SIERRA NEVADA FOOTHILLS: Halcyon Summer Memories Backpacking and Camping in Unregulated, Wild and Pristine South Yuba River Country
- Herman Hesse, Siddhartha
One infernal hot day, as they are wont to be during mid-August in the Nevada County Gold Rush foothills of California, I’m drenched in dust and sweat, bogged down like a beast of burden toting an abundance of comestibles, supplies, books, and superfluous camping gear in my overloaded pack to even stop to slake my thirst, take in the views, or do much but stare at the ground in front me. Rounding a bend in the trail heading up a steep, rocky incline to the canyon rim, I’m finally forced to stop, for -- surprise of surprises -- on my birthday, no less -- there blocking the path stands my Chinese Zodiac animal totem - a big ram! The shaggy creature, appearing a bit bedraggled, and emanating a vaguely stinky aroma, is draped in a whitish, dusty wool coat matted in gnarly dreadlock strands, and he’s sporting a set of thick black, curled horns, and possesses the piercing eyes of a mischievous faun; my first instinct is fright and repulsion. But I instantly sense he’s a harmless ol’ goat, so I side-step to let him pass. But he just nonchalantly keeps munching away on a patch of weedy delights, barely deigning to look up at me, so I touch his horns for good luck, pat him on the back, and proceed upward and onward, through forests of black oak, manzanita and pine, eager to get beyond Hoyt’s Crossing for a spiritual cleansing, a baptismal immersion, a good old fashioned dunking in the emerald pools still largely unknown about by the outside world.
Another time, in the late eighties, it must have been, I return to camp after a swim and hear a weird chatter in the trees above. I look up and am astonished to see a family of ring-tailed cats gazing down appearing most curious about my sudden presence. The furry, raccoon-like creatures -- a couple of adults and three juveniles -- crawl along the branches and lope halfway down the tree trunk, seemingly after the food in my pack which is propped up against the tree. I distract them by waving my arms, and they resume their very nonchalant perch in the high branches, keeping me company for half an hour before they tire of their fruitless antics and wander off rather like tree monkeys along the network of branches to disappear forever into the forest canopy. It's the first - and probably last - time I'll ever see ring-tailed cats in the wild.
Over the course of 22 years - yes, hard to imagine, but there was an era before the present when Yuba Country was an unknown destination - I've returned time and again to seek out and engage in the delightful do-nothingness typical of "lazy youth" summertime idylls -- splashing about and swimming in Olympian pools; lounging beneath venerable cottonwood trees, lulled into a meditative stupor by the river’s song, watching Water Ouzels flit from riffle to riffle, lazily listening to the prettiest bird call in the American West, that of the canyon wren, following kamikaze paths of glittering dragonflies; basking in nonpareil serenity and solitude and gleaning spiritual introspection, intimate reverie and deep connection in the bosom of nature afforded by the remote canyon setting; and, when energy runs high, rambunctious episodes of riverplay on one of California's great, historic Wild and Scenic corridors - the 39 mile stretch of the South Yuba River.
Matter of fact, ain't nowhere like the Yuba!. . .a refrain Gambolin' Man's been barbarically yawping from the rooftops of his world to whoever'll listen since the first time ever he laid eyes on the magical ribbon of celadon-blue water emanating from high in the Sierra Nevada's snowmelt-fed headwaters and coursing downstream on its long journey (interrupted by a stay in Lake Spaulding) to its oceanic outlet through ultramontane / canyon / lowland environs and habitats. For years, a certain magical stretch of the beloved river was a favorite refuge, a great escape from, as Wordsworth penned it, our hectic, mean world “too much with us, late and soon,” and always a veritable paradise for hassle-free, perfect camping, owing to no bears (watch out for the squirrels, though!), a constant gentle evening breeze (meaning no mosquitoes), and warm enough through the night to sleep out of your bag and enjoy the luxury of unfettered stargazing up at a magical, infinite firmament.
I first got turned on to Yuba Country back in my fool’s gold rush days in the early summer of 1986, by way of a local denizen / homesteader named Mitch Mitchell (still around, buddy?) whom I met while vacilando (wherein the experience of travel is more important than reaching a specific destination) through Central America during the aimless spring of that year. Mitch and I crossed (psycho)paths in Poptun, Guatemala, at Finca Ixobel, a prototype ecolodge run by ex-pats Mike and Carol DeVine. Shockingly, Mike was brutally murdered four years later in 1990 - dismembered and stuffed in a mail sack and dumped by the side of the road - by Guatemalan military thugs who suspected him, fallaciously, of gun running and drug dealing, but Carol Devine later told me he had stumbled upon a huge army-guarded marijuana or poppy field in the area where he led three-day mule tours to the famous caves we had wanted to explore -- the recently discovered fantastically painted and carved grotto walls of Naj Tunich – and so Mike was offed and a big cover-up ensued involving the highest levels of the U.S. State Department investigating and criminally prosecuting. Well, a terribly sad story, with little resolution, but at the time it was raining miserably for days on end, and we never made it to the caves ....but Mitch and I - and a host of other forgotten characters - spent two weeks waiting out the weather, to no avail, reading endlessly, playing games, gazing forlornly out windows at the rain-sodden grounds. We did get to know one another fairly well, and since we were on a roughly parallel path heading back toward California (first, a camping trip at Tikal, to check out the famous ancient Maya citadel), Mitch suggested I visit him in Nevada City - huh, where's that? - where he lived with his wife, Dotty, a nurse who commuted to her job in Sacramento, in a rough-hewn cabin off the grid, and having nothing better to do on my reluctant return to the Bay Area, I took him up on the offer and soon found myself shacked up in an old trailer on his oak-choked property chopping wood and hauling water for a pittance wage. Very zen-boring-like. Plus, it was hotter than Hades, and I hated the low-paying, grueling hard work. . . but I fancied myself on a beat writer’s retreat to pen the Great Mexican Novel (you know, the pre-Da Vinci Code / Indiana Jones / Crystal Skull archaeological thriller that materialized as a very vague outline of barely imagined characters and thin plot contrivances in my journal), and ended up instead spending the better part of my free days hanging out at the secret spot Mitch turned me on to, drinking ice cold beer, immersed in the refreshing waters, and merely daydreaming time away in lackadaisical what-if scenarios of my how I imagined my “writer’s life” to unfold. I lasted two weeks cutting Mitch's oak stumps into cord piles, and never wrote chapter one, but ever since, year after year after year, like a salmon returning to spawning grounds, or a migratory bird operating on pure homing instincts, I have been returning, with Gambolin’ Gal, or friends in tow, to indulge in the splendors, rustic charms, and oh-so-sweet languor of Yuba Country. Aaaah, ain’t nowhere like the Yuba!
You always knew you'd arrived in Yuba Country by that first olfactory tingling in the air of hot, sensuous aromas emanating from the dry brush cooking in the desert like heat of day - something akin to toasted pecans - otherwise referred to as "that Yuba smell." And THE place to be, to camp, to hang out, to get away from the hoi polloi hordes at the Hwy. 49 bridge, for those in the know, back then, was the place Mitch turned me onto - a three-mile hike along a snaky trail high above the north canyon rim to a patch of private property situated adjacent to BLM land on an old historic mining claim of rocks piled high with the detritus of miners’ work, whose sluices and dredges and hydraulic high pressure machinery has fallen silent and ghostly. Beyond the purlieus and ken of most visitors, the absentee land owners allowed all manner of misfits, anchorites and regular old citified folk to camp - respectfully - on the land, if you were "in the know."
Several choice spots are situated alluringly here and there alongside the sandy banks and gravel bars, sheltered among big boulders draped in wild grape, decorated with driftwood piles and with shady trees providing mid-day coverage from the blazing sun. The rapids, waterfalls, tributary streams, seeps, springs, pools of the river are legendary for the clarity of water and depth of pools, and the sculptural artistry of the boulders and bedrock. The landscape, with this incredible river running through it, is charmed for its rugged beauty, wildlife habitat, and outstanding geological wonders, especially the iconic landmark, an overpowering feature called "Devil's Slide" (which I just had to rename God’s Slide). Once the subject of dam-building rumors (I eco-sabotaged by pulling up surveyor's stakes one summer!), the mountainous formation defines the geology of place and rises 800, maybe 1000 ft. into a cobalt sky like a gigantic pyramid above deep emerald pools, with sharp rock faces jutting at steep angles into the river. More than once, slap-happy climbing and prancing about in naked abandon on those cliffy inclines, this ol’ mountain goat slipped down into the water and luckily never broke a bone or incurred a scratch. And how many hours and days were whiled away swimming in the perfect holes at the base of "God's Slide", diving into chartless depths from 25 ft. perches, and swim- whacking up and down the riverbed exploring in gleeful abandon and wild-eyed enthusiasm like a little kid, clambering up and over marble smooth white boulders and lying blissfully on their polished, hot surfaces, soaking up the rays (who cared back then?) and forgetting about responsibility, commitment, jobs, the world, in fact, except the world of the river. Count on it like clockwork, every summer, at least three trips to camp at our favorite "tried and true" spot. Aaaah, ain’t nowhere like the Yuba!
Well, all good things must pass, right. Over the years, unsavory elements began frequenting the area, and close to Hwy. 49, and up by the rough ‘n ready town of Washington, on what was then unregulated BLM land, squatter outdoor party-hardy types began setting up unsanitary camps, leaving offal messes of shit and toilet paper and trash everywhere, and generally creating squalor and disharmony with lots of boozing and rowdiness, inevitably leading to conflict, injuries and one too many deaths from drowning. And so by the early to mid-1990s, the Authorities – a consortium of BLM, State Parks, US Forest Service, Nevada County, and other agencies -- took over, created a comprehensive “Management Plan for the South Yuba River”, banned overnight parking at the Hwy. 49 bridge and beyond up and downstream, which effectively banned camping, and enacted a slew of rules and regulations all designed to preserve and protect (rightfully so, I must admit) the “Outstandingly Remarkable Values” of the area. Now, to overnight it, you have to figure out creative ways to enjoy the pristine backcountry on the adjoining land (still privately owned) where we used to camp.
Recently, we day-tripped to our favorite spot, and encountered a party of eight women who had been dropped off and would be picked up later. That's the only way to capture the magic. When they saw us, they immediately put up their defensive force field shields, and made us feel like invaders from hell, but they finally relaxed once we informed them we were just there for the day and would be spending it, thank you, down the river by God's Slide. Aaaaaah, ain’t nowhere like the Yuba! We spent the whole day, eight hours passing in a blur of timelessness. No one about, nowhere to go, nothing to do, quietude abounded and serenity reigned. Somewhere out there were many animals, but no sign of the northern goshawk, Pacific fisher, California spotted owl, bald eagle or the Sierra Nevada red fox; still, we saw a monster rattlesnake, big, hungry trout, hawks circling cerulean skies, canyon wrens, water ouzels, frogs, lizards, and evidence of big cats on the prowl. But, when suddenly we realized the day had vanished, we were rueful not to be spending the night and instead packing up our belongings and hiking out at sunset for the three-hour drive back to the Bay Area.
Memories of precious "wasted" time spent in the back stretches of the South Yuba River in the area of Devil’s Slide will always be freshly engrained in my mind and forever imprinted in the heart's record of lifetime FUN experiences. So much of the recreational, scenic, historic, and archaeological "outstandingly remarkable values" will forever remain a magnet, attracting people by the thousands to the area year round. There is still so much left to explore and learn about and check out – after all, the South Yuba River is a gigantic watershed of 352 square miles, and I’ve probably only explored 10 of the 39 miles of the Wild and Scenic corridor, so plenty more to see and do. . .It’s just that nothing can or ever will be the same, or equal those carefree days of yore when you could pack it in for a weekend get-away of leisurely camping on a wild and pristine river and know you'll have the place to yourself pretty much, and be able to spiritually recharge the batteries and face the music again -- that world still too much with us - with fortitude and courage, late and soon.
Aaaah, ain't nowhere like the Yuba, even today, despite it all.