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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.

In the dark, the roar of the creek sounds like a death song. Hours before the first light of day, I crawl outside to see if we will have to move camp before sunrise. Something is moving down by the water-Tom, checking the water too, I think, but then I notice that he is looking up, searching the cliffs barely visible in the dark, as if looking for something. Without a word, he crawls back into his tent, shaking off the water that has gathered in the hood of his rainjacket.

A few years later, 1868, another band of Yahi were surprised in a cave in the cliffs above Mill Creek and gunned down at such close range that one shooter refused to use his .56-caliber Spencer rifle on the victims, mostly women and children, because “it tore them up so bad.” He used a pistol instead.

By 1868, most people believed the Yahi had been wiped out, just like 50 other native California cultures. They were wrong. But in this wild land, it would be 40 years before anyone would know it.

Morning comes with the sun just a light smudge on the gray cloak of the sky. It is still raining, though the creek has stopped rising short of our tents. Beneath the skeleton branches of an ancient cottonwood tree we cook breakfast over the wet, sputtering stove. Tom shivers once, and not just with the chill of the water dripping down his neck. “It was pretty eerie in here last night, thinking about everything that happened along this creek. I don’t think I slept at all.”

When the fog clears, we notice the hillsides are draped in white, shrouded in snow that has almost reached the valley floor and grows deeper and deeper as our eyes move up the mountains. We had hoped to move further into the wilderness, into Deer Creek Canyon, but the trails, even the road to the Deer Creek trailhead, will be buried.

“You know what the Yahi name for April was?” I ask Tom who shakes his head as he sips his coffee. “Moon of the Last Snows,” I smile.

Neither of wants to say it out loud, but it’s clear that we won’t be breaking camp today. Instead, we break brush. With just daypacks, we take off hiking, sticking to the low elevations, and follow a faint trail on the far side of Mill Creek until we lose it in a tangle of brush and rocks up a wild side draw. We backtrack until we pick up the trail and try again. Nothing. An hour later, we’ve given up any hope of a trail and just push our way deeper and deeper into the brush.

It is rugged and broken country-sharp-edged rocks, poison oak everywhere, brush clawing at your eyes like talons. Every twisted stick takes on the shape of a rattlesnake. “The entire ground is one mass of disintegrated rock,” one writer said of the Yahi homeland, “the fragments ranging from the size of a head to that of a house. Every foot of ground and every cranny between the stones is covered with an impenetrable growth of oak and other scrub.” It is, the author wrote, “a heaving waste of boulders and treetops, between and below which a thousand people could have kept securely out of sight.” Exactly.

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