“It was a warm January in 1875, just like the one we’ve had, when John Muir visited the Middle Fork Feather River,” Will Lombardi told a packed house of over 100 people at the West End Theatre in Quincy on Feb. 12.
Lombardi is an English professor at Feather River College who did his dissertation on Muir’s travels in the Feather River region from December 1874 through January 1875.
Relying upon Muir’s actual field journals and historic topographic maps, Lombardi was one of two speakers featured at the community talk on “The Feather River: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” held as part of the fourth annual Sustainability Symposium.
The symposium presented the event in its “Wild Words” series that is sponsored by FRC, Friends of Plumas Wilderness and the Little-Kittinger Foundation.
Muir and the gold miners
“Muir depended upon the knowledge of local miners about where to go and what to see,” Lombardi said, explaining his own adventures to retrace the hikes Muir took during his time in the Feather River region and to research the locations Muir referenced in his field journals and published works.
“I’m constantly thinking about place-based literature, places I’d like to go,” the professor added. “I’m a map geek and it’s my belief that Muir’s time in the Middle Fork solidified him as a conservationist.”
Lombardi explained that Muir left Mt. Shasta during Christmas week 1874 and went to Marysville, then on to Brownsville.
“He walked!” Lombardi said, clicking through his slides to show the land and formations Muir would have seen. “I mean, I’ve DRIVEN it, but … And then he went to Strawberry Valley where he famously wrote ‘A Windstorm in the Forests.’ So I found the peak where he must have been, Rough Hill, up La Porte Road and through to Brownsville.”
Muir’s journals are filled with notes from his contacts with the miners, Lombardi explained, “even one whom he described as ‘an ornery cuss,’ and it was from them that he learned the habits of boulders.”
Speaking at the “Wild Words” event to promote the 50-year anniversary of the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act — and the Feather River’s honor as one of the charter rivers designated by the act since 1968 — Lombardi told the audience, “Muir came to Brownsville for a girl, and for the rocks on the Yuba River.”
The professor added, “He came for the Yuba, but he stayed for the Feather and his journals show us that he was ecstatic about what he found here. He went to the local miners because they were the ones uncovering the geology of the land. Muir was thinking about the watershed as a cultural space. From his field notes, we can see that this was a prelude to his theories about Yosemite.”
Boyhood on Milsap Bar
The evening’s second featured speaker was author Richard Laursen, 88, who was raised on Milsap Bar and Crooked Bar on the Middle Fork during the 1930s and the Great Depression.
“My earliest memories of being on the Middle Fork actually go back to 1934 when I was about 6 years old and somebody killed a rattlesnake under my bed. Pretty exciting stuff!” the lively speaker said. “My mom loved to fish and pan for gold and one time, I begged to carry the gold pan and, of course, I promptly tripped and dropped it. Gold was $35 an ounce. So next time, they gave me a lump of river clay to play with and sure enough, I found two gold nuggets in it.”
Laughter and applause rang out in the packed theater where all the seats were filled and chairs had to be brought to line the side aisles.
With slides showing the wild terrain that his family called home and the rough conditions where they spent a whole winter in a tent before moving into their first rustic cabin perched along the river, Laursen regaled the crowd with his attempts to navigate the river in a small car running over cable lines stretched across the banks. And he practiced balancing and rolling on logs.
Sometimes, he fell in, which is how he learned to swim.
More laughter echoed as Laursen recounted walking 6 miles each way to the Rush Creek store and told an adventure about the family killing a bear and trying to “smoke it, like a ham, strung up in the chimney. Boy, it was smelling good until it started smelling bad!”
He talked about trying to cut down his first tree, raising chickens (they all disappeared but one, “Ophelia,” until a
Great Horned Owl got her), and how hard he worked to develop other boyhood skills.
“As far as I know, that tree is living along the river still and I’m lucky I didn’t cut off a hand or a foot!” he chuckled. “And once when we needed food, mom caught a big porcupine. So I learned how to skin a porcupine, which is carefully!”
Then, there was day when his stepdad sent him to borrow some mercury from a neighboring fellow miner and Laursen found the poor fellow “deader‘n a doornail, so I nipped outta there!”
In 2004, Laursen published his memoir, “Life on the Middle Fork Feather River, 1937-1941 Plus.” The book details his life and times from ages 8 to 12 staying with his mother and stepfather on the river.
Those formative years influenced his life. He went on to study wildlife biology at CSU Humboldt, then worked as a game warden and recreation planner for the State of California.
In 1967, Laursen and his friend, Brad Walker, hiked and swam 65 miles from Sloat to the Oroville Dam construction site.
He took photographs and made journal entries to show that the Middle Fork was worthy of ‘Wild and Scenic River’ designation.
Years later, he recreated the trip in 13 days with his own three sons (wearing tennis shoes) and the slideshow was filled with images of the boys navigating the majestic Feather River.
“Anybody can go down the river,” Laursen said. “You’ve got to be careful and pretty strong. The water can tip you over pretty easily. It’s rugged, it’s fun, it’s clean. Clambering over boulders in beautiful, wild canyons like Bald Rock, Bear Creek and Curtain Falls — there are places where the old miners blasted footholds into the rock and that’s your only way to continue. It’s like you’re discovering America.”
Future of the Middle Fork
Feather River College Professor Darla DeRuiter, moderator of the evening’s presentations, sat down with Lombardi and Laursen at the close of the program to talk about the future of the Middle Fork Feather River and field questions from the audience.
“In the 1960s, two dams were proposed on the Middle Fork,” DeRuiter said, “and it was the efforts of people like Dick Laursen which got the river designated as ‘wild and scenic’ and prevented that.”
Together, the speakers talked about the health and well-being of the river, changes in habitat and fish stocks, temperature fluctuations of the water and diminishing presence of indicator species such as mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies.
They expressed concern that the strains of population growth and pollution can impact a resource such as the Feather and urged the audience to take a proactive approach to protecting wilderness treasures.
Laursen said he was worried.
“The river is going downhill,” he commented. “I’ve written letters to the Department of the Interior, the Feather River Land Trust and others. Please write to these and other organizations yourself.”
Laursen added that his philosophy about environmental stewardship is, “Save what you can and prolong the time (mankind can go) without consuming resources.”
Next show: March 19
DeRuiter reminded the audience that Friends of Plumas Wilderness will host its next event at 7 p.m. on March 19 at the West End Theatre with a presentation on the Bucks Lake Wilderness. Admission is free.
She also encouraged the community to contact FPW with local stories about the Middle Fork and for information about environmental stewardship opportunities.
For more information, visit plumaswilderness.org.