loomed ahead of them. Their bodies ached and sweat poured from them, but they would not slow down or stop paddling."
"Along the shore, the local bands gathered to watch," divulged the Storyteller, "But wasn't just the humans of the valley, the deer, bear and wolf viewed from the woods. Eagles and hawks peered down from above, while the otters, salmon and trout watched from below. They would all tell their children and their children's children of this epic race."
"So who won?" I finally pleaded.
"It's mystery." said the Storyteller looking off to the river. He was watching my two friends paddling together after going through the last rapid.
|Indian Canoe Race, William de la Montagne|
"So which one do you believe?" I queried.
"I think they crossed together like your friends out there," the Storyteller concluded, ''They started out as rivals and ended up as brothers. Each looking out for one another while on the water. Because in the end, winning didn't matter as much as the journey together."