“There was a guy prospecting on a claim up on Downie River with a metal detector about ten years ago. He got shot in the back six times.”
The lady working the bar at St. Charles Place – the local Downieville watering hole – shared this piece of information as matter-of-fact as she was talking about the weather. Earlier in the day while riding past dozens of claims along the Downie River, I pondered what would happen if I got caught on someone’s claim. I got my answer.
“You don’t prospect on other peoples’ claims up here, that is unless you want to see the receiving end of a gun barrel.”
Originally my Yuba Expeditions co-workers and I were going into St. Charles for a quick drink in celebration of Big Jon’s birthday, but nearly four hours later, I found myself several whiskeys deep and fascinated by the stories of the bartender. Having been born and raised in Downieville, she knew of everything and everyone, and when I shared a picture of an abandoned prospecting cabin encountered while riding Downie River Trail, she told me she had grown up in that cabin. It was nearly an hour upstream from town by bike, at least two hours on foot.
“No running water and no electricity,” she said. “My parents were hippies. Eventually we moved back to town because us kids were missing too much school.”
I asked her if I would have gotten a gun pulled on me if somebody saw me taking a picture in front of the cabin.
“No, but if my brother saw you leaving trash or stealing something, he’d probably pull a gun on you. You don’t want to get on his bad side. He hates it when mountain bikers leave their food wrappers and crap there.”
The cabin literally looked like it had been abandoned for decades. It was a lesson to me that even the most primitive, dilapidated shack in the mountains is still someone’s pride and joy. The stories continued.
“I used to drive between Alleghany and Downieville a lot, but when my friend died driving her truck down Mountain House Road, I moved back to town. The road is so treacherous it freaked me out.”
I asked her how the accident happened. “Oh, she was drunk.”
Then she shared a really interesting piece of information. “Two months ago there were these folks from Texas who drove their Toyota Tundra down the power line off Galloway Road. It’s still there. I have no idea how they’re going to get it out. The pole line is straight down, practically a cliff.”
At that moment I discovered my mission for the weekend: Find the Toyota and figure out a way to extract it. At 1:30 in the morning, I stumbled back to the RV and passed out in a drunken stupor with an ear-to-ear grin, dreaming of ways to recover a $15,000 truck abandoned in the woods. There’s more than gold treasure lurking in the lofty peaks above Downieville.
For most normal people, Downieville treasure comes in the form of legendary singletrack. The trails were all originally cut by prospectors during the Gold Rush of the 1850s. Some have been riding the trails of Downieville for nearly 25 years, back when the Manitou I elastomer fork was cutting edge technology. Others have never even heard of Downieville in their lives, randomly stumbling through town on a road trip and discovering its greatness. This past weekend, I got to meet folks on both ends of the spectrum.
After a mid-week storm that dumped as much as two feet of snow on the Sierra Buttes, the weekend started out snowy and wet, but that didn’t stop a couple of fat bikers (their bikes, not them) from attempting to tackle Sunrise Trail, the first bit of singletrack starting right from the shuttle drop. With warm temperatures and the high April sun angle, the snow melted off fast. Although the first couple miles of Butcher Ranch OHV trail was under six inches of snow, once past the infamous waterfall (which was flowing quite nicely), conditions were absolutely stellar. It was hero dirt like I’ve never experienced in Downieville.