Exploring the Eel River Valley

The joy of getting around and the fear it might not last

John Driscoll

John Driscoll - image courtesy of Eureka Times-Standard

John Driscoll
The Times Standard, Monday, February 16, 2004

Living in a place as intricately beautiful as far Northern California is 98 percent joy and 2 percent sheer terror. The joy comes from knowing that on any summer day I could motor into the Pacific and catch a king salmon swimming at 150 feet below sea level. Then I could pack it up and drive inland three hours; walk into an alpine lake; catch a brook trout swimming at 6,000 feet above sea level; and cook the two fish together over the fire.

A long day, mind you, but possible. I intend to do it someday.

The joy comes from driving from coastal fog, up State Highway 299, from spruce and redwoods to pines and cedars, then over the hump to sage-covered hills and down into the desert around Redding. Out to the short grass and oak woodlands outside Red Bluff to watch the keen-nosed dogs at Red Bank Ale and Quail Club work on pheasants and quail, with my father-in-law and I shooting well against the background of snow-capped Lassen and Shasta.

Then there's always the drive up State Highway 96, through the verdant Hoopa Valley along the Trinity River, which empties into the Klamath River at Weitchpec, the center of the world for some. When you get to the Salmon River, that green-tinted cascade tumbling out of the Trinity Alps, the Russian Wilderness and the Marble Mountains, you can't imagine greater purity. Then you get in to Wooley Creek, and amazingly, you find it an even clearer stream.

You could go north to the parks outside Crescent City and walk through five different vegetation zones in only 5 miles. Or south to the wildlife refuge to gape at geese who've homed in as they have forever on the marshlands outside Eureka. Or further south, to wander through the giant trees or the dry ridgetop prairies. Or to the westernmost part of the county, to the green grasslands of Mattole and Bear River cattle ranches, splotched with poppies and lupines, that give way to the beaches that lost altitude during the big quakes in the 1990s.

You could spend a lifetime birding around Humboldt Bay alone, or work on jumping wood ducks on the banks of rivers only a mile from town. Or spend a decade of afternoons paddling the sloughs and slow rivers, or risk careening down Clear Creek in a maneuverable kayak.

The truth is, it is virtually endless, this cornucopia of good wild and rural places.

But the terror.

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