Sunday, December 11, 2005

Dam Lurking

Dam Lurking
Sunday, December 11, 2005

The green gate at the entrance of the PG&E road to the Spaulding projects was closed. I parked my truck outside it, gathered my backpack and camera and began walking through the gate. A rectangular sign affixed to the gate told me not to trespass on the PG&E land. I continued walking. Another sign tacked to a tree read the same. I turned around and walked back through the gate the way I had come.

I decided to instead walk down the other fork in the road to the closed campground and boat ramp - through another gate that said that I was welcome to use PG&E lands. Welcome sounded better than trespassing. I figured that once I got to the reservoir I could just make my way along the bank to the dam and that way be in compliance with the signs.

I wandered along the gray stumps of trees lining the receded reservoir bank. Soon I discovered that my way to the dams was thwarted by treacherous looking cliffs and rock walls. But, across a small creek and up the hillside, I could see the PG&E road. I figured that if I climbed the hill to the road, I still wouldn’t technically be trespassing since I didn’t actually walk through the gate where the signs were posted to get there. Faulty logic – I know. I kept mollifying my worried mind that I was on National Forest land anyway, but this is something I had only heard through others and not confirmed myself.

I walked down the deserted road to where I had come last Saturday with the FERC Academy group and stood above Spaulding 1 looking across the dam. I could hear the metal guardrails and gates creak in the wind. Everything else was silent.

Things seemed much more ominous being there without a group or a guide. The tower on the dam and the barbed wire gate leading to a metal stairway seemed prison-like. I hesitated before making my way across the long expansive dam. My heart began to race and I felt acutely that I was not in a natural place. It felt wrong.

My goal was to confidently walk across the dam to the stairs on the far side that lead down the backside of the dam to the faucet that becomes the beginning of the South Yuba River below the reservoir. Then I was to confidently descend the stairs to the faucet. It looked like an easy thing to do last weekend. But having a better look at it today revealed a chain across a lower platform hovering above a ladder thrust into the dam wall that must be scaled to reach the lower staircases. Feeling like a criminal with my racing heart, I opted to stop slightly before reaching the chain. Scaling down a ladder on a dam is not high on my list of things to do. But what made me feel infinitely less comfortable thank thinking of descending that ladder was the knowledge that something like 500,000 acre-feet of water was pressing against the other side of the dam. Since the dam was constructed in the 1890’s, it would appear that the engineering was sound and the water wasn’t likely to come busting through, but logic has nothing to do with fear or anxiety.

Once I made the decision to not go all the way down, I turned abruptly and ascended the stairs with loud ringing steps until I reached the top panting. All I wanted to do was go back the way I had come and leave the reservoir. Once again I hesitated, but then I turned and continued to Spaulding 2 as I had planned.

Spaulding 2’s gates are open for the winter, but the water level is so low that it is dry on either side of the project. I walked across the metal grating with less unease than I flet on Spaulding 1. From the perspective of being underneath the gate doors, the dam gave the feel of being a great meat grinder. It’s a cold and violating looking structure. This is where the water spills into Jordan Creek to meet with the South Yuba during the spring runoff.

After spending time in the silence of the dams I felt depleted. I had no desire to continue to Spaulding 3. I made my way back across Spaulding 1 to the road. In my entire trek to the boat ramp and across the dams and back to my truck I came across no one. The silence and isolation of being on such an engineered landscape was an eerie experience. I longed for a friend. I even longed for a heated confrontation of a PG&E worker. I wanted anything to break the silence of that place.

As I walked back I wondered how reservoirs become such cherished recreation areas. This one provided no solace for me. This past summer I came to the reservoir for the first time for a bachelorette party. We took a boat ride across the water to a secluded campsite. Once there I climbed the bank to the kitchen area nestled within the trees. Never during the entire time I was there did I go down to the water until it was time to leave. I wanted nothing to do with that water which is unusual for me.

It’s not like I haven’t experienced reservoir waters before. Sometimes during the summer I have to work on Folsom Reservoir where the three forks of the American River empty. I don’t have a strong emotion aversion to it, but I also can’t say I like being there. It holds no draw for me, no connection, leaves no impression. I hear no voice of the river in the water. It’s like the water behind dams is silenced. It sits there quietly and obediently until it’s allowed to become itself once again if it makes it to the other side. Then the voice begins again.