Geeking Out on Watersheds

Our recent travels took us through ten counties and the watersheds of the American, Yuba and Feather Rivers, all of which flow into the Sacramento River and out through our San Francisco Bay. All three of these ecosystems were horribly damaged during the gold rush and the craze for hydraulic mining in the mid-19th century. I worry that now we will see them ruined again by our craze for transporting fossil fuels by train.


Endless train in the Feather River canyon

Much of California’s wealth came from the plundering of its natural resources by robber barons. In the 1850s, mining companies used high-pressure water to wash away whole mountains in the search for gold. After it was directed through the sluice, the wastewater washed into the river basins and eventually into the Sacramento Valley and San Francisco Bay. Finally, farmers, whose cropland was inundated with sediment and flooding, filed a lawsuit against the practice, which was outlawed in 1884 (our very first environmental law).

My first introduction to the environmental damage caused by hydraulic mining was a trip years ago to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park off Highway 49. I had been amazed by California’s largest hydraulic mine and I wanted Holly to see it for herself. So we took the side trip to the tiny town of North Bloomfield where the park headquarters is located. We picnicked at the town park across the road after a hike through the still impressive chasm of the mine.

May is an especially scenic time to drive along Highway 49, which follows the North Fork of the Yuba River. California buckeyes in full bloom look like a fireworks display on the hillsides. We found lots of blooming wildflowers too, on a hike at the spot near Nevada City where the highway crosses the Yuba River. Most prolific was a variety of sticky monkey flower with large peach-colored blooms. Other folks were enjoying this spot too, some swimming in the Yuba.

I’ve got a thing for watersheds and I geek out on finding the headwaters of a river or creek. Holly and I spent our first couple of years together hiking to the headwaters of every creek in Sonoma County, where the Coast Range mountains average one or two thousand feet in altitude. Sierra headwaters usually require more effort, but we drove right up to the headwaters of the Yuba, an alpine meadow at 6,701-foot Yuba Pass.


Dusk from Sierra Hot Springs

Bird watching was excellent all along this trip, but the birds were most abundant and diverse at Sierra Hot Springs near Sierraville. You can lie back in the 100-degree outdoor pool and watch birds in day and stars at night. Or you can bird watch from the large front windows or front porch of the old hotel where we stayed. The resort is nestled at the foot of the mountains overlooking vast ranchlands. It has a Montana feel about it. The local Audubon chapter provided a bird checklist for the area with hundreds of species but we were happy to identify a few, including a golden eagle.

Frazier Falls

Frazier Falls

As we drove north to the town of Quincy, we took a short hike to Frazier Falls. The U.S. Forest Service has constructed a wheelchair accessible paved path with periodic benches made from downed trees, and a sturdy fence at the overlook. I’ve been critical of the Forest Service and its motto, “Land of Many Uses,” which in my home state of Washington has meant facilitating lumber companies’ clear cutting. So I am always glad to see the “many uses” broadened to facilitating citizens’ appreciation of the forest. At this altitude native dogwood, thimbleberry, ribes and columbine bloomed. It had been raining here for a couple of weeks but my search for fungi only turned up two spring coccora, a couple of corals and some polypores. Still, after such a dry season at home, I felt fungifabulous. In Quincy I took a hike up the water tower trail and met a local who gave me a rundown on local politics. The town is a mix of hippies and red necks. He said he didn’t take a side, but admitted he’s supporting Bernie Sanders for president. I asked if he thought the red necks would support Bernie. He said no. Too bad, I said. Bernie is working for their interests too.

Plumas County, where the Sierra Nevada ends and the Cascade Range begins, is a world of water. Watershed geeks would be forgiven for spending months hiking to headwaters of creeks here, all of which flow into the Feather River. On the way home we took Highway 70, which hugs the bank of the North Fork of the Feather. On the opposite bank is a railroad track, hanging on the edge of the steep slope. When we drove this road last summer we could see miles of train cars moving along the tracks and we learned that this track is used to transport crude oil among other commodities. This time there were no rail cars to be seen and we learned that there had been a derailment last November in which 11 train cars fell into the river canyon. It was just a fluke that the train was filled with corn and not highly volatile crude oil from the Bakken oil field. California used to receive all its oil from ship and pipeline, but trains are becoming the preferred method of transport, and experts predict oil traveling to the Bay Area by train will only increase in the next few years. The railroad has stopped these shipments for now, but apparently they aren’t required to tell us when or whether they will resume. Thanks to the Sierra Club and other environmental watchdogs for fighting to stop this outrage before California’s drinking water supply and this crucial ecosystem are hopelessly polluted by the inevitable spill. And thanks to the Sacramento Bee for reporting on this important issue.

By Molly Martin


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