(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will run in Tuesday’s News-Sentinel.)
The heat was building in the foothills east of Lodi — it would reach 97 that July afternoon — but Greg Francek was not about to seek shade.
He’d spotted something, something different.
A ranger for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, Francek, 54, was on foot patrol in the sprawling Camanche-Pardee corridor near Valley Springs.
He sometimes patrols in his big Ford 550 utility truck, complete with first aid kit, Gatorade, chainsaw and 600 feet of firefighting hose.
Francek, though, prefers to hike when he can. Fit and athletic, he moves at a brisk pace. He is an expert caver, and on foot patrol he follows the mantra of those who survey caverns: look right, left, up and down.
On that hot afternoon last July 18, alone on patrol, Francek looked down. His intense blue eyes spotted a strange object protruding from the earth.
As it turned out, that object would lead to the discovery of a prehistoric trove unlike any in California history.
Seized by adventure
The Marines were on the roof, and Francek was mesmerized.
He was a freshman at his Walnut Creek high school, and the Marines were staging a demonstration. One by one, they rappelled from the gymnasium roof, a study in strength and agility.
When they asked if a student would like to make a descent, Francek’s arm shot up. He made two drops that day, and one of the Marines gifted him with a souvenir carabiner.
Those descents changed his life. Francek knew he loved being in motion, outdoors, exploring and adventuring. In the years since, he has climbed soaring walls of rock, dived into watery caves in the Yucatan, helped chart deep, inky-black caverns. He’s been part of many search and rescue operations in the Sierra and foothills. He’s an expert scuba diver and a skilled skier.
Francek, it seems, was born to move.
He did not join the Marines after those drops off the roof, but he began venturing. He started climbing rocks, devoured every climbing book he could get his hands on, and honed his skills at Rock City near Mount Diablo.
At 17, he worked a summer at a family camp near Yosemite as a baker’s aide. He rose before dawn to get the breakfast rolls and muffins baked and returned in the late afternoon to start the bread for dinner.
In between, he roamed the granite of Yosemite.
“My job was great because I had almost the whole day to climb and explore,” he said.
He scaled El Capitan and Half Dome and roped up with legendary climbers Jim Bridwell and Royal Robbins.
Bright and absorptive, Francek attended college off and on. Yet he found the siren’s song of adventure irresistible. For a few years, Francek worked as the manager of the Black Chasm cavern outside Volcano in Amador County. In 1995, he moved to Florida and earned his license as a commercial maritime captain. He piloted charter tours, research vessels, commercial diving craft. He delivered new vessels, once piloting a jet boat from Florida around Cuba to the Cayman Islands.
“That boat wasn’t meant for much action beyond the reef, so it was rough going at times,” he said.
Perhaps his most abiding passion is caving, including the exploration of caves that are filled with both water and mystery.
In 2014, he was part of a National Geographic-supported team documenting the exploration of a deep, water-filled cave in Mexico’s Yucatan known as Hoyo Negro, the black hole. Francek’s assignments included rigging, lighting and safety.
The team’s discovery was historic — the near-pristine skeletal remains of a girl who lived 13,000 years ago. Scientists named her Naia, for the Greek water nymph, and hers are among the earliest human remains found in the Americas. The resulting PBS NOVA episode is titled, “First Face of America.”
Francek has explored caves in the rugged mountains of Mexico, including the Sotano de las Golodrinas, or Cave of Swallows, which boasts the largest cave shaft by volume in the world.
In New Mexico, he was part of a team that spent eight days underground in Lechuguilla Cave, part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park. His team charted and photographed a newly discovered chamber dubbed Motherlode as big as a basketball arena.
On his eight days underground, he saw spectacular sites and endured surrealistic conditions.
“It was extremely humid, and everyone smelled like a goat, but you couldn’t take a bath or shower. So the best we could do is clean ourselves with baby wipes,” he said.
Midway through the journey, he said, came a refreshment, of sorts.
“We kept clothes to a minimum as we had to travel really, really light,” he said. “Halfway through, we changed into the single set of fresh underwear we had, and devoured one of our favorite freeze-dried meals; mine was beef stroganoff. That kept us going.”
After their mission was done, they emerged from the damp and dark to a glorious sunrise.
“The dry, cool air hit us as we came out and the desert was in bloom. The blossoms smelled so good. I’ll never forget that exhilaration — or that fragrance,” he recalled.
He’s comfortable exploring the depth and darkness, but not keen on the jungle.
He helped coordinate Eco-Challenge competitions in Borneo in the late ’90s, requiring frequent journeys into remote jungles. On one trek from the interior, an area known as the Lost World, he contracted a foot infection and had to hobble 20 miles to the coast and civilization.
“It was pretty much a suffer-fest of rain, humidity and leeches,” he recalled.
All of it, though — the adventuring, the attention to detail, the affinity for stone and earth — was preamble for the discovery ahead.
He came to rangering at 40, later than some, but the fit was right.
Francek worked as a seasonal wilderness ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, patrolling the rugged region between Kirkwood and Bear Valley, before being hired full-time as a ranger for East Bay 10 years ago. He lives in Jackson with his wife.
Francek is part of a 15-ranger/naturalist corps charged with wildly eclectic duties. The job examination, he recalled, included identifying wildflowers, tying down a small bulldozer on a trailer, assembling a chainsaw that had been torn down, and explaining how to swap out a propellor on a boat. He also had to cover two miles wearing a 25-pound vest in less than 30 minutes.
“And you couldn’t run. You had to walk. Fast,” he said.
The job calls on people skills, public safety training, a love of the outdoors, and a grounding in science.
Asked about a typical day, Francek says there is no such thing. On a recent shift, for example, he responded to a grass fire, a report of a person threatening violence in a campground, assisted medics with a heart attack victim, and finished with a late-night boat search for a fisherman who was overdue from an outing on Lake Camanche.
Some rangers have college degrees. Francek doesn’t. Yet he has impeccable credentials: years of outdoors experience, intelligence, energy — and relentless curiosity.
A friend and former colleague, Lisa Boulton, said Francek absorbs concepts with startling quickness.
“He has this spark of energy and intellect. He’s soaks up technical information in a flash,” she said. “In my opinion, he’s a brilliant guy.”
An object, ancient
Francek and his fellow rangers patrol a sprawling realm once widely populated by the indigenous Miwok people and later by miners and ranchers.
It’s defined by the Mokelumne River, and the dams that contain it.
East Bay operates two major dams on the river, Pardee and Camanche. Encircling the dams and reservoirs are 28,000 acres owned by the district, a mix of recreation and open space. There are campgrounds and homes and stores, marinas and even tennis courts.
Beyond the developed areas are lush canyons choked with buckeye and blackberries, forests of oak and pine, grassy meadows and sandy shorelines. Along with cattle grazing through the fields and forests, there are mule deer, foxes, bobcats and rattlesnakes.
The area was heavily mined, and vestiges are seemingly everywhere. Old mine tunnels, the adits boarded over, piles of rock flung aside in the mad search for gold, flumes long overgrown with manzanita and poison oak.
Francek sometimes stumbles over old whiskey bottles, shovels or picks discarded by the miners.
His eyes are scanning, always scanning.
On that foot patrol last July, he bent low to examine the object peeking from the earth. He had a hunch.
It was brownish with shades of gray, about two feet long. He brushed away some dirt and gravel and knew his hunch was right. It was petrified wood, ancient and stony.
His adrenaline was pulsing now. He continued searching, probing. He found another piece of petrified wood. Then another. Francek would return to the area repeatedly in coming days, finding not just petrified wood but things even more precious.
Bones, very old bones.
And many of them.
Rich Hanner may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.