Near-death experience in frigid canal has Ainsleigh pressing for solutions

Series of safety handholds idea comes in the wake of five Auburn canal deaths in 16 months
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A brush with death in the icy, powerful current of an Auburn-area canal has Meadow Vista’s Gordy Ainsleigh searching for safety solutions. Ainsleigh said Monday that he was biking alone on the narrow trail skirting the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Meadow Vista canal when he hit a tree with his shoulder and was pitched headfirst into the swollen waters. In the current for about a minute, Ainsleigh said he couldn’t grab the rim of the canal and was unable to scramble up the steep, slippery concrete sides. “I was being swept helplessly downstream and the water was so cold I knew I didn’t have much time before I lost strength,” Ainsleigh said. On Monday, Ainsleigh revisited the site and pointed out not only the tree trunk that forced him into the water but also the chipped-out edge of concrete on the canal wall that turned out to be his life saver. Ainsleigh said he never panicked as he was pushed downstream at about 4 mph on May 25. Instead, he used his experience as a rock climber to look for some kind of edge he could grab onto. “I searched the wall and spied a one-eighth-inch deep vertical edge facing upstream, locked in and the current surfed me to the surface,” Ainsleigh said. The rim of the concrete canal edge is about a foot above the trail providing a deep channel for the water but a difficult reach for most people. Ainsleigh said that he could understand why five men have been found dead in PG&E’s Wise Canal in Auburn in 16 months. Ainsleigh said that in all likelihood, a psychopath is in the homeless camps of Auburn and pushing people into the canals. Auburn Police have said that no indications of foul play has been detected in their investigation of the five deaths. “Once a victim is in the water, the walls are steeper and smoother than they once were and there’s no way out,” Ainsleigh said. “Anyone who gets into the ditch for any reason is probably going to die.” Ainsleigh said he was able to find leverage with the edge his fingers had found in the canal.” ”I reached up, grabbed the rim and was out,” he said. Ainsleigh said he was fortunate to be alive. “If I hadn’t been a rock climber, or if it had been dark, I could have been just another body on the next debris grate,” Ainsleigh said. Ainsleigh, a well-known ultramarathon pioneer and Meadow Vista chiropractor, said he’s probably biked past the tree trunk he hit about 20 times and always managed to get his shoulder away from it in the past. As he talked, another cyclist – Meadow Vistan Lee Parker – slowed and stuck his foot on the concrete ledge for balance as he navigated past the tree. Parker said he too had fallen off his bike into the canal at the same spot on the trail, about a mile from Placer Hills Road. Parker said he was able to drag himself out. And he’d heard of at least two others doing the same thing, he said. Tyrone Gorre, another Meadow Vista resident, said he too has noticed that the PG&E canals have gotten steeper. Over the past few decades more canals lined by rock and fill had been encased in concrete, he said. Gorre said he suspects the changes are being made to keep spillage down and improve PG&E’s bottom line. But he’s unsure why so many people have been found dead in the Auburn canal in recent months. Ainsleigh said there is a solution to the drownings and it wouldn’t take much in terms of money or time on the part of PG&E. “Every autumn, PG&E drains the canal for two to three weeks for repairs, during which time they gunite their special concrete mix onto areas of the canal wall that leak or need reinforcing,” he said. “It would be very cheap and take very little extra time to apply a little extra gunite concrete every 150 feet or so, and mould the newly applied soft concrete into diagonal, upstream-facing handholds and foothold ledges.” Ainsleigh said they could be situated three in a row to accommodate all body sizes. “And they would need to be painted with glow-in-the-dark paint so that those who fall in at night could see them,” he said. “It’s time to stop PG&E’s drownings.” PG&E's response to canal safety issues in the Auburn area will be reported on Tuesday in a separate story.