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May 13, 2024

The River Revealed

By Wendy Robards

The Sacramento River begins its journey at the base of Mt. Shasta, California. It bubbles, clear and cold, from a pile of rocks next to a well used park in the city of Mt. Shasta. Townspeople balance across the rocks, carrying empty jugs to fill with the headwaters of this great river. From Mt. Shasta, the river winds 400 miles through the Sacramento Valley and on to San Francisco, where it dumps its waters into the Pacific Ocean. Along the way the Pit, Feather, Yuba and American rivers add to the Sacramento's flow. The river supplies valuable resources for farming and mining operations, and is home to steelhead, trout and salmon. Osprey, river otters, beavers, blacktail deer, and bobcats all depend on the river's life-giving waters. Without the Sacramento River, the valley stretching from San Francisco to Mt. Shasta would be a dry, barren wasteland, nearly devoid of life.

On the Fourth of July weekend of 2004, however, one family does not see the Sacramento River as a life-giving force. A daughter, a sister, a woman who has just reached her twenty-fifth year of life, has been swept beneath the surface of this giant waterway and disappeared.

Visitors to the upper Sacramento Valley come to experience the mountain vistas and rugged beauty of the area. The waters of the Sacramento River promise rafting fun and some of the best fishing in California. On this particular summer weekend, a young woman from Texas is here to visit her family. She is afraid of the water and does not know how to swim, but that does not stop her from climbing into a rubber dinghy with her brother and five month old puppy for a float down the river from Redding to Red Bluff, some thirty miles south. There are no life vests on board. From the shoreline, to a casual observer, the river looks benign. In reality, it flows eight to ten miles per hour and reaches depths of up to fifty feet. Strong currents coupled with rocks and other debris create strong eddies and whirlpools. Just North of Red Bluff, the river narrows down to a mere thirty feet in width and rips South through a section called the China Rapids. It is here that the dinghy strikes a rock and flips, spilling the young woman, her puppy and her brother into the fifty degree, churning waters of the river. Her brother clings to the dinghy and helplessly watches his sister dip below the surface and disappear from sight. The puppy somehow manages to swim to shore.

I do not like to go out on drownings. The ambivalence of wanting to find the missing person, coupled with the fear of actually finding someone who has drowned toys with my emotions. But, when I am contacted and asked to go out on the river with my water certified German Shepherd, Caribou, I say yes. I keep the image of the young woman's family firmly in my mind. I have been told that her mother was treated for chest pain brought on by her grief. I imagine her brother has relived the experience a thousand times and wonders if he could have done anything to save his sister. I would like to tell him he is lucky to have survived himself.

The morning of the search dawns hot. The weather forecast calls for temperatures in excess of 110 degrees in the valley. Even now, at 0600 hours, the air feels too still and sweat forms across my brow. There are three boats docked and waiting for the searchers. Caribou and I climb aboard one of the boats and we head North, nine miles upriver, toward the China Rapids. Goose flesh rises on my arms as the cold air off the water whips across the bow of the boat. I hold tight to my hat. Caribou lies at my feet with her massive ears pinned back against her head. She looks like she is grinning. Just below China Rapids, the boat driver slows. Ahead the roiling water of the river spins around rocks that jut from the whitecaps. Trees hug the shoreline and shade falls over the boat.

"She went in right about there," the boat driver says, pointing toward a partly submerged rock in the middle of the rapids. "We're going to search just below here."

I nod. Staring out at the black water, I wonder again why a woman, afraid of the water would ever have climbed into that dinghy without a life vest.

I unhook Caribou's leash and put her to work in the front of the boat. She stands, feet apart to brace herself, her nose twitching. For more than twenty minutes, as we slowly work South of China Rapids along the eastern shoreline, Caribou shows no interest whatsoever. Then, suddenly, she lifts her nose and whines. She dips her head and looks into the black waters. Paynes Creek, an uninteresting little tributary, drains into the River at this point. Thirty seconds pass as we move beyond Paynes Creek into a shadowed area with a large whirlpool. Caribou leans over the boat, then turns, whines and comes off the bow to paw her pack. I know what my dog is saying. Her toy is inside the pack, and this is her "alert" that she has found human cadaver scent and wants her reward.

"Good girl," I say. "Keep working."

When working on the water, on a real search, it is not possible to reward the dog unless you have confirmation that the dog is correct. Confirmation means that a diver goes in and pulls up the body; or the body floats. It is frustrating because I trust my dog. But, the risk of rewarding a "false alert" is one I do not want to take. Only in training, when I know the location of the scent source, can I reward Caribou. She looks at me now with some confusion, but then returns to her job as I have requested. She alerts twice more.

Than we cross to the western side of the river and work upstream, back toward the rapids. The water on this side is more shallow and filled with snags and rocks. We are just down river, on the opposite side, from where Caribou demonstrated her first alert. She becomes very animated, whines loudly, and paws her pack. She is showing a very strong alert here.

It is time for me to analyze the situation. River searches are some of the most challenging. There are many factors for the handler to take into consideration: water temperature, current, wind, depth, debris or snags, and eddies. The dog will alert at the point of scent. This does not necessarily mean that the drowned person is exactly at that location. I suspect that my dog is alerting strongly on the western side because scent is flowing into this area from upstream and surfacing in the shallow, turbulent waters here. Because Caribou alerted further upstream, on the eastern side of the river, I suspect our drowning victim is on that side. Additional evidence also suggests this. The eastern side of the river is deep, perhaps forty feet. There is a large whirlpool, below which are "shelves" of rock that jut out into the river. The current, from the rapids, moves easterly, runs against a steep rock face, then turns with a bend in the river, and slices back westward. I can imagine that the woman, being carried by the current, would approach the whirlpool and be sucked down into the river and under the rock shelves.

"What's the current like at say 35 feet?" I ask.

"The fishermen say there's a dead spot. Actually a backward current that creates a dead spot below the rock shelves."

I nod. This fits with my theory.

"Divers should search just South of Paynes Creek, along the rock face," I say.

Even as I tell the boat driver my thoughts, I realize that we are only theorizing. No diver will search this area. It is far too dangerous. At forty feet, there will be complete darkness. The river's current and the whirlpool and back current conditions could trap a diver, just as it has trapped a twenty-five year old woman.

The driver turns the boat and heads back to the dock, where I will get back in my car and head home. A family will still mourn. The Sacramento River will continue its dance, its relentless flow moving southward toward the ocean.


Ten days after a young woman disappeared in the Sacramento River, her body was located by search and rescue personnel close to the area where Caribou alerted. No divers were used as the area was too dangerous. As with many drownings, we simply waited for the River to give her up.

Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-04-10
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