• Otter Views: They Don’t Dial 911

    by Tom Stevens

    Because Yosemite was ablaze, I needed a plan B for this year’s getaway week. Remembering my brother raving about a fantastic body of water he had visited once, I gave him a call.

    “What was that place up north you told me about?” I asked. “You called it the clearest water you’d ever seen?”

    pelicans2 “Ahjumawi Springs,” he sighed. “Five trout streams and two volcanic springs all feed into this one lake. It’s a freshwater paradise. Scenic, serene, full of bird life. Perfect for the Queen Mary.”

    “Queen Mary” is our shorthand for a $50 inflatable rowboat with oarlocks. Lightweight and buoyant, it can be back-packed to remote lakes. Once there, you assemble a pair of aluminum oars and inflate the boat. Balancing your pack gingerly on the stern, you can row to off-trail campsites not frequented by bears. That’s the theory, anyway.

    Because the boats sacrifice durability for portability, piercings and small leaks eventually do them in. I’ve gone through several Queen Marys in 30 years of “boat packing.” My latest is a cheerful blue-and-yellow Sevylor model from Big Five. It can hold a 200-pound person and 100 pounds of cargo. Or two people and no cargo, provided the people know each other well.

    “Take Highway 5 to 299,” my brother advised. “Go east on 299 until you hit McArthur. Turn left at the Elks Lodge, drive through the fairgrounds, and the road turns to gravel. That’s Rat Farm Road. Drive three miles and park at the boat ramp.”

    Several hours of northeasterly driving took me across an invisible line separating two Californias. One is the prosperous, politically progressive California of genteel suburbs and Bed, Bath and Beyond stores. The other is a rural California of vast open spaces, high unemployment, scenic wonders and rugged self-reliance.

    we don't dialThe most common self-reliance icon was a plaque that started showing up in cafes, garages and general stores somewhere past Chico. The motto proudly printed beside a cocked revolver reads: “We Don’t Call 911.” The inference is that intruders or trouble-makers are dealt with as they were in the Old West, with a hail of bullets. But what if grandma falls ill, or a fire breaks out? Do you still shoot?

    Further evidence that I had crossed some attitudinal line soon appeared on any highway sign or forestry service sign penetrable by high-caliber ordnance. Some signs were so savagely bullet-riddled I couldn’t read them at all, although a different meaning came through.

    It was thus with a certain trepidation that I finally reached Rat Farm Road, parked the truck and unloaded my boat to the sound of . . . gunfire! From every direction it came, echoing off the volcanic hills, crackling over the meadows, booming out across the water. What had I gotten into?

    Keeping a very low profile, I inflated the boat, fixed the oars into the oarlocks, set my pack on the stern, and dragged the whole thing into the water. This slipshod launch left pinprick holes in the boat’s underside that I would ruefully discover later. For the moment I was focused on getting safely to the three “boat-in only” campsites.

    notice pgeBut where were they? The metal park service map at the put-in ramp had been shredded by what looked like a tight burst of 50-caliber machine gun fire. I would have to dead reckon. Raising my head at mid-channel, I peered cautiously over the dripping oars. The most scenic part of the lake lay to my right. I reckoned that’s where the campsites would be. That side also lay farther from the gunfire.

    Three miles of rowing later, I realized two things. I had reckoned wrongly, and my pants were soaked. Beaching the boat and pack beneath a stand of tall pines, I set off on foot along an overgrown jeep road. It was a mild, sunny day, and the lakeside trail was gentle. Aside from distant explosions, my only concern was the frequent and copious bear scat along my route. Happily, the bears seemed to be eating berries of some kind. I saw no bones.

    An hour’s hike brought me to a handsome floating boat ramp and three wilderness campsites. Throwing some clothing onto one of the picnic tables to claim it, I hiked back for my stuff, tugged the Queen Mary back into the water, and rowed several more miles to the place I should have gone initially. As recompense, a flight of white pelicans soared low overhead, their wing beats soft as whispers.

    There followed a long, dark, uneasy night punctuated by gunfire. Was this some illegal black bear harvest? Were hunters with night vision goggles blasting sleeping waterfowl? Would errant birdshot pepper my tent? How many invisible lines had I crossed?

    (Next time: Lassitude at Lassen).

    posted to Cedar Street Times on September 12, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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