CALIFORNIA GOLD COUNTRY: Escape to the South Yuba River for Five Days of Total Immersion (Doing Nothing) in Mother Nature's Sweet Bosom
Welcome to the furry, feathery, finny, scaly animal world of the South Yuba River Watershed. These are just some of the wild critters we chance upon over five days of repose in the earthy abode of all creatures great and small. What a thrill to meet and greet so many diverse animals, each precious and unique, observing them doing their largely unnoticed thing in their own particular environments, going about their wholly routine but fascinating business in their own specialized eco-niches – whether mating, feeding, prowling, hunting, lying-in-wait, singing, or playing. What a satisfying reward to become familiar – dare I say intimate? - with our faunal friends -- each seemingly insignificant encounter a special occasion, each seemingly pedestrian sighting a singular moment of primal connection with our protogenal and higher evolved biological kin. Even the mosquitoes, gnats and worms have a reverential place in the hierarchic pantheon of life - without them, there would be no food for the bat, the trout, the dragonfly, the Water Ouzel. Many animals in the South Yuba River Watershed are present but mostly unseen. . .hiding in the bush, like wily fox, seeking respite from the day’s sweltering heat; or meditating in undisturbed silence, like secretive rattlesnake, under a rock pile; or skulking proudly, like kingly mountain lion, in search of prey high on the cliff; or waddling fat-assed through the forest, like solitary bear, seeking a cache of ripe thimbleberries. An experience such as this - largely absent of two-legged critters (you know 'em - the loud, smelly humans) represents a chance to pay homage and respect – for we are, after all, intruders and interlopers - to the Animal Kingdom, and leave behind the cluttered, busy world of people to commune in Mother Nature’s sweet bosom and pretend to be, if only for a few days, atavistic savages. (Playing the role, we are naked most of the day!)
Having been confined to the Bay Area all summer (not such a horrific fate) due to California's thousand or more wildfires raging uncontrollably up and down the state (started by freakish lightning storms on June 20 which burned with apocalyptic fury and clouded normally cerulean summer skies with smoky choky haze for weeks on end), we're thrilled to find crisp, perfect skies and blazing hot weather up in Gold Country during the week of -- gulp! - my 53rd birthday on August 20. Returning to the Yuba-licious River is an easy decision: it's close (less than a 3 hour drive), it's beautiful and historic, it's nostalgically reminiscent of "true summer", and Gold Country provides a perfect venue for splashing about in the famous Yuba pools and camping overnight. . .that is, if you can manage to find a place to camp! (Dispersed style, that is.)
Areas off the Highway 49 bridge have been banned (see prior post), and the Authorities have further prohibited camping off easily accessible areas at Edwards and Purdon Crossings a short drive outside of Nevada City. So, you have to know where to go. . .and where best, but a relatively unheralded and ignored place - why? - called Illinois Crossing, in the designated South Yuba Recreation Area, a ways upriver from the dramatic swimming holes and sculptured white polished boulders perfect for hot rock therapy, high diving perches, family frolicking, and lazy merriment locals know and love so well. Up in these stretches, the crowds thin out to where you're scratching your head, going, I can't believe no one's here! (Helps explain the abundance of animal sightings, perhaps!) The South Yuba River in these stretches does indeed have a different look and feel - some might say not as "interesting" or "spectacular", but Gambolin' Man figures otherwise, and has come to adore and cherish this stretch of the river as a peaceful, gentle, soul-harmonizing retreat, a place, while not as apparently dramatic or as rugged, certainly provides more in the way of tranquility, solitude, and dazzling evening and morning reflective light shows; also, without doubt, this low-flowing, more open, lazy stretch of the river is more alive with the buzzing activity of many animals not readily seen farther downstream.
The trailhead leading to the eagerly anticipated river originates high above at the South Yuba Campground and winds down for about a mile along a rocky path through a wonderful mixed conifer forest. During springtime the steep terrain bursts forth with animated mountain waterfalls, gushing freshets, and torrential streams, but now lays quiet, bone dry like mere fossils of their potential. At about six-tenths of a mile, the trail splits off and heads along the high canyon for four miles to choice camping spots at Humbug Creek, which is situated about two miles and 1500 ft. below Malakoff-Diggins State Park. We'll save that for another day, for we're single-mindedly focused on the refreshing scene awaiting us on this hot day at the river.
This is an easy hike, folks – you can carry in a cooler, if you want! – or load your pack up with all manner of frivolous indispensables - and in a matter of forty minutes you're on the river, spirits are high, and you seek out your paradise spot somewhere along the water's edge, hidden amid stands of sedge and willow, facing lovely (some would say prosaic) pools and small series of rapids and shallow stretches of water cobbled over with submerged glistening stones, clear as a polished mirror on radiant sun struck morns, and framed on the opposite shore by rock wall caves where Canyon Wren, Black Phoebe, American Dipper, and other avian amigos flit and play and sing all day long. The place is empty, just there for the plopping down – imagine that! - you have the place all to yourselves! Although we see some day-trippers, no one deigns to camp here, opting instead for the “conveniences” up at the campground. (Toilet? Picnic table? Fire pit? Level tent sites? Gimme a friggin’ break!)
And, so, there you are, all by yourselves, you and the animals, coming and going, appearing and disappearing, with the passing of days doing the same, ever-so-leisurely in a blur of do-nothingness, inertia, and zen-like contemplation, just taking it all in, all day long, hour after hour, day after day. (Imagine if our politicians and bosses did this regularly!) Your senses become honed, ultra-alert, every nuance and ripple felt. You stare out at the water, up at the cliffs, into the forested hills, engaged by the many odd shapes and sizes of rocks (you coin a term: Riverhenge!) and delight in the presence and companionship of the birds and other animals. You wait, look, observe, hope for them to make a cameo appearance. Suddenly, there’s a lizard scurrying up a log with a dragonfly half crammed down its throat. WOW! Is that an osprey dive-bombing into the pool for a fish? Looky there - a glittering dragonfly dipping its tail repeatedly in the water, perhaps laying eggs. Incredible! A family of seven Mergansers making their way downstream at sunset. Check this out! A big ol’ crawdaddy scooting away in a flurry of rapid backwards locomotion using its strong tail flipper. What on earth? - a transmogrified tadpole, mostly full-blown frog, but with a huge tail emanating from its back! (Most strange!) Hold on! There goes Kingfisher racing down the canyon! And how pretty! Playful Water Ouzels skimming gracefully inches above the water's surface, landing on rocks, immersing fully, see how the water repels off their feathery backs. Listen: Canyon Wren's siren song serenading all day long.
Recently, a friend died in a freak accident --http://www.auburnjournal.com/detail/90681.html -- Russell Towle was my hiking buddy in North Fork American River country. We enjoyed half a dozen excellent adventures over the past years to some incredibly difficult and remote locales in that wild, wonderful land he so loved. Today, hiking in to the river, I ask Great Spirit to present me with a sign of his presence, and I am not disappointed. Two of Russell’s favorite birds on earth appear - two I have rarely seen -- lovely Canyon Wren, and the fish eagle, Osprey. Canyon Wren plays with Black Phoebe all day long on the rock walls opposite our camp, and chirps in her high pitched lilt and prances and pecks about as though purposely preening and entertaining for my pleasure. Strange, since Canyon Wren is hard to spot, and rarely sticks around, yet this little fellow keeps us company four days running. And then big Osprey comes dive-bombing right down in front of our camp in the small pool, scaring away the flock of Mergansers, before flying up and looping back around to land momentarily on a branch snag in a dead tree on the river bank where I’m able to get a prolonged glimpse of the regal bird that once tried to attack Russell when he got too close to her nest. I truly feel the presence of my friend, a connection to his spirit, now eternally free to roam the skies over the land he loved so much. Thank you, Great Spirit, and may you rest in peace, and fly free, my friend.
And so, time melts away in that sans souci fashion where nothing get done (thank God!), because there is nothing pressing to do when you’re stranded in nature and there is no survivalist element associated. So you let time melt away. Thoughts come, go, dissipate. An hour is a minute, a minute an hour. Conversation picks up, wilts, so you doze off. You might play a game of Scrabble. You fiddle around at dug out "gold" pits hoping against all hope to fetch up a big nugget. You eat. You swim. You read a little. But mostly you sit around and muse and ruminate and mull things over in your life. Dawn turns into morning, morning into afternoon, afternoon into evening, and finally evening into nightfall and then back to dawn again in an eternal cycle we urban dwellers miss out on completely, an uninterrupted rhythm of languor and lassitude in Mother Nature's sweet bosom. Early mornings it's rise and shine, for a quick dive into the pool and "Jacuzzi" session in the rapids for a refreshing wake-me-up, then it's meditation time standing still, waiting by shady banks for the sun to rise and strike the water's surface with pellucid rays, where you become entranced with the mesmerizing reflections of bluish rocks, golden yellow cliff faces, trees and sky on the mauve-golden water. Then some breakfast, then a short hike down river to a beautiful big pool around the bend for some swimming and exploring, but really not doing much at all, before heading leisurely back to camp to set up shop and watch the pageantry of nature unfold some more until dusk overtakes, the bats come out, the dragonflies swirl and patrol en masse over the pools, and the curious crayfish come up to inspect your feet and toes. After a modest bite to eat, it's soon time to plop down and sleep, for doing nothing on hot, lazy days makes you tired and sleepy, plus you’re sunburned, slightly dehydrated, and ready for some shut-eye. . .but not before watching twinkling stars emerge one by one until a vast firmament of them lights up the night sky. . . and finally, you drift off into a deep sleep, replete with weird dreams of zoophiliac orgy - animals surrounding you, cooing, coming on to you....until moonrise a short time later lulls you out of your visionary stupor. Ardha Chandra - the sacred half moon of Sanskrit lore - is bright enough to illuminate the darkness with eye-squinting Albion glow, drowning out the starry night sky, and casting eldritch shadows in ghostly pale candlelight over the river and landscape. It is a bewitching thing to behold, bleary-eyed, in your warm chrysalis, all motionless except sweeping shadows and tree tops swaying in a slight breeze, all silent but for the buzzing of cicadas and crickets, and the mantra chant in the background of water singing over rocks.