Kurt Gensheimer – Groundskeeper/Historian
After spending many a summer in Downieville, I was told by locals that until you spend a winter here, you don’t understand what it’s really like to live along “The Forks” – the town’s historic name.
“After a winter in Downieville, you won’t come out the other side the same person,” my friend Mike Ferrentino once warned me. He attributed it to the lack of direct sunlight due to the deep dark canyon the town sits in. “Little Siberia” is a great example – the eastern-most part of Downieville on Highway 49 as you’re leaving town headed towards The Lure – its namesake given for the combination of the ice cold North Yuba River and zero direct sunlight, leaving the corner in a perpetual layer of winter frost, even when daytime temperatures reach 60 degrees. But I grew up on the East Coast, where gray skies and cold damp days would last for weeks, even months, not for a few days in a row like it does in the Sierra Nevada. How bad could it really be?
After a group of us acquired The Lure Resort and Slate Castle Ranch in October 2018, I was destined to find out. My task last winter was to live on property and begin the lengthy clean-up, repair and trash removal process. The property was in a woeful state, neglected for many years, so there was no shortage of work. In Downieville, nature has a way of reclaiming everything in short order if you don’t stay on top of maintenance.
The late fall was beautiful, the weather was perfect every day, and by the middle of November, I was wondering if winter was going to show up at all. By December we had settled into a typical winter pattern, frosty mornings, occasional rain storms and a few flakes of snow, but nothing that would crush the morale.
Then January and February came, and Mother Nature bared her teeth. Two separate three-foot deep snowfalls paralyzed our operations and knocked out power for days. For a few weeks all we were doing was shoveling the heaviest, wettest Sierra cement my arms have ever had the displeasure of lifting. Tree branches snapped everywhere, leaving an even bigger mess to clean up. Did I mention during all of this I was also tasked with rebuilding our entire drinking water system? We had to reengineer and dig 1,000 feet of new trench, develop a spring and relocate two 2,500 gallon water tanks.
By late February, after putting in 60 hour weeks of backbreaking manual labor, I needed to escape for a bit. It was the combination of relentless weather and waking up with numb arms every morning that told me I needed a break. I shoved off on a month-long RV ski road trip across the west, which was much needed. Meanwhile, my poor colleague Evan Ames was back at The Lure still shoveling feet of snow.
Upon my return in mid-March, there was still feet of snow in the north facing canyons above 3,200 feet elevation. By April most of the snow had melted around the property, and we started making serious headway on the water system. But as my water project counterpart and local Downieville hero, Billy Epps, told me, “spring hasn’t officially arrived in Downieville until you see snow on the cherry blossoms.” I laughed and said, “yeah right.”
“spring hasn’t officially arrived in Downieville until you see snow on the cherry blossoms.” – Billy Epps
But the morning of May 16, only 10 days before we welcomed our firsts guests, with several days of work still ahead of us to complete the water system, I wasn’t laughing when I woke up to see three inches of fresh snow clung to the cliff walls above the North Yuba. It was the winter that wouldn’t end.
But despite Winter 2018-19 being one of the wettest ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada, it really wasn’t that bad. The key is getting outside and being active, no matter the weather. If you stay inside all winter, you’ll surely catch cabin fever, which is what permanently damages the psyche.
There’s an old saying I put a lot of stock in; “there’s no bad weather, only bad gear.” And in Downieville, the best way to survive a winter is to get outdoors every day and make sure you have good gear. Oh, and get yourself out of the canyon every week or two. Or for a month. In the bad winters, you’re gonna need it.