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Sacramento Delta Towns: Down on the Bayou

<i> Alpine is a free-lance writer living in Fairfax, Calif. </i>

Within an hour’s drive of San Francisco is a piece of California that’s flat like Holland, reminiscent of the Louisiana Bayou (crawfish and all) and with more than a touch of Asia.

It’s the Sacramento River Delta, where the convergence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers has created an archipelago of islands and thousands of miles of twisting waterways.

Here, small towns such as Locke, Isleton, Rio Vista and Walnut Grove are all within 20 miles of Highway 160, and it is a pleasant journey between them by boat, car or bicycle.

In almost any of the towns are the kind of ‘50s-style, down-home restaurants that Midwesterners remember, where one can sit in a booth or at the bar, rub shoulders with Deltaphiles, talk fish--the No. 1 passion--and talk loud.

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The history of the Delta is rich and deep. When the fever of the Gold Rush cooled, miners with rural pasts saw the potential of the area’s rich peat soil and proceeded to dam off tracts of land and drain them for planting.

Over the years, the levees were built higher and higher against rising waters, while the spongy land sank lower and lower. Today some towns are 30 feet below the levees, which creates an odd sensation as one drives above them on the levee tops. The islands continue to sink three inches a year.

The levees were built by Chinese laborers who migrated to the area after completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and stayed on to farm.

Locke is the only town in the nation founded and settled entirely by Chinese. In its heyday during Prohibition, Locke was a den of gambling rooms, speak-easies, brothels and opium parlors. The Dai Loy gambling house, the most profitable in the Delta, operated for 35 years until it was closed in 1951. It is now a museum.

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Locke itself is like a living museum, an anachronism. Locals with half-closed eyes sit on rickety benches against storefronts. Worn wooden sidewalks undulate under spindly legged balconies. Faded signs in Chinese adorn tongue-and-groove facades. There is an acupuncturist ($10 for a half-hour) and a grocery store that sells produce from home gardens.

The town is hemmed in by pear orchards. It is a rampantly fertile territory, where fig trees strive for sunlight in narrow alleyways and grape and honeysuckle vines try tenaciously to pull buildings down.

Delta cuisine is uncomplicated, but every place I stopped at had river-rat characteristics. Legendary Al’s Place was Locke’s first Caucasian business.

You can eat at the aged mahogany bar or in the bench-and-table dining room in back, a standard setup for many Delta dining establishments. And here is a gustatory combo you may never get to try again: Every table at Al’s is equipped with a jar of peanut butter and marmalade, even the bar.

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Lunch consists of steak sandwiches, and dinner is steak with all the trimmings. The peanut butter is for the steak sandwich. Chicken has recently been added to the menu, a big change in Locke.

Saturday night at the bar can get rowdy, what with boaters, fishermen, hunters and Delta ranchers belting ‘em down. Winter weeds out the water skiers and party flotilla folks. Directly behind Locke is a waterway called the Meadows, accessible only by boat. Called “the Everglades of the West” by Perry Mason author Erle Stanley Gardner, the Meadows is a popular houseboat anchorage. Its tree-shaded waterways blanketed by pond lilies and water hyacinth are a haven for wildlife--beaver, egret, duck, migrating snow geese and swans.

Houseboating is a good way to explore the webs of the Delta. It is thought of as a summer activity, but the quiet of winter is appealing, the rates drop and travelers can make last-minute reservations. Winter renting does require flexibility in scheduling because runoff from the Sierra sometimes causes flooding and swift currents. For the latest information, call the Houseboat Hotline at (209) 477-1840.

The advantage of a houseboat is that travelers can meander with a shell on their backs, and proceed at a turtle’s pace. If you want to cover more territory by car but get out on the water to poke among the tule reeds or fish for sturgeon, several marinas rent skiffs for the day.

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Every town has a bait shop where you can get instructions on where to fish and how. Winter is the best time for striped bass, sturgeon, salmon and catfish. Crawfish, too.

The Delta offers bicycling routes similar to Holland’s, flat as the palm of your hand and zigzagging over levees. The main roads are narrow with heavy trucks and farming equipment whose air stream can blow you into the water. There are calmer routes to some of the islands.

The only river ferries in California operate in the Delta and add an extra dimension to biking. A cable ferry crosses Steamboat Slough (pronounced slew ) in less than three minutes. A few miles around the island is “The Real McCoy” ferry across Cache Slough.

The whole Delta region radiates a sense of backwardness--the ferries impractical, the levees unstable, the towns tilting, the canals in need of constant dredging. But Delta life drifts on because no one is really too concerned--they’d rather be fishing.

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The sole class act I uncovered for accommodations and victuals is the Grand Island Inn (formerly the Ryde Hotel), an Art Deco speak-easy in Ryde, built to serve the riverboat crowd and once belonging to actor Lon Chaney.

The dining room has piano music and a fancy menu for weekend dinners and Sunday brunch. Close by, the Grand Island Mansion serves a Sunday champagne brunch in a restored antebellum-style mansion. Don’t wear boater togs to visit either of these grand ladies.

Most other lodgings in the Delta are, well, funky is not quite the word, but close. Both the Hotel Del Rio in Isleton and the Rio Vista Hotel in Rio Vista are clean, simple and best of all, cheap. How about $20 a night at the Rio Vista for a double with private bath?

Yuppie tourism has not hit these rest stops. Al, the manager at the Del Rio, is a talkative guy who told me that the bar mascot, Boss the cat, had recently died and was buried outside in the planter box.

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He showed me rooms that happened to be occupied (oops). Ashtrays were full, TV on, bed unmade and fishing poles lined up against the wall. The beds are slightly saggy but what the heck, it’s worth the price of admission to really steep yourself for a weekend in the Delta.

Rio Vista holds title to the most bizarre bar-restaurant I’ve ever been in. The walls of Foster’s Bighorn are lined with stuffed trophy heads. Hundreds of animals stare at you from different angles. William Foster was a game hunter extraordinaire in the 1930s. Photos of him holding up an impala head, or standing with his foot casually placed on a prone lion, crowd underneath the trophies.

Probably the most pleasant place to stay is the B&W; Resort in Isleton. Here are tidy, pine-scented cabins scattered across spacious grounds with kitchenettes for up to six people.

The Brannan Island State Recreation Area near Rio Vista has campsites on the water in stands of willows, cottonwood and oak that provide privacy.

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Walnut Grove is another town largely built by Asian immigrants. Japanese occupy most of the historic district. At dusk, the smells are tantalizing on B Street, where hibachis balanced on rusty chairs send up barbecue aromas from the sidewalk.

Hamashi Company Market has a cold storage walk-in filled with crates of fresh fish, and is plastered with sushi posters. One aisle over, it has chicheron (fried pork rind) and tortillas for the Mexican community.

Isleton’s historic district was once Asian but now seems more like a Western town invaded by pickup trucks. Of all the Delta towns, it shows the most signs of becoming hip, with new shops opening, a silk designer studio, a croissanterie and several art galleries.

But the Delta is still like a breathing relic, with tule reeds bending under the weight of migrating birds and tractors humming between rows of corn and sunflowers.

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