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Ishi


outhwest of Mt. Lassen lies a remote and largely forgotten piece of Cascade foothill region. Dark basaltic cliffs and pinnacles adorn inhospitable river canyons, carved by what is now Mill and Deer Creeks, through badlands of mud and lava flow. Mill and Deer Creeks are of a handful of remaining un-obstructed Sacramento River tributaries supporting native runs of steelhead trout and Chinook salmon.

This is home to the Tehama Deer Herd, the largest mule deer herd in California. This migratory herd spends winters here and their population once exceeded 100,000 deer. Today, from what I can gather, estimates are around 22,000. There is a reason why lone wolf OR-7’s otherwise continuous stroll through California stalled here! There is wildlife galore. Sharing this landscape with deer, are bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, wild hogs, all the typical small critters, and yes, plenty of rattlesnakes.

Views from my decent into Deer Creek Canyon. Phil Akers
Views from my decent into Deer Creek Canyon.

Deer Creek is a gem. It displays a variety of behaviors, from many lazy, inviting pools, to tumultuous stretches of whitewater.
Deer Creek is a gem. It displays a variety of behaviors, from many lazy, inviting pools, to tumultuous stretches of whitewater.

Phil Akers, dense islands of ponderosa pine growing on terraces left after rivers cut the canyons. This is a shot from the base of a basalt pillar, looking across Deer Creek, to the Graham Pinery plateau.
Unique to this area are pineries – dense islands of ponderosa pine growing on terraces left after rivers cut the canyons. This is a shot from the base of a basalt pillar, looking across Deer Creek, to the Graham Pinery plateau.

This landscape also sheltered Ishi, the lone survivor of the Yahi Indian tribe. Hunter-gatherer types, the Yahi are the southernmost ancestors of the Yana, who inhabited the fertile upper Sacramento Valley. They lived undisturbed for over three thousand years, hunting and fishing, gathering wild berries and grapes, roots, acorns, and foliage. But by 1890, due to disease, atrocity, and ruthless extermination by encroaching settlers, only a tiny band of Yahi survived in the wild Deer Creek canyon country – Ishi’s family. This is now a 41,840-acre designated wilderness area, rightfully in his surname posthumously – Ishi Wilderness.

Cliff view, by Phil Akers
This is up-and-down territory. Sometimes the terrain requires working around huge obstacles. When attempting an off-trail decent in canyon country, it is often not possible to view the entire route down. It can be tricky, and you can easily become “cliffed out”.

bushy woods among rough terrain, by Phil Akers
Oddly, the terrain directly below many of the cliffs is the best way to travel and follow the river. There seems to be a sweet spot between the river and the cliffs. Hiking up and over can take you too far away from the river and sometimes challenging to get back down

Cave among the cliffs, Phil Akers
Many elaborate natural caves await, like this one with a custom fireplace. You can ditch the tent and spend the night raw, in a cave like I did. But spending the night in one of these wilderness caves, at a time when campfires were restricted, was somewhat un-nerving. I felt cornered, and obsessed with thoughts of a predator peering around.

When Ishi was born, circa 1862, the Mill and Deer Creek Yahi Indians were thriving, mostly due to the remote location and fertile hunting and fishing grounds. Encroaching settlers, however, penetrated the outskirts of these canyons, bringing cattle, and staking claim to land and water. The discovery of gold in California brought gruff, even outlaw groups – the world as the Yahi knew it was shrinking. Ishi had no way of knowing that during his life time the Yahi would become extinct. He would experience massacres. At a very young age his father was killed in the Three Knolls Massacre. Ishi survived this attack when his mother grabbed him and jumped into the river’s current (a common escape tactic). Encounters with the white man forced the Yahi further up into the nooks and crannies of Deer Creek canyon.

Phil Akers, This is a shot from the mouth of the cave where I spent the night, to impressive basalt columns standing sentinel above Deer Creek.
This is a shot from the mouth of the cave where I spent the night, to impressive basalt columns standing sentinel above Deer Creek.

Despite scattered tales from local ranchers of “wild Indians” living up in Deer Creek canyon, the Yahi was largely believed to have gone extinct. Then in November, 1908, two members of a survey crew literally stumbled upon Ishi harpooning fish in Deer Creek. The two surveyors double-timed back to their camp informing the others about the “wild Indian” encounter, but most scoffed at the nonsense. Nonetheless, a plan was developed, and the next morning they scouted the area for final truth. They discovered Ishi’s camp.

A shot looking up from the base of a very tall pillar.
A shot looking up from the base of a very tall pillar.

When the surveyors approached the Yahi camp, the remaining tribe members scattered, except for Ishi’s mother. Before fleeing they had covered Ishi’s mother with blankets. She was very old, sick, weak, and unable to run. The surveyors ransacked the camp, stealing or destroying everything. They uncovered Ishi’s mother but left her alone, trembling with terror. The surveyors eventually left, but their ignorant and selfish actions had dealt the last surviving Yahi a fatal blow. They had destroyed or stolen everything Ishi’s family needed to survive.

The devastation Ishi must have felt returning to camp. Nothing remained, no food, no hunting weapons, no tools…nothing. The others didn’t return, and Ishi was never able to find them. Were they murdered? Drown? Fall prey? The only thing for certain is they were gone…assumed dead. After thriving for thousands of years, the Yahi tribe was now down to a mere two members; Ishi and his mother. But by years end, Ishi’s mother died and he was now eerily, all alone. In what must have been extreme sorrow, he continued to live a lonely and drab life, surviving in Deer Creek canyon for another few years.

 Newspaper headline from early August 1911. Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Bee.
Newspaper headline from early August 1911. Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Bee.

Finally, Ishi left behind the only way of life he knew. He entered the white man’s world! Entering an unknown fate was a huge gamble, but as his own story recalls, possessed with deep desperation and loneliness, he was willing to take that chance. In August, 1911, he was discovered on the outskirts of Oroville next to a slaughterhouse corral. The local sheriff was contacted and he took Ishi to jail. Despite being locked up, the authorities treated him well, nurtured him back to health, and contacted different Native Americans to try and communicate with him. But all communication efforts were to no avail. The sheriff didn't really know what to do, but the local media went bananas with the story of a “wild man” being caught – it was a carnival sideshow. Only Bigfoot in a cage could have outdone the popularity of Ishi.

Ishi at the time of his capture. He was found emaciated and with burnt hair, which to the Yahi, signified tremendous family loss. Photo courtesy of UC Berkley Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

An overnight sensation, the story attracted the attention of two University of California professors of anthropology; Alfred L. Kroeber and T.T. Waterman. Eventually, Ishi was sent to San Francisco to live at a museum under the professor’s care and to be studied. Kroeber became very attached to Ishi, they evolved into very good friends, and Ishi adapted quite well to 20th century life. Kroeber was surprised at how “human” Ishi was and that he harbored no revenge toward the white man who had brutally ended the Yahi’s very existence. It was Kroeber who named him Ishi, which is simply Yana tongue for “man”. Yahi tradition kept Ishi from revealing his real name – we will never know his actual moniker.

While in San Francisco, Ishi was introduced to other Native Americans. In particular, Kroeber brought in Sam Batwi, an elderly man with a fair amount of Yana blood, and had actually grown up in the backcountry north of Mt. Lassen. Batwi knew just enough Yahi dialect to somewhat translate between Ishi and the anthropologist.

Ishi recounted all he could about Yahi culture and history. The professors relentlessly requested Ishi escort them back to his homeland, revisit his village, and where he hunted. But Ishi resisted and didn’t wish to return to the area where he had experienced such trauma. But finally he did agree, and the information he provided on a return trip to his homeland proved invaluable to the history of the Yahi. Ishi remained under the genuine care of benefaction until his death in March 1916 from tuberculosis. The Yahi, was now officially extinct.

From left, Batwi, Kroeber, and Ishi. According to Kroeber, Ishi actually enjoyed 20th century clothing, but he refused to wear shoes. Photo courtesy of UC Berkley Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
From left, Batwi, Kroeber, and Ishi. According to Kroeber, Ishi actually enjoyed 20th century clothing, but he refused to wear shoes. Photo courtesy of UC Berkley Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

I encourage you to get out and explore the Ishi Wilderness. It offers incredible history, unforgettable views of bizarre countryside, and possibly the best stream fly-fishing in all of California. But I must impress some very important advice on a few things:

Phil Akers, This is and will forever be Ishi’s land.
This is and will forever be Ishi’s land.

Know where you are going. This is a lower elevation wilderness area, ideal conditions are spring, late fall, or even winter. The summer months are skin-frying hot. This is very remote, unforgiving land where you don’t want to find yourself unprepared, or make bone-head decisions. High chances are, you will not encounter another person while backpacking this area. Do not take this wilderness lightly!

Stream crossings. The finest attractions here require stream crossings. Both Mill and Deer Creek’s classification as a “creek” is a misnomer. Even in late season these streams flow with voluminous amounts of water. You can often expect waist-deep crossings so exercise extreme strategy and caution.

Roads. Getting to the trailhead can be an adventure in itself. Access the northern trailheads and Mill Creek by turning south from Highway 36 on Plum Creek Road, proceed to Ponderosa Way. Access the southern trailheads and Deer Creek by taking Cohasset Road from Highway 99 in Chico, proceeding to the community of Cohasset where the road turns into Ponderosa Way. Either destination you choose, do not attempt Ponderosa Way with a passenger car. This is strictly a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive route. Due to the lack of travel and maintenance, I recommend carrying (at a minimum) a chainsaw, tow rope or chain, and shovel.

Fishing regulations. While fishing is superb, heavy regulations govern these wild anadromous waters. Fishing is prohibited except for a four-month period spanning the full brunt of summer, the absolute worst time to visit. Always check current regulations and cherish this precious fishing resource.

Respect. And lastly, but the most important note I wish to make: Today, only what the Yahi left in the earth behind them remain to tell their story. When visiting here, please respect that record. Remember, all archaeological sites and artifacts are protected and should not be disturbed.

The thing about the Ishi Wilderness is, you have to want it. You have to want to travel rough roads, hike into inhospitable canyons rife with thick chaparral, rattlesnakes, and poison oak. This area can beat you up, but nobody is forcing you to go. You have to want to experience large wild trout, and walk in the footsteps of the Yahi.

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.

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