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The Big River Mystery

Intrigued by the unknown? Does a wisp of mist rolling across the moon's shadow or the hint of heat rising up from a bog on an otherwise chilled winter's eve pique your curiosity?

At this time of year the scent of azaleas on a riverbank might be enough to tempt anyone upstream, but this is for those who'd take that trip in the dark, on a moonless night; the same folks who would venture into a cave with fresh bear sign at the entrance.

Well, you don't really have to be that bold, just use your imagination to clamber into a boat near the mouth of Big River on a moonless night. Put the oars in the locks and row upstream with the tide. Best to bring a friend or family member to ease the burden. Steer the prow of your vessel into midstream to take full advantage of the following tide and current. Gentle strokes with the oars through the waters, lest you disturb the spirits on Haunted Flats, then journey all the way to the crumbling remains of the boom. Where logs were once jammed, end upon end, lies the strange source of this mystery. 

Fog sweeping in from the Pacific would shroud our endeavor in greater atmosphere, but be thankful for a clear, dark night. Our goal is seldom seen, much less heard on dates of befouled weather.

For it's a sound we are after: the singing fish of Big River. It's a myth you say, a legend passed on from the Pomo on down. 

Let's see what the documents say. 

In mid summer, 1878, an intrepid boatman described the adventure thus: “We have repeatedly been told that music is heard at the boom during certain months of the year, and that no one has yet come to the conclusion by what it is caused. In company with two gentlemen we took a boat ride to the boom the other evening, to listen to the mysterious sounds. It was heard very plainly, and seemed to be in spots, sometimes immediately under our boat, then again to the right or left of us. We would row our boat slowly over the spot from whence the sound seemed to come, when it would be very loud, and gradually diminish until not a sound was heard, when we would suddenly come upon another. The music sounds like many plainers at work at a distance or something like the noise made by the telegraph pole when jarred by a blow. Some seem to think it caused by the wind blowing down a canon [canyon], but that is groundless, as on our visit not a breath of air stirred; others think it to be caused by drum fish. The latter seems to us the most plausible, and would account for the noise being in different places. The same noise is heard on the Albion river. It is plainest heard when the ear is placed on a log that lies in the water. It is truly wonderful, and will amply repay a visit to the boom.”

Having been raised along the Albion, and not that distant from its boom, I wish I could offer a first hand recollection of the Albion's singing fish. Yet, they remain an illusive allusion passed on from a nature loving great uncle, a fragmentary shred of his boyhood memory, mostly lost in the translation of an intervening generation.

There are several accounts of singing fish elsewhere in the world. Mexico provides examples of singing fish on its coast as well. The southern states in this fair land possess multiple tales of singing fish in streams. But, you say, they're always telling whoppers down there and these are fables from the distant past. 

'Tis true, in part. So I offer up an account from a family well known to my own, a personage deemed reliable on our coast throughout his lifetime.

In 1960, Andrew Escola, then nearing eighty, recounted his first experience with the phenomena in the early part of the twentieth century when he was a young engineer on the Mendocino Lumber Company's train, which essentially followed the same route as today's hiking trail alongside Big River. Andrew had just brought a load of logs down stream to the boom. He disembarked and greeted Phene Bailey, one of the river men. Following their initial hellos, a tremendous humming seemed to reverberate from the river below. “What's that?” Andrew asked.

Phene Bailey, who spent many a day on the river at the boom freeing tangled logs, replied with a question of his own. “Have you never heard of the boom's singing fish?”

“What are trying to give me?” Andrew wasn't going to be the butt of some joke. 

“Put your ear under water and they'll sing louder.” Phene Bailey said.

Andrew Escola was pretty darn sure at that point he was having his leg pulled. Nevertheless, Bailey kept urging him down to the river and to tilt his head so one of his ears would dip below the surface. The odd humming continued intermittently and Andrew Escola relented to his own curiosity. Letting the side of his face sink beneath the surface of Big River, the hum increased to a thrumming not unlike that of multiple drums. 

The singing fish of Big River is not some stretcher, not some proverbial “fish” story. Perhaps the humming, thrumming, drum fish are gone... Or perhaps some calm, fine weather night this summer, when the tide is right, you and a friend can venture upstream to the site of the old boom. Don't be dissuaded by the baleful cries in the dark at Haunted Flat. Wait for the midnight hour, and find out for yourself. 

One Comment

  1. George Hollister June 7, 2020

    This is the first time I have heard this. My guess is the sound is coming from a type of toadfish that comes into estuaries in the summer to spawn. Big River appears to be caught between the Northern subspecies and Southern subspecies of this toadfish that is found along the coast of North America. This fish makes it’s noisy presents known to houseboat inhabitants in Sausalito during the summer.

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