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Hiking The Headwaters: Where The Sacramento Starts

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On Mount Eddy | Photo: Chris Clarke
On Mount Eddy | Photo: Chris Clarke

An explanatory series focusing on one of the most complex issues facing California: water sharing. And at its core is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Stay with kcet.org/baydelta for all the project's stories.

Finding the headwaters of the Sacramento River is an arbitrary exercise. Which of the main stem's many feeder tributaries is the true river? Which tiny creek's origin spring becomes the headwaters?

Decide the true river is the one that contributes the most water to the river below, and call those others merely feeder streams, and there's no contest: the main stem of the Sacramento River above Shasta Dam is the Pit River, which quintuples the Sacramento's flow where they join. That would put the Sacramento's headwaters in the Warner Mountains, east of Alturas. And by the same logic, the Mississippi River would rise at the headwaters of the Allegheny in northern Pennsylvania.

Choose the officially named main stem Sacramento River, and you still have a decision to make: which fork? Three forks pour off the east side of the Trinity Divide, to meet in the reservoir Lake Siskiyou near Mount Shasta City. The South and Middle forks are dotted with lakes that are relatively accessible by car. I chose to visit the headwaters of the North Fork: It's wilder, only accessible by hiking, and involves climbing the tallest California mountain no one's heard of.

If 9,025-foot Mount Eddy were in a different place, it might be known around the world as a place of singular beauty, of odd native plants growing in an eccentric soil in a striking arrangement of alpine lake and scree.

But Mount Eddy is overshadowed, almost literally, by others in the neighborhood. Struggle up the unforgiving switchbacks on Eddy's steep west face, stopping now and then to pant and scrape oxygen from the thinning air. Then when you're just shy of the summit, a peak starts to appear over Eddy's summit ridge to the east, and then the last few steps seem almost anticlimactic. Sure, you've gained the top of Mount Eddy, but there across broad Strawberry Valley, its summit seemingly just inches away, is Mount Shasta: 5,155 feet higher.

Even the mountain's name is overshadowed: Mount Eddy was named for Olive Paddock Eddy, who in the 19th century, became the first recorded woman to climb not the mountain that bears her name, but that other one. The taller one across the way.

That's fine. It's a nice view from Mount Eddy's summit. It's also a nice view if you turn your back to Shasta and look out over the Trinity Mountains to which Mount Eddy belongs, and the broad Klamath Mountain region that includes the Trinity Mountains. It's a great vantage point from which to look at the Klamaths: it's the tallest peak in the Trinity Mountains, and in the Klamaths. In fact, it's the tallest peak anywhere in the band of North America that lies west of Interstate 5.

But it's across the street from a gigantic stratovolcano, so it gets no respect.

This is all from memory: my friend Matthew and I haven't climbed the summit yet on this trip. I've been here twice before: once in 1988 on a botanizing expedition with the Friends of the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden, and then in the early 1990s with my fianceé, our young dog, and a couple friends. That dog is now four months dead of old age, and I wince at the memories the landscape conjures.

We came up the back way, driving into the mountains along a service road, then hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail for a few miles. The winter of 2006-2007 left a hefty helping of snow in these mountains, and in June there were still old, crystalline snowbanks in bits of north-facing shade. The water in Lower Deadfall Lake, where we've camped, is preternaturally clear and cold. Up in the middle of the night last night, I watched the stars move across the lake, their reflections almost unshimmered in the water's flat, flat surface.

Matthew makes coffee as we discuss the climb. It's been 15 years since I last visited, and nearly 20 since I last made the summit, but I try to describe the route anyway. It's a steady climb, through an open, mixed forest of lodgepole, foxtail, and Jeffrey pines, over a reddish, rocky soil that looks as though it belongs on Mars. This whole massif, all of Mount Eddy and the sprawling ridge of which the mountain is the high point, is peridotite, a rock that tectonic forces have squeegeed up off the Earth's mantle. When exposed to water, peridotite often weathers to serpentine, the hard red rock changing to softer green. Full of minerals that can be inimical to plant life, peridotite and serpentine often host plants that are specially adapted to survive large amounts of magnesium, nickel, and chromium in the soil.

We head out. I lag behind almost immediately. The next few miles offer a steady climb. Matthew and I have been hiking together for decades, and we divide the labor fairly: I'm always out of shape, so I complain on the uphills, and he has bad knees, so he complains coming down. He won't be complaining for a few hours.

A quarter mile out of camp along the Sisson-Callahan Trail, we pass a healthy stand of one of the odd plants I'd promised Matthew: it's an oddly verdant patch of cobra lily, Darlingtonia californica, a carnivorous plant that grows only where it can expect continuously flowing cold water on its roots. There are patches of it anywhere the groundwater comes to the surface and seeps downhill.

Darlingtonia californica, the carnivorous cobra lily | Photo: Chris Clarke

On that earlier trip, my dog, who had been hiking off-leash, was delighted by this same patch of carnivorous plants, and took off running through them with great gasps of joy, and rooster tails of cold, artesian spring water coming off his hind legs. Avid native plant conservationists all, we were mortified, and it took us longer than we'd have preferred to collar him. A decade and a half later, the patch looks none the worse for wear.

A half mile of meandering past foxtail pines and small puddles, about 600 feet of climbing, and we reach Upper Deadfall Lake, the headwaters of the Deadfall Lakes basin. The seeps below Upper Deadfall Lake that feed those cobra lilies filter into Lower Deadfall Lake, which drains into Deadfall Creek, which is occasionally more wet meadow than creek. In about five miles, Deadfall Creek flows into Bear Creek, which almost immediately flows into the top mile of the Trinity River, just below where the river is formed at the confluence of High Camp and Salt Lick creeks.

A world away and 165 miles downstream through some of the most rugged country in California, the Trinity flows into the Klamath river at Weitchpec. Twenty miles downstream, the Klamath meets the Pacific.

Upper Deadfall Lake sits at 7,800 feet above sea level. The trail skirts the south shore of the lake, then hangs a right turn and starts angling up one side of a relatively steep ridge, mainly decomposed peridotite with a carpet of wildflowers. About 250 feet of climbing and we crest the ridge.

We've hiked out of the watershed of the Klamath River. the trail hairpins to climb the crest of the ridge another thousand feet to Mount Eddy's summit, but we stop in the lee of a foxtail pine to look south.

About 1,000 feet south and 200 feet down, another patch of cobra lilies sparkles in morning sunlight. It's the very top of the North Fork of the Sacramento River.

The dewdrops glistening on those plants, were they to roll down their stems rather than sublimating into the mountain air, might well flow through the Golden Gate in a few months. Or, depending on how long they tarried in the reservoirs we've built to impound the river's flow, perhaps a few years. Matthew and I don't speak. I've spent my entire adult life living within sight of the bottom of the Bay Delta watershed, where the rivers flow under that bridge and out to sea. It's a sweet moment here at the top of that same watershed, in a pause for breath before we resume our hike up the tallest peak no one in California has ever heard of.

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