Healthy Choices

Welcoming the new year with a vigorous hike is just what the doctor ordered

In many ways, it was a day of firsts.

First day of the new year, first day of California State Parks’ 150th-year celebration and also the first time the Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park opened its Canal Historic Trail for a docent-led tour and hike all the way up to the Folsom State Prison.

For those not nursing hangovers, New Year’s Day was successful at drawing more and more people to a fairly new tradition called First Day Hikes, in which community volunteers lead the public on walks through parks and nature, promoting a healthy lifestyle of activity.

And, experts say, there is no easier way to get the proven benefits of exercise without risk of injury than walking. Just 30 minutes of daily walking has been shown in study after study to increase your odds of dodging stress, obesity, depression, heart disease, dementia and a variety of other ailments.

This is the third year California State Parks has participated in the nationwide movement of offering First Day Hikes. Last year, more than 700 such hikes took place across the country, with more than 22,000 hikers participating – a jump of 6,000 over 2012.

At the 17-acre Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park, docents expected five to 10 people to show for the hike along the old canal route leading from the powerhouse to Folsom Dam. Instead, about 60 hikers of all ages gathered, straining the powerhouse’s parking facilities and prompting volunteers to break the throng up into two groups.

“For our first hike down the Canal Trail, that’s quite a big turnout,” said Stacie Louie, a parks employee staffing the new Folsom Powerhouse museum, which opened in September of 2012.

Louie said the powerhouse was one of the first and biggest hydroelectric generators in the nation, funneling the force of the American River through waterwheels in the way breezes might spin pinwheels. From 1895 to 1952, the brick powerhouse transmitted electricity up to 22 miles away, a range vast enough to reach Sacramento and spark the arc-lights then illuminating city streets.

“When you walk through the powerhouse, you are really walking through history,” Louie said, noting all the machinery on display is original, with not a replica in house.

While some of the New Year’s Day hikers were out for recreation, exercise and discovery, others were fascinated by the technologies of yesteryear, questioning docent Paul Money about the physics of hydroelectric power. They got plenty in return for their queries. Money, a former photojournalist, was liberal in sharing lessons about the generation of electricity, wattage, transformers, voltage, turbines and the advantages of the Earth’s magnetism and gravity.

“No powerhouse in the world was as dynamic as this one when it opened up,” said Money, a self-described history maniac. “Here in the U.S., what history we have might be short, but it’s some of the tastiest cake you’ve ever tasted.”

Steven Tincher, who at 62 is retired from working in computers and lives in Sacramento, said “casual curiosity” attracted him to the hike. “I’ve got the time and energy to come out, and I wanted to check out the bike trails” nearby along the American River, Tincher said.

He ended up fascinated by the docent’s highly technical, detailed monologue. “I was always intrigued by the ingenuity of 19th-century engineering and the 19th-century creative mind. They did such creative things with minimal technology,” he said. “How they transformed water into energy is just fun to know.”

Josephine Clark, 11, said she joined the hike a little late, and didn’t really have a chance to absorb all the pearls of engineering information Money had to offer. “I still enjoyed it,” she said. A sixth-grader at Pony Express Elementary School in south Sacramento, Josephine reached up and swept her hands in a fluid motion, as if tracking the flow of water as it traveled down its path toward electricity generation.

Meanwhile, Nora O’Brien, 51, who works in emergency management consulting, pulled out her iPhone to check her FitBit app and track how many steps she’d taken so far on this New Year’s Day. Though the hike was billed at a half-mile long, she’d already racked up 5,500 steps, the equivalent of 2.5 miles, O’Brien said.

“I do make it a point to walk a lot,” she said, at the hike’s halfway point just outside Folsom State Prison. “I lost a bunch of weight and I want to keep it off. I have fitness goals and I want to run a marathon some day. This is a nice way to start the new year – and I’m so happy to see the end of 2013.”

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