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Gates of the Desert: Challenges the Truckee River Faces

Ryan is a Wetland Restoration Technician for the Rosewood Nature Study Area. Last year, he took on the challenge of paddling the Truckee River from Tahoe City to Pyramid Lake. In this three part series, Ryan reflects on his journey and the lessons he learned along the way about people, parks, and the connections we make through the Truckee River. Find the first part here.

Rocks gently scrape at my boat, leaving behind remnants of passage through here. Flows are lower this week as the “Critical Dry” snowpack slowly reduces the Truckee River to a trickle of its former self. Reno isn’t the only community feeling the effect of this, with much of the western United States in a condition of “Extreme” to “Exceptional” drought. Thankful that I can even manage to float, I continue on, grinding over a purposefully placed slab of concrete and dropping even more bits of kayak plastic with it - an imperfect activist.

Wingfield Park was established in 1920 when George Wingfield donated the land to the city of Reno. For nearly a century it was used in myriad ways, and unfortunately this use generated traffic that degraded the area. In 2004, the city completed construction of a whitewater park around the island and reimagined the riverbed. Debris, rebar, trash, and constricted channels were removed and in their place now exists a recreational hotspot downtown. This serves as the site of the annual Reno River Festival which is typically held in June. Music and vendors take up much of the experience but part of me hopes it also brings appreciation to its namesake.

River-goers stare at me as I surf these engineered waves, some awkwardly hiding their cell phones as they catch video without asking. If the goal of the park was to draw crowds then surely it should be considered a success. Restaurants line the shore while an island amphitheatre provides a convenient hub. In an ideal world, users of the park would be diligent in taking care of it, and for the most part they seem to be. Minutes tick by and it’s time for me to leave the park behind for a section that few manage or care to see.

Escaping downtown brings open skies but in some ways an even more congested river. Pervasive sounds of industry become my companion as I drift farther away from the city center. Endless lots of unused vehicles surround barely present riparian strips, dotted with the occasional park. Behemoths such as Walmart and distribution centers make up the majority of my view for several miles. At one point I even pass a Pick-n-Pull that has to be among the worlds largest, situated neatly across the river from the less-than-pleasant-smelling Truckee Meadows Water Reclamation site. Steamboat Creek joins me here, providing some additional water for the rest of my trip.

Between all of this, I notice several diversions and make a quick portage around a dam whose purpose eludes me. On my short walk I chat with a local who is far less fortunate than myself, but a kind enough person who told me they use the Truckee for a range of purposes. This pointedly illustrates how the river affects all in the community, from the wealthiest to those with little to their name. I drop back in and say goodbye, paddling off towards the edges of town and through the gates of the Great Basin Desert.

Abruptly, I am back in my own world - though one distinctly different than the forests of the Sierra Nevada. Dry, golden brown hills take up most of the space with some sagebrush and rabbitbrush being the dominant flora, species indicative of how little water this region receives.

Trees occasionally show up as part of several projects by The Nature Conservancy. These massive fifteen year efforts worked to restore sections of the Truckee back to a more natural state. I can’t help but appreciate the scale of these tasks when contrasted with the FedEx center I saw minutes before. Many more facilities leapfrog other restoration projects until I portage yet another dam.

Derby dam diverts a significant amount of water from the river, unfortunately it will not be rejoining us the rest of the way. Fortunately, it provides blood to communities that exist in the heart of Nevada. This is a fine line that I am neither knowledgeable nor experienced enough to judge, but shows how delicate life in the desert is.

A herd of horses standing ankle deep in the river greet me as I approach Fernley. Not to get into an altercation, I turn it on and blast past the group. Horses have a complex history in the state of Nevada, with the Bureau of Land Management constantly balancing the population with the public and environmental needs. Recently, the horse population in the state has been determined to far exceed the recommended size. The intersection here of ecology, animal rights, private lands, and public lands is tricky to navigate and hopefully the BLM can have success moving forward.

Shortly before reaching Fernley, the Truckee takes a sharp turn north towards Pyramid Lake. Perhaps a mile later I arrive in Wadsworth which happens to be the end of my journey. I choose not to approach Pyramid for a variety of reasons, but mainly I am simply not knowledgeable of the boundaries or rules of the area. I load my boat on my car and begin the drive back to Reno.

In what seems like moments I cover the distance that took me days in my kayak. A less intimate way to travel no doubt. Perhaps if more of us slow down and move with the pace of the planet, we would have a greater understanding of the things that make it a less poor, dark, and lonely place.

Stay tuned for part three where Ryan will discuss how we can help conserve the Truckee River and how to be an ethical outdoorsman.


History of Wingfield Park:


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