A river for all walks

This is a story I wrote for my MA in Journalism in 2008 with reporter Chris Bowman, from the SacBee, at the helm. Enjoy! 

RENO, Nev. December, 2008

A young man precariously balances himself on the rail of the Sierra Street Bridge. Suddenly, his skinny frame somersaults into the Truckee River below. No one bats an eye. Two police officers stroll by on their way to the courthouse. The young man emerges drenched in the cool waters and dares his friend to do the same.

Picnickers chat and munch on sandwiches on the boulders right at the edge of the river. Girls with inner tubes run up stream for another trip down. Kayakers battle drops in pure Sierra snowmelt in Whitewater Park. Fishers stand calmly, awaiting a bite from trout.

All this just steps away from the smoky casino strip in the thick of Reno. This is a turnabout for city that long turned its back on the river that cuts through its core. It’s what distinguishes Reno’s urban river park from others in the country.

“Reno is better [than other river-centric cities]. You can actually touch the water,” says Karen Craig, co-founder of Artown, a festival in July celebrating the arts.

The 120-mile stretch of the Truckee runs between two lakes in distinctive locales. At the mouth of the river is Lake Tahoe, which lies on the border of California and Nevada. Its high alpine resorts contrast the wild, undeveloped land of Pyramid Lake on the Paiute Reservation in Northern Nevada.

To the north of the river, gamblers cradle buckets of silver coins in smoky casinos lining the half-mile of Virginia and Sierra Street. Their eyes glaze over at the spinning numbers on slot machines. They talk loudly to each other over the music and clanging coins.

Outside, tourists take photos of the Reno Arch extolling the city as the “Biggest Little City In The World.” Lights flash and billboards beam even during the noon hour. But south of Second Street, not one mile from the beginning of the strip, Reno has a different feel.

A vibrantly colored mural covers the walls of a building across from Reno City Hall. Light reflects brightly off of the golden domed roof of the Pioneer Performing Arts Center. Outside of Dreamer’s Coffeehouse, tourists and locals sip coffee.

As the Truckee flows through the heart of Reno, it passes million dollar homes, auto repair shops, Wingfield Park, casinos, the offices of the Reno-Gazette Journal and John Champion Park.

John Champion was a machinist and owned Champion Machine Shop that was right on the riverside. He was also deeply involved with the river.

Champion’s efforts were far-reaching and selfless. He lobbied for the City of Reno to place boulders and riffles in the river for fish habitat; he planted trees to cool the river and provide shade; he wrapped chicken wire around trees for protection against beavers and when that didn’t work, he trapped them himself.

“He was a one man river patrol,” said Frank Mullen, reporter for the Reno-Gazette Journal who was a longtime friend of Champion.

Urban legends about Champion’s passion are known among locals.

“He backed his truck into the river one day, and a dumped a huge boulder to make fish habitat,” said Elisa Maser, president of Champions of the Truckee River. Some legends were true – Champion successfully tracked the body of an abandoned baby thanks to his incredibly intimate knowledge of the river currents.

When he died of a heart attack in November of 1997, the community rallied around him. One month later, Ward Bushee, former editor of the RGJ, started the non-profit organization Champions of the Truckee River. Like “Adopt-A-Highway,” members would adopt a portion of the river to keep it clean. In the following year, the RGJ bought the land behind their offices and built John Champion Park.

Champion’s parting inspired a rash of advocacy journalism at the newspaper.

Stories about polluting and neglecting the river became regular features.

However, the history of the river continues to be written, covering the societal, environmental and cultural facets.

A Doubtful River by University of Nevada, Reno professor, Mary Webb, tells the tale of the Truckee during a terrible drought in 1992. Her book follows the river from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake. Photographs by Peter Goin and Robert Dawson illustrate the dry heat and devastation of a drought.

Goin especially depicts the dark side of the Truckee. He embarked on this project to study a river that has had everything happen to it.

“Every single issue in the West, we have here…It’s a great way to study a smaller system,” said Goin.

The Truckee River was the first federally regulated irrigation system in the U.S. It embodies every water problem in the West – not enough in droughts, too much in floods, too polluted, too unsafe, too unmanageable.

Since the 1930s, the Truckee has been diverted and dammed with the intention to prevent flooding. One of the Army Corps of Engineers’ projects was a south channel diversion in downtown Reno that extended to the Cochrane Dam and then Virginia Lake.

The grey concrete walls created a five-foot jump just to dip your toes in. “No Trespassing” signs hung beneath the bridges, warding people off. It resembled a concrete ditch more than a living, running river.

Goin’s photographs showcase Reno’s neglect.

“Keep Out or Go to Jail Wounded,” scrawled on a white sheet hanging between two trees of a homeless camp. The roof of a white car, barely visible under the murky waters below the Highway 395 bridge. It wasn’t unusual to see dumpsters next to the river or oil pouring down from the auto shops and industrial businesses. Literally, Reno had its backside turned to the river.

In 2000, the walls came down.

Spearheaded by kayaker and engineering consultant, Jim Litchfield, Whitewater Park opened up the Truckee to Reno.

After a long day of kayaking, Litchfield and his friends began talking about how great it would be to have a whitewater kayak park. This was in 1994. Four years later, they pitched their ideas to the Nevada Commission on Tourism. It was warmly received but tabled for another two years.

When his second opportunity came, Litchfield broadened his focus. Rather than build eddies and drops that only kayakers could enjoy, he wanted to give access to everyone – fishers, swimmers, inner tubers, and picnickers.

What separates a kayak park from a whitewater park is subtle. On the northern bank of the river, at the foot of the West Street Plaza, is a large boulder a few feet away from the shore.

“What would a kayaker use that for?” asked Litchfield. “Nothing. Families can bring their kids down here and let them wade out to the rocks. You can’t underestimate the individuality and empowerment…a sense of adventure a child gets from standing out there all on his own.”

Steep banks were terraced with concrete boulders to give people a place to sit, put their feet in the water and wade in. People feel safer going down to the Truckee.

“I think of the river as my front yard,” says Reno blogger, Tracy Viselli.

Since moving to the downtown in 2003, Viselli has seen riverside cafes open, more events centered on the river and a general sense of community.

One such event is a festival hosted around the Wingfield Park Amphitheatre, Reno’s premier river park, since 1996.

Artown, co-founded by Karen Craig, was an attempt to get people downtown. A community arts organizer who has made changes in New York and Colorado, Craig wanted to bring all of Reno’s artistic community into the largely unused amphitheatre.

Craig wanted to “take all these little dots, connect them and line them up to show them off.”

Since its inception, the festival, held in July, has grown rapidly. In 2008, Artown hosted nearly 400,000 visitors – almost twice the population of Reno and Sparks. For Craig, the festival has meant more than just attention and traffic.

“My son said to me, ‘I was thinking about Princeton but I wanna apply to UNR. It’s just a more interesting life here,’” said Craig. That was her ultimate goal – to make Reno “cool enough” to want to live here.

Where the city goes from here is an important question in the middle of a recession. The City of Reno presses on with riverside redevelopment.

Two new condominiums were erected to offer more housing. The West Street Market opened in December for the local farmer’s market and other vendors, including the Brickhouse Bakery and West Street Wine Bar. A new park is being built over the old railroad tracks in front of the Reno arch. No plans are currently in the works for the Truckee downtown, however.

“Wingfield is too small,” said Viselli about the future of the river downtown.

In December, where the famous Mapes Casino used to tower over the Truckee, an ice skating rink opens. Classical music floats over the river at West Street Plaza. Couples walk along the river, bundled in scarves and wool coats. Even in winter, people come here.


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