CLEAR CREEK OF THE SISKIYOUS: Timeless Rhythms, Eternal Cycles Persist Through the Years at Gorgeous Klamath River Tributary
When I look back on our last visit to Clear Creek in 2006, it seems like only a few short months ago. But sixty of them have already passed. Just like that, in a dreamy idyll rendered in misty memories. Beginning in '93, it was, a summer without a visit to Clear Creek was unthinkable; we ticked off a string of fourteen consecutive summer pilgrimages, eight hours away, gladly making the long slog up I-5, dangerous with so many pendejos on the road and congested with big rigs hogging up the lanes, always relieved to pull off on the world-class beautiful Klamath River Highway (Hwy. 96 West), bereft of traffic for the most part, where we'd proceed leisurely along its anfractuous course the remaining seventy miles to the turn-off into the Clear Creek drainage, always a thrill and ever special to be there.
Sometimes, we'd stop and camp at the Tree of Heaven Forest Service campground, on an oxbow bend far enough down off the road where you felt removed and isolated under a big starry sky with the strong current whooshing by and a moist scent of chlorinated pine duff, it seemed, clinging in the air to keep you company the night through. Once we met a strapping Native American fellow by the name of Wesley Tall Grass, recently retired from a career in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where, he told us, he tried to, but failed, to make a difference in the corridors of big government on Capitol Hill. I remember his Spartan words: "Nothing changed." Now, he was just taking time off, he told us, his first vacation in twenty-two years. He was loving Klamath Country like no other. Before anyone else was awake, the ex-BIA official, big Wesley Tall Grass, and I talked of many things that early morning at river's edge - (can't remember a single one of them now) - hands-in-pocket figures scuffling slightly to ward off the chill, as a ghostly miasma of wispy condensation spin-tailed above the churning river, and early morning birds began peeping at the dawn. We established the spark of a connection, something unnamed and soulful, exchanged e-mails, shook hands (his big clutch with an exquisite turquoise ring adorning the pinkie nearly swallowed up my homunculus appendage), and said we’d keep in touch. Yeah, sure, adios, Chief. Most other times, we'd press on to the next wild blackberry rich campground, Sara Totten, and crash there late at night or early in the morning, always a relief to get out of the car and breathe in the great American outdoors, the intoxicating fresh scent of summer air in America's Big Wide Open Wild, Wild West. Usually brain-wracked and excruciatingly tired, so much so that I would always just toss and turn the night through, the white noise of the river filling my head with oddly soothing static music as I drifted on and off into very weird realms of dreamland. Other times, like this time, we time it right and plow straight on through to Clear Creek, eagerly anticipating tuning in to our favorite reality show - the Nature Channel (and Premium Content, at that!)
Always dreading it, the drive up isn't too bad. I manage to secure an upgrade from my favorite Rent-a-car company, Enterprise, to a big ol' boat, a funky ostentatious Gran Marquis (certain to amuse and delight a car aficionado friend) - that takes us there in pimp-my-ride comfort at no appreciable loss of gas mileage. We be stylin’ for sure. At one point, Ray Charles is belting out a jazzy rap tune that's a perfect anthem for us. I set 'er on cruise control at about 66, and we're off 'n runnin'.
In Yreka, up in Shasta country, the county seat of Siskiyou County, after all these years, we finally stop and actually check out the historic business district, comprised of a block or two cluster of turn of the century and older buildings that once served as hardware stores, bakeries, breweries, bars, and, naturally, houses of ill repute (prostitution AND gambling, oh my!). In 1854, the then hugely celebrated poet Joaquin Miller noted Yreka was a place with "... a tide of people up and down and across other streets, as strong as if a city on the East Coast.” Today, this tide of people has moved up and down and across an increasingly sprawling frontage road commercial strip. Back in the day, mining and minerals and ranching drew people here (and I guess the huntin's good); today, it's some of that, but largely Yreka appeals because of its perfect inducement of the three R's - recreation, relaxation and retirement. Who wouldn't want to live here, in the shadow of looming Shasta, on the boundary of vast acreage of federally designated wilderness areas, where neighbors, heaven forbid, actually know and talk to one another, where the everyday pace of life is conducive to low blood pressure and peaceful states of mind. . .but what would you do all damn day? Might just drive you (stir) crazy.
I guess you'd run an old timey sporting goods / hunting store. It takes us all of about ten minutes (hey, after all, we are on our way to paradise) to check out the historic edifices and read the dignified plaques commemorating some event or another. Our primary mission for having detoured off the interstate is actually to score some butane for the camping stove, which I neglected to do in Berkeley. We get in a wild goose chase going to this place and that - and I'm amazed at how much traffic is going up and down the strip boulevard on a Monday afternoon - finally being directed to a Wal-Mart – "Oh, yes," we're told in an ignoring fashion by a young wholesome female clerk working the register at some kind of propane / outdoor equipment establishment, "they have a big camping section there." At the Twilight Zone Wal-Mart, we're met with menacing navigational challenges, blinding florescence, chemically pungent, fake scented aromas permeating, zombie crowds of pathetic shoppers, bent-up old ladies standing in the air-conditioned foyer to escape the oppressive heat (it's about 90, but a hot, dry 90, to be sure), but we strike out in our quest to score some camping gas. They have every damn item in stock except our gas.
Can’t get out of that place fast enough, so we head back to the historic district where we had been before and had overlooked - or mistook for closed - an old-fashioned sixties era sporting goods store. I mean it's totally classic like from my boyhood or something. I go in and am relieved to spot the cannisters. (Yes, we can now eat our oatmeal, tea and soup!) I pick up two and approach the old-fart proprietor (a transplant from somewhere, like probably four-fifths of Yreka) and I ask him (obviously I am a mere city slicker in my big honkin' Gran Marquis and faux-cool shades) about the kills on the walls - about ten severed taxidermized heads of Tule elk, stalked and shot in the local hills, stare down from on high, mounted way up on the lacquered fake wood walls, his personal trophy kills presiding over this grim little store. Or at least two of them are. "Oh, yeah, I killed both of them," he says, spinning around and pointing proudly to two massive rack specimens. "So," I ask, "were they clean one-shot kills?" It's as though I asked him if he shit and wiped his ass this morning. I'm not kidding. I avoid looking at the old fart, affixing my gaze on the once magnificent elks' glassy distant stare. I try to imagine doing what it takes to - sportively – massacre a peaceful beast. My question, which I repeat, flummoxes him and he fumbles with a response something to the effect of "it took me several bullets on that one there." I nod, say "I see", complete our transaction, thank him, and I'm outta there, and we're outta here - on to Happy Camp. Should be there in ninety minutes. That ought to put us on the banks of Clear Creek in plenty of time to set up camp and take an evening swim. Time to tune in (to the Nature Channel), turn on (the switch that activates the crack between two worlds), and drop out (of all routines, preconceptions, imagined fallibilities, insecurities and false narratives). At least for a few days of fantasia.
Happy Camp is a sleepy spread out community of a couple thousand souls situated where Indian Creek flows into the Klamath. Like Yreka, it's a strictly-business stop, short, sweet and purpose-driven; we're in and out of Larry's Market - or is it Parry's now? - in ten minutes, with some essentials, chief among them ice, fire and lottery tickets. I ask the (whom I believe to be a slightly surly Native Karuk) woman for five Super Lotto Quick Picks and tell her we're in it together - if I win she wins. She gives me this dull, disbelieving look and shoos me along to attend to her (whom I believe to be slightly sullen) sister or cousin next in line. (Bulletin we'd all love to see: "Berkeley man hits Motherlode jackpot in Happy Camp! Shares fortune with no-longer-surly clerk!") We tend not to spend too much time in Happy Camp, mainly because there's not a whole lot to do here. We pay our respects to the big statue of Sasquatch on the main drag welcoming visitors, and head out of town, just another couple of transient big city tourists contributing paltrily to the local tax base, just passin' through, and the Happy Campers probably wouldn't have it any other way. (But, God, are we really reduced to such a characterization?)
After a few miles, we turn off at the clearly marked Clear Creek sign, and head up an eight mile Forest Service road hacked in the rugged hills of the drainage, dead-ending at the trailhead. In the old days, we always used to get lost, invariably taking a wrong logging road leading high and away from the drainage - duh! Now, it's much better marked, and there have been some upgrades - trail maintenance, signs posted, toilet, camping areas with picnic benches. (Heard tell in '04 or '05, campers left their unattended dog leashed at one of these trailhead areas and when they returned, only the collar was there - with evidence suggesting a visit by a hungry mountain lion.)
Our special spot the last few visits has been No Man's camping area right before the trail head - an easy, but easy-to-miss (for nothing seems to be there) turn off with a secret trail heading down fifty feet to a nice little spread overlooking a deep green pool. It's right here, and oh so beautiful. If you didn't know what was there, you'd never know it was there. And it might remind you of a place you've never been, but intense deja vu remedies that minor disorientation. One day we pull in late and are too tired to hike in that evening, and so resign ourselves to the horrible prospects of this little pull-off gem. Lending a semblance of a "backpacking trip" we had always hauled in our over-stuffed loads a couple of miles up and over the ridge to a sweet camping area we always adored, where I'd hang up my Yucatecan hammock and we'd spend four or five days there in contemplative lethargy, engaged in the usual do-nothingness one does nothing of whilst languishing on a river in the thick of the lazy dog days of a hot August summer. Might see a bear, might not. Rattlers always made their presence known, respectfully. One year, with nothing better to do, I join the ranks of Preston Little Bear and Laura Little Hawk and proudly carve a youthful moniker from my early Mexican daze (ca. '74 - '92) into the ramshackle picnic table; last I checked it’s still there, with a sun emblem forming the “O”: "Acapulco Slim 8/20/94."
We are homecoming queens and kings as we approach our serendipitously discovered camping area. Look around! This is an intimate slice of wildness, all within our grasp, no effort (except for the driving) in getting here, right off the little-used road, conveniently tucked away out of sight down below where we throw down our camping gear and head straight for the inviting swimming hole. A blinding brilliance prevails at the river - slanting late afternoon rays splay across half the pool, with lengthening shadows darkening the other half's depths to the color of cold forged steel. We strip down and slink in, surprised by the tugging current and warmer than expected water. Usually, Clear Creek is a shrivel your balls experience, a work up to it inspiration, an inch-by-inch sidle into its bracing cold water - that, or just the wild plunge. Now, though, covered in sweat and grime, hot and in need of a refreshing dunk, it is pura vida and subudibal, mon! AAAAH! What a feeling to be soaking away all of our aches and frustrations, not to mention our fears and worries, and, of course, melting away all stress like asphalt under a Death Valley sun, in this precious, healing, cleansing wilderness mountain stream. It can’t be beat (well, a secluded hot springs experience come close).
A quick look around tells me superficially nothing has changed. I sigh in relief, I really do. And yet, on closer inspection - a look here, a glance there, everything has changed. What’s that old adage – you can’t step in the same river twice. Therefore it is continually changing. A pair of diminutive madrone trees guarding the entrance to our camp seem to have sprouted at least two or three feet since our last acquaintance. That giant log never used to be there. What happened to that cliff - it just collapsed into a pile of jagged sharp scree. And our camping area has washed out a bit, so I find a good stick to brush and smooth it out, making it a suitable site for supine relaxation - perfect for looking up between tall pines at a big wedge of star-studded firmament, a faint breeze keeping bugs at bay, snug in my sleeping bag, in a place I've spent fifty nights dreaming away; it's a nice feeling. Other details of our surroundings command my attention - certain familiar trees of heaven and identifiable rocks and assemblages of boulders and cliffs and logjams and sets of rapids and corridors of emerald liquidescence flowing through ancient gorges. Particular views. The snakelike root engaging the stupa shaped boulder. The silky smooth madrone tree with tits and belly button. It is all the same and entirely different. It is as though yesterday these images burned in my consciousness, swelled in my heart. Father Time has progressed, but milfy Mother Nature has not aged one bit. I think she will always be young, even if geology tells us otherwise.
How long does it take, barring a catastrophic natural event like a major landslide or fire or flood, for a serene place like Clear Creek to effect noticeable change? Will Clear Creek look any different in a hundred years, or 5,000 or 50,000, or a million? Big fires have burned in these parts and it just makes the ecosystem all the healthier. My guess is - with just the elements working their relentless fracturing and erosion processes through wind, rain, ice, heat, cold - my guess is that it would take at least 100,000 years for the forces of nature to sufficiently render Clear Creek unrecognizable from today. But the way the earth works, with unpredictable dynamism, it could happen, relatively speaking, or literally, overnight with calamitous climate change, or how about an asteroid plowing into things. But left to its own devices - unceasing ebb and flow of life, timeless rhythms, eternal cycles - Clear Creek will always be. Clear. Creek. Will. Always. Be.
What has always compelled us to retreat to wilderness settings? Beauty and solitude alone, no - although those elements create the sacred context for stopping the world and dismantling the routines, for fostering a meditative floating sensation of suspended time, for the magical chance to revel in eternity’s flow. Along a river, away from the hordes and civilized society and urban depravity, we tend to engage in as little "monkey mind" thinking as possible - no thinking allowed (aloud)! Our intention over the next 100 hours is to turn it off and shut it down, or as an earnest 19 year old Hemingway wrote in a just-released 1918 letter to his "Dear Old Pop", to "give my buszing, crackling, bushed high tension, twin six brain a rest." (Hear, hear, Hemmy!)
For us, it’s not about adventure, thrills, excitement, or challenge (synonymous with FUN) - some nice to haves - but our dog-day August ritual demands so much less of us, or so much more because it's not all that easy to just turn it off and focus on the here and now, the being of being here with nothing to do, nothing to prove, nothing to chase after, nothing to worry about, nothing to read or write or file away. Nothing to fix, resolve, deal with or plan for. Unwinding from so many workaday stresses, the challenge becomes to rev it down in pure chillax mode, contemplate the navel if nothing else in a splendiferous narcoleptic reverie, beset in mindless rapture. While all about you the magisterial manifestations of miraculous phenomena persist - otherwise known as the life's unceasing ebb and flow, Mother Nature's unfolding dramas and unnoticed little things, her animated blueprint and unseen interactions and confluences and overlappings, occurring by the quadrillion every second.
It's hard to find new ways to describe Clear Creek, unrivaled in purity and beauty. What it means. What it means to us. After already posting two accounts of my impressions and non-doings over the years, let me make things easy and just plagiarize my own writing: "Clear Creek’s virginal waters originate high in the ranges west of the Marble Mountain Wilderness, and runs its 23 mile course through an ancient canyon gouged out of raw earth and bedrock, wearing down tortured boulders into jagged and jumbled banks, narrow channels and gorgeous pools of jade green water flowing wild and pristine as a mountain creek should."
In my prior posts (which have undoubtedly sunk to the bottomless depths of your river of very important but forgotten about things to read) I've gushed about Clear Creek and described the landscape and sketched out the history and limned the culture of native Karuk, Happy Campers and the fiercely independent and radical denizens of Siskiyou County, and have profiled other aspects of the contumacious "State" of Jefferson. To wit: "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.)"
I really would love it if something better comes to me, some newfangled poetic flourish or highfalutin lyrical riff, but I have mere left-overs to offer: "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 gorgeous channel 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 degrees. 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."
Four nights and five days, hour by hour melting away, time mobius stripping into a circular flow or like the river, with no beginning or end, just an eternal unfolding of which we are but a part carried along like a helpless twig in the torrent, like leaves twirling to the ground, to the creek, swept up in the rush of water like tiny rafts headed on their unknown epic journeys. "World of rock, world of tree, world of water, world of sky—home to all of our animal friends. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for sharing your home."
This setting - an uncontained wild river - creates a condition of forced meditation, a state of mandatory induced calmness. You cannot rush the river, or hurry it along, or oppose its way; therefore, you cannot do these things to yourself in the presence of the river. All you can really do is let it sink in, give yourself over to it, love it, and learn from it. In Siddhartha, Hesse wrote, "It is a very beautiful river. I love it above everything. I have often listened to it, gazed at it, and I have always learned something from it. One can learn much from a river." This acknowledgement or notion that natural features of the earth - rivers, mountains, rocks, trees - are our teachers comes easily for tribal peoples living in close harmony with nature (unlike Western humankind), who for tens of thousands of years have sought out sacred places and revered holy natural creation in order to unlock mystical secrets and tap into the animist power earth features hold and represent - an ultimate lesson learned of humility and respect, of knowing our proper place in Nature as but one of many inter-connected strands in the complex web of life.
And so, all you can do is fight it or succumb to it. In the old days, I used to fight it, itchin' and restless after a couple nights, driven to explore other places to hike, be on the move, active, working out, productive. Picture this: an argument where it is suggested that I just go off on my own, then! Well, these days, I've learned to fall loving victim to the captive spell of torpor. I've become adept at shedding my base human ways and peeling off the "carnal incrustations" of life. Viz.: "A typical day at Clear Creek? Think of sloooooowing waaaaaaay doooooown. Imagine walking in meditative mini-steps. Certainly the 108 degree temperature helps, but the exercise is to deliberately gear it down several notches. It is revolutionary to just wind down, let go, not rush, not think, not do. . .just be. And that is when the animal magic happens!"
Sun rising over ridge tops, spilling soft light over mountains and creek, then latish in the afternoon dagger rays stippling patches of amber limpid pools, dazzling, kaleidoscopic reflective visions of upside down cedars and inverted salmon-colored cliff faces, as finally night unveils its ebon curtain, revealing the infinite cosmos, "the grand celestial show above of meteors, satellites, Milky Way, glittering pinpricks of millions of stars, and the occasional UFO sighting."
Opening our hearts to the animals' presence, brings them out, so they feel comfortable to emerge from their hiding spots - soon the shrill bzeet bzeet bzeet of the ouzel cheers the air and the sweet song of canyon wren is carried on the wind, and the playful squawk of jay livens things up. "We have had the pleasure of visiting with ant, beetle, bee, bat, butterfly, bumblebee, bird, caterpillar, cicada, cricket, dragonfly, deer, fly, frog, fish, grasshopper, horsefly, hummingbird, kingfisher, lizard, moth, mosquito, midge, mantis, pheasant, spider, snake, squirrel, slug, water strider, wasp, water ouzel. Oh brother and sister, where art thou, raccoon, bear, bobcat, lion, weasel, skunk, hawk, badger, Bigfoot?—all creatures great and small we love and admire. 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.'"
Slow-boiled, sun-drenched Saharan days with sirocco zephyrs meld 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." And then no sooner are we becalmed, settled in and kicked back than it's time to leave. Imagine if five years can pass so quickly, how ridiculously evanescent five measly days are - vanishing like that (snap!) into the thin air of our mysterious existences.
Whether twelve months, five years or two decades pass before we again find ourselves immersed in the magico-animated world of Clear Creek, doesn't matter. We carry the place in our hearts for all time.
To read more about Clear Creek, visit my other posts: