It was the 99th Picnic Day on Saturday at UC Davis. And if it weren't for the message board – flashing ZERO TOLERANCE! – you might think the event was about animal science exhibits, cool modular robots and a day of discoveries in a festive college town.
But on the sprawling university campus, and particularly the pub-filled downtown of Davis, Picnic Day also has often been about rowdy crowds and over-imbibing.
So on Saturday, a heavy presence of police from the university, city and other agencies were on hand with thick ticket books and plastic handcuffs. But they mostly found a happy, mellow throng – estimated at 55,000 people – that enjoyed campus exhibits, music, food and, yes, some frothy beverages in town.
By afternoon, Anthony Kesich, a UC Davis graduate student studying high-energy nuclear physics, was surrounded by friends hoisting amber-filled glasses at the campus-area 3rd & U Cafe. But he insisted, upon careful scientific analysis, that Picnic Day wasn't about the beer.
"Let's see," he offered, "you get a high number of people interacting in a way that they normally wouldn't because events have infused them with – not alcohol – energy."
Kesich, who said he's normally so busy with graduate research that he seldom goes out, was drinking with friends, including animal biology graduate student Catlin Cooper.
She began Picnic Day by getting up at 5:30 a.m. to milk cows. Then she helped set up the goat exhibit so children and their parents could enjoy the animals, and the grad students could lecture on things like transgenic technology and the pharmaceutical applications of animal DNA.
You might have thought the campus chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers was merely having a Picnic Day barbecue and serving bowls of ice cream. But the highlight was watching members create their chilly delights by flash-freezing cream, sugar and chocolate with liquid nitrogen.
"It's ludicrously cold," proclaimed junior chemical engineering student Gordon MaGill, 21. He declared the ice cream production, complete with hissing clouds of vaporization, a great and tasty way to instill interest in science.
After a turnout of an estimated 80,000 people last year, UC Davis officials scaled down the promotion of Picnic Day this year. They focused more on a celebration for students and alumni than on a regionwide event.
In the past, Picnic Day has been tarnished by the the 2011 death of a grad student at an off-campus party, and by drunken crowds. But by early Saturday evening this year, the university and Davis police had reported only a handful of incidents.
Davis Police Lt. Paul Doroshov said a man who suffered an apparent knife wound in a downtown altercation was taken at 8:30 p.m. to UC Davis Medical Center with injuries that appeared not to be life-threatening.
Earlier, campus police arrested two students for intoxication and cited 16 minors for possession of alcohol or drugs. Four others were treated and released after paramedics took them to a local hospital for suspected drinking-related ailments.
As bands played and picnickers relaxed in the university quad, McKenzie Swan, 22, and Courtney Tanabee, 23, greeted visitors at a booth promoting UC Davis' forensic science graduate program. As a Picnic Day special, they offered free blood-alcohol testing.
About 20 people took them up on on the offer – with grad students letting half of them know they were legally intoxicated, in case they didn't suspect that already.
Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.