Del Norte Center

High Water Crossing

There is a scene in the movie Wild in which Cheryl Strayed crosses a mountain creek and is literally swept off her feet and winds up crawling out of the creek. This scene reminded me of one particular creek crossing I had in my CCC days.

Del Norte Center. December, 1988. We had been working a habitat restoration project on Hunter Creek, a tributary near the mouth of the Klamath River. Dan Burgess and I were the Fisheries Special Corpsmembers acting as technical advisors on the project. We had been working several sites on the creek with Corpsmembers from different crews. One particular site was up the East Fork of Hunter Creek. To get to this site involved a little hiking up the creek in our hip waders. We had seen several redds, or steelhead spawning nests, on the way up the creek. We were working to protect the steelhead, so we needed to stay away from these redds to avoid potentially destroying eggs or fry. We tied some colored ribbon into trees near them so Corpsmembers would know to avoid crossing the creek near those spots. We also had to scramble up and over a fifteen foot ledge to get above a log jam. Above this jam was our last creek crossing before we got to the work site. Throughout the fall, this has been a nice but easy hike through redwood riparian habitat.

Some storms came through in early December. These storms dumped several inches of rain in a few days. The creeks swelled. We probably would not have gone back into Hunter Creek, but there were some loose ends to secure before we left for the winter. We also had tools that we had left stashed at the work site. We needed to retrieve these. Dan and I took crew leader Todd Schabek and several other Crew One Corpsmembers out to finish up a final day’s work.

The creek we hiked up on this day was very different from the last time we had hiked it. What had been hardly more than a shin deep trickle of water now filled the creek bed banks from side to side. The water was thigh high and forced us to wear chest waders instead of our more comfortable hip waders. The current was strong. We had to use all of our creek-walking skills in the crossing we had below the log jam. If we paused and left a foot in one place on the bottom too long, the current would wash the gravel away from beneath our feet and take us down. If we lifted a foot too high, the current would get under our foot and keep us from getting it back down on the bottom before being knocked down. Creek-walking involved a quick shuffle step, feet flat on the bottom with no hesitation at all. We didn’t stay in the water long in these conditions. We needed to get across as fast as we could.

We got to the log jam, and as we climbed the rocks, what had been a trickle of water flowing down through the jam was now a genuine waterfall, pouring over the top log and filling the air with mist as it roared right next to our route. It reminded me of waterfalls I had seen in Yosemite. We could not communicate in normal voices. We had to shout to each other, even when standing right next to each other.

We got to the top of the log jam. Our last creek crossing was about fifteen yards above the jam…now a waterfall. The creek seemed deeper and faster up here as it approached the logs. Dan, Todd and I huddled up.

Dan shouted, “I don’t know if we can cross here right now.” We could barely hear him above the creek’s thunder.

Todd shouted, “I think you’re right. Let’s look a little further up for another crossing.”

I thought the creek looked high, but not necessarily too high. I shook my head. “I think we should try and see it we can make it over here. I’ll go first and try it.”

Dan and Todd looked skeptical, but nodded agreement.

I started out into the creek. I had never been in water so fast. Mindful of the waterfall just yards downstream, I started hustling my way across. The water quickly came up to my thighs. It crashed into my right leg, my upstream leg, and constantly threatened to push me down. I gritted my teeth and forced my way across, pushing hard against the current and swinging my arms wildly to add to my momentum.

I was just a few feet from the opposite bank when I almost lost my balance. I was almost knocked off my feet, but managed to stay up. However, in regaining my balance, my right foot stayed down just a hair too long. I felt the gravel give way under my foot. My right foot got pushed left, and I started going down over my now crossed feet.

I could see the waterfall in my peripheral vision. Crap!

I threw myself for the bank. I lunged once and the current carried me several feet downstream. Water crashed over the tops of my waders and under my jacket. I lunged again, getting pushed further downstream. My day pack, filled with my lunch, water bottles, notebook, and a few hand tools started pulling me off balance to the downstream side as it got knocked cockeyed. On the third lunge, I crashed into a redwood log on the bank and threw my arms around it. I bounced once, but then had the log fixed in a death grip. I hauled myself up out of the water and onto the bank. My chest hurt where it had slammed into the log. I turned and looked back across the creek. Dan, Todd, and the crew were all stunned. Dan hollered, but I couldn’t hear him. He made a funnel with his hands in front of his mouth and shouted again. I could still barely hear him, and it was partly lip reading, but I could tell he was shouting “Are you okay?”

I flashed a thumbs up, then cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted back, “Yeah…we aren’t going to be able to cross here!”

Dan gave me a thumbs up.

I shouted, “I’m just gonna rest here a minute and dump the water out of my waders!”

Dan gave me another thumbs up. They all started to work their way upstream. I stood and walked farther up the bank to another big log. I slid my day pack off my shoulders and put it on the ground. I took off my jacket, laid it down on the log, and rolled my waders down. Water poured out before I even had them down past my waist. I sat on the log and kicked the waders off the rest of the way. I was soaked…khaki shirt, Ben Davis jeans, socks…everything. I picked the waders up by the feet, turned them upside down, and poured the rest of the water out. I took off my socks and wrung them out the best I could. I had an extra pair of dry socks in my day pack that had managed to stay dry and put them on. I think the help that gave me was more psychological than anything else, because as soon as I put my waders back on, it wasn’t long before the fresh socks were soggy, too.

We finished up the project for the season that day…and used the alternate crossing Dan and Todd found on the way out!

Categories: CCC, Del Norte Center, Salmon Habitat Restoration | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment


I am not usually susceptible to homesickness, but it hit me hard at one point in Yosemite.

I’ve always been a wanderer at heart. While I was in high school, my family first thought about moving from Illinois to California. I was excited about the adventure. Some of my friends couldn’t understand why I seemed to be so happy about leaving them. They didn’t understand that I what I was thinking of was not what I was leaving behind, but that the adventure that I had ahead of me.

I had lived almost my entire life in the same house—1014 Oakwood Drive, Round Lake Beach, Illinois. We had moved into that house when I was four years old. My sister had just been born. I have vague memories of the house we lived in before then, but as far as I was concerned, 1014 Oakwood Drive had always been my home. We had always had the same neighbors, the Nicolines. Lyle and Mitchell were the neighbor friends I grew up with. It felt comfortable and safe, just like home is supposed to feel. However, I knew there was a great big world out there to explore. I had been reading about it for as long as I could read and I was eager to see some of it for myself.

My parents eventually did sell the house and move to California…three years after I graduated high school! I stayed in Illinois when they left. I had a decent job in a machine shop by then. I stayed for about a year after my parents and sister left. Then I realized that I needed to get out and start seeing that world for myself. In the summer of 1986 I followed my family to California. Outside of my family, including the aunt and uncle who had always lived in California, I did not know anybody. I did not know where I was going. I just knew that California had mountains and forests that I wanted to see, and my family would provide temporary lodging until I found my way.

It was only a few weeks before I found myself in the California Conservation Corps, living in the redwood forests of coastal northern California. I was too busy to think of home very much. I was surrounded by new people from all sorts of backgrounds, from inner city LA gangs to suburban mall rats. Several people on my crew had just finished a Backcountry trails season. Getting on a Backcountry crew had been my primary goal ever since I had heard about the program at the Academy. I wanted to learn as much as possible from these Backcountry veterans. Every one of them was a good person, with good attitudes and interesting Backgrounds.

There was a lot to learn about the job, too. We had to find our way around the program and learn how to get the most out of it for the year we had signed up for. We had so much to learn about hand tools and their maintenance, like how to put a good edge on a McLeod or how to rehandle a Pulaski. We had to learn how to field strip a chain saw, clean it, put it back together, and sharpen the chain with a hand file. We did a lot of work in salmon habitat restoration, which meant spending all day in a creek wearing waders and learning how to move heavy things like logs and rocks with a block and tackle. We had to learn about stream ecology to understand what we were doing in the streams.

Homesick?! There was no time to be homesick! There was too much going on!

Even over the four day Thanksgiving holiday weekend I wanted to stay at Del Norte. They wouldn’t let me stay. They only kept a skeleton crew around over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. They wanted to give as many staff as possible the holiday off, too, so the Corpsmember population had to be minimal over the holidays. We had to apply to stay on the center over those holidays, and the only people allowed to stay were people who honestly did not have anywhere else to stay. These people would have been on the street if they had been forced to leave the center. So I got to go home for several weeks in November and December.

When I came back in January, my focus on getting onto a Backcountry trail crew intensified. There was the application process and the interview. Once I got picked, the focus became getting into shape to handle the physical challenge ahead. I lost track of the number of times I hiked up and down Requa Hill. I also made several trips up the coastal trail to Wilson Beach with a pack.

There were always new places to go, too. Between August and December ’86, I spent time in San Andreas/Fricot City, Klamath, a spike to Willow Creek, and two bus trips back and forth between Klamath and San Francisco. In off duty hours, there was so much new country to discover between Del Norte and Humboldt Counties alone there was no time to be homesick.

And then I headed to Yosemite! New places. New people. New jobs to learn. All of my focus was forward, on where I was going, not where I had been.

The pace changed a little bit when we hit The Mound.

We would go to work and swing a double jack all day. We would be too exhausted in the evenings to do much of anything other than eat dinner and wash the dishes. After the Amelia Earhart Peak weekend, I had no energy for anything for the next two weekends. After a couple of weeks of this, the Arctic Front hit. The wind that brought the cold only lasted one night, but the cold hung on for the rest of the month. There was no place to escape the cold. We couldn’t sit next to the fire all of the time. You could only put on so many layers of thermal clothes. I spent more off-duty time than usual sitting on my cot in the tent, blowing on my hands to warm them while staring at the tent walls. I remember writing my ‘Homesick’ journal entry sitting on that cot.

All of a sudden, all I could think of was Illinois. About all of the green trees that filled Round Lake. About hanging out with my friends and playing baseball in the sand lot. About Independence Day fireworks shows down by the lake. About sweating over a turret lathe in the machine shop. I got to thinking about Illinois so much that I drew a map of it in my journal.

I wasn’t ever tempted to quit the Backcountry, but I had reached the unimaginable point of looking forward to the end.

Categories: Backcountry, CCC, Del Norte Center, Vogelsang, Yosemite | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

One Beer

OK…there is a gap of about one week here in my Backcountry journal, so I can use this time to fill in with some other CCC stories.

One day shortly after I had promoted from Crew 3 Crewleader to Fisheries Special Corpsmember, I was having a hard time getting site plans for fisheries construction projects to correlate to the actual work sites. I was coming to the conclusion that the consultants I had been surveying the sites with had been off on a critical aspect of the plans. This was not a good feeling. I thought about what that meant in terms of all that money spent on the contract, and the possible consequences of building the structures wrong. Even worse…what if I was wrong? The consultants had PhD’s. They had years of experience in the field. I had a high school diploma and about three or four months total in salmon habitat restoration projects. I had a grand total of about two years’ experience if we factored in every other sort of natural resource project I had worked on. What if the problem wasn’t in the plans, but in mistakes I was making in reading them?

I was talking this over with Lee Howard in the office at the end of the day. Lee was a Corpsmember on my old crew. Lee looked kinda like Art Garfunkel…receding hairline and all. I had trained him how to run chainsaws, and he was well on his way to promotion to crewleader. Lee had been having a particularly grueling week on the grade and had his own stresses that had been weighing on him. We were both just dog-tired.

As we gathered up our gear to leave for the day, Lee said, “I am not looking forward to whatever it is they’re serving up in the kitchen tonight.”

“Wanna go down to the Salmon Jerky?” Since promoting, I’d had to move off center, and I could no longer eat meals regularly up in the Center kitchen. I had learned how to cook beans and rice. And tortillas. I frequently went to went to Crescent City to eat as well. Paul’s Cannery Smoked Salmon Jerky was a lot closer than Crescent City. It was a restaurant/bar down at the bottom of Requa Hill and on the main highway. It also served as the local Greyhound stop. Every Corpie at Del Norte Center had either arrived or left by a bus here at some point in their career. Some staff called it Paul’s Cannery. I suppose that was the proper name for the place. However, the biggest sign out front said ‘Salmon Jerky’, so that’s what most of us Corpies called it. They had pretty good greasy spoon-style burgers. And every once in a while those burgers were a good change of pace from the Center food. Lee was sold!

We loaded into my Chevette and headed down the hill.

It was a beautiful and sunny warm day. There were just a few people in the Salmon Jerky as we walked in. It was brighter in there than I thought it would have been. I was surprised by the amount of sunlight that actually found its way into the place. We ordered our burgers, and I made the observation “A beer would be really great with that burger.”

Lee looked at me sideways and said,”Yeah. It would.”

Now…the CCC is very particular about certain rules concerning fraternization between staff and Corpsmembers. They can hang out together a little bit, but one of the Big Rules is “Staff shall not drink with Corpsmembers.” There are solid reasons for these rules. I agree with them. I support them.

But just a few weeks before, Lee and I had been Corpsmembers together. We could have come down to the Salmon Jerky and gotten hammered together and it would have been totally within the rules…but we never had. The opportunity had just never come up. We were friends who had never had a beer together. How sad!

But now I was a Special Corpsmember. A staff member. And now it was totally outside the rules. This should have been an easy call…drink a Coke. But I thought about it for a minute, and that got me in trouble.

Here we were, tired and hungry, it was warm out, and a beer would be really, really good with that burger and fries. And it’s not like we were going to get hammered. It was one beer with a meal. We were off center, and who was ever gonna know?

“I’ll have a draft with that,” I told the bartender.

“Make that two,” Lee said.

Conversation was good as we leisurely ate our burgers and fries and enjoyed our beers. We talked about everything except work. Life was good.

And then a solid hand smacked down on my shoulder. Slowly I turned. There stood the night duty Special Corpsmember, John Calkins. He had a hand firmly on each of our shoulders. He did not look happy to see us.

“Busted,” he said.

He’d had to bring a Corpsmember down to catch a bus. He saw my car outside and came in too say hi.

He glared directly at me and said, “We need to discuss this.”

Well…’discussion’ implies a two-way conversation. It was not like that at all. There wasn’t really much for me to say. The rule was clear. I had broken it. If John even mentioned this to any other staff, I would lose my job. He must have believed me when I told him that it had never happened before and never would again.

And it didn’t.

Categories: CCC, CCC Staff, Del Norte Center | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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