KLAMATH NATIONAL FOREST: Return to the Rugged Wilderness and Ancient Gorges of Clear Creek
For a fourteenth consecutive season, every mid-July we pile tons of unnecessary things -- they‘ve come to be regarded as indispensable “recreational accoutrements / outdoor accessories” -- into our car to depart on our annual, much-anticipated seven to nine hour pilgrimage to the trail heads at Clear Creek.
Located a crow’s swoop below the Oregon border in Northern California, in “Old West” Siskiyou County, Klamath Country is a remote, lightly settled, heavily forested, mountainous land of 1,700,000 acres of sublime, glorious natural bounty, encompassing five pristine wilderness areas -- Marble Mountain, Russian, Red Buttes, Siskiyou, and Trinity Alps. Pockets are heavily visited; otherwise, it’s all about serenity and solitude.
Klamath Country is the ancestral homeland of “upriver” spiritual Karuk tribes who have lived simply in harmony with sacred Mother Nature for millennia. Karuk peoples come from a tradition of spirituality, healing, sacred worship of animistic nature and restoring earth harmony, and community values. Such splendid isolation and scenic natural wonders and beauty have also made the area a “below the radar” mecca over the years for a gallimaufry of characters: enterprising German immigrants, thrill-seeking rafters, wealthy fly fishermen retreaters, gold miners and dredgers, sun-toasted dreamers and river rats, odd ball recluses, out ’n out rednecks, mom ’n pop outfits, B ‘n B-ers, retirees squeezing“a good livin’” out their frugal dollars, dying breeds of scheming secessionists plotting for the State of Jefferson, and, of course -- you know he’s out there! -- Big Foot. . .and he’s watching, watching, stalking, stalking YOU! (No, quite the opposite; ol’ Sasquatch is probably deep in hiding, if not in the woods, buried in your zoo-mythic consciousness.)
We’re heading east out of the high desert -- yes, high desert -- town of Yreka. (I‘ve always wondered if the pallindromic Yreka Bakery really exists?). It’s great to finally get on ultra-scenic Highway 96. I’m energized despite it being 1 a.m. after five and a half hours of grueling driving on the dangerous asphalt corridor -- Interstate 5 -- otherwise known as Big Rig and RV Hell. I actually crack open an ice cold one. (Mary, in her sleepy torpor, wonders how can I do it.) Aaah, it is surely delicious, and safe enough. I’m driving 45 M.P.H. There’s not a car in sight. I’m alert, I’ve got a second wind. A bright three-quarter moon has just appeared over a ridge. Pellucid angular shadows, of bluffs, a tree snag, a sign post up ahead -- enhance the ghostly-world feeling. Occasional glimpses of the Klamath River, framed by the high, burnt-dry canyon hillsides, and lacquered in on again off again albion glow, lend an even more preternatural aura. Aaah, yes, it’s great to be back again, almost like home after so many trips, in Klamath River country. Trouble is, we always shoot right past it in a hurry to get to our favorite spot.
This stretch of seventy some odd miles to the Clear Creek turn-off at Wingate Bar off Highway 96 is curvaceous and gorgeous. You easily fall in love at first sight with the scenery, the landscape. The attractions along the way merit attention. Highway 96 itself is amazing engineering feat; following the contours of the big, blue, beautiful river, passing through all the familiar -- but largely unknown because we’ve never taken the time to really stop and explore -- historic, and interesting, placesakes, each with a fascinating story of its own: Tree of Heaven camp ground, Horse Creek / Scott River, Hamburg, Seiad Valley, Happy Camp, Somes Bar, Orleans, and then with the many, many trailhead signs into fabulous wilderness areas beckoning impossible turn-offs for leave-it-to-your-imagination back country adventures. (Oh, we‘ll check that out next year.).
This is the heart of the great mythical state of Jefferson, whose denizens have long championed secession from the Union on the righteous and justifiable grounds of “why the hell should WE have to suffer because of the rest of urban California’s profligate waste and misuse of tax dollars.“ Or something like that. These hardened people are characterized by what‘s called the “The Jefferson spirit”. As Brian Helsaple describes on his web site, “It is a simple belief of individuals in their constitutional right to live and manage their surroundings without edicts from government or a far removed society.” Period. We need a fifty-first state, by God!
An hour later, we stop at desolate Sarah Totten camp ground, situated alongside the beautiful Klamath, to get a few hours of shut-eye. We’ve got the place to ourselves, the pick of the camping spots. The hot night air smells of roasted herb. The river can be heard below, rushing along on its journey to the Pacific, a melodious, rhythmic mantra to fall asleep to. . .and before we know it, we’re rudely awakened -- or only stentoriously greeted? -- by the piercing caws of a band of overly-excited ravens, I‘ll have to say. Shaaaaaaaaddddup, willya, it‘s five in the morning! (Wait, who’s at home and who is the guest?) Well, nothing doing, the boys caw and cackle up a riotous storm which forces us out of the sack after, I think, about forty-five minues of it. First thing up, Mary spots a gray fox scampering across the road, prelude perhaps to several other special four-legged critters who visit us or make a cameo appearance during our four-night, five-day stay in the animal magic wonderland / habitat that is Clear Creek.
We’re eager to get on the early morning road, follow the Klamath River, stop at Happy Camp for a few supplies, then get settled in at our camp site. The early morning drive is pleasant, leisurely. I just love the Klamath River, how it originates in Oregon, gaining steam from contributions of the Sycan, Williamson, and Lost rivers. Dammed [eternally?] in Oregon at Copco and Iron Gates lakes, the Klamath is able to really let loose in California, rightfully earning its wild and scenic designation. Alternately broad and narrow canyons are cut by the increasing forceful flow of water as major tributaries join to create one of the West‘s great rafting rivers. Tributary “feeders” -- Shasta, Scott, Trinity, Clear, and Salmon -- are in and of themselves world-class rivers. Sadly, though, this beautiful eco-system, encompassing native grasslands and rare conifer forests, groves of Douglas firs, Port Orford Cedar and majestic redwoods, sadly has been declared “one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers”. How on this once-sweet Earth can this be? It seems so convoluted, contradictory. . .and so unnecessary. (Water rights, water fights? . . Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink? Is that it?)
We stop at the Ranger Station in Happy Camp to get a fire permit. The Ranger tells us it’s been cool lately at around 85 degrees, but it’s gonna warm up to normal. What’s normal? Oh, about one-ten. No fire restrictions in place, though, so thank you ma’am. On the way out, I notice a big stuffed grouse on display. There’s also a bobcat, a small bear, and other assorted animals, all with disturbingly cute looks on their fuzzy and furry faces. Somehow, the grouse has stopped me in my tracks. I study the bird; don’t think I’ve ever really seen a grouse before. She’s a regal bird, maybe a he bird, I don’t know, adorned with colorful tail feathers, an intelligent look in the beady eye. Later on, fording Ten Mile Creek one day, a big grouse flies up to a branch and perchs in full view for a moment for my pleasure it seems. How much nicer to see and greet, and be greeted by -- ka-weee booom! -- a real grouse!
Despite the presence of an eight-mile gravel road (the first three are paved), Clear Creek’s locale is as close to a pure and true wilderness setting as you can get, considering we’re driving in to our campsite. (Okay, let’s forget for the moment about clear cuts and fire and forest service roadscars.) This welcomed road -- easy access to paradise is a double-edged sword, for sure -- winds through and up big, tall, wild, rugged, thickly forested, mountains. People do come back here, for the swimming holes at the bridge are by now semi-legendary, but it’s rare to pass a vehicle the entire way.
We claim our spot at the previously ignored “No Man‘s“ pull-off, one mile from the trail head where we normally park to hike in two miles to a long-favorite camp site. Talk about the ultimate in car camping! Only we never see the car. It’s up there, and we’re down here. . settled in at our secret “camp site” -- this paltry piece of real estate (with a killer view) would barely qualify as a bona fide camping site for most who would require the non-existent square footage for their tent that we didn’t find necessary to erect (perfect weather, breezy enough to deter insects), or who would require sandy patches for comfort, instead of bumpy, uneven ground -- in short, this little beach head of ours at “No Man‘s“, elevated slightly above the creek’s rocky shore, happens to be a patch of earth some if not most would find not wholly comfortable. (There is no toilet, except Mother‘s Grand Commode!) Fierce winter torrents have scorched the site from how I remember it last year, hollowing it, dumping tons of driftwood, and sloping it significantly. Still, for us, it’s unbeatable, it is a perfect camp site. Except for the long ride from the Bay Area -- but, hey, it‘s really only three hours farther than the grinding, winding drive to Lake Tahoe -- the “Bang for the Buck” factor = sky-high. It doesn’t get any better hauling your tonnage on crippled back and aching feet for ten miles to Clear Creek‘s farther reaches toward Young‘s Valley, Devil‘s Punchbowl, that area. No sirreeee, uh-uh, it’s right here: paradise found fifty feet from the car! You can bring a table, chairs, a cooler full of ice and goodies, books, you name it. But at some point, you have to ask yourself, why? (And for fourteen seasons running, the answer has always been, Why not! This “lazy” languorous July camping trip is a counterbalancing yin infusion to the demanding, tough yang August birthday treks to the depths of rugged canyons in the Sierra foothills. Or so I like to think / rationalize.)
Clear Creek is flowing mightily in front of our camp site, forming a large emerald green super-inviting pool. A couple of hundred feet downstream, it drops thirty feet to tumble rapidly over a mossy jumble of boulders and logs. Here, it shoots through a narrow gorge whose limpid celadon waters are twenty feet deep. It disappears out of vision into a distant pool at a horseshoe bend right below the road (which you‘d never know was there in a zillion years). Not a soul in sight. Not a sound but the wind and the water. It’s like we just hiked in ten miles to a precious, secret, stunningly beautiful spot that no one goes to or gets to easily. We won’t see a single person in our camping area for five solid days. That‘s one-hundred hours of solitude. (There are a couple of through-hikers on the National Scenic Recreation Trail, and, thankfully, fewer than normal of the usual suspects -- local yokels, yahoos, Christian youth brigades, hippie and punk kids, couples from Redding -- at the easy-to-get-to swimming hole downstream from us. Well, Ms. Ranger Lady was wrong -- it’s already about a hundred and fifty. I head straight for the sweet pool. After a refreshing swim in the -- I’m guessing -- 52 degree water -- I’m down for the count. With beer and champagne on ice, things are looking chill.
And indeed they are. We do “nothing” for one-hundred hours. Doing nothing includes eating, swimming, exploring, hiking, sleeping, word botching and bird watching, reading, meditating, more of same, all melded into one great time flow, a river of events and happenings, comings and goings, of few doings and pure being. No hurry, no worry. Be here now. Sleep, dream, wake, swim, eat, one endless activity. How different, though, from how our animal friends must live out their lives in this beautiful homeland.
One day I read aloud from John Muir’s Wilderness Essays, “A Near View of the High Sierra.” What a delight to read his vivid, poetic descriptions, his transcendental passages through the Range of Light, as he called his beloved Sierra Nevada. A real mountain man, wise as an Indian, or a fox, and yet a farmer in Martinez! His chapter on “Among the Animals of Yosemite” also brings great joy to our hearts as I read about his endless encounters with all manner of creatures -- bears, woodchucks, snakes, beavers, frogs, deer, squirrels, panther, foxes, badgers, porcupines, coyotes, pika, lizards, birds of tremendous variety, and fish. We feel blessed as well whenever a special animal -- and they’re all special, from the water strider and ant to the hummingbird and bear -- appears or is sighted. We feel a powerful, almost shamanic connection to the animal soul-world. We truly are fortunate and blessed to make any acquaintance whatsoever, for Muir, perhaps lamenting, writes, “Gliding about in their shady forest homes, keeping well out of sight, there is a multitude of sleek, fur-clad animals living and enjoying their clean, beautiful lives. How beautiful and interesting they are is about as difficult for busy mortals to find out as if their homes were beyond sight in the sky.” We truly believe the animals come to greet us, to say hello, welcome, we’re not afraid of you.
You’d think after over a dozen visits here, we’d have seen all there is to see in the vicinity. But it takes until 2006 to return to the place “and know it for the first time.” There’s been an area I’ve wanted to check out for some time, a seemingly uninteresting looking area, tinderbox dry, with poison oak and prickly plants, off the road toward the creek where sheer rock walls disappear into the canyon. What’s there? I had never wondered.
One fine day, probably about two hundred degrees, we hike over there to get a closer look. It’s a slow-boil, sun-drenched Saharan day with sirocco zephyrs. Up and over a jumble of boulders, we peer down, one hundred and fifty feet, to the bottom of the impressive, heretofore unseen gorge - pool complex with massive rock walls anchoring to the channel bed like the pillars of a cyclopean edifice rising out of a mirage of glistening lime-green water. Leaving Mary to roast in the shade momentarily, I scramble down a narrow defile to secure a position fifty feet lower. The view improves. The gorge pool -complex is mind-blowing, nothing like it anywhere on a fifteen mile stretch of Clear Creek. I manage to get even lower, but end up stuck on a dead-end rock shelf fifty feet above the pools. It is maddening to not be able to plunge in. Deer flies are tormenting me, a bee just stung my arm, biting ants are crawling on me, I don’t have my water jug. Frustrated, I retrace my steps; the route is considerably more difficult climbing back up. I’m furious the water eluded me. We make double-time back to camp for the cold, refreshing plunge. But, oh man, that gorge! Here’s a shot or two -- see what I mean!
Another day, another “discovery” -- this time a hidden gorge, remarkably beautiful, down a slick, dusty, steep, three-hundred foot descent on a “trail” to a section of the creek not many, if any, spare the effort to check out. I’d never even noticed the trail off the road. But there it is, leading down to a fabulous stretch of canyon creek country. Once again, leaving Mary to contemplate her forty-fifth birthday in the shade of an big oak tree, I slide on my butt half-way down and break-neck the other half in awkward slides, skids, and jumps. A few bloody scrapes not withstanding, it’s totally worth the effort to get a look at another heretofore unseen and unknown about, hugely impressive, ultra-scenic gorge sculpted over the eons by Clear Creek’s rushing, gushing water.
The greatest source of joy is when the animals come to say hello. We truly believe they are doing just that. Welcoming us in to their home. It’s not the ants biting us that we hesitate and dread to kill who are the intruders (Namaste, little ones.). It’s not the prowling, growling bears we hope stay away who are the interlopers. It’s not the bees that sting us, the deer flies that bite us, the mountain lion who eats the tied up dog at the family’s campground who are the trespassers. We are them, intruder, interloper and trespasser, despite the Forest Service’s pronouncement that “This is truly a special place, and best of all it belongs to you!“. And so, like the Karuk have for lifetimes, in our limited time in their world, we tread in respect and reverence, thankful to be granted an audience. This year, two animals appeared for the first time (to us) at Clear Creek: otter and weasel. It was a treat, an otter delight, making their fine acquaintances. I resonated strongly with the little long-tailed weasel; and Mary with her playful encounter / interaction with the baby otter. We also enjoyed sightings of kingfisher, water ouzel, grouse, doe and fawn drinking at creek’s edge, hummingbird, dragon and damselfly, bumblebee, trout, ant, wasp, yellow-bellied snake, water snake, bat, cicada, lizard, frog, bushy-tailed squirrel, butterfly, moth, slug, fox, black scarab, caterpillar, cricket, duck, blue tail skink, crawdaddy, spider, grasshopper, and our ubiquitous companion, ol’ squawkin’ jay, along with evidence, in the form of fresh and dry scat, of the presence of bobcat, bear and coyote. Many blessings, animal companions, friends, and spirit guides! See you next time!
For more history on the area, check out http://users.sisqtel.net/rbley/96history.html
To learn a bit more about Clear Creek, visit, http://www.friendsoftheriver.org/CaliforniaRivers/Rivers/ClearCreek.html
To re-visit my account of Clear Creek from last year, go to http://gambolinman.blogspot.com/2005/07/siskiyou-wilderness-magical-encounters.html