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September 1999

Wild As It Ever Was

For almost half a century, California's rugged Ishi Wilderness hid "the last wild Indian." Even today, it is a place that can keep a secret.

It was early on the morning of August 29, 1911, when the dogs outside a slaughterhouse in Oroville, California, began to bark. An employee sent out to calm them down burst suddenly back inside. “Something,” he said, “is out there.”

Guns drawn and handcuffs ready, the sheriff and his deputies summoned by the slaughterhouse employee cornered “a wild man” in the cattle pens. Dressed in just a ragged, canvas, knee-length shirt, the strange man was barefoot, filthy, half-starved, exhausted, and speaking a language none of them had ever heard.

Over the next five years, the cowering figure found in the pen that morning would become known around the world as “Ishi, the last wild Indian in America.” Taken in by anthropologists at the University of California, Ishi would become a living exhibit at the San Francisco museum that would become his home. Tens of thousands of visitors would flock to the museum to watch “the last Wild Man” chip arrowheads or shoot his bow and arrow. He would dine with college presidents, attend a vaudeville play, learn to ride the trolley cars and, most importantly, provide researchers with a rare firsthand glimpse into native California culture, language, and life. But all of that was yet to come. For the men at the slaughterhouse, it seemed as if this frail and terrified visitor had fallen through a crack in time. Sitting before them was living proof that while the rest of the world marched confidently into the Industrial Age-phonographs in the den, airplanes in the sky, a Model T in the driveway-a forgotten race of people had still been living in the Stone Age just a day’s drive north of Sacramento. For 40 years they had been there. And no one knew it.

They couldn’t have. The land where Ishi had come from was, and still is, a place that can keep its secrets.

It is long after midnight. Backpacker Editor Tom Shealey and I are camped on the banks of Mill Creek at the edge of what in 1984 officially became known as the Ishi Wilderness, a land of deep canyons and rocky hills south of Mt. Lassen National Park. At the moment, however, those canyons and hills, even our two tents just yards apart, are all invisible in the rain and snow of the storm that seems snagged on the high peaks.

Mill Creek is running wild, coursing and tumbling through its canyon as if made restless by the late-spring storm. The wind sounds like voices in the trees.

We had it all planned out-linger a few days along Mill Creek, then cross the high country to the south and move deeper into the wilderness, searching for clues to Ishi’s story. For years, both of us had dreamed of exploring Ishi’s homeland. We had read the books, seen the videos. The names were like legends to us-Mill Creek, Deer Creek, Bear’s Hiding Place. It is a land so wild, so secretive, it could hide an entire culture for four decades, and we wanted to see it for ourselves.

But each drop of rain on the tent is another flake of snow on the peaks. By morning, the high country will be knee deep in spring snow, impassable, locking us tight in our tents, locking away the secrets.

The best we can do is lie back, hope the creek doesn’t rise, and with eyes wide open in the dark, listen to the stories being whispered on the wind.

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