[an error occurred while processing this directive]


Online Extra
October 2001

<< Back to Feature Page

California's Volcanic North

By Priit J. Vesilind
You're a helpless passenger on a plate of continental crust that glides across the planet's seething interior. If you live in North America, chances are you're on a plate that's inching westward. If you live in northern California, there's another hulking crust, the Gorda plate, coming at you beneath the sea.

Where they meet, like sumo wrestlers grappling, the Gorda dives and grinds beneath the continent. Stone melts and turns to magma, and the magma churns to the surface and tosses up an arc of volcanoes, shaping the Cascade Range that reaches from northern California into Canada.

The Cascades seemed to simmer underfoot when I joined Michael Clynne, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), at Lassen Volcanic National Park. We had to tiptoe across a field of steaming fumaroles and stinking, burping mud pots. A boardwalk built for sightseers had just collapsed from landslides.

"This is very dynamic land," said Clynne, a sturdy man with a rowdy brown beard. "The plumbing changes all the time, and there's a danger of falling through to a pocket of hot water or gas or hot sticky mud that you can't get off soon enough to prevent burning."

Indeed, the nearby thermal area known as Bumpass Hell was named for Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, an explorer and mountain man who fell into a boiling mud pot in 1865 and had to have his leg amputated.

In the global picture the Cascades form only one span of the volcanic Ring of Fire that surrounds the Pacific Ocean, where other oceanic and continental plates collide. Swept up in this geologic creep are scraps of the Earth's crust called terranes. Terranes extend from moving plates, so they often crash into continents rather than subduct beneath them. Geologists now say that California and much of the North American west coast were pieced together from dozens of terranes that rode in on drifting plates.

Science and fantasy mingle readily where science is already fantastic. In 1931 an American writer named Wishar Cervé postulated that one piece of migrating crust was a remnant of Lemuria, a mythical continent that had been sinking into the Pacific. Rising water had forced the beings who inhabited Lemuria to flee to high ground. When the mountains of Lemuria finally collided with a westward-moving North America, they sutured themselves to the continent and became the Cascades.

Today the faithful claim that Lemurians are a superior people who still live in a gold-lined city built inside Mount Shasta, the most mesmerizing of the Cascade volcanoes, and that Lemurians used to emerge, dressed in flowing white robes, to trade gold nuggets for supplies at local stores. Pilgrims still arrive at the town of Mt. Shasta each year, hoping to encounter Lemurians. A few say they do.

"A lot of people think of Mount Shasta as a powerful spiritual vortex," said Ashalyn, who advertises her services in town as a spiritualist. "People want to connect with that energy." Ashalyn, a blond flower child grown cheerfully middle-aged, drove me through the manzanita and sagebrush north of Mount Shasta to Pluto Cave, a series of underground tubes left by lava flows about 200,000 years ago.

"Sacred places are what customers want to see," she whispered as we entered a chamber whose ceiling stretched 30 feet above us. Carrying flashlights, we picked our way across a boulder-strewn floor and sat in the velvet darkness. Water dripped hypnotically from the ceiling. We waited. "I'm hearing the cave say, I welcome you into my belly,'" said Ashalyn.

What else is he saying?

"He says that the Earth is constantly in motion, just like our bodies. Tension is building upon its surface, like a stretched rubber band. The geologies of the Mother are shifting and looking for a place to come to rest."

Yes, yes. That describes the cooling of the planet in soothing family terms. The poor thing's just suffering a few eons of tectonic discomfort before it settles down. "Let's go a little deeper," said Ashalyn and urged me to extend energy down the "grounding cord" of my spine to the center of the Earth. I tried, although I was skeptical about finding cosmic answers down below.

Mount Shasta is one of three major volcanoes, each a different type, that dominate northern California. It's a stratovolcano built high and handsome by layers of liquid eruptions. Lassen Peak is a plug dome whose crater is blocked by lava that was once as viscous as peanut butter. The third, Medicine Lake, is a low-lying shield volcano, shaped like a Roman warrior's shield, whose black rubble forms the edge of wetlands called the Klamath Basin.

The northern California volcanic region is splendid with scientific facts. The cycles of volcanism are laid out clear as museum specimens: craters caped in snow, dark paws of lava, hills of glossy obsidian, and cinder cones that look as if poured yesterday. But most of the people who have lived here, from Native Americans to New Age spiritualists, have sought other explanations for what they struggled to understand. Nearly every feature of this landscape of unworldly beauty and primeval power has an alternative answer, a legend, or at least a good story.

The first snow had fallen the week before I arrived. Cold had bleached the ferns that clustered around trout streams, but aspen leaves billowed sunny yellow in the valleys. This is not the classic basin-and-range California; it's more a part of the Pacific Northwest.

Most of the summer folks had retreated from Chester, a lumber-mill town in a valley near Lassen Peak, southernmost of the Cascade volcanoes. A sign on the Pine Shack Frosty stand offered free ice cream to anyone ordering during a volcanic eruption.

"We're not really in danger here," said Jerry Young, the cheerfully gruff, retired sheriff sergeant of Plumas County, as I sat with him and his cronies one morning at Danny's Kopper Kettle Cafe. "But since Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, it's always in the back of our minds. Lassen blew on the other side in 1915, but the only effect the mountain has had on us is flooding. We get heavy snows up here."

Before the California gold rush of the mid-1800s tens of thousands of Native Americans, in four tribes, lived around Lassen, subsisting on fish, game, roots, and acorn meal. In Yana oral history Mount Lassen was Waganupa, the center of the world, whose snows melted and created canyons, caves, and ridges. Some heroes and gods are said to have transformed themselves into the ancestors of men, bears, and other living things. But some local Indians believe that two of the supernatural beings still live, like Lemurians, deep inside the mountain.

Mexico still owned California when Peter Lassen, a Danish immigrant, arrived in the early 1840s. The peak bears his name, and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson corralled nearly all the wonders of the area for Lassen Park, now more than 150 square miles. That was barely a year after the peak erupted.

On May 30, 1914, Lassen awoke with steam explosions that eventually blasted out a crater that is a thousand feet wide. When the eruption climaxed nearly a year later, rock fragments and pumice spiraled 30,000 feet high. A pyroclastic flow—an avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock, snow, and gas—thundered down Lost Creek, northwest of the summit, turning into a mudflow, flooding the valley, and destroying houses near the town of Old Station.

Michael Clynne and I drove the 30-mile-long park road just before it closed for the snow season. "There have been three major eruptions at Lassen in the past 1,100 years," said Clynne. "The winter of 1915 was an El Niño year, with 30 feet of snow on the slopes. An avalanche took out trees on both sides; you can find car-size rocks that it carried down."

Some of the features look as fresh as yesterday. Rising 700 feet from its base, a cone of cinder sits symmetrical as sand in an hourglass on the park's northeast edge. It formed when lava shattered in midair, settling in fragments. Dunes of ash, tinted yellow and red from minerals, drift from the cone, a Martian landscape colonized by a few stunted pines.
It's a much abused country. Forest fires, fortified by too much brush and tinder, often sear the land on top; fire and brimstone rise like demons from below.

Near the top of Mount Shasta, 70 miles northwest of Lassen, a thermal field vents sulfurous fumes. Thousands of climbers scale the peak in summer months. "The stuff has a pH of approximately 2," said Michael Zanger, a mountaineer from the town of Mt. Shasta. "It would eat the chrome right off your camera."

A Shasta tale explains that the ill smell comes from the time when a group of yellow jackets volunteered to take the people's meat from a great slaughter to the ice of the mountaintop to preserve it. But the load was heavy, and the yellow jackets were lazy. They ditched the meat below the altitude of constant freezing, where it rotted and still remains.

Mount Shasta is a majestic, 14,162-foot-high double peak that floats ethereally alone above the high arid landscape. Like Mount Fuji or Kilimanjaro, it's known as one of the world's most sacred mountains. It's a forceful presence. I found myself peering up at odd times, muttering, "Yes, yes, I know you're there."

A school of art in California venerated the mountain in the late 1800s, rendering Mount Shasta in many media and moods. Joaquin Miller, utopian and perhaps first among the popular writers who were touched by the mountain, called it "lonely as God, and white as a winter moon."

For some local Indians, Mount Shasta was the wigwam of the Creator, and its smoking caldera his cook fire. None would approach its high reaches without purification ceremonies. Disrespectful behavior on the mountain, the people of the Pit River tribe believe, can be punished by the je suchin, the black imps.

Mount Shasta owes its grandeur to a series of outbursts. The last was in the late 1700s, but its violent potential always lurks. Michael Zanger, who leads ski and climbing expeditions, warned, "There are five billion cubic feet of snow on Shasta. An eruption could be an unimaginable catastrophe, with mudflows going down the Sacramento Valley and its cities."

The town of Mt. Shasta, at the base of the peak, abuts Interstate 5, which links California with the rest of the Northwest. The mountain makes its presence felt more than 50 miles south, in Redding. Black Butte, a dark dome, sidles right up to the interstate, and Route 97, near the town of Weed, swings around a lava flow that reaches like the paw of a black cat stretching.

Mount Shasta has been a magnet for spiritualists since the late 1800s, when a local teen-ager, Frederick Spencer Oliver, claimed that he was possessed by the spirit of Phylos the Thibetan while working on the mountain. Oliver's book, A Dweller on Two Planets, inspired a cult following. Since then the town has welcomed, often grudgingly, seekers of truth from New Age philosophers to Christian sects.

There are stories of people who drive past here, their cars break down, and they can't leave. They have to live here," said Dawn Fazende. She's an enigmatically serene woman with soft bangs and five house cats who publishes a magazine for New Agers, people she calls the Woos.


"Yeah. We all came here, looked at the mountain, and said, 'Woo-woo!'"

If Shasta pushes your heavenly buttons, Medicine Lake volcano, only a few dozen miles to the northeast, brings you down to Earth. It has no obvious peak because its outbursts have been too liquid; its lava spread out rather than piling up. Perhaps because it lacks height, it also lacks mystery, and the few people who live in the region are mostly meat-and-potatoes pragmatists who remain here despite, not because of, the landscape.

The region's geology is best seen at Lava Beds National Monument, but it's a land more suitable for trolls than people, a plateau of sagebrush badlands pocked with pit craters, caves, gunmetal gray spatter cones, and dumps of grotesquely shaped lava that volcano-savvy Hawaiians named 'a'a, perhaps for what happens when you walk barefoot on it.

"The Modoc lava beds have an uncanny look, that only an eager desire to learn their geology could overcome," wrote John Muir.

Even more bizarre and treacherous a landscape is Glass Mountain, a tumble of obsidian east of Medicine Lake's epicenter where migratory hunter-gatherers shaped ceremonial blades nearly a thousand years ago. The most striking obsidian is a licorice black rhyolite formed when lava cools quickly into glassy, rather than crystalline, rock.

The extended Klamath Basin was once a glacial lake sprawling over more than a thousand square miles. Now much of it has been drained in order to plant onions, potatoes, and other vegetables. A community of Mexicans who came as seasonal pickers lives year-round in the weathered Oregon-border town of Tulelake, the "horseradish capital of the world." The region harbors six national wildlife refuges swarming with coots, geese, and ducks and offers hunting for migratory waterfowl. A sign at my motel asks: "Please do not pick and clean birds in room."

"This is thunderhead and lightning country, big skies," said Julie Donnelly-Nolan, a USGS geologist. "There's nothing much you can do with the land. You can run a few cows on it, but it isn't usable farmland—just rock."

Donnelly-Nolan has determined that Medicine Lake began erupting about 500,000 years ago, "mostly as a field of domes. And then, about 300,000 years ago, the shield volcano began to form over the top."

As lava oozed down shallow depressions and valleys, the outer shells of flows cooled more quickly than their insides, leaving hollow, wormlike lava tubes. More than 400 tube caves snake through the 73-square-mile monument alone. Some of their ceilings are 40 feet high and encrusted with delicate silicate formations and ice stalactites. For Indians as well as New Agers the tubes are the entranceways to the spirit life inside the mountains.

With an aptly named ranger, Jeff LaRock, I visited Fern Cave, which is still sacred to the Modoc, an Indian tribe that had lived on the Lost River by nearby Tule Lake. An emerald tuft of ferns, found nowhere else within 125 miles, survives in a microclimate just below the cave's entry shaft. LaRock, a rather dry and fastidious young man, surprised me by turning around three times before entering the cave, out of respect for the Modoc's beliefs.

"Modoc still use Fern Cave for rituals," he said. "They come here for reunions every summer, and some stay for days, drumming and meditating." Inside, the cave is decorated with early Indian art and steeped in at least a thousand years of human history.

In the mid-19th century pressure from settlers drove the Modoc from their home, and the government obtusely transferred them to Oregon to share a reservation with the Klamath, their historic enemies. In 1872 a band of fed-up Modoc led by Kintpuash, also known as Captain Jack, drifted back and demanded their own reservation at Lost River. Raids and killings poisoned chances for a peaceful resolution, and full-scale war soon flared.

Captain Jack and his followers holed up near Tule Lake in a natural fortress of pit craters and convoluted lava caves known today as Captain Jacks Stronghold. For four months about 170 Indians, men and women, held out against a force that eventually numbered 600. In the end the Army hanged Captain Jack and three of his men. The remaining Modoc were exiled to Oklahoma.

California's north can be desolate. A prisoner of war camp for World War II German and Italian officers still sits beside a volcanic bluff near Tule Lake; only miles away is a former internment center for Japanese Americans. At a former logging town called Tionesta an enclave of 30 individualists soured on the government live between large timber company lands and federal holdings.

"Everybody's still living in the 1800s here," said Jim Addison, owner of Tionesta's Timber Mountain general store. "They all live the old style. They all believe in honor." Here people still talk about the great storm of 1992, when the snows were so heavy in the mountains that deer were forced to find refuge on highways and railroad tracks, the only open spaces. Trains and trucks just plowed through them, and according to local legend the stench of rotten flesh spoiled the springtime.

But in the humbling magnitude of geologic time, wars, suffering, and life itself have been mere flickers. Now geologists say that the Gorda plate has nearly disappeared. As it subducts beneath North America, it pulls up the arc of volcanism like a zipper.

As this ponderous movement winds down, it transfers its energy from the Gorda to the sliver of crustal California west of the San Andreas Fault, a terrane that's drifting north toward Alaska with its own Lemurians aboard. But the languorous waltz of the continents, the power of internal Earth, and the undeniable grace of the Creator will leave a rare beauty in far northern California. More than once while wandering around Mount Shasta or the parapets of Lassen, I would come upon a scene of startling clarity and color that I had seen before only in wistful dreams. I could understand how, as the Woos say, some people cannot bring themselves to leave.


E-mail this page to a friend.

© 1996-2006 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe