|The Warm Springs Valley lies hidden in the northeast corner of California, where the Columbia Plateau ends its southward trek in an undulating lava cap called the Devil’s Garden, and where the Warner Mountain Range holds back the western advance of the Great Basin desert land. It lies in the heart of Modoc County, California. |
The valley lies in the rough shape of a cowboy’s boot, with its sole pressed against the tableland—the foothills of the Warner Mountain Range, which rises to
10,000 feet, almost a mile above the valley floor.
The south fork of the Pit River makes its entrance at the toe of the boot, the south end of the valley. Cascading in a headlong rush from the mountains to the east, it leaves its glistening trout and eternal music behind as it emerges from a boulder-strewn lava cut in the tableland, to adopt a more serene passage north along the valley floor.
These are now the murky waters of the bullhead catfish, the large mouth bass, and the bullfrog. Shoreline reeds and cattails provide springtime mating cover for the rich colored cinnamon teal, the fluorescent, green-headed mallard and his pretty gray-brown mate and for the plain gadwall. Willows are decorated with golden headed and red-winged blackbirds, whose mating songs create a paradoxical din of melody and discord.
At the boot’s instep, a hot spring bubbles up on the old Williams Ranch. An aged, dank bathhouse, long closed to the public, holds memories of generations of exuberant youth who swam and played in its steamy interior.
Further north, past Fitzhugh Creek, the boot’s heel presses deeper into the upland, allowing Pine Creek to spread its waters on meadows and marsh, before it joins the South Fork’s leisurely flow.
The north fork of the Pit River hangs like a spur from the boot heel, gathering waters from Parker Creek and Joseph Creek to the north.
Just above the boot’s heel, at the north side of the confluence of the river forks, are two low hills rising about 200 feet above the valley floor—like giant turtles crawling toward the river. Here lived the Achamawi and their ancestors for perhaps 12,000 years. A few still live here, but this ancient village site is now populated largely by descendants of European immigrants, whose history in this land is less than one hundred fifty years—and by more recent transplants from crowded California cities. The population center of Alturas has about 3,000 souls.
From either of the low hills a westward view past the top of the boot reveals a shining cone of white and shadow standing high above the landscape one hundred miles away. To the early Achamawi, this was the home of the Great Spirit. To modern man, it is Mount Shasta, winter playground for thousands of skiers. To all, it is a volcano, the sleeping terror and destruction of erupting lava and ash.
The valley extends west through low lava crested hills. The combined waters of the Pit River finally lead to more open meadowland at the base of a miniature replica of Mt. Shasta. Rattlesnake Butte stands darkly in the center of the valley. A weak March sun will warm the slopes of this ancient lava shaft, creating updrafts for the first soaring buzzards, while singing-tailed serpents sluggishly unwind themselves from their rocky den to lie on the warming, rock strewn slopes. It is a censured place, shunned even by lichen that elsewhere paint their chartreuse, white and orange murals on boulders and rim rocks along the valley’s edge.
Farther downriver, the boot topo folds and bulges to allow Canyon Creek, Witcher Creek, and Clover Swale Creek to enter the valley from low mountains to the southwest and the Devil’s Garden to the north. Kelley Hot Springs boils forth at four hundred fifteen gallons per minute, sending plumes of steam skyward at the edge of the meadows that surround the small town of Canby. The siren call of these anomalous waters has successively created oil well wildcat drilling, a resort, baths, heated greenhouse flower production, and presently a fish farm. One of the most successful uses of these natural hot springs has been made by the Alturas Lions Club, which uses them to boil eggs for their annual children’s Easter egg hunt.
Canby itself, named for the army general of the Modoc Indian Wars, now hosts an annual array of Thanksgiving and Holiday dioramas to impress any and all passers-through. It is a copy in size of the tiny cow town of Likely at the boot’s toe, forty miles southeast, where the Pit River’s south fork first emerges. Canby is near the river’s leaving point. Just a few miles further west, at the end of the valley, the river disappears, tumbling into a rock strewn canyon much like the lava cut of its birth.
In Warm Springs Valley, the seasons speak with the language of the wind. A summer zephyr will whisper its message by rustling poplar and aspen leaves. Thunderstorms come frowning with a rattling of hail and a windy whoosh. Winter approaches with a whining and whistling wind, as if in apology for dragging forth its lead gray skies and their burdens of cold and wet. Then howls winter’s demand for ice, bitter cold, driving snow and frost, only to become silent as white beauty and sparkling crystal purify the landscape.
But the seasons are deceitful in the valley. The sun may warm a January day. Snow can fall—and has—on the fourth of July. Autumn might be spectacular with balmy days, crisp nights, and bright foliage of yellows, oranges, and reds; or it may not come at all. Even spring is a bit of a liar when May flowers are covered with six inches of new snow.
Because of the isolation of the Warm Springs Valley and its human population of only two people per square mile, both human and animal inhabitants enjoy an extra measure of freedom reminiscent of the frontier atmosphere of the early West.
Deer and antelope graze the ranchers’ alfalfa and grass fields, as do Canadian honkers. Coyotes and panther hunt the marshes and upland slopes. Bald eagles winter near the ponds and river, and raise their young in the pines along lava rim rocks, or adjacent to mountain lakes. Pheasant inhabit fence rows and feed in grain fields. Quail are everywhere, including the backyards of town residents, and are fondly known as “town chickens.” Early spring mornings are a symphony of songbirds, while night is given over to the great horned owl, raccoon, bobcat, and a number of small, wide-eyed creatures who seek protection in the earth’s great shadow.
Most men and women who stay long in the valley are independent and self reliant, but they are also cooperative and sharing—a contradiction common to their wilderness background. Cattlemen who are determinedly self-sufficient help each other at branding and round-up time, and will do their neighbor’s chores when illness strikes. Townsmen have formed volunteer fire departments and through their clubs and organizations, do public works for the betterment of the community and its children. Yet each makes his own way with ingenuity and hard work that the limited economic resources of the valley demand.
As the people of the Warm Springs Valley spend the minutes and hours of their lives, often asleep to the uniqueness of their mountain-valley home, its strong, unsophisticated and natural beauty surrounds them, like morning mist, seeping through their skin, deep into their bones to mark their lives.