Along the Sierra’s Wishon-Balch Camp Road

Text and Photos by
Originally published as: “The Mad Hermit of the North Fork”
June 14, 1987
This World section – San Francisco Chronicle

Wishon – Balch Camp Road
Fresno County


I drove up the North Fork of the Kings River to talk to Len McConahey, powerhouse foreman and de facto mayor of Balch Camp, a PG&E enclave in the wilds of the Sierra foothills northwest of Fresno. From McConahey, I learned about a one-lane cliff-hanger road that services the reservoirs and powerhouses in the canyon’s upper reaches. The road, in turn, led me to Wishon Reservoir, where a man who rents boats to fishermen told me about Bill Jasper. Which is how I ended the day sitting on a saw horse in a cement-block workshop out behind the Wishon Village campground and store listening to stories about old Wes, the mad hermit of the North Fork.

It works out that way some days: You go looking for people who can put things together for you, who can tell you something about the land and what it has meant to people over the years, and one voice leads you to another, and another.

While technically a part of Sierra National Forest, the North Fork of the Kings is in many ways PG&E’s river. San Joaquin Light and Power built Balch as a construction camp in 1926 on a site where Yokut Indians once came to harvest acorns. Initially, the company built Balch Powerhouse a mile or two up the river from the camp and Black Rock Reservoir seven miles beyond. PG&E swallowed San Joaquin Power and Light in 1930. Today there are three reservoirs and four powerhouses in the canyon, connected by a series of tunnels and steel penstocks and by the slender, unnamed road that winds up the watershed.

Len McConahey (who looks like Jackie Cooper and can’t laugh and open his eyes at the same time) tells me that a woman once plugged this road with a pickup truck, arriving at a spot with the cliff on one side and empty air on the other and deciding to hoof it five miles back to Balch Camp rather than drive another inch. There are half a dozen such spots along the road’s first few miles, and two places where narrow wooden bridges cling to the cliff face high above the gorge. In 27 miles, the road climbs 5,000 feet, starting in oak and digger pine on burnt brown hillsides and ending in lodgepole pines amid noble granite domes. In two places, penstocks like great steel snakes sweep steeply down a gold or granite hillside, leap the road, and disappear over the cliff beyond.

About 50 people live in Balch Camp these days—15 PG&E employees with their dependents. They live here on a Forest Service lease because someone must maintain and monitor the powerhouses, and because the nearest private land is down beyond Pine Flat reservoir, 40 mountain-miles away.

There are two oak-shaded residential districts of soundly built company-owned houses— the oldest of glowing white stucco with red terra cotta roofs. There is also a tennis court, a swimming pool, and several guest houses for the mayors, city managers, county supervisors, and others in authority who pour into the canyon during the tourist season as the company’s guests. There is a school with one teacher and a handful of students up to the fifth grade; older kids take the bus or drive to Tollhouse, an hour and a half away. But there is no post office or store (“The only place up here to spend money is the Coke machine at the other end of this office,” Len McConahey says), and the place feels less like a town than like a small military base.

Balch Camp looked very different in 1927, when there were 1,000 workers in the lower canyon, including a contingent of Swiss alpinists brought in to place the first ladders on the granite walls where the Balch penstock was to go.  Many of the workmen lived in tents in those days, down along the river. Some of these workers may have known or known of Wes, who by that time, Bill Jasper says, was in his mid-20s and had already been roaming the mountains alone for a dozen years.

Wes was born down on the main stem of the Kings, Bill says, down around Camp 41/2, a few miles upstream of the North Fork junction, sometime around the turn of the century. His mother was an Indian; his father, who was white, tossed him out of the house at 14. The boy had started to get “sexual urges,” Bill says, and Wes had a sister, and one thing led to another, and his father took a knife to him in a way that made the punishment fit the crime and threw him out into the wilderness.

Bill got this story from an old PG&E snow surveyor named Stump Dunsmore, and it agrees with something Wes told him later, so Bill has no reason to doubt its truth.

Bill Jasper and his homemade snowcat

Bill Jasper first came to the North Fork of the Kings as a kid on horseback, riding up from his family’s farm down around Sanger in the years before World War II. Wishon Reservoir was Coolidge Meadow then—“not a really beautiful meadow,” Bill says, “but a nice enough mountain meadow of maybe 40 acres, right down in the bottom of the canyon.” Bill and his buddies would come up to camp in the meadow and fish both the North Fork and Woodchuck Creek, which flowed in from the East, from lakes tucked high up along the side of Loper Peak. Even after the war, Bill would come up from the Central Valley with his wife and kids, and more often than not, he’d find nobody else around.

It probably wouldn’t have occurred to Bill Jasper to protest the drowning of Coolidge Meadow. This was the 1950s. The scent of growth and prosperity was in the air, and the mountain landscape seemed inexhaustible. Besides, Bill is a pragmatic man of the if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em variety. In 1960, he bid on and won a Forest Service lease to develop a campground and store on a knoll east of the then newly flooded Wishon Reservoir. He and his family have lived here since. In addition to his own campground and store and the adjacent bar, Bill’s family runs the boating concession at the reservoir, maintains the nearby Forest Service campgrounds, and in the winter plows the paved road out to Dinkey Creek. For many years the paved road wasn’t kept open in the winter, and Bill ran up and down the mountain in a homemade snowcat on the old Balch Camp road.

It was in those early years that Bill got to know Wes. “He was getting pretty old by the time we come up here,” Bill says, “and has been dead now for four years. He lived up here summers, over across the river by what we call Cliff Camp. In the winters, he’d live down on Sacata Ridge, west of Balch. He carried a gun all the time. Everybody was scared of him. Like the local packer, Ray, he was just scared to death of old Wes. And the local PG&E man was scared to death of him too. ‘Stay away from old Wes,’ they told me. ‘He can shoot the eye out of a squirrel at 100 yards.’”

Wishon Reservoir

But Bill’s relationship with Wes was firmly founded on groceries, which he would trade to the old man for work around the place. For a long time Wes had worked building trails for the Forest Service, but by the time Bill knew him he was pretty much living off the land, and not very well at that. “He fished quite a bit,” Bill says, “and he killed a deer once in a while, and he was coming across the river and going into the old pack station over here, and he’d wait until old Ray had fed the horses barley, and he’d take that barley back across the river and make a kind of mush out of it. He was almost starving to death over there.”

Bill remembers one time in the late fall when he was out building rock wall down at the campground. The day before, the packer had taken four deer hunters down to Spanish Mountain with the plan that he would go back to pick them up within five or six days. But the hunters killed a deer the first day out, and one of them decided to walk back to Wishon for a horse so they could pack the carcass out of the woods. It was this man who stumbled on the old hermit, standing on top of a rock, waving his arms and cursing the sky. “There’s a crazy man across the dam there,” the hunter told Bill with some agitation. “That’s OK,” Bill replied. “You just ran into old Wes.”

Another time Wes was cutting a trail for Bill on the mountain above the reservoir when he came in one day and said he’d have to quit. “I got to go back across the river, Bill,” he said. “The spirits are throwing rocks at me up there and keep hitting me in the head.”

When Bill asked Wes later about these spirits, this is what he said: “I was just a kid when my Dad ran me off, and I’ve been by myself ever since. Now all my family is dead, aren’t none of ‘em livin’, but as long as I’m alive they’ll keep torturing me.”

At that point, Wes had been living alone in the woods for 50 years.

By the time I leave Bill Jasper’s workshop, dark clouds have descended on the mountaintop settlement of Wishon. Needing a place to park for the night and wanting to see where PG&E has topped off its tank in this particular watershed, I drive the six miles up to Courtright Reservoir. It is mid-May after the driest winter in years. Patches of dirty snow are scattered here and there in shadier spots. Other years, the road would still be two feet deep in the stuff at this time. The campground is not even officially open yet, and I have the place pretty much to myself.

Courtright Reservoir is nestled in a granite bowl along Helm’s Creek at nearly 8,200 feet. PG&E built the dam in the late 1950s, at the same time as the one down at Wishon. Then, in 1975, they punched a tunnel between the two reservoirs and installed a powerhouse with a reversible turbine, so that Wishon water could be pumped back to Courtright during periods of low-energy demand and used to generate power again and again. It is theoretically possible for a particular molecule of Helm’s Creek water to be swapped back and forth forever between the two reservoirs—whatever forever means in the framework of manmade dams.

The 2,000 workers who poured in to build the Helm’s Creek tunnel were the latest, and perhaps the last, of the periodic pulses of population PG&E has infused into the North Fork over the last 60 years. Many were hard drinkers, Bill Jasper recalls, and seemed to live as though tomorrow might never come. One day Bill visited the tunnel and got some hint of why this might be so. He remembers two men, one riding a pounding jackhammer, the other standing behind, with one hand in the first man’ s collar, the other in his belt, ready to yank him back to safety should the ceiling start to fall. Yessiree, Bill thought, eight hours of that and he might be inclined to drink a bit himself.

Bill Jasper told me I would like Courtright Reservoir, with its rugged, top-of-the-world look, and he is right. Across the water, shapely granite domes step away toward the east, toward the snow-covered peaks of the LeConte Divide. And the lodgepoles in the campground are as big around as the body of a child, with the smooth gray complexion that is among the finest of natural finishes.

Lodgepole pines at Courtright Reservoir

But like most reservoirs, this one strikes me as curiously dead. It is drawn down after the dry winter, and the bathtub ring around its edge is studded with ugly stumps. I think of the creatures that must have lived in the meadow here and note again that reservoirs are the great contradiction to the natural order of the American West, where more water almost always means more life.

When it starts to spit rain, I shelter in the van and boil up some water, tossing in a package of instant noodles and a can each of minced clams and Le Sueur baby peas. I wash this down with two fingers of bourbon while I wonder what it’s like to live on barley mush.

After the rain, I cross the dam in the gathering dusk and climb a small hill. There I find a surveyor’s mark. “Pacific Gas and Electric Company Survey Marker No. 8CP299ECC, Backsight, Tunnel Tangent,” it says.

Looking down the valley toward Wishon, there is now no sign of either the tunnel or the buried powerhouse—only the sharp granite V that forms the sides of Helm’s Creek.

Standing there, I wonder briefly if any of the kilowatts generated in the North Fork canyon make their way up the San Joaquin Valley, across the coast range to San Francisco, and into my home. I wonder if they are at that moment chilling my beer, turning the hands of the clock beside my bed. I wonder which of the tens of thousands of words I write each year pop onto my computer screen fresh from the turbines at the Balch or Helm’s Creek Powerhouse. If the digging and damming in this canyon over the last 60 years were parceled out among the users of the canyon’s power, I wonder, what would be my share of the damage? A shovelful of dirt from the 17 miles of tunnels, perhaps? Or a square inch of drowned meadow?

Back at the van, I sip another drink beneath a rising moon, then stretch out for the night. Somewhere in the hazy middle ground between consciousness and sleep, I am surprised by an image of old Wes as the deer hunter saw him that day: standing on a rock, arms upraised, cursing the sky like some Old Testament prophet, flooding the mountain meadows with a madness and misery that has disappeared with his death like so much melting snow.


©  text and photos 2017 William Poole. All rights reserved.

William Poole’s Detour’s feature appeared between June 1987 and December 1990 in the This World section of the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday edition.