Saturday, August 25, 2007

LAKE TAHOE AREA: Hiking and Scrambling in High Alpine Country Above Squaw Valley in the Midst of Tahoe National Forest

Summer’s not summer in California if you don’t make it up at least once to the Lake Tahoe area for a weekend or weeklong getaway to, well, relative paradise. Frenzied crowds, long, busy drives on dangerous freeways, heinous traffic jams, roadway insanity of pent up city folks jammin' hard up and over 7,000 ft. mountain passes, combined with super-easy access to spectacular alpine scenery and overflow throngs of hikers clogging up trails - feggeddaboutit! -- none of it matters! Drive safely and sanely, arrive there in one piece, and you’ll find, well, relative paradise.

So it is that one fine summer day we’re leisurely hiking, madly scrambling, and earnestly exploring in the high back country behind Squaw Valley, one of the West’s premier skiing destinations, and mountain biking / hiking meccas come summertime. Squaw terrain is located a few miles below the Donner Lake area on Interstate 80, and west (off Highway 89) of the northwest shore of Lake Tahoe, on the fringes of the Granite Chief Wilderness, basically in the vicinity of the upper upper upper (it’s one mighty big royal gorge) headwaters of the fabulous North Fork American River and other wondrous watercourses. This rugged land comprises about 4,000 acres of big time High Sierra scenery, and nearly 3,000 ft. of elevation gain to the highest nearby peaks -- Silver @ 8424 ft; Tinker Knob @ 8949 ft.; Lyon @ 8891 ft.; and the crowning glory of Needle Peak @ 9086 ft. Trails leading into the more pristine areas of Tahoe National Forest and Granite Chief Wilderness entice you to just keep on hikin', scramblin' and explorin'. If only you could. . .

It seems that this particular hike and environs is too close to bustling Squaw Valley to amount to much. Too many people, not enough wilderness. Wrong on all counts, Gambolin’ Man! This is big country, and not surprisingly -- it’s still the Sierra Nevada, after all! Bottom line - it’s easy to ditch the hoi polloi, hike a little beyond, find a get away, and not see a soul all merry day long. But don’t delude yourself, either - it’s just as easy to get disoriented or debilitated (high altitude sickness, accident or injury, e.g.) in this ultra-accessible landscape. But you’d have to want to get lost out here, because of the proximity to civilization and the popularity of the trail systems. But aha! That’s the paradox of the paradise! Thousands can enjoy, yet on a weekday in the peak of summer, you might well have the place to yourself!

At the trailhead, I’m thinking, aw shit, this is gonna be like some holy pilgrimage where everyone and their aunt and uncle will be oohing and aahing at the spendid sights awaiting intrepid day hikers up Squaw Creek Canyon. It’s on a million web sites and in a hundred guidebooks. Everyone knows about it and wants to hike it -- today, no doubt. And how can you blame ‘em, for indeed this is a famous “must do” day hike in the Tahoe area, notable for its drop-dead beautiful, very accessible scenery and easy hiking, and yet it packs a real honest-to-God punch and provides an adventurous outing / hike for all sizes and ages. We’re lucky today, though - very few people are out on the trail at this up-and-at-’em hour! Leave early enough, and return late enough, like we do, and you’ll own the place. (Such hubris, Gambolin’ Man! You own nothing! Nature owns you!)

Well, I’m contented doing exactly what we’re doing today - seeking out nature‘s peace and beauty. We‘re heading up a boulder choked ravine - carved out by pretty little Squaw Creek - enjoying perfect serenity and solitude on a brilliant day in a classic High Sierra setting. A steady uphill pace takes us along the winding contours of golden-tinted Squaw Creek, until the trail ends after 500+ ft. of elevation gain over a mile or more. At this point, the rest of the way becomes a fun scramble up massive granite slabs to the ever-lovely Shirley Lake, set in a pretty basin at over 7,000 ft. We’ve probably climbed over 1200 ft. to get here. And still not out of breath! (Only breathless with wonder and awe!)

The high, back country of Squaw Valley is no mere poseur to such TRULY SPECTACULAR spots in the Sierra Nevada -- Mt. Whitney, Kern River Canyon, John Muir Wilderness, Yosemite, King‘s Canyon, Sequoia, e.g. -- but I’ll have to admit, it’s not too shabby of a High Sierra Elysian landscape! I’ll take it any day. How on earth can you complain hiking gorgeous ultramontane hinterlands on a hot pleasant day, loved one in tow - that’d be my one-and-only Gambolin’ Gal - and no one in sight, in a perfect high elevation granite wilderness of peaks, buttes, lakes, forests and streams. Fact is, this place is as beautiful, exotic, remote, and pristine as anywhere in California’s Sierra Nevada at elevations of between 5000 ft. and 7000 ft. I don’t care where you are! I’m instantly charmed by the country, amazed by the remote solitude experienced on the very edges of a bustling tourist mecca, in awe of a nature experience so immediate that thousands can enjoy it, yet at the same time, we probably will have the place to ourselves, especially on the last part of the gambol - a mile or more scramble up and over sprawling slabs of granite and boulders the size of lakeside cabins.

Every few minutes, it’s stop and shoot, stop and shoot - everything along the way fascinates in this wild land of such unexpected beauty (why unexpected? - it’s still the Sierra Nevada, after all!) Along the way, we‘re sidetracked by flowery, sweet-smelling meadows where deer have left copious droppings. We’re waylaid endlessly admiring stands of pungent sugar pines, cedars, tall Douglas firs, and my favorite tree in the Range of Light, the venerable and gnarled Western Juniper. The air smells pleasantly of smoky pine duff and some unidentifiable mountain sagebrush or chaparral blossom. It’s really quite lovely, quite heavenly -- no where else to be, nothing else to do. We eat a snack on the precipice of a ledge overlooking a miniature canyon of carved polished rocks and chutes bursting to life with tumbling water, the color of gold. This is a sacred land of big rocks, big trees, big peaks, big water, big sky. And yet, “it ain’t the John Muir”, as an old amigo used to say to me, condescendingly, every time I would deign to extoll “lesser” scenes of simple beauty in nature. . .

I love the way Squaw Creek cuts and twists through colorful ancient bedrock, carving out the pretty gorge of waterfalls, cascades, and clear shallow pools. You won’t find too many fools dipping in these icy waters --except maybe Gambolin’ Man, sweaty and hot on this 72 degree day! The going, although relentlessly uphill, is on a nicely maintained trail that hugs and crosses Squaw Creek a dozen times; it is crazy easy, but, of course, in the end, it takes us our usual dilatory several hours to cover just a couple of miles. Although we have a destination in mind - Shirley Lake - I could care less if we reach it (but glad that we do), for everything - every sight, every sensation - along the way fascinates and deserves close scrutiny, special appreciation. I’m surprised we manage to cover as much ground as we do, given our natural proclivities to stop and gawk, in silent admiration, for long stretches of time at every pretty, little thing along the way -- pine cones littering the forest floor like an avant garde art installation; colorful lichen splotching into psychedelic designs on boulders; a curious, attentive Golden-manteled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis) perched on a log; a lumbering beetle; darting minnows; a fat bumblebee sucking nectar; the fleeting appearance of a hummingbird; flowery delights; thick textured bark lying on the ground like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; a stellar jay preening on a limb; self-reflections in a shimmering pool.

Shirley Lake is a gem. Her glistening waters are inviting, crisp, reflective of magical images - a white boulder, a brown tree trunk, clouds and grasses. She‘s whispering and teasing me. . .lured by the Siren call, I strip bare and slip in the clear water for a refreshing, delightful swim. It takes some persuasion to get Gambolin’ Gal to do same, thinking it’s got to be frigid, but she sees me luxuriating and can’t help but to strip and slip in, too. She is amazed at the clarity and inviting nature of the water, the purity of the experience in a normally freezing but today utterly divine High Sierra lake, with no one about but us and God’s creatures great and small (of which we see just a few of the small). Now, some hikers come by, slightly ruining our fantasy. But they pass and we’re all alone again.

On the way back, we miss a cairn and take a wrong turn - serendipitously leading us to a most venerable granddaddy Juniper. This specimen must be at least 300 - or 1000 -- years old, who knows! We admire it, hug it, bless it, enjoy its offering of hospitality and shade, wish it well, and then continue on our disorienting way to end up at the edge of a high cliff overlooking a 50 ft. drop-off to a rocky basin. No biggie. Carefully, we follow a rocky, rutty gradient down, to the safety of the trail and a few more stops along Squaw Creek. The light of day is fading into alpenglow, enhancing the golden aura effect - everything is bathed in diffuse yellowish light, filtering out intense glare, softening harsh edges, and creating a magical sensation of being in a dreamy unreal world. We linger in it for as long as possible.

All in all, day hiking the nearby, and paradoxically remote, high back country of Squaw Valley California, has been a marvelous, fun, superb outing. Sure, we didn’t hike in ten miles to a fabulous lake at 10,500 ft. set beneath 13,000 ft. snow-capped peaks, or witness the magnificent spectacle of a 1000 ft. waterfall plunging over precipitous rock cliffs in some world-famous National Park, but hey, who's complaining? It's still the Sierra Nevada, after all! And we owned the place! (Careful there, Gambolin’ Man - the place owned you!)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

KLAMATH AND SIX RIVERS NATIONAL FORESTS: Summertime Fun and Adventure (Road Trip Style) Hiking, Swimming & Camping in the Land of Big Foot

I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes. ee cummings

In the dead of night, I stir to semi-consciousness, scared by a threatening noise announcing the unwanted presence of something big and hairy outside the tent near the fire pit. Whatever it is, it‘s stumbling about, knocking things over, and thankfully now running away - damn bear. I crawl out to assess the damage, but don’t notice until daybreak that a half-full bottle of wine we left on the table has vanished! How on earth could a bear absquatulate with a bottle of vino? Quite perplexing! Next night, same time, same scene: a stealth creature bumbling about in the darkness near our camp. I get out of the tent immediately and stand my ground, holding a large stick and banging it on a pot, shining my headlamp beam on the culprit - who turns out NOT to be a bear - that would have been a welcome sight! -- but, honest to god, a shaggy, bipedal, big-footed, 8 ft. tall apeman is the only way I can describe it! Are we stunned or what! Agile and fleet for a creature so big, and scared witlessly by my histrionics, the apeman vanishes in a flash, sans vino, faster than a bear racing from a swarm of hornets. I barely have time to do a double-take, but I clearly see the anthropoid features, the primitive red coal eyes, briefly glimpse the massive hind end of none other than Sasquatch, our homegrown Yeti, as he tramps off into the dark cover of forest. To this day no one believes me.

No matter - this day I’m perched alone on a rock in the middle of the river, lost to the world, feet dangling in a green goddess pool, zoning out on a mantra of white noise emanating from nearby rapids, soaking up the fading but radiant sunlight casting long rays over the river and creating rippling patterns and refractive displays of bewitching light. The immanence of a glorious sunset captures a perfect marriage of water and light to reflect salmon-colored clouds and salmon-colored cliffs in mirrored depths of the Salmon-colored river; it‘s as though I’m seeing sunset river beauty for the first time. I’m lost in a hypnotic gaze, staring without thought at the wavering images, admiring the ever-changing patterns. The reflections play tricks on my mind - are they as deep as the mountain is tall? Is the mountain as tall as the reflections are deep? Is it all natural, infinite, yes? Thoreau described such illusory reflections as “not true to their height though true to their breadth. . .extended downward with mathematical perpendicularity. .”
As I was saying.

Yep, it’s that time of year again, for our annual pilgrimage to the mountainous and wilder parts of northern California. Up in remote renegade / outlaw / outcast / stake-yer-claim and back off territory, called the State of Jefferson by some. The largely pristine big north country of California comprises the counties of Siskiyou, Mendocino, Trinity, Humboldt, Del Norte. This is our fifteen consecutive mid-July trip up north to hike, camp, swim and explore. Vast and diverse though the area is, we are destined to return, season after season, to our favorite place - sacred Karuk stomping grounds in and around Clear Creek.

Clear Creek -- ah, now there is a mountain stream for you! Owing to a high provenance, and a steep and relatively short journey to the Klamath River, it qualifies as “just a creek.” Whatever its hydrologic designation, Clear Creek is a tumultuous force of bracing cold, crystal clear waters running fast and deep in places, even at lower flows in mid to late summer. Without obstacle or interruption, the creek twists through gorges and canyons, forming paradisiacal emerald and jade green pools of absolute splendor and beauty, a creation of nature you drink in and celebrate with awe and joy, as Karuk peoples did and continue to do in and around Clear Creek.

Clear Creek is about ten minutes south of the historic mining, gold rush and Big Foot celebrated town of Happy Camp. Happy, I guess, because of all the gold the fools found on Indian Creek, and subsequently blew in legendary madrigal - make that shameless debauchery, like in all the Fools’ Gold Rush Towns back then. Happy Camp is about as deep in the woods as you can get, and about as far from major civilization as you can be, on a road trip in California; no wonder it‘s the domain of - as I wrote in last year’s blogpost -- ( -- “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 . . .” . . .as well as being home to all creatures wild, including Sasquatch, better known as Big Foot. If you‘re a fan of cryptozoology, you’ll feel right at home in these parts where annual festivals center around the mystery beast and small towns in the sticks compete for Big Foot bragging rights (which attract the tourists, few though they be). A giant carved wooden statue of a vaguely apish and mean-looking creature (wearing dreads, it appears) greets visitors entering the town. Not quite what I saw, but it’s somebody’s representation of Big Foot.

In these parts, settlements are far and few between, and people even scarcer in the back country adventure of your choice. (Except in certain areas of the Trinity Alps, where overcrowding is a drag and a big problem.) We drive past the Karuk tribal center; I note they’ve finally put in a nickel and dime gaming parlor - OK, a cheesy casino! But out here in the sticks, good luck. It’s tough to attract a clientele willing to give up not only their hard-earned vacation money, but who wants to give up precious hours in the Great Outdoors just for the on-chance you might win a few hundred at the blackjack tables? (Surely, not Gambolin’ Man!) All told, it’s about an eight hour haul from the Bay Area to Happy Camp, but totally worth it, for once in Klamath Country, it’s summertime in paradise. (Just ask any of the generally grumpy 2000 Happy Campers.)

Finally, after five hours of hard pushing up the increasingly beautiful but exponentially dangerous Interstate 5 snaking along the eastern margins of the Trinity Alps, we get to Yreka. Always a relief to pull off at Yreka! - a cowboy / high desert / agriculture / ranch / historic (aren’t all California mountain towns historic?) town, probably with a few exurban refugee / artist / hippie types moving in, an up and coming Ashland, maybe? Doubtful. But it feels great pull off the frenetic highway I call Big Rig Hell (I-5) and begin the leisurely final leg of the drive to Clear Creek along the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway (California Highway 96). Let the trip begin!

I just love this so much -- nothing but time on my hands (don‘t kid yourself!), baby in tow (love her evermore, idiot!), listening to Bruce (how did you miss him in the 70’s?), tooling down one of California’s premier scenic byways as it charts the sinuous course of the mighty Klamath River. For over one hundred miles it will carve a wide, graceful swathe through valley and hills along the borders of the Marble Mountain Wilderness, and the Klamath and Six Rivers National Forests. With our Clear Creek agenda, we by pass spectacular lands OUT THERE of almost 250,000 acres (Marble Mountain Wilderness) of high jagged peaks, alpine meadows, abundant trout streams, and amazing forests of fir, hemlock, tan oak and madrone, supporting healthy populations of bear, mountain lion, bobcat, fox, and other endemic flora and fauna. Trailhead directional signs point off into magical and mysterious forests, beckoning us to go UP THAT WAY for endless exploration, leading to lands of big mountains and crystal clear streams and Sierra Nevada-esque meadows profuse with wildflowers. . . but alas, these hidden destinations and marvelous discoveries will have to wait. The good news - there are plenty of other perfectly wonderful places to hike and explore, sans crowds, that don’t require a ten mile trudge up and down steep hills with fifty pounds on your back. Not that that isn’t fun, mind you!

By the time we get to Happy Camp, about 4 pm, there are not many Happy Campers. The skies are overcast with a smoky pall from what turns out to be 26 spot fires in the vicinity caused by lightning strikes in the past 24 hours. Yikes! We’re screwed. Only the second time in fifteen seasons it’s rained when we’ve been there. Firefighters are out in force, but severely undermanned against the (unseen) whipping blazes. At the Forest Service office, we see pushpins on a big map marking incendiary sites radiating out like spokes in all directions. We’re emphatically exhorted NOT to go to Clear Creek, for a fierce wildfire is consuming the trailhead area, the biggest fire since 1993 that charred and scarred the land for years before regenerating. We ask the ranger lady where should we go. She suggests heading into the Marble Mountains from Elk Creek Road, where we can camp at Sulphur Springs or Norcross campground, both sites remote access into the wilderness. There are no fires there, she tells us. (But, oddly, says nothing to us about fire restrictions!)

We head out slowly, mildly disappointed that our plans have taken a downcast turn. It’s disconcerting, smelling that smoldering odor of fire put out by rain, you know the smell -- looks like these char-blackened hillsides were recently doused in a downpour. Fire and water. Well, what choice do we have? We’ve been on the road for ten hours now. In another fifteen miles, to the campgrounds, we figure we’ll be okay. We’re following the contours of Elk Creek, which originates high in the Marble Mountain Wilderness, but by now, bedraggled and bleary-eyed, too tired to appreciate it, we cast about for a spot to pull off and set up camp.

Just before the two Forest Service campgrounds, we chance upon a too-good-to-be-true spot right along the river at swirling water’s edge perfect for spending the night. We’re in the middle of setting up camp when this big honkin’ monster truck comes driving toward us. Not what I want to see. An overly-friendly long-hair / scruffy / outlaw dude (snap judgment) is behind the wheel; a ludicrously tiny fluffy white lap dog peers out from the open passenger window. I make nice with the mutt, and give the odd character a pseudo-friendly nod, engage in some (very) small talk, and before you know it, we’re best buds and he’s inviting us to camp down next to his spread by the river. Uh (snap decision), thanks but no thanks. He’s going into town, so just make ourselves at home if we want, he invites cheerily. We pack everything back in the car and drive half a mile to Norcross and decide to just settle in there for the night. There’s nothing else we can do.

Norcross is on the western edge of the Marble Mountain Wilderness. Elk Creek Trail is a spur off the Pacific Crest Trail, so this is a perfect place to access the back country. Parts of this magnificent wilderness are so popular that permits are required due to years of insensate backpackers, in huge numbers, trampling delicate habitats, severely degrading the ecology. That’s one reason I’ve never really done much actual backpacking in the MMW or the TA, but I’m sure one could find peace of mind somewhere in a half million acres of dispersed wild lands.

The lighting is getting spooky. Only a couple of horse trailers are parked nearby to give any indication that people are back here on this weird evening. We’re all alone. (But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking about the outlaw dude, who actually drives up to Norcross to check us out before heading into town - maybe he‘s a miner? He gives us a friendly extended wave of the hand, which we find, probably not justifiably, in the dude’s defense, a hair creepy. He probably is just being friendly, and here we are, spurning his overtures like stuck up city folk.)

We have just enough energy to take a leisurely late afternoon stroll down to the creek - a confluence of two precious streams, Bear Creek and Elk Creek. There, to our delight, a beautiful sun-dappled pool, not great in size, but deep enough to consume us, and wipe away the dust and grit and bad vibes of the fire, shimmers in the fading light of the day. We enjoy a much-anticipated soul-cleansing, refreshing baptismal dunk in pure mountain waters. What could be better or more healing? With the sketchy character having gone into town, we’re now the only humans around. In their homes, dens, burrows, and nests, though, thrive hundreds of animals, many unique and endangered species (but thankfully protected). And yet we see very little animal life outside of a few cacophonous birds and a couple of bushy-tailed grey squirrels. A tremendous forest, though! Primeval and dank smells mixed with tinderbox dry herbaceous aromas, it is a perfect setting for Bear Creek to come tumbling in to conjoin with Elk Creek and create a soothing Jacuzzi like jet stream in the tranquil pool. Naked (Mary yells at me - “BIGFOOT!“), I explore upstream a bit, fascinated by gargantuan Indian rhubarb sprouting like mutant prehistoric plants. I puzzle over a fat richly textured rock the exact color of a red roasted turkey, the only one of its kind around. I remain alert to the presence of other creatures-in-residence: a bear on the prowl for blackberries, or perhaps, a deer wandering by. But, we’re all alone.

The skies are getting cloudier with smoke. What the hell? It’s wafting across the dusky ridges and drifting down ravines like dirty fog, but thankfully, so far, wind patterns keep us breathing pretty fresh air. No sooner do we polish off a $4 bottle of delicious Italian wine from TJ’s, than we’re forced to climb in the hermetically sealed tent (with fly and windows zipped shut) before it‘s even dark. But that’s okay, we’re spent. Nonetheless, we endure a fitful night; by the time we get up - around 6:30 -- Norcross is clearly a hazard zone. At first, we’re pissed at the ranger lady for sending us here - but as she said, they’re severely short-staffed and information comes in sporadically from the thousands of affected acres, so they didn’t even know about the Norcross fire at the time we were directed there, less than 14 hours ago. I guess we should consider ourselves “lucky” that it was a contained conflagration and that we only choked on smoke all night long instead of suffering immolation by the consuming flames of an out of control forest fire.

Time to move on down the road, even if it means going all the way until the coast is clear. But first, a visit the campground’s port-a-potty. I pull up, hop out and yank open the door. Now, here it is, barely 7 am and no evidence of anyone in sight, and you never expect to see anyone actually in one of the fetid structures out in the middle of nowhere, at 7 am -- but to my and his collective horror and chagrin, there, squatting on the crapper, I behold an unkempt, stunted, unidentifiable species of anthropoid -- talk about cryptozoological mysteries! -- whom I later dub the Outhouse Ogre of the woods! His pants are pushed down around his ankles, his legs angled such that his knobby knees are touching, and his hands are covering up his private area. An embarrassed scowl / grimace contorts his red face, as he emits a raucous throat-clearing -- all of this happening in about two seconds -- which instantly causes me to reel on my heels back to the car for an immediate get-away. Gambolin’ Gal must think I’m nuts! I explain, laughing heartily about the hilarious scatological encounter with the Outhouse Ogre of the woods. WHO was he and WHERE had he come from? Was he Big Foot’s cuz? Or just the outlaw dude’s lover?

Now we’re driving south along California Hwy. 96, cruising the Big Foot Scenic Byway, seeking egress from the vaguely apocalyptic landscape of hazy bluish smoke settling in the ridges and filtering lower to the valley floor. We’re dismal and rueful, downright pessimistic, having driven so far only to be turned away by the vagaries of nature - freak thunder and lightning storms turning our paradise into a living hell. But that’s so much anthropomorphic malarkey! This is Mother Nature at work, puny humans! Back off! It truly is on a scale beyond our influence, even though we do our best to meddle and do the opposite of what Mother Nature intended! We are no match to the power and intelligence of Mother Nature, who has created an ingenious design of regeneration by fire for optimal ecological balance and woodland health. I say, let ’er burn! . . . . . .although, no doubt about it, in these “natural disaster” events, while many find safe harbor, countless of our animal friends are displaced and perish in great numbers.

Imagine how relieved we are, when, just fifty miles down the road, now on the south flanks of the Marble Mountain Wilderness, we find ourselves in Salmon River / Salmon Mountains country -- know where I’m talkin’ about? It is a splendid thing to behold! The young day is unfolding with no hint of smoke or gloom - a blue dream of sky. The legendary river -- famous for salmon runs, fly fishing, river rafting and kayaking, and gold mining -- flows like a sparkling mirage in the morning sun as it snakes through the canyon dividing the Marble Mountains from the Trinity Alps. Ah, it’s great, almost like a soul reunion, to be back in Salmon River country!

We stop for supplies at a market in Somes Bar - a former mom ’n pop dive recently taken over by some enterprising folks who’ve managed to turn it into a pretty decent pit stop for emergency this and critically in need of that. (Uh, let’s see - ice, beer, sunflower seeds, batteries. . .) No gas, but a phone’s outside, and there’s always some city-slicker guy in a Beamer making a call. We dawdle a few minutes, then head back into the wild blue yonder, driving slowly down the winding, narrow, narrow, narrowing road, hugging a bare ledge most of the way to Forks of Salmon along a 17 mile stretch of spectacular mountain / river scenery. If you know where to pull off, there are divine swimming holes and rugged trails leading into less crowded wilderness areas. Salmon River Road is probably numero uno in the top three of my favorite California back roads.

We know of a great swimming hole where once, sick and nauseated, the cold healing waters brought me to my senses within minutes. We park along the road side and scramble down over a jumble of rocks leading to the pool at the river’s edge, where we strip naked and don’t waste time plunging in for a morning bath. It’s only 9 am, but already the day is hot and the water is super-refreshing, cleansing, and undoubtedly, healing. We spot two frogs, a fish or three, and a ton of bumblebees (harmless little cusses) swarming around a tiny basin of stagnating water with monkey flowers and paintbrush blossoming nearby.

We spend a couple of hours in this old familiar haunt, mostly in silent contemplation, then decide it’s time to discover a new place. A few miles down, we stop at a bend in the road - barely a tell-tale sign of a pull off -- and scramble down to a magnificent gorge we’d seen from high up on the road many times, but never stopped at, mainly because it was always so full of noisy people having their peculiar brand of fun on brightly colored polyurethane floating devices. But not today! We have the place to ourselves, just how we like it! With the help of rope hand-holds someone has tied to tree and rock, we make our way down a steep hundred foot trail to the rocky riverbed. A magical little cascade pours over a lip of sculpted rock carpeted in bright green moss, with delicate maidenhair ferns adorning the edges, and jumping frogs, bees, butterflies, dragonflies and wasps are all flitting and fluttering about in search of insect nepenthe. The little water course’s progression to the Salmon River is blocked by a house-sized rock formation, and so it simply turns sharply and snakes around it. It’s a charming area. I admire a lovely pool where the water collects before spilling out gently over zen garden-like fountain rocks to continue its unheralded journey to meld with the great river. I count over fifteen distinct individual frogs - several are red and yellow legged species - who call this place home.

Our secret spot is ours for the day, not another human being around. We bivouac under a shady willow tree next to the small creek and just kick back for the next six hours doing nothing but swimming, napping, eating -- we gorge on wild blackberries - exploring, taking photos, reading, building Andy Goldsworthy inspired sculptures and “nature art”, and checking in on our froggie friends, who are zen meditation masters in their hours-long motionless perches in the riffling water, and nearly impossible to spot until -- watch out! - you almost step on one. Well, for doing nothing, that’s doing a whole lot! No wonder, at the end of the long, long summer day, sun burnt and burnt out, you’re so hungry you can eat a horse, and so doggone tired you’re in bed and asleep before it’s even dark.

We end up in Nordheimer campground and to our delight, find it’s rather desolate. Just as we like it! Even the next night, Friday, only a handful of people are here camping. Nordheimer is a wonderful place to car camp, because of the wild and remote setting, with a river running through it, and hardly any people. The long and winding 17 mile road to Forks of Salmon - that narrow ribbon of rock-strewn asphalt, prone to constant avalanches, and perched precariously along the cliff’s merciless promontories - this road keeps all the RV and big trailer / generator “campers” from hauling their loads in. Thank God, I say.

The evening is shaping up to be a splendid finale to our do-nothing / do-everything day. We stroll down to the river, walking hand in hand, past high piled rocks (from mining days), remnants of old homesteading orchards, and wicked patches of succulent wild blackberries. (Got to pay the scratchy price if you expect to eat the best of the bunch of this brambly gift!) The river can wait for a second - more leisurely gorging ensues; Mary, watching me, compliments, “you’re no different from a hungry ol’ bear.”

Down at the river, in the glinting late afternoon, a transcendental shadow and light show is spontaneously, fugaciously in the works, and we’re blessed to catch it -- pure nature doing its thing without an audience, no one about to pay notice, homage or respect -- except us! -- to a no-doubt-about-it, hands-down, flat-out beautiful stretch of river at a magical time of day. We bathe in instant solace and peacefulness at this river altar, can’t believe we’re the only ones here.

The Salmon flows in a narrow course upstream, then veers off here to one side for pools and over there it forms rapids, beyond widening and bending away out of sight. (The Salmon River is deeper and more powerful than it seems, so you can never be too careful when recreating in these waters.) The campground’s namesakes creek -- Nordheimer - comes crashing in to add drama and heft to the Salmon‘s discharge. After a perfect temperature swim, with the day winding down, we watch as the river’s surface transforms into a reflective mirror, hundreds of feet long, smooth as glass, holding dreamy underwater images of now shimmering, now perfectly still, shapes of salmon-colored hillsides and salmon-colored clouds and upside down pine trees; when the breeze dies down momentarily, crystal clear images of mountain, rock, and plant spring to life in deep reflections of otherworldly magic and mystique; when the breeze picks up again, this impressionistic tableau blurs in a mélange of rich pastel colors of swirling patterns. Enthralled and charmed to the max, such beauty’s effect on the psyche and soul is immeasurable, ineffable. You want to cry. Or quote Thoreau. Instead, you uncork another bottle of the grapa.

And then -- they must be river swallows -- a dozen or more of the lovely birds perform (surely not for our benefit) aerial antics, swooping, loopy maneuvers over the pools, chasing one another playfully, it seems. Perhaps they are elaborate mating or feeding / territorial rituals. Who knows? Not I, I’m only a casual bird watcher, a humble flower admirer, appreciative observer of the small, the overlooked, and preferably unnamed. (To wit Walt Whitman: “You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, and even vagueness - ignorance, credulity - helps your enjoyment of these things.”) Like I said, we’re really enjoying the bird show!

Suddenly, our reverie is interrupted -- Oh, no! It’s people! I take note of an aging bohemian couple, probably in their late fifties, stripping naked and kicking back after a nice evening swim. I wave to them, they wave back, off in their own world. I turn my attention again to the magical, reflective waters when I notice Gambolin’ Gal trying to get my attention, pointing to the opposite bank and mouthing sotto voce, the horses, the horses! To my amazement, once I can focus on reality, indeed there is a herd of wild horses - nine of them - drinking at river’s edge. Wild horses in these parts? Who knows? Walking back to camp, we encounter them nonchalantly grazing in a dried up area, seemingly bereft of anything to scrounge on. But scrounge they do, on the shabbiest of grasses. Something tells me they’re not really wild horses, after all. We’ve seen wild horses in Nevada canyons, and these guys are pathetic second cousins to the wild Equus ferus. Still, they’re friendly, curious, interested in us (probably hungry), and we in their goofy, horsey antics. (Later on, we learn from the hippie chick running the register at the Somes Bar store that they’re “just half-wild.“ She informs us some derelict farmer lets them roam at will and doesn’t really take care of them. She adds that some folks are getting fed up with them.)

The next morning, we hear neighing and rustling; the horses just invite themselves right into our camp, all nine of them, two or three at a time, definitely now intent on eating something, a towel, a plastic bag, some sunflower seeds, a cork. We indulge them for a while and then shoo them on their way. (But the white horse carries a message for us! It’s in the magical animal cards!) The horses lackadaisically wander off, and we get ready to head back to the secret gorge for another day of doing nothing in paradise.

We blow a mile past the easy to miss turn-out. Folks, a mile on this stretch of the Salmon River road is one helluva fifteen minute cliffhanger. So there goes a half-hour, but who cares, it’s gorgeous even in the car. At the top of the scramble trail, where a rope had been just the day before, I’m shocked to see now there is no sign of a rope ladder! After we left yesterday, some local guy (I presume) took it upon himself to slash the rope ladder, thereby making it about five times more difficult (for the average tourist or mom ‘n pop or yokel) to scramble down to paradise. Although a hair creepy somehow, I’m down with the dude; his intent is honorable. I can understand his righteous anger. Gotta protect what’s his, what’s ours -- sensitive, delicate, one-of-a-kind riparian habitat -- from the hoi polloi, the tromping, loud, party-down river crowd. There are plenty of other places for them to have their amusement-type fun in nature. Leave this place for the likes of those who just want to be - not do - who enter nature’s cathedral with awe, humility, and quietude, with a healthy respect for every sacred thing - pebble, rock, boulder, cliff, bug, bird, frog, skink, beetle, river, sky, forest, flower, weed, tick, wasp, poison oak, bramble, stinging nettle, air. (Just party with a little respect!)

It’s about a cool ninety in the shade under the willow tree. I’ve been dozing and half-reading Abbey’s Road by Edward Abbey, a rambunctious collection of the gambolin’ man’s (mis)adventures, from thrashing a rental car in the Australian Outback, to treading precariously where no one has gone before in Barranca del Cobre, to boating the redoubtable Santa Elena canyon in Big Bend National Park, and with some feisty “redneck” essays thrown in for irritatingly good measure. And what a treasure! - it’s an autographed copy, somehow, but the battered book is falling off its hinges and I have to read it in pieces like small pamphlets. I read, and fantasize that I’m a latter-day Abbey. (Hardly. Wouldn‘t want to be.)

But suddenly a rush of adrenaline overcomes my lethargic stupor. I toss the pages aside and jump up, eager and ready to confront the challenge du jour -making the big plunge. You see, it’s taken me hours to gather the courage to jump off the fifty foot high cliff upriver, halfway through the gorge, where the water collects in a twenty foot deep channel as wide as a football field and three times that length. To get up there, I’ve got to jump ten feet into the pool (done), swim across a narrow portion of the channel while fighting a pretty strong current (done), and hoist myself up on jagged rocks lining the lower cliffs of the gorge (done), then free-climb about fifteen vertical feet up some rocky ledge (done), with a final scramble to attain the summit (done). Hey, I figure if I fall (not done), all I gotta do is push off with my legs and do a back flip into the pool, no problem.

Atop my perch, the view opens up to big, pretty country. Looking down from on high changes my perspective instantly - suddenly fifty feet up is pretty damn high, and I’m pretty damn scared. I espy poor Gambolin‘ Gal, standing helplessly downstream on the opposite side of the river, nervously (I can tell) watching her crazy husband and attempting to photograph him in the course of his testosterone-fueled feat of leaping prowess. He balks. He stands fecklessly at the edge of the world and contemplates. Hey, this is nothing! People bungie jump, base jump, parachute, cliff dive and hang glide all day long -- C’maaaan, Taaaam - jump! And so Gambolin’ Man makes the plunge without another moment’s hesitation. AAIIIIIEEEEEE!!! Four seconds of thrilling velocity - a minor taste of what it must feel like to base jump - and then, suddenly, a screaming crash!, arms aflail, but a safe enough splash landing. There, I feel much, much better for having done that! Almost like a kid again!

Time to return to camp, and settle in. The reflective river at Nordheimer once again wins top prize for Ms. Nature Beauty Contest. For a couple of hours, we swim, admire the swooping swallows, and mostly just stare at the reflecting river‘s illumined surface. Finally, our stomachs insist we go back to camp and prepare some food. (With another stop at the berry patch, natch!) After a long day on the river of doing nothing / everything, it sure feels good to eat, rest, have a birthday toast with a glass of vintage Montepulciano (homage to my roots, Sicilia), and before we know it, we’re zonked and ready for bed.

Night time in the deep woods is always magical, snugly kicked back, fighting off sleep, staring up at the curvy and expansive celestial dome pin-pointed with a gadzillion stars, and the Milky Way’s famous swathe clearly visible like when I was a boy in the sixties in Indiana, and it’s always a superstitious joy to see a few streaking meteorites, and indulge in an eye-squinting exercise tracking barely discernible satellites in their zippy progression across the immense firmament. Finally, dozing off, dozing off, in the middle of a dream encountering a different sort of Ogre of the Woods - Big Foot?! -- when suddenly a scream from Gambolin’ Gal in the dead of night - she’s heard something big and threatening just outside our tent! Having a valid monthly reason to fear her scent might attract a curious bear, she’s clearly terrified! My heart’s beating pretty rapidly too! Something IS out there! I grab my headlamp and shine it in the distance, casting a perfect spotlight beam on - not a bear, not Sasquatch - but a big buck, calmly grazing near the fire pit. We lock eyes for a moment, a true deer-in-the-headlights encounter. I sigh, relieved, heart aflutter still, but soon we‘re both able to sink into a state of much needed undisturbed sleep for the next six hours.

Thoreau counseled, “Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures.“ So, that’s what we do. I’m eager to move on, see other sights, check out other things. We’ve only got this day remaining, so we heed Henry‘s last bit of advice for the day, “The serenity, the infinite promise, of such a morning . . .Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home.” Home. Home. . ..Hard to fathom we’ll be back in the urban Bay Area, “home”, before midnight. Why does it have to be like this?

So, off we go, stopping briefly for a cuppa joe at a roadside diner in Orleans boasting a billboard plastered with radical (Native American inspired) posters, and a totally kitsch interior décor of frying pans, hanging up by the hundreds, with peoples’ names and home towns painted on them. Two old-time farts, both in overalls, are sipping coffee at a table, eyeing us, not quite suspiciously, but with a certain knowing nod that we’re outsiders, city folk, and you‘d best be movin‘ on. The waitress is friendly enough, but standoffish. Maybe she wants us to order breakfast. Well, the coffee sucks, anyway, and we plan to make tea and oat bran down at the river access of Big Bar. We entertain ourselves for a long while interpreting mysterious animal print cuneiform patterns in the sand of several little critters’ winding peregrinations to the water - damn! Where’s my “Pocket Naturalist” Animal Track guide when I need it? (Don’t forget Walt’s proscription about not knowing too much for your own good enjoyment!) Heading back to the car, we chance on a real set of Big Foot paw prints. At first, I think they belong to a bear, but more likely, a big cat has left his delible impressions in the shifting sands, thirst slaked, hunger possibly sated, loping back where he came from in the rocky, forested perches across and high above the highway. (Safe crossings, Mr. Lion!)

Next stop on our whirlwind drive south, on the Big Foot Scenic Byway, is a fifteen minute stop at the confluence of Bluff Creek and the Klamath River. We pull off a side road (closed) leading to Fish Lake and get out of the car. No trail to speak of, but we follow a faint trace along a crumbly ledge, skirting depths of two hundred feet to the creek bed below. Bluff Creek. Bluff Creek. Where do I know Bluff Creek from? The question haunts me. I bushwhack past rocks and low branches and peer into the backcountry of Bluff Creek for a few minutes alone. And then I remember! Bluff Creek is where Roger Patterson, in 1967, shot his famous and much disputed / much defended 53 second film of what may well be a living Gigantopithecus.

Next stop, very briefly, is Weitchpec - the local Indian term for “confluence“, where the Trinity and Klamath merge forces - a pretty sight indeed but a dull town, it seems, of rednecks, white trash, bored teenagers, and indigent Indians - probably not a fair nor accurate assessment of the town‘s demographics, but that‘s what I saw in ten minutes there stopped by the bridge and market. Down the road from there, just on the edges of the Hoopa Valley Tribe reservation, is Tish Tang. There’s a campground and river access allows cars to drive right up to choice holes. Hopefully, people do that only when launching watercraft. We get there early enough and are blessed to enjoy an hour of solitude, of swimming, of doing what we do best at pretty pools on the Trinity River, but before you know it, sure enough, an SUV with partying Gen-Something-or-others pulls right up to where we’re hanging out, and begins unloading coolers, folding chairs, blankets, boom box and bags of food. I mean, right in our space! I swear, some peoples’ sense of proxemics just sucks!

Our next stop is the pretty little active outdoors lifestyle tranquil community of Willow Creek, the self-proclaimed Big Foot Capital of the World, located at the juncture of Highways 96 and 299. Who lives here out in the sticks, I wonder? (Besides Big Foot.) Nearly ten percent are of native American ancestry, a half-percent are black; the vast majority being white descendants of settlers, pioneers, outlaws and rogues, probably. Who else could afford to live here, where most folks don‘t make more than $28,000 a year? Doing what?

A festival, small but cheery, is livening up the day for a couple dozen or so very mellow town residents (and tourists?) selling arts, crafts and popcorn. A bluegrass - country band, fronted by three venerable native dudes who look Japanese, provides entertainment. We hang for a minute, listen to them belt out Kansas City, and then take a look-see in the town museum, which also has a wing specially dedicated to Big Foot. It’s a musty, chalky sort of smell that hangs in the air, as we check out exhibits of Indian artifacts of the various tribes -- the Hupa, Yurok, Karok, Chimariko and Wintu - who have inhabited these ancestral lands for millennia. We inspect all manner of western cultural antiques evoking the frontier lifestyle. It’s truly quite intriguing, all of it, but my attention is fixed on the Sasquatch exhibits. You could spend some time in there reading old clippings, watching video footage and listening to audio lectures, pondering over plaster castings of alleged Big Foot prints, learning about worldwide legends of this mysterious creature. Who among us has ever seen Sasquatch? Many reputable people claim to; why would they lie? A real old-timer, a local man in his late eighties or early nineties, comes up to me outside the museum, where I’m sizing up a 15 ft. tall sculpture of Big Foot, and says, pointing upwards, “Yes sir he’s my friend he is, Big Foot, he’s my friend. Why sure, I’ve seen ‘im, many times. But the circus suits, no way, that’s not right.” I ask, “So you believe in Big Foot?” The old man cocks an ear, and in a creaky voice, replies, “You bet I do, sonny! I was on that expedition with Roger Patterson out in Bluff Creek. What we saw was for real. I’ll never forget it. Have you seen the film?” Indeed I have. It’s been analyzed endlessly for hints of doctoring, but it’s never been proven fraudulent. I bid the old timer good day, leaving him staring up like a religious pilgrim at the towering wooden carving of his friend and idol, Big Foot, and wish I had snapped a photo.

We end our stay in the Willow Creek “designated census area” by parking on the bridge over the Trinity River just outside of town, and taking a well-worn path down to a nice sheltered spot, for a final swim in this historic and contentious river. It’s a popular place we soon find out - a group of ten tubers float by, the first of many river revelers to come. Oh, well, time to get moving anyway.

Diving Hwy. 299 west through a foggy, English hillside like landscape, we’re in Arcata in an hour; the north coast town is socked in big-time. We make the obligatory pit stop at Wildberries natural foods store for some tasty treats, and then onward, another hour south, to the Avenue of the Giants, home to the west coast’s most magnificent redwood forest.

It’s 5 pm when we get there, ample time to take a hike, stretch out, unwind, enjoy this special Shangri-La forest. We take a 3 mile loop trail at some Founder’s Grove - I meant to remember which - near Redcrest, and soon we’re engulfed by an enormous canopy of trees towering high above, with a fairytale understory of gigantic sorrel and profuse thickets of great Western ferns sprouting amid fallen trees that are like elevated roads, whose root structures are twenty feet wide or more, and the humongous burned out stumps that are monuments in and of themselves, and the crowning glories of Hyperion-achieving Sequoia sempervirens, awesome specimens of longevity and adaptation in the plant world. Imagine when the entire continent was blanketed in these magnificent Methuselahs, some of which might have routinely reached thirty-five and forty stories high. (It‘s believed that 380 ft. is about the top limits of a redwood‘s vertical growth.) It’s been years since we visited the Avenue of the Giants, and we’re so grateful to be back in the presence of “the leaping greenly spirits” of these special trees.

And, to cap off the day the way we began it, we enjoy a dusky swim in the refreshing waters of the Middle Fork of the Eel River in the heart of Mendocino County. An oft-visited place, right off busy Hwy. 101, but now there’s no one about and it’s serene and beautiful enough at the near twilight hour to charm and entrance, if ever so briefly. Oblique rays of light cast long shadows and create the magical effect of reflective images rippling across the river. Our last dying gasp of visual splendor before the long drive home. Home. Wherever that may be, we take heart that we are, as Thoreau promised, “everywhere at home”.