Wednesday, August 5, 2009


There’s nothing quite so fun as fishing with kids. Especially, I’ll assert, my niece and nephew. Kennedy and Riley are thirteen and ten years old, respectively, and a day on a river with them is a mixture of earnest dry-fly presentations into tight shadows under bay trees, and joyous Huck Finn explorations. Invariably, after proving his prowess by landing a fish, Riley lures his Auntie Kathy away on a river scramble. Last weekend, the rugged and storied country in and along Mill Creek, in the Ishi Wilderness, nurtured our collective spirit of adventure. But first, let me try to discourage you from exploring this backcountry treasure that I’d really rather keep to myself.

Rattlesnakes. Twenty-five miles of dirt roads that climb up and down river canyon walls. Black bears. No cell-phone reception. Mountain lions. Not a single drive-through espresso stand after you leave Chico. More rattlesnakes. A vile-smelling pit toilet at a primitive campground with no potable water. Still with me? Fine. Then I’ll mention Mill Creek still supports salmon and steelhead runs, and a hearty resident rainbow trout population. These are wild, native fish in wild country that took a dry fly aggressively. E/C Caddis, Elk Hair Caddis, and the Yellow Humpy all drew strikes.

Mill Creek drains snowmelt from Mt. Lassen to the Sacramento River and on to the Pacific Ocean. Volcanic terrain, the canyons are deep V cuts. At some points it’s over a thousand feet from rim to riverbed. For at least four thousand years it was home to the people known as the Yahi, a sub-tribe of the Yana. They were hill people who followed seasonal routines and rituals that depended on gathering acorns to make a flour and a soup, and the annual return of the salmon. These great fish were taken with two-pronged, wooden harpoons and nets, then dried, smoked and stored in woven baskets to sustain the Yahi through the long, harsh winter. The Forty-niners actually called the Yahi the Mill Creeks, and the two cultures collided with disastrous consequences—for the Yahi.

But Mill Creek itself still teems with life. The salmon still come in on the high water of the spring runoff then hold in the creek’s deep pools throughout the summer. On our next summer visit, we’re bringing swim goggles. If we make it back to Mill Creek this fall, we may get to see the salmon spawn—the end of their lifecycle and the beginning of the next generation.

Mill Creek runs through the federally-designated Ishi Wilderness, named for the last surviving Yahi, a man many of us learned about as kids in school: “the last wild Indian.” You may recall that Ishi walked out of that wilderness in 1911 and, fortunately, into the care of University of California anthropologists and linguists. His name literally means “man” in his native language. A Yahi’s real name is sacred and secret.

Even when their population was at its greatest number, the Yahi people traveled no father north than Mt. Lassen, which they did each summer, a distance of four "sleeps" as Ishi described it. They favored the creek canyons of the hill country and avoided the lowlands along the Sacramento River. When Ishi walked out of the wilderness, he walked, literally, out of the Stone Age and into the Industrial Age. Starving, near death, painfully lonely, he walked out of his known canyon world and into an unknown world as a last resort.

I brought Theodora Kroeber’s book, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (University of California Press, 1961), along with us on our trip. As I mentioned in a previous post here at These Rivers I’ve always been fascinated with survival stories. Ishi’s is one of the most intriguing and intense survival stories I’ve ever read.

Take a look at the picture of Riley again, smiling and relaxed at the edge of that deep pool. And remember Riley is ten years old. At ten years old, Ishi and a mere handful of surviving Yahi entered a thirty-five-year period they called The Long Concealment. They were, Kroeber wrote, “a macrocosmic nation victimized by the common killers: invasion, war, famine, and intolerance.” The massacre at Kingsley Cave—where thirty-three Yahi men, woman and children were murdered and scalped—and the kidnapping of several young Yahi led the vigilantes to believe they’d “wiped out the Indians.”

In fact, the few surviving Yahi became elusive to the point of invisibility. They jumped from rock to rock so they would leave no footprints behind, traveled at night in the creeks, or crawled on all fours under chaparral thickets a deer would find impossible to negotiate. They retreated into the harshest reaches of Deer Creek and Mill Creek canyons, ultimately establishing a completely camouflaged village on a cliff-shelf that was once a grizzly bear’s den. At this point only four Yahi remained in existence: Ishi, his mother, a sister, and an old man.

Their village was stumbled upon by surveyors in 1908, flushing its inhabitants like wild game. They ransacked the village, showing Ishi’s mother, who was dying and unable to flee, faint to no concern. Ishi returned to his mother when the intruders left but she died soon after. He never saw the old man or his sister again. Ishi was alone in the wilderness for three more years.

Before I travel into remote country like this, I inspect my pickup’s spare tire and make sure my jack’s on board. I bring an extra battery and ten gallons of water. I toss in all the odd-flavored Cliff Bars I’ve never quite felt like eating. If I had to, I know I could put on my rucksack and simply walk out over the course of a day or two. The point is, though, I feel the weight of the solitude in places like this as soon as I start planning my trip. I can’t begin to imagine the psychic weight Ishi felt during his three years of isolation.

There’s a photograph in Kroeber’s book that shows Ishi swimming in Deer Creek. He’s returned home with a team of anthropologists to demonstrate his lost way of life for them. His smile looks genuine and expresses a delight in the body. He is free, perhaps, for the first time in his life in his own country. Free to swim under the midday sun like Kennedy, Riley, Kathy, and me.