A raft full of junk floated down the Russian River in early January and came ashore below Neeley Road near Vacation Beach. I could see it from my cabin window.
It looked like a barge full of the usual homeless junk, bicycle parts (a spoke wheel and a seat), a file cabinet, a rusty piece of a metal drum and some bulging green garbage bags piled in a heap.
The raft had appeared out of nowhere and beached itself in shallow water about a mile below Guerneville. I hadn’t seen anyone traveling with the junk so I guessed it broke loose or was pushed off from one of the homeless camps upstream near town.
“If something doesn’t look right, call us,” the deputies at the Guerneville Sheriff’s substation always say. The trash barge didn’t look right, so we called the sheriff.
The dispatcher who answered sounded young, busy and a little wary about the mental state of someone calling to report a barge full of junk.
“How big is it?” he asked.
‘About as big as a couple of floaties full of people getting drunk,’ I thought. That’s a common sight on the river in the summer, so it seemed like a reasonable comparison.
“We’ll check it out,” said the dispatcher, but it was late in the afternoon and getting dark, so nothing happened.
The next day my wife called Chris Brokate, who heads up the Clean River Alliance, the heroic group of volunteers who haul trash off the river.
Brokate was busy cleaning up a homeless mess in Monte Rio. He said we should call Sgt. Ray Basurto at the Guerneville substation. We called Sgt. Basurto and left a message. Basurto called back the next day and said we should call Chris Brokate.
We talked to Chris again about the floating barge and asked what, if anything, we could do.
Chris and one of his volunteers stopped by to take a look. We stood in the rain watching the river rising and knew any salvage operation was probably a lost cause.
“It’s too bad,” said Brokate. “It’s really a shame.”
That afternoon I saw an angler across the river fishing in the rain. He was wearing an olive-drab parka with a hood pulled over his head and looked like he was trying to ignore the incongruous collection of junk on an otherwise clean stretch of beach.
I drove into town, crossed the Guerneville Bridge and went over to Neeley Road to get a closer look. When I got to the spot where the barge was stuck I saw the angler on Neeley Road walking in the rain.
It was John Sundberg, a seasoned river rat who works with the Russian River Recreation and Park Department.
“Is that yours?” he said. We were looking at the barge.
“No,” I said. “It came down a couple of days ago.”
We talked about ways to get the junk out of the river. Could we float the barge over to the public beach across the river at Dubrava? Or downstream to the summer road at Vacation Beach where the trash could be loaded on a truck and carried out?
Probably not, said Sundberg, because the raft was sinking. The air was leaking out of the plastic air mattresses that supported the barge’s plywood deck.
My cell phone rang in my pocket. It was my wife, who could see me from our house on the other side of the river.
“What the hell are you doing standing out in the rain?” she asked.
“I know,” I said.
It was starting to rain harder. The river was rising. The barge was sinking and would soon be submerged and out of our control. The river would be in charge. That was all there was to it.
In the ensuing days the river rose above flood stage. We watched trees, furniture, appliances, coolers, decks and staircases being carried downstream. The river put on a great show, an exuberant flush of consumer debris and riparian vegetation all flowing to the ocean for global distribution.
In the last couple of weeks, with the water level dropping, the beach across the river has reappeared. It looks perfectly clean, like it’s been swept free of all trash except for a couple of bald tires buried in the sand.
Frank Robertson is a member of the Sonoma West Publishers staff.