Bob Hackamack — “Godfather of the Tuolumne”

Known variously as “The Godfather of the Tuolumne” and “Mr. Tuolumne,” legendary Sierra Club member and activist Bob Hackamack passed away last week. An avid rock climber, canoeist and kayaker, Hackamack was one of the earliest conservationists to realize the ecological value of San Joaquin Valley watersheds. His training as a Chemical and Systems Engineer enabled him to provide meticulously detailed criticisms of proposals that would have weakened the Tuolumne River’s esthetic and natural values, especially with regard to migrating salmon and Steelhead Trout.

A longtime resident of Modesto, where his home was located along the banks of the river he so loved, Hackamack moved to Twain Harte with his wife Jean several years ago. Jean passed away at age 92 in 2020.

Hackamack was a major player in the effort to achieve the “Wild and Scenic” designation for the Tuolumne, a federally protected status that prohibits development that would damage the river’s recreational and ecological value.

In an April 24 letter to Friends of the River and other interested parties, Tuolumne River Trust Executive Director Patrick Koeple wrote,

Bob Hackamack is a Tuolumne River legend and was an early advocate for protecting the river from San Francisco’s proposed Clavey-Wards Ferry project, a series of hydroelectric dams, reservoirs, and penstocks on the last remaining whitewater stretch of the Tuolumne. It’s hard to understate the important role Bob played in protecting the Tuolumne from this massive project, which would have drowned the world famous whitewater run, world-class trout fishery, and beautiful, wild river canyon under unnatural reservoirs. Bob was so devoted to the Tuolumne River that it is difficult to separate his personal biography from a history of campaigns to protect and restore the Tuolumne River since the late 1960’s.”

Hackamack’s leadership and expertise set new standards for conservation as he demonstrated again and again the flawed analyses of those who would commodify and retail water for private gain. A founding board member of the Tuolumne River Trust since 1981, he continued to serve on the board until last year.

In a 2012 interview with The Valley Citizen, Hackamack commented on the illusory value of water sales by saying,

Water sales are legal and encouraged by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to transfer water from low value uses to higher value uses, which is thought to reduce waste of water and reduce the need for more dams. The FERC  (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) can tip that scale of uses toward protecting and enhancing natural values by requiring more water be devoted to fish, wildlife, recreation and the aesthetics of the Tuolumne from La Grange to its confluence with the San Joaquin if there is enough public interest in doing so. Also, the SWRCB is now pressing diverters in all of the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds to use less water and send more of the water under their control into the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta for the health of that water body. Increased fall, winter and spring release of water into the Tuolumne at La Grange is one of those higher value uses to the California economy as well as in the other values for this river.”

As fitting for a man who has a whitewater rapids named in his honor (“Hackamack’s Hole”), Bob Hackamack’s words are as relevant today as they ever were. May he rest in peace.






Eric Caine
Eric Caine
Eric Caine formerly taught in the Humanities Department at Merced College. He was an original Community Columnist at the Modesto Bee, and wrote for The Bee for over twelve years.
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  1. Any man who is man enough to speak up for the land, is a man after God’s own heart.

    Honors are in order to Mr. Hackamack and all he stood, spoke, and acted for.

    The fact that he was willing to point out
    the flawed analyses of those who would commodify and retail water for private gain, is man-splaining well.

    We have lost, already, too many of our outspoken, conscientious spokesmen.

    Mr. Tuolumne, you will be missed, assuredly, by many many people and all of the creatures you served to protect.

    May multitudes follow in this “Godfather of the Tuolumne”‘s footsteps, with all of
    his proclivity to stand, speak, and act, on behalf of creation’s sake, and then some. God knows His creation needs tender loving caretaking by myriads of husbandmen, women and children.

    May Mr. Hackamack’s lifetime of service have ‘dug many deep spiritual wells’, so to speak, for good stewards to continue to water this parched land from. We are created to have in dominion the honor of blessing, not cursing, God’s gift of earth.

    Men, women, and children, there are good works aplenty to be done, calls a cry from the wilderness. Not all preaching is from the letter of the law. May each and every day be the earth’s day.

    Are Valley Citizen’s loving Jim Gain’s posts teaching us about the avians? We can look forward to each frolicking all around us, because we can now identify each. Do you read Jim’s posts to your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren? They do not learn through osmosis. They learn from passing knowledge down. Blessed are the children for generations to come.

  2. Well said. Thank you for all the kind words. My Dad was a hard working man, and the Tuolumne River was his passion. He was a hero to some and a thorn in the side to others. He never missed a meeting that mattered and documented everything. He will be missed dearly.

  3. Our deepest condolences to the family. Can Mr. Cain or his family please give the local Sierra Club Mother Lode Chapter link to this article in our newsletter?

    Our chapter board members would like to honor his legacy.
    Thank you
    Dyane Osorio

  4. May Bob rest in peace. Mother Earth is grateful for his work. My condolences to his family.

  5. Bob was not only the “Godfather” of the Tuolumne, he was a huge inspiration to young Sierra Club members, myself included. I shared your story with the Executive and Conservation Committees of the Mother Lode Chapter of the Sierra Club and received this lovely reply from Ron Stork, who also has spent decades advocating for our rivers and knew Bob well:

    Thanks, Anita. Bob was, indeed, “Mr. Tuolumne River.” His and Thorn Gray’s 1980 80-page tome outlining the “conflicting goals” and opportunities to protect what he called “the middle” Tuolumne River in the then two-year-old national wild & scenic river system has always had an honored place in my library. It was his plea to the Sierra Club board of directors for Sierra Club endorsement of such a designation. He won the day with the SC board, and a mere 14 years later, the river was designated (with much hard work).

    Shortly after Bob moved to Modesto to work at E&J Gallo, he asked his wife to permit him to work on Tuolumne River issues one hour per day, but only for twenty years. She took the deal, although I suspect he had to renegotiate it from time to time because his work spanned decades; he lived a long time.

    I attach a photograph that I took of the older Bob listening to the often chair of the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter or San Francisco Group Becky Evans. The setting of the photo was at Jack London Square at the 2014 30th anniversary celebration of the Tuolumne River wild & scenic river designation. Bob and his wife Jean received a well-deserved award there. I am sure that there are far better action-photos of Bob — perhaps some of him using a slide rule to demonstrate the calculations he used to engage with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts. When it came to analysis, Bob was king. When it came to strategy, Bob wasn’t bad either.

    On a more personal side, I left a nice hat in his car once nearly 40 years ago. He always told me that it had been boxed up, but he had it somewhere and would find it eventually. Well, I guess time ran out. Time to order a replacement. Neither Bob nor I sweated the small stuff.

  6. One of my regrets since moving to Modesto nearly 40 years ago was that I never got to canoe with Bob. I heard many stories about him, and talked about canoeing the Tuolumne with Thorn Gray. I did canoe the river through Modesto a few times, before my youthful indiscretion cause me to sell the canoe to buy a guitar. Wish I had known him.

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