The world was lost in a deafening roar, intense and terrifying. The sea heaved with ominous waves reaching their white-foamed fingers to the sky. Deep rumbling sounds tore the heart of the earth far beneath the ocean floor as occasional geysers of steam shot upward through the waters with a strange hissing sound. Sea and sky blended into one dark churning mass, and at that time, there was nothing else.
The mighty sea kept her counsel, as beneath the waters of the deep, the ocean floor was crumpling due to intense heat and pressure from the molten inner earth. Giant slabs of the earth’s crust known as tectonic plates were colliding, and the ancient Farallon Plate was subducted beneath the North American Plate. The sea floor was uplifted until there appeared two islands – one of which would form the Klamath Mountains of southern Oregon and northern California, and the other the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. During this period of upheaval, pieces of various continents known as exotic terranes, rode along the ocean floor and were accreted or attached to the growing North American plate, and the islands that were pushed ever inland with continued folding and faulting.
As these mountains moved into place, the shores of the sea extended inland to what is now Idaho. The ocean floor continued to cast up belts of sediment layered upon the ocean shore, one succeeding another as the dry land grew and the waters receded westward. From these disturbances, the land of Oregon and northern California began to form from antiquated rocks, some believed to be as much as 500 million years old. The resulting mountains became a mosaic of rock types, much of it ultramafic serpentine from the ocean floor, with mineral composition high in magnesium, chromium, iron, and nickel – normally toxic to plants. At the same time serpentine soils are low in calcium, potassium, and phosphorus which plants normally must have. This requires unique specialization for plants to be able to grow in such regions. It also gave rise to many plants, trees and flowers which are endemic, meaning they grow only in this region and nowhere else in the world.
Now the somber sea laps softly against the white sand – sand that curves into a long arc pushed up against the ragged cliffs, its grains sparkling in the late afternoon sun like diamond dust. The beach, never touched by the footprint of man, is smooth and firm, melting into the elusive mist. Far to the west the opal tints of the water blend with the roseate sky as the ruby sun slips slowly into the waters. One day leads to another as beneath the unsettled waves, the uncertain earth pushes relentlessly forward. At times the sea is turbulent with such instability, tossing its white foam high in the air – at other times tranquil, almost like a sheet of glass. Gradually over millennia the landscape begins to change. As the island arcs of mountains push their way above the waters, they become verdant with plant life. The waters teem with fish, among them green and white sturgeon, as well as other aquatic life. And ever so slowly, the sea floor is rising again between these two islands, eventually becoming the barrier of the volcanic Cascade Mountains. This range consists of the much older Western Cascades, bordered by the younger and taller High Cascades, effectively isolating the temperate Klamath-Siskiyou region from the lands to the east.
Bitter cold falls upon the land with swirling storms of ice and heavy snow. Glaciers cap many of the higher peaks and upper slopes, carving cirques and valleys. Still, the region that was to become the Klamath-Siskiyou is somewhat protected from the more extensive glaciation of other regions.
In those days, mysterious creatures roamed the lands of the Klamath-Siskiyou. There were giant bears, Arctodus simus, known as the Short-Faced Bear, a formidable beast. He might weigh as much as 2200 pounds (Polar Bears, by comparison are generally around 1300 lbs with some individuals up to 1700 or so). Standing on all fours, the Short-Faced Bear would look a 6 foot man in the eye, and if he stood on his hind legs, would tower 7 feet above him. The feet of the Short-Faced Bear pointed straight forward rather than toed-in like modern bears, enabling him to run very fast. He could attain speeds of 40 miles per hour, in spite of his enormous size, allowing him to overtake most prey. Gigantic Columbian Mammoths were also common, standing about 13 feet at the shoulder and weighing 18,000 to 22,000 pounds. It was much larger than the Woolly Mammoth which lived farther north, or the African Elephant.
Scimitar cats, Homotherium serum were large spotted short-tailed cats standing about 3 ½ feet at the shoulder and weighing from 330 to nearly 500 pounds. They had unusual incisors like curved, serrated steak knives, which combined with the lower canines were powerful for gripping and puncturing. It had long front legs with the back sloping toward powerful, squat hindquarters. The nasal opening, like that of a Cheetah, was larger and squarish, facilitating oxygen uptake, so it was likely a fast runner well able to overtake its prey. This cat preferred open areas in the higher mountains. Smilodon fatalis, the Saber Toothed Cat (often called Saber Toothed Tiger, though it was not related to tigers) was even more common than the Scimitar Cat. The Saber Tooth was a muscular animal, standing about 3 feet at the shoulder and weighing up to nearly 400 pounds. The saber-like curved and serrated teeth were nearly twice as long as the Scimitar cat’s, being about 7 or 8 inches. This cat was not a fast runner, and preferred living along the edges of wooded areas where it could ambush its prey. Canis dirus, the fierce Dire Wolf, was similar to today’s Gray Wolf but with a more muscular, stocky build, about 25% heavier, weighing up to 175 pounds, and with more powerful jaws. With shorter legs, he was not as swift.
Other prehistoric species included mastodons, camels, woolly rhinoceros, ancient bison, horses, and giant ground sloths. Most of these and many other large animals, or megafauna, disappeared at the end of the Pleistocene approximately 11,000 years ago – except for the horse, which survived elsewhere. Reasons for this massive extinction were thought to be possibly due to human hunting by early Paleo-Indian cultures, climate change, or possibly some combination of these factors.
One of the ancient large mammals from this era still in existence today is the Jaguar, Panthera onca. One of the best fossils of this cat was found in the Oregon Caves of the Klamath-Siskiyou Region – though it also disappeared from this region toward the end of the Pleistocene. Jaguars of this era were much larger than they are now. This fossil was estimated to be 38,600 years old, and the animal was believed to weigh around 500 pounds, around twice as heavy as Jaguars today.
Rapid climate change occurred at the end of the Pleistocene/beginning of the Holocene, in a very brief period of about 40 years. Warming temperatures caused glacier melt and extensive flooding, ultimately changing the vegetation type. Additional, lesser periods of glaciation alternating with warmer periods, along with volcanic activity of the High Cascades continued to shape the region. As glaciers receded, numerous mountain lakes filled the cirques they left behind, scattered like sparkling jewels among jagged peaks of granite or gleaming white marble. Here the sub-alpine forests began to grow, giving way to mosaic patterns of montane forests and meadows, endemic plants growing among red serpentine soils, and moist wetlands and bogs. Mixed evergreen forests and oak woodlands spread across the lower elevations. Lush green forests of massive Coast Redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, dominate the western edge of the region in northern California and southwest Oregon.
The Dire Wolf gave way to the Cascade Mountain Wolf (Canis lupus fuscus), a cinnamon colored subspecies of the Gray Wolf. Grizzly and Black Bear replaced the Short-Faced Bear; with Mountain Lion, Lynx, and Bobcat becoming the primary predator cats. Wolverine and Fisher were also abundant. The forests were filled with deer and elk, the rivers with steelhead and salmon. There were many species of birds, including the great California Condor. Pollinators thrived with a large variety of butterflies and bees. Native American populations which followed the Paleo-Indians had great respect for the land and the creatures that dwelt there. These included several branches of the Takelma, Rogue River, Klamath, Modoc, Okwanuchu, Wintu, Shasta, and Hoopa Valley tribes.
For the next several thousand years, the Klamath-Siskiyou Region was relatively undisturbed in all its wild glory. A few natural events such as the eruption of some of the volcanic peaks along the Cascade border to the east continued to shape the region, particularly Mt. Mazama, which altered the course of the Rogue River. Lightning fires from time to time were a natural occurrence, and the Native American tribes did learn careful use of deliberate fire as a means of both enhancing the habitat for game species and minimizing the risks of destructive fires.
With the arrival of trappers from the British Hudson Bay Company in the late 1700s, things began to change rapidly. Although the trappers at first seldom penetrated the most rugged portions of the area, they practically decimated the beaver population in hopes of discouraging American trappers so they could claim the land for England. Some of them also purposely gifted some of the Native Americans with smallpox infected blankets.
Fur trappers led by Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson Bay Company began using what came to be called the Siskiyou Trail in 1827. This rigorous route through the Siskiyou Mountains followed more or less the same path that is now I-5, and was the first regular trail established over the difficult Siskiyou Crest. An American fur trader and pioneer, Ewing Young brought 300 horses and mules across the Siskiyou Trail in 1834, and returned in 1837 to lead the first cattle drive from California to Oregon. He established the Willamette Cattle Company, and successfully brought 630 of 700 head of cattle through the daunting mountains and over the Siskiyou Summit, further widening the trail. This paved the way for cattle ranching operations, and the practice of allowing herds to freely roam the forests during the summers in search of grazing still continues today. The United States Exploring Expedition came over the trail in 1841 with the first overland party of scientists and cartographers.
The fight between early settlers and predators was a foregone conclusion as Oregon Territory began offering bounties for wolf hides as early as 1843. Grizzly bears were roped by vaqueros of the early ranches and made to fight bulls for the amusement of bystanders. A placer deposit of gold was first discovered in the Klamath Mountains of what is now Shasta County in 1848, which initiated a flood of prospectors and settlers pushing into southern Oregon. The population of California exploded from 15,000 in 1849 to over 200,000 by 1852. Meanwhile, Jesse Applegate led the first wagon train across the Siskiyou Summit in 1849, and the first sawmill was built along what is now Ashland Creek in Ashland, OR in 1852. During the 1860’s toll roads improved sufficiently for stagecoach travel were carved over the Siskiyou Crest, and in 1887 travel was further facilitated by the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad which paralleled the Siskiyou Trail.
To these early pioneers, it was a vast unlimited land whose wilds must be conquered for their own survival, profit, and for the advancement of civilization. The Native peoples, the huge trees, the fierce wild predators such as wolves and grizzly bears were seen as obstacles which must be removed. At times, villages were burned, and native peoples murdered or enslaved. Native American women were bartered and sold as wives to fur traders to form alliances. White men were often wasteful with the resources, decimating food supplies native tribes had depended upon for centuries. Even missionaries and those who wanted to help the Native Americans believed they must be educated and made to adopt the white man’s ways. The early American government sadly upheld this mentality, forcing Native Americans to dwell on reservation lands chosen for them in order to free the choicest lands on which they had lived and hunted for eons, for white settlers. Native tribes of the Klamath-Siskiyou have always been resilient and resourceful, and today are among the leading voices in protecting this magnificent region which is their heritage.
The last grizzly in California was killed in 1895, and in Oregon the last grizzly killed was 1936. The last wolf was shot in California in 1924, while Oregon paid its last wolf bounty in 1947. Logging the rich forests of southern Oregon and northern California became a profitable business as no one imagined at that time the seemingly endless supply of trees could be diminished. Logging in turn gave rise to increased road-building and erosion from networks of logging roads crisscrossing forests. No one gave any thought to the impacts of timber harvest upon the ecosystem and resident wildlife populations. No one thought of the cumulative effects of livestock grazing, including damage to watersheds, rare plant habitat, and pollinators, not to mention decreasing browse for native wildlife. Mining activities created considerable damage and disturbance to creeks, rivers, and adjacent riparian habitat.
By the time wilderness protections began to be set in place, much wildlife habitat had become fragmented. Many mining claims and grazing permits which pre-existed were grandfathered and allowed to continue, limiting the effectiveness of such protection. Logging activity in areas adjacent to designated Roadless and Wilderness continues to fragment habitat for some critical species such as the Northern Spotted Owl, Strix occidentalis, which is still declining and is also facing pressure from the Barred Owl, Strix varia, its larger and more aggressive cousin. Since wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone and Idaho in 1995, the Gray Wolf, Canis lupus occidentalis, a close relative of the Cascade Mountain Wolf which previously occupied the Klamath-Siskiyou Region, has slowly begun to spread into the area. OR-7, or “Journey”, as he was named, the famous wolf which dispersed from the Imnaha Pack in northeast Oregon – finally found a mate and produced pups on the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest during 2014 and 2015. These wolves were named the Rogue Pack. In 2015, California’s first wolf pack since 1924, the all black Shasta Pack – two adults and five pups – established themselves in northern California. Still, their existence is fragile as pressure continues from those who would destroy them to remove their protections before populations are fairly established.
The silent silver moon bathes the unfathomable peaks in ethereal light as the wind sighs through the dark forests and caresses the hidden lakes with whispering fingers. The wolves raise their voices in a mournful song of beautiful disharmony, a lost chorus of the ages which the solemn peaks remember they have heard before. A solitary Northern Spotted Owl, once believed by some Native Americans to be the Guardian of the Forest – lifts his wings. Wild and free, he is borne on the currents of the wind, now swooping, now hovering, a dark silhouette against the night sky, high above the trees. Somehow these creatures are in tune with secrets of a long ago past, which someday, will return.