Tuesday, June 11, 2019


The Yuba River, between Dobbins Creek and the mouth of the Middle Yuba

Trails go nowhere
They end exactly
where you stop - Lew Welch

It’s unusual to find such isolated, steep, scenic and wild country at elevations below 3,000’ but Rice’s Crossing Preserve has those assets and more.  Hiking is possible all year here because the preserve is below the upwardly creeping snow-line but in the summer it can be quite hot.  Dress appropriately and carry enough water. 

General description:
The preserve is a rectangular holding along the Yuba River that’s approximately six miles long, set between New Bullards Bar Dam and Englebright Reservoir.  It encompasses 2,707 acres and includes properties on both sides of the river. The land is managed by the Bear Yuba Land Trust (BYLT) and bordered by California State Parks, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Yuba County Water Agency (YCWA), Plumas National Forest (PLM), Tahoe National Forest (TNF) and private properties.  According to BYLT Co-Director, Erin Tarr, “The majority of the Preserve will remain as wilderness.  Within these wild areas we will devote our resources to obtaining grant funding for healthy forest and watershed management projects which will create resilient habitat structures to ensure future sustainability.”

The 645' high New Bullards Bar Dam was built on the North Yuba in 1969

The north entrance to the Rice’s Crossing Preserve is below the New Bullards Bar Dam near a prominent road-side quarry, and the preserve's northern boundary is between the dam and the confluence of the Middle Yuba River.  Below the dam the river flows south to a pronounced bend at Rolleys Point, where it flows west, then southwest to Rices Crossing. This is a steep and rugged canyon on steep slopes, dense with vegetation.  The highest peak, near the Yuba Rim Trail is approximately 2,600’ and French Bar on the Yuba River is at about 500’.  From the terminus of the Rim Trail there is a drop of 1,100’ to the mouth of the Middle Yuba.  And, from the top of Red Bluff, a dramatic geological feature at 2,525’, there is a steep drop of 1,925’ to the Yuba.

The Bear Yuba Land Trust has started their trails program with three trails.  On the south end is the short trail to French Bar and on the north end there is the Yuba Rim Trail and they have started on the Yuba Drop Trail, which promises a rugged descent to the Yuba and a demanding climb out of the canyon.

Construction on the Yuba Drop Trail

How to get there:  From Nevada City take Highway 49 north, cross the South Yuba bridge and pass through the town of North San Juan, then drop to the bridge over the Middle Yuba.  Cross the Middle Fork bridge, make an immediate left on Moonshine Road, and drive it for 5 miles to its terminus at Marysville road.  Turn left on Marysville Road and drive 3.1 miles, crossing the New Bullards Bar dam, to the trailhead, which will be on your left, opposite a fenced quarry area.  There is an identifying sign at the parking area.  That makes it 24.5 miles from Nevada City, one way.

Hiking the Trail:  One of the best views from this trail is a view close to the trailhead.  As you look down on the meadow below the parking area you’ll see a bench and kiosk where there is a view of a segment of the Middle Yuba and Klensendorf Point. Start with this and then hit the trail.

 A segment of the Middle Yuba just before it joins the North Yuba at Klensendorf Point

The trail starts by contouring around a series of small eastward flowing drainages that are dense with vegetation.  You’ll cross a newly constructed footbridge beyond which there is a series of ten small switchbacks that climb to the ridgetop and a former logging road, which is now part of the trail.  Continue uphill.  Despite the continuous, but gradual, climb there is an elevation gain of only 750‘.

When the ridgetop road fades follow the clearly marked former skid trail to a rocky knoll with an expansive view to the west and north.  Immediately across the canyon is San Juan Ridge and the hydraulic gold mining excavations that supported the settlements of North San Juan, Sweetland, Sebastopol and French Corral.  The long view to the northeast includes Fir Cap and the Saddleback lookout in the mountains above Downieville.  I prefer to visit this view in the fall, winter and early spring when there is the possibility of clouds and the sky is a clean bright blue.  In the fall there is also changing color as deciduous plants lose their leaves.

What’s surprising about this trail is the dense vegetation, rugged steepness and the remoteness of the Yuba River.  The only road access to the river within the preserve is Rices Crossing via Bridgeport and the road from Dobbins to the New Colgate Power Plant.  When the Nisenan were the naturalized inhabitants and stewards of this landscape it looked very different.  Their primary “management” tool was fire and the natives used it to create an environment with less understory, more navigability, greater lateral visibility and to maintain small meadows with nearby springs.  I have found milling stones here in settings that are now choked with trees and brush.

The vegetation is varied with ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, incense cedar, black oak, canyon live oak, tan oak, madrone, broad-leaf maple, dogwood, manzanita, redbud, ceanothus, soap root, poison oak, blackberries and many other plants.  This is also prime tick country – try to stay on the trails.  Because of the variety, abundance and health of the vegetation you can assume there is a flourishing wildlife population that includes deer, rabbits, foxes, moles, hawks, owls and coyotes as well as black bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, skunks and scorpions.

The Yuba River downstream from Chute Ravine

Placer gold mining was the first significant human impact on the Yuba River.  The erosion of ancient streams, now located mid-slope, made for rich streamside gravel bars, at least in the early gold rush when men were sluicing surface gravels streamside and diverting the river with wing dams to get at the stream bed. There were mining camps and small settlements all along the Yuba River from Long Bar to the area above Downieville, with mining happening on the Middle Yuba, the South Yuba and Deer Creek as well.  Many of the early streamside mines and crossings were washed away by the flood of 1862.

Rices Crossing / Yuba River

Within the borders of the Rice’s Crossing Preserve were the following mining operations:
Rices Crossing is on the west bank and was originally called Lousy Level, Liars Flat, Leases Flat and finally Rices Crossing.  Some maps and references call it Rices Ford.  The river is very flat and would have slowed down here forming gravel bars, which I suspect would have been good salmon spawning ground prior to gold mining.  According to Nisenan tribal spokesperson, Shelly Covert, Rice’s Crossing is where we have an ancient burning ground and where our family had a stage stop and ranch. It’s the place where Nisenan family members hid when they ran away from the Indian Boarding School and it’s the place where stories that are still alive within the Tribe became part of our memory.”  The 1879 Yuba County History says that this location was originally mined by 100 men, then Chinese and then Indians and “Half Breeds.” This was also a popular place with Depression era snipers.  Sniping is the mining of crevasses in streamside rocks and boulders that contain gravel and sand by using knives, spoons, screw-drivers, shovels, pry bars and sluices or pans. This kind of low-tech mining, combined with some poaching and fishing, made it possible for men and small families to endure hard times.

French Bar / Yuba River

Upstream and around a bend was Frenchman Bar where “150 men mined."  The French presence was considerable and is indicated by the nearby towns of French Corral on San Juan Ridge and Frenchtown, on Dry Creek.  By 1879, Chinese miners were the majority here.

At the mouth of Dobbins Creek, on the north side of the river, was Condemn or Condemned Bar where Henry Warner had a store and 75 men worked.  Later, “Two or three companies of Chinese, about 100 men” worked here.  It was mined during the Depression and there were still snipers camped here in 1948.

Upstream, and above Dobbins Creek was Missouri Bar #1 at the site of the present-day New Colgate Powerhouse managed by the Yuba County Water District.  As of 1879 “a company of white men and some Chinamen” were at work here.”

Upstream about three miles above Dobbins Creek, on the north side of the river, is a pronounced bend at a place called variously Clingman Point or Klingermans Point or on later maps as Rolleys Point.  J. A. Stuart was there in 1851 and wrote in his diary that there was “considerable mining.”

Rolleys Point is a difficult place to get to but is mighty tempting to visit.  In late summer, a few years back, I started upstream from Missouri Bar #1 and immediately realized that because of steep slopes and continuous bouldering this might be an overnighter.  Nevertheless, here I was, and I wanted to see how far I could get in four hours or so. It was very slow going and demanding too – I hoped that I had enough calories in my pack to power me.  Less than a mile upstream, as I was standing on a large boulder to survey what was ahead, I noticed what looked like the hind quarters of a deer near the water and not too far in front of me.  As I moved closer, I realized that I was right and I could see that the meat was very red and that this was a fresh kill. Everything about this pleasant outing changed as I realized that a mountain lion couldn’t be too far from here and it would definitely return to claim its due in which case I would be perceived as an intruder.  Suddenly vulnerable, in difficult terrain, alone and without protection, I headed home.  As I slowly creeped downstream, boulder by boulder, I recalled an Inuit song that referred to “eyes all around” and I hoped that somehow I could summon some of that magic. I remained fairly calm while retracing my path and frequently looking behind me.  That day taught me some lessons and humbled me too – a sane stance in the natural world.

Lush habitat like this would have contained the mature trees that 19thcentury lumbermen pined for and took first.  It’s obvious that the preserve and adjacent properties have been logged repeatedly for lumber and firewood.  Stumps along the trail indicate that both cross-cut saws and chainsaws were used – chainsaws were probably introduced to this area by the late 1940s.  Extensive logging preceded the construction of New Bullards Bar Dam, which was completed in 1969.  There were many post WW II sawmills in existence between Challenge and Camptonville, as well as at many other locations. Logging was the local economy for several generations.

New Bullards Bar Dam / North Yuba River

The south entrance to the Rice’s Crossing Preserve is located on the Yuba River (South Yuba State Park, at Bridgeport) above Point Defiance, near French Bar.  To get to Rices Crossing/French Bar, start at Bridgeport on the South Yuba and take the first uphill turn (a dirt road) off of Pleasant Valley Road, on the north side of the bridge over the river.  It climbs to a saddle with an intersection of roads where directional signs are planned and may be there already.  Basically, you go straight ahead and begin a gradual descent to the Yuba River.  There are no wrong turns.  The historic road, which is still intact, dropped from French Corral to the intersection and on to Rices Crossing, which was used to get to Dobbins and Oregon House until the Englebright Dam was completed in 1941.

Work is currently underway on the downstream entrance to the preserve.  There will be parking ($5) and a trail to nearby French Bar on the Yuba River located upstream from nearby Rices Crossing where the streamside vegetation crowds the river.  Although French Bar is alongside the river don’t expect sandy beaches, instead there are acres of gravel and cobbles that have accumulated as a result of upstream placer gold mining, part of our unique legacy.  This area is currently being developed as a recreation destination so stay tuned to the Bear Yuba Land Trust website (www.bylt.org) for further information.  If you are headed there remember that it’s still basically a single-lane wagon road so be careful and courteous.

Young Jay in a Incense Cedar

Two fussy footnotes:
(1) In California Counties that were part of the gold rush it was, and is, a convention and tradition to drop the possessive apostrophe when referring to places such as camps, towns, endeavors, momentous event locations and geographic landmarks.  Nearby examples include Parks Bar, Bullards Bar, Moores Flat, Goodyears Bar, Craigs Flat, Cut-Eye Fosters Bar and Devils Postpile. This customary usage pattern has been honored by newspapers, legal documents, technical journals and Post Offices. Contemporary usage validates the gold mining vernacular of 19thcentury California and it’s good enough for me.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t bring this up and simply proceed with the original spellings.  But in this document you’ll see both Rices Crossing and Rice’s Crossing and that’s because the official name of this land acquisition is the “Rice’s Crossing Preserve.”  This may be proper English but as a history buff, a long-time inhabitant and a finicky researcher I prefer the traditional spellings – enough about that.

(2) Terminology used to describe local geography is a mixture of local lore and the observations of professional hydrologists and geographers. Rices Crossing is the upstream boundary of the Englebright Reservoir, managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the waterline from Rices Crossing to the dam is higher than it was prior to the dam (1941).  The South Yuba actually flows into the reservoir.  A few miles below the New Bullards Bar dam the Middle Yuba enters the North Yuba and the stretch of river from here to the Feather River is known as the Yuba River and alternatively as the Lower Yuba.


Sunday, May 12, 2019


When the Whole Earth Catalog, with the Apollo photograph of the Earth on its cover, appeared in the fall of 1968, it reordered the worldview held by much of my generation.  That photo, at a glance, made it obvious that all of us had a shared destiny but our resources were finite.  Stuart Brand, a Veteran and Stanford-educated biologist, who was also a Merry Prankster, was its editor.  It was 64 pages long and sold for five dollars – everyone I knew was reading it.  It was an embryonic internet search engine (think of it as the web’s wood-burning era) offering “access to tools”– a broad definition that included practical skills, scientific knowledge, and metaphysical commentary.

Donner Summit

Many of us were starting families at the time and the world seemed like it was in turmoil.  In 1969, when we began looking for rural land, gold reached a record high of $47 per ounce, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair opened in upstate New York, and the Manson family committed the Tate-LaBianca murders.  In that same year Richard Nixon was inaugurated president and Golda Meir became Israel’s prime minister.  On Vietnam Moratorium Day, millions nationwide protested the war.  In Greenwich Village police raided the Stonewall, a gay bar, causing hundreds of patrons to riot for three days.  In November Alcatraz Island was seized by militant Native Americans and in December 300,000 people traveled to Altamont to see the Rolling Stones.  Meanwhile, Britain abolished the death penalty and the Jackson Five made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

We were convinced that if we would just get back to the land, we could cultivate a natural lifestyle, which we imagined would be peaceful and just.  The Whole Earth Catalog, with its mix of practicality, cross-cultural reflections and rootsyness, was the ideal handbook.  It helped by providing some practical instructions and possibilities about creating community.

There it was, on the first page: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”  We believed that, and lo, we were arrogant.  The truth is that, for the most part, we acted more like colonizers than guests.  Critical of the local population, we thought that the existing logging, mining, and grazing practices were unnatural, immoral even, and we were outspoken about our beliefs.  Needless to say, it’s difficult to make friends when you’re so judgmental up-front – we soon found that they held strong beliefs, and opinions, too.

We really thought we were onto something special, or, more accurately, that we were special—after all, this was the Age of Aquarius.  While there were many people around with high ideals about community and equality, there was also the persistent temptation to wallow in personal freedoms such as alcohol, drugs, and sexual experimentation (no judgment here).  Despite high-minded hippie rhetoric, there was often a huge spoonful of self-indulgence in the mix.  I bring this up because that’s the way I was when I moved to the foothills of rural California.


We were reinventing ourselves, which was not a new concept in California.  It also happened during the gold rush, when a sailor from Maryland shoveled alongside a lawyer from New York.  Your background didn’t matter; in those days “a man was measured by the size of his pile.”  Of course, the fundamental difference between 1849 and 1969 was the motive.  One was about accumulating wealth and the other was about social evolution.

We borrowed freely from other traditions, mixing and matching to create the eclectic look and philosophy that was (and is) so easy to ridicule by contemporary journalists.  Mongrelized hippie culture included idealized Native American rituals, mantras from Tibet, fringed buckskin bags, sandals from Mexico, long hair, and beads.  Women wore huipils from Guatemala and bedspreads from India, while men fetishized denim and working-class attire.  In our search for authenticity, we mail-ordered Amish and “plain clothing” from the family-owned Gohn Brothers store in Middlebury, Indiana.  For a while we equated severity with serenity and spirituality. Most of us felt there was some inherent righteousness in doing things the hard way; there was little discussion about convenience or “time saving.”

When we bought land, we had no idea that the simple life required so many chores.  We had to learn to fix our roads, learn basic plumbing maneuvers, acquire carpentry skills, troubleshoot the generator, put up the tomatoes, fill the kerosene lamps, attend school board meetings, and split wood – then do it over again.  We added to our toolboxes, we learned to do new things and we all became more self-reliant. There’s a lot to be said for self-reliance.  By that I don’t necessarily mean proficiency in a particular skill so much as a general attitude that we can make it work.  I find that, even today, many of my back-to-the-land-era friends radiate an inner resilience and confidence and handle change well.

To live in a rural area, you need to know your neighbors.  You’ll meet them eventually – perhaps in a snowstorm or fire. Our neighbors, some of whom had been living here for many generations, taught us sensible things.  In time we learned some respect for the hard work that lumbermen, cattlemen and truck-drivers do, and respect for the women who ran households, who seemed to know infinitely more than us and were often more clever and witty than our college-educated friends.  We even appreciated the (formerly) “dumb-ass” teenage neighbor who assembled the ram pump while we fumbled with the instructions.

No Provenance 

At home there were more than enough tedious and very unromantic chores to deal with.  The work was often repetitive and not too stimulating, but you were not alone in your madness because it was a shared ethos.  It could also be idyllic.  Neighbors, especially from your own tribe, were usually eager to pitch in because workdays would end with a sumptuous feast, music, stimulating conversation, play, good smoke, and laughter – family fiestas, really.

Many members of our community pitched in to help build a new elementary school. Part of the project included the first log cabins on a public-school campus since the state began supervising school construction.  The trees were felled with crosscut saws then hauled with muscle and log carriers.  Logs were limbed with axes, peeled with spuds and drawknives, and their butt ends trimmed with chisels.  An eight-woman crew “chinked” the interior space between logs with saplings, a tedious job requiring skill and finesse.  The two log cabins had to be designed and built to meet earthquake safety standards.  This required the insertion of vertical rebar to pin each course of logs to those below it.  We delighted in the increased safety without having to add visible, nontraditional bracing on the logs.


I’ve forgotten how we explained our rationale to the school superintendent’s office, but from here I can see we did it for the joy of it—the deep pleasure of physical work, camaraderie, learning, and visible accomplishment.  There was a lot to learn and initially I felt that I had nothing much to contribute.  It’s very humbling to realize that you have no usable skills, despite your precious “education.” To get by, you needed to achieve a certain level of competence at something practical.  When you reached the point where you couldn’t leave home without a pocketknife, you were approaching a level playing field with your “redneck” neighbors.  Your worth was based on what you did and how well it was done, and not on your “vision” or fantasies.  It took a while to see that the ecology of a place includes the human population as well.  In the 1970s Gary Snyder wrote a poem entitled “Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier Than Students of Zen,” which is, itself, a poem, or at least a provocative question.  At the time, the Pine Cone Cafe in Grass Valley, and several other local places that served breakfast to loggers, opened at 3:30 a.m.

The concept, or notion, of right livelihood offers the possibility that you can make a living by using your talents (whether innate or acquired).  It gets a bit tricky because there are mountains and valleys (learning and desperation) on this path, but it is possible with humility, hard work, humor, and blind faith.  So, if you wanted to stay here, you decided to either pursue your dream/lifework and hope that it would support you, find a “real” job and move to where the money was then return with some, or simply move on.

Earning money was a serious problem. We needed it for food and land payments.  In our neighborhood there were a few jobs with the schools, for instance teachers, teacher’s aides, maintenance, and kitchen help. Some commuted the 20 miles to the nearest town for whatever work they could find there, and there was also the National Forest, which had some seasonal forestry-oriented work.  Others of us, men and women, formed crews and bid on seasonal contracts with the Forest Service and timber companies.  We fought fires, climbed trees to gather pine and fir cones for seeds, planted trees, thinned tree plantations, and built trails.  As we became more proficient, we sometimes moved to distant locations where we worked long hours for weeks at a time.  On all of these jobs, you were paid for what you produced.  If you were good, you could make some decent money.  It was hard work, but there is incalculable value and worth in a good day’s work.  When we returned home, fit, honest and dirty, with a pocket full of cash, we felt like working-class heroes.  Somewhere along the way, what was once a groove became a rut.  This kind of work was perfect for a while, but it was not intellectually engaging and not everyone was happy with the physical demands.  

There were those among us who believed that a spiritual path was the way and that the details would take care of themselves.  Most of these people lived very simply, already had money, or grew marijuana.  You had to lean into your dream and try to make it happen, which many people attempted and succeeded at.  Flirting with animism, exotic religions, and pious posturing didn’t really change much.  My friend Will Staple nailed it in his poem “Eastern Mysticism”:
                        What good did getting up
                        Every morning at 5:30 to
                        Meditate do?
                        Your girlfriend
                        Left you.

When I lived in San Francisco I was a social worker and a photographer for alternative newspapers, but here in the hills I worked at forestry-oriented jobs, hammered nails, mixed concrete, and found occasional photography gigs illustrating articles for writers who were also struggling.

In the mid-1970s the Forest Service began implementing the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).  That legislation recognized our cultural heritage (historical and archaeological sites) as resources to be protected.  I had a degree in anthropology, so I was hired, as part of a team, to locate, record, and manage these sites on public land.  At the time this was a dream job, as I was being paid to explore the landscape (in a reliable truck, no less) while learning more about its culture and ecology.  Another benefit was working with wildlife biologists, botanists, hydrologists, foresters and geologists and learning something about their perspectives.  In time I became proficient with map and compass, made new friends of all sorts, and became a competent guide in remote regions. But working for the government has its peculiar limitations, and eventually, after 12 years, it was time to move on.


Meanwhile I was immersed in my watershed, its function, and its recreational and spiritual possibilities.  In an attempt to share our enthusiasm, my lovely late wife Susan and I, self-published a trail book in 1993.  It was heavy on history and personal adventures and it was very well received.  Today I still enjoy learning more about hiking, photography, and writing.  Miraculously, this focus has become my vocation and generates enough income for me and my family to live simply, but well.

Contrary to the common stereotype, most of us were not “dropouts.”  By the mid-1970s we were rooted in the community and active in local and regional politics.  We voted and put people on school boards, on the County Planning Commission, on the California Arts Council, in water-managing agencies, on fire departments, in cultural centers, and even on the county Board of Supervisors.  We established prestigious nonprofit agencies.  We were very active in the arts with nonstop music, theater productions, publications, dance recitals, rowdy poetry readings, performance art, and exhibitions of all sorts.  I feel that we have contributed vitality to the local culture without sacrificing worthwhile traditions.  In doing so we’ve been respectful, sometimes outrageous, but always civil.

More than 25 years ago, while enjoying a local function featuring Native American traditional practices, I was asked to set the tone for the day with an opening statement.  I was surprised by the request because I really didn’t see myself as an elder.  For one thing, I was intimidated by the presence of “real” Indian elders.  Also, my personal vanity wouldn’t allow me to recognize my age, status, and responsibilities.  It only recently dawned on me that, despite my reluctance and many flaws, I’ve become an elder anyway.  Looking back, I can see that personal growth is a slow and steady process, like wood growing in trees.

Being an elder carries responsibilities.  Like it or not, you become a grandparent-at-large.  It matters when you speak up in public (hopefully, less often but more judiciously).  Public approval and disapproval matter, and, if you have credibility, you are listened to.  It goes without saying that whatever behavior earned you your good reputation should be sustained.  Maintain a sense of humor.  Offer advice when it’s requested but realize that you do have the benefit of a long-range perspective and have seen the consequences of past visions and decisions.  Finally, where and when it’s appropriate, share the knowledge and the stories that you’ve spent a lifetime accumulating.

Unnamed Pond / North Yuba
• • •

Wednesday, April 17, 2019


Chimney Rock - Sierra Buttes / North Yuba

Contrails – you’ve seen them – man-made clouds that remind us there’s nothing we can’t mess with. The word contrail is derived from the word condensation. However, if you are one of the many people who feel that “THEY” have dosed these linear clouds with sinister substances, the word is chemtrail. My own take is that long straight lines across the heavens are incredibly ugly and are a hell of a thing to ask us to accept as “the price of doing business.”

For at least the past 60 years aircraft have repeatedly slashed the skyscape with contrails in the name of progress. Now those annoying white lines (reminiscent of celestial cocaine) are a part of every sunny-day hike. With jet travel expected to triple by 2050 we’re in for a lot of ugly geometry above us.

 Grouse Ridge/ South Yuba

According to NASA, contrails are clouds formed when water vapor condenses and freezes around small particles that exist in aircraft exhaust. Some of that water vapor comes from the air around the plane and some is added by the exhaust of the aircraft. Contrails form at very high altitudes (usually above 8 km), where the air is less than minus 40°C. For what it’s worth, they can be classified into three groups: short-lived, persistent (non-spreading) and persistent spreading. 

Anthropogenic clouds impact the climate by modifying the energy balance between sunlight and infrared energy in the atmosphere, and they may affect the water vapor content and chemistry of the upper troposphere. As the volume of commercial air travel increases, these effects will undoubtedly become more important. The EPA concluded that “Persistent contrails pose no direct threat to public health” but added: “Contrail cloudiness might contribute to human-induced climate change.”

Lindsey Lake/ South Yuba

Whether contrails effect climate remains unclear, but the unsightly mess they leave in a once true-blue sky is all too clear. How often have you been out hiking or skiing, feeling blissfully remote, only to have a bright-white gash ripping into an otherwise profoundly cerulean sky (thanks to Bob Ross for cerulean). Or, after waiting for that “just-right light” for your photographic masterpiece, the notoriously straight-line sky slasher, innocuously called “contrails”, appears to slice up the sky. Even highly-respected landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, ranted about the ubiquitous “sky worms” that annoyed the blue sky over his beloved Sierra Nevada. Nevertheless, Adams himself, photographed them from Roseville, California for his 1953 photo entitled Rails and Jet Trails.
Ansel Adams, 1953

Thursday, March 28, 2019


Race Track Point, near Slate Range Bar/ North Yuba River

Originally “Kanaka” referred only to native Hawaiians, who called themselves Kanaka Maoli, but broadened to include all Pacific islanders employed primarily by the British.  For this post I’ve narrowed the focus of their history to include only the Feather and Yuba Rivers and the adjacent Sierra Nevada foothills.  For centuries before the appearance of Euro-Americans and Asians this was predominantly Konkow and Nisenan territory

There’s a lot of variation in the spelling of Hawaiian person and place names in the historic record.  I’ve tried to corroborate different spellings, but ultimately had to decide on one version.  Hopefully I haven’t inadvertently garbled translation.
Beginning in the early 19th century Hawaii became a center of activity for Pacific maritime trade because of its strategic location.  Even before Kamehameha’s unification of the Islands, chiefs were already involved in trading sandalwood to obtain Asian and western goods such as nails, cloth, tools and weapons and it was an essential stop to resupply water and fresh food.

While hides and tallow were being shipped from the Mexican ranchos of Alta California the Russian, English and American fur trade was flourishing on the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. Whaleships from New England entered Hawaiian waters in 1819 – they were the first of thousands to follow.  In 1846 Pacific whaling grew so rapidly that 736 whaling ships arrived in Lahaina Bay.  Whaling ended in 1859 when oil was discovered and developed in Pennsylvania; within a few years this new type of oil replaced whale oil for lamps.

A triangular trade network emerged linking the Pacific Northwest coast, China and the Hawaiian Islands to Britain and the United States (especially New England).  In the 1820s Hudson’s Bay Company already spanned an area of more than 700,000 square miles that stretched from Russian Alaska to Mexican California and from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The Company was attracted to Hawaii as a potential market for the products of the Company's posts in the Pacific Northwest. Their primary products were salmon and lumber.

Kanakas were highly valued as crew members on the ships that transported trade commodities because they were excellent seamen, strong workers and they were dependable.  Men from the islands were continuously offered employment on merchant vessels where they traveled far from home for long periods of time.  By 1844 between 300 and 400 Hawaiians worked for Hudson’s Bay Company in the Pacific Northwest, both in vessels and at posts.  Salt salmon became popular with Hawaiians, who would slice it up into small bits, and with the addition of tomatoes, green onions, water and ice would serve up a tasty dish called lomi-lomi salmon.  Today this is considered a traditional Hawaiian dish.  On the outgoing voyage from the islands, vessels carried Hawaiian salt, molasses, sugar and coffee.  At about the same time vaqueros from Mexican California were invited to Hawaii where they introduced cattle ranching.

The Hudson’s Bay Company typically offered Kanakas a three-year contract that paid $10 a month.  Hawaiian men were being offered employment on foreign vessels where they traveled far from home, for long periods of time.  To stem the flow of emigration from the Islands the Hawaiian legislature passed a law on May 4, 1841, requiring written consent and a $200 bond for employment at sea.  Under the terms of the agreement Hawaiian sailors were supposed to return to Hawaii within two years or the employer was subject to a $400 fine – in practice the law was unmanageable.

One of the unanticipated effects of foreign trade on the Hawaiian Islands was the devastation caused by infectious diseases.  Formerly isolated, the Hawaiian people were unusually susceptible to infectious diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox, mumps, measles, whooping cough, venereal diseases and influenza.  Their population decreased from an estimated 200,000 in 1778 to 54,000 by 1876. Royalty was not spared either – when King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu traveled to England in late 1823 they both contracted measles and died in July of the following year.

Trade involved more than the exchange of goods.  There were new foods, relationships and ideas to be exchanged when the Hudson’s Bay Company entered the Sacramento Valley of California.  They brought with them Kanakas and Aleuts while employing Miwoks and refugees from the recently abandoned Spanish missions.  There was also active horse trading going on between the Walla-Walla of the Columbia River basin and the Yokuts of San Joaquin Valley who used the Sacramento Valley as a corridor.  In this merging of mobile and rapidly changing ethnicities the lingua franca was Spanish and even before the gold rush the ethnogenesis of a new and supple Alta California culture was forming.

The Hudson’s Bay Company inadvertently introduced malaria to the Indians of the Sacramento and Feather Rivers, which reduced the native populations by 75% in 1833.  These were turbulent times for the indigenous people of the region.  Centuries old trade patterns as well as social, political and ceremonial practices were disrupted and obliterated calling for rapid reassessment and reorganization.  They could not have imagined that within a few years thousands more foreigners would invade and appropriate California in their lust for gold.

John Sutter was the first European to inhabit what we now call the Sacramento Valley. Originally from Switzerland, he came to the Mexican province of Alta, California in 1839 after spending five months in Hawaii.  Mataio Kekuanoa, the Governor of Oahu, gave Sutter permission to take ten Kanakas, one of whom was an Ali’i, to California.  The Ali’i were a class of chiefs and it was unusual for one to travel and work with ordinary Kanakas.

Sutter arrived in Yerba Buena (San Francisco) in 1839 after a visit to the capital in Monterrey where the Mexican Governor of Alta California gave Sutter a land grant of eleven square leagues (about 48,000 acres) in the lower Sacramento Valley in the borderlands between the Nisenan and Miwok peoples.  Sutter’s Fort (1846), considered an outpost of civilization, was the first destination of those who came to California by way of Oregon or across the plains. Sutter planned to create a vast agricultural empire, using indigenous labor, and call it New Helvetia.  His enslavement and harsh treatment of the indigenous people is well documented.  Governor Alvarado had to persuade Sutter to stop “the kidnapping operations” in order to prevent “a general uprising of Indians” within the Northern District. Sutter’s plans failed in an era of lawlessness that began in 1848 when gold was discovered on his land on the American River.

Ka'i-ana, Great-Great-Grandfather of Mary Azbill. A portrait hangs in the State House, Honolulu. 
The Dorothy Hill Collection and California State University, Chico, Meriam Library, Special Collections.

The Ali’i who accompanied Sutter was sixteen-year-old Ioana Keaala o’Ka'i-ana, the grandson of Ka’i-ana, the High Chief of Maui.  Why would an Ali’i travel and work with ordinary people?  Some historians speculate that Ioana Keaala had enemies because his grandfather resisted Kamehameha’s efforts to unify the Hawaiian Islands under his rule.  Ka’i-ana, chief of Maui, and originally one of Kamehameha’s counselors, was unlike the others – he had traveled to foreign ports, including Alaska and China – his sophistication and ambition may have generated jealousy and suspicion.

Kamehameha’s plan to unify all the Islands included subduing Maui.  Despite Ka’i-ana’s plans to attack Hawaii first, Kamehameha, with the aid of 16,000 men, guns and a cannon, surprised Ka’i-ana in a fight that destroyed the entire western side of Maui.  Ka’i-ana and a number of his men then joined forces with the chiefs of Oahu who were also under threat.  When Kamehameha struck Oahu, in the Battle of Nu’uanu, he used English cannons that could destroy stone barricades.  He also had the technical advice of two British sailors which gave a tremendous advantage to Kamehameha’s army.  Many warriors from the combined armies from Maui and Oahu, including Ka’i-ana himself, died in battle that day.  This was the decisive victory for Kamehameha and his campaign to unify the islands.

Either Ka’i-ana was an independent and conservative ruler who resisted western influences, or from the perspective of those who were in favor of unification, Ka’i-ana was a subversive.  The Governor and Chief of Oahu (Mateo Kekuanoa, nephew of Ka’i-ana) may have sent Ioana Keaala o’Ka’i-ana with Sutter for his own safety. Then again, Keaala may have been an exile, or adventurer, by choice.

In Californian Ioana Keaala became known as John Kelly. When Sutter’s empire crumbled during the gold rush John Kelly and other Kanakas went to work on the riverboats. Henry Azbill, the grandson of John Kelly, tells a story about his grandfather docking a boat at Chico Landing when a limb hit John Bidwell, owner of Arroyo Chico Rancho, on the head and knocked him overboard.  John Kelly immediately dove overboard and saved Bidwell from drowning.  Bidwell later became a prominent political figure on the county, state and national levels and was beholding to Kelly.

Bidwell’s Rancho was in what is now known as Konkow territory, which includes a portion of the Sacramento Valley floor and the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Chico and Oroville.  Konkow is an anglicization of the native Koyo-mkawi, which means “meadowland.”  It was in the village near Oroville called Taiyum Koyo, that John Kelly met and married Sumyneh, the daughter of chief Kulmeh. 

Kanakas generally preferred the company of the indigenous people – they treated each other as equals.  Newspaper, magazine and journal accounts were consistently derogatory and patronizing. Euro-Americans showed no regard for traditional boundaries and land use practices of the indigenous peoples.  The Konkow and Nisenan, like the Kanakas, valued cooperation more than competition and both the California Indians and they lived in accordance with the rhythms of nature instead of the Euro-American notion that the “frontier” was an inexhaustible resource to be manipulated at a profit.

The native people of the Sacramento, Feather, American, Yuba and Bear Rivers were excellent fishermen and so were the Kanakas.  Stephen Powers (Tribes of California, 1877), one of California’s first ethnographers, observed that the indigenous people of northern California, “were almost amphibious and rival the Kanakas in their capacity to endure prolonged submergence.”  The native Californians and the Kanakas had a strong genealogical relationship with the land which the Hawaiians called Aina. Kanakas, Nisenan, Miwok and others inter-married and their children had to make their home in the gold mining region but Kanakas writing home to the Islands usually referred to California as aina malihinior a strange land.  Poi, a Hawaiian staple made from the kalo, or taro plant, was unavailable in California but acorn mush or poi agore was in some ways similar.  Elements of the hula are still part of the traditional practices of the Shingle Springs Rancheria where Miwok, Nisenan and the “Sacramento-Verona Band of Homeless Indians” were granted a Rancheria in 1916.

Eighteen treaties were made with the Indians of California in 1851 and 1852 for reservations that would have comprised approximately 8.5 million acres. None of those treaties were ever ratified.  Instead, the government chose a policy of Indian Removal to regional reservations.  In the summer of 1863, hundreds of Indians from Yuba and Butte Counties were gathered together for relocation by the U. S. government.  Captain Augustus W. Starr and twenty-three cavalrymen of Company F, Second Infantry, California Volunteers, marched the Indians from Camp Bidwell to Nome Cult farm in Round Valley, Mendocino County.  Among the refugees were John Kelly, his wife and their two children, despite his insistence that he was a not an Indian, but a Hawaiian citizen.  Upon arrival at Round Valley, he wrote to King Kamehameha V explaining his situation. At the request of the Hawaiian King, John Kelly and his family were eventually released, and they returned to their Konkow village.

Mele' Keaala aka Mary Azbil, n.d..
The Dorothy Hill Collection and California State University, Chico, Meriam Library, Special Collections.

John Kelly and Sumyneh had five children, Hiram, Sarah, Mele’, Hoku and Keaukuilani.  In the late 1860s Kelly was losing his sight and his youngest daughter Keaukuilani died. Then inexplicably, about 1870, he killed his wife and committed suicide.  The boys, Hiram and Hoku were sent to Vernon, where the Feather River enters the Sacramento River, to live with the Mahuka family, while Sarah and Mele’ remained in Chico.  Sarah eventually married Sam Frank of the Mechoopda village near Chico.  

Mele’ Keaala was born on December 24, 1864 in the Konkow village of Ta’yimk’oyo located near Yankee Hill-Cherokee Flat, between the North and Middle Forks of the Feather River.  She was christened Maria Guadalupe, but she was also known as Mele’, or Mary Kelly.  When Mele’ was 17 years old Hawaiian King David Kalakaua came to California.  While visiting Sacramento in 1881 he gave an audience to some Californians of Hawaiian descent and Mele’ was among that group.  When she recited her genealogy the King discovered that they were related and to formally recognize that relationship he appointed Mele’, Kai-Nuha Keaala, or Guardian of the King’s Kahili. A Kahili is a cylinder of feathers, a standard, mounted on a staff, that served as a symbol of royalty.  She was also invited to return to Hawaii with the royal family to serve as Lady-in-waiting to Queen Kapiolani.  Mele’ Kai-Nuha Keaala stayed in Hawaii for five years.  When she returned to San Francisco in 1887 as Lady-in waiting to Princess Lili’uokalani (King Kalakaua’s sister) the Royal entourage was on its’ way to Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in England.  Mele’, who was now 23 years old, asked for and received permission to visit her people. She married George Clements in 1887 and stayed in California to help Annie Bidwell at her Indian School, in Chico. While visiting San Francisco in 1891, King Kalakaua was taken sick and died.  Mele’ Kai-Nuha Keaala was called to stand watch over his casket with his personal Kahili and to accompany his body back to Hawaii.  Again, she stayed in Hawaii but returned to San Francisco in 1894 to work at the World’s Fair Hawaiian Exhibit.  It was here that she met and married John Azbill, who was of Wailaki and English descent.

Mary and John Azbill stayed in California where they worked on farms near Wheatland and Sheridan, at the mouth of the Bear River.  Eventually the Azbill family returned to Chico where they lived in a house that the Bidwell’s built for them.  They had six children, but only Henry and John lived to adulthood.  Mary and John Azbill both died in 1932 – she and her husband are buried in the same grave at Mechoopda’m wononkodo (the Chico Rancheria cemetery).  Mary Azbill was a cosmopolitan woman who, in addition to her involvement with the Hawaiian Royal family, spoke several languages, was a gourmet cook and was also a skillful basketweaver. 

Headstone in the Mechoopda Cemetary  in Chico, CA.
The Dorothy Hill Collection and California State University, Chico, Meriam Library, Special Collections.

Marshall’s gold discovery at Sutter’s mill first appeared in the Honolulu newspaper, the Polynesian, on June 24, 1848.  At that time Kanakas were employed in all of the maritime shipping and whaling operations and Hawaiian ports were among the first to hear about the gold in California. The Sandwich Island News of August 17, 1848 reported that over 1000 pickaxes had been shipped from Honolulu.  It would be another five months before President James Polk would officially confirm the discovery of California gold and in doing so initiate the gold rush of 1849.  By the end of 1848 twenty-two merchant vessels had left Honolulu for San Francisco.

Sailors, most of whom deserted their ships in San Francisco, formed a sizeable part of the mining population.  The fact that nearly every watershed in the northern Sierra has a Sailor Flat, Bar, Diggings or Creek affirms their presence. In 1849 a writer for The Friend, a Honolulu newspaper, wrote: “I have met scores of seamen with whom I had become acquainted with while at Honolulu. There are vast numbers of seamen now digging in different parts of the mines” (December 1, 1849).

Racial prejudice was also a factor that isolated Indians and Kanakas, particularly during the gold rush and the years that followed. Indians, Chinese, Kanakas, Hispanics, Blacks and others were considered exotic and therefore treated differently by Whites who saw themselves as superior.  In response to the large Hispanic population in the mines of the San Joaquin River watershed (the Southern Mines) the California legislature approved a Foreign Miners Tax in April of 1850 of $20 a month.  In 1856 the tax was readjusted to $4 a month where it remained until 1870 when it was determined to be unconstitutional.  Between 1854 and 1870 “foreigners” paid $4,919,536 in Foreign Miners Tax – the Chinese paid an estimated 98% of that amount.  

The Foreign Miners Tax was collected by, sometimes corrupt, local lawmen working on a commission basis.  On August 30, 1850 a letter was sent to The Sacramento Transcript from the South Fork of North Fork of Yuba, Kanaka Dam signed by “A Yuba Miner and an American Citizen.”  It was a published as The Foreign License Law on September 21, 1850. According to the letter, tax collector W.B.F. Royer paid a visit to Kanaka Dam on the North Yuba, “ostensibly to grant licenses to the Kanakas here, but in reality, to jump their claims.” When Capt. Coxe and the other Kanakas tried to pay the $20 for the license, Royer denied the money saying that it was too late.  “If this was all, bad as it is, it might be borne without a murmur, but it is not; the claims taken from these Kanakas were given to these other foreigners, part of his posse.  “Now, as I understand the law, it was intended to protect the interests of American citizens mining in California; but the way this officer acted, which does he protect, American or foreign interests?  And can he refuse legally the revenue of the State when tendered him?  Is this not a misdemeanor in office?  Again, although I do not charge him with receiving anything from the men he put into the claims taken from the Kanakas, yet it does look, from the way he acted, as if he had received, or was to receive, a large bonus for so doing.”  “Capt. Coxe, the head chief of the Kanakas, says that his three months license he had paid for on Bear river was still good and in full force.  He tells me also, that Mr. Royer wanted to compromise with him, but he refused, as he had driven off his men, and they had gone nobody knew where.”

Major William Downie, in his reminiscences, talks about putting together a “company” at Bullards Bar on the North Yuba River in 1850, when he was approached by “about forty Kanakas” who wanted to travel upstream with him.  One of those he selected was John Wilson who claimed to be “a prince in his own country.”

An Unnamed Tributary of Kanaka Creek/ Middle Yuba River

Places in the North Yuba River watershed that reflect a Hawaiian presence include Kanaka Bar, below Bullards Bar, a Kanaka Flat on the South Fork of the North Yuba six miles east of Downieville, a Kanaka Creek and a Hawaiian mining camp named Oahu, later named Craigs Flat.  Three miles east of Downieville is Jim Crow Ravine – Jim Crow was a Kanaka who joined Downie’s company at Slate Range in the fall of 1849.  In April of 1850 Jim Crow and a group of Kanakas were mining at the head of Jim Crow Ravine and their camp was known as Crow City.  In 1852 Jim Crow moved to the Kanaka community in Vernon.  There is also an important tributary of the Middle Yuba named Kanaka Creek.  There was a mining camp called Kanaka City at the head of the north branch of Kanaka Creek and a Kanaka Flat downstream near Chips Flat, across the creek from the town of Alleghany.  And, on Oregon Creek, below Forest City, there was a Kanaka Drift Mine and a Kanaka Ravine – I’m sure there are other names that have faded into obscurity or have been replaced but not the memory of Hawaiians working in the hills and on the rivers.

This is part of the unwritten history of California that cannot be substantiated by primary documentation and even evades archaeological techniques. Yet somehow, their presence is here, in these steep tributary canyons, when you dare to say KANAKA out loud.
• • •