Steep Trails/Chapter V
Arctic beauty and desolation, with their blessings and dangers, all may be found here, to test the endurance and skill of adventurous climbers; but far better than climbing the mountain is going around its warm, fertile base, enjoying its bounties like a bee circling around a bank of flowers. The distance is about a hundred miles, and will take some of the time we hear so much about--a week or two--but the benefits will compensate for any number of weeks. Perhaps the profession of doing good may be full, but every body should be kind at least to himself. Take a course of good water and air, and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you. Some have strange, morbid fears as soon as they find themselves with Nature, even in the kindest and wildest of her solitudes, like very sick children afraid of their mother--as if God were dead and the devil were king.
One may make the trip on horseback, or in a carriage, even; for a good level road may be found all the way round, by Shasta Valley, Sheep Rock, Elk Flat, Huckleberry Valley, Squaw Valley, following for a considerable portion of the way the old Emigrant Road, which lies along the east disk of the mountain, and is deeply worn by the wagons of the early gold-seekers, many of whom chose this northern route as perhaps being safer and easier, the pass here being only about six thousand feet above sea level. But it is far better to go afoot. Then you are free to make wide waverings and zigzags away from the roads to visit the great fountain streams of the rivers, the glaciers also, and the wildest retreats in the primeval forests, where the best plants and animals dwell, and where many a flower-bell will ring against your knees, and friendly trees will reach out their fronded branches and touch you as you pass. One blanket will be enough to carry, or you may forego the pleasure and burden altogether, as wood for fires is everywhere abundant. Only a little food will be required. Berries and plums abound in season, and quail and grouse and deer--the magnificent shaggy mule deer as well as the common species.
As you sweep around so grand a center, the mountain itself seems to turn, displaying its riches like the revolving pyramids in jewelers' windows. One glacier after another comes into view, and the outlines of the mountain are ever changing, though all the way around, from whatever point of view, the form is maintained of a grand, simple cone with a gently sloping base and rugged, crumbling ridges separating the glaciers and the snowfields more or less completely. The play of colors, from the first touches of the morning sun on the summit, down the snowfields and the ice and lava until the forests are aglow, is a never-ending delight, the rosy lava and the fine flushings of the snow being ineffably lovely. Thus one saunters on and on in the glorious radiance in utter peace and forgetfulness of time.
Yet, strange to say, there are days even here somewhat dull-looking, when the mountain seem uncommunicative, sending out no appreciable invitation, as if not at home. At such time its height seems much less, as if, crouching and weary, it were taking rest. But Shasta is always at home to those who love her, and is ever in a thrill of enthusiastic activity--burning fires within, grinding glaciers without, and fountains ever flowing. Every crystal dances responsive to the touches of the sun, and currents of sap in the growing cells of all the vegetation are ever in a vital whirl and rush, and though many feet and wings are folded, how many are astir! And the wandering winds, how busy they are, and what a breadth of sound and motion they make, glinting and bubbling about the crags of the summit, sifting through the woods, feeling their way from grove to grove, ruffling the loose hair on the shoulders of the bears, fanning and rocking young birds in their cradles, making a trumpet of every corolla, and carrying their fragrance around the world.
In unsettled weather, when storms are growing, the mountain looms immensely higher, and its miles of height become apparent to all, especially in the gloom of the gathering clouds, or when the storm is done and they are rolling away, torn on the edges and melting while in the sunshine. Slight rainstorms are likely to be encountered in a trip round the mountain, but one may easily find shelter beneath well-thatched trees that shed the rain like a roof. Then the shining of the wet leaves is delightful, and the steamy fragrance, and the burst of bird song from a multitude of thrushes and finches and warblers that have nests in the chaparral.
The nights, too, are delightful, watching with Shasta beneath the great starry done. A thousand thousand voices are heard, but so finely blended they seem a part of the night itself, and make a deeper silence. And how grandly do the great logs and branches of your campfire give forth the heat and light that during their long century-lives they have so slowly gathered from the sun, storing it away in beautiful dotted cells and beads of amber gum! The neighboring trees look into the charmed circle as if the noon of another day had come, familiar flowers and grasses that chance to be near seem far more beautiful and impressive than by day, and as the dead trees give forth their light all the other riches of their lives seem to be set free and with the rejoicing flames rise again to the sky. In setting out from Strawberry Valley, by bearing off to the northwestward a few miles you may see
"...beneath dim aisles, in odorous beds, The slight Linnaea hang its twin-born heads, And [bless] the monument of the man of flowers, Which breathes his sweet fame through the northern bowers."
This is one of the few places in California where the charming linnaea is found, though it is common to the northward through Oregon and Washington. Here, too, you may find the curious but unlovable darlingtonia, a carnivorous plant that devours bumblebees, grasshoppers, ants, moths, and other insects, with insatiable appetite. In approaching it, its suspicious-looking yellow-spotted hood and watchful attitude will be likely to make you go cautiously through the bog where it stands, as if you were approaching a dangerous snake. It also occurs in a bog near Sothern's Station on the stage road, where I first saw it, and in other similar bogs throughout the mountains hereabouts.
The "Big Spring" of the Sacramento is about a mile and a half above Sisson's, issuing from the base of a drift-covered hill. It is lined with emerald algae and mosses, and shaded with alder, willow, and thorn bushes, which give it a fine setting. Its waters, apparently unaffected by flood or drouth, heat or cold, fall at once into white rapids with a rush and dash, as if glad to escape from the darkness to begin their wild course down the canyon to the plain.
Muir's Peak, a few miles to the north of the spring, rises about three thousand feet above the plain on which it stands, and is easily climbed. The view is very fine and well repays the slight walk to its summit, from which much of your way about the mountain may be studied and chosen. The view obtained of the Whitney Glacier should tempt you to visit it, since it is the largest of the Shasta glaciers and its lower portion abounds in beautiful and interesting cascades and crevasses. It is three or four miles long and terminates at an elevation of about nine thousand five hundred feet above sea level, in moraine-sprinkled ice cliffs sixty feet high. The long gray slopes leading up to the glacier seem remarkably smooth and unbroken. They are much interrupted, nevertheless, with abrupt, jagged precipitous gorges, which though offering instructive sections of the lavas for examination, would better be shunned by most people. This may be done by keeping well down on the base until fronting the glacier before beginning the ascent.
The gorge through which the glacier is drained is raw-looking, deep and narrow, and indescribably jagged. The walls in many places overhang; in others they are beveled, loose, and shifting where the channel has been eroded by cinders, ashes, strata of firm lavas, and glacial drift, telling of many a change from frost to fire and their attendant floods of mud and water. Most of the drainage of the glacier vanishes at once in the porous rocks to reappear in springs in the distant valley, and it is only in time of flood that the channel carries much water; then there are several fine falls in the gorge, six hundred feet or more in height. Snow lies in it the year round at an elevation of eight thousand five hundred feet, and in sheltered spots a thousand feet lower. Tracing this wild changing channel-gorge, gully, or canyon, the sections will show Mount Shasta as a huge palimpsest, containing the records, layer upon layer, of strangely contrasted events in its fiery-icy history. But look well to your footing, for the way will test the skill of the most cautious mountaineers.
Regaining the low ground at the base of the mountain and holding on in your grand orbit, you pass through a belt of juniper woods, called "The Cedars," to Sheep Rock at the foot of the Shasta Pass. Here you strike the old emigrant road, which leads over the low divide to the eastern slopes of the mountain. In a north-northwesterly direction from the foot of the pass you may chance to find Pluto's Cave, already mentioned; but it is not easily found, since its several mouths are on a level with the general surface of the ground, and have been made simply by the falling-in of portions of the roof. Far the most beautiful and richly furnished of the mountain caves of California occur in a thick belt of metamorphic limestone that is pretty generally developed along the western flank of the Sierra from the McCloud River to the Kaweah, a distance of nearly four hundred miles. These volcanic caves are not wanting in interest, and it is well to light a pitch pine torch and take a walk in these dark ways of the underworld whenever opportunity offers, if for no other reason to see with new appreciation on returning to the sunshine the beauties that lie so thick about us.
Sheep Rock is about twenty miles from Sisson's, and is one of the principal winter pasture grounds of the wild sheep, from which it takes its name. It is a mass of lava presenting to the gray sage plain of Shasta Valley a bold craggy front two thousand feet high. Its summit lies at an elevation of five thousand five hundred feet above the sea, and has several square miles of comparatively level surface, where bunchgrass grows and the snow does not lie deep, thus allowing the hardy sheep to pick up a living through the winter months when deep snows have driven them down from the lofty ridges of Shasta.
From here it might be well to leave the immediate base of the mountain for a few days and visit the Lava Beds made famous by the Modoc War. They lie about forty miles to the northeastward, on the south shore of Rhett or Tule Lake, at an elevation above sea level of about forty-five hundred feet. They are a portion of a flow of dense black vesicular lava, dipping northeastward at a low angle, but little changed as yet by the weather, and about as destitute of soil as a glacial pavement. The surface, though smooth in a general way as seen from a distance, is dotted with hillocks and rough crater-like pits, and traversed by a network of yawning fissures, forming a combination of topographical conditions of very striking character. The way lies by Mount Bremer, over stretches of gray sage plains, interrupted by rough lava slopes timbered with juniper and yellow pine, and with here and there a green meadow and a stream.
This is a famous game region, and you will be likely to meet small bands of antelope, mule deer, and wild sheep. Mount Bremer is the most noted stronghold of the sheep in the whole Shasta region. Large flocks dwell here from year to year, winter and summer, descending occasionally into the adjacent sage plains and lava beds to feed, but ever ready to take refuge in the jagged crags of their mountain at every alarm. While traveling with a company of hunters I saw about fifty in one flock.
The Van Bremer brothers, after whom the mountain is named, told me that they once climbed the mountain with their rifles and hounds on a grand hunt; but, after keeping up the pursuit for a week, their boots and clothing gave way, and the hounds were lamed and worn out without having run down a single sheep, notwithstanding they ran night and day. On smooth spots, level or ascending, the hounds gained on the sheep, but on descending ground, and over rough masses of angular rocks they fell hopelessly behind. Only half a dozen sheep were shot as they passed the hunters stationed near their paths circling round the rugged summit. The full-grown bucks weigh nearly three hundred and fifty pounds.
The mule deer are nearly as heavy. Their long, massive ears give them a very striking appearance. One large buck that I measured stood three feet and seven inches high at the shoulders, and when the ears were extended horizontally the distance across from tip to tip was two feet and one inch.
From the Van Bremer ranch the way to the Lava Beds leads down the Bremer Meadows past many a smooth grassy knoll and jutting cliff, along the shore of Lower Klamath Lake, and thence across a few miles of sage plain to the brow of the wall-like bluff of lava four hundred and fifty feet above Tule Lake. Here you are looking southeastward, and the Modoc landscape, which at once takes possession of you, lies revealed in front. It is composed of three principal parts; on your left lies the bright expanse of Tule Lake, on your right an evergreen forest, and between the two are the black Lava Beds.
When I first stood there, one bright day before sundown, the lake was fairly blooming in purple light, and was so responsive to the sky in both calmness and color it seemed itself a sky. No mountain shore hides its loveliness. It lies wide open for many a mile, veiled in no mystery but the mystery of light. The forest also was flooded with sun-purple, not a spire moving, and Mount Shasta was seen towering above it rejoicing in the ineffable beauty of the alpenglow. But neither the glorified woods on the one hand, nor the lake on the other, could at first hold the eye. That dark mysterious lava plain between them compelled attention. Here you trace yawning fissures, there clusters of somber pits; now you mark where the lava is bent and corrugated in swelling ridges and domes, again where it breaks into a rough mass of loose blocks. Tufts of grass grow far apart here and there and small bushes of hardy sage, but they have a singed appearance and can do little to hide the blackness. Deserts are charming to those who know how to see them--all kinds of bogs, barrens, and heathy moors; but the Modoc Lava Beds have for me an uncanny look. As I gazed the purple deepened over all the landscape. Then fell the gloaming, making everything still more forbidding and mysterious. Then, darkness like death.
Next morning the crisp, sunshiny air made even the Modoc landscape less hopeless, and we ventured down the bluff to the edge of the Lava Beds. Just at the foot of the bluff we came to a square enclosed by a stone wall. This is a graveyard where lie buried thirty soldiers, most of whom met their fate out in the Lava Beds, as we learn by the boards marking the graves--a gloomy place to die in, and deadly-looking even without Modocs. The poor fellows that lie here deserve far more pity than they have ever received. Picking our way over the strange ridges and hollows of the beds, we soon came to a circular flat about twenty yards in diameter, on the shore of the lake, where the comparative smoothness of the lava and a few handfuls of soil have caused the grass tufts to grow taller. This is where General Canby was slain while seeking to make peace with the treacherous Modocs.
Two or three miles farther on is the main stronghold of the Modocs, held by them so long and defiantly against all the soldiers that could be brought to the attack. Indians usually choose to hide in tall grass and bush and behind trees, where they can crouch and glide like panthers, without casting up defenses that would betray their positions; but the Modoc castle is in the rock. When the Yosemite Indians made raids on the settlers of the lower Merced, they withdrew with their spoils into Yosemite Valley; and the Modocs boasted that in case of war they had a stone house into which no white man could come as long as they cared to defend it. Yosemite was not held for a single day against the pursuing troops; but the Modocs held their fort for months, until, weary of being hemmed in, they chose to withdraw.
It consists of numerous redoubts formed by the unequal subsidence of portions of the lava flow, and a complicated network of redans abundantly supplied with salient and re-entering angles, being united each to the other and to the redoubts by a labyrinth of open and covered corridors, some of which expand at intervals into spacious caverns, forming as a whole the most complete natural Gibraltar I ever saw. Other castles scarcely less strong are connected with this by subterranean passages known only to the Indians, while the unnatural blackness of the rock out of which Nature has constructed these defenses, and the weird, inhuman physiognomy of the whole region are well calculated to inspire terror.
Deadly was the task of storming such a place. The breech-loading rifles of the Indians thrust through chinks between the rocks were ready to pick off every soldier who showed himself for a moment, while the Indians lay utterly invisible. They were familiar with byways both over and under ground, and could at any time sink suddenly out of sight like squirrels among the loose boulders. Our bewildered soldiers heard them shooting, now before, now behind them, as they glided from place to place through fissures and subterranean passes, all the while as invisible as Gyges wearing his magic ring. To judge from the few I have seen, Modocs are not very amiable-looking people at best. When, therefore, they were crawling stealthily in the gloomy caverns, unkempt and begrimed and with the glare of war in their eyes, they must have seemed very demons of the volcanic pit.
Captain Jack's cave is one of the many somber cells of the castle. It measures twenty-five or thirty feet in diameter at the entrance, and extends but a short distance in a horizontal direction. The floor is littered with the bones of the animals slaughtered for food during the war. Some eager archaeologist may hereafter discover this cabin and startle his world by announcing another of the Stone Age caves. The sun shines freely into its mouth, and graceful bunches of grass and eriogonums and sage grow about it, doing what they can toward its redemption from degrading associations and making it beautiful.
Where the lava meets the lake there are some fine curving bays, beautifully embroidered with rushes and polygonums, a favorite resort of waterfowl. On our return, keeping close along shore, we caused a noisy plashing and beating of wings among cranes and geese. The ducks, less wary, kept their places, merely swimming in and out through openings in the rushes, rippling the glassy water, and raising spangles in their wake. The countenance of the lava beds became less and less forbidding. Tufts of pale grasses, relieved on the jet rocks, looked like ornaments on a mantel, thick-furred mats of emerald mosses appeared in damp spots next the shore, and I noticed one tuft of small ferns. From year to year in the kindly weather the beds are thus gathering beauty--beauty for ashes.
Returning to Sheep Rock and following the old emigrant road, one is soon back again beneath the snows and shadows of Shasta, and the Ash Creek and McCloud Glaciers come into view on the east side of the mountain. They are broad, rugged, crevassed cloudlike masses of down-grinding ice, pouring forth streams of muddy water as measures of the work they are doing in sculpturing the rocks beneath them; very unlike the long, majestic glaciers of Alaska that riverlike go winding down the valleys through the forests to the sea. These, with a few others as yet nameless, are lingering remnants of once great glaciers that occupied the canyons now taken by the rivers, and in a few centuries will, under present conditions, vanish altogether.
The rivers of the granite south half of the Sierra are outspread on the peaks in a shining network of small branches, that divide again and again into small dribbling, purling, oozing threads drawing their sources from the snow and ice of the surface. They seldom sink out of sight, save here and there in the moraines or glaciers, or, early in the season, beneath the banks and bridges of snow, soon to issue again. But in the north half, laden with rent and porous lava, small tributary streams are rare, and the rivers, flowing for a time beneath the sky of rock, at length burst forth into the light in generous volume from seams and caverns, filtered, cool, and sparkling, as if their bondage in darkness, safe from the vicissitudes of the weather in their youth, were only a blessing.
Only a very small portion of the water derived from the melting ice and snow of Shasta flows down its flanks on the surface. Probably ninety-nine per cent of it is at once absorbed and drained away beneath the porous lava-folds of the mountain to gush forth, filtered and pure, in the form of immense springs, so large, some of them, that they give birth to rivers that start on their journey beneath the sun, full-grown and perfect without any childhood. Thus the Shasta River issues from a large lake-like spring in Shasta Valley, and about two thirds of the volume of the McCloud gushes forth in a grand spring on the east side of the mountain, a few miles back from its immediate base.
To find the big spring of the McCloud, or "Mud Glacier," which you will know by its size (it being the largest on the east side), you make your way through sunny, parklike woods of yellow pine, and a shaggy growth of chaparral, and come in a few hours to the river flowing in a gorge of moderate depth, cut abruptly down into the lava plain. Should the volume of the stream where you strike it seem small, then you will know that you are above the spring; if large, nearly equal to its volume at its confluence with the Pitt River, then you are below it; and in either case have only to follow the river up or down until you come to it.
Under certain conditions you may hear the roar of the water rushing from the rock at a distance of half a mile, or even more; or you may not hear it until within a few rods. It comes in a grand, eager gush from a horizontal seam in the face of the wall of the river gorge in the form of a partially interrupted sheet nearly seventy-five yards in width, and at a height above the riverbed of about forty feet, as nearly as I could make out without the means of exact measurement. For about fifty yards this flat current is in one unbroken sheet, and flows in a lacework of plashing, upleaping spray over boulders that are clad in green silky algae and water mosses to meet the smaller part of the river, which takes its rise farther up. Joining the river at right angles to its course, it at once swells its volume to three times its size above the spring.
The vivid green of the boulders beneath the water is very striking, and colors the entire stream with the exception of the portions broken into foam. The color is chiefly due to a species of algae which seems common in springs of this sort. That any kind of plant can hold on and grow beneath the wear of so boisterous a current seems truly wonderful, even after taking into consideration the freedom of the water from cutting drift, and the constance of its volume and temperature throughout the year. The temperature is about 45 degrees, and the height of the river above the sea is here about three thousand feet. Asplenium, epilobium, heuchera, hazel, dogwood, and alder make a luxurious fringe and setting; and the forests of Douglas spruce along the banks are the finest I have ever seen in the Sierra.
From the spring you may go with the river--a fine traveling companion--down to the sportsman's fishing station, where, if you are getting hungry, you may replenish your stores; or, bearing off around the mountain by Huckleberry Valley, complete your circuit without interruption, emerging at length from beneath the outspread arms of the sugar pine at Strawberry Valley, with all the new wealth and health gathered in your walk; not tired in the least, and only eager to repeat the round.
Tracing rivers to their fountains makes the most charming of travels. As the life-blood of the landscapes, the best of the wilderness comes to their banks, and not one dull passage is found in all their eventful histories. Tracing the McCloud to its highest springs, and over the divide to the fountains of Fall River, near Fort Crook, thence down that river to its confluence with the Pitt, on from there to the volcanic region about Lassen's Butte, through the Big Meadows among the sources of the Feather River, and down through forests of sugar pine to the fertile plains of Chico--this is a glorious saunter and imposes no hardship. Food may be had at moderate intervals, and the whole circuit forms one ever-deepening, broadening stream of enjoyment.
Fall River is a very remarkable stream. It is only about ten miles long, and is composed of springs, rapids, and falls--springs beautifully shaded at one end of it, a showy fall one hundred and eighty feet high at the other, and a rush of crystal rapids between. The banks are fringed with rubus, rose, plum cherry, spiraea, azalea, honeysuckle, hawthorn, ash, alder, elder, aster, goldenrod, beautiful grasses, sedges, rushes, mosses, and ferns with fronds as large as the leaves of palms--all in the midst of a richly forested landscape. Nowhere within the limits of California are the forests of yellow pine so extensive and exclusive as on the headwaters of the Pitt. They cover the mountains and all the lower slopes that border the wide, open valleys which abound there, pressing forward in imposing ranks, seemingly the hardiest and most firmly established of all the northern coniferae.
The volcanic region about Lassen's Butte I have already in part described. Miles of its flanks are dotted with hot springs, many of them so sulphurous and boisterous and noisy in their boiling that they seem inclined to become geysers like those of the Yellowstone.
The ascent of Lassen's Butte is an easy walk, and the views from the summit are extremely telling. Innumerable lakes and craters surround the base; forests of the charming Williamson spruce fringe lake and crater alike; the sunbeaten plains to east and west make a striking show, and the wilderness of peaks and ridges stretch indefinitely away on either hand. The lofty, icy Shasta, towering high above all, seems but an hour's walk from you, though the distance in an air-line is about sixty miles.
The "Big Meadows" lie near the foot of Lassen's Butte, a beautiful spacious basin set in the heart of the richly forested mountains, scarcely surpassed in the grandeur of its surroundings by Tahoe. During the Glacial Period it was a mer de glace, then a lake, and now a level meadow shining with bountiful springs and streams. In the number and size of its big spring fountains it excels even Shasta. One of the largest that I measured forms a lakelet nearly a hundred yards in diameter, and, in the generous flood it sends forth offers one of the most telling symbols of Nature's affluence to be found in the mountains.
The great wilds of our country, once held to be boundless and inexhaustible, are being rapidly invaded and overrun in every direction, and everything destructible in them is being destroyed. How far destruction may go it is not easy to guess. Every landscape, low and high, seems doomed to be trampled and harried. Even the sky is not safe from scath--blurred and blackened whole summers together with the smoke of fires that devour the woods.
The Shasta region is still a fresh unspoiled wilderness, accessible and available for travelers of every kind and degree. Would it not then be a fine thing to set it apart like the Yellowstone and Yosemite as a National Park for the welfare and benefit of all mankind, preserving its fountains and forests and all its glad life in primeval beauty? Very little of the region can ever be more valuable for any other use--certainly not for gold nor for grain. No private right or interest need suffer, and thousands yet unborn would come from far and near and bless the country for its wise and benevolent forethought.