Hell Is That Rock
Copyright © 2010
by Richard S. Platz, All
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Jamison Lake, Rock Lake, Wades Lake, and Grass Lake
Lakes Basin Recreation Area
Plumas National Forest
September 15-18, 2009
Photos by the
Author and Barbara Lane Except Where Noted
" Not one pebble. Not a single grain."
Granite. I believed that we were climbing up a
mountain built of granite. Off the alabaster domes and varnished
spires above us glinted sunlight. Even as it would have glinted
from the granite bones exposed atop the Trinity Alps, our local
stomping ground. Granite it looked like, so granite it must
Days would pass before I learned the truth.
Geology has been of interest to me. Not the erudite,
test score, academic sort. Not chemical formulae. Not classroom
rote or parsing names that cannot be pronounced. No, I long
for Big Picture Geology. The stuff the Big Ranger would tell
you with the wave of the hand and a grin. I wanted the wilderness,
kick-rock, shoe-scuffing sort that made me ask, "Just what
the devil are those friggin' rocks?" And "Why?"
You see, geology is like astronomy. It lets you
see the Big Picture. The picture in which our petty lives are
swallowed whole by monstrous insignificance. Where we are forced
to look a billion years or more before to see the continents
adrift and crawly things emerge upon the land. Or out onto a
hundred billion galaxies with each a hundred billion
stars. I like that. I like knowing I am out here on my own,
a fluke of some primordial, chaotic, and utterly meaningless
accident, where no personal god is perched upon my shoulder
burbling some ineffable intent. In short, I like to face the
And the truth is, we did not know where we might
go backpacking last September. We had already completed two
expeditions, both of which we ranked as strenuous. For senior
citizens, anyway. What we needed was an easy, level hike to
a nearby lake or two without the noisy crowds. Impossible in
summer, when children are released from school and families
overrun all that's holy within strolling distance of a parking
lot. But we had passed the midpoint of the month. The solstice
lay a week ahead. All children had been safely locked again
in school. Their parents shuffled back to work. Wild and scenic
lands were once again the playground of retired elders.
In the northern Sierra Nevada the Lakes Basin
Recreation Area caught our eye. It had been on our list for
awhile. In fact, we had considered going there in June, but
phone calls to local ranger stations had advised us of a woeful
Spring for mosquitoes. Gold Lake lies within the Plumas National
Forest. Adjacent to the south, beyond a ridge traversed by the
Pacific Crest Trail, lies the Tahoe National Forest, the Sierra
Buttes, and the Sardine Lakes. The lakes have abundant drive-in
campgrounds accessed from the highway linking Graeagle and Sierra
City. Easy access, however, spoils the wilderness.
The Plumas and Tahoe National Forests wrestle
with the fundamental conflict between preservation of the wilderness
and satisfying the demands of the rootin'-tootin' cowboy recreational
off-road vehicle crowd. Unfortunately, the dark side holds an
edge so far. Maps of the Gold Lake Recreation Area are laced
with an astonishing maze of off-road vehicle trails and roads,
rendering three-quarters of the landscape unfit for the backpacker,
the peace-loving, and those in search of tranquility.
A case in point. In June of 1993, a year of late
and lingering snow, Barbara and I had backpacked up the Second
Divide Trail along Pauley Creek, north of Downieville and just
southwest of Gold Lake. We had threaded our way through poison
oak and found a flat spot for our tent just before the sky opened
up with rain. The next morning the sky had cleared, and we pushed
on toward Gold Lake, until our pristine hiking trail evolved
into a four-wheel-drive jeep road. All the air was sucked out
of the wilderness by a high-clearance pickup thumping country
music and rattling empty beer cans in its bed.
But north of Gold Lake the map showed a series
of little lakes accessed by foot trails only. Vehicles were
not permitted. A half mile hike would take us to the nearest
lake. We could then circle through the others as the whim struck
us and camp where we would. Or so it appeared, until I phoned
the ranger station in Graeagle. Backpacking, the ranger said,
is allowed at only five of the myriad lakes, all in the vicinity
of Little Jamison Creek. The best access was from the Jamison
Mine trailhead in the Plumas Eureka State Park. (The "Eureka"
comes from nearby Eureka Peak, where prospectors first found
gold in a vein of quartz in 1851.)
five new roadless alpine lakes made tempting destinations. So
it was decided. We planned to sleep the first night in the van
at the State Park. Bright and early the next morning we would
hike up Little Jamison Creek, past Grass Lake, to Jamison Lake.
The trail distance was less than four miles. The altitude gain
to Jamison Lake was about 1000 feet, with more than half the
gain in the first mile. If the going got tough we figured we
could camp the first night at Grass Lake. Ensuing days might
allow a visit to nearby Rock and Wades Lakes. A whole new world
Sunday morning we packed the van and headed east
on Highway 299. The sky was partly cloudy and the air cool and
unseasonably mild for mid-September. The weather report advised
of scattered showers and thunderstorms the next few days. At
the Straw Bale House in Big Bar we ate our lunch outdoors, then
bought sandwiches in Weaverville to simplify supper.
In the early afternoon we entered Lassen National
Park without paying a fee, courtesy of my Golden Age Passport.
As we motored up to the Summit Lake campgrounds, the wind blew
hard from the south, portending foul weather. We chose the South
Campground, at elevation 6700 feet, because the forest at our
backs would block the wind. The afternoon grew overcast, cold,
and blustery. The campground was surprisingly empty. Only a
few brave campers, mostly in big RVs, scattered themselves throughout
the loops. We found a fine campsite beside a meadow at the lake's
southeast corner near a boardwalk that crossed the dry outlet
stream. Strong winds buffeted us from the south. Counterclockwise
we managed a breezy stroll around the lake, then built a fire
with wood we brought from home, and ate our sandwiches.
The campsite next to ours was posted reserved
for that night. We thought the weather would scare the campers
off, but toward dusk a car pulled up and a young couple from
Calgary set up their tent in the gloaming. As the temperature
dropped with the sun, we were glad to be off the ground in the
van. We huddled over the fire until it grew dark. Before bedtime
the sky cleared, and we saw stars. Sometime after midnight,
however, we heard the tat-tat-tatting of large drips on the
roof. The needles of the overhanging red firs and white and
lodgepole pines caught the foggy mist and coalesced it into
droplets for the thirsty roots.
Monday we awoke to a steady cold drizzle and
fog, but managed to rekindle a small warming fire as we drank
our tea and mocha. The campground, fairly empty to begin with,
had grown even emptier in the night. The campers next to us
had already vanished. We ate a simple breakfast under the trees
to stay dry.
We turned on the heater as we motored through
the fog over the 8500-foot summit. The trail to Lassen Peak
was closed due to a rock slide 1.3 miles up the trail. The sun
peeked out as we descended through the clouds, so we stopped
to enjoy the Sulphur Works and the new visitor center at the
site of the old chalet near the walk-in campground before leaving
the park through the southern entrance.
At Chester we replenished our firewood and ate
a hearty second breakfast. Then we followed Indian Creek down
to the Feather River and turned left on Highway 70, through
Quincy, to the Mohawk Valley. We followed Highway 89 south a
mile to Graeagle, where we turned west on County Road 506 to
the Plumas Eureka State Park. The campground and museum were
closed. Bummer. Our plans for camping there that night were
We drove on into the park anyway to take a look
at the Little Jamison Creek Trailhead (N 39 44' 31.7",
W 120 42' 04.5", 5280 feet), which was located at the historical
site of the Jamison Mine. Old wooden houses, mining structures,
and a mine shaft filled with water were scattered like abandoned
monopoly pieces through the tall open forest of incense cedar,
Jeffery pine, and fir. We crossed a foot bridge over Jamison
Creek to the closed campground, contemplating camping there
or back near the trailhead. Nasty signs had been nailed to trees
announcing that fires were prohibited except in developed campsites.
Unfortunately, all the developed campsites were closed. We found
no fire rings at the trailhead across the bridge. What to do?
With a cold night forecast, we dearly craved
a campfire. Irritated, I cell-phoned a Forest Service ranger
in Blairsden and asked where the nearest open campground might
be. He was surprised to hear that the state park had closed
so early in the season, and we agreed that it probably had to
do with California's fiscal woes. Friendly and sympathetic,
the ranger suggested that we try camping the night at either
the Lakes Basin or Gold Lakes campgrounds, both of which were
under federal jurisdiction and still open. Either would be a
mere twenty-minute drive back to the trailhead the following
With trepidation we abandoned the Jamison Creek
drainage and motored to the Lakes Basin Campground on the far
side of a high ridge, crowned by looming Mount Elwell. We were
surprised and mollified to find how few souls were encamped
at the usually teeming campground. We attributed our good fortune
to the lateness of the season, our mid-week timing, and the
forecast of a serious cold snap.
On a gentle tributary of Gray Eagle Creek, amid
the stone foundations and archeological ruins of a resort abandoned
in 1977, we found a fine campsite (#13) on a loop not recommended
for large RV's or trailers. There were even stone steps leading
down to a tranquil wide place on the creek, an old swimming
pool. The altitude was 6200 feet. We built a warming fire with
the firewood we purchased in Chester, then hiked down the trail
a half mile to Grassy Lake. Late that evening firefighters in
a Forest Service fire truck crept past looking for a spot to
spread out their bedding for the night, but they did not camp
near us. No one did. That night the temperature dropped to the
Tuesday morning we stuffed our backpacks at the
campsite, ate oatmeal, banana chips, and dried fruit, then drove
back through the Plumas-Eureka State Park to the trailhead on
Little Jamison Creek. There were only two vehicles besides ours
in the parking lot. Two couples of elderly dayhikers were preparing
to trek in.
As we were closing up the van, a maintenance
ranger driving a nifty John Deere off-road six-wheeler crossed
the footbridge from the closed campground, and I waved him down.
He recommended Wades Lake as his first choice, if we wanted
privacy. When I asked about fire restrictions, he shrugged and
told us a small campfire would be okay at the higher lakes.
Either he had failed to read the recent fire restrictions, or
in his heart he bore the spirit of the Big Ranger. I like to
believe the latter.
other groups arrived while we were readying our packs and chatting
with the ranger. Both wore daypacks. One group started hiking
before us, but we passed them as they stopped along the way.
The trail wound through unfolding remnants of abandoned mining
structures, shops, and houses, then climbed steeply up the east
bank of the creek. On the steep portion of the trail within
the state park trail crews had constructed hundreds of stone
steps. The climb up the stairway was annoying because erosion
had made many of the bottom steps much too high and a strain
on the knees. The dayhikers passed us as we slowly struggled
up the intermittent staircase. Halfway up we stopped to admire
the creek's 30-foot waterfall. In three-quarters of a mile,
just before emerging from state park into the National Forest,
we arrived at a trail junction. The sign pointed left a mile
uphill to Smith Lake, the only other lake in the area to allow
backpacking. We continued on toward Grass Lake, a half-mile
ahead, and Jamison Lake another two miles beyond that.
the time we arrived at Grass Lake we had already climbed 600
feet and wanted to take off our packs for a breather. Dayhikers
had commandeered what looked to be the only campsite near the
outlet, so we tramped on around the half-mile-long lake, looking
for a place to stop. At mid-lake we found sitting rocks on a
rugged slope above a poor campsite hidden in the shoreline reeds
and grass. Grass Lake was large and appeared swimmable, if you
could fight your way down to the water. The day was warm and
windy as we ate lunch. In the distance, just visible above the
trees, we could make out the gleaming slickrock massif that
impounded the upper lakes.
No other campsite appeared until we reached the
rocky south shore. "Do you want to spend the night here?"
I asked Barbara. "Or go on to Jamison?"
She looked around. It was not a pretty spot.
The lake was shallow and the shoreline choked with brush. We
could see neither a level tent site nor a fire ring. She adjusted
her shoulder straps. "Let keep on going. It's still early
and we can take it slow."
The trail wound west and even hooked north for
a bit, opposite the direction we wanted to go. We crossed rushing
Little Jamison Creek on big rocks, then turned south again to
climb up a wooded moraine along the west bank. The climb was
steady and steep until we finally arrived at a fork and trail
junction sign. Wades to the right. Jamison to the left.
"Wades or Jamison?" I asked.
"What do you think?"
"We haven't seen anybody else backpacking."
"And there weren't any cars at the trailhead.
Except for dayhikers." Barbara considered. "It looks
like Jamison might be empty."
So we took the left fork toward Jamison Lake.
We climbed through the thinning forest and finally emerged at
the foot of a slickrock dome, cream-white and unblemished. It
looked like granite. The
trail grew difficult as it wound through gleaming boulders in
a sea of manzanita. Here and there a vagrant pine or fir had
planted a roothold in a rocky crevice and grown to fifty feet.
The beauty was stunning.
The well-maintained gravel trail rose steadily,
skirting rounded outcropping after rounded outcropping, winding
through boulders, climbing ever upward toward the stark valley
that would hold Jamison Lake. In the afternoon sun the climb
seemed long and wearying. At last the trail T-boned into another
path circling the base of the exposed white massif. A metal
sign pointed right to Wades Lake in another mile, and left to
Jamison in a half mile. We turned left.
The trail rose more gently
through the smooth round rock as we attained the floor of a
bedrock valley leading to the southeast. We began looking for
the lake, but it was impossible to see beyond the boulders,
domes, and ridges ahead. Abruptly we arrived at another metal
sign, pointing right into a forest of manzanita, that read,
"Jamison Lake 50 Yards." So close, but we could still
not see the lake.
up our backpacks for the final assault, we pushed through the
manzanita along the narrow gravel path that ended at a rock
ledge. Our choices were two: to scramble down the steep bank
into the creek gurgling in the shadows below, or climb up the
slickrock ledge into the sunlight. There was nowhere else to
go. So cautiously we climbed the steep ledge and found ourselves
at last on top. Not much grew on the rock. Just beyond a rudimentary
campsite with a fire ring stacked on the expanse of bedrock,
we caught our first glimpse of the southern tip of Jamison Lake
glittering in its stone bowl below. Close to shore a few broken
snags of long-dead trees stuck eerily out of the sky-blue water.
Continuing down the ledge, we again found the
trail where it dropped through the grass and duff to the forested
shoreline. Two backpacks leaned against a tree, almost blocking
the trail. Ahead on a rocky peninsula that jutted into lake,
two figures lounged. A man and a woman. They had just beaten
us to the main campsite.
"Bummer," I said, wilting a bit. "Let's
go down and ask'em if they're planning to spend the night."
We both knew that they were.
"You go on," Barbara said. "I'll
stay here. Back at that campsite."
So we trudged back up the ledge and took off
our packs, leaning them against the wall of a large boulder.
Barbara sat on a log in the shade of a Jeffery pine, and I headed
back down the slope.
"Hello," I called out as I approached
along the shore. "Are you planning to spend the night?"
"Yes," the young man responded. They
did not seem particularly pleased to see me.
"Have you seen any other good campsites
along this side?" I asked, closing in.
"Nothing really beyond this peninsula,"
he said. "The trail kind of peters out on the other side
of these rocks. But I heard there are some good campsites up
at Rock Lake. We're planning to move up there tomorrow night."
"Which way did you come in?"
"From Gray Eagle Lodge. Came down from the
Pacific Crest Trail. Through Wades Lake. There was no one there.
"I think I'll take a look around,"
I said. I cut over a rise at the base of the peninsula and dropped
down into the brush. He was right. The trail petered out at
the shore. As I headed back I found a second good campsite just
over the knoll inland from theirs. Problem was it was only fifty
I confronted him again. "There's a fine
campsite right over there. Would it bother you if we took it?
We're pretty quiet."
"We're not," he snapped, and turned
his back. And that statement proved to be true.
Barbara was ready to stay at the rough campsite
on the exposed rock. We were both tired, and she had enough
lugging of a backpack for the day. But I talked her into looking
for the good campsites at Rock Lake. The map showed it no more
than another quarter mile further.
So we reloaded our backpacks, slid down the ledge
to the path through the manzanita, and when we reached the main
trail again, turned right. Almost immediately we came to the
creek flowing out of Jamison Lake. The main gravel trail seemed
to turn south and follow the west bank of the creek, but a spur
dropped down to the creek. That seemed the right direction to
go, but the spur looked like it dead-ended in a tangle of willows
on the far bank. Maybe it was just a water access for the big
horse camp across the trail, where a fire ring in a clearing
was surrounded by stout trees. Probably for horsemen that could
not take their stock over the rock ledge to the lake. Or for
latecomers on a crowded weekend.
So we continued south along the main trail another
two hundred yards, looking for a more prominent crossing. The
problem was, the trail and creek were dropping while the ridge
on the other side was rising.
"This isn't right," I said as the trail
plunged more steeply into a shady grove ahead. "Rock Lake's
on the other side of the creek. I think we're lost."
"Look," Barbara said, "There's
a fire ring. This looks like a good campsite." Sure enough,
we had stumbled onto a lost campsite right beside the creek
in a copse of lodgepole pine, Jeffrey pine, white and red fir.
It was littered with fallen branches and had not been recently
used, but not bad. We helped each other off with the backpacks.
"I'm going to try and get a bearing on Rock
Lake," I said, unzipping a pocket and pulling the GPS out
of my pack. Unburdened by my backpack, I traipsed back up the
trail as lightly as Fred Astaire. In a sunny clearing, I sat
on a boulder and tried to connect with the satellites beyond
the massif. I had written the coordinates for Rock Lake on a
piece of paper and now entered them into the GPS. In a while
the "go to" arrow pointed to the ridge straight across
the creek. Two tenths of a mile away. I walked a little further,
climbed down the shunned spur trail, and crossed the creek on
large, well-placed rocks. Through the willows on the far side
I discovered a well-used, but overgrown trail angling up the
slope to the right. I pushed through the encroaching leaves
and branches far enough to emerge on a fine trail that continued,
I presumed, up to Rock Lake.
I returned to find Barbara. "I found the
trail. We should have crossed the creek."
But Barbara was in no mood to carry her backpack
another step, particularly on a wild-goose chase. Besides,
she liked the stream-side camp just fine. The gurgling of the
creek was soothing. So we agreed to camp right there
(N 39 42' 50.5", W 120 42' 04.9", 6285 feet) The tent
site was a little steep, but would work. As we set up the tent
and hung the hammocks, we broke out the amaretto. By the time
I had finished modifying the fire ring for our grill, the alcohol
was working its magic. I felt truly fine.
Barbara heated water to cook our freeze-dried dinner, I hurried
back to the spur trail, crossed the creek, and pushed my way
through the willows to see if the path really led up to the
lake. In ten minutes I arrived at a pleasant wooded campsite
above the south end of Rock Lake (N 39 42' 48.5", W 120
41' 56.5", 6302 feet). The water lay twenty feet below
its high water mark, exposing a bowl of gravel and painted rock
beneath rough, red, crenelated cliffs. In the distance to the
north the world fell away toward the Mohawk Valley. It was a
splendid spot, but I had no time to linger. A hot dinner awaited
After we washed our dishes, Barbara accompanied
me to Rock Lake just as the sun was setting behind the western
ridge. From the saddle dividing the two lakes we could see long,
narrow Jamison Lake stretching north in its stone bowl. A small
narrow island split the middle of the lake like a cleaver. Sporadic
broken trees stood in the water along both shores, and the cluster
of a long-dead forest bristled in the shadows from the distant,
shallower end. The waters must have risen in recent times, maybe
due to a rock slide, but more likely because of a man-made dam.
The chatter and ululations of the young couple
camped on the peninsula pierced the tranquil silence. Their
voices carried easily over the still water and rock. As he had
warned me, they were not quiet.
Rock Lake was starkly beautiful
in the waning light. Pink hues of sunset set the jagged cliff
ablaze. We watched and waited until the first stars came out
before we returned to camp in the gloaming, where the voices
from Jamison Lake were drowned in the babbling of the gentle
creek. It grows dark early near the equinox, so we sat around
a warming fire for a long time, identifying scraps of constellations
as they wheeled into view through the canopy of branches. By
the time we were ready to crawl into the tent, a million stars
were blazing in the obsidian depths.
morning we got up with first light and built a small fire. The
temperature had dropped to 45 degrees. With our down jackets,
tea, mocha, and sitting mats we climbed the trail to the horse
camp, with its long, open views, and watched the bright sun
crawl down from the peaks of the western rim.
As we sat, I first discovered a particularly
interesting patch of exposed bedrock. The texture was smooth,
almost glassy, with sharp, angular cream-colored chunks or crystals,
some the size of your palm, imbedded in a darker gray-pink background
matrix. Phenocrysts? I pointed it out to Barbara and, still
believing the rock to be granite, speculated that the large
chunks had crystallized during the long, slow cooling of the
rock. Or maybe they were xenoliths, chunks of adjacent contact
rock broken off and incorporated in the cooling mass. I did
not know, but soon I was finding the rock everywhere. Later
I would learn I was wrong. This rock is known as "autobreccia,"
and it provided a clue for understanding what had happened here.
After breakfast, we explored the area around
our site on the creek and found several campsites, overflow
sites, and horse camps. The well-groomed trail past our camp
continued on down the mountain alongside the creek. Oddly, the
fine trail did not appear on the Forest Service map. The views
in all directions were striking, stark, and beautiful, with
rock formations that would keep a geologist happy for years.
Late in the morning we broke camp, hoisted on
our backpacks, and crossed the creek toward Rock Lake. On the
way, we scouted to see if the young couple was still at Jamison
Lake. They were, lollygagging about on the peninsula.
Off-loading our packs at
the fine campsite, we walked halfway around Rock Lake to an
overlook of the valley and Grass Lake. An astonishing variety
of rocks and boulders of every color and texture littered the
ground, making the footing difficult. Lava
rocks contained small pits from gas bubbles exploding during
eruption. Rock high in iron had rusted red. Black rock might
be basalt. White rock I had been assuming was granite. The bedrock
formations in the lake bowl and the cliff above were varied
and striking. A rough ridge of red rock rammed northward into
the lake from near the campsite. Exposed ragged black rock rose
from the lake bed. Domes of cream-gray "granite" held
back the lake on the west, while red rock spires crowned the
steep east wall. It was beyond my range of knowledge to explain
what was going on here.
When we returned to the campsite, ground squirrels
had gnawed into our bag of trail bars. Probably infected with
bubonic plague, Barbara quipped. They might have bitten through
our packs if we had stayed away much longer. We ate our lunch
flinging stones and curses at the aggressive little beggars.
They dodged our missiles and darted ever closer to raid the
pantry. Someone had been feeding the animals.
After lunch we hung our backpacks from nails
in the trees and walked back to the divide to gaze down on Jamison
Lake again. The young couple was nowhere to be seen. Through
the binoculars, Barbara could spot no tent or camping equipment.
They appeared to be gone. We left our backpacks hanging at Rock
Lake and hiked down to Jamison.
Just before we scrambled up the ledge, Barbara
looked into the thicket below, by the creek, and saw the dam.
The mossy wall of massive blocks was stacked
at least ten feet above the creek bed, built, no doubt, to impound
water for the mine sluices below. How could we have missed it
on our first time through?
The primo site on the peninsula had been abandoned
(N 39 42' 39.8", W 120 42' 01.7", 6278 feet). Ash
in the fire pit was still warm.
"This is pretty spectacular," Barbara
said, gaping around.
"Rock Lake or here?" I asked.
"Rock Lake was beautiful, but the bubonics'
there were too aggressive," Barbara replied. "Besides
. . . this is pretty spectacular."
I made two trips back to Rock Lake for our packs while Barbara
guarded the campsite from interlopers. At the base of the peninsula,
in a grove of mostly lodgepole pine with a couple of mountain
hemlocks and red fir, we found a level, shady spot for the tent.
The point of the peninsula was a huge flat slab
of glacially-polished bedrock that angled gently into the water.
Looking more closely, it seemed to have the same smooth surface
and giant phenocrysts or xenoliths that I had discovered that
morning. The rock was everywhere.
What the hell is that rock?
I was beginning to rethink my "granite" assumption.
Even from the first I should have sensed something amiss. This
rock was too smooth, too white, too even to be granite. Where
was the grainy pink, salt-and-pepper sandpaper hide of decomposing
granite? Where were the grains of feldspar and quartz? The black
mica? And what about those massive phenocrysts? Or xenoliths?
Or whatever they were? None if it made sense.
and I explored our new neighborhood. From the rocky dome that
crowned our little peninsula, we could view the entire lake.
Water filled the bottom of a long, narrow, canyon. Above our
peninsula to the west was a stony landscape of fluted ridges
and rills, long rounded knolls that ran parallel from north
to south, like dunes of sand, or ocean swells, carved fifty
yards from crest to crest, as though sculpted from the solid,
polished bedrock by the hand of Henry Moore. The long, narrow
island in the middle of the lake, like the lake itself, bore
the same north-south orientation.
An easy place to lose your way, I thought.
Late in the afternoon I jumped in for a brisk
swim, then toweled off. Barbara, in bra and panties, dipped
and washed up in the shallow water. Two backpackers suddenly
appeared, a middle-aged man and his wife. They engaged us in
a prolonged palaver while Barbara shivered in her wet underwear.
They had met the young couple on their way out to the PCT and
were told that no one was camped at Jamison Lake. We apprised
them of the fine campsite at Rock Lake. They ended up camping
across the lake from us, within easy talking distance. Toward
evening the man fetched water and stood gazing at the scenery
for a long time, then we did not see or hear much from them.
dinner we hiked down below the seeping, mossy wall of huge rock
slabs damming the outlet stream. It had been partially breached
by the stream. A rusted valve below the wall stuck out of the
ground, unused for decades. It reminded us of the breached dam
we found at Taylor Lake earlier in the year. Both impounded
water for downstream mining. The lake side of the dam was overgrown
and impassable. This dam explained why snags of long-dead, broken
trees stuck out of the water like forgotten Halloween specters
at lovely Jamison Lake.
Wednesday evening was beautiful, but windy. With
nightfall the winds calmed, so it was not too cold to lay out
on the slab and gaze up at the Milky Way. Jupiter was bright.
The summer triangle had drifted westward. Cassiopeia had rotated
overhead, pointing at the dim, clear smudge of the Andromeda
galaxy. It was 54 degrees when we went to bed.
Thursday morning was calm and beautiful, with
fish jumping from the mirror water like tiny Olympic gymnasts.
The temperature had dropped to 43, but soon warmed when the
sun crested the Mt. Elwell ridge. There was no sign of the backpacking
couple. We had the lake all to ourselves.
After breakfast we crossed below the dam and
hiked down from the Rock Lake trail to the other side of Jamison
Lake. Across from our camp, we found the campsite where they
had spent the night, and a few other primitive sites along that
side of the lake. But they were nothing special. After lunch
we climbed the only passable trail on our side of the lake,
which ascended steeply from behind our campsite to the nearest
ridge crest with long views of the lake basin. We turned back
when the trail became too steep and brushy as it dropped down
to the meadow at the inlet delta on the south end.
we returned to the other side of Jamison below Rock Lake in
search of a small lake shown on the map. We encountered bear
scat on the trail. In the mud at the center of the otherwise
dry lake bed we found fresh bear prints. We saw no bear. On
the way back we encountered a line of elderly dayhikers heading
for Rock Lake with Sierra Club staffs in their fists, but no
Jamison Lake was peaceful and quiet that evening,
with light wispy clouds and a sunset of blues and pinks. No
one else was around. When night fell, the Milky Way blazed across
the sky from horizon to horizon. Barbara brought out the binoculars
and we got a good look at Andromeda and Jupiter's moons.
morning we arose before sunrise. Built a fire. Heated water.
The thermometer read 45 degrees. Cold, but without a breeze.
Bundled in our down jackets, we drank our tea and mocha comfortably
leaning against the rock. Quietly we sat. Doing nothing. Without
hurry. Without words. Just breathing. The forest was dark. The
sky grew silver. The lake was calm and beautiful. We entered
its mirrored world. Everything was just so. Not a thing out
of place. An infinite peace infused me.
We would be leaving soon, yes, and the ways and
works of man can be disheartening. But the bell, having rung,
cannot be unrung. I wrote a little Haiku-like poem:
This moment, so poignant, evaporates,
And all our technology and all our training,
Cannot hold it back.
We broke camp and hiked to Wades Lake along a
steep and rugged trail beneath rocky cliffs and unusual formations.
The trail was etched into the bald rock massif along a network
of cracks and seams and crevices, climbing steadily four hundred
feet until it crested a ridge and dropped into a pretty little
pocket meadow bright with wildflowers. Below was a level forest
that held the still unseen lake.
Wades Lake looked familiar somehow, set in a
mature woods with fine flat campsites scattered in the forest
along the north shore (N 39 42' 44.2", W 120 42' 41.0",
6564 feet). A steep headwall of what I still thought of as granite
rose on the south end of the lake. No one was there. We found
another low rock dam, this one long ago breached by the overflowing
a leisurely break, we came to the junction with the Little Jamison
Creek trail. To the left it climbed up to the PCT on the ridge
high above Wades Lake. We turned right toward Grass Lake and
our van parked 1300 feet below. We hiked down a hot, steep chute
full of sand and treacherous loose rocks to the junction with
the Jamison Lake cutoff, completing a loop. Reentering the forest
shade, we continued on to Grass Lake, where we rested, hot and
tired, at the one good campsite near the outlet (N 39 43' 40.9",
W 120 41' 45.6", 5865 feet). Lo and behold, there we discovered
the remnants of yet another dam built of the familiar rock slabs.
Those miners had been busy.
On our way out we passed five separate groups
of backpackers slogging in. One group included sixteen youthful
students from Sierra College heading in to camp at Wades Lake.
Some sort of Introduction to the Outdoors affair, I guessed.
One Asian young man did not even have a backpack, just a duffle
bag slung over his shoulder. The incoming backpackers totaled
twenty-six in all. Twenty-six! Thank god we had backpacked during
the middle of the week.
When we had returned home, I searched the Internet
to see if anyone else had found the geology of Little Jamison
Creek as interesting as I did. Someone else had. And they were
Real Geologists. Steven R. Silva, Thomas D. Bullen, and Elwood
R. Brooks had written an article entitled Devonian Sierra
Buttes Formation in the Jamison Lake Area: Involvement of Ancient
Continental Crust Magma Genesis. Wow. Complete with maps
of the Jamison, Rock, and Wades Lake area, photographs, and
explanations at field stops. Dawg! It was all contained in a
2000 publication entitled Field Guide to the Geology and
Tectonics of the Northern Sierra Nevada. I ordered a copy
from the online bookstore
at the California Department of Conservation for twenty-five
The geologists drilled down into their supporting
evidence in painful, infinite detail. I skimmed through the
radiological studies and chemical analyses to the conclusion
and field trip notes. I did look at the pretty colored drawings,
but had no need for the rest. I trusted these guys. They were
Real Geologists, after all, and I wasn't planning on taking
a test. All I wanted was a glimpse of the Big Picture.
The rock of Jamison Lake was formed more than
360 million years ago. Humans were not around. Dinosaurs had
not yet come and gone. In fact, fish had just begun to amuse
themselves by crawling up onto the land. Amphibians were trying
out their new lungs. There were no Sierra Nevada mountains.
The west coast of ancient North American stood miles to the
For millennia silica-rich sediments, mostly sand,
had been washing off the continent into the western ocean, building
up the continental shelf. The sediments were compacted and cooked
into the Shoo Fly Complex more than a mile beneath the waves.
Then a bubble of hot mantle magma began to rise
beneath the Shoo Fly Complex. Whether this was because of pressure
from coastal subduction, or a spreading of tectonic plates,
or some other cause is not known. But rise the hot bubble did,
into the bottom of the Shoo Fly Complex, melting the silica-rich
deposits as it rose. The rising molten plume was composed of
heavy basalt, rich in iron and magnesium, on the bottom, and
the Shoo Fly melt of lighter silicic magma at the top, which
floated on the denser rock like oil on water. If this intrusive
bubble had never broken the surface, it would have slowly cooled
and solidified over millennia to become granite above and gabbro
below. But the hot magma bubble continued to rise until it broke
through the crust. Lava erupted onto the ocean floor a mile
below sea level.
The silicic lava at the top of the magma chamber
erupted first in an intensely hot and highly fluid flow. It
spread for miles underwater. As the surface of the lava contacted
the cold sea water, it congealed into a crust which was broken
up and fragmented by the continued movement of the molten lava
within the flow interior. Stressed and deformed by the movement,
the crust fractured in a brittle manner, producing angular,
smooth-faced blocks which, in the process known as autobrecciation,
became incorporated into the moving interior of the flow. The
lava solidified into a 650-foot-thick layer of light colored,
dacitic, autobrecciated quartz porphyry.
When the purely silicic lava had been exhausted,
an artistic mixture of silicic and basaltic lavas erupted in
a series of explosive pyroclastic blasts. Think of Mount St.
Helens, where a five-hundred-mile-an-hour gale of hot gas, ash,
and pumice scorched the countryside and flattened trees for
miles around, and a cloud of ash rose to the stratosphere. Except
that a pyroclastic explosion five-thousand feet deep under the
pressure of the cold, dark ocean must lose a lot of its bang.
Geologists don't really know. In any event, the rock and ash
did not travel far, but left a miles-wide, six-hundred-foot-thick
layer of pumiceous tufts, ash, pillow lava, and dark-gray to
reddish-brown clasts and breccia, ranging from basalt to andesite.
Finally, after a period of quiescence while more
of the silicic Shoo Fly Complex melted, a final eruption took
place. Silicic lava composed of light-colored dacitic quartz
porphyry squeezed out, around, and through cracks and vents
in the solidified rock, emplacing itself on top of all the earlier
lava rocks in a thousand-foot-thick frosting on a great layer
cake baked beneath the briny sea. It stayed there for a long
while as more sand and rock washed off the continent to give
our cake a sedimentary icing.
Between 180 and 140 million years ago came the
Nevadan Orogeny, a major mountain building event that took place
along the western edge of what was then North America. Caused
by the subduction of an oceanic plate beneath the North American
plate, it was the beginning of the upraising of the ocean floor.
A series of subsequent tectonic events caused our lava layer
cake to be lifted up some fifteen thousand feet, where rain,
wind, and glaciation began wearing down, carving, and polishing
the uppermost layers, exposing the rock we experienced at Jamison
The entire landscape that had so enthralled me
was volcanic. Our campsite at Jamison Lake sat on a slab of
autobrecciated quartz porphyry. When we climbed east up to Rock
Lake, we entered a crazy kaleidoscope of pyroclastic lava flows.
None of the rock was granite. Not one pebble. Not a single grain.
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