Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In the Path of Past Misfortune and Tragedy at Donner Memorial State Park

Date: September 4, 2016
Place: Donner Memorial State Park, Truckee, California
Coordinates: 39.318700, -120.231365
Length: 5 miles
Level: easy to moderate

On the second day of our Labor Day weekend camping trip we were going back to Donner Memorial State Park to hike the Donner Memorial Loop Trail, that for a short distance was going in the path of the Donner Party. I had promised the chikas and their friend that after the hike we will go kayaking at the lake and they were all excited and eager to go.
At the trailhead
Following the instructions of the park's entrance booth attendant we drove out and around the eastern park's boundary and found parking on the dirt road just outside the park, behind the campground. A packed gravel road continued beyond the pavement, leading to the hiking trail, following for a couple of miles the path of the inner Party. I herded everyone and we started walking.
Our hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS

In 1846 a party of settlers let by George Donner and James Reed set out from Illinois to California. In consequence of some ill-fated route and timing decisions, and beleaguered by internal conflicts and shortage of supplies, the party got to the Eastern Sierra late in fall and were trapped by snow storms, from November 1846 to February 1847. Suffering cold and famine, and unwillingness to cooperate and share whatever resources they had, many of the party members had perished, the survivors resorting to cannibalism, eating the dead in order to live.
None of those gloomy thoughts were on my mind when we started our hike - I was focused on getting everyone into a decent pace, reminding the children that they'd want some time left for kayaking after the hike.
But then again, I had to stop when I saw some bloom along the way. One of the very few plants that were blooming still.
Gumweed, Grindelia sp. 
A narrow foot trail splits from the gravel road to the left. We turned onto that trail and immediately started ascending.

The slope was mild but was enough to slow us down somewhat. Slowing down also gave me the opportunity to look around some more.
Like the hike of yesterday, the forest had the feel of pausing between the seasons. It was summer-hot, but it felt like summer has already been exhausted. But fall hasn't descended yet. In terms of flowers, there wasn't really anything to see. As for wildlife, only lizards were out and about, and they wouldn't stay put.
At least the interesting rocks remained in their places.
Did George Donner see his rock? 
A quick movement in the trees - and Papa Quail had his camera trained. A little chipmunk sat in the tree, munching away at a pine nut.
Yellow-pine Chipmunk
After some slow ascend through a loose pine forest we came into view of the creek. There wasn't much of a water flow at the time we looked upon it but I could tell by the distance of the trees near it that it can and probably does see quite a high flow on a regular basis. 
Cold Creek
After walking for some time above the creek we started a slow descent to the valley. The creek too seemed to rise up to meet us, its water flowing down and away eastward.
The tweets of birds were in the trees but it was only Papa Quail's sharp eyes that detected them, especially the little brown bird that was creeping up a trunk only to fly off to the bottom of another one and start creeping back up all over again.
Brown Creeper
We met with the creek and little chika went to the water to rinse her hands. I thought it strange that the trees nearest to the creek were dead and I wondered if they had fallen prey to the boring beetle or to another pest's attack.

One ailment at least came directly from people. An old barb wire was wrapped around some of the tree trunks along the path. That fence, now useless, was put up a long time ago. Long enough for the living trees to glow around the wire. Some more years in the future and only a hairline scar would remain as evidence of the wire buried within the living tree.
Healing Powers
The creek soon disappeared between behind trees and the path continued on westward, now more in the open. More undergrowth was decorating the trailside, many of which were annuals already gone to seeds.
A weed of the Brassica family that looks pretty after seed spreading
Eventually we got out of the woods and were walking out in the open. I knew there were lakes ahead and I kept looking for them. Meanwhile we enjoyed the warm sun and the blossom of the rabbitbrush bushes that still bloomed here and there.
Rubber Rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa
The line of trees continued to our left. Pappa Quail gave the trees quite a bit of attention. It was worth it.
Clark's Nutcracker
Then we came upon the first lake. It wasn't all that obvious -- the water level was low and the vegetation hid most of the water surface. We had to leave the main trail and walk a bit off to the right to have a good view of the lake's area.

Not all that impressed I was ready to get back on the trail and move on, but the rattle of rail wheels grabbed my attention. Looking up to the north I noticed a train moving high above us on the hillside, its colorful cars flashing through gaps between the trees. The train disappeared into a whole in the mountain - a tunnel dug through the granite. I don't know if that was one of the old railroad tunnels dug by the Chinese workforce in the 19th century, or rather a new one, more recently cut.Either way I stood there, fascinated, until the last of the cars vanished into blackness.

We moved on to the second lake. One of the lizards on our way was kind enough to hang around for a few seconds, enough for a photo.
Western Fence Lizard
The second lake was more lake-like: bigger, and fuller. It was there, on the grassy lake shore that we sat down for our first real break. The chikas and their friend went to play by the water, Pappa Quail kept looking for birds in the trees, and me and my friend basked in the sunshine on the grass.

Eventually it was the chikas and their friend who reminded us that there was still kayaking planned for that day. Reluctantly, I pulled myself to a more vertical position. It took a few long minutes until everyone was ready to move on.

The trail started going up once more. By the time we arrived at the western shore and the place where our trail curved back eastward and back we were once again high above the lake.

The trail back was the Donner Memorial Trail - that wind and convenient packed gravel road. On the north, the mountainside towered over us, densely forested with what a appeared to be mostly pines. There were pines on the south side of the trail too, but the slope dropped sharply down so we saw only the tops of their canopies. All save for the closest band f trees that lined the trail side.  And their cones were fully grown now, ready to go into quiescence for the winter. and pop open when time comes.

For a good distance the trail was level, not showing any signs of going down. At some point we could here the son hum of distant engines. It was coming from behind us, and it was getting stronger and louder quickly. Our little group was already very spread out, but I called whoever was near me to stay to the side. within seconds a dirt motorbike passed us in great speed, raising a big cloud of dust. Less than a minute behind him came another, and that one made a point of rising on the bikes rear wheel and riding like that for a hundred yards or so before going back on two wheels. A show for us, no doubt. A third biker came from behind a minute later and passed us with no special display, save for raising more dust.
Ripping the trail
They came no more. It took a while for the dust to settle down. We didn't wait, of course, but kept pressing on in the wake of the bikers, walking briskly until the slope started descending for real. Then everyone else broke into a gallop, leaving me to bring up the rear.
By the time I made it all the way down and joined the rest Pappa Quail had another bird documented in the trees.
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Just before the final descent and the turn of the trail back northward I turned around and looked at the eastern, shallow lake. There were trees and vegetation still green all around, but all the they were all waiting. The annuals were dry and the soil was parched and crumbling. It was waiting too. Waiting to the rains and snow. Waiting for the water to revive and renew. Waiting for the winter to come, and this time for real.

It was in the path the Donner Party had walked that we were hiking. It was warm and beautiful, and no memory had remained in the land of the strife of those early settlers, and of their horrific tale. None whatsoever, except for the in people's written history. Many places in the area are named after Donner, including the park we were hiking in. A fine reward for Donner's fine leadership skills ...
The Fateful Donner Party was caught by snow early in November. This year winter had arrived earlier. Not long after our visit at Donner Memorial Park the rains had begun, quickly turning into snow. I am writing this post in January of 2017, and as of this date the snowfall had been heavy and packed high. I cannot wait to see how spring and summer would look like this year. I think it will be wonderful.


  1. The title of this post was quite scary...

    Lucky the hike itself wasn't like that (except maybe for the motorbikes)

    1. I didn't think about that ... I meant the tragedy of the Donner Party, of course. I'd better edit the title. Thanks for pointing it out.