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Pack donkeys add historical element to guided walk through Snake Lake area

 Plumas County Museum Director Scott Lawson and his donkey Bonita.
Laura Beaton
Staff Writer

An eager group of hikers took a walk back in time during a guided hike highlighting ecological, historical and cultural aspects of the Snake Lake area.

Plumas County Museum Director Scott Lawson and his son Sam led their two pack animals and 16 interested hikers on an 8-mile walk from the former townsite of New Boston to Snake Lake, Smith Lake and back to New Boston on Friday, Aug. 8.

As Lawson’s two donkeys were packed up with food, water, backpacks and a first aid kit, Lawson told the story of Bonita, the wild donkey he acquired from Navajo country.

He said when the wild herds become too big, the Navajo round up the donkeys and sell the surplus. After Lawson bought Bonita, a standard donkey (there are also miniature and mammoth breeds) and brought her home, he was surprised at how big and healthy she appeared. Three weeks later Bonita gave birth to a daughter, whom Lawson named Alice.

Now, six years later, Alice carries the heavier pack boxes that Lawson built while Bonita carries canvas saddle bags. The 400-pound donkeys can carry about one-quarter of their body weight, Lawson said.

The walk began near the Snake Lake bridge off Bucks Lake Road, the site of the historical short-lived and long-gone New Boston mining town and trading post.

There was a huge influx of miners to Plumas County in the 1850s after gold was discovered in what is now Plumas-Eureka State Park. Many miners staked claims and worked along Spanish and Wapaunsie creeks near Meadow Valley.

The hike

Hikers walked across the Snake Lake bridge and after a quarter-mile headed east on a dirt road past the former county dump near Gopher Hill Mine.

The tour veered onto an old Spanish Peak Lumber Co. narrow-gauge railroad grade and portions of the Beckwourth Emigrant Trail.

The trail, often steep and undulating, passed by relics from mining and logging days and denuded hills where hydraulic water cannons washed millions in gold from the earth in the late 1800s.

After the mining frenzy subsided, the timber industry took hold and virgin forests of old growth conifers were cut down and hauled away on narrow-gauge railcars.

Hikers explored half-rotted remnants of an old “donkey engine sled,” a structure constructed from flat-bottomed timbers 30 – 40 feet long and 2 to 3 feet in diameter. The sleds were used to drag logs to a logging deck before they were loaded onto railcars.

Pieces of water pipe cut from steel sheets and riveted together onsite lay defunct on the forest floor. Lawson said a 17-mile ditch and pipeline once transported water from Silver Lake for hydraulic mining purposes. Water was also diverted from manmade Smith and Snake lakes for mining.

Along the trail, Lawson pointed out remnants of these ditches, dams, railroad trestles and log landings, as well as viewpoints and other places of interest.

One hiker, natural resources advisor Mike De Lasaux, gave impromptu lessons about the mixed conifer forest the hikers walked through. He pointed out spotted owl calling locations and explained how researchers use vocal calls to locate owls.

He said once owls are located, researchers return to the site and feed the owls mice by holding out a stick to which a mouse is clinging. The owl swoops down and grabs the mouse, then takes it back to its nest to feed its young. Researchers are thus able to record the location of nests and tally the number of owls in various locations.

De Lasaux spoke about various tree species that make up Sierra Nevada forests. He enumerated features of the five major conifers found in the mixed conifer zone in Plumas National Forest between about 3,000 and 4,500 feet in elevation: ponderosa pine, sugar pine, white fir, Douglas fir and incense cedar.

De Lasaux also spoke about fire ecology and how the Quincy Library Group has positively impacted forest fire policy in Plumas and across the country. He pointed out areas hikers passed where fire suppression efforts created important firebreaks.

After enjoying lunch at the Snake Lake campground, the tour participants continued over to Smith Lake. Lawson related that the first dam built at Smith Lake was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1870s, causing flooding down Spanish Creek that washed debris all the way up to Lawrence Street in Quincy.

The hike continued down Wapaunsie Creek, weaving along a narrow trail and through the shallow creekbed back to Snake Lake Road and the hike’s end at Bucks Lake Road.

Future donkey walks are being planned, Lawson said. Hikers must be members of the museum association. Call 283-6320 for more information.

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