Sierra Magazine


Hiking through History | Sierra Club's newest president | Our Ears Are Burning | Join | Go Online | Express Yourself

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.

Putting a New Face on the Club

Guided by her experiences as a westerner and a woman, Jennifer Ferenstein takes the helm

by Jennifer Hattam

When the Sierra Club Board of Directors took a "toxic tour" of Louisiana's Cancer Alley, Jennifer Ferenstein met an inspiring group of older, African-American women activists. "They had so much perseverance and such a sense of place," Ferenstein says. "They knew that they deserved a healthy environment, that their children should be able to come back and live where they had built homes and communities." Now the Sierra Club's newest president--and only the fourth woman to hold that position--Ferenstein, 36, wants to broaden the organization's constituency to include more people like those she met in New Orleans. "I'm hoping to use my position to put a slightly different face on the Sierra Club," says Ferenstein, who lives in Missoula, Montana.

A lifelong westerner, Ferenstein grew up in Berkeley, California, majored in biology at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, then developed her advocacy acumen while pursuing a master's degree in environmental studies at the University of Montana. "I liked Missoula from the second I got there," Ferenstein says. "In bigger cities, you feel removed from the decisions that affect your life. Here you can just go in and talk to the mayor. That direct access to decision-makers made me feel like what I do in the community could make a difference."

Ferenstein wants to share this empowering experience by encouraging the Sierra Club to listen to women, young people, urban dwellers, and others whose concerns are not always reflected in the priorities of the environmental movement. As an example of the type of coalition-building she hopes to promote, Ferenstein proudly notes that northern plains tribes working to protect Weatherman Draw have asked the Club to get more involved in preserving this Montana valley and other sacred sites (see "Home Front,"). The key is letting affected communities take the lead, Ferenstein says. "We need to figure out what the American people want and how to help them get it."

Our Ears Are Burning
"Every time Bush even hints that he wants to take on some greenish sacred cow, he reawakens another contingent of environmentalists. Al Gore would have talked them into a trance; Bush has them leaping and screaming and reaching for the telephone to alert the nearest branch of the Sierra Club." --Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2001

"President George W. Bush has yet to say which charity will get his rebate check, but it's probably not the Sierra Club." --Newsweek, September 3, 2001

To join the Sierra Club activist network, write to the Office of Volunteer and Activist Services, 85 Second St., San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail Members receive a free subscription to the Planet monthly newsletter and Sierra Club Currents, a twice-weekly e-mail update.

Go Online
Visit the Club's Web site at To sign up for our other e-mail lists and forums, go to

Express Yourself
To make your voice count on environmental issues, write or call your elected officials at:
U.S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
U.S. Capitol Switchboard
(202) 224-3121
Contact President Bush at:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20500
Comment line (202) 456-1414
Fax (202) 456-2461

Up to Top