Photos from the Vault

Building the Oso Flaco Lake boardwalk

A crew drives pilings into the floor of Oso Flaco Lake with a homemade raft and pile driver made from a railroad axle during construction of the boardwalk in February 1993.
A crew drives pilings into the floor of Oso Flaco Lake with a homemade raft and pile driver made from a railroad axle during construction of the boardwalk in February 1993. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

To give you an idea of how long ago it was, back then it rained.

Rained so much the dedication ceremony was moved twice, from January to March to April 29, 1995.

It is hard to imagine Oso Flaco Lake without the boardwalk, but for two decades ago it was more concept than complete.

Built by volunteers working on a shoestring budget, it must be near the top of the list of best-loved volunteer projects ever completed in the region.

Volunteers created the first major elevated boardwalk in the county, connecting to the CCC-constructed dune boardwalk with a parking lot causeway. The construction was innovative using a new product: recycled plastic "lumber."

Today, Grover Beach, Pismo Beach, Montaña de Oro, Cambria and Morro Bay all feature popular boardwalks. Other areas have added bike and pedestrian trails. They can all look back to Oso Flaco Lake for proof of concept.

Build it, and they will come.

The following was condensed from a March 25, 1993, story from the Telegram-Tribune Focus section by Jan Greene:

A way to walk on waterThere's something on the bottom of Oso Flaco Lake. Something alive: a thick gelatinous ooze that would seemingly suck a man to his doom, were he brave enough to stick a leg in.

This muck — known as "duck butter" because of its primary excretory component — is several feet thick in parts of this lake, which is set in the midst of the picturesque Nipomo Dunes.

The goo isn't really evil, it's just the natural result of biology — birds and bugs and plants living and excreting and dying over the decades.

But it makes Ken Jenkin's job more difficult.

Jenkins is leading an all-volunteer effort, run by the Nature Conservancy, to build a wooden boardwalk over the lake. It will allow walkers and wheelchair users to enjoy the area without harming the sensitive dunes habitat.

He and his dedicated compatriots have spent many of their weekends over the past six months building a barge and figuring out how to pound 120 pilings through this glop to anchor them in the hard sand below.

And they have to do it with practically no money.

Fortunately, Ken Jenkins is something of a wizard with these kinds of things. Not only is he "fearless" in the face of a building challenge, one friend said, but he's able to "twist arms" and schmooze his way into everybody's pocketbook.

Jenkins has a full-time job as project coordinator for the Port San Luis Harbor District, where he once served as harbormaster.

But that hasn't stopped him from running a full-on construction project at the lake. Chuck Warner, who oversees the Nipomo Dunes area for the Nature Conservancy, said the group has just a $70,000 budget for the 1,000-foot boardwalk over lake and sand. That won't even cover the materials, he said.

"Ken is great," Warner said. "The whole crew has been fabulous, an exceptionally outstanding group of people."

Jenkins said he just enjoys a challenge.

Jenkins brought with him decades of experience building things, particularly things with pilings, such as piers. He helped replace the Avila Union Oil pier when it blew down in 1983.

And he knows how to get some other smart people to help.

Among them Dick Williams, a retired civil engineer from Santa Maria, and Jim Neuschwander a retired AT&T worker.

A professional carpenter from Grover Beach, Pete St. John, offered his expertise.

There's a major contingent from telephone utilities, including Roger Hamm, president of the local chapter of Telephone Pioneers of America, a group that donates its time to worthwhile construction projects. Two members of the group, Al Mavarette and Will Deschenes, also show up a lot.

Fortunately, no one's accidentally fallen into the lake yet. Everyone has tried hard not to after seeing a diver go in to check the water depth in a shallow section — he sunk in past his knees.

Jenkins and his workers — many of them retirement age — sometimes resemble a group of 12-year-olds building a fort.

There's plenty of yelling, laughing and puzzling over how to jerry-rig the next step. They've gotten a South County engineering firm, Garing Taylor and Associates, to donate about $5,000 in surveying, engineering and mapping services. They've created and built a wooden barge, attaching 30 empty plastic olive barrels to the bottom to make it float. To make it move around the lake, they've created a generator-driven winch system. A long yellow rope stretches from one side of the lake to the other; it's wrapped around a metal cylinder called a cathead, which turns and pulls the barge across the water.

They've come up with their own home-built pile driver, using the winch to raise a 500-pound steel railroad axle. It is then dropped on top of wooden pilings to drive them into the lakebed.

And they're hoping to be the first construction project in this area to use a new "lumber" made from recycled plastic jugs.

This day, Bill Walther has come out in his (wheel)chair with his young son to watch the work that will eventually allow him to go past the pathway from the parking lot.

"This is my favorite place in the world," said Walther, who was hurt in a motorcycle accident seven years ago.

"This'll really open it up," he said. "It'll be a really big asset for people in chairs."

For Roger Hamm, volunteering is both educational and fun.

"It's a learning experience," he said with a wide smile, watching as a shorebird made a winged, splashing exit from the lake's surface.

"It is amazing, isn't it."

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