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California cool: Beyond the Redwood curtain

Upstate is a world apart from classic California. A bucolic, forested wilderness, it's home to sleeping volcanoes, glassy lakes and sulphur springs.

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:19 BST
Redwood National Park.
Redwood National Park.
Photograph by Robert Harding

"Everything moves so fast these days," announces Julie, looking across the lake. "I wanted to find somewhere people could stop for a while."

We fix our eyes on three canoes cutting a slim furrow across the mirror-blue expanse; lone vessels dwarfed by clay-red mountains rising up above from the shore, their peaks — some still snow-capped — layered endlessly as far as the horizon.

It's summer, and hundreds of flat-topped, shed-like houseboats populate Shasta Lake; its 370 miles of sharply snaking shoreline accommodating them in hidden bays. A huge dam — America's second tallest after the Hoover Dam when it was completed in the early 1940s — sealed off part of the Sacramento River to form this tangle of a lake.

This corner of Northern California is where redwood trees vastly outnumber people and the trappings of modern life melt away. Above the lake lies Tsasdi Resort, owned and run by Julie and her partner, Scott. Its hillside log cabins are furnished with wrought-iron beds, patchwork quilts and pastel-coloured, mid-century kitchenettes. "Generations of the same families have been coming to Tsasdi since it opened in the '40s," says Scott. "And while we've updated, we've aimed to retain the spirit of the place."

I too, have fallen for 'upstate' California, with its forests and undulant, picket-fenced farmland. There's even a charm to the cheery, cursive 1940s fonts found on the welcome signs at ranger stations and state parks, which make up the bulk of its landmass.

"People think Northern California is San Francisco wine country, then the Oregon border. But there's so much in between," says Scott. And it's true. Despite covering around a quarter of the landmass of a state almost twice as big as the UK, Northern California's population barely exceeds Peterborough's.

To get here, I'd driven for days before the fields of wheat, vines and olives gave way to the wild; soon, my car was burrowing through dense tunnels of redwood and fir up to snowy passes where sheets of sleet flung themselves at the windscreen. The weather cleared as I arrived in Lassen Volcanic National Park, where the ground steamed, from both the returning sun and the sulphur springs, hissing fumaroles and boiling mud pots that perforate the ground, burping up such brilliant place names as Bumpass Hell, Black Butte and the Devastated Area.

Lassen is a curiosity — a place made for short scenic drives, yet also somewhere you could get lost in for weeks, hiking its hundreds of miles of trails, overnighting in wild campgrounds amid frozen lava fields and sleeping volcanoes.

"There was heavy snow overnight," says a park official as I wait on the valley floor to drive up to a mountain trailhead that kicks off at 8,000ft. "We're clearing it now, so you can get in there but I wouldn't hang around. More's coming." She has the no-nonsense look of someone used to shovelling snow in June. I confine my hike to a walk round the lake before beating a retreat into the nearby 'town'.

Chester's Main Street — pretty much the sum total of 'town' — offers a handful of diners serving old-country fare. At Cravings Cafe, I decline the Settler's Breakfast (hash, sausage gravy and eggs over easy with Applewood-smoked bacon), but can't resist a souvenir — a mug that reads: 'Relax and shit'. It's about as far from California's overly worthy, self-help motivational mantras as you can get. But then again, upstate is a very different California. 

Interview: Meet the Redwood craftsman 

Based in Potter Valley, Bob Cummings runs Secret Harbor Boat Works, which has been making double outrigger canoes from reclaimed redwood for over 30 years

"A trip to Quetico Provincial Park in western Ontario in 1970 was the start of my interest in canoes. I learned they could be home-built from wood and fibreglass — something my wife and I slowly learned to do in California.

"We became very skilled at making and piloting difficult 'Canadian' canoes — we could self-rescue even in very rough conditions, but there was always that shock of cold water once you tipped in. Polynesian outriggers, which have one float, looked like a solution to this instability, but, in fact, can tip over even faster. So we built trimarans (double outriggers), with a float on both sides, and a foot-controlled rudder. An instant success, the rental companies we worked with loved them — they kept clients dry and happy. And we're still at it, 40 years later.

"Redwood is light, beautiful and easy to work with; perfect for making rental craft with, as it can be abused but is easy to repair. The really old stuff is best to build with but the only source these days is discarded lumber — fence posts, water tanks, fallen barns and such. It's a real thrill to cut into a black and cracked old chunk and find gold. Fibreglass and epoxy completes the outrigger's construction."

Where to stay
Tsasdi Resort
Plumas Pines Resort

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Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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