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Hiking Through History

The Sierra Nevada's past enlivens a visit to Clair Tappan Lodge

by Jennifer Hattam

On a hot August day, Amtrak's California Zephyr rumbled north past Sacramento and through quaint Colfax, an early railroad town. I was on my way to the Sierra Club's Clair Tappaan Lodge for a week-long "History and Hiking" outing, but the history lesson began early, when vast plumes of black and orange smoke appeared over the horizon. Almost 3,000 acres of forest were ablaze just south of Emigrant Gap, where the first wagon trains crossed the Sierra Nevada in 1845.

Back then, Jeffrey and ponderosa pines dotted these hills, I later learned from Herb Holden, manager of the Club's rustic lodge near Soda Springs, California. "When the railroads came through in the mid-1860s, they transformed the landscape," Holden said. "Trees were cut down for ties and trestles, then the timber companies and sawmills came in. Eventually, fast-growing fir trees and lodgepole pines began to take over." While the original, long-branched pines kept their stately distance, the new trees grew close together because of their sparser, shorter limbs, leaving the region vulnerable to devastating wildfires.

We would see many reminders of humans' enduring impact on the land on our dayhikes around Donner Pass. Trip leaders Carol Tresner and Steve Smith imparted the story of not only the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846, but of the Native Americans who came before them and the railroad barons who came after. The chronicles continued into the evenings at the lodge, which was built by Sierra Club volunteers in 1934 and named for an early Club president.

In winter, Clair Tappaan's 140 bunk beds are crowded with skiers and snowshoers. Summer brings smaller groups for stargazing, yoga, birdwatching, holiday barbecues, and backpacking. Our eclectic bunch of hikers included a couple from France, a young rock guitarist from Austin, and a retired Pasadena doctor who volunteers his medical services at anti-globalization protests.

One afternoon, as we stood atop Roller Pass at 7,900 feet, naturalist John Olmsted set the scene: "Imagine dense clouds, snow swirling around you, three feet of snow on the ground, and the Donner Party down below, turning back because the oxen couldn't go on." Later, we sat where members of the Donner Party who dubbed themselves "the forlorn hope" had trudged in deep snow in a last attempt to reach lower ground. Of the more than 80 people in the party, only half survived.

On the last day of our stay, we took a break from the past to contemplate the area's ecological future. After a dusty hike through D. L. Bliss State Park, we swam in Lake Tahoe's glistening Emerald Bay. A century ago, the lake was murky with logging sediment; now it is endangered by runoff from local roads, homes, and golf courses, as well as pollutants blowing up from San Francisco and Sacramento. I hope amateur historians on some future lodge trip will look back on that threat--as we do now on the old timber barons--as a thing of the distant past.

For information and reservations, contact Clair Tappaan Lodge at P.O. Box 36, Norden, CA 95724; (530) 426-3632;; or visit the Sierra Club Web site at Winter visitors enjoy free access to groomed cross-country ski trails and inexpensive lessons and equipment rentals, as well as easy drives to popular downhill ski areas. Sierra Club members receive a discount nightly rate, including family-style meals, year-round.

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