Standing between watersheds

Thursday morning, Ann and I lugged our backpacks to a notch in Sawtooth Ridge, which at 7,400 feet is one of the highest points accessible by trail in the Trinity Alps Wilderness.

And as we topped the pass, the world fell away in front of us in a dramatic, 2,500-foot plunge to the bottom of Stuart Fork canyon.

In my opinion the view rivals some of the best in the higher, better-known Sierra Nevada.

Looking over the Stuart Fork drainage

But once I’d had a moment to absorb it — and to catch my breath — I started thinking on a watershed scale. I quickly realized that the divide on which I stood was rather significant, from a water perspective.

A few steps behind me, lingering patches of snow were draining into the Caribou Lakes basin, which feeds the Salmon River, a wild and free-flowing stream that eventually enters the Klamath River before dumping into the Pacific. We had camped at Upper Caribou Lake the night before.

Caribou Lake -- Klamath-bound water

A few steps in front of me, and the snow — had there been any on the hot and exposed south-facing slope — would drain into the Stuart Fork of the Trinity River, which empties into Trinity Lake about a dozen miles downstream.

Emerald and Sapphire lakes, at the head of Stuart Fork. Some of that water will flow down the Trinity, but much will be diverted to the San Joaquin Valley.

Like the Salmon River, the Trinity also feeds the Klamath. But not before part of its flow is diverted beneath a 3,000-foot ridge to Whiskeytown Lake near Redding, and eventually the Sacramento River. Ultimately that water is pumped out of the Delta to Central Valley Project customers, including agriculture on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Behind us, a rare river still running wild. Before us, a river tamed in an impressive (and yes, controversial) feat of engineering.

We’re not getting into that controversy here, but gazing at the terrain around me, I had to ask: What little fluke of weather causes a snowflake or a raindrop to fall on one side of this crest, and not the other? Sawtooth Ridge seems practically razor-thin as it cuts across the sky. All it takes is a puff of wind at the right moment, and that water molecule bound for the choppy Pacific surf near Crescent City is instead irrigating someone’s almond orchard west of Fresno. Or vice versa.

Sawtooth Ridge. That tiny patch of snow will drain to the ocean, but much of the water on the other side of the "saw" will go to the Central Valley Project.

I explained all of this to Ann, who is less wonky about water stuff than I am. I don’t think she found the idea so interesting.

Nor did Lucy, who seemed content to find a shady spot to rest for a while.

So I went back to enjoying the view. And then, it was all we could do not to trip and fall as we began the knee-jarring descent down to Stuart Fork — a new adventure in a new watershed.

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  • Blog Author

    Alex Breitler

    A native of Benicia, he lives in Stockton with his wife, Ann, who forces him to go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada or Trinity Alps at every opportunity. He has been writing mostly about natural resources since 2003, first in Redding and now in ... Read Full
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