Into the Wild
By Andrea Todd
Posted on October 10
photography by Bruce Brown
Michelle Lazark calls them “weenie waggers.”
And because she runs in the American River Parkway on a regular basis—five miles daily on some of the more dangerous stretches (on the Discovery Park end, specifically under the railroad tracks, where the homeless illegally set up camp, for example)—the buff brunette is a frequent target. “Even among the runners and walkers out there all the time, it’s weird: I attract them,” muses Lazark, who also happens to be a Sacramento City police officer.
“Weenie waggers” are the men (obviously) who reside in the illegal river camps along the Lower Reach of the American River Parkway and who expose themselves to those who stroll and bike along the river trail.
Lazark, who considers the exhibitionists harmless, usually tells these men to “put their D-I-C-K back in their pants,” she says.
“It’s not what they expect. They expect you to be shocked or frightened. They usually just go their way and let you go yours,” Lazark says. She admits that because she’s a police officer, she may not feel as threatened as someone else on the trail.
And, she admits, a situation can become dangerous at a moment’s notice: Once, midrun at 6 p.m. on a Saturday in the section that runs parallel to Commerce Circle, she was confronted by a man wearing only sunglasses. Wacky, sure, but unlike the others who had exposed themselves to Lazark on the trail, this one actually chased her. She ran off the trail and tried all the office building doors in a nearby parking lot until finally someone let her in so she could call the police. “The man had gotten back in his truck, there in the parking lot, and was driving around, looking for me,” she recalls. “I would hide in the bushes while he drove by.”
A month later, Lazark adds, she spotted the truck and was able to identify him. She’s not sure what he would have done if he had found her. She really doesn’t want to think about it.
“You have to listen to your little voice,” she says. “I tell women to avoid running alone and not to run with earphones on. Criminals wait in the bushes for women running by with those on; it makes it easier for someone to take you by surprise.”
The Jedediah Smith Memorial Bicycle Trail, a 32-mile vehicle-free stretch that hugs the mighty American River, is our region’s jewel. It is one of the most visually stunning bike paths in the United States, with wooded areas filled with rare bird breeds—red-shouldered hawk, California quail and great-horned owl, to name a few—and other wildlife, including deer and wild turkey. There’s stunning fall foliage, miles of peaceful, paved roadway (even inline skates were banned until recently) and a waterway crucial to the survival of the local salmon population. More individuals use this natural resource than any other state park in the country, say rangers, and more recreate along the parkway—a Sacramento county park—annually than in Yosemite National Park. Between residents who use the park daily for recreation and commuting, and visitors, the parkway plays host to cyclists, runners, walkers, hikers, rafters, anglers, students on field trips, historians and sunbathers. It features several parks (Ancil Hoffman, Discovery and Ambassador), beaches and historical resources such as the Effie Yeaw Nature Center and the Nimbus Fish Hatchery.
Not all sing its praises, however—especially, ironically, those who have founded organizations dedicated to its preservation. The American River Parkway Preservation Society, one of several nonprofit organizations dedicated to parkway maintenance, describes our the parkway as “deeply tarnished,” “crime-ridden,” “trash-strewn” and virtually unusable by the community seeking safe, fun recreation.
Tales of confrontation, attacks and assault abound, although actual reported incidences are filed with police at a rate of fewer than two per month. Dave Lukenbill, of the American River Parkway Preservation Society, admits the area has safety issues, but says, “Very little crime is reported on a daily basis.” Lukenbill, who receives official copies of police and EMT reports, says, “Injuries that do occur are more often a case of someone being careless . . . a safety issue.” Still, police report that they have been called out to substantiate allegations of bands of homeless men attacking bikers and exposing themselves to runners and walkers, as well as teenage truants roaming the trail and threatening other people.
This past fall, two attacks in what has been considered to be the safer stretch of the park—the Upper Reach, upstream from the Howe Avenue Bridge—made headlines. In both cases, women were approached and attacked by men and able to escape. (Police do not believe the attacks are related.) In the most recent incident, the woman was approached twice before help finally arrived.
In that situation, according to the police report, shortly after 2:20 p.m., the suspect approached the victim as she was walking along the bike trail, pushed her to the ground and removed her pants. The woman fought the attacker off and escaped, but the suspect chased her and grabbed her again. According to the report, she broke free again and ran to a nearby parking lot, where she called 911.
The suspect still is at large, says Sgt. R.L. Davis, spokesperson for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.
Bob Hanna, who founded the American River Parkway Safety Coalition in 2001, suggests law enforcement hasn’t done all it can to ensure the parkway’s safety. The impetus for his forming the coalition was “the Negro Bar incident” that took place in 2001: A 16-year-old boy was attacked by a group, stabbed with a stick and thrown off a 60-foot cliff into Lake Natoma; miraculously he survived. Hanna’s coalition serves a purpose, he explains: a watchdog role that assesses parkway dangers, organizes and publicizes information about reported crimes (Hanna gets a copy of official police reports concerning parkway crime) and works with police to offer rewards to help catch criminals and brainstorm ways to make the parkway safer for everyone.
Hanna has spoken with the recent parkway assault victim who escaped her attacker not once but twice and says she made two calls to 911 with a cell phone she borrowed from someone in the Ancil Hoffman Park parking lot.
“The sheriff’s department says they never got the first call,” he says. By the time help did arrive—about 20 minutes after the second phone call was placed, Hanna alleges—it was the fact that she had reached others in the parking lot that ensured her safety.
Davis says he’s not familiar with the report of the first call, but that officers did arrive on the scene, and a composite sketch of the criminal has been circulated. He adds that the sheriff’s department receives, on average, about 28,000 calls a day from the entire Sacramento region, and many people may be surprised to learn that not very many calls come from the parkway. (In fact, Dave Lydick, chief ranger of the American River Parkway, points out that two rape attempts in one year and one successful rape in four years is a pretty low statistic for any park located in the middle of a growing metropolitan area such as Sacramento: In New York’s Central Park, an average of eight attempted rapes occur approximately every five months.)
Davis says law enforcement is aware of problems with the 911 calls when made from individual cell phones. “We are working on our GPS system, so when they’re made from places we can’t readily identify, [we’ll be] able to find them.” But those kinks have yet to be worked out.
Crime on the bike path is varied; all too often it is scarily well-thought-out beforehand. One bicyclist rode head-on into fishing line strung head-high across the path. Another was pepper-sprayed by a group of what he described to the police as teenage skinheads. From a call box, he phoned the police, who arrived nearly a half an hour later. The assailants were never caught.
Hanna has further reasons for maintaining the safety coalition. “I’ve had rocks thrown at me while out kayaking on the river. Usually the rocks tag my kayak. My wife has been hit, too. Those guys had better aim; they tagged the shoulder of her life preserver.”
Hanna points out that throwing rocks constitutes a felony. “But by the time you call in and the police arrive, the guys who throw the rocks are gone.” He recalls how, just two years ago, one kayaker had his head bashed in with a rock—the man lost his job because he couldn’t work and eventually incurred more than $70,000 in medical bills.
“The lack of response of the sheriff’s department appalled me,” Hanna says. “They asked if any of us got a license number. It was on the river! They [the kids on the shore of the river throwing rocks] didn’t have a car! They basically [said] there was nothing they could do.”
Lydick says part of the problem is that different parts of the trail fall under different branches of law enforcement. The Lower Reach (downstream of the Howe Avenue Bridge to Discovery Park, where the trail begins) is patrolled by city police, while the Upper Reach (from the Howe Avenue Bridge to Folsom Lake) is the sheriff’s department’s responsibility. Neither branch of law enforcement is all that familiar with the parkway, Lydick says.
But his people are. “We need more ranger presence and ranger availability on the parkway,” Lydick argues, adding that the county recently approved both for the parkway—and as a result, three more rangers will be hired to patrol the trail, but only during hours the parkway is heavily used.
Furthermore, 911 calls automatically are dispatched to emergency response—city and county police/sheriff and city/metro fire departments. “Individuals might be best served calling 911 and immediately afterward placing a call to the ranger station as well.” (The ranger station telephone number is 875-6672.)
But rangers, too, are spread thin. Lydick’s staff of fewer than two dozen covers 26 miles of the trail, Lydick says. Budget cuts in recent years eliminated the police horseback and motorcycle units that once patrolled the areas.
Most who know the parkway well insist that the majority of danger lurking on the trailway results from carelessness, not crime.
Teams-in-training share the twisting, turning roadway with tots on training wheels. Commuters are racing to and from work—this time of year in the dark. Pedestrians meander across the road, chatting on their cell phones or—in pairs of two or packs of more—walk side by side, oblivious to the cyclist (or the packs of them) who may be speeding around the next blind turn.
Yes, there are blind turns on the parkway. Some are so dangerous that they are regularly checked by rangers and the landscape trimmed back.
“It’s a lack of ordinary prudence, people not paying attention,” says Chief Ranger Dave Lydick. “That’s the most dangerous thing. It’s such a unique resource, a recreational trail in the middle of a large metropolitan area. We need to be able to share it.”
Bob Hanna, founder of the American River Parkway Safety Coalition, says many have reported incidents of road rage—bikers yelling at runners, runners yelling at walkers: “Get out of the road!” Lydick adds that when a biker or a runner yells “On your left!” at a walker, individuals misinterpret it as an angry reprimand or a rude command, not knowing that it’s a standard safety procedure.
Add to that the danger of the four- or eight- or no-legged kind that lurk in the brush along the trail . . .
“Bikers are often seriously injured trying to avoid a squirrel scurrying across the path, or they get scared by a snake and either run over it or try to avoid it,” says Lydick.
There are rattlesnakes out there, but in the 26 years Lydick has patrolled the bike trail, every bite he has seen has been on or around the victim’s hand area, “which says to me these bites were incurred by people reaching for the snake, sometimes even down a hole.” He admits he saw one bite on the foot. “That was someone walking through the grass barefoot,” he explains. This, he adds, is not a smart thing to do.
“For the most part, people can avoid any and all accidents by being careful when they go on the trail,” says Lydick. “It’s deceiving—those who recreate on the trail think they’re still in the city and still pretty safe. In reality, you’re subject to all the dangers you’d be subject to in any isolated spot of any wilderness.”
When accidents do happen, says Hanna, emergency response teams seem about as ill-prepared as law enforcement.
He gives a vivid example: While he was out kayaking on the river, near China Wall at Lake Natoma—a spot where teenagers like to jump from the cliffs above into the water—he saw one kid jump in and never come up.
A call was immediately placed to 911. “By the time the EMTs got there, in their boat, they didn’t have a diver. You’d think the ranger station would have a diver right there, ready,” which he imagines would cost more, says Hanna. He reports they did use the diver who finally arrived to recover the body. (Jeff Steyskal, president of DART, the all-volunteer Drowning Accident Rescue Team, which serves the entire Sacramento region, says he is unaware of this particular incident, but that DART usually is automatically called to a scene by the fire department. He says firefighters utilize their own swiftwater surface rescue team—which deploys emergency rescue personnel in wetsuits—immediately upon arriving on the scene of an accident.)
Either way, Hanna points out that, “Help, when it does arrive when you’re out there on the parkway—whether you’re on the water or on the trail—always arrives five to 10 minutes too late.
“When you go out there, you pretty much need to know that you’re on your own,” he says.
Snakes and Spiders
“There’s an old saying about rattlers: It’s usually the third person on the trail who gets bitten: The first wakes ’em up, the second riles ’em up, and the third sees ’em moving—and tries to get a closer look,” says Lydick.
People also tend to get bitten by baby rattlers, which haven’t developed a sense of control over their venom yet. They also don’t have rattles to give warning. “The only distinguishing characteristic they have is the diamond-shaped head; by the time people have made that distinction, they’re usually too close to avoid getting bit,” Lydick explains.
Snakes, even the rattlers, actually aren’t a threat to most people unless they’re provoked. When they bite, it’s usually a defensive strike—and even that is not very common: The ranger station gets reports of about one bite every other year. A rattlesnake bite generally is serious to the local area, where it begins breaking down tissue. When rattlers bite their prey, they release precious venom from a limited supply that they need for a lifetime, so they’re not likely to release that much.
However, for someone not in good health, a bite can be fatal.
Forget the tall tales about snakes springing six miles to attack their prey: Rattlers can spring about half their body length when they coil; for most rattlesnakes that’s about two or three feet at most.
And there aren’t that many rattlesnakes on the trail, says Lydick—although those who hunt them (illegally) started the myth that at one time there were 10,000 rattlesnakes inhabiting the water near Discovery Park, where people boat and swim. “For that to happen, there would have had to be a huge food source, thousands of mice and other wildlife, and as far as we know that’s not been the case.”
King snakes and garter snakes are harmless to humans, says Lydick. King snakes actually prey on rattlesnakes. But the same holds true with any snake you might encounter: Give it some room and it’ll leave you alone.
As for spiders, there are black widows aplenty on the trail, but mostly in confined areas, such as unused outhouses or areas that haven’t been inhabited by humans for a stretch of time. “Hollowed out trees, for example,” says Lydick. Tarantulas, which live in this area as well, have a venomous bite but not as concentrated as the black widows’. The sight of a tarantula scares people, and some may in fact become aggressive in late summer and early fall, which is their mating season.
The American River Parkway is an economic engine that generates an estimated $259 million in annual economic activity in the local economy, according to a financial needs study released by the Dangermond Group in July 2000. This past fall, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors approved an additional $450,000 for the 2005–2006 American River Parkway Budget. Funding had originally been set at $3,127,000—less than 2/10 of 1 percent of the total county budget; the proposed amount remained 20 percent less than the parkway funding level five years ago and only 39 percent of the amount the county-commissioned Dangermond study recommended as the appropriate amount to maintain and secure the parkway.
According to the American River Preservation Society, the bike path has chronically suffered from “ineffective management, lack of dedicated funding, degradation of the natural resources and erosion of public safety.”
Residents’ involvement and support could make a big difference in the parkway’s future. Some organizations include:
Save the American River Association
American River Natural History Association (916) 489-4918
American River Parkway Foundation (916) 456-7423
American River Preservation Society (916) 486-3856