Saving Grace

The Trinity Alps are one of the most divided landscapes in California, thanks to three major rivers. In spring, the rivers and their mighty tributaries swell and seethe with the melting snows. If you know someone who's never witnessed this, here's the place to take her.

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Snowmelt is a Western word. It’s not one used by people in New Jersey. And it’s not to be confused with the grungy, urban remnant that is more grime and car exhaust than snow. Ultraclean snowmelt is the glorious elixir that runs clear and cold from high granite keeps in the West. A hydrologist’s brand of runoff, snowmelt is quintessential Western fare.

I wanted to introduce the flavor of snowmelt to my sister Grace, who’s never lived anywhere but New Jersey. Each spring she calls. “Where’s our trip this summer?” She trusts me to plan an adventure that will stretch her limits. So far I haven’t failed her. The previous year I’d talked her through her fear of heights as we hiked up Yosemite Falls even while she nervously sang “I’ll Take Manhattan.”

She wasn’t ready to taste the champagne of melt that flows in the High Sierra. But I wanted her to know firsthand this regional specialty that drops from the heavens onto mountains below, only to transform in spring to muscular rivers, streams, and deep lakes. Snowmelt is something my sister will never experience in New Jersey.

I decided to take her to the far northern reaches of my adopted state, to the Trinity Alps, the fountainhead of copious snowmelt. Topping out at 9,000-foot Mount Thompson, the Alps are not as high as the Sierra. But they’ve been just as worked over by the mighty glaciers that quarried basins and divides. The Alps are one of the most riven landscapes in California, drained by the Trinity, Scott, and Salmon rivers. Trinity County is rugged, remote, and beautified by vast tracts of old-growth forest. It has only five people per square mile, a human sparseness I deemed necessary for someone who lives near the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel in Union City, part of a metropolis with the nation’s densest head count.

Our first dunk came just an hour after we’d left the foggy redwood coast at Arcata. We traveled east on sunstruck 299, a highway so blessed with natural beauty it’s been designated a national scenic byway. For 50 curving miles we lurched, trying to drive and devour the drama of forested mountains. The Trinity River, aptly labeled “wild and scenic,” tumbled silver and frothy in its slot out our window. At last we pulled over at Cedar Flat and found a patch of sandy beach. The August sun was scorching, so it took us all of 30 seconds to let the Trinity’s icy waters close over our heads. Reborn in the middle of a lazy green pool, I raised my arms to the sky and a steep oak-dotted riverbank and said, “Beats the Jersey shore, doesn’t it?”

“It’s different,” Grace said. It’s not that she wasn’t impressed. Just that she’s a diehard defender of her backyard.

“Wait ’til tomorrow,” I promised, swallowing a Cheshire cat grin.

We stopped where 299 bisects another national scenic byway, Highway 3, in Weaverville, the county seat. We checked into the old Weaverville Hotel, which has a lot of yesteryear charm—perhaps too much, in its weak shower nozzle and soft beds. Grace’s bed sheets had sand in them. I suggested she feel honored—it might have dated back to the town’s Gold Rush era, left by some forlorn prospector.

At the crack of dawn, we plumped up our backpacks with snacks and water bottles and headed to our trailhead at Bridge Camp.

FORKED TONGUE

 The Stuart Fork of the Trinity courses through the stunning emerald landscape of Morris Meadow on its downstream journey. The round-trip hike to Morris is some 16 miles. I told Grace, “It’s 10 miles.” This wasn’t an abuse of power, decreed to me by birth order (I’m one year and four days older). Just part of our annual ritual. Remember Yosemite?—she came back. We headed past huckleberries and ferns, shaded by black oaks, Douglas fir, and Jeffrey pines.

“The Stuart’s waters start as snowpack in the ‘White Trinities,’ the untracked heart of the Alps,” I primed her from Wayne Moss’s The Trinity Alps Companion. I had many hours to distract my sister from counting miles as we strolled the long canyon.

We had swimming opportunities to distract us, too, but decided to save one for the return trip. At Deer Creek, the spray from a cascade teased us. I took a photo of Grace, standing on the bridge over the pool of snowmelt. She was still smiling. She was smiling, too, when we reached Morris Meadow with its waist-high grasses. Beyond a copse of willows, alders, and incense cedars, a horse whinnied at a packers camp, and we wished we could laze for hours, staring at the tilting slabs of Sawtooth Mountain.

But we had to return to a certain gravel bar where the Stuart took a break from its fierce crashing in rock channels to run slack. Retracing our steps, we passed anglers, fishing for rainbows. Then, long past the flashpoint of calf burn and hot feet, we saw our bank, lined with cottonwoods and big-leaf maples.

“The harder the hike, the greater the reward,” I sighed as we sank into the soothing waters. Shadowy fish sidled by. The river and vegetation smelled tart and fresh, but Grace’s smile looked wilted. We draped ourselves over smooth granite and she said, “This is more than 10 miles.”

“What was your first clue?” I asked, triumphant.

“We’ve passed a dozen hikers. We’re the only ones doing this trip in one day.”

True, most backpackers camped at Morris and took day hikes to Emerald, Sapphire, and Mirror lakes.

“I knew you could do it,” I said. “You ran a marathon.”

“Ten years ago.”

“I’ll get you back in one piece.”

And I did—we did—nine hours after we’d started. Well, OK, Grace was walking like a wooden soldier whose knees wouldn’t bend.

“You did it,” I cheered feebly.

“Yeah, but I may not walk for a week.”

But I knew, in her mind she was already bragging to the flatlanders back East: “You won’t believe the river canyon my sister and I hiked.”

CARRVILLE

Once again Grace had proved her mettle. Now came the pampering. The Carrville Inn, with its gracious Victorian and frontier spirit, would spoil the most jaded of my five sisters. We pulled up on the old California-Oregon Stage Road, boots caked with earth. We couldn’t have looked worse than Herbert Hoover did when he lodged here—after doing some local mining engineer work.

The inn, rebuilt in 1917 after fire destroyed the 1854 structure, gleamed against evergreens, old oaks, apple and cherry trees. A weathered barn burbled with farm animals. A trail led to the Carr family graveyard with its moss-eaten headstones, including those of four children who died of diphtheria in the 1800s.

Owners Sheri and Dave Overly had left Stockton behind for the inn’s country elegance. In the morning, over Sheri’s baked French toast, we met the other guests. A couple, who had flown their plane from San Jose to Trinity Center, dissed Grace with a standard barb about Jersey. But she took to Dave Drewry, who owned the llamas in the corral. He rhapsodized about a pack trip with his outfit, Como Say Llamas, to Mumford Meadow, where he’d spotted a golden eagle. When Grace heard that the llamas carry all of the cargo, she made sure I got Dave’s brochure for any future hike I had in mind.

That night, we lay spent in our twin beds in the Carrville’s Hoover Room, the stillness broken only by insects and prowling animals. We thought of blood-curdling shrieks that pierced the night as we camped at the start of our trip. Maybe it was Bigfoot, I whispered.

“He could’ve been more considerate,” Grace yawned.

“Dozens of Bigfoot sightings have been reported in this area,” I said. “I hear he wails like a mountain lion.” Feeble attempts to tell scary stories lulled us to sleep. I half-awoke to a persistent sound. My sister was a deep sleeper, so I wondered why she was flapping. When she started to squeal I got annoyed, opened my eyes, and saw a half dozen black shadows circling overhead. Bats. They’d flown in through a window. I bolted for the door and Grace stirred.

“Why are you standing in the doorway with a pillowcase over your head?” she asked groggily.

“Umm,” I said.

She gasped, “BATS!!!” Her head vanished under the covers. With some coaxing, Grace ran out of the room. We grabbed our sleeping bags from the car and threw them on the floor in the Rose Room. Next morning, I sat on the sunny porch, sipped coffee, and watched finches flit around Shasta daisies. Grace appeared and said, “They’re back.”

“Bats sleep all day,” I said.

“They are asleep—all around the room.” By and by, Sheri joined us, shooing the creatures out the window with a towel and I saw that they’d had the guano scared out of them. Sheri and I wanted my sister from the Wrong Coast to appreciate these shy, beneficial insect-eaters. “Grace,” Sheri said, “you have to see this.” Grace inched her way over to the bathroom to see a bat hanging from the rafter. “Isn’t that cute!” But the bat let go and Grace ran like a you-know-what out of hell.

The bats had been seeking the attic and missed their mark. But, thanks to our visit they flew the coop and Sheri installed screens in all the windows.

THE GUIDE FROM HADES

Where the snowmelt runs, so do the fish, thus I’d arranged a half-day of guided fly-fishing. Water diversion by the Trinity Dam has all but destroyed the once great salmon and steelhead fishing of the area, but Fish and Game plants Eastern brook trout and rainbow, golden, and brown trout. But my quest was single-minded—to stand enraptured in nature’s dark, mystical, liquid currency.

“Where shall we have the seminar?” asked the guide, whom I’ll call Jed Pescatore. I looked around at snowy peaks and virgin stands. The evening before, Grace and I had seen just how far this untouched wilderness stretched as we cruised Highway 3. Pines gave way to chaparral basted with the amber sunlight of the Golden State. We climbed over Scott Mountain, went through Callahan and Etna, gateway to the Marble Mountain Wilderness, and still hadn’t run out of wilds, some of it accessible only on trails worn by prospectors, trappers, and ranchers.

“Just take us to a pretty spot on the Trinity,” I urged.

Jed replied, “That’s indicative of ignorance of the sport.”

He had a point—I’d cast a fly line maybe a dozen times. Three hours and 23 pages of photocopy later, my glaze-eyed sister and I had learned, among other things, the life cycles of nymphs, caddis flies, and mayflies—zilch about fly-tying. Jed gave us 15 minutes of land practice, roll- and back-casting, then led us to a treeless spot on the Trinity. He stood behind us and cast our arms for us. We each caught tiny trout, which Jed released for us. Exhausted and disappointed, we paid and begged him to leave.

Jed in no way typified other locals we met in Trinity, like our waitress at the Forest Cafe in Coffee Creek, who told us to visit Alpen Cellars, Trinity’s only winery. But we were endlessly way laid by the next icy plunge. A shaded curve on the North Fork, tucked off 299, had perhaps no fish to catch, but all the allure that earns the Alps their name. It was just past Helena, a ghost town with an overgrown post office, brewery, farmhouse, and cottages. We soaked until we turned blue, then baked on sauna-warm boulders. Little eddies sang over polished pebbles, a water ouzel dunked nervously, and everything unfolded according to plan. What’s one guide from hell?

COFFEE CREEK

Grace cried when we checked out of Carrville Inn. “Look, you gotta toughen up,” I said, “if you want to come back to Trinity.” And with that I hiked her up to Boulder Lakes, during which Mount Shasta rammed the horizon with its sun-brightened snowcap.

Then we discovered a parallel universe along the snow-fed Coffee Creek, where thousands of miners once lived and dredged for gold. Happily, they didn’t mine the breathtaking vistas of peaks, cascades, and meadows with browsing deer. After checking into Coffee Creek Resort, we joined families and the dude ranch owners, Ruth and Mark Hartman, for dinner. Ruth tended her 127-acre resort with the cumulative wisdom of a fourth-generation Californian. It was easy to sense the Old West in her corral where an Appaloosa and thoroughbreds had been raised from colts.

The Hartmans had just returned from New Orleans, so we feasted on crawfish, blackened catfish, jambalaya, and bread pudding. Ruth had also brought back ghost tales from the bayou, which piqued the interest of my sister, who is sporadically psychic. (For example, her father-in-law appeared on her TV at the time he was dying.)

Ruth spoke of the resort ghost, Harold, who like many lone ghosts, is more mischievous than frightening. He must have seen us coming: Grace and I headed to the faux-granite Jacuzzi. As we were pummeled by jets, the electricity went dead and we bobbed in silence and black primal soup. I tried to feel my way to the ledge, but a force weighed me down. It was my sister. She was spooked. The lights came on with no explanation. “If it’s not bats, it’s Harold saying hello,” said Grace.

We couldn’t join Ruth’s party for a morning gallop in God’s country and breakfast on the trail because we had a long drive to San Francisco. We headed south on Highway 3, stopping at the dam’s handsome viewing deck.

“It looks like an ocean.” said Grace, surveying the artificial lake’s 145 miles of auburn dirt shoreline.

“It’s a manmade guzzler of snowmelt,” I said. “It reroutes 90 percent of the Alps’ watershed to the Sacramento Valley.”

“So they can put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can,” said Grace who was weaned on Contadina’s TV commercials. A dot on the wide blue expanse turned into a water skier on this watery grave for meadows, ranches, and native Wintu history. Loath to depart, we sat on the redwood planks and paged through local real estate listings. We found a dwelling and acreage selling for less than two months’ city rent.

We haven’t followed up. Yet. But my sister, who is, after all, psychic, called the other day. Over the roar of Lincoln Tunnel traffic I heard her say, “I see a deep pool of snowmelt in our near future.”

This article was first published in July 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

Pick up AAA’s Northern California Sectionmap. Contact the Trinity Chamber of Commerce (800) 487-4648, for the free Visitors Guide. Weaverville Ranger District, (530) 623-2121, has information on the area’s campgrounds, trails, maps, fishing, backcountry, and permits.

Carrville Inn B&B, HCR 2, Box 3536, Trinity Center, CA 96091; (530) 266-3511. Coffee Creek Resort, HC2 Box 4940, Trinity Center, CA 96091; (800) 624-4480. Como Say Llamas, pack trips, (916) 923-0408.

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