From trash to treasure: Years of work on Tuolumne River in Modesto have paid off

Darin Jesberg and Chris Guptill walked an unpaved trail along Dry Creek on Tuesday morning, pausing a few times to pick up an empty spray-paint can, a plastic water bottle, a shirt, a broken bike pedal and other trash. They passed a tire submerged in the creek. That would have to wait for another time.

Though the men share a passion for improving Modesto’s trail system and encouraging recreational use, they appeared unfazed. After all, a couple of fistfuls of rubbish doesn’t compare to what Jesberg’s and Guptill’s respective volunteer organizations, the Dry Creek Trails Coalition and Operation 9-2-99, have pulled from local waterways and their banks over the years.

Dumped shopping carts, lawn furniture, TV sets and tires. Discarded blankets and clothing. Torn and scattered bags of household trash, likely left by people looking for recyclables or, worse, trying to commit identity theft. Condoms, emptied bottles of cough syrup and countless hypodermic needles.

Now in its sixth year, Operation 9-2-99 cleanups have cleared more than 400 tons of debris, Guptill said, including between 1,200 and 1,300 shopping carts and about the same number of tires. One January day last year alone, between four and five tons of refuse was hauled from homeless encampments on the banks of Dry Creek in Moose Park.

The Dry Creek coalition, which formed a decade ago and has grown tremendously, has picked up about 250 tons, Jesberg said. And earlier this month, on the group’s Facebook page, he shared some welcome news: “For the first time in ten years of cleaning up the Dry Creek Regional Park trails, there is not enough work to justify hosting a cleanup event — that’s right, the trails are looking fantastic right now — due to your tireless efforts of picking up trash each visit.”

Over the years, progress has allowed coalition cleanups to go from monthly to bimonthly to quarterly. While that group’s focus is on Dry Creek trails, the aim of Operation 9-2-99 is on reclaiming, rehabilitating and restoring the area along the Tuolumne River from Ninth Street to Highway 99 and beyond.

Guptill, who’s a Davis High School teacher, and Jesberg, a Modesto Fire Department battalion chief, said they regularly “compare notes” to avoid overlapping cleanups and to be of help to each other’s group. The next quarterly cleanup by the coalition is set for Oct. 13, and the next monthly cleanup by Operation 9-2-99 is Aug. 10.

Trail users like mountain biker Larry Metcalf see and appreciate the advances. He’s been biking the trails for four years, he said Wednesday, and the improvements he’s observed in just the past two years are “like night and day.” Instead of piles of trash, Metcalf sees things like an older man who’s out every day picking it up. He’s also seen a big rise in people out on the trails, “and everybody seems to like it. ... The trails are nice, the jumps are nice. They’re made for all-around riders.”

Two steps forward ...

Does the canceled cleanup signal the arrival at a turning point? Perhaps. “We’re nowhere close to being able to say ‘no cleanups,’ but we’re on the path,” Guptill said. “This has been successful, and we’re going to be there if we keep this up.”

Thursday morning, Dale Carmickle was fishing for bass from the Dry Creek bank in Moose Park. Since March, he’s been out there every morning before heading to work. There were pieces of trash in the area, but he said the park is “not too bad.” He said he was at another spot recently, though, along the Tuolumne, that was rife with dumped trash and what looked like the remains of encampments.

The goal, Guptill said, is to be able to ease off the cleanups and invest the time into pushing recreational use. Jesberg, an avid mountain biker, concurred: “My goal has always been not necessarily to just pick up trash over and over and over.” Thriving recreation in and along the waterways is crucial to not letting the areas fall back into misuse, the men agreed.

To that end, the twice-yearly Modesto RecFest was launched in spring 2018 at the Gateway Park area of Tuolumne River Regional. Presented by more than a dozen government, commercial and nonprofit sponsors, it gave residents a one-stop opportunity to sample paddling, biking, orienteering, trail running, fishing, disc golf and more.

It was held there again in the fall, but moved this spring to Legion Park after the city moved a temporary homeless encampment at Beard Brook Park to the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter (MOES) in Gateway Park in February and March.

MOES and the Beard Brook camp before it have been double-edged swords for the trail activists. On one side, the facilities went a long way toward getting the homeless out of the riparian zone and into an environment where they can better be helped. And Jesberg said there’s a joy to seeing parents again taking their children to places like the Kewin Park playground where “in the not too distant past” they wouldn’t have felt comfortable.

But Beard Brook Park is in the heart of the trail system, Guptill said, and when the city turned it into a temporary homeless camp, it severed a connection for bikers and runners. And still, more than four months after the park was cleared and MOES was set up, Beard Brook remains a mess, he said.

Now much the same thing is happening in Gateway Park because of MOES. “All of our beautification and improvements to create a park feel — directional signing and all that — has been compromised,” Guptill said. There are fires, there is vandalism. “The goal was to contain that, and they haven’t been able to contain it real well, you know, as far as leaking out into the park,” he said.

The push for recreation

With Beard Brook and Gateway Park out of their hands for now, and the RecFests a test that “worked out really well,” Jesberg said, the men and others are networking on at least a few recreation efforts.

One was Thursday evening: a Tuolumne River Trust canoe trip from Legion Park to the Neece Road boat launch, the site of a planned park near John Thurman Field, through a 2-mile run on a section of river previously blocked by Dennett Dam.

“This canoe trip represents the culmination of many years of work to restore this part of the river to a healthy, free-flowing state,” said TRT Executive Director Patrick Koepele in a news release. “People are now able to come out with their kayaks, paddle boards and canoes to enjoy this incredible river.”

Guptill and Jesberg said they very much want to create a run-paddle-bike event on the Tuolumne, a la the Eppie’s Great Race that was held for 45 years on the American River Parkway in Sacramento.

“We would start downtown, or maybe at Beard Brook for now, run down to the trails, transition to your watercraft of some type — your canoe, your kayak, your raft, whatever — and you paddle down the Tuolumne down toward Carpenter Road, where your mountain bike is staged, hop on your mountain bike and come back into downtown, where you have all the pomp and circumstance,” Jesberg said.

On another front, a steering team has been put together to work on creating a cross-country mountain bike racing team for high schoolers. Jesberg still occasionally races and said such high school teams are all over the place, including Folsom, Monterey and Fresno. “We don’t have it here in Modesto,” he said, “so why not?”

And something Jesberg and Guptill are clearly looking forward to is the annual California Trails and Greenways Conference, which will be held in Modesto next April. The conference’s online page says it brings “education and networking opportunities for urban, rural and backcountry trail professionals. Join leading trail experts for training and discussions on the latest advances in trail design, construction, maintenance, interpretation, volunteerism and management.”

Laurel Harkness, executive director of the California Trails Conference Foundation, which presents the conference, visited Modesto and liked what she saw being done for the trail system here, Jesberg said. Harkness was unavailable for comment for this report.

The event will bring “land managers, trail user groups, anybody who has anything to do with trail use development, trail management and open space management,” Jesberg said. For example, he expects Forest Service representatives from the Pinecrest area to attend because they’re “trying to get their heads around mountain biking also. They’re supportive of it — they just want to make sure they do it right.”

The conference will put a spotlight on Modesto recreation, showing people from elsewhere — and residents to whom it still remains undiscovered — the opportunities that exist.

“We had to change the culture of blight and abuse,” Guptill said, “and now we have to develop and try to bring along the culture of use: Where do you go? What can you do? What are your options? And I don’t think people have thought about these spaces as much in terms of what they can do. But the sky’s kind of the limit.”

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Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.