FLOATING ON THE SAN JOAQUIN RIVER -- My plastic kayak suddenly ran aground in a place where the San Joaquin River has flowed only a few times since the 1950s.
But I was only briefly caught on a shallow gravel bar about 40 miles west of Friant Dam.
It was one of many unexpected encounters on an otherwise smooth float that began Wednesday with a monstrous barn owl and ended with an iPhone.
The kayak trip was a peek at a section of the rejuvenated San Joaquin that not many people have boated over the past several decades because it usually is dry.
It will be months, if not years, before the river becomes fully navigable, but the day is coming when it might provide an important recreation amenity for the valley. But questions remain unanswered: Who will settle conflicts between power boats and kayakers? Who will provide access points? This trip became so much more than a quick look at a reborn river.
The San Joaquin's split personality -- lush and green below Friant Dam but desertlike beyond Gravelly Ford -- is far more vivid when viewed from a boat.
Such a view wouldn't even be possible except for a federal restoration program that increased the amount of water released from Friant Dam starting Oct. 1. The construction of the dam more than half a century ago left a dry riverbed downstream.
The river's green section, from Friant Dam to Gravelly Ford, is familiar to many boaters. Officials continuously release water from the dam for riverside property owners, and the river never died here.
But 38 miles downstream at Gravelly Ford, the flow dwindles to nothing in most years. Now, with extra water flowing, that stretch is waking from a half-century of slumber. West of Kerman, the San Joaquin is a gorgeous desert river meandering around cobble islands -- piles of large stones -- as screeching swallows fly in every direction.
Fresno Bee photographer Mark Crosse and I started at Skaggs Bridge Park so we could see the transition from sycamores and eucalyptus to cobble and sand.
About two miles down from Skaggs Bridge, we passed through a wide pond where we saw two Fresno fishing enthusiasts, Peter Jew, 36, and Edward Juarez, 31, on the shore. We wanted to chat, but our boats were quickly moving into a swift bottleneck in the river.
We had to navigate around sycamore limbs and arundo, an invasive giant reed plant from Asia. Suddenly, we heard a rush of wings. It was that huge owl, making a mad rush for a new perch and scaring me silly.
We stopped on a cobble island at Gravelly Ford for lunch and tried to imagine what it looked like here in 1982, when a string of El Niño-influenced storms created November runoff more than twice as high as it was Wednesday.
When we moved on, I tried to spot a bald eagle nesting site that a biologist had described to me. I saw only migrating geese, honking wildly as they flew by. Their calls soon were drowned by the sound of a powerful motorboat.
The guy driving the boat slowed politely to keep the wake down and let us pass. The motorboat was a surprise; I had expected the water to be too shallow.
Three young men along the banks apparently didn't expect to see us. They were carrying rifles, seemingly hunting -- perhaps on private property -- for ducks or dove. So we asked which type of bird they were hunting. Suddenly, their rifles no longer were in sight.
"We're just looking," one called out.
We moved onward.
By then, Mendota was in the distance, but we would not get that far. Our pullout point was several miles short of the Mendota Pool, which is next to Mendota.
We weren't sure we could boat much farther anyway. The blades of our paddles sometimes hit the river bottom. When we hung up on that pesky sand bar, I climbed out and pushed my boat back into the flow.
I solved my last dilemma with the help of an iPhone, tucked away in a sealed plastic bag. There were no landmarks that I recognized. I needed the Global Position System program to locate our pullout place along the river. I was surprised at how well it worked.
We were about seven miles from Mendota when we hauled out the boats.
Which leads me to one piece of advice for other boaters: Until the Mendota Pool, there are few places to get out of the river beyond Gravelly Ford without crossing private property.
Ask around, check Google Earth, carry a GPS unit.