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Jet Ski Frenzy:

Must Californians leave the Wilderness
in Search of Peace and Quiet?

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California


“Getting and spending we lay waste our powers, little we see in nature that is ours.” Wordsworth

“Own the water!” Kawasaki Jet Ski Ad

The quietude of nature is replete with sound.

Last month, rod and reel in hand, I hiked many miles to a small lake tucked in the rolling hills of Coe State Park, a vast, public wilderness southeast of San Jose.

In late afternoons, hours before twilight, lakes get downright noisy. Frogs begin to converse in the tules. Birds in nearby trees, like families home from a hard day’s work, fall into domestic squabbles. Suddenly I heard a cluster of wild turkeys, “Gobble,gobble,gobble,” -- turkeys do sound like kids imitating turkeys, and no doubt they were insulted by my intrusion, waddling into the hills, making a terrible racket.

Then another sound -- a joy to fishermen’s ears -- came from the surface of the lake: tiny splashes, top-water pops as crappie, chasing flies, broke the surface. I was tying a plastic worm and hook to four-pound test line when -- unannounced -- two deer came into focus. These gentle, stately creatures were standing in bushes not 30 yards away. They didn’t move, but watched me cautiously as they chewed the leaves.

The lake was brimming with wild life, and I was moved.

What sets Coe Park experience apart from many other refulgent California waterways -- Lake Sonoma, Clear Lake, the Delta, Lake Berryessa, New Melones, Lake San Antonio -- where I fish with a certain sadness and disappointment?

For me the answer is simple. There are no jet skis in Coe, no “Sea-Doos,” no high-pitched motors, no oil slicks licking the wooden stumps, no obnoxious party-goers doing 60-mile-an-hour stunts in your face.

Coe is one of the few public parks that resists a growing trend -- the motorization of our lakes, the commercialization of our nearby wilderness. Here is a public lake unmolested by corporate greed and man’s misuse of technology.

“Country Club Atmosphere”

Consider the Tulloch Reservoir, nestled in the Motherlode foothills at the Stanislaus River, 40 miles east of Stockton. On weekends, even against the backdrop of God’s architecture, Lake Tulloch looks like a Coney Island for the rich.

You wind down a country road as you approach the water. And what’s the first sound you hear in the wilderness? Not the wind in the trees. Nor birds, or frogs. You hear zooming, reved-up motors, jet-skis darting in, out and around the lake.

The Lake Tulloch Resort, a posh high-priced service center for high-powered craft, rents the Yahama WR-11 for $55 an hour, the Wave Runner for $60 an hour. (New toys are priced around $6000 to $8000) Tourists spend $145 a night for a room and $200-plus a day for theme-park recreation, and according to its own brochure, the resort “provides a country-club atmosphere” on the reservoir.

In the absence of jet-skis, Lake Tulloch is an awesome panorama: deep-water canyons, descending rocky points,miles of lakeshore with overhanging trees. But the jet-ski scene has entirely transformed the once-pristine lake, and low-impact recreation based on respect for nature is mostly gone or relocated.

As John Dahlstrom, author of California Bass Angling Guide, writes: “The lake is a skier’s circus during the day, and there is no place to get away from boat traffic.” Driven from the lake, forced to rearrange their life-styles and schedules, dedicated anglers do fish for spotted bass at night. Lake Tulloch is a love-it-or-leave-it scene. And many tax-payers are being forced to leave.

Irreconcilable Conflict

The gentrification of public waters; the rise of small gas stations along our shores to serve the voracious appetites of high-speed motors (speeding jet-skis can consume 20 gallons of fuel in two hours); the intrusion of high-pitched, obnoxious noise; the destruction and relocation of wildlife; the ruin of low-impact public recreation; gross pollution of air and water; disproportionate numbers of fatal accidents; the seething resentment of disquieted vacationers and local lakegoers -- these developments are not confined to Tulloch, or to a few waterways around the state. The “country club atmosphere” is typical of weekends on most California lakes and estuaries.

Of course jet-skis are tremendous fun for owners. Steering a tiny vehicle at huge speeds over a surface just six inches below your feet is a thrilling experience. Wave-Blasters go from 0 to 50 miles per hour in 5 seconds. Say, wow!

But in itself high-powered machinery is not the issue. Jet-skis would be great in theme parks, along with roller coasters and bumper cars. It’s the industrialization, the degradation of our endangered sanctuaries that is causing public dismay. As naturalist Edward Hoagland puts it: “The gluttonies devouring nature are remorseless.”

The conflict between high-speed thrill vehicles and the serenity of nature is irreconcilable. The very features that make jet-skis fun and popular -- their huge bursts of speed, their zig-zags and erratic cuts, their rooster-tail spray, their wave-jumps and their ability to zoom over shallow water (where fish spawn and birds nest), their stunt capacity -- put jet-skis in conflict with low-impact recreation for which our lakes are preserved. A position paper from the Blue Water Network (a coalition of scientists and environmentalists in the Earthisland Institute) writes: “Personal watercraft are fundamentally different from conventional boats in terms of design,operation, and usage.”

Sound travels for miles over water, and it is impossible to ignore a jet-ski in a wilderness setting. Any motor that rips across your face at 60-miles-an-hour commands your attention. Even if you are fishing or camping in a serene cove a mile away, one jet ski can wreck your day -- like a mosquito in your bedroom late at night.

Jet-skis present the worst traffic safety record in watercraft. In l997 jet-skis accounted for 17 percent of all registered boats in the U.S., but were responsible for 52 percent of all boating injuries. In California, according to the Department of Boating and Waterways, jet-skis make up 16 percent of registered vessels, but cause 55 percent of boating injuries. Fifty-seven people died from jet-ski accidents in the U.S. in l997. Seven were Californians. Two teenagers were killed by jets on Lake Sonoma. On the Fourth-of-July weekend last month, in completely separate incidents, two youth were killed on jet-skis in the Delta near Stockton.

It’s no wonder. The new Kawasaki models, like the Ultra-150, hit 65.5 miles per hour on the radar gun. They ride faster than automobiles on Thruways, yet jet-skis have no brakes, and when you “throttle-down,” steering capacity dies. The U.S.Coast Guard exempts Personal Watercraft from basic standards that other boats are required to meet.

Jet Ski pollution is also scandalous. The current two-stroke engines emit 25 percent of their fuel unburned into the water and air. That’s about three gallons per hour. Dr.Russell Long of the Earth Island Institute notes that “in lakes that retain water for a long time, it is virtually impossible to ever get these toxic chemicals fully removed.”According to the California Air Resources Board, a single jet-ski emits more pollution in two hours than a passenger car emits in a year. Even manufacturer advertisements reflect open contempt for the environment. Celebrating a water-churning jet, one Polaris poster reads: “It’s enough to make webbed toes curl.” As if to flout the “leave-no-trace” wilderness ethic, a Tigershark poster reads: “Leave a streak on the glass.

Jets Versus Canoes

Most Californians appreciate the beauty of nature and respect the right of others to enjoy our lagoons, estuaries and waterways in peace. Whether they are backpackers, bird watchers, swimmers, fishermen, or campers, they use our lakes in ways that are unobtrusive. The canoe and kayak glide smoothly over water. The rubber float-tube provides quiet entry to rivers and ponds. Hikers blend in with wild surroundings. Campers leave no debris. Even people fishing in motorized boats, traveling five miles an hour in no-wake zones, co-exist with nature. Only when jet-skis are introduced into the serenity of nature do conflicts arise.

Unlike low-impact recreation, for which our waterways are preserved, jet-skis transform the very character of out-door experience. They menace shorebirds, migrating fish, humpback whales, seals and manatees, and they drive wildlife into hiding.

In l998 the National Park Service, mandated to leave our great parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” debated regulations that would prohibit jet-ski use in 75 percent of our National Park system. According to a l998 Colorado State University poll, 92 percent of Americans support prohibiting or severely restricting personal watercraft in our national parks. In response to public outcries against PWCs, Olympic National Park, Glacier National Park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Grand Canyon National Park, among others, banned jet-ski use. Environmental and social jet-ski conflicts have been resolved in world-renowned nationally treasured sanctuaries -- the magnificent San Juan Islands in Washington; the mysterious Everglades in Florida; the life-sustaining waters around the Farallon Islands.

Only a few California counties and cities have passed ordinances that ban jet-ski use in local waters. To prevent accidents, the City of Pacifica banned jet-ski use in its 5-mile-long surf zone. To protect sea otters, jet skis are banned in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary. Two-stroke engines, notorious for water pollution, are banned on Lake Tahoe.

Notwithstanding disparate, significant environmental victories, the jet-ski industry is winning the ongoing war for domination and commercialization of California’s 373 recreation lakes and waterways. No accessible lagoon, river, seashore, or lake seems sovereign any more.

From pine-covered waters in the Trinity-Shasta National Forest to alpine lakes in the San Bernardino National Forest east of Los Angeles; from Donner Lake in the Sierra down to the vast Sacramento and San Joaquin River Delta -- a 1200 mile labyrinth of sloughs, channels, islands and braided marshes -- hundreds of California waters are newly motorized noise-ridden venues.

In California Fishing, writer-outdoorsman Tom Stienstra comments on the rising cacophony on California recreation lakes: “skiers taking over” Lake San Antonio in the summer in Monterey County; “self-obsessed water-skiers ripping up and down the lake during the summer with little regard for anything but themselves” on Lake Berryessa. The pattern is typical all over California. Jet skiers don’t share the water; they conquer it. As the Kawasaki slogan puts it: “Own the water!” The pollution, the noise, the hazards all drive kayakers, fishermen and hikers -- “those who turn to the wilderness to find solace and serenity” -- away from the water by 9:00 a.m. on weekends.

What an ironic comment on Federal, State and County environmental policies, when Californians are forced to leave the wilderness in search of peace and quiet.

It was not until the early 80s, when the Reagan administration made wilderness areas available for commercial exploitation, that jet-skis first appeared on public waters. Today personal watercraft account for one third of all boat sales.

Kawasaki’s new Ultra-150 costs $8,000, and its advertisements feature the allure of speed and power. New jet-ski models are bigger and faster than the old models. The Polaris “Genesis” carries three passengers and holds 600 pounds. The new X-145 from Polaris Industries is a three-seater with 135 horsepower. Polaris produces jet-skis with attitude. One Polaris poster reads: “Thumb your throttle at the world!” Sort of like giving wildlife “the bird.”

A Wilderness, Not a Playland, Issue

In any landscape, it is the water that captures our attention -- roiled waves crashing on the cathedrals of the Pacific,rushing water in woodland creeks and streams. Water is almost hypnotic. Our lakes are drinking fountains for deer and raccoon, the forage of frogs and amphibians, the habitat for water bugs and minnows that hunt for insect larvae. Even for humble, human visitors, water is a world that calms our spirits.

Properly speaking, most of our accessible lakes, lagoons, reservoirs and rivers, even our off-shore islands, are not pure wilderness. You can drive to a marina. You can reach hundreds of lakes in the mountains, foothills and valleys by driving major highways, like I-5 or 101.

Nevertheless, in absence of high-impact technology, under enlightened administration, California’s backyard wilderness could provide a genuine respite from the din of modern life. Many of our lakes and reservoirs are set in virgin forests, along mighty rivers like the Eel and Smith. In the early dawn, when mists sit on silent haunches -- long before the motors are fueled -- our lakes are still wonders to behold. In their naturalness they inspire reverence and humility. And wild animals do share the wilderness with homo sapiens if only we respect the zoning laws of nature.

The jet-ski conflict, then, is not a matter of fixing up technology. A better, more “fuel-efficient” jet-ski in the wilderness is not the answer. And no quick fix by Arctic Cat, Bombardier, Polaris, Kawasaki and Yamaha will overcome the mess.

Nor is the conflict a playland issue. In its essence it is a wilderness issue. You either respect our wilderness heritage, and respect the right of tax-payers to enjoy its solace, or you don’t. Conservation is the precondition of legitimate nature recreation.

Why I’m Hiking Back To Coe

Lao Tze writes that “Some men go fishing when it is not fish that they are after.” Next week I’m hiking back to the Coe wilderness, heading out to Mississippi Lake, where you can hook bass on every cast.

Every time I get out my compass, pack a few quarts of water, my friends warn me about rattlesnakes and mountain lions in the remote areas of Coe. No big deal. If I get killed by a mountain lion, at least I die with dignity. It’s those industrial accidents in the wilderness (like six jet-ski deaths on Tahoe in l995) that are degrading. For me, hiking in Coe Park is a way of playing it safe. At least I won’t get killed by a floating chainsaw at sunset.


Paul Rockwell is a columnist for In Motion Magazine. He can be reached at rockyspad@hotmail.com

Published in In Motion Magazine January 27, 2002.

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