The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta looks and feels different than any other part of the state. There are over 1,000 miles of waterways, and nearly 60 islands. Even though a lot of these islands are connected by bridges, a lot of the people in the Delta are pretty isolated.
There’s a person in the eastern part of the Delta who’s a lifeline -- the only mailman in California who delivers by boat.
Every week, every day, except Sunday, Rick Stelzriede pulls out from a marina on King Island near Stockton. He takes his 21-foot aluminum boat about 60 miles, visiting marinas and designated docks. At most stops, he just slows his boat as it approaches a pier with a mail box, picks up and drops off mail, then flips up the red metal flag.
“Everybody out here that I deliver mail to, most all of them have something to do with the river, whether they’re farming, whether they live out here on boats. They may be caretaking an island,” Stelzriede says.
Others run marinas or sport-fishing businesses or restaurants. They might work in the region’s abundant natural gas fields. In the summer, there’s an influx of people harvesting crops or working in packing sheds.
“My mail will change because migrant workers will come up,” Stelzriede says. “I’ll get mail from Mexico or wherever they’re from. I’ve got a guy on Mandeville Island from Peru. He’s a sheepherder out there, and he routinely receives CDs of family photos.”
Living in the Delta – where there are 57 islands and over 1,000 miles of waterways – just requires people to do things differently than in most of the Bay Area. That’s really clear as we approach a stop where more than 30 people get their mail, even though there’s no mailbox.
It’s a small bridge, and Stelzriede points out an attached safety cage where bridge tender Ramon Gonzalez is doing maintenance work. He spots Stelzriede, and they call out to each other in Spanish.
Gonzalez climbs out of the cage and up the side of the bridge to fetch a bucket. Stelzriede labors to keep his boat in one place while reaching for the bucket Gonzalez lowers, filled with outgoing mail. The whole exchange takes just a few minutes, with the two men in synch.
The water’s choppy as we head out to a large body of water called Frank’s Tract. We see Mt. Diablo to the left and Antioch to the right, but just barely. The water’s rough enough that Stelzriede turns on his windshield wipers in order to see clearly. This time of year, Stelzriede navigates through soupy fog and around dangerous obstacles in the water, and he’s got to keep an eye out for what appear to be as many as 12 super-sized bales of hay.
He explains that they’re actually duck blinds, spaces that hunters pull their boats into for easy access to the Delta’s waterfowl. In the summer Stelzriede keeps an eye out for boaters racing or pulling water skiers. In the spring he gets his most unusual packages: He’s delivered plants, pheasants, even swans.
When he drops off mail at the home of an 82-year-old friend who lives on an island the size of a suburban house lot, I tell him the Delta reminds me of parts of the California desert, where some people go to drop out of society, to get lost. Stelzriede agrees.
“Absolutely,” he says. “When I came back out here in ’96, that’s why I came out, just to get lost. I had divorced, and went through that change, just had to get away from it all.”
I ask why this is a good place for such a transition.
“For me it was all about cleaning up,” he says. “I had been on prescription pain medication for years and years, and for me, I lost my family, house, shut my business down, lost everything.”
He moved to the Delta and realized life can be simple.
“The beavers get along with the otters, the otters get along with the muskrats, birds get along, everyone seems to co-exist really well,” he says. “Why can’t it be that way everywhere? So I just took it upon myself to fix me.”
In 2006, he started helping out an elderly friend who had the mail route, then took it over full time.
“Well, I’m out here forever now,” Stelzriede says as we head back into the marina at King Island. “I’ll never leave this place. To me, this is about as close to God as you can get.”