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Opening river near Auburn exposes nude, gay beaches

Boaters pass shoreline frequented by unclothed sunbathers
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Boaters along a newly opened stretch of American River are getting exposed to a form of nature many weren’t anticipating. Over the past three decades, nude sunbathers — mostly male — have made the shoreline their own along what had been a section of the river previously off-limits to boaters. Since access to the stretch was opened two weekends ago, the boating public is getting a sometimes- uncomfortable eyeful as they paddle past nude beach areas on the shore. And a state parks department official said that there is little the department is doing about unclothed beach-goers because of current policies and the lack of manpower to enforce nudity regulations. The no-clothes beaches are far from a secret to many. Not only are beaches along the American River downstream from the Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge at the confluence being posted on the Internet as destinations for naturists, they’re also being described as gay nude swimming holes. Typing in the words “nude,” “gay,” and “Auburn” brings up a page on the GayOutdoors.org Web site that describes the American River’s beaches in the Auburn State Recreation Area downstream from the confluence as home to some of California’s “perfect gay nude swimming holes.” The article, which gives credit to the book “Naked Places: A Guide for Gay Men to Nude Recreation and Travel,” provides directions to the main beach area and warns “if you see straight swimmers simply move downstream” and that “this is not the place to cruise and have sex in the woods as undercover cops have been known to arrest people.” On a recent weekday, sunbathers at the main beach — dubbed Gorilla Beach because of a distinctive rock formation — were a mix of male nudists, clothed men and a clothed woman. They said that gay swimmers were more inclined to gather farther downstream. The views of unclothed males sunning themselves on the shoreline during a kayaking trip earlier this month left Cameron Turner changing plans for some summer rafting trips with visiting relatives. He said the river trip left him enthralled with the boating possibilities along the stretch between the confluence and the Oregon Bar take-out, in the canyon below Auburn’s Maidu Drive. Turner said he particularly like a stretch of challenging, manmade rapids. But he was far from happy paddling by areas populated by numerous naked men. “I was scouting this newly opened section of river in preparation for taking some friends and family on rafting trips this summer,” Turner said. “However, there’s no way I will take them — especially the children — through that slow stretch of naked men.” Turner said he can understand the wishes of nudists to enjoy the river unclothed but it’s no longer the remote stretch it once was. “They’re taking the right away from boaters to enjoy their time on the water,” he said. Superintendent Jay Galloway, chief parks department official in the Auburn State Recreation Area, said that since 1979, state parks has chosen not to designate clothing-optional areas in state parks. While public nudity is a violation of the law, parks policy is to only act on a complaint from the public. Citations or arrests will be made after attempts are made to elicit voluntary compliance that day, the department’s so-called Cahill Memo on park nudity and subsequent case law makes clear. For Galloway, whose ranger staff has been decimated by budget cuts and is currently 2½ positions down from the four patrol rangers it budgets for because of illness and reassignments, acting on a complaint would also factor in availability of staff. Galloway said he would describe the naturists who use the park as a quiet group that attempts to police itself. The parks department would take a more active stance on illicit sexual activity, he said. “That falls under the Penal Code and people down there don’t want to see it,” Galloway added. The new stretch of river was opened after closure of the Auburn dam project diversion tunnel — a tunnel two-thirds of a mile long that rechannelled the American River underground and was considered an attractive nuisance to boaters. The river was closed when construction started and opened again to boaters this January after the pump station was completed. Built in to the river restoration was a section of man-made rapids that Turner said he would like to gain access from along another road close to the pump station. That way, he could avoid the sight of dozens of nude men on the shoreline and go directly to the part of the river he would like to gain access to. “That would keep the water from there upstream to No Hands Bridge relatively remote,” he said. “I don’t think nudists should have official, designated areas in public parks, but this would be a compromise that preserves the rights of almost all park users and precludes the need for limited park staff to try and enforce the Cahill policy.” Tim Woodall, president of Protect American River Canyons, said indications are that perhaps a mile stretch of the reopened 3-mile course has nude beach areas. “I think a majority of the users are there to engage in innocent sunbathing,” Woodall said. “It’s popular with sunbathers because it’s secluded but now they’ll be finding that they’re sharing the river with the public.” That could result in an increased call for state parks to enforce the ban on nudity, he said. “It will become a matter of whether the public will insist on enforcement of the provisions,” Woodall added. Woodall said he would have some discomfort taking his own children down the river. “I’m not a prude but I don’t want my kids seeing that,” he said. Pressure from the public and state parks officials combined with the nudists’ need for secluded spots to sunbathe could mean that they’ll find other areas, Woodall said. “There are plenty of other secluded beaches on the north and middle forks of the American River,” he said. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at gust@goldcountrymedia.com, or leave a comment on this story at AuburnJournal.com.