Magazine article Sunset

Ishi's Rugged Wilderness

Magazine article Sunset

Ishi's Rugged Wilderness

Article excerpt

Ishi's rugged wilderness

"He was industrious, kindly, obliging, invariablyeven tempered, ready of smile, and thoroughly endeared himself to all with whom he came in contact. With his death the Yahi passed away.'

So anthropologist Alfred Kroeber describedIshi, last of the Yahi Indians. The story is by now well known. Survivors of a tribe decimated by American settlers, Ishi and a handful of other Yahi hid for decades in the Sierra foothills south of Mount Lassen. Theirs was a stealthy existence of refuge found in caves, campfires smothered and trails disguised, and flight from all other human beings.

One by one the small band died, until, in1911, a 50-year-old man was found crouching in a corral near Oroville. Taken under the wing of anthropologist Kroeber, Ishi--the name he took, from the Yahi word for "man'--lived his remaining years in San Francisco, preserving Yahi ways for scientific posterity and gaining the respect Kroeber's words relate.

California has changed much since Ishidied in 1916. Remarkably his home has not, and will not, thanks to the 1984 establishment of the Ishi Wilderness.

Made up of pine, oak, and grass-clad foothillsquite different from most other California wilderness areas, Ishi is especially attractive when higher-elevation wildernesses are impassable--now, and again in autumn and early winter.

Glance at a map of Ishi and you may behard put to understand how anyone could hide here. You are after all within shouting distance of the farmlands of the Sacramento Valley. Elevations range only from 900 to 4,000 feet.

The drive to the 41,840-acre wildernesstells another story. This is up-and-down country, a series of east-west-trending ridges whose vegetation--pines and oaks on the north-facing slopes, chaparral on the sunburnt South--gentles but doesn't erase the general steepness. A volcanic landscape, it's dotted with basalt outcroppings and caves and carved by two creeks whose canyons provide easiest trail access. Allow two days for a visit.

Black rocks, wild horses, and pineries

From Red Bluff, take State Highway 99east 3 miles, then State 36 northeast 30 miles (to about 9 miles beyond Paynes Creek). Turn south on Ponderosa Way. Follow this occasionally confounding dirt road 20 miles, keeping alert at forks for signs to Black Rock Campground and for logging trucks. At last you'll get a dizzying look down into Mill Creek Canyon, the northern boundary of the wilderness. …

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