Friday, August 13, 2004

Shasta County Days along the Burney Creek

Late summer of 2001 I returned to a second visit to my brother, my niece and our friends Jim and Mary Lentz in Burney, a small mill town of 3,000 in Shasta County. After my brother who had Parkinson’s picked me up at the Redding airport, which was broiling in late August, he drove State Highway 299, which winds its way forty miles past pine trees, a creek and a few houses to the top of Hatchet Mountain, and then down past the burned over slopes and the wood mill in Burney’s outskirts to Burney itself. Luckily, Burney was pleasantly warm at 3,000’, not scalding hot like the Central Valley.

That afternoon Mary Lentz, her three grandchildren who were also visiting, my brother, my eight-year old niece Kat, and I all walked a ½ mile down to Burney Creek. As we six ambled in the middle of the empty street I said, “I love the traffic in Burney.” I felt myself slowing down, melting into the leisurely pace of small town summer. One rarely sees a car walking Burney’s residential streets all summer. We left the road to walk down a dirt path, stepping on rocks down to the creek. Gary, a rambunctious ten-year-old boy, went charging down the rocky path beside the creek with my niece Kat on his heels and the rest of us in their wake. Then Gary starts skipping on rocks into the creek itself with Mary saying, “Be careful. Be careful.” Gary jumps on a rock on the middle of a fifteen-foot creek while Kat lands on a rock behind him. What could be better for summer than jumping on rocks in the creek? That entire visit I remember us constantly walking down to Burney Creek, which winds its way through town and then eventually becomes Burney Falls.

Burney Falls is really McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. Quite a name. Quite a park. My brother and niece took me there to walk down the dirt path to where we see two mighty falls plunging down over basalt cliffs, both plummeting down a 129 feet. Then we turn around and walk on another dirt path above the falls so we can see them right in front of us. We could hear the roar and rushing water and even feel mist. Dynamite!

In his middle-twenties my brother had left Los Angeles to go live in small towns in Sonoma, Napa, and Shasta County for three decades. When he lived in Calistoga, another small town of 3,000 in Napa County, I remember a friend who lived in the nearby Russian River ask if Calistoga had a Safeway? “No, It has a supermarket but it’s not a Safeway,” I said, “but it has a movie house.” Her tiny town had a Safeway but not a movie house. Well, Burney had a movie house plus a Safeway plus another supermarket. Burney scored! Burney had a small department store, a Mexican restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a coffee shop, motels for the trout fisherman, and churches. Burney was outside of the tourist trail, lacking any chi chi restaurants. Good for Burney! It just has a creek, magnificent waterfalls, nearby Lake Britton, the Pit River close at hand, and miles of hiking trails

Staying with Jim and Mary I didn’t feel deprived of city pleasures. Mary, a former English teacher from San Jose California, had a book-lined study with a computer with a DSL line where I could daily check my email. The Lentzes also had cable TV with god knows how many stations and NetFlicks, which delivers the latest movies on DVD. While Jim fished and worked in his shop, Mary worked as a volunteer with the Burney Library and had just had their garage sale in her front driveway, raising money for the library. Since no one had bought a tall bookcase, Mary decided to give it to my brother who was still settling into his new apartment, so we both loaded the bookcase in Mary’s SUV for the short drive over to my brother’s a few blocks away, pulled past the front house and parked. We both carried the bookcase into his one-room studio with kitchen.

My brother had moved from Hat Creek into his studio in Burney a few months earlier, leaving most of the furniture with his wife. Friends and neighbors generously gave him beds, a table, chairs, and armloads of woolen blankets which were stuffed into the one closet, but he needed a bookcase for the books he was acquiring as a student studying computers at Shasta junior college. After Mary left, he, my niece Kat and I decided to walk to Burney Creek so Kat could have go swimming. My brother lived in the Indian neighborhood part of Burney, blocks of wooden houses and cottages, but now we cut down a shortcut path emerging where Burney Creek is partially dammed by a head gate and broadens out into a shallow area. Here three teenage Indian girls were already swimming; Kat took off her shorts, leaving her bathingsuit and joining them in the water. Sam and I sat on the slightly uprise of the bank watching.

I told my brother I loved the feeling of being in 1940s California where you walked down the path in the middle of the creek so the child could go swimming; I almost felt like I was living in a Mark Twain story. My brother’s feelings were more practical. Sam said that Burney was fifty miles away to Shasta College, not seventy miles like his old home in Hat Creek. Also, a few blocks from his house he could catch a bus, which he could take to college to classes and a job. He had found a government program where if he worked a few hours a week, the state would pay for his medications, so he diligently drove or bused to Shasta College. Also, his neurological doctor for his Parkinson’s was in Red Bluff, south of Redding, so he was closer to his doctor. I could see he was establishing a new life for himself and his daughter in Burney.

Kat came out the water and we slowly ambled back to the house. I left and walked past the short bit of Indian territory where the Achumawi (Pit River) Indians had a casino, a medical center, and a child care center. The Achumawi were a river people, their diet heavily depending on fish and each man had a canoe; they did hunt, but always returned to the river. On the bridge over Burney Creek, the creek was dappled in the late afternoon light. Looking at the creek, I remembered the first fall when my brother had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was on disability, worrying he didn’t have the money to get loads of firewood he needed to get through the winter in the Hat Creek house. My mother and I were fearful about what would happen.

My brother was limping down the road when he ran into an Indian teenage boy who had a load of firewood. “Need wood?” the boy asked. “Yes,” my brother said. “Here some,” the boy said. “Thanks,” said my brother. “Need some more,” the Indian asked? “Yes,” my brother said. So the two of them went into the nearby wood where the Indian cut my brother more wood. That Indian was a guardian angel, appearing at a time when we were all afraid of the future, when we needed someone. Thank him thank him thank him. Thank the Lentzes. Thank the neighbors. Thanks everybody who helped my brother start a new life in Burney.

That fall after I left my brother was taking the bus to college. There were few jobs in Burney, so many people took that long bus ride into Redding to work. My brother became friendly with another bus rider, a man who had a job in Redding but who lived with his Indian wife and five kids on the top of Hatchet Mountain in a house with only a wood-burning stove. On a cold fall day, my brother told the man he had extra woolen blankets in his one closet. Actually, his apartment had one closet overflowing with those woolen blankets he and his daughter didn’t need. One day the man came by and picked up the stacks of wooden blankets. Besides the empty streets, the leisurely pace and the creek, I loved the country ethic that if a person needs help, you help them.

I returned twice more to Burney. Before my third trip my brother had hurt his back but was slowly getting better. He was also just moved into the Burney Villa Apartments, government-subsidized housing, where he could have a larger two-bedroom apartment--both he and his daughter could have separate rooms. Arriving in Burney, he drove us to see his new apartment, turning right off the road to the center of the complex, which was smack dab in the middle of a pine forest on both hillsides. Buildings with four apartments dotted the hillsides.

He led me up a small hillside to his apartment, part of a complex of four apartments, walked past his daughter’s bike, and then opened the door. The members of the Baptist Church to which he belonged had helped him move in a few weeks early, giving him a good large couch and chair which was in the living room as well as a fine-looking wooden table and four chairs in the kitchen. Then he showed how he actually had closets: a walk-in closet by the door, and each bedroom had a closet.

Kat, who was nine, had just made friends with an eight-year old named Brandy who lived in a neighboring apartment. Kat had given Brandy her white karate outfit which she wore proudly. Both girls had bikes, spending hours biking around the complex. With the bad back as well as his Parkinson’s my brother felt it was getting harder and harder to drive to work the 100-mile round trip or to take that long bus drive. At his new apartments he could work as an assistant handyman, so he gave up his Shasta College job.

The next day Mary, who was a member of the Association of American University Women in Burney, drove my brother and me to Lake Britton, to join the A.A.U.W’s canoe trip. Lake Britton is an artificial lake created by Lake Britton Dam, which was built in 1925 on the Pit River. The river was named after the pits dugs by the Achumawi Indians to trap deer.

I had fallen in love with an upriver wild stretch of mighty Pit River on my first trip but now I was seeing the tamed part of the river. Sixty ago the Lake Britton dam, built to provide rural electricity, stopped the river's flow into the seven miles of riverbed called the Three Reach and killed many trout. Fortunately, the springs in the riverbed provided enough flow for the native rainbow to survive in the Pit River; in 1985 a valve was opened in the Lake Britton dam to rewater the Three Reach, making the Pit River again an important wild-trout fishery.

My host Jim Lentz often has gone fishing on the Pit River below Lake Britton dam.
The 30 miles of the Pit below Lake Britton are divided by hydro projects into five individual reaches: a dam is at the upper end and a powerhouse and reservoir at the downstream end. Controlled releases from the three dams have allowed the area to again become one of the great trout fishing areas in America; Jim has returned from his fishing trips with plenty of trout but always keeping to the legal limit. The economy of this whole area now depends on the fisher people who come to catch trout just as the economy of the Achumawi also depended on the rivers.

But this morning Mary parked by the boat launch at Lake Britton, greeting the ranger from Burney Falls state park who was going to lead our canoe trip. Fifteen of us loaded into five canoes just like the Achumawi once had. My brother had a paddle in the rear of our canoe, I was in the middle, and Mary was in the front with the paddle. I was dubious because I knew both Mary and my brother had bad backs while I had never canoed before.

But all five canoes shoved off as we paddled after the ranger’s lead canoe, which skipped across the lake up to Burney Creek. Mary and my brother kept paddling as we entered Burney Creek. I forgot about being nervous when I focused on the view of the creek from its middle as we glided underneath a canopy of huge green interlacing trees in a wonderland. The ranger decided to turn around, so he paddled his canoe around, and we all followed his lead. Now we were returning up Burney Creek back into the lake, following the ranger to the sandstone cliffs where he came to a stop.

All our canoes came to huddle together next to the ranger’s who gave a talk about the making of sandstone cliffs long ago. At this time Mary decided it was my turn to paddle, so she suggested that she and I trade places. I looked at her and then said, ‘OK.” Others held our canoe to theirs while Mary scooted over me while I pushed under her. Aha! We did it. Now I was seated in the front with the paddle, paddling us again as we left to return to the boat launch. I paddled us all the way to the launch! What a trip.

After docking our group pulled out picnic baskets and picnicked at a nearby table underneath a tree. We talked about Daryl “Babe” Wilson, an Achumawi who had written a fine autobiography The Morning the Sun Had Went Down. Mary had loaned the book to my mother who then gave it to me to read. The ranger mentioned that later in the week at Burney Falls State Park he was going to lead a walk from the campground to the old Anglo settlers’ cemetery. We kept on eating. In some ways, in many ways my brother’s life was difficult with Parkinson’s, but he and my niece benefited from the country ethic of helping neighbors and could enjoy the summer idyll of Burney Creek, the waterfalls, and the wild/tamed Pit River. That was a lot.

No comments: