USACE People: Sierra winters a busy time for Martis Creek Lake dam operator |

USACE People: Sierra winters a busy time for Martis Creek Lake dam operator

Story and photos by William Warren Byrd II
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District

Photo courtesy William Warren Byrd II (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District)

MARTIS CREEK LAKE and#8212; Long after many folks are settled into retirement, Dale Verner, barely 69, struggles to find an empty spot on his calendar.

Verner, dam operator and maintenance worker at Martis Creek, has an obvious zest for living life to the fullest. Just check his life resume. It’s filled with volunteerism, civic involvement, hobbies, work – anything he can cram into a day. The self-proclaimed Type-A personality has owned two businesses, served three tours in Vietnam, retired once, is actively involved in his community, teaches special needs children how to snow ski, spends 100 days a year on the slopes himself, sails the ocean… the list is endless.

“I’m a type-A, you might have figured that out,” he says. “I don’t do well doing nothing. You plan nine things on one day. And periodically I look at the calendar and this is blacked out and that’s blacked out – six weeks of things I’ve committed to.”

That penchant to squeeze every last drop out of each day started at birth for Verner, whose rugged features and mountain-man looks disguise a soft-spoken demeanor. Even the harsh High Sierra winters don’t encumber him. In fact, it’s perhaps his favorite season, and he relishes his wintertime role at Martis Creek.

Born and raised in southern California, he migrated north on a whim, found snow and colder temperatures to his liking, and eventually he and his wife settled in Loyalton, Calif. His reduced winter schedule provides him more opportunities to ski, view the wildlife and scenic beauty – and enjoy the isolation created by being walled in by the fierce Sierra snows.

Verner alone is responsible for bulldozing snow from pedestrian paths and the roads that lead to the dam so he can perform the many functions and system checks needed to ensure safe operations through the long winter months. As winter storms continue to dump foot after foot of snow, Verner, spry at 69, remains undaunted.

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“Once summer ends, you shut it all down, you have to turn the water system down and get ready for the winter,” he said. “It’s all covered in snow and closed. We have to keep access into the dam open all the time in case of emergencies.

“It’s a perfect job,” Verner said. “Half the time the supervisors don’t know where I am, the other half they don’t know what I’m doing,” mused Verner, who is a longtime skier and children’s ski instructor, among his many life interests.

“I have about 160 items that I do on a weekly or monthly or quarterly basis,” Verner said. “You check your winches; just everything in the dam is taken care of by the maintenance man, the dam operator. You familiarize yourself with the way the dam works and to make sure your equipment is operational on the day you need it. Dam maintenance is every week – your maintenance, electronics, hydraulics, instrumentation. So that goes on continuously, winter and summer. You always have to work in about 16 to 20 hours a week of just dam maintenance to make sure that it works.”

His winter responsibilities became easier recently when he received a new golf cart-type contraption that Verner designed and the Corps had built and purchased. Gone are the days Verner has to snowshoe more than two hours into the park station from Highway 267.

“There would be times if you got snowed in it would be a little bit tricky,” said Verner, who likes the solitude in the winter but admitted the seclusion makes him “get buggy now and then.” “It took me two-and-a-half hours to drive to work then, two hours to get in to the shop. You do feel satisfied when you get in. I’m stubborn, so even when the boss said I didn’t have to go in, I did. It’s kind of a self-gratification when you get in, no matter what it takes.

“I took a Rhino and custom designed it,” Verner said of his tracked vehicle. “It has a three-stage heater, full cab. They (Corps) just told me to spec it. It is great in the snow, it’s great environmentally out in the wetlands. But the main thing is I don’t snowshoe anymore.”

Rhinos aren’t the only wildlife encounters winter in the Sierra affords. “The eagles – we have a breeding pair of eagles. Lot of coyotes. Bears – a big old sow – she travels here all the time.

“That was my worst experience, when I was on snowshoes on top of the dam and she was coming toward me,” Verner recounted, “but I hollered and waved and stood tall. She went around me with her cub. We have a mountain lion that comes in – she watches me and follows me up and down the dam. She’s fascinated with what I do. She brought her cubs onsite, kept them for three months and took care of my marmot population – ate them.”

Verner’s boss, Doug Grothe, park manager at Englebright Lake, knows he has a seasoned pro on his team – plus a good storyteller. “Dale has the most interesting things happen to him since he’s there by himself so much of the time. Whether it’s bears with cubs or mountain lions watching him, he has some entertaining stories. He once found a strange looking object out in the area, which turned out to be something that fell from an airplane. He has a “mountain man” kind of look about him, which to some might be somewhat intimidating. Yet, he is a ski instructor for the little kids at Boreal – and the kids love him.

“I would rank him high – he has the skills needed to do the job and he is very organized,” Grothe said. “He not only recommends and plans needed projects, but gives me the estimated materials, labor, and contract costs needed to complete the projects. He has done a great job working with the various people involved with the DSAP (Dam Safety Assurance Program) effort. I have received numerous compliments for his willingness to help with and coordinate whatever they need.”

Verner’s encounters with those bears, mountain lions and coyotes don’t really faze him. But one particular incident gave him pause.

“Maybe there was this once,” he said. “I walked out on that ice (on Martis Creek Lake) one time. Well, you know what ice is for, don’t you? Scotch. It’s not to walk on. That’s just scary. Those people from Minnesota who drive cars on ice, now that’s scary and I couldn’t do that.

“I train every other year with the fire department here,” Verner continued. “We don’t train for rescue; we train for body recovery because if you break through that ice then you are dead. That’s it – you’re dead. Once, they talked me into putting the suit on and going out until I broke through and then they rescued me. Once, that’s enough.”

Until a spot opens up on his calendar.