Reminiscing on the river

Park rangers tour dam site as part of “Nature Noir’ locations visit
By: Jenifer Gee,Journal Staff Writer
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Mike Lynch casts a longing look at an empty paved parking lot. The asphalt is a bold black contrasted by the white-stripped parking lines that look untouched. There is a small, newly constructed building that houses a women's and men's restroom facility that's not open. And that's what depresses him. Our new beautiful parking lot and new restroom ” I'm just impressed, he said Saturday. At the same time Lynch, the state park superintendent for the California Department of Parks and Recreation Auburn sector, lets out a long sigh. The new parking lot is yet to be used. When it can be used as dumping grounds for eager white water rafters and other river athletes, it will only be for two days out of the week. The lot is located near the bottom of the canyon near the site of the abandoned plans for an Auburn dam. The site opens up a whole new access point for river goers and a whole new aspect of recreation for a parks department that started out as merely security-for-hire for the Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the land. There is a May 1 dedication scheduled to recognize the new Placer County Water Agency pump station at the site.. The pump station is part of a $75 million project that includes restoring the American River channel through the Auburn dam site. Lynch was checking out the new facilities while taking about 50 participants on a tour of the Auburn dam site Saturday. The tour was the last in a series of events centered on former Auburn parks ranger Jordan Fisher Smith's book Nature Noir. The book chronicles Smith's years working alongside Lynch and other Auburn rangers. It recounts instances from the first days of patrolling an area he and others referred to as the Wild Wild West to watching the cofferdam collapse. Saturday Lynch and Smith were standing next to each other smack dab in the middle of the foundation for the incomplete Auburn dam. They told tour attendees about the story behind the longtime effort to build it. Smith touched on some of the history of the dam during the tour. Besides its flood-control capabilities, the proposed 690-foot high, 3 1/4 “mile wide dam was billed as a way to create a lake for Auburn and new housing communities would speckle the man-made coastline. It would have been about 10 feet shorter than the Hoover Dam but without the large Colorado River to back it, he said. A slew of serious environmental concerns ” the dam site is above several fault lines and experts said the weight of a dam can cause earthquakes ” stopped the project. There were also budget concerns. It would cost $5 billion today to complete the dam, Lynch said. In a way, the partial construction of the dam and the installation of a new pump station for the Placer County Water Agency ended at a perfect stage for the Auburn area state parks department. The newly paved road the tour caravan travels down offers easy access to the canyon site. And a brand new entrance station was installed so the parks department could use it. Lynch describes the station as the nicest building in the Auburn State Recreation Area. Right now, however, with about a handful of rangers on staff and most of the summer season spent patrolling local hot spots, the station will only be manned two days a week starting in May. So hikers, bikers and horse riders will have access to the estimated 1,000-foot decline to the canyon and river running through it. But vehicles towing boats will have limited access. Still, it's a stark contrast to what the department has offered in years past All of our stuff is gravel roads and pit toilets, Lynch said. Although, it has a charm of its own. The gravel roads go well with the state parks signs pockmarked with bullet holes courtesy of gun-happy visitors, Lynch said. During the tour, certain sites would trigger memories for Lynch and Smith. They talked about some of the early years on the job when they frequently encountered mountain dwellers sometimes dressed with a bee net on their heads and a handgun on their hips. There were stories about the now 45 bodies they've recovered from people jumping off the Foresthill Bridge, the summertime confluence revelers who had one drink too many and finding abandoned stolen cars, which always seemed to provide the perfect contrast for Lynch of the beautiful scenery and the problems that plagued it. Some tour participants, such as Suzanne Gardner, said the tour was a great end to reading Nature Noir. It's so interesting to come out and actually see it, Gardner said. The 57-year-old Grass Valley resident had read the book in the Bear River Bookworms Club. For Smith, writing his nonfiction book was more about capturing the unique life of the park's rangers in Auburn and the story of a parks area that was never meant to be. Rangers like Mike expected to be protecting our crowned jewels but instead they protected something that was going under water. But they gave it same effort as if it were a crowned jewel, Smith said. And for Lynch, that's true. As he leads the tour caravan up the paved road and on to the next stop, he casts another wistful glance at the unused entrance station. He's hardly surprised when he sees an old dryer someone dumped on the side of the road near the station. It's another reminder that no matter how hard he and fellow rangers try to reinvent the image of the area, there will always be something that will try to keep it as, in Lynch's words, the government wasteland it originally started out as. It's our first actual real park and the irony of it is there's no money to operate it, Lynch said. We're still trying to get money to staff the entrance. THe Journal's Jenifer Gee can be reached at or comment online at