Just after 6am, the sun begins to rise over the darkened peaks of Clark Mountain and the Virginia Range, throwing pink and yellow light over the calm channel of the Truckee River at the Mustang Ranch Preserve. Near the parking area, the water in the river channel forms a deep, slow-moving pool. The air is a fresh 60oF (a benefit of walking early), and a Belted Kingfisher flies by, chattering. The Fremont cottonwoods — old and young — look green and healthy, and thickets of coyote willow line the riverbanks. A train rumbles by, heading west.
It is early August in our fourth year of drought, and the Truckee River is flowing very low — 29 cubic feet per second on Thursday at the USGS gage in Reno (normal would be 214 cfs). Upstream in Dorostkar and Mayberry Parks, the leaves on many of the shrubs near the dry ditches are beginning to wilt and fade to yellow and brown, and the fruit on the Utah serviceberry — food of the birds and the bears, normally plump and delicious by early August — are dry and shriveled. Itching to get out of town and see how things looked further downstream, I got up early Thursday morning for a trip to Mustang Ranch, a site restored by The Nature Conservancy in 2009.
Mustang Ranch Preserve, located about 8 miles east of Reno, was once the site of the first licensed brothel in the United States. In 2006, the land was taken by the IRS, and the brothel moved a few miles downstream to the “Patrick” exit. In 2009, Mustang Ranch became the site of a Nature Conservancy river restoration project. New meanders were added to a previously straightened section of channel, and the floodplain was lowered to create better habitat for riparian (riverside) plants. Today the site is managed by The Nature Conservancy, and a portion of the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway connects the Mustang site with the McCarran Ranch Preserve, located further downstream.
This morning, about five years after the restoration, I walk a portion of the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway with my dogs, and we surprise all kinds of wildlife. Rabbits (many), a Blue Heron (1), American White Pelicans (8), a Double-crested Cormorant (1), Black-crowned Night Herons (2), and Canada Geese (many). Down by the river, a mother mule deer and her fawn splash across the channel. My dogs scramble over boulders, impatient, while I take photos. Another woman and her black lab pass by on the trail.
A forest of young Fremont Cottonwoods is emerging along the opposite bank of the river, and a happy beaver swims by, headed downstream. Summer wildflowers are blooming — Coyote tobacco, goldenrod, sunflowers and others. There are weeds and bare patches, but restoring habitat takes time. And, I suspect, a great deal of effort. If you haven’t been out to see all of TNC’s hard work, this preserve is well worth a visit.
For more information on the history of the Mustang Ranch site, read this article from the New York Times, from December 2009. Thanks to the Nature Conservancy for restoring and managing this beautiful spot!
To get to Mustang Ranch Preserve from Reno, head east on I-80 to Exit 23 (Mustang). Drive straight on Frontage Road, past the Mustang Market. The road curves to the right, goes down a hill, and passes beneath the train tracks. Park in the gravel lot on the left side of the road; If you cross over the Truckee River bridge, you’ve gone too far.