Wednesday, June 15, 2016

By Jim L White

Shirley looking at the area of my adventure

I remember the “deer hair spider” dry fly floating on the surface of Needle Lake, the rush of adrenalin that caused my rod arm to strike and bury the steel of the barbless hook into the Brook Trout’s jaw. A yell from my son Randy from across the lake, he had a fish on too! A fish on every few minutes was the rule that day so many years ago. Surely I could relive those moments again today?
I parked the truck along the “Johnny Hodson-Lyons Peak” road just south of Red Star Ridge that late August day in 1960. Un-loading my two Labradors, Sage and Molly, with my rod in my hand and small rucksack with my day gear on my back, I headed up the hill to cross Red Star ridge to my east in what looked like on my map, a shortcut in to Needle Lake. Not only did I want to fish the lake a little to check on fish survival from the winter freeze, but also check the lake for fishermen. Another reason I wanted to do this hike was, if possible, find a hidden deer camp I had had rumors about. The information was that hunters from this camp often crossed over Red Star Ridge (the game refuge boundary) from their camp and illegally hunted deer in the French Meadows Game Refuge. You see I was in fact working as a California State Fish and Game Warden, stationed in Auburn, California. This was my job.
Climbing up the steep hillside was easy, but on the other side I discovered a huge basin of truck sized granite blocks I must climb thru. Somewhere below those Granite blocks might be the hidden deer camp. I had to lift the dogs many times over huge rocks and carry them thru some bad crevasses to make it into the timber. I decided that when we returned, we were going to follow the high ridge that ran from Needle Peak to Lyons Peak, where walking should be easier along the ridge top, even though it was longer.
We found the deer camp in a little meadow in the thick timber. The tree trunks at the camp were hanging with pots and pans, grills, ladles and dippers, all the makings of a deer camp. The ashes were old and the campfire had not been used yet this year. Deer season opened next month and I was already making plans to be on the refuge boundary ridge above on my horse ready to intercept hunters if they came.
The hike to the lake from the deer camp took only an hour more and I found no one there. Might as well check and see if the trout were home. On my first cast, the Deer Hair fly hooked up with a good sized brook trout and the fight was on. After I released the fish I looked up and saw lightning strike the rock needle on the high ridge above. We ran for shelter too late and were drenched by the heavy down pour from the thunder storm that came out of nowhere.
The dogs and I hid under a thick young Red Fir tree, one small enough not to attract lightning I hoped. Three hours later there was no let- up in the storm. I thought for sure it would be over by four PM, time for me to get back to the truck while still daylight. No such luck. I studied the map and the only safe way with all the lightning along the ridge above, was to go down and cross the many small tributaries of the North Fork of the American River and hike out the trail down to the Cedars, a settlement of summer homes along the river.  There I could hit the French Meadows road back to the Hodson-Lyons’s Peak road where I had turned off and driven over Red Star Ridge. It looked like a twelve mile walk, but I was young, felt strong and it was better than spending the night in the rain at Needle Lake.
Fording all the many hip deep tributaries to the American River was a wet, cold experience. The North Fork itself, although roaring swift was not bad. The river was waist deep water, but a good rock bottom. On the other side of the river was the main trail. I had it made. All I had was about eleven more miles, much in the dark and rain and I would be at my truck.
 After an hour I was at the Cedars, very cold and wishing I could find someone to drive me to my truck. This is when I thought of spending the night at the Sherman Chickering cabin at the original Soda Springs nearby. This was the site of the old Hopkins Hotel, from the late 1880’s. Sherman had been president of the California Fish and Game Commission when I had guided the Commission members and some legislators into Upper Fish Valley, Alpine County to see the rare Paiute Trout, we were trying to save. He had mentioned if I was ever in the area of the Cedars to please stop by. Boy did I need the warmth and comfort of that cabin now. There was a light on in the cabin but no one was home. I thought of taking shelter on his porch, but it was too cold and a little snow was beginning to fall. Maybe I could get a ride on the nearby county road?
Two hours of hiking later it had become very dark and a soft snow was falling. I had turned off the French Meadows road and was hiking high up the Hodson’s-Lyons Peak road when I saw the silhouette of a man with a hat on crossing the road ahead of me. The strong smell of a large band of sheep nearby made me think it might be a Basque Sheepherder that I had saw. But he had disappeared. When I got up the road higher a man stepped out of the black and said something I could not understand. Then I saw him make the motion of drinking a cup of coffee. I tried to talk and say yes, but I could only let out a croak. I was too cold to talk. Down the dark hillside I followed him to the sheep camp and a warm crackling fire.  Barking dogs that snarled at my dogs were cursed and remanded to the fireside. My exhausted and tired dogs lay on one side of the campfire, the herder’s dogs on the other. I knew only another one half mile up the road was my truck, and two hours later I would be home. The herder offered me a mug of hot coffee, lamb stew, and sourdough bread just baked in the campfire. I shivered and ate until I felt warm again. I was safe from the storm.   

Needle Lake

Copyright 2016 by Jim L White

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