Saturday, May 25, 2013

A True and Magnificent Story of Gold, Indians and a Bear


Years ago, my father owned a sawmill in the Tahoe National Forest, in the Sierras. He’d bought it out of receivership from a law firm in Chicago, who had no other takers, for zero down, in the late 1950’s. I asked him if he’d ever heard from the Chicago people again, and he said just once. They found out he’d sold off much of the equipment that collateralized the note they’d carried back and weren’t too happy about it. “What did they say?” I asked.

“What the hell could they say?” he said. That’s pretty much all I know about that part, but that's another story.

His competitors were nearly all people like him, small operators who did well when the housing market was good, and scraped by when it wasn’t. One of his competitors was the Sierraville Lumber Company, owned by a man named Dick Barrington. He was a Chief of the Washoe Indian tribe and had been a classmate of Jim Thorpe, the Olympic gold medalist and pro football star, at Carlisle.

In 1960, my father made a deal to buy the Sierraville Lumber Company and I went with him to Mr. Barrington’s office. My father left to go do something and I was alone in the office with Mr. Barrington. He was fat like my father (“not fat, just prosperous-looking,” was how my father described it), with wrinkled, nut-brown skin, a stained fedora hat and a cigar that wasn’t lit.

He was as kind as Santa Claus and told me some stories I wish I still remembered. He spoke in that soothing diction so many Indians have, breathy, with R’s sometimes truncated, sometimes elongated. “Your father and I were young men together,” he said.

At twelve, I kind of did the math. My father had been born in 1903. Jim Thorpe won his medals at the 1912 Olympics. Mr. Barrington, then, had to have been quite a bit older than my father, who had always seemed very old to me. I didn’t know what Mr. Barrington meant when he said he and my father were young men together, but he meant something. I told my father about this later and he didn’t say anything.

Mr. Barrington also said the Washoes were filing a $5 million lawsuit against America for taking Lake Tahoe away from them. “We won’t get the five million, but we’ll get something,” he said. Later, we stopped by his house to get some papers or something. My father and I couldn’t go inside because Mrs. Barrington didn’t like white people.

In those days, the value of a lumber company wasn’t in the sawmills or retained earnings or any of that. It was in its timber holdings. The Forest Service would auction off a tract of timber, and the successful bidder could buy it by paying ten percent down and the balance when it was cut, which would be several years later. By then, it would have appreciated so much that it was often just as profitable to sell the timber as it was to cut it into lumber, which was a more volatile market.

My father wanted the Sierraville Lumber Company because it had some timber under contract. Occasionally, some companies had timber holdings that were actually on fee property. The Sierraville Lumber Company had one such piece of 140 acres called the Ladies Canyon Mine. “It’s got gold on it,” Mr. Barrington said. He always had a slight smile when he talked. I wondered why he was selling it if it had gold on it but didn’t want to ask.

I was fourteen in 1962 and my first job was running timber lines. I’d assist the surveyor in locating the boundaries of the tracts to be eventually logged. It could be very hard work, because the boundaries often ran at very steep verticals through thick Manzanita brush. But if you liked being outside, it was pretty good, and since my father’s company was unionized, they had to pay me scale.

The surveyor’s name was Chuck Swanson and we set out one day to survey the Ladies Canyon property. Chuck hardly ever talked and his pickup smelled like vinyl and coffee. We drove through Sierra City and found the road to the property. It was less than a scratch on the map and not much more on the ground, twisting and winding and thumping to, perhaps, the 6,500-foot elevation where the property was.

It was used as a deer hunting camp by some locals, and they’d nailed some boards between some trees for a table or counter and had scraped off a spot for campfires. The area of the camp was, maybe, thirty by forty feet and was the only flat part of the property. You could see where the mine was because there was a huge tailings pile behind a mound. A small pipe ran out of the other side of the mound with spring water flowing out. I was thirsty and it felt like drinking a glacier.

Chuck loved finding section corner monuments. Rather, he loved looking for them. He’d look at his maps, then in the general direction of where the monument was supposed to be and would take off in a frenzy. I had to stay behind with the stick, so I could hold the stick when he looked through his surveyor’s scope.

The monuments were gone half the time, so I’d be left to my own devices until he could figure something out. I wandered around and looked for deer or squirrels. The bark on the Sugar Pine trees was thick and pitchy. It was hot and the earthy smell of sun on pine needles rose from the ground. I found a ridge and thought I could pretty much see forever. A creek gushed near the edge of the campground and I followed it downhill for a stretch. It twisted into a pool maybe five feet in diameter and six feet deep and I could see small brook trout darting around.

My father eventually logged the property. I returned there later on a day trip with my brother-in-law to scout it out for camping and it looked pretty much as it did the first time I saw it, except for a few slash piles. We saw a timber rattler and I shot it with a .22 rifle.

The family used it for camping over the years. On one occasion, my wife and my brother took our three children, his three and my sister’s two on a three-day camping expedition. He was between wives but that’s another story. Near the camp area, we ran into a bunch of men with old pickup trucks along the creek. The men seemed to be panning for gold. One of the pickups had a bumper sticker that said, “The Only Way They’ll Get My Gun Is If They Pry It From My Cold, Dead Fingers.” The men all wore pistols.

My brother and I debated whether or not we should evict the men but opted instead to ask them if it was all right if we camped there. “This is our land.” My brother noted.

One of them men scowled at us. “I knew this was gonna be trouble,” he said, and started kicking at the ground, his hands in his hip pockets. He looked at his friends, kicked the ground some more, looked at our camp trailer and looked at the kids and decided it would all right if we camped. The tailings pile was gone.

Our daughter was five, one son almost four, our youngest two, and they slept in the trailer with their uncle while my wife and I slept outside because you could see the Milky Way ribboning over the trees. Occasional meteors arced and disappeared. The rest of the children were a few years older than ours and got to sleep in the tent and be bad or at least think about being bad and tell each other scary stories and roast marshmallows.

When it got dark, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. A scant orange glow bled through the gray ash of the campfire and all you could hear was the soft rush complete stillness makes. The noise that erupted after midnight near the area where our food and gear were stored snapped my wife and me awake.

She flashed a light towards the noise and saw some reddish movement darting in and out of the light. “It’s a chicken!” she said. I had my doubts. Chickens weren’t exactly plentiful in the Sierra Buttes, and my first thought was the guy with the pistol who said there’d be trouble. I pulled myself out of my sleeping bag, took the flashlight and made my way carefully though the dark to get a closer look.

I switched on the flashlight, and as though he were the star performer in a music hall suddenly in the spotlight, a bear stared back at me. I think I yelled something, because he stood up on his back legs and glowered in my direction.

Now, a zillion things go through your mind in such a situation. Flight was not an option. Fear for the children in the tent loomed large. All the ways of getting rid of bears that were not at your disposal flicker in and out of your mind. We had a .22 rifle somewhere, but even if it were loaded, which it wasn’t, it would not have been of much use against a bear.

I awakened my brother in the trailer, thinking two heads were better than one. Some of the children in the tent had awakened and were peeking out and we told them to stay in the tent, which, of course, they didn’t do. After pondering the situation for several seconds, my brother picked up a rock and heaved it at the bear. This sounded like the only possible option, so I began tossing rocks at the bear as well.

When you can’t see, your aim tends not to be very good, and the rocks hit everything except the bear. The ice chest. The picnic table. The trees. The Coleman stove. Finally, a fusillade of stones seemed to thunk instead of clang. The bear shook himself and ambled back into the woods. He had eaten our chocolate chip cookies, though.

I didn’t know it then, but the bear, in his own way, presaged the end of the story.

Over the years, generations of family camped there and loved it. But the 1990s came along and it became necessary to dispose of the few remaining family assets, including Ladies Canyon.

Our first thought was to have it appraised for its timber. But there wasn’t really all that much when my father had logged it almost thirty years before. Besides, it felt like such a desecration. We thought we’d try to sell it instead.

I don’t recall what it appraised for, but it wasn’t very much. That a piece of ground which had given us so much pleasure and so many stories over the years should be worth so little was, well, sobering, to say the least. The good part was that it made us reflect on the difference between worth and value.

We decided to donate the property. We discussed various charities who might be interested, and settled on the Boy Scouts. The Scouts owned property at Gold Lake, not too far away, and would be able to manage it.

But one of my nephews, whose raging environmental activism had been ignited by his once being an Eagle Scout, argued passionately against this proposition. He’d recently come out as a gay man and had very little use for the Boy Scouts. We took them off the table.

In the end, I remembered Mr. Barrington and got the idea of giving it back to the Washoe Tribe. My brother approached the Washoes, and they were ecstatic. All of their traditional alpine land had been taken from them. I wondered how Dick Barrington’s lawsuit over Lake Tahoe had turned out but didn’t ask.

It took more than a year for the federal and tribal bureaucracy to work things out, but we deeded the property to the tribe. We had a handshake agreement with the Chief that our family could still camp there whenever we wanted, which was fine with him.

The Chief told us the tribe would be honoring us with a Bear Ceremony and I wondered if the bear who had wandered into camp so long ago would be back or if he’d have anything to do with the ceremony.

More than a year passed. I was living in San Francisco by then and I thought to ask my brother if he’d heard anything about the Bear Ceremony. He called tribal headquarters in Gardnerville and learned that the Chief was in the penitentiary for something or other, and they’d let us know when he got out.

All of which was only fitting, I suppose. That bear had disappeared into the night, and nearly twenty years later, we needed for him to come back out.

And we're still waiting.






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