It’s been 35 years since I decided to take my living straight from the dirt of Anderson Valley, whether by logging, woodcutting or ranch-handing, but I still remember the moment I fell in love with the place. I was a young buck greenhorn lumberjack and Claude Rose was a rickety cowboy plenty old enough to be my grandpa. It was a hot summer evening and we were sipping some after-work refreshments in Yorkville’s Oaks Café, the roadhouse/gas station/general store that used to be up there. The Oaks was built on the exact divide between the Russian and Navarro River watersheds—between Anderson and un-Anderson Valley—Claude had once told me, but that was only topographically speaking seeing how the kinships, friendships and associations spread down along Dry Creek as far as its oxbow below Mountain House, and as high up into the mountains as the ground allowed. And so, in the practical way of things, all that could really be said about the Oak’s location was that it gave the parcel excellent drainage.
When we stepped outside to head home, State Highway 128 was empty. The sun had set behind the ridge above us, but the upper half of the mountainside across the way was still aglow, its tawny grasslands tinted gold. Puffs of clouds were sliding across the ceiling of the valley, their shadows easing up the mountainside, and we paused to take in the moment. Pointing my finger at the circle of what I took to be redwoods crowning the highest skyline summit, I announced to Claude how one day I was going to bag that peak.
“You’d best pack a lunch,” Claude advised. “That mountain ain’t as near as she looks, or nearly so gentle, and them ain’t redwoods but sugar pines. Sugar pines like the high ground and around here we’ve got plenty of that.”Some years later my wife, boy, baby boy and I moved into a single-wide trailer up on cinder blocks camped on 160 acres roughly halfway up that mountainside and maybe a crow’s mile west of the piney crown. Since ascending 1,000 feet in elevation is a whole lot easier than ascending 2,000, I gathered up a partner for company and finally fulfilled my ambition. It was mid-winter, a big rainstorm had blown over the night before, the morning sky was cobalt blue and the wet landscape was glistening in the sunlight. Every little crease in the terrain was filled with gurgling rivulets of runoff and, rising out of the nearby canyons, we heard the echoes of waterfalls and splashing cascades. The biting Gulf of Alaska bluster gained strength as we neared the summit, and when we finally broke into sight of the circle of sugar pines, simultaneously our ears filled with their watery windsong. Attaining any kind of mountain top always gives a body a burst of energy, and the thick carpet of pine needle duff put some spring into our footsteps. The treetops overhead were bending and swaying and their pine scent was hanging tough against the wind. The tree trunks were big enough for us to use as windbreaks and, sitting down and resting our backs against a pair, we soaked in the panorama. Far below, the Oaks Café looked like a white dot sitting on a patchwork saddle freckled with white dots and, three ridgelines beyond and dominating the southern skyline, we saw a bumpy mountain top that looked to be as tall as ours. Southeast along our ridge was another peak that appeared just as tall and, casting our eyes seaward, we saw a nearby summit that was no doubt taller and, beyond it, two more that could be. Further on we saw more knuckleheaded peaks on the crooked-finger ridges flanking the invisible Anderson Valley “hole” yet, since the land was tilted toward the Pacific Ocean, we knew they couldn’t be as high above the surf as we were. Eastward stretched the brushy spine of the Mayacama Range with flat-topped Cobb Mountain crowning the skyline and, peeking over the range, we saw the thumbnail summit of another dead volcano called Konocti. Gazing northward into the near/far distance, we saw a jumble of fat, snow-covered mountains that obviously were substantially taller than ours. Chilled to the bone and wanting to explore some more, we took the long way home. We weren’t far below the summit when we caught sight of something that froze us in our tracks. Set within a latticework of rangy, ground-hugging red manzanita stood a grove of dwarf coniferous trees (scrub cypress, they turned out to be). Not much taller than a man but a foot-thick where they broke ground, their weathered bark peeling, the dwarf trees put me in mind of the Southwest’s trackless juniper/pinyon forestlands and I was charmed. This is the land of redwoods and fog, seagulls and salmon, mosses and ferns? Yes, absolutely. But there’s so much more to this place, whether faint before the vanishing point or hidden underfoot. The huge basalt and shale outcrops, greenish serpent rocks, buckskinned puff stones, colored clays, tidewater marches and high country barrens laced together by creeks aiming every-which-way tell of ancient ocean bottom and floods, lava flows and ice ages; the stone pestles, flint spear points, obsidian arrowheads, carved spirit rocks, split-picket redwood pasture fences and swaybacked barns tell of a rich human history and, flying up the canyon like a horse letting loose for the joy of it, a gust of wind tells your immediate future and, after it has run over the top of you, you feel like you’ve made its acquaintance. The here and now, past and future all rolled into one. What’s solitude but that? I’ve heard that if you sculpted out of bread dough a scale-model topographical map of the Navarro River watershed and then took a rolling pin and stretched it flat in all directions, it’d cover more land area than the mudflat state of Delaware. Whether or not that’s true, it does help explain why even the smallest ranch or ranchette in his watershed, beyond its landscaping and gardens, usually holds more biological diversity per acre than most any other place on earth. According to Gladys Smith’s and Clare Wheeler’s definitive A Flora of the Vascular Plants of Mendocino County, growing in Mendocino are 1,784 native species, 522 subspecies and varieties, 22 natural hybrids, 418 introduced species and, excepting the plants of the sub-alpine, virtually all of them grow right here in this watershed. Every year the women of the Anderson Valley Unity Club head out into hills and dales to collect specimens for their Spring Wildflower Show held at the County Fairgrounds in Boonville, and strolling through their aisles of bouquets makes you appreciate the bounty of God’s green earth; its variety, beauty, tenacity and fragility.
For a lucky seven years I lived on a ranch above the Dry Creek oxbow, and for four of them I logged the redwoods out along the North Fork, and the South Branch of the North Fork, of the Navarro River. One job was out along Spooner Creek at the watershed’s northwestern edge, and that meant I drove it from one end to the other. Yorkville, which was five miles up a straight-shot stretch of Dry Creek, is a hog-backed ridge set between the toes of mountains, and past there the highway drops into a timbered canyon and quickly meets up with Beebe Creek which, at high water, is a gorge-gouging torrent that leaps and tumbles down 2,400 vertical feet in an almost continuous cascade. Shortly the Beebe joins Rancheria Creek and the ground widens, flattens and opens to grass. The Ornbaun Opening, the wide spot is called, and here, as in many other places along the way, there has been continuous human habitation for at least 6,000 years and, far more likely, at least twice that long.The Navarro River watershed is made up of five creek basins, and the Rancheria’s is the biggest. Head upstream from here along the Rancheria—the creek gently meanders through bottomlands—go past its North Fork to where its web of headwaters gather in the shadow of Pardaloe Peak, put in with a Kayak and it’ll be 26 miles before you reach its confluence with Anderson and Indian Creeks and the official start of the main stem of the Navarro River.
Downstream from the Ornbaun Opening, the highway follows the Rancheria for a few miles as it gathers tributaries, strength and velocity while descending into its canyon. The sunny, south-facing mountainside above is grassland dappled with oaks and pepperwoods, the creek is lined with willows, sycamores and maples, and the shady canyonside above it is timbered with redwood and fir, tanoak and madrone. You pass over Maple Creek where it blends into the Rancheria and here, barring the tidewaters, you’re at the narrowest point of the 40-mile-long watershed. The southern divide is right above you just a short drive up Fish Rock Road, and running its edge is Ornbaum Springs, a mountain meadow ringed with tall furry redwoods that’s about as beautifully pastoral as you’ll find anywhere. The northern divide is considerably further away, up past the sources of Maple Creek, in the heart of what used to be the Yorkville Ranch, a spread once famous for having the best graze in these parts. There’s an old elk and Indian track/horse and wagon trail/private road that leads up and over the mountains and down to the Russian River.
After the highway tops another rise, the soils turn serpentine and you skirt the edge of an incense cedar forest. A native Californian that rarely grows outside of the mixed coniferous forests of the Sierra Nevada and Siskiyou Plateau, here the stand is “pure.” While incense cedar makes excellent construction lumber and split-stock, the ease with which it sharpens makes it the world’s best wood for pencils. The colored, mostly barren ground is littered with serpentine rocks, or “Teton jade,” as the pioneers called them, and the finer specimens can be cut and polished into jewelry.Just past the last of the roadside cedars, the Rancheria and the highway tip their hats. The creek bends and vanishes westward into a deepening defile while the highway continues climbing northward. You top another rise and then coast down a canyon that’s the southern edge of the Anderson Creek basin and Anderson Valley proper. Like cedars, California black oaks are “companion trees” that nearly always grow interspersed with others, but if you look off into the headwaters amphitheater at your left you’ll see about the purest forest of black oaks as you’ll find anywhere. Whether standing leafless and black against the emerald green winter grasses and pale green mistletoe and lichen hanging in their naked branches, or showing diffuse pinks, yellows and soft greens during their spring bloom, or standing full-canopied, bright and glossy green during the dry season, or flashing fiery rainbow yellows and reds during autumn, the black oaks are worthy of a painting by Monet.
At the bottom of the canyon you finally roll out of the mountains and are reunited with flat ground, straight highway, visual elbowroom and civilization. Up ahead stretches a wide river valley surrounded by mountains with canyons adding creeks—a place of gathering waters—and it’s easy to see why the Pomo Indians living here called themselves River People and their Yorkville kin Mountain People. Or why, in 1851, when up on a ridge the Beeson boys sat astride their horses and laid eyes on the place, they filled with wonderment. “A Garden of Eden,” they breathlessly claimed they’d discovered when they got back home, determined to set down stakes out there in the wild green yonder under the giant redwoods and above the giant fish, but wanting to do so with the pleasure of some company. Come one, come all, the call was, first come, first served. Yet, like with most every other isolated frontier settlement made up of serious homesteaders—as opposed to miners, lumber barons, or boomers of any kind—civilization came to Anderson Valley peacefully enough with very little in the way of killings and, so far as anybody remembers, just one lynching, and even that one maybe anecdotal.
Nowadays Boonville and its little downstream country cousins, Philo and Navarro, are justly famous as vacation destinations. But that’s another story. Here I’ll close by pointing out that now you have arrived just shy of the watershed’s geographic bellybutton and, marking the spot, invisible from the highway, unseen and all but unknown, ancient and ephemeral, stands the valley’s tallest and most beautiful waterfall.