Trip to California, May 13th-18th, 2003

Time does fly when you're having fun. As I was driving to the airport early on Tuesday morning, I got to thinking about how I came about to do this trip the first time, in 1996. I had communicated with Richard Burrill, the author of a small book about "Ishi, The Last Stone Age Indian in North America". He mentioned how he tries to go the Ishi Wilderness in Northern California once a year, usually the first part of May. I wrote back that someday I'd like to see it, and he invited me to come.

Naturally, I declined, since I wasn't a backpacker, I had never even considered taking a solo vacation, I had no idea of the cost, I had kids in college, etc. He wrote back and said something to the effect of, "If you REALLY want to do something, you can probably find a way."

That little decision made a big difference in my life! I was driving to Minneapolis to fly by myself to California for the sixth time, and for the fifth time to go backpacking in the Ishi Wilderness, some of the most foreboding and intimidating territory in the United States. The other trip to see Yosemite, San Francisco, Carmel, and other beautiful places, as well as having a chance to visit with Virginia Pope Evans, whose dad was Ishi's best friend and physician, was another highlight.

But enough of that, on to my latest travels:

The flight to Sacramento was uneventful. The person sitting next to me fell asleep almost upon sitting down, so I grabbed a book I had along. I read "The Old Man and the Sea" by Ernest Hemingway, a book I hadn't read since high school, I think. It was just the right length for the trip, and I finished it about a half hour before landing.

Richard was there to meet me at the airport. The weather was perfect, sunny and in the mid 70's. We waited for the luggage, then headed for his vehicle, and then north toward Chester, a little town where Richard now lives.

The drive was very pleasant, with many blooming plants along the road, the rough and rugged terrain as we got further north, and the flora and fauna so different from Minnesota.

At a town called Red Bluff we stopped in to see if a museum was open and Richard introduced me to a man who carves carousel horses, plus has many antiques himself. I learned the difference between a "monkey wrench" and a "pipe wrench", so in case anyone asks, I'll be able to give them the history.

We soon arrived at Chester, and Richard's little rented cabin, which is his full time home. It is small, but for one person, it works out just fine. He suggested we go and shoot some bow and arrow, and although I had not shot for a long time, I did better than I had expected. We shot at 20 yards, and shot a few at 40 yards, which is really difficult. I hit the target at 20 yards most of the time so I was satisfied.

Soon, we had our evening meal, and Richard showed me some revisions he's making on his latest book about the Mill Creek Indians. He felt a little stressed because he wanted to finish last draft before he left on a couple week's vacation on Saturday. He did some work on the manuscript while I did a little playing on the internet.

The next morning, we headed for a drive around Lake Almanor, which is just outside Chester. It's a beautiful lake, and much of the history of the area is connected with the lake. He wanted to find a place where a stream entered the lake, and the place where a part of an atlatl (at LAT ul) was found, which is an ancient throwing device that preceded the bow and arrow. I actually have an atlatl, and enjoying throwing the "darts" periodically. It's quite an art to do it correctly.

Richard worked more on his manuscript in the afternoon, and then we again went and shot the bow and arrow. Richard kept score again, and this time, I used a bow that was handmade out of orange osage wood, and handmade arrows. Richard didn't like the feel of the bow, but I did, and I did very well shooting with it. It costs several hundred dollars, so I probably won't be getting one of my own!

Later in the evening, Bob came from Sacramento. With three in the cabin, it really got crowded, and actually it was difficult to move around! We had some wine from Minnesota that I had brought, and it was very was the "Minnesota Wild" brand of wine, not to be confused with the professional hockey team!

In the morning, we headed off on our journey toward the site of where a cabin used to stand, and that Richard is going to do some archeological work on with his class this fall. The cabin is way out in the middle of nowhere, and it had once been lived in by a fellow named "Hi" Good. He was an indian fighter, and was very proud of how many indians he had killed. He took part in some of the massacres of the tribe to which Ishi belonged. Bob had his metal detector along, and there was so much metal in the ground that he was getting almost constant readings. Unfortunately, every nail, tin can, snuff can, sardine can, wire, or rifle shell was enough to cause a reading, so no treasures were able to be found. Of course, that's not the purpose of an archeological dig, but it sure would have been fun!

There were also remants of the chimney from the cabin, so Richard got a pretty good idea of where the dig will be.

Soon, we headed out toward Chico, and lunch. We went to a wonderful brewery and restaurant at the Sierra Nevada Brewery, and had a great meal. It's a large place, and we bought a couple of souvenirs.

From here, the plan was to go "Black Rock" in the Ishi Wilderness. Richard said that he knew a real shortcut that would save lots of miles, so Bob and I followed him to the cutoff. As he started driving in on the old logging roads, he became a bit unsure as to what the correct road was. He took the one he thought was right, but soon, it came to a dead end, so we turned around, which is not always the easiest on a logging road. The next road he took ended up being covered with quite a bit of snow, and impassable. Bob and I talked it over, and decided that we'd better just forget using his shortcut, and go back to Chester for the night, and stay at Richard's cabin.

We went out to eat at a very nice Italian restaurant in Chester, went back to Richard's cabin, talked for a bit about Richard's book on the Mill Creek Indians, and went to bed.

In the morning, we had an early breakfast, and Bob and I took off for Black Rock in the Ishi Wilderness, and we took the more traditional entrance. Richard had to give a lecture that afternoon in a different city, and then was going on a two week driving vacation, so he had many loose ends to finish up, as well as trying to get that final draft to the printers. So we said our goodbyes to him, and off we headed to the Ishi Wilderness.

The road to Black Rock is hard to describe. Imagine, if you will, the worst driveway you've ever been on, with ruts, rocks, loose gravel, potholes, and other hazards. That will give you some idea. This "driveway" to where we were going, however, was twenty miles long. It was very narrow, and at times the road dropped off completely with no shoulder, straight down for hundreds of feet. The opposite side of the road was a sheer cliff upward.

Luckily, there is very little traffic on the road. Because it is so narrow, you can only get by a car at a few places.

We bumped and jostled our way on the road, stopping periodically when we saw some mule deer or a particulary beautiful view. The height of the hills, and depths of the valleys, with some sheer cliffs, and pyroclastic rock strewn about, made for a beautiful panorama.

Eventually, we did reach the little camping area beneath Black Rock. Bob had been there before, so he knew where to park, and where we needed to hike. We parked the car, got out the backpacks, did some packing of food, water, and necessities, and headed off up the trail.

Bob is amazing. He is so strong and so capable, that I feel that I'm always in good hands. His background as a park ranger is an added bonus. My backpack on the way in was heavy, for me, and I would guess it was perhaps 35-40 pounds.

The spring in the Ishi Wilderness is a beautiful time, much moreso than any other time of year. In another month, it will be so hot and dry that it will be intolerable. But May has moisture with the snow melt and springs running, and wild flowers in abundance. The trail was quite wet in a number of places, and we had some pretty good sized streams to cross. They were not deep, and many were not wide, but you still had to keep your balance as you hopped from rock to rock. Many of the streams had rocks containing fossil shells in them, and we stopped briefly to look at them. We decided we'd look more seriously coming out, since we didn't want to carry rocks with us at the moment.

Soon, wide green meadows close to the roaring creek appeared in the distance, which would have been ideal camps for the Indians who inhabited this region for about 3,000 years. We walked past one of the larger areas, and soon came upon a smaller but more beautiful area that had a large field of lupine blooming on it. This is where we set up camp, perhaps 15 or 20 yards from the roaring of Mill Creek.

We spent a little time examining the ground for Indian artifacts, and we did find some small obsidian chips to indicate lots of activity in flintknapping. Bob had worked a bit on an archeological dig at this site a few years earlier, so he knew the area was rich with history. When you consider that the Yahi Indians had lived here for 3,000 before being annihilated by disease and massacre, you get an idea of how much potential there is for artifacts.

Bob had brought a roomy tent, and it didn't take very long to get it set up. We had a nice place for a fire and for cooking not too far away, and there was plenty of time left in the day to do some exploring, so we left our equipment and backpacks, and took off on foot, untethered by the weight of the packs we had been hauling.

The Ishi Wilderness is difficult to explain, and pictures do not do justice to the uniqueness of the environment. The remoteness is almost overwhelming. Every direction, for miles and miles, there are high hills, cliffs, impassable mountains of brush, steep canyons, streams that are rushing with the ice cold waters of the distant mountain run off of melting snow.

You can get separated within a hundred yards of each other, and be totally lost, and much of the land looks similar, so that you can easily get confused as to where you are. We climbed some very steep hills to look in some shallow caves for signs of ancient habitation, and my feet were getting a bit sore from the friction of the steep climbs and descents.

We hiked further, and higher, and soon, Mill Creek was a tiny quiet stream well below us. We ran into several large patches of poison oak, but again, amazingly, I did not catch it. It was everywhere, in every size, and blended well into the other brush.

It was getting later in the afternoon, and the sun was getting low in the high horizon, so we headed back. We took a different path, and missed our connection to the trail, but with a bit of backtracking we found it again, and soon approached our camp site.

When we got back to camp, one of us decided they would take a quick dip in the river to cool off and clean up. I will not mention who it was so there is a bit of anonymity to this little episode. That person went downstream, away from the campground, behind some tall boulders so they could have some privacy, and went into the creek to about knee level, clothes lying not too far away on the bank.

Now I should interject at this point that I have been in the Ishi Wilderness five times, and if I have seen a half dozen people around walking or camping, I might be pretty close in number. There just are not people there, and this is a part of the experience, the isolation. Other than the people one camps with, the chances of seeing someone else is pretty darn unlikely. Not only that, but all of the people I had met before, to my recollection, were men.

Well, here was this unnamed person, quietly cleaning themselves in the creek, when what should appear on the bank above his head but a man, a dog, and two children! They all marched to the bank just overlooking the river, and they were immediately within a few yards of this unnamed person in the stream. It was an awkward moment with some quick scrambling for a towel on the beach, but it was an action that was, shall we say, after the fact. One of the children, of course, was a young girl, the other a young boy, probably enjoying a camping experience with their dad and the family dog.

It was our considered opinion that one of us had just indelibly etched this camping trip into the memory of this entire family for all time. We also wondered what they talked about at the camp fire that night.

Soon it was time to cook the evening meal, so we went and got a nice camp fire going, and Bob started his little Coleman stove. It was spaghetti as the main course, with a serving of cous cous to compliment it. We had plenty of water on this trip, unlike the debacle of two years earlier, and we both felt that the water in the Mill Creek would have been quite drinkable, since it was moving so fast, but we didn't need to use it.

The night grew dark quickly with the high canyons on each side, and it got cool quite soon. The fire felt good. We sat and talked, and snacked on some popcorn, and soon decided it was time to turn in for the night.

I am not a fan of sleeping bags. They just aren't very comfortable. I like to turn over once in a while, and in a sleeping bag, your whole bed seems to turn with you. And you are zipped in, so there isn't much room for getting comfortable. The roaring of Mill Creek sounded just like a strong wind, and I awakened a couple times thinking that the wind was roaring only to remember that it was the rapids in the creek.

The morning brought another beautiful sunny day. The morning was crisp, but the sun soon warmed us. We had some breakfast by the fire, did some more exploring for artifacts, and then got packed up for the trip out.

We ambled and wandered our way back toward the campground and the car by way of the flatlands close to Mill Creek, so we could look for any interesting fossils or artifacts, but I also tried to take in the incredible landscapes, the beautiful wildflowers, and the stark beauty of the area.

We came to a couple of streams to cross, and we dropped our backpacks for a while and searched for the fossils that were hidden the soft rock. Eventually we both had found a few nice specimens. One rock that I turned over had an interesting creature under it. It was a scorpion! It was about 2 inches long, and it had its tail curled over its back in typical scorpion fashion. I took its picture, but it was disappointingly blurry.

Soon, we reached the campground and the vehicle. We unloaded our things, and in typical fashion, just kind of threw everything into the back of the vehicle for the trip to Bob's home.

The ride out, of course, was over the same bumpy narrow driveway, but a new adventure awaited. After a few miles on the bumpy road, the rear tire on the driver's side decided to go completely flat. So here we were, on an extremely narrow road, with no real flat spots in sight, with a trunk fully loaded to the brim with equipment. Well, it was necessary to empty out pretty much the entire trunk, to get to the spare. When we finally got to it, we noticed that both the jack handle and the tire iron were not in their designated spots, so we couldn't remove the flat tire. Bob had a kit to patch a tire, and a pump to inflate it, but this didn't hold. About this time, a pick up truck came along, and he had a tire iron that fit, so we got the spare on. When we were putting all the things back in the vehicle, we did run across the jack handle and the tire iron, so we eventually would have found them anyway. Ah, the adventures!

Soon, we were on the road again, and there was more beautiful scenery, this time a rapidly running stream.  

We headed to Sacramento, and then Shingle Springs, to Bob's lovely home in the country. I love his home. He has so many neat antiques, fossils, and other things that I also like, and the setting of the home is beautiful too. We immediately got cleaned up, and I felt much better, dirt, grime, poison oak oil, etc. removed.

Bob's mom, Barbara,  stopped by, so we all went out to eat at a local restaurant, which was very delicious.

When we got back home, we watched a DVD called "The Game", with Michael Douglas, and it was very good!  We drank some wine, ate some popcorn, and turned in for the night.

We went out to breakfast in the morning, did a bit of shopping, and then it was to the airport and the return flight to Minneapolis. The flight was fine, and I rested a bit on the way, still tired from the backpacking adventure.

And soon, bags in hand, I headed toward the exit, and the drive home.

Another memorable trip, some great memories, and knowledge that I had again accomplished something very special.