If you were to ask Jonathan Bibb, a local Auburn man, what makes the American River great, he wouldn't say the incredible white water rafting, or its proximity to Folsom Lake, or even the numerous hikes along endless trails that one can almost never fully explore.
No, if you were to ask Mr. Bibb, what made him stay along the wandering American for seventy years, he would offer you a smile textured by wrinkles mirroring the vast canyons through which the American runs and the opportunity to know what he means when he exhales a sentence haunted by cherished memories: “it doesn't just carve the land, it carves the people who live along it.”
Jonathan Bibb has lived near the American River ever since he and his family moved from Montana, seventy years back. “Moving from Montana, my brothers and I worried that there would be no room to wander,” he laughs, “my father reassured us, saying that we would have plenty of adventures since we would be setting down by ‘the river that spit out gold and started it all in California’”.
As boys, he and his brothers would race down to the wild banks of the Northern Fork, collecting blue-belly lizards and chasing after the local California mule deer, challenging each other to see who was the fastest. Through the passing years, the boys traded mason jars for fishing poles and blue-bellied lizards for salmon, trout, bass, bluegill and tule perch. On those hot California summer nights the three young men would camp out along the banks, “listenin' to all those critters settle down with us for the evening, and in the morning you’d swear you were in a cathedral with the painted sky arching its whole being around you. To me the American possesses that beautiful western wild only Thoreau knew how to capture in words.”
When he was twenty five, Jonathan proposed to his wife Eileen a top a boulder that sits smack in the middle of the midnight blue water after “she whopped my butt in a race to it.” When the two were married they moved into Jonathan's childhood home, a wedding present from his aging parents.
“The river has seen my four children grow, been swum in by my eight grandchildren, carried my wife's ashes, and one day will carry mine. It's a river that you don't take lightly. There is no other water way like the great American.”
Now, every other Sunday morning, Jonathan comes down with his grandchildren to seek out sunbathing blue-bellies and to tell them stories like how he and his brothers once wrangled “the biggest damned salmon you’ve ever seen”. When the sun starts dipping behind the snow dusted Sierra Nevadas, he huddles them all close together to listen to the crickets and owls and to list off constellations only visible after one escapes all ambient light.
After an hour of roaming I could tell our time together had ended, but I still had one more question: “Sir, would you mind if I fished with you one day?” With the corner of his eyes crinkled into a subtle smile and raising his hand to wave good bye, he gave a slight nod letting me know I would be welcome next Sunday.
Along the banks of a wild river that has carved 119 miles of earth—from the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to its confluence with the Sacramento River—into deep canyons, there lives a man who can trace his life in snow drift waters.