On my trip out to California, my flight arrived in Reno late in the day. Notwithstanding the time distance in my favor, the experience at the airport was a bit unsettling. First of all, from the minute I exited the plane I was never more than a few feet from a slot machine. I can understand gambling at casinos but at the airline arrival gates? It was Reno but slots on the way to the men’s room?
The ride to Downieville was easy. The traffic out of Reno during rush hour was not the Long Island Expressway, that is it didn’t seem like much traffic at all. The exit into the valley was like an off ramp to the wilderness. I opened the windows in my rental car to take in the fresh mountain air. With Frank Sinatra on the Sirius radio I was in heaven. Cruising along with one eye on the GPS the time seemed to pass quickly as I headed to my accommodations at The Lure.
The Lure is not a hotel but a scenic arrangement of cabins along the Yuba River. I found my cabin attractive and well-furnished and looked forward to falling into bed. My first surprise was when I read in the list of Lure details and learned there was no wifi or cell service at the site. I sat myself down on the sofa and took a deep breath. Was this good or bad I thought to myself. Good—no one to bother me. Bad– withdrawal from life as I know it? I would deal with the issue in the morning. I live by an Apple watch and I phone. I went ahead and plugged all my gadgets into power, ready for whatever was to come in the morning. I was scheduled to meet Bill Copren for breakfast at Bassetts, a diner-service station about 45 minutes north on Route 49, followed by a day of fishing. Without cell service I had no GPS. Oh well, I would find the place as Ali had given me brief directions.
Of course, I set my travel alarm for 7:00 am forgetting that it was 2 hours earlier. In fact I arose without an alarm, at 5:30 a.m. Eastern time. The cabin came with a coffee maker but no groceries. Despite Ali’s admonishment that she outfit the cabin in advance of my arrival with basics, I, the big shot, told her I would handle groceries when I arrived. Of course, I didn’t realize the grocery store was in the opposite direction of Bassetts. I arrived at Bassetts before it opened at 8:00am and waited for someone to open the door. As soon as the “closed” sign was turned to “open” I stumbled in, in search of my first coffee of the day. Whoa am I addicted! Bill soon showed up and we sat together chatting about fishing and catching. I repeatedly told him I came to fish and catching was extra. I don’t think he bought my line. We left together in his truck to Gold Lake, off Route 49 in the mountains. Bill explained that Gold Lake got its name from the rumors that spread during the gold rush years, that there were massive deposits of the yellow ore beneath the lake floor. It drew hundreds of hopefuls but the rumors proved to be just that.
We approached the lake through a magnificent row of fir trees pruned by nature to form a canopy over our path. As we parked and pulled on our waders, we noticed an elderly couple – as a cohort I know how to define elderly—carefully rowing off into the middle of the lake. The sun beamed overhead between the high clouds, the sky pierced with contrails of passing jets. The woods teemed with life, including some busy blue jays hunting for breakfast. It was a peaceful, idyllic scene.
Bill and I waded chest deep into the water. The cold penetrated my feet and the shock was refreshing. The air temperature was in the 50’s and the water no more than 45 degrees per Bill’s reading. We were the only fishermen for some reason. After a while with no takes, Bill decided we should go to Mallard Cove at Davis Lake. Still no takes, but our time together was grand – a fishing and history lesson. Bill was a meticulous fly tier and we used the flies he had personally tied. The next day we traveled a distance to the Little Truckee River, where I went in barefoot in my wading boots. The water was icy cold and I cast with a 5-weight rod that allowed for a terrific drift. There was no action, but the stream was a delightful soft run of casual water that I am certain on the right day held lots of brook trout.
My time with Bill was a wonderful opportunity to not only hear but experience the history of the High Sierras. Bassett Station, where we met for breakfast, was a way station, since the 1850s, where horses were changed when pulling wagons over and through the Yuba Pass. Bill explained how a gold miner from Connecticut named AP Chapman discovered the valley in the 1800s and after a successful run of mining brought his family west to settle there permanently. He was the largest landowner in the area and is considered the founder of the Valley. In 1859 the Comstock Lode was discovered in Virginia City, Nevada and the miners abandoned the Downieville area.
There are still a few local gold mines, but not like they were in the heyday of the ‘49ers. The old mining towns exist today as Downieville, Sierra City, and many others. The rich history of the area is preserved by people like Carl and Bill, who keep it alive through word of mouth and through The Mountain Messenger – a nostalgic tribute to a wonderful pocket of American history.