Keep the Truckee River Blue: Understanding Reno’s Heart

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.

“The world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.” quips Mark Carwardine in the Douglas Adams conservation masterpiece Last Chance to See. I can’t help but reflect on these words as I silently float past a young bear on the Truckee River, each of us in deep reverie at the blessings around. For the bear, a source of food, an inaccessible refuge from the human world nearby. For myself, a place to recreate, an opportunity to experience the serene beauty of a waterway I have passed countless times, but never gotten to know so intimately. Surely the world would be a poorer, darker, and lonelier place without these.


Flowing from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake 121 miles away, the Truckee River is a critical resource for countless beings - particularly due to its obscure nature. An endorheic watershed is one that does not drain into the ocean but rather into something known as a terminal basin. Pyramid Lake is one such basin and exists in the driest state in the union, a majority of which resides within the Great Basin Desert. For many of the flora, fauna, and humans of northern Nevada a stark reality exists: without the Truckee River, there would be no life.


Growing up in Northern California, I established a connection to the Truckee. I saw it on the way to school nearly every day, and lived in a community fed by it. Despite this reliance, I realized that I didn’t know the river, its bends and turns, its power nor its journey. I decided to do a source to finish trip to gain a better understanding of what it provides and why it needs to be cared for.

My paddle begins in Tahoe City, California on April 11th with my friends Christina and Gavin. A well established park and river access point provide us with an effortless start to our float. Throughout the park are interpretive signs providing knowledge of history and ecology, while informing the public of efforts for preserving this stunning stream. We take a quick lap and slide into the river, the three of us avid whitewater kayakers and perhaps looking out of place in our rescue life vests and football worthy helmets.


A tepid pace continues for several miles, but what it lacks in adrenaline it makes up for in splendor. We pass through high alpine meadows as onlookers take pictures of us, likely tagging their location for friends to come explore. This section of the river will soon be crowded as busses shuttle families and friends from River Ranch back to Tahoe City, but today it is just us. Despite the pristine nature, we spot some trash on the sides of the river and glide above the tattered remains of an Explorer 2000, $15.99 at Target and likely left over from the hordes of last summer.


Passing through River Ranch, the pace quickens to a consistent churn. Here we disembark from the grasp of society and dive into a more raw world. Rapids continue for nearly ten miles, and we are thankful for a safe trip as we approach the town of Truckee. In our solitude, we slip through neighborhoods and past highway 89, no doubt slowly leaking oil and other pollutants. Perhaps that will be a problem for those downstream.


Christina and Gavin leave me in Truckee but I continue, moving swiftly through town and into the Martis valley. Here I see expectant mothers tending to their nests and begin to meet more recreationalists, predominantly fishermen but many folks just out exploring the backyard. Surprised, I even pass some fellow paddlers out for a short day on the water.

As I drop away from the Tahoe Basin, the world around me begins to change. Trees are more scarce and the rain shadow reveals itself, yet life still thrives along the river. Several moments to cherish occur as an inquisitive muskrat inspects me, an osprey flies overhead, and I pass that bear mentioned earlier. I even come across a whitewater raft at the largest rapids on the Truckee, “Jaws” and “Bronco”, and show the dad the route as he takes his family down after me.


One hundred yards later I come across an old broken dam, surely to remain long after I am gone, its concrete and rebar providing no use for humans nor animals. Shortly past there I arrive at the first of four dams on the river. These are large and dangerous, easily capable of killing an unwise person and likely an impasse for all but the strongest trout. Twenty odd miles go by and I portage two more dams. Ten more miles and I approach Reno.


Sadly, I can tell I am getting closer to the city without needing to see the buildings. Random trash appears more frequently while highway 80 dully roars overhead. The fishermen and recreationalists give way to a different crowd, perhaps people with more on their mind than the health of the Truckee, and I can’t fault them for that. No longer am I in a scenic mountain stream: an urban waterway surrounds me now.


For the whitewater kayaker, the trip from here becomes simple, but for the Truckee, the miles ahead provide tremendous challenges.


Stay tuned for parts two and three where Ryan will reflect on the second half of his journey and discuss how we can help conserve the Truckee River.


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