Siskiyou Mountains a mix of mystery, whimsy
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

View of the Siskiyou Mountains of southwest Oregon.

The Siskiyou Mountains are one of the strangest, oldest and most remote ranges in the United States.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

There’s something about the Siskiyou Mountains that reminds me of an old, quirky, and somewhat befuddled grandfather who spent his youth traveling in railroad cars.

The range of ancient rocks, randomly funny stories and a mixed bag of ecology leave the Siskiyous with a feeling that can seem both wise and nonsensical.

In the first place, the Siskiyous seem to have trouble coming up with an official location to call home.

On some Forest Service maps, they’re confined to the ridge north and west of the Klamath River in Oregon and California. But on other maps, they’re called the “Klamaths” to the west and the “Siskiyous” to the east. Sometimes the entire range is just referred to as the Siskiyous.

I enjoy the name Siskiyou because it’s one of those words, like sycamore, that seems to suggest something beyond all literal definition or etymology.

The naming of the Siskiyou Mountains also contains a odd story.

Siskiyou, supposedly, is a Cree word for “bob-tailed horse,” even though the nearest Cree Indians lived thousands of miles away.

As the story goes, a fir-trading explorer named Peter Skene Ogden purchased a bob-tail race horse around 1828, but on his way to visit to Cree, the horse died in a blizzard at what is now Siskiyou Summit on Interstate 5. Ogden was so distraught that he named the pass for the horse. The designation expanded to include the entire mountain range, a national forest, a newspaper in Yreka and a Central Credit Union.

There are many variations to the story, but I like the idea of exploring an area named for a beloved dead horse.

Sprinkled throughout the Siskiyous are a series of tiny mountain lakes tucked below the dry, hot, craggy peaks. These lakes have names as seemingly mysterious as the mountains that spawned them: Vulcan Lake, Boozy Lake, Hooligan Lake, Devil’s Punchbowl and Big Eddy, just to name a few.

These lakes might not be as famous or spectacular as the Trinity Alps or Marble Mountain Wilderness in California, but I like to think they have a little bit more character.

And speaking of a character, there is one more story about the Siskiyous I’ve always enjoyed.

Long before reality shows such as “Survivorman” and “Man vs. Wild,” there was a guy named Joe “Nature Man” Knowles.

Knowles had become famous in 1913 by surviving sixty days in the New England wilderness without food, clothing or equipment. One year later, Nature Man announced he was going to try the same feat in an even more remote, inhospitable and wrenched place: The Siskiyou Mountains.

On July 13, 1914, Knowles, who was surrounded by reporters and photographers, got buck naked and plunged “into the untamed, cougar-infested wilds of the Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon.”

The only problem for Knowles’ media stunt was that World War I broke out in Europe soon after, and the newspapers originally covering him completely forgot about the nude Nature Man’s fight against the wild.

He emerged, in the words of Eugene outdoor writer William L Sullivan, “bewildered, and to total obscurity.”

My only hope is to one day live up to his example.


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