Along the McCloud River
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Originally published as: Time Fades Along the McCloud River
September 6, 1987
This World Section – San Francisco Chronicle
Along the McCloud River
The road ends among towering firs just beyond Ah-di-na Campground, about seven miles downstream from where the river is plugged by the McCloud Dam. From here, it is another third of a mile down a narrow trail in the dying light, Tom Hesseldenz leading the way, balancing a toilet tank on his shoulder like some deep-woods Sherpa. Hesseldenz is celebrating his tenth year as manager of the Nature Conservancy’s McCloud River Preserve here and has packed in a lot of strange stuff in that time, including a cast-iron bathtub, uncountable 100-pound bags of cement, assorted wood stoves and a 70-gallon aquarium.
The toilet tank is to be installed in a big new cabin, a solid rectangular building planted in a grove along the river. The preserve’s living area also includes a second older cabin; an outdoor, solar-heated wash-up sink and shower; and an outdoor kitchen with a bench-ringed fire pit, a big picnic table, a freestanding counter, a food-storage cupboard and an evaporative cooler – a kind of primitive refrigerator.
I elect to stay in the older cabin – an eccentric, woodsy structure with the feel of a tree house. Built in 1975 by students from the California College of Arts and Crafts, the older cabin scrambles the distinction between indoors and out. Some of the interior walls are papered in bark, and the bunks are reached by a rustic, driftwood ladder, its gnarled rungs wedged together with river stones. Fat climbing ropes dangle from the ceiling for those who wish to exit bed Tarzan-style.
I will share this cabin with Don Shimatsu, a fisheries intern who is working at the preserve this summer. Tom Hesseldenz warns me that I will also share it with little brown bats (“cute little brown bats,” is what he says) and that at night, ring-tailed cats may run up and down my face. Slender, raccoonlike animals with huge, expressive eyes, the ringtails are much in evidence around the preserve – especially around the outdoor kitchen, a territory they share with a skunk, a deer named Daisy and innumerable chipmunks, all named Chuckles, which also come around begging for food.
That evening, a single ringtail and the skunk are in attendance. Tom is preparing stir-fry by the light of a propane lantern. He is broad-shouldered and big-chested, with a shock of curly hair and eyes the color of bleached denim – an ex-surfer out of Pismo Beach turned outdoor chef.
As he chops and dices, the discarded ends of carrots and zucchini and peppers go over the back of the workbench to the wild moochers. The ringtail is impatient, quick, and silent. It keeps materializing at Tom’s elbow, coming up the side of the workbench, its big eyes appearing over the rim of the counter, trained on the goodies. He diverts it by feeding graham crackers by hand. “Here, you try it,” he says. And I do, marveling at the velvety feel of the animal’s cool nose as it rummages my palm for the crumbs.
“Be sure to tell people that volunteers get to come and live in the cabins, and eat here, and experience all this,” Tom says as he sloshes cooking oil into the big wok on the open fire.
By now it is dark, but still warm beneath the trees, the air as soft as a ringtail’s nose and, as always here, full of the raucous rush and tumble of the river.
The McCloud is a spring-fed stream, leaking out of a honeycomb of volcanic rock south and east of Mount Shasta – starting out youthful, fair and energetic, and swelling in a dozen or so miles to rolling, muscular maturity. Because it is spring-fed, the McCloud flows steady and cold all summer long and has always supported a remarkable fishery. For thousands of years, salmon and steelhead ran up from the blue Pacific via the Sacramento River – runs stopped short when the Sacramento was plugged by Shasta Dam in 1945.
But the McCloud’s famous trout fishery remains. Today, the river holds introduced brown trout (huge fish, one recently captured female running to 13 pounds and 31 1/2 inches) and native Shasta Rainbows, fish with such vivid color, such spirit on the hook, that since 1872 they have been seeded into rivers worldwide.
Much of this remarkable fishery fell into private hands early on. The Railroad Act of 1862 awarded the river corridor to the Central Pacific Railroad, which eventually sold the land, tracks unlaid. Much of the upper river ended up in the hands of newspaper baron William Randolf Hearst and family. The lower river went to the Bollibokkaand McCloud River fishing clubs -whose members cut the brush along the banks so as not to foul their backcasts – who bravely floated dry flies in the surging stream.
In the early ’60s, PG&E built a dam and reservoir about halfway down the river’s length. The dam calmed the lower river, making it more wadeable for the fishermen, but it also signaled the end of an era on the central McCloud. Roads were built, loggers moved in, and the Hearst Corp. first logged and then traded the portion of their land below the reservoir to the Forest Service, offering public access for the first time.
Partly to relieve the resulting fishing pressure on its northern boundary, the McCloud River Club donated its upper 6 1/2 miles of river corridor to the Nature Conservancy in 1973.
So the McCloud Preserve is an unusual property for the Nature Conservancy in at least two ways, Tom Hesseldenz says. Typically, the conservancy acquires small plots of natural acreage surrounded by developed property – gems in rough settings, which are usually left alone or opened to some low-impact public use. But the milewide corridor of the McCloudPreserve is but the central jewel in a sparkling array, surrounded by thousands of acres of still undevel- oped private and U.S. Fore st Service land.
The McCloud Preserve is also special because of its long tradition of recreational use. Four miles of the conservancy’s water are closed to fishing. But the upper two miles just below the cabins are open to 10 rods at a time, reservations recommended (415/777-0487), artificial fly and lure, catch- and-release fishing only. For fishermen willing to live within those limits, the preserve provides a chance to float flies after famous fish on what has historically been a private river.
In the morning, Tom is once more at the counter in his outdoor kitchen. “I have been known to make pancakes,” he says, and is soon at work on the batter: flour, mashed bananas, oil, a dollop of syrup, peanuts and salt all go into the mix, which he moistens with beer, filling the sunny woods around the kitchen with a rich, yeasty aroma.
He grinds the coffee beans, boils the water, and filters a rich brew (apologizing that he has somehow managed to run out of French-roast). Then he sits on a stump beside the open fire and browns up the pancakes on a homemade griddle – a yard-long chunk of steel girder left over from the construction of Gil’s Supermarket in the nearby town of Mount Shasta.
After breakfast we go for a walk. Shimatsu comes along, as do Sean Hogan and Steve Darington, amateur botanists who are staying at the preserve in search of Lewisia, a succulent plant. Tom, who thinks he knows where some specimens can be found, leads the way.
The lower McCloud is a startling milky green on warm summer days like this. This trick of light comes from suspended sediment in the river. The sediment, in turn, comes from Mud Creek, a glacial gusher from off Mount Shasta that joins the river about a third of the way along its length.
In 1924, a mudslide came down the mountain, eventually covering a 1-by-6-mile area to a depth of 10 feet. For a while, Mud Creek was the consistency of melted chocolate, sullying the Sacramento River and eventually, San Francisco Bay, 250 miles downstream. These days, the creek looks more like weak cocoa, and only then on warm days, when the glacier’s melting apace.
All the same, the Hearst family, apparently unfond of the Mud Creek’s hazy contribution to the river, has relocated the mouth of the creek from above their compound to below so as to have clear water at the doorstep.
A quarter-mile below the cabin, we stop at a spot where fences have been angled across the river to guide migrating fish into one of two traps. Here, Don Shimatsu wades out into the stream, stopping first to check the water temperature (a bone-piercing 50 degrees ), then working his way out along the fence and scouting the traps through a diving mask for fish. As would be expected in mid-August, he comes back empty-handed.
Historically, this river was the southernmost habitat for the Dolly Varden char, a sleek, troutlike fish, with a gunmetal body liberally sprinkled with pink spots.
A University of California at Davis researcher found one Dolly Varden here in 1975. In 1981, Tom Hesseldenz went looking for more. With the help of the California Department of Fish and Game and the landholders along the river, conservancy interns took a census of the McCloud from source to mouth, interviewing fishermen, diving with mask and fins, and constructing three fish weirs like the one below the cabins.
In the subsequent six years, no Dolly Varden chars have turned up, and the best guess is that their niche has been taken by the big, non-native brown trout, 800 of which were caught in the conservancy’s fish weir last year.
Fisheries research is only one of Tom Hesseldenz’s responsibilities. He is part caretaker, part construction worker, part field biologist, part research coordinator, part administrator. Don Shimatsu recently made a photograph of a backpack-laden Tom coming in off the trail with a chain saw in one hand, a briefcase in another. Tom thinks the picture pretty much symbolizes where he’s at these days.
But this was not always the case. When Tom first came to the preserve, he thought of himself more or less as a caretaker; his duties centered around the property. In those days, he says, the woods just took hold of him and he was possessed by the McCloud. He lived in the old cabin from early spring to late fall, slipping into a kind of timelessness, going out each winter to find old friends and old places changed in ways he didn’t understand.
He believes he became almost too closely allied with the preserve in those early years. It began to seem less and less like a job. “It would have been very tempting to continue playing the hermit, to protect this opportunity I had to live a pure and simple life,” he says.
But gradually he came to realize that if he was to protect the health of the land, he needed to work on a bigger canvas. The conservancy’s one-mile corridor began to seem like narrow protection for a great wild area he had come to love. “I began to understand that big forces were at work on the outside,” he says, “forces that will decide if and when some bulldozer appears over the top of one of these hills.”
So Tom now holds himself back a little from the seductive pull of the preserve. He has taken an apartment in town to be closer to the telephone and computer, and lets the interns baby-sit the property on a day-to-day basis. More and more he’s concerned himself with issues up and down the river – working with private land owners and the Forest Service and the Department of Fish and Game.
As part of his work toward a masters degree in land-use planning at California State University at Humboldt, Tom has created a comprehensive proposal for the lower river and submitted it to the Forest Service for consideration as part of its latest 10-year plan. In its first draft of this plan, the Forest Service proposed retaining some of the current roadless area along the lower river, while intensively managing other acreage for timber.
But Tom would like to see the roadless land become a great primitive recreation site, with hiking trails up and down the river. He would also like to see a research area centered around the preserve. “At heart, I’m just a diehard for the feel of a primeval forest,” he says.
We find Lewisia where Tom has said we would – a five-inch, rabbit-eared scrap of foliage waving a dead flower stock.
Then we move downriver to a spot Tom calls the Mermaid Pool, because a stream-side log looks as though it should hold a mermaid basking in the sun. The river is wide and slow here and stout alders lean out over the pool, doubled in its milky surface.
It would be a tough river to fish, I think – big and rolling with heavy brush to the banks, its bottom paved with slick, round boulders. Everywhere in the shallows are the larvae of caddis flies, an inch or so long, each wrapped in a brown case built of little sticks, leaves, gravel and other river-bottom detritus. When researchers cut open summer trout here, Tom says, their bellies are stuffed with caddis larvae, cases and all.
It’s easy to imagine being snared by this place, as Tom says he was. Waking up in the old cabin (the midnight scampering of ringtails fresh in my ears), it is easy to think of the preserve as a place apart, as somehow outside history.
In time, the dark coolness of the big woods, the roar of the water, could work on the mind, wearing it as smooth as a river-bottom boulder. “Slipping into timelessness,” Tom called it this morning . . . or perhaps it was yesterday afternoon. Already these outside voices seem to dissemble, to fade, to slip beneath the surface of the tumbling McCloud.
William Poole, a San Francisco writer, writes his Detours column from somewhere on the road weekly in This World.
Text and photos ©2018 William Poole