As Kathy Grant leads tours of wide-eyed students down the meandering paths in the Lodi Lake Nature Area, she is always surprised when one of the kids say they did not even know there was a river in Lodi.
But her story and relationship with the Mokelumne River — from homeschool mother to river advocate — started the same way.
When she first moved to Lodi in 1986, it was months before she discovered there was even a river in Lodi. And it was more than a decade before she truly appreciated it.
Compared with the raging, winding rivers she experienced while camping, hiking and mountaineering, Grant thought the slow, steady Mokelumne was too sluggish and boring.
But then she gained an understanding of all the small details that make the river unique — the otter slides, the thick groves of live oak trees that line the river, and the beaver dams — that, over time, kindled her crusade to protect it. "I didn't understand the river before. Now, it's like when you know the whole story about something," she said.
Recently, Grant received the Susan B. Anthony Award for her work in educating the community about science and environmental resources. She has encouraged residents to become involved, whether it be through the Sandhilll Crane Festival, the California Coastal Cleanup, the Storm Drain Detectives or the Lodi Lake docents.
During the past 25 years, Grant has become an increasingly vocal advocate for more public access to the river, and has taught school children about how to protect one of Lodi's most precious resources.
'Drawn to the land'
Growing up, one of the places that sticks out in Grant's mind is school playgrounds in New Jersey — no grass, just heat radiating from thick, black asphalt.
Since her mother was born in the Bronx and her father grew up in Manhattan, they always put an emphasis on exposing their kids to nature.
"They were city kids, so they had the yearning to get out of the city. I grew up camping, and it was always in the Rambler with the dogs and the kids driving back and forth. We saw this beautiful country," Grant said.
Her family lived in Philadelphia, Texas, Brooklyn and Tucson before settling back in Jersey City.
After getting an associate's degree in television and media production at what is now New Jersey State College, Grant knew she wanted to go to school where she could learn how to grow her own food. Her grandmother used to farm at the end of Long Island to supply American troops.
"Something in the gene pool is very strong. It has called me always. I've always been drawn to the land," she said.
The gas shortages in the 1970s also contributed to the East Coast girl's desire to be more self-sufficient.
"We saw the importance of sustainable living. It was just a scary time. I realized I wanted to get as close as I can to growing my own food, and I wanted to learn everything I could about the old way of doing things," she said.
Grant hitched a ride in an Alfa Romeo with a friend to the West Coast. She wound up at the University of California, Davis in 1977 where she lived in the Agrarian Effort, a 10-person house on a quarter acre that is still there today.
She fell in love with her husband, Joe, a plants science major who crafted cabinets. Together they tended the house's garden, featuring long, raised beds brimming with broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and carrots.
Every quarter, the roommates would have a new household job, so she learned to bake bread, handle the household's banking and work at the Davis Food Co-op.
"All of these people were trying to break away from the regular way of doing things and get back to the people, so it was kind of a time of incredible revolution," Grant said.
Everything was about living simply. They bought 25-pound bags of oats or beans because it was cheap and there was minimal packaging. They washed and saved plastic bags. Grant never bought clothing and slept on a corn cob bed.
"It was very frugal. I paid my own way and graduated with $10,000 saved in the bank," she said.
The biggest perk of living at the house was that at least four times a week, two of the roommates cooked an elaborate dinner using only fresh food from the garden, and the entire household would gather to eat while weaving in discussions of their studies or current events.
"Coming out from the East Coast to see food like that, I didn't even know what an avocado was," she said.
During that time, the textile design major also worked at the Davis Shoe Shop, spent a quarter substitute teaching and learned to craft clogs in Washington state.
While managing the Davis Farmers Market, Grant had her first introduction to Lodi. She inspected local growers to make sure they were actually farming the food they were selling.
She made Lodi her home when her husband got a job in San Joaquin County advising farmers on better ways to grow crops and deal with challenges like invasive insects.
"We moved to Lodi because we thought it was the best community in the county with the best atmosphere," she said.
From homeschool mom to conservation educator
Grant's passion for educating others started with her own children. For 20 years, she focused on homeschooling her four children with lessons on the Greeks, Latin and the Bible.
As a born-again Christian, Grant said her faith was the main reason she wanted to homeschool.
In 1986, Grant first experienced Lodi Lake. During the stifling summer heat, Grant, who was pregnant, carried and walked with her children down the dusty trail that had no markers or information about what to look for. She hurried the kids back to the car, feeling unimpressed. She decided not to return to the riparian forest any time soon.
About six months later, she read an ad looking for Lodi Lake docents and decided to volunteer. She apprehensively went to an informational meeting, worried that her admittedly "right brain" tendencies would be a challenge because she never did well in science or math.
Jay Bell, who helped start the Lodi Lake docents program, led the meeting, showing a variety of props and explaining how different natural processes work.
"I was absolutely hooked. I said, 'Tell me again about photosynthesis, how does that work?' And he'd completely act it out and I'd get it, where I could never got it out of a book or out of a lecture. It's almost like theater," Grant said.
The homeschool mom started leading tours, and her four kids went on every single one, either strapped to her back or in a stroller. As they got older, they would explore the nature area, study plants and animals, run through the redwoods or hide in the bushes building forts.
Grant is a natural-born organizer, whether it's coordinating the Lodi Lake docents or starting her own program for her kids and 120 other homeschool students to learn sports at a local park.
Even while managing the docents, she still did not appreciate the river's importance to Lodi. In 1999, that all changed with one phone call from Richard Prima, former public works director.
The White Slough wastewater treatment had drawn fines of $20,000, but the city could get half of that back if it came up with a program to educate Lodi residents about the local watershed.
Not knowing much about how to start a program, she devoted herself to gathering information from the state, attending training and brainstorming a list of projects.
"When I want something, I leech onto it, and I don't let go. I'm like a tick," she said.
She studied the variety of wildlife, like otters, salmon and deer, that depend on the river. She mapped out how the river influences vegetation, and what natural plants grow in the area. And she observed the dirty water rushing into the storm drains with the knowledge that it would eventually end up in the waterway.
The new crusader received $26,000 and was hired part-time to start a variety of programs, including the Storm Drain Detectives, to test the quality of Lodi Lake and Mokelumne water.
The high school scientists head out to the park monthly to get on a boat and collect water to study back in a science lab. They also plop a white secchi disk in the water and then count the seconds until it comes into focus through the lake water in order to test for clarity.
Bell said that Grant has used the program to find a way to both involve and educate hundreds of high schoolers.
"She has inspired in a lot of high school kids an appreciation of the natural world around them, and the realization that humans have the ability to upset that through their actions," he said.
All of Grant's outreach efforts are focused on an education component of the city's storm water permit with the state, she said.
She originally was restricted to only working 10 hours a week, but that has increased to 24 hours — 10 hours educating the public on the watershed, 10 hours at the park working with the docents, and four hours driving around looking for people who are violating the city's watering ordinance.
Yet during the past decade, she has almost always worked a 40-hour week or more.
"The only way that you cannot go crazy in this job is to think that it's a glass half-full, and not a glass half-empty. The work is more important," Grant said.
Even though he is no longer the public works director, Prima said he remains impressed with Grant's tenacity and dedication to the job, especially with the detectives program.
"She put her heart into it, thought outside the box, and she took the program and just ran with it. I couldn't have asked for a better result," he said.
Taking personal responsibility
Grant lives in a quiet neighborhood, in a home that has come to reflect her work through the city.
Pictures and statues of birds and cranes are scattered throughout the house. Large black plastic tubes funnel rain water from the gutters straight into the flower beds.
Over the years, her husband has removed all of the grass from the frontyard, replacing it with plants native to the Lodi area that require little or no water. The yard is a bowl shape so it collects the water, in an attempt to have zero runoff going from their yard into the storm drains.
In the backyard, there are six neatly lined up, raised beds that are filled with plants year-round. In the winter, they grow plants like fava beans that can be cut up after harvest, and put the remains into the soil as a form of "green maneuver."
Instead of coffee breaks, Grant prefers hanging laundry.
She talks about how, during her entire time with the city, she has tackled every project like a "homeschool mother." Grant began to understand the importance of the Mokelumne because she studied every aspect of it, traveling all the way to the headwaters in the High Sierra.
"I know that river now," she said.
She found that many people have visited other parts of the Mokelumne but do not know much about the part that flows through Lodi.
"It's like knowing part of something outside of our community, but not being able to know it from within our community," she said.
Her most recent project is educating a group of sixth-graders at Heritage School about the river. She started with a tour of the Lodi Lake Nature Area. Then, with a $4,000 grant from East Bay Municipal Utility District, the students were able to go to the Mokelumne fish hatchery and visit the San Francisco Bay to learn about how the river eventually flows through the bay into the ocean.
The students then grabbed shovels and brooms to sweep up the leaves, dirt and trash surrounding the school, often proclaiming that they couldn't believe the street was so dirty.
They enjoyed it so much that they started a club and held a student-only meeting where they named themselves the "Clean Up Patrol."
This type of student-led initiative is exactly what Grant has always taught, whether it is with a group touring Lodi Lake or with her own children.
"I always told my kids, 'It starts with me and cleaning my room. Clean your room, take personal responsibility and then you will become useful in school and in a job,'" she said.
Grant said she plans to help them, but that the students will have to call the shots and keep the club going.
"I'll give you the tools. I'll be there with you. I'll help as much as I can, but I think there's this principle of self-government that is going to make these kids more useful to our community in the long-run," she said.