A Bike Ride Ramble

The American River Parkway has a bike trail that stretches about 32 miles from downtown Sacramento to Beals Point at Folsom Lake.  It’s been there pretty much my whole life.  I remember family bike rides on the trail with my dad leading the way, solo rides on the trail as a teenager, and over the years of my adulthood, numerous efforts to turn the bike trail and bicycling on it into a regular effort to stay fit and active.

Those efforts have not typically been successful for very long, ending most frequently because I haven’t lived close enough to the bike trail for more than 20 years now.  Something about having to throw the bike in the car and then driving to the trail somehow defeats the purity of the thing.  The other reason is the lack of time to get in really good bike rides.  I just haven’t had the time to bicycle as frequently as I would have liked.

About ten years ago I took up running and discovered an exercise that worked much better for me.  Until I tore a groin muscle.  I’m running again — but shorter distances of 3-5 miles.  And a few weeks ago, I decided to include a weekly bike ride into my exercise efforts.

Today, for the fifth weekend in a row, yes, I threw my bike in the back of my car and drove to the bike trail to put 30 miles in.  I’m pretty single-minded when it comes to exercise.  I want to get it done without a lot of distractions or breaks.  For these past five weeks, I have basically stayed in the saddle peddling for two hours without stopping.

I slowed down a bit today.  Took a few pictures.  Maybe you saw them already.  If not here they are again.  A few moments of beauty along the American River Bike Trail today.

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Bonus points for anybody who can identify which bridge that is.

Way back in February, I took this picture:

IMG_4235Along my route today I rode past that pipe again and the water level on that pipe was higher today than it was almost seven months ago.  In August.  As we move through the fourth year of a horrendous drought.

I have memories from my childhood of driving across the Howe and Watt Avenue bridges late in the summer and being amazed at how ridiculously low the water level was.  While the river is low these days, it doesn’t come close the pictures I have in my head of the “old days” back in the 1970’s.

I get some of the reasons for this.  Water policies change.  Some things are happening these days that weren’t in place forty years ago, but I wonder about the wisdom behind some of these.  As we empty the reservoirs to preserve the river’s flow for endangered species and other purposes, what happens if we enter a fifth year of drought?  What happens if there is no more water in the reservoir to preserve the river’s flow?  What’s the point in having dams and reservoirs if we aren’t using them to preserve water for the dry years?

A Multi-Part Ramble

What inspired me to start this blog was two-fold.  First, I went for a walk along the American River one day and took some pictures and wondered what to do with them.  Write a blog post about it, but where and why.  Which leads to my second inspiration.  My dad has maintained a blog about the Sacramento River for the last few years.  I decided that since he had taken on that project, I’d take on the American River.  When my dad found out, he commented that I had picked a much more complicated river to catalog, blog about, and try to figure out.

He’s right in a way, but here’s what I don’t get.  Who makes the rules about rivers?  As my dad has written, there apparently is some controversy about the Sacramento River and it’s relationship to the Pit River.  And then there’s the American, which doesn’t begin at just one source, but has a North Fork American River, Middle Fork American River, and South Fork American which feed in together at two different points to form the American River.  The North Fork and Middle Fork join up near Auburn before those conjoined rivers flow into Folsom Lake, a man-made lake behind a massive dam.

IMG_5369That’s the North Fork and Middle Fork confluence.

The South Fork flows in to Folsom Lake separately and the flow that comes out of the other end of the lake is the American River.

So, who decided which flows of water would be the North Fork, the Middle Fork, and the South Fork?  There are all sorts of streams, creeks, and rivers throughout the Sierra and the foothills that feed into the American River watershed.  Are there some geological rules or unwritten rules of how rivers are named and what becomes a fork of this and a tributary of that.  And why does the American River have these forks when most rivers don’t?

For instance, going back to the Sacramento River-Pit River controversy.  The Sacramento River flows out of the northern reaches of California and into what is now Shasta Lake, a man-made lake behind a dam.  Up above the dam, it is fed by creeks and streams and tributaries and the Pit River.  Why is it the Pit River instead of just a fork of the Sacramento River.  So, too, in downtown Sacramento, the American River and Sacramento River join into one river that flows towards the ocean and at that point, it becomes the final extension of the Sacramento River instead of the American River.

Who comes up with these names and decides these things?  And ultimately, in the case of these two rivers, aren’t they something else?  A part of the much vaster watershed that is the California Delta.

IMG_5722I’ve lived in Sacramento since February 1966.  A long time.  This bridge is a part of the drive to and from San Francisco.  A bridge I have probably crossed several hundred times over the last 50 years.  At the left is the Carquinez bridge, which spans the Carquinez Strait, where all of the rivers that gather steam throughout Northern California coalesce and reach towards the San Francisco Bay and beyond that and the Golden Gate Bridge to the Pacific Ocean.

And at it’s southern point, there is a small town called Crockett.  Which until today, I’ve never been to.  Some time last year on one of those countless crossings, my wife expressed an interesting seeing if there was anything in Crockett.  We took a drive today, had lunch, walked around and realized there was nothing to see in Crockett.

But I pondered this and went back to my dad’s comment about the more complicated American River watershed and I think he’s on to something, only it’s far more complicated than even he imagined.  The American River and Sacramento River and the San Joaquin River and all of the other creeks and streams and tributaries are all a part of something much larger.

deltamapThat’s the Sacramento River that comes out of the north and feeds the Delta, one of the largest of its kind in the world.  Up until about 160 years ago (conveniently timed around the Gold Rush when the white man invaded the area in droves), all of these rivers flowed naturally and the Delta was a marshy, swampy mush.  Since then, the rivers have been dammed, levees have been constructed, agriculture covers the land.  Which all means, of course, that the Delta is no longer in its natural state.

A few years ago, a plan was developed to build two massive tunnels to move water from the Sacramento River, up around Sacramento, and around the delta to assist in getting more water to Southern California and also to “restore the Delta.”  There’s something highly illogical to that last claim.  How does diversion of massive amounts of fresh water from the Delta help restore it?  Wouldn’t that mean that more salt water from the ocean, coming in via the tidal ebb and flow of the San Francisco Bay, would encroach and harm the Delta?

That’s what I thought until last week until I had a conversation with a co-worker who was instrumental in drafting the legislation that created the Delta tunnel plan.  He is at heart an environmentalist and extremely knowledgeable about water issues, so I give him a lot of credibility on this issue.  The rationale behind the tunnels restoring the Delta goes back to what the Delta was before we man-made it.  Back then, it was a brackish marsh.  In the winter and spring when the rains fell and the snow melted, fresh water would push out towards the bay.  And then as the fresh water flows diminished in the height of summer and the fall, the salt water from the bay would push back.

This ebb and flow created that brackish swamp where certain species survived and thrived.  Since the rivers have been dammed and leveed, that ebb and flow has ceased, instead there is a steady line between the fresh water and salt water that has been created and the species native to the Delta are failing because their natural habitat is no more.  The only real harm, according to my co-worker, to the Delta tunnels is to the agricultural interests who farm where that verge would be.

Which is all interesting and has given me pause in my opposition to the Delta tunnels.  Sometimes the logical doesn’t prove to be correct.

So, what does this all have to do with the American River, which is what this blog is supposed to be about?  As I said above, it’s all about the whole and not a piece of the whole.  It’s about the interconnectedness of this world.  The American River is a major river in Northern California, providing incredible recreational opportunities, beautiful scenery, and history.  But it is only a proverbial drop in something much larger.

A Confluence and A Dam

IMG_5375So far, on my journey along the American River, I haven’t strayed outside the American River Parkway — that most wonderful bit of nature that stretches for about 30 miles from Old Sacramento up to Folsom.  That changed yesterday.

I went for a hike around the Stagecoach Trail area near Auburn.  There are a number of bridges that cross the American River here.  The one in the distance is the Mountain Quarries Rail Bridge, built in 1912.  Here’s a better picture.

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The area has many miles of hiking trails that are also favorites of the mountain bikers amongst us.  I started off walking from the bottom of the canyon up the Bridgeview Trail.  It’s basically straight up for a mile.  Just as I started, two bicyclists came roaring down.  It’s pretty amazing to see them do that.  This is not a smooth trail.  While the trail is wide, it is rutted and full of rocks of all sizes.  That didn’t stop them from blazing their way down hill.  I wonder how many skinned knees and broken bones they’ve had as a result of their love of mountain biking.

After I got to the top, I took a smaller side trail that took a more meandering route back down to the river.  IMG_5357Much more shaded, much more green.  For the next 30 minutes or so I was by myself as I made my way back downhill.

About halfway down, I came across a gurgling creek, with some small waterfalls that just made my day.

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What is most notable about the area for my purposes is that it is where the confluence of the North Fork and Middle Fork of the American River is located.  The quiet trail I took downhill dropped me off right at the confluence.

IMG_5369This is the first time I’ve ever been to this area, so I can only guess what it might look like in a normal year.  California is in its third or fourth year of a severe drought.  I can only guess how much higher the river might be if there was a normal snow pack feeding the creeks and streams that feed into the American River upstream.  But this is it this year.

Which leads to the larger point.  The bigger question.  If the planners had their way, this entire area would have been submerged by a 1,000,000 acre feet lake created by the Auburn Dam, which would have been located just a little further downstream from where this picture was taken.  That dam would have created a 40-mile long lake behind it.  The miles and miles of trails, the old bridges, the beauty of the area would have been changed forever.

It’s a thing I struggle with.  California needs more water storage to do a better job of managing our water needs in times of drought.  We need a lot of other things as well — more conservation, fewer lawns, maybe a few desalination plants along the coast.  All sorts of things, but, yeah, I think we need some more storage as well.  But when I walked along this stretch of the American River and thought about not having it here if the Auburn Dam had been built, I got furious at the idea of the thing.  How could people possibly imagine the dam in that location as a good thing?  But if not there … where?  That’s the thing about our human needs.  We will inevitably alter nature’s course in far too many places to meet our ever growing needs.  We don’t seem to have a choice.  So, as we continue to grow and expand our reach, we will lose places like this…IMG_5379The good news though at least with this part of the world is that it seems like the Auburn Dam has ceased to exist as a credible idea.  The environmentalists and preservationists and other interested groups pulled off a rare success and have stopped it from being built.  At least for now.  The one thing I fear for this area is if there is ever a time when both the Presidency and Congress are controlled by the Republican Party, this could become a topic of conversation again.  And they may just push this through.  It is stunning that the Republicans who represent this area favor the Auburn Dam rather than preserving the area for this children and grandchildren.  It’s not surprising though.

So about that storage.  If not here … where?