When you combine a pithy streak of spontaneity with a penchant for living life on the edge, bad things might happen. So might good things, if you live to tell about them.
How I decided to snorkel down Clear Creek Canyon west of Redding is still a mystery to me. I had fished both up from Clear Creek and down from Placer Road before, but had never actually seen the whole thing. The roughness of the canyon made it nearly impossible to hike it without getting in the water, and most of the water is too deep to wade. When I factored in all the poison oak and rattlesnakes in the canyon, swimming it didn’t seem all that crazy.
I parked at Clear Creek Road Bridge and hid my keys. Next, I donned my wetsuit and wading boots, then fixed goggles and snorkel to my head and climbed aboard my bike. The route was pretty straightforward. I went west on Clear Creek Road, right on Cloverdale, then right again on Placer to the bridge.
I might as well have been riding that bicycle buck-naked. Hadn’t folks ever seen a guy riding a bike on a hot summer day wearing a wetsuit and snorkeling gear? I was an instant sensation and got several honks and waves. It never occurred to me that wearing a wetsuit, goggles and snorkel on a bicycle was an epic fashion faux pas.
At Placer Road Bridge, I hid my bike in the brush. I would drive back to get it after. Beneath the bridge I found the remains of a huge television someone had evidently tossed from the top. While I view most litter an egregious scar on the landscape, I had to admit I might have enjoyed watching it explode in a million pieces.
Despite the blast-furnace heat of that typical NorCal summer day, the water was frigid. In the hours it took me to swim it, I had to get out of the water often to get warmed up. You could have fried an egg on the rocks on either side.
The world beneath the surface of Clear Creek was even more stunning than I’d imagined. Much of the creek is deep, and the sunlight provided an ever-changing light show of dancing reflections all around me. There were thousands of trout, too many to count, and some big ones. I saw a few immense, grotesquely misshapen salmon, which looked almost terrifying underwater. There was a place where the entire stream funneled through a crack in the rocks only a few feet wide, and who knows how deep. At least I had the good sense to hike around that part. At last I realized I was getting close to Clear Creek Road.
I saw them before they saw me. By then I was feeling fairly giddy with the success of my adventure. There was a little family having a picnic along the stream just above my take-out spot.
Drifting soundlessly with only my snorkel visible above the water, I finally stood up when I was about fifteen feet from them. “Take me to your leader,” I managed to articulate through my snorkel. The woman dropped her sandwich.
As it turns out, wetsuits are not proper picnic attire either.
Chip O’Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.