Thursday, June 7, 2007

Humbug Valley

The dawn woke us again this morning, at about 5:30 am. I noticed when I dressed that my bedroom was colder than it had been, and when I looked outside it was easy to see why: thick frost lay on many surfaces, and my truck's roof and windshield had a good coating of ice! It must have gotten down to 28 or 29 degrees last night. We ate our usual light breakfast of granola and tea, and were on our way by 6:45 am.

Our goal today was to find some areas different than any we had been in on previous days this trip. I picked a large area to the west and south of the town of Chester, which is on the north side of Lake Almanor. In this area are some large meadows, a large flat valley (the Humbug Valley), and some streams and lakes that might give us some wet areas. So we started out by heading toward Chester on Highway 172 and then Highway 36. Just before 172 meets 36, there is a picturesque cattle ranch, straddling Mill Creek's valley. The pastures are fenced in with split rail fences, and the meadow is lush with grasses. This morning it was frosted, especially on the fence rails, stumps, and grass leaves -- a very pretty early morning sight.

My plan was to start our backcountry drive by turning onto 28N25 just after 39 enters Plumas County from the west. I wanted to take some of the network of roads there that go through Soldier Meadow; we were hoping that the meadow would yield some wildflowers. But we were frustrated by a gate in that attempt, and at every subsequent attempt to get into Soldier Meadow from the north -- the place is completely sealed off to vehicles. We found out later in the day (by reading a Forest Service informational sign) that the Solier Meadow area is being restored, and is isolated until that process is finished. So we gave up on this approach, and decided to head for Humbug Valley instead.

Access to Humbug Valley is from the west shore of Lake Almanor, south of Chester, so we headed into Chester on 39 and south on 89. While we were in Chester, we called Debbie and my mother -- cell phone access is non-existent up in Mineral or Mt. Lassen, but Chester has a cell tower. So very swing through Chester, we phone home. From 89 we turned southwest on Humbug Road (27N11), with every intention of taking it straight to Humbug Valley. However, not far along Humbug Road we crossed a babbling brook that caught our eye (despite its unattractive name: Butt Creek), and we turned off on a nameless forest road that followed its south shore to the west. We stopped several times along this stretch of road to walk down to the stream, enjoying the sounds and sights of a wetland in the middle of an otherwise very dry forest. Finally our little road swung around to the southeast and climbed back up to rejoin Humbug Road.

Something I haven't mentioned in my previous posts is that deer are very plentiful here. We've seen quite a few deer on every day of our visit. They seem to be equally common in the wilderness and near human habitation, despite the very active hunting seasons here. My father calls them "forest locusts", as they eat everything that he loves, and don't contribute to his diet -- so far as he's concerned, there is no good reason why deer are allowed to exist at all. I have a somewhat more generous attitude toward the deer; I'm happy to see these beautiful creatures running around, as they provide needed food for other animals that I love (mountain lions and coyotes). So long as the populations aren't artificially maintained (especially by winter feeding), I have no objection to them.

A short distance further down Humbug Road, we expected to run into a five corners intersection. At that point our map told us Humbug Road would turn into a better quality road, and we'd quickly find ourselves in Humbug Valley. However, when we got to this point there were only four corners -- and the missing road was the one we wanted! There was no sign of the continuation of Humbug Road, and no improved road at all. In my quest to figure out what was going on, I started down an unnamed Forest Service road that heads west from this intersection. Just as I realized I was on the wrong road, and was about to turn around, we spotted some nice wildflowers. After some map study, we decided to make a big loop, with the first half on this road as it traveled along the northeast rim of the north end of Humbug Valley and the second half coming back about halfway up that same rim. These unnamed roads should take us right back to Humbug Road, just south of the supposed five corners intersection.

This big loop turned out to be a most pleasant journey. The roads we were on were not much used anymore, with shrubs pressing in from the sides and plants growing right in the middle of the road (this was especially true on the second half). On this whole section we were in mature conifer forest, surrounded by tall, healthy Ponderosa pines, sugar pines, incense cedar, blue firs, and several other kinds of pine, fir, and spruce. We even had to overcome a couple of obstacles: trees down across the road. The first of these looked like a showstopper when we drove up to it -- a trunk perhaps 18 or 20 inches in diameter at the bottom and about 30 feet long stretched diagonally across the road. This was far too heavy for us to move by hand, but I wasn't quite ready to give up. I broke out a hank of half inch rope I keep in the truck, pulled up near the big end of the trunk, and ran several lengths of rope between a tow point on my truck and the tree trunk. I didn't really think we had much of a chance of budging this thing, but I had to at least try. When I backed up the truck and got the rope taut, I gunned it a bit -- and the tree moved! Well, more exactly, half the tree moved -- my tugging snapped the trunk in half where it was about 12 inches in diameter. The tree was partly rotted and the wood weaked. Now we had the heavy half of the tree off to one side of the road, but we still had the other half to move. My dad had a great idea for this: to use a conveniently placed tree as a kind of a pulley, so that I could back straight down the road in order to pull the other half of the tree off to the side. We set up the road, backed up the truck, and presto! -- the road was clear. After clearing a couple of less challenging obstacles, we made it back to Humbug Road, just as the map said we would. We never did figure out what happened at the (alleged) five corners...

From here we went quickly down to Humbug Valley, following Miller Creek, which was full of willows and lots of other wetland plants. We saw some flowers that looked like (and may actually be) an orange larkspur -- a new one to me. The transition onto the valley was quite abrupt -- one moment we were in a mature conifer forest on a steep slope; the next we were on a large, lush pasture on very flat land. Soon after driving out into the valley, we happened upon what looked like a giant arrow. This turned out to be a gigantic weathervane, with the "point" and "feathers" made from the hood of an automobile. It still turns freely on its pivot, and presumably works to show the wind direction. Behind us we could see the upper story gables of a white painted home. We didn't investigate to see if it was abandoned, but if occupied it would have spectacular views of this lovely meadow and the surrounding mountains. Further into Humbug Valley we crossed a bridge over a sizable stream (a branch of Yellow Creek). All around this bridge there was a cloud of swallows, so dense they easily visible several hundred yards away. We stopped to watch them; standing on the bridge they surrounded us on all sides. They certainly seem to get great joy from their acrobatic flying -- swooping, diving, executing tight turns, darting under the bridge at full speed and then zooming up vertically right in front of our faces. They chattered away all the while they performed these acrobatics, and though I couldn't actually see this, I'm certain they were catching bugs the whole time. The poured concrete bridge was lined with mud swallow's nests on both sides where the abutments meet the roadway; when I peered under, lots of little heads were watching me. Most likely, given the season, there were lots of baby swallows in them (or maybe still eggs even). A short distance upstream from the bridge, I saw something curious in the stream: a place where a rock protruding from the bank into the stream's flow was causing a strong eddy, and the eddy had eroded a deep pit (perhaps 3 feet deep) in the otherwise shallow stream bed.

On the west side of the valley, we drove past a still-occupied ranch house (the Lemm Ranch). From here we headed toward Panani Meadows on 27N04. We stopped several times for flowers, including in one marsh where I managed to get my boots completely soaked (my toes looked like prunes when I got home). We made one side trip up 27N33, trying to get near a tributary of Yellow Creek, but this was very disappointing as there are ongoing lumbering operations in the area and the road near the creek had been moved further uphill. The rest of our trip was unremarkable, but still very pretty, and still enjoyable. Just after we passed through Panani Meadow, we turned onto 27N43, which took us back to Humbug Road, and thence out to 89 and back to Chester.

By this time it was after 2 pm, and we were tired and hungry. We decided to try the Chinese restaurant in town (the Happy Gardens restaurant), knowing full well that we were risking a bad meal. We pulled into the bright red building housing the restaurant (we thought), and as we climbed out of the car we spotted a fruit stand set up right next to us. We picked up six local peaches and a quart or so of local Bing cherries; we figured the fruit would make a good dessert. When we tried to open the door of the restaurant, someone working nearby called out that the Chamber of Commerce was in a building just down the road. This was a bit confusing, as we were looking for the Chinese restaurant -- which, after a little conversation, we discovered was in a green building a couple hundred feet down the road, across the railroad tracks! Who'd think a Chinese restaurant would be in a GREEN building?

Earlier I had told my father about one of my favorite Chinese dishes -- a soup called Wor Won Ton soup, made of clear chicken broth and lots of vegetables, several kinds of meat, and meat-stuffed won tons. He'd never had this kind of soup, and it sounded good to him -- so when we discovered that Happy Gardens had it on the menu, we ordered the large bowl of it to split between us. Our waiter discouraged us from doing this, basically saying that no two humans could possibly eat the large bowl of Wor Won Ton soup. We were about to accede to his wisdom when the owner came over, figured out that we were planning to make a meal of the soup, and said we should get the large one. So we ordered the large one -- and when the brought it out, we could see why our waiter had doubt; the bowl held something close to a gallon of fragrant and attractive Wor Won Ton soup! But this waiter had obviously never encountered two soup fiends like my father and I -- we finished the entire thing, and it was very good indeed. I had six bowls of it, my father had seven plus a couple teacups of the clear broth that he drank. Not a drop or a scrap was left. The waiter didn't even bother to ask us if we wanted anything else; he just brought our bill to the table, his attituded marginally more deferential than it had originally been -- clearly he knew greatness when he saw it. We left with full and happy bellies...

My father was curious what plants people would use for landscaping around these parts, so we wandered through town a bit looking at the relatively few landscaped yards. Just as we were about to leave town, I spotted a surprising sign that said "Collins Pine Museum". A "pine museum"? What the heck was that? Enquiring minds want to know, so we drove up the street to see. It turns out that it's really the "Collins Pine" museum, with Collins Pine being a forest management and lumber milling company -- and their museum included an indoor display of the milling process past and present, and an outdoor display of past lumbering equipment. We wandered around looking at the displays and talking the curator for a fascinating hour and half. We learned all sorts of interesting things about modern forest management from the curator, and ended up being very glad I noticed that sign.

From there it was back "home" to our little cabin, where we tossed the cherries into ice water and sliced up the peaches. The cherries were very good; the peaches not quite so good, but with a little sugar very enjoyable anyway. We went to bed, still tired but not at all hungry...


  1. Tom, thanks so much for posting some details and photos of your journey with Dad -- does my heart good to see him in environments like that, knowing how much he must have enjoyed his time with you. And, of course, I always drool over nice wildflower photos!
    ...from sister dear

  2. I found your blog while looking for pictures of the Chips Fire. My husband built the weather vane you talk about and show on your blog. Yes, it does work. We had to repair it a few years back, as the winters took a toll. When greased and repaired, it does show wind direction. Amazing to me... We spent many years in the Humbug Valley, enjoying all it has to offer.


    1. Hi, Chris...

      That trip is full of wonderful memories for me. I didn't know it at the time, but it ended up being the last trip I could make with my dad. He's no longer able to handle the stress and effort of a trip like that, dang it. He really enjoyed that wind vane! He's a farmer and nurseryman, used to building his own "infrastructure", but that giant wind vane was something completely new to him :-) You sure had a beautiful area to live in there...