Tuolumne River


River Diaries, Part 4: Homecoming

Tuolumne River, near Modesto. Photo: National Weather Service

Tuolumne River, near Modesto. Photo: National Weather Service

The Tuolumne River Trust’s Paddle to the Sea project concludes today on the San Francisco waterfront. This is another journal entry from Emilio Martinez, one of two paddlers who traveled the entire route, from Yosemite to the Golden Gate.

Emilio Martinez: Return to the Valley

The surprise for the day was that my old stomps look completely different from the vantage point of a kayak on the River’s surface. Some visuals betokened our peculiar Central Valley “look:” the sudden appearance of palm trees behind the oaks and willows; the five bright yellow shopping carts submerged or waiting on the banks for their shiftless owners; and the three homeless sleeping bag spots.

All told, for the first time in my life, the exposed flanks of the Tuolumne were a genuine joy to behold.

A few more things of note, some nice, some just off-putting: the clarity of the water disappeared as we progressed from Fox Grove (Hughson) toward Modesto, going from a fairly deep green of decent transparency to the opaque silt-colored, pale oil-green that we Modestans are quite used to. Not only that, the counter breezes and slowing current acted like a turgid brake on our once swift progression on the water; and of course the air became redolent with–something–either fermenting processed vegetable matter (from where?) or the fertilizer smells wafting over the River from the nearby farm fields. I don’t know.

Besides, the obvious enjoyment of seeing your familiar haunts appear new, fresh, and full of the variety and appeal that Nature’s fecund imagination can contrive, was just sublime. And the River yielded some surreal grace notes, too, specifically in the form of an exquisitely colored horse, sporting every imaginable shade of black and white, lounging serenely underneath the Mitchell Bridge, a place I usually associate with graffiti, industrial consumer detritus, and shiftless “recreational” types: this image shall always remain in my conscious as almost mystical, an ancient ancestral avatar.


If the Tuolumne may be considered an emerald queen in its Sierra manifestations, imprisoned and ghostly nobility during its Don Pedro phase, and a country beauty during its descent from La Grange to Waterford, then perhaps the best description of Her Majesty in Her Legion Park – to – Big Bend garb is that of Cinderella. What I mean is that after the Tuolumne’s creep through the homeless camps, fishing holes, arson-burned river banks, defunct Dennet Dam, past sunken fishing boats (five at least), felled floodplain almond trees, topped with a good dousing of cow muffin-perfumed swamp gases, even a queen emerges covered in the cinders and muck of real life as we know it in these troubled regions.

Nonetheless, the “Paddling to the Sea” company was fine and filled with story, song, and revelation; their faces fair and wise; their hearts still courageous enough to brave possible death by choosing life; and their eyes and ears eager to identify the symphony of wildlife that still calls the Tuolumne its home (today’s additions: dogs, crows, palm trees).

Our crew of Tuolumne River Trust personnel and their Grateful Rowers have been at it at least five-days-straight on the River (not counting at least three months of advance preparation on the part of TRT) and we are battered and bruised but still strong and excited by the new face that the River presents every day with each new bend.

So, perhaps fittingly, we began today’s ten-mile row on the nascent topology of the future “Gateway Park” beneath the 7th St. “Lions’ Bridge,” a place where ornate four-foot-high crucifixes memorialized the tragic death of 14-year-old Jeremy Wilson, a drowning victim of the ancient, defunct, and evil Dennett Dam, and ended it at the current “Big Bend” renovation site, where thousands of newly planted trees no higher than year-old-babies dotted the landscape in their blue and red ribbons–all a product of the indefatigable efforts of the TRT’s committed humanity.

I leave you with one image that marks the end of today’s trip in memory: the pale blue gauze of the Coastal Ranges slowly emerging from the horizon to steadfastly gaze back at us from beyond Westley, the small migrant town of my childhood days, the place where the River first entered my consciousness as something to be feared and revered: to many a theologian these are the two faces of the sacred.


I want to end on the positive note here. I want to give credit where credit (and kudos) must be given: every one of the human representatives involved in this venture have displayed nothing but stellar professionalism, humanity, and good cheer: from the Hispanic Leadership Youth Council teens to the TRT (Tuolumne River Trust) people–especially the latter, who’ve had the huge task of dealing with boats, people, hunger, and rallies. I cannot imagine an undertaking of this scope being carried out in a better manner by better people, under more challenging conditions, or for a greater cause.

River Diaries, Part 3: Encounters with Civilization

Here are some more journal entries from participants in the Paddle to the Sea project, to raise awareness of river and water supply issues. Two paddlers have pledged to go all the way, from the Sierra to San Francisco Bay. At this point, they’ve descended from the high country and are preparing to traverse California’s Great Valley.

On the tamed lower Tuolumne. Photo: Jesse Raeder

On the tamed lower Tuolumne. Photo: Jesse Raeder

Emilio Martinez: Don Pedro Reservoir & Turlock Lake

After the whitewater thrills of the upper Tuolumne, Don Pedro Reservoir was exciting in the same way that a putting green is exciting: smooth and well-groomed, and so accommodating to the well-mannered sportsman. With the whine of the fishing engine accompanying a distinct lack of visual variety in the blond hills, we boated for two hours towards the Dam, then hiked Bonds Flat Road, then J59 for 2 more hours in the near hundred degree heat, examining road kill for diversion.  Besides the houseboats and odd floating trash, there was not a whole lot to feed the river-bound soul.

So it was with a complete sense that all the excitement that the River Tuolumne had to offer had been expended during the upper portion that I stepped awkwardly into my canoe on the 27th of May. I had already complacently decided that the River was something of a “has been” and would be nothing now but a gentle, rolling presence.

What a complete and arrogant assumption of what the River is, without any knowledge of the true meaning of that word as Nature herself uses it.

The River, in short, thrashed both my thesis–and companion Tim and I like the inconsequential beings that we are before the River’s sublime power and majesty: it slapped us upside the head with willow branches drenched in chilling waters, banged our thighs and knees with the fiberglass canoe we haughtily thought we’d master it with: instead, it made us respect it and fear it: precisely because we are mere visitors to its emerald green kingdom, our canoes so much jetsam and flotsam in its consciousness: in short,  the Tuolumne did everything it needed to do to show us how we must not underestimate Nature, but rather, protect one’s reverence and humility before it so that one can live and be nurtured by it.

Long live the River!

Looking for fish. Photo: Jesse Raeder

Looking for fish. Photo: Jesse Raeder

Owen Segerstrom: Don Pedro Reservoir

Today’s crossing of Don Pedro was an instructive microcosm of the damage that dams cause. While the former Tuolumne River Canyon rests under hundreds of feet of water, the remaining habitat is a virtual biological desert. Turkey vultures, mallards, and hatchery-raised fish are a far cry from the wildlife of an intact river system. What was once a salmon-bearing, thriving ecosystem sequestering untold millions of metric tons of carbon is now a layer of anaerobic matter at the bottom of the reservoir, the decomposition of which releases methane (a greenhouse gas that is orders of magnitude more potent that carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere.  [Editor’s note: The figure most quoted by scientists is that methane is about 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. In California, however, livestock and leakage from oil & gas operations are much bigger emitters of methane than natural decomposition from lakebeds].

Upon arrival at the dam, Emilio, Mason (a friend of mine from Kentucky who accompanied us) and I were presented with an interesting conundrum.  Despite indications to the contrary from National Geographic’s mapping database, there is no trail from the dam to the Old La Grange bridge.  After consulting a local ranger, we determined that the only way to walk this leg of our journey was on the side of Bonds Flat road and eventually J59 (approximately 7 miles).  The partially decomposed remains of a fox, whose life was ostensibly claimed by a motorist on the highway, were yet another sobering reminder of the human-caused chasm between a Mt. Lyell-to-the-Pacific river system and the Tuolumne’s current state.  We maintained morale by nicknaming this stretch of our sojourn the “great asphalt eddy of the T,” but the experience was nonetheless jarring.

After the experience at Don Pedro, the first section of the Lower Tuolumne was quite literally a breath of fresh air.  Heritage oaks, the call of an osprey from its nest along the river bank, and the water’s peaceful meander were a feast for the senses.  The integration of community advocacy groups throughout the valley is a hopeful sign for the future of freshwater consciousness, and the results of their efforts are evident.

Though anadromous fish passage beyond the Old La Grange Dam is still impossible, the efforts to address disastrous impacts on salmon populations (an unparalleled gauge of the health of a river ecosystem) between this impasse and the ocean are inspiring.  Salmon have been described as the conscience of a watershed, as they represent the lone upstream vector for ocean nutrients that have historically fertilized inland ecosystems.  The conscientious cooperation of central valley communities along the Tuolumne represents the utterly necessary prevention of local extinction of Chinook salmon.

[Editor’s Note: Here’s the latest biological opinion on California’s Chinook salmon and how it stands to affect water supplies.]

Turlock Lake to Waterford Park

Today’s paddle began with a conversation about the history of California river advocacy. As our group went through individual introductions, many of the participants recalled the (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to prevent the damming of the Stanislaus River in the late 1970’s, including Mark DuBois chaining himself to a riverside boulder in protest.  While the beauty and avian abundance of yesterday’s journey punctuated the beginning of our day, reminders of the need to rekindle Mark’s passion quickly confronted us.  The soundscape for our lunch break was provided by an industrial gravel pit, the footprint of which has massively diverted the river channel.  As one volunteer pointed out, the beautiful hyacinth blooming in the pond adjacent to the pit were nonetheless a dubious indicator of the river’s ecological health.  The day culminated in a rousing gathering of Waterford’s riverfront restoration community at the local park,  A group of children enjoying a game based on answering questions about salmon presented hope that somewhere there is a young person who will carry Mark’s torch in defense of the Tuolumne’s continuity.

Our posts are running a bit behind the paddlers’ progress. In real time, they are set to cross San Francisco Bay today and conclude their journey tomorrow, with a celebration at Aquatic Park in San Francisco.

More Adventures “Paddling to the Sea”

Here are some more journal entries from participants in the Paddle to the Sea project, to raise awareness of river and water supply issues. For most, it’s a relay event and they’re taking a leg or two of the voyage from the upper Tuolumne to the San Francisco Bay. But two paddlers have pledged to go all the way. Here are some of their observations.

Facing the froth--and mortality--on the Tuolumne.

Facing the froth--and mortality--on the Tuolumne. Photo by Jayne Johnson.

Emilio Martinez: whitewater section, Tuolumne River

Once the green terror subsided and I knew I might not drown, rafting the “T” (river rat lingo) was an absolute blast! Our blue rafts, manned by a crew of four apiece, plus an experienced guide at the helm, put in about ten miles upstream from where the Clavey River and the Tuolumne River meet in a thunderous embrace. And I am not ashamed to tell you that seeing the river run at 7000+ cubic feet per second was exhilarating to the point of terror. Whether due to climate change or pure luck, the Tuolumne was in fine form that weekend: racing down its bed like some aquatic serpentine creature from another dimension, wildly snaking its way through ancient bedrock as it bucked and thrashed, arching into the wind, pummeling its way through narrow confines of rock and tree as only a force of nature unleashed can.

For two days, thirty of us clung to the River, loving it and fearing it, crawling out of our rafts each day, tired and hungry, but somehow spiritually cleansed by the only worldly thing I’ve ever known that I can call sacred.

Unlike my rafting cohorts–who likely must travel some distance to the “T” to pay it homage–as denizens of Modesto’s “Airport District,” we are blessed with the Tuolumne as a constant benevolent feature of our neighborhood (emphasis on hood), which squats on the River’s banks, roughly one square mile of humanity and squalor broiling in the San Joaquin Valley, and whose inhabitants are more known for our deficits than our merits, for our God-fearing ways rather than earth-loving hearts.

My first encounters with the “Tuolumne” were a mix of horror (fear of drowning), awe (Pentecostal baptisms), joy (childhood treasure hunts at the Modesto landfill – now filled up and landscaped into something called the Tuolumne River Regional Park), and food (Mexican fiestas, where beer, barbeque, and corridos mixed nicely).

And, as befits my low-income neighborhood: I am still largely ignorant of the ecology of this gorgeous river.

So, speaking for myself, my trip down the Tuolumne River is something like an awakening to nature in the Garden of Eden, for there is precious little vocabulary in the noisy, backward streets of the Airport District for the marvels of nature that abound on the banks, canyons, and hillside forests that flank the River: though we children of the Airport grow up touching the River almost daily, we are taught almost nothing about its nature or how to address it.


Still, I figure (hope) that my vocabulary for its flora and fauna and geology will grow as I flow downstream towards the San Francisco Bay; that I’ll be able to distinguish an oak from alder some day, egret from swallow, poison ivy from blackberry vine, and that my eyes will see “salmon” and not just vague swimming things.

I exaggerate, but not by too much.


Emilio Martinez grew up in the Central Valley and currently lives in Modesto. The rivers are uncharted territory for him and have inspired his poetic side.

Segerstrom and Martinez on the river.

Segerstrom and Martinez on the river. Photo by Jayne Johnson.

Owen Segerstrom: whitewater section, Tuolumne River:

It is a privilege to be on the “T” (Tuolumne River) during a peak snow melt flow like the one we experienced over the weekend.  My cousin Tom, son of Sierra Mac founder and TRT (Tuolumne River Trust) board member Marty McDonnell, said it was the second highest flow he had ever seen (out of an estimated thirty-five trips).

Our guide, an east coaster working his first season for Sierra Mac, opined that the T would be the national gold standard in whitewater if such flows were a regular occurrence. We took a nasty swim on a 4+ rapid called “Frame Crusher,” a humbling reminder of the river’s power.  The excitement of the water conditions was rivaled only by the magnificence of the river canyon itself.  As if to remind us not to stay away for too long, a bald eagle swooped above us on an up-canyon trajectory less than a mile before the take-out.

Owen Segerstrom grew up in Sonora, near the upper reaches of the Tuolumne River, and spent his childhood and teenage years exploring the Tuolumne and Clavey swimming holes.  He’s also done quite a bit of rafting on the Tuolumne.


Paddling to the Sea

Jessie Raeder is Bay Area Organizer for the Tuolumne River Trust. More than 200 paddlers are expected to take to the river between now and June 7, for this river awareness relay. Raeder offers this dispatch from the starting line, near the headwaters in Yosemite National Park.

By Jessie Raeder

Paddle to the Sea got off to a roaring start over the weekend.  Melting snow caused by an early heat wave in the Sierras had the river pumping at much higher flows than rafters typically face. The Tuolumne is usually rated Class 4–but goes to Class 5 when flows get over 4000 cubic feet per second.   This weekend saw the river flowing at 7000 cfs! For a while it looked like we might have to cancel all the whitewater trips due to safety concerns, but in the end one trip did go on and needless to say it was an epic journey for our Paddle-to-the-Sea team.

A paddler takes on the Clavey. Photo:

A paddler takes on the Clavey. Photo: Patrick Koepele, Tuolumne River Trust

Meanwhile, an international team of 12 hotshot kayakers ran the Clavey River, a tributary of the Tuolumne and one of only three remaining free-flowing rivers in the Sierra.  The Clavey is a class 5+ river that’s rarely run and only by experts.

Paddle to the Sea is a three-week festival to foster stewardship of the Tuolumne River. Hundreds are joining in this epic journey from the Sierra to the Sea. Kayakers and rafters will begin on the upper stretches of the Clavey and Tuolumne Rivers, travel through the Central Valley where canoers take the lead, pass through the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers, and sea kayakers will finish the trip in San Francisco Bay.

A changing and increasingly unpredictable water supply will be the first way that most people in California experience climate change affecting their own lives.  Here in the Bay Area, tap water for 2.5 million people comes from the Tuolumne River, whose headwaters start with melting snow from the Lyell Glacier (picture attached).  That glacier is on the retreat, and more frequent droughts are expected throughout the Sierra.

Paddle to the Sea is meant to demonstrate that issues that affect one section of the river ripple up and down the watershed.   Bay Area water users share this resource with farmers in Modesto, anglers in Yosemite, the commercial salmon industry on the Pacific, and a host of native fish, plant, and wildlife species, many of which are endangered.

As population and demand for water continues to grow, California will be faced with many questions about how we use water, and where it will come from.  The Tuolumne River Trust is working to ensure that we turn to water efficiency and water recycling as much as possible–alternatives which are far more sustainable and renewable than continuing to take additional water from the Tuolumne River, which has been the solution most turned to in the past.