This is the first summer in four years I haven’t gone to visit my brother and niece in Hat Creek and Burney, two small towns in the northeast corner of California in a valley in the Cascade Mountains between Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta. In the fall of 1999 my brother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. On my first visit to see him since the diagnosis, he picked me up at the small Redding airport. Redding, the last big town in the Central Valley on Interstate 5 before the Oregon border, was scalding hot as usual in the summer. We drove through the flat, sunbaked ranches and small farms on the eastside of Redding. Soon Highway 44 slowly started to wind its way up into the mountains, the trees getting taller, greener and bigger, the temperature a little cooler.
When my brother was first diagnosed with Parkinsons, he had been living with his wife and five-year old daughter Kat in Hat Creek near Burney and working as a paramedic in the hospital in Fall River, another nearby small town. Afer his diagnosis he went on state disability and applied for federal disability. He also started driving down to Shasta College in Redding to study computers and then got a job tutoring in the computer lab for disabled students. His marriage ended, so he had moved into Burney, taking care of his daughter over 50% of the time. On the second application he had gotten federal disability, which included money for his child, but he was supporting two households, so money was tight. He could work and make up a small amount, but if he made too much, his disability check would be cut.
At this point Highway 44 passed by the entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park, an inviting road but for another day. He turned north on Highway 89 along which followed Hat Creek. A city girl, I always thought of creeks as tiny, but Hat Creek was at least twenty feet across flowing out of Mt. Lassen rushing mightily. Occasionaliy I would see trout fisherman in hip high boots casting in the stream which is famous for fly fishing wild trout.
We passed a few houses besides the road, pasture land with cattle of the remaning ranches, campgrounds, and picnic tables nestled under towering trees. Hat Creek had oncle been a valley of small cattle ranches, but a few of the cattle ranches had converted themselves into lodges for the fisherman while some retirees had bought houses there. The “town” of Hat Creek was a few buildings strung along the road: a post office, small general store, a Baptist church, a fire station. By now my brother had driven 70 miles. “You drove this three days a week down to Shasta College?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered. “Sometimes 4 days. I drove home three nights a week.”
He then turned off Highway 89, drove a short way, and then into a driveway to show me his old house where his wife, who was away, still lived. He parked, and we sat there looking at the lovely weathered wood house shaded by large towering trees next to a weathered wooden barn. The home on three acres of mostly woods with Hat Creek flowing through was gorgeous. The rustic house only had wood burning stove; since it was at 3,200’ where snow could fall from October through May, each fall my brother used to either chop wood in the forest or buy huge stacks of firewood.
Our family had originally heard about this area from Jim and Mary Lentz, old friends of my uncle. Jim Lentz, who worked with my uncle in the 1950s when they were both machinists at Lockheed in Burbank, used to hike with my uncle in the High Sierras. An avid fisherman, Jim always tried to catch trout on those trips; later with his wife he retired in Burney where they bought a house and he could go fishing. After my mother and uncle would make annual visits to the Lentzes for a couple years, my mother introduced the Lentzes to her son and then daughter-in-law who were living about 100 miles away in another small mountain community. When my brother got the job in the hospital, he and his family rented the house on three-acres with a horse, a donkey, and Hat Creek flowing through. My ex-sister-in-law loved to catch trout which she then smoked. Even my niece had her own fishing pole to catch trout! Across the road lived Atsugewi (Hat Creek Indians), the natives of this land.
After a few moments of looking at his old house, my brother started up the car. Back on 89, we quickly passed more ranches and campgrounds until we got to the intersection with Highway 299, turning left, passing motels on the outskirts of Burney, then past the two supermarkets, the bank, a coffee shop in this milltown of 3,000, turning left again until we reached the Lentze’s brown wooden two-story house shaped like a boat with pine trees and flower gardens in front and back. I was staying there as my brother’s one room apartment was too small.
I wasn’t the only visitor that June at the Lentzes: two teenager boys, former neighbors, were also visiting. Their mother, who had inherited a cattle ranch from her grandfather, had turned it into a fisherman’s lodge. Then she and her husband had sold the land, moving to Montana. The two teenagers, who had gone to Burney High, were returning to celebrate the graduation of the younger boy’s friends. Mary, a gracious hostess, served a wonderful roast beef-and-potatoes dinner around her large oval dining table where the teenagers described small town high school graduation.
After breakfast the next morning, Mary put out maps of Shasta County to help me decide where to go with my brother and niece. That first visit was a whirwind. My brother and I went to my then eight-year old niece’s 2nd grade class’s graduation party in a Fall River park with twenty-five kids playing on the elaborate swings and climbing structure; mothers and a few fathers bringing out food; screaming kids surrounding a child striking at a pinata hanging from a tree; kids playing water balloon games; and parents serving potluck lunch on the picnic tables. As we watched, my brother told me Fall River Elementary was a good school, so he wanted his daughter to stay there.
After the party brother and I took my niece to see Subway Cave in Hat Creek, the only lava tube open to the public. Because all of the Hat Creek floor was created when a chain a small volcanos on its south end exploded 20,000 years ago, the area has 50 lava tubes, huge caves where lava used to flow. When the lava flow drained out, the caves were left. The three of us followed the nature trail down to the cave, holding our flashlights. At the mouth of the cave there were five other people: a father with a three boys and a young couple. We all decided to walk through the cave together as if to take care of each other.
Subway Cave is huge: the ceiling ranges from 6 to 17 feet and the diameter is about 50 feet. Though we could still see fairly well, flashlights came on as we moved further into the cave. Since floor was full of shaky pieces of lava rock, we all had to be careful where we stepped as the light faded. Subway Cave is about 2,300 feet (750 m) long but the section opened to the public is about 1,300 feet (320 m) long. The three boys started making funny sounds in the darkness of as we walked further and further into this big cavern. We see a small light source ahead. That’s enough for the three boys and my niece to start running on the shaky lava rocky floor to the cave’s exit.
One the way back we stopped to look at the trout fisheries, where I saw long concrete thin rectangular boxes of water holding baby trout. With not enough trout in the streams for all the fisherpeople, the state restocks the streams and rivers as well as has a strict limit on the number of fish each person can catch. At nearby Lake Baum, an artificial lake created by the damming of Hat Creek, my niece played along the lakeshore while my brother and I chatted with a woman sitting alone whose husband and children were across the lake. She and her husband were both rangers at nearby Burney Falls State Park. Past Lake Baum Hat Creek flowed through the power station Hat Creek 2.Even this smallish flow was generating power. This was a California fished out and harnessed to generate electricity.
Mary one afternoon had to go to Hat Creek so she drove me up to the overlook at the Hat Creek Rim Overlook: the valley spread out below us, Mt. Lassen dominated the south, and Mt. Shasta emerged like a hulking giant to our north. The valley below us was formed when a huge hunk of earth dropped a thousand feet below the rim during the earthquake. Driving back from the overlook, Mary stopped by her friend Ellie’s house in Hat Creek which had its own private lake back of the house. Astrounded, I watched the pine strees and shrubs reflected in the waters of this pond.
The next day my brother, having promised my niece to go sledding in June on Mt. Lassen, borrowed a sled from the Lentzes; he, Kat and I drove off thirty miles to the mountain. Near to the entrance, we stopped by the lake to have lunch, watching the ducks and one huge goose come to our picnic table to beg for food. The goose was demanding and menacing as he crowded us. Escaping from the monster goose, we drove up the road to search for snow, driving higher and higher until near the mountains’ summit but only limited patches of snow, so my brother finally stopped by the largest snow patch. It was much too little for sledding, but Kat did make some ferocious snowballs she hurled at her father.
A little later down the road we started the hike up to Paradise Meadow. Hat Creek was on our right as we three started up the trail, hearing the creek rush and burble besides us as we climbed on the trail through canopies of trees until about 40 minutes later the trail went flat through a clump of trees. Finally, Paradise Meadow, a huge expanse of rich grass spread out before us surrounded by the mountain tops. On our right was snow patches given rise to puddles which slowly formed the beginnings of Hat Creek. “This is paradise all right,” my brother said. “The Indians must have come here.” My niece wandered by the snow patches and then the trickles of water which wound its way down the right side, slowly joining into one little stream at the end of the meadow. So here is where the Hat Creek begins. I had never seen the beginnings of any creek or river before. It was awesome!
A few days before I left, I hiked alone from Hat Creek Park to the confluence, the merging, of the Pit River and Hat Creek. The Pit started way up in Modoc County and then meandered through Shasta County until it eventually flowed into the Sacramento River. Now I walked through these shrubs on flat ground midday under a hot sun with Pit River, a huge expanse of water on my left, and Hat Creek, now not a small creek but a mightly river on my right. Now I saw a canoe on the Hat Creek and a few fisherman on the Pit River.
I kept walking while the sun kept beating down. Finally, I was at the huge melting of waters at the confluence of the Hat and the Pit. I had seen the beginnings of Hat Creek way up in Mt. Lassen, traced the creek down through the valley past cattle ranches, fisherman’s lodges, and retirees’ homes and by my brother’s former house, into and out of Baum Lake, through the power stations Hat Creek 1 and Hat Creek 2 to its ending here where it joined the Pit River. My brother, my niece, the Lentze all lived by this natural wonderland: Hat Creek!