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A day in the life of the parkway

The American River Parkway is a refuge and a dream, a swath of wilderness that cuts through a major metropolitan area. It offers something slower and simpler -- and many say better -- than the hustle and chaos just beyond its meadows and forests and riverbanks.

In fact, there are several places along the river where it is easy to imagine you are hundreds of miles from civilization, with egrets wading next to tall grass on the shoreline, wild turkeys poking and pecking for food, deer grazing, coyotes trotting through the brush and turkey vultures soaring high overhead. It is a peaceful place and a violent one just beneath the surface -- many of the wild animals are either hunting or being hunted, playing a game of survival next to parents pushing baby strollers, cyclists and runners sweating through workouts and young and old walking along simply to marvel at the sights.

The river and the trail attract all kinds. Like Clayton and Jenna Handy -- and their kitten, Cheetah -- who drove through the night from Idaho to Jenna's hometown in Folsom.

She wanted her husband of six months to see the sun rise on the water at Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, the trail's eastern terminus.

"It's heavenly. It's inspirational," said Jenna, 21, who, like her husband, attends Brigham Young University-Idaho.

And that's why The Bee came, to explore this recreational jewel from first light on the lake to the setting sun at Discovery Park 32.8 miles away, where the American River empties into the Sacramento.

Daybreak at Folsom Lake

As the Handys found tranquility with the sunrise, Gus Cox and his friend Mary Trout were picking through the Dumpsters nearby. They like the calm of early morning, too, but they are multitasking.

"We come here for the exercise, the animals and the beach, but the cans pay for our gas," says Cox, 66.

"I like the peace and quiet," adds Trout. "There's not a bunch of people out here."

Indeed, Folsom Lake at sunrise is an undiscovered gem. The only other person enjoying the setting before 6 a.m. was a woman walking briskly with her Labrador retriever.

Downstream at Lake Natoma, it was still too early for kayakers and rowers. A mother duck led her ducklings into the water, safe for the moment from predators. The bike trail runs right next to the lake. It is a good spot for a rest, looking out at the water, the emptiness of it all as the sun begins to show its first signs of warmth and a bicycle commuter races past, apparently headed downtown.

A gray-haired woman rides by going the other way. About the same time, 31-year-old Shannon Smart was stirring awake at his home on the Garden Highway miles away, preparing to go to work as a landscaper and thinking of the fun he would have later at Discovery Park with his personal watercraft.

'Total stress reduction'

The noise of the metro area comes full bore at Hazel Avenue, where a wave of morning commuters -- trapped in cars and trucks - heads toward Highway 50.

Just below the motorists, 63-year-old Jim Kirstein meets friend Bob Munn, 44, at the Nimbus Hatchery parking lot for their regular Tuesday/Thursday bike commute 25 miles downtown. Kirstein works in the telecommunications division of the state Department of General Services. Munn is in commercial lending at Bank of America.

In the afternoon, they will be joined by a few other cyclists for a more spirited ride back up the trail. But on this morning, they speed past a small footpath they probably never noticed along a stretch of the river between the Hazel and Sunrise bridges. There, Shayne Sutton, a retired state worker nine years younger than Kirstein, is at his kind of office, alone with the ducks, beavers and a 7-pound striped bass Sutton landed moments earlier. He is wearing a green hooded shirt and loose-fitting brown shorts.

"This is just a great place to come and not think about anything," Sutton says with a smile. "It's total stress re-duction."

Behind his portable nylon chair is coyote scat. Sutton figures the coyote must have devoured a mother duck and most of her offspring, which he saw just the day before.

For Sutton, the bass will be dinner.

"Season it, roll it in flour, then fry it in the frying pan," he says.

Farther downstream is a fly fisherman wearing waders and standing in waist-deep water. He is all alone, yet he can be heard carrying on a conversation. He may be seeking peace in the river, but he's brought his hands-free cell phone to keep up with that other world.

Sacramento unspoiled

Many regular visitors to the parkway are convinced that most people living in and around Sacramento have little idea what the stretch of unspoiled nature has to offer. To most, they say, the river and the trail are mysteries. They don't know about the deer, the turkeys, the fishing holes or all the quiet spots just to sit and think.

At 8:50 a.m., Murray Cohen rides his shiny carbon-fiber road bike across the Old Fair Oaks Bridge, originally built in 1901 and redone several times since. The retired high school English teacher is heading for the long-standing Thursday breakfast ride hosted by the Sacramento Wheelmen, which gathers in a group in a parking lot just down the trail.

"It makes it possible to live in Sacramento, let's put it like that," Cohen says of the parkway. "Without this, it's a pretty boring urban area."

Moments later, about 20 Wheelmen head up the trail, passing under the bridge Tony Rodriguez and his 10-year-old black Lab just crossed as they headed down to the river's edge. Rodriguez makes regular trips to the parkway to feed the ducks. After learning that bread crumbs are a poor diet choice for the birds, he now buys bags of duck food from the feed store.

"It's something to do in the morning," says the 55-year-old Union Pacific Railroad conductor as the ducks spot Rodriguez and swim toward him. "It's the first place I come to."

On the dusty footpath that winds along the river, 17-year-old Terryl Wheat strolls past, headed up to Fair Oaks for a cup of coffee. The young musician and poet spent the early morning hours along the river carrying a journal - should Muse overcome her.

"It's up to us to have places like this," she says. "With all the growth that has been going on, we need these little reminders how valuable the land is and how much we need to preserve it."

Of the sunrise she witnessed along the river, she adds, "It was nature in its most breathtaking form."

An afternoon resurgence

Midday along the trail is often quiet, as many people -- and many animals -- retreat to the shady spots during the hot weeks of spring and summer. While mornings are good times to spot the wild turkeys and large deer populations, the hot sun is left mostly to the squirrels, often giving cyclists fits when they zigzag in front of oncoming bikes.

Like the highways all around it, the parkway comes alive again for the afternoon commute. All those working people who really wanted to be outdoors rush to their favorite activity - running, fishing, biking, in-line skating, walking, boating or simply skipping stones.

On this day, much of the activity is centered at the Guy West Bridge at California State University, Sacramento, where two groups are convening for separate 6 p.m. training rides and the regular bike commuters are passing through.

Two of them are Kirstein and Munn, back on their bikes after a day at the office. Fellow cyclists Kevin Baker and Jason Brabec have met them for a fast-paced ride up the trail. Munn, who lives in El Dorado Hills, parks at the hatchery and drives home from there. Kirstein rides to his home in Folsom, and Brabec and Baker have homes in Rancho Cordova.

Kirstein says bike commuting has three benefits: It keeps him fit, he meets lots of nice people and he saves about $10 a day in gas when he pedals the 64-mile round trip.

Says Munn, "You get a workout in without taking too much time away from the family."

A late-day transformation

The stretch of trail below the campus is a different kind of place. It is less scenic and less traveled where it veers away from the river for several miles. Still, it is not uncommon to spot a coyote prowling for rodents or a hawk perched on a branch scanning the area for its next meal.

A stretch of the trail at Campus Commons Golf Course has been closed for construction as crews install large sewage pipes. But the detours are serviceable for bikes and pedestrians alike.

The lower part of the trail is at times controversial, as many people say it is too frightening for them to use, what with the population of homeless campers and transients and the infrequent patrols by county park rangers.

Those fears were mostly unfounded on this day. The biggest problem was the unchecked swarms of mosquitoes at dusk in a wooded area just above Discovery Park. A month earlier, the stretch had been flooded, forcing cyclists and pedestrians to turn back.

But where the American River empties into the calmer Sacramento River, the bugs didn't seem to be a problem. In the moments before sunset, the area was bustling: a jogger on the levee, a couple playing fetch in the water with their two dogs, a man soaking up the last sunshine as he lay on his back with his eyes closed. Nearby, Shannon Smart was having a blast, zooming around on a Yamaha personal watercraft at high speed, making sharp turns and churning up walls of water.

This is what the landscaper had been thinking about since his workday began at 7 a.m.

"This is real convenient," says Smart, noting he lives 10 minutes away on the Garden Highway. "I like being out in the open."

With that, he roared away toward the ball of sun moving ever lower in the sky. In minutes, it would be lost to the evening and would mark a full day of riding and running and fishing and sitting along a wild stretch of an otherwise tame metropolis.

After dark, the place would be transformed in ways most never see. Heading back up the trail, a rabbit appears in the beam of a bicycle headlight. Then comes a barn owl, swooping low and silent. The deer have emerged, chewing on the leaves of trees recently planted by the county.

The fishermen are packing up. And somewhere in Folsom, a retired state worker has polished off his dinner - seasoned, rolled in flour and fried in the pan.

American River Parkway at a glance

History: Paths and trails along the American River go back centuries to the indigenous populations. By 1896, the Capital City Wheelmen had blazed a cinder-based bicycle trail from Sacramento to Folsom. A general plan for the American River Parkway, as we now know it, was first incorporated by Sacramento County in 1962. Today, after a series of land acquisitions, the parkway is said to be the longest linear, uninterrupted park in the country. The 32.8-mile bicycle trail that follows the parkway from Old Sacramento to Beal's Point on Folsom Lake is named for Jedediah Smith, the fur trader who explored it in 1827.

Jurisdiction: The roughly 23 miles from Discovery Park to the fish hatchery at Hazel Avenue is the domain of the Sacramento County Department of Regional Parks, Recreation and Open Space; the 10 miles from the fish hatchery to Folsom Dam, which lies within the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, is owned by the federal government and managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. For non-emergency information: Sacramento County Parks, (916) 875-6961 or county park rangers, (916) 875-6672; Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, (916) 988-0205.

Hours: The county portion is a day-use facility with seasonal hours. Summer hours through Sept. 1 are 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Hours for the state portion, through Oct. 15, are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., except for the Lake Natoma area, which is 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Supporting and affiliated agencies include:

* The American River Parkway Foundation: (916) 456-7423 or

* Friends of the River: (916) 442-3155

* The American River Natural History Association: call for information at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center, (916) 489-4918

* The Save the American River Association (SARA): (916) 387-1763

Sources: "American River Parkway" map narrative and "Biking and Hiking the American River Parkway" by Robin Donnelly (American River Natural History Association, $14.95, 146 pages)

- Bee staff

Rules of the road to ease the way along the parkway

There are times of day and days of the week when the American River Parkway teems with traffic, not all of it friendly to you or the child with you. For a safe adventure:

* Walk, ride or otherwise recreate in groups.

* Runners and walkers should keep to the left shoulder of the bike trail, always facing oncoming traffic.

* Parents with small children in strollers and those with inexperienced kids on bikes need to be aware that adult cyclists often exceed the 15 mph speed limit.

* Cyclists should stay in lanes and not ride shoulder-to-shoulder. That leaves no room to pass.

* Don't draft behind other cyclists who pass you unless you ask for permission.

* Large groups of fast cyclists can be intimidating to pedestrians.

* Just as on the slopes, those moving the fastest have the greater responsibility for those ahead of them.

* Wearing headphones might be your style, but you won't hear fast-moving cyclists coming up behind you. Use common sense.

* Dogs must be leashed on leashes no longer than 6 feet. Extendo-leashes could trip and injure a cyclist and, in the process, injure your dog.

Sources: Parkway rules, and observations by two frequent users on The Bee staff, cyclist Blair Anthony Robertson and runner Rick Kushman.