Although it happened nearly 27 years ago, Mark Dubois remembers feeling that he had no choice but to chain himself to a rock alongside his beloved Stanislaus River as New Melones Reservoir began to fill.

"It was like a mother rescuing her child from being hit by traffic," said the environmental activist, now 56 and living on an island west of Seattle.

Dubois remains dedicated to varying conservation efforts, but he is still known for anchoring himself to a rock at the river's edge a move that delayed the reservoir's filling and helped bring an end to large dam construction in the United States.

"I think it was one of the greatest acts of courage in the environmental movement," said Martin Blake of Columbia, a filmmaker who documented the struggle to protect the Stanislaus River.

Dubois said he's not sure when the idea to chain himself to the river canyon came to him, but he remembers being inspired by stories of other activists who climbed redwood trees in danger of being cut down.

"For me, it was obviously the most important decision of my life. It was such a deep, personal decision," he said during a telephone interview. "The river was a place where I really grew up and came of age."

As a teen, Dubois would drive from Sacramento to the Stanislaus and explore area caves.

In 1970, he became a river rafting guide, following in the footsteps of his brother and some friends.

A year after that, he formed Environmental Traveling Companions, which gave inner-city kids the chance to have wilderness adventures.

Dubois later helped establish Friends of the River, which advocates river preservation and restoration.

"As the battle for the Stanislaus was shaping up, I found I spent less time on the river and more time making sure it remained there," he said.

In May of 1979, Dubois began his chained vigil by anchoring himself to a rock near the water's edge in protest of filling New Melones.

"Upon learning of your intention to flood the canyon above Parrotts Ferry this year, I did some serious thinking," Dubois wrote in a letter to the Sacramento district engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "As a result, I plan to be locked up to a rock at elevation 808 (feet above sea level), when the water reaches 808."

Law enforcement officers from both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties searched for, but could not find, Dubois who was hiding along the river between the Highway 49 and Parrotts Ferry Road bridges on the Tuolumne County side.

"As I recall, these people were chaining themselves to rocks. It got to be a nuisance," said then-Calaveras County Undersheriff Fred Kern, who retired in 1986 and now lives in Avery. "You go from being a peaceful protester to being a damned nuisance once in a while ... No matter how good their intentions were, or how good they thought their intentions were, after a while they just became a police problem."

Jerry Cadagan, a Sonora resident who was chairman of Friends of the River's board of directors at the time, remembers worrying about Dubois.

"This guy was not just doing this as a publicity stunt," Cadagan said. "He was dead serious. The guy was prepared to die ... It was a very emotional, stressful week."

Chained for six days, Dubois was originally going to fast, but did end up eating some fruit and nuts. His only injury was a broken toe.

Dubois was never arrested or charged for the chaining stunt. But he did receive a fat search and rescue bill from Calaveras County authorities.

"I was never lost so I didn't pay it," Dubois said, adding that the bill was later dropped.

Dubois' simple protest prompted a one-year delay on filling the reservoir as environmentalists attempted unsuccessfully to convince the federal government not to dam the river.

Despite the loss, "it was the end of an era," Dubois said, referring to large dam construction.

He said the public's perception of dams and their awareness of water policies had changed.

New Melones Reservoir, the state's fourth largest dam, is part of the Central Valley Project a vast federally run system of dams and canals stretching from Mount Shasta to Bakersfield. Initial construction on the dam began 40 years ago.

The controversial reservoir flooded a popular stretch of rapids used by white water rafters, ruined historical Native American and Gold Rush-era sites and drowned the West's deepest limestone canyon.

"To a certain extent, Tuolumne County is not the same anymore with the loss of the Stanislaus River," said Blake, who teaches at Gold Rush Charter School.

Dubois, whose protest made national headlines, recalls being "dumbfounded" when he learned of all the media coverage while he was in hiding.

"I could tell people were moved," said the slender, 6-foot, 8-inch tall man.

With his newfound fame, Dubois continued his efforts in river conservation from Sacramento and lobbied for wild and scenic river protection in Washington D.C.

While speaking at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1979, Dubois meet Sharon Negri, who later became his wife.

The pair married shortly before traveling around the world together in 1983 and 1984.

While on the trip, Dubois said he spoke with people in Africa and Asia about local water issues there.

Upon their return to the states, Dubois co-founded the International Rivers Network and Negri went on to run a foundation that protects mountain lions.

Dubois helped organize the first International Earth Day in 1990. It took nine months to plan and an estimated 200 million people in 143 countries participated, he said.

During the 1990s, Dubois founded WorldWise, a grassroots campaign for international bank reform, and in 1992, the couple's son, Tevon, was born the same date famed environmentalist John Muir was born.

Six years later, the family moved from Sacramento to Seattle so Dubois could again direct International Earth Day in 2000. The family moved to Bainbridge Island off the Washington coast, where they still live.

However, Dubois said his "heart is still in Northern California."

The activist now does speaking engagements and what he calls "environmental networking."

Last weekend, Dubois spoke at an "Awakening the Dreamer" symposium in Santa Cruz in which organizers aimed to create "a world of environmental sustainability, social justice and spiritual fulfillment."

"We need to live on this planet in a much more enhanced way," said Dubois, adding that people can start doing so by realizing they can thrive without relying on things like televisions and shopping malls.

Conversations with Dubois are peppered with inspirational homilies.

"We need to step up and live our full potential," he said. "I'm convinced most of us really want to be citizens our grandchildren can be proud of."

Cadagan who now chairs the board of directors for Restore Hetch Hetchy, a group advocating removing O'Shaughnessy Dam and restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley said Dubois' actions helped those campaigning to save the Stanislaus learn about California water politics and, in turn, protect other rivers.

"In a nutshell, Mark is a rare, rare human being," Cadagan said. "He's this kind of idealistic guy the world needs a few more of."

Contact Mike Morris at or 588-4537.