Thither Lead Myriad Paths
Copyright © 2002-2005
by Richard S. Platz, All
Russian Lake Backpack
September 1-6, 2002
An unnecessarily undulating trail
Many trails lead to Russian Lake. In August of
1999 (a year before my total hip replacement) we took the short,
rocky scramble to Bingham Lake, then down the brushy outlet
creek to the Pacific Crest Trail, south along the snow-blocked
PCT to a jeep road up to Siphon Lake, thence across the tilting,
exposed mountain flank to Russian Lake. We wanted to go back,
but not that way. This time we would try a more direct
route: the Deacon Lee trail.
drove to Weaverville on Sunday, then we headed north on State
Route 3 over Scott Mountain summit (where we crossed the Pacific
Crest Trail as it bore inexorably northward, swerving temporarily
westward from the Eddies to cross the northern slopes of the
Trinity Alps Wilderness) to the historically significant town
of Callahan, currently in the throes of irrelevance, decay,
and death. We shopped for ice, sodas, and munchies in Callahan's
only remaining business, an ancient general store, whose wooden
floors, shelves, and walls exuded the ambiance of a forgotten
Just past the bridge at the end of town we turned
left on the Cecilville Road and followed the winding two-lane
blacktop over the summit dividing the Scott River drainage behind
us from the Salmon River ahead. At Carter Meadows summit the
Pacific Crest Trail crossed our path a second time, emerging
refreshed from the Trinities and bound for the ragged granitic
spires of the Russian Wilderness to the north. Had we chosen,
the PCT would have taken us northwest to Russian Lake in seven
or eight miles via the familiar jeep road to Siphon Lake. Instead,
we followed the two-lane down a long winding grade, losing altitude
that we would soon have to regain. We passed the Trail Creek
Campground, where another trail would have afforded us a four-mile,
two-thousand-foot climb to Russian Lake. Two miles further,
we turned right on forest service road 39. After climbing ten
miles of good dirt road, we reached the Deacon Lee trailhead
on a long forested ridge 6800 feet above sea level. The ridge
was wide enough to accommodate twenty or thirty cars on both
sides of the road, but we were surprised to find only two there.
And on Labor Day weekend!
Fire permits had been canceled, even for the high
wilderness, so we tried out our Sierra stove to see if it would
work for our backpack. A little battery-powered fan attached
below a small pot blew pieces of bark, twigs, and sticks into
the inferno of a blacksmith's forge, quickly boiling our water
a scrumptious freeze-dried repast, we strolled along the ridge
road until the forest opened onto vistas in all directions and
deciphered the course our trail would be taking us, down to
an open saddle, around two forested red-rock slopes, and into
the distant granitic cirque. That evening we heard the "Who's
awake? Me too!" of several Great Horned Owls.
(Hear owl) Young deer skulked
on the edges of our campsite. It was very warm sleeping in the
Monday morning we awoke to find that the deer
had dragged away two of our three walking sticks. We did retrieve
the better one, a gift from Barbara's sister Joanne, and the
dirt and deer slobber cleaned up nicely. The other, Barbara's
original collapsing stick, was lost forever, alas. We heard
the miniature horn toots of a nuthatch and saw two bluebirds
before hitting the trail at 9 A.M., hoping to beat the sun and
The trail angled down the eastern slope from the
parking lot to a narrow, exposed high saddle. Through the haze
to the northwest lay English Peak, the Marble Mountain, and
Black Mountain in the Marble Mountain Wilderness. To the southeast
snowy Thompson Peak, Sawtooth, and Caribou Mountains crowned
the Trinity Alps Wilderness. The views were spectacular.
Three day-hikers were heading in at about the
same time, but without backpacks they quickly blew past us.
We met two other parties hiking out from Russian Lake, which
accounted for all the cars at the trailhead.
There were forested areas along the way, meadows,
and two small creeks, but it was not an easy trail. Much was
exposed, offering a continually changing view of the Trinity
Alps. After winding in and out of several gullies, we finally
climbed over a ridge and saw, level with us across a forested
basin, the granite headwall of our destination. Inexplicably,
however, the trail did not contour evenly around the basin,
but descended hundreds of feet through broken slates and shales
and schists and cherts before climbing back up through huge
granite boulders and loose granite sand to a trail junction.
The right-hand trail led up the reddish slope to Siphon Lake.
took the left fork, entering the wilderness, and climbed up
and over a ridge offering our first views to the northeast.
Below was the deep granitic canyon of South Russian Creek, and
as we descended a switchback, we caught a glimpse of Lower Russian
Lake 500 feet below.
A little further we crossed the outlet of Waterdog
Lake at 7000 feet. Tired, we had planned to rest awhile at Waterdog
Lake. But the day-hikers were eating lunch on the shore, and
a mild paranoia drove us to press on to the only good campsite
we remembered at Russian Lake before someone else got to it.
When we had climbed the final hundred feet to
Russian Lake, sweaty and drained, we rejoiced to find our old
"primo" campsite open (see opening photo). The site
was smaller and rougher than we remembered, but the lake spread
out spectacularly at our doorstep.
Lake rests at the collision point of three geological regions.
Gouged out of granodiorite by glaciers, the lake lies on the
southwestern edge of the Russian Peak Pluton, and the granitic
bones of white rock strew the smooth glacial-polished benches
that march northeast down to South Russian Creek, then rise
on the far side as jagged Russian Peak. The cliff face above
Russian Lake mutates from pale gray granitic rock on the left
to deep gray-brown metasedimentary native rockon the right,
intruded by broad bands of the lighter granodiorite. A filigree
of quartz intrusions slash through both like mad Jackson Pollack
petroglyphs. In these rocks one might find gold. Beyond the
peaks which tower over the lake lies a mountain of red ultramafic
rock, probably peridotite. There, a half-mile south as the crow
flies, Siphon Lake sits in its own bowl of red rock.
gusts off the lake buffeted us occasionally, so we changed into
dry clothes, set up the tent in the small clearing farthest
from the shore, inflated our pads, fluffed our sleeping bags,
strung the hammocks, and hung our packs from nails conveniently
hammered into the sheltering mountain hemlocks. The weather
was beautiful, but windy off and on that afternoon and evening.
Campfire restrictions were in place, so we fired up our Sierra
stove for dinner. No one else camped at Russian Lake or Waterdog
Tuesday morning was pleasant on Russian Lake,
but then the wind came up. We hiked down to Waterdog Lake to
an increasing cacophony of cow bells. Black cows had infested
the meadows above the lake like large clanking beetles, retreating
from us as we approached. No humans could be found. We could
not escape the gusting wind at Waterdog Lake, in the meadow
between the lakes, nor even on the shelves carved like giant
steps in the granite below Russian Lake. So, we took a nap in
Later, refreshed and rejuvenated, we were able
to definitively identify Russian Peak and the cirque below it
that held Bingham Lake, thanks to the GPS. Like a nail scratch
in the finish of a new car, the Pacific Crest Trail was gouged
into the granite wall above South Russian Creek, and we traced
the route we had taken on our first trip to Russian Lake from
By evening the incessant southwest wind was blowing
mercilessly. We managed to find a little shelter in the granite
benches below Russian Lake as we ate dinner, but when it started
to get dark and with no campfires allowed, we gave up and went
to bed early.
On Wednesday morning the cows decided in their
cow brains that their cow destinies would be vastly improved
if they wandered up to our lake, but I managed to chase them
back down into the meadow by yelling, clacking sticks, and throwing
rocks. We then climbed up the steep cutoff trail at the south
end of the lake and day-hiked to Siphon Lake, where we ate lunch
and explored the red rock hills above that lake.
Lake lies outside the wilderness and tracks in the red-dirt
road indicate it is frequented by off-road vehicles, probably
from Trail Creek Campground. The lake derives its name from
an abandoned water syphon which once diverted its waters to
a hydraulic mine somewhere below. In the woods on the outlet
stream across the road is a small, comfortable campsite, furnished
with a few roughhewn timbers and rusting relics of the syphon
We watched a day hiker with three dogs climbing
toward the ridge above the lake, then lost sight of him. We
wanted to climb to the same ridge and perhaps look down on Russian
Lake on the other side, but as we rose out of the red-rock bowl,
a cold wind blasted us into submission, and we turned back.
Oddly, the exposed trail back around the mountain
was relatively free of wind. We paused to admire and photograph
the peaks of the Trinity Alps. Following the trail all the way
back to Waterdog Lake, we swam at the calm leeward end, and
the water was not too cold. Then we warmed ourselves on the
bank in the afternoon sun.
Climbing back up to Russian Lake, we heard cows
bells clattering from the direction of our tent. Sure enough,
a couple of the large black beasts stood stupidly in the center
of our campsite, eyeing our approach with bovine incomprehension.
Enraged, I again drove them down to the meadow with sticks and
stones and terrible yells. They left splattered cow-pie mementos
along the path but, miraculously, none in our camp.
wind finally calmed down, and we sat and watched the lake darken
and the bats begin to swoop. That night the temperature dropped
to 30 degrees.
Thursday morning was sunny and calm on the lake.
We drank our coffee and tea in the warm morning sun and tried
to decipher meaning in the pattern of the trees and rock and
the lines of quartz in the lake's mirrored surface. All was
well with the world.
We took our time hiking out, enjoying the great
views along the way. At the van we tossed our packs in back
without unpacking them, because we would spend no more nights
away from home. At forest service road 39 we turned right and
drove a few miles gaining altitude before we realized that we
should have turned left. Backtracking, we soon arrived
back at the Callahan-Cecilville road.
Then we drove to Cecilville, and home by way of
Orleans, Hoopa, and Willow Creek. The road is slow and winding,
but beautiful as it follows the Salmon River to its confluence
with the Klamath, especially the one-lane sections east of Somes
Bar. The drive takes just as long this way as going through
Weaverville, even though it looks shorter on the map.
We cut our vacation short to get back home because
one my clients required my presence at a corporate board meeting
early Friday morning. Usually we buffer the transition back
to "reality" with a night at the cabin, a hot tub,
or a motel room stay. Not this time. Far flung vistas of trees
and rocks and geological time gave way abruptly to social exigency
and the scramble for the almighty dollar. More paths hurry us
thither than to Russian Lake.
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