COFFEE CREEK, Calif. (AP) -- Charlie Steele wrestles coolers filled with tiny squirming fish onto his mule and lashes down the load with a rope hitch his family devised in 150 years of running pack trains into the Trinity Alps Wilderness.
Steele is carrying on a tradition dating to the 1920s, when Trinity County residents first started ferrying trout to remote mountain lakes.
Roads then, if they existed, were poor through the Klamath Mountains of northwestern California. That hasn't changed. The area is so remote that since the 1950s the state Department of Fish and Game has used airplanes to drop fish into larger lakes.
Over recent decades, however, the quality of fishing seriously declined, particularly in smaller lakes and streams the airplanes couldn't reach. Such water often lacks adequate food and spawning areas to support a self-sustaining fish population, and in a harsh winter can freeze solid.
Local members of the Backcountry Horsemen of California talked the state into letting them take up where their parents and grandparents left off. In 1993, they resumed the annual trek into the mountains northwest of Redding.
"You can't imagine what a thrill it was the first time we went in," says Mary Hamilton, whose family ran fishing trips from 1909 until their resort was flooded by Clair Engle Lake in 1959. "Those lakes hadn't been stocked since the '50s, and to see those fish swim out. ... You'd eat lunch, then go see how your fish were doing."
Earlier residents lashed slot-lidded "fish cans" to mules and horses to carry in the fish. At night, the cans -- similar to old-fashioned milk cans, about 3 feet tall and 18 inches wide, but concave on one side to fit against the pack animals -- were laid on their sides in swift-running streams so the water rushed in and kept the fish alive.
Today, plastic picnic coolers are lined with 10 pounds of ice. Two to three pounds of 2-inch fingerlings -- 400 to 600 tiny rainbow and eastern brook trout -- are ladled into plastic bags with 5 gallons of cold water. Oxygen is pumped into the bag and the top is sealed.
The coolers are fitted into leather-and-canvas saddlebags for the sloshing trip up steep mountain trails. The ice and oxygen counter the heat and stress, and generally only a fraction of the fingerlings die before they can be set free.
Alan Hill, a Redding resident and board chairman of the national Backcountry Horsemen of America, has a ranch near Trinity Center where the riders assemble each year. "There's a lot of tradition and history and friendships here," he says.
Each mule carries two coolers. Using 27 pack animals over two days in August, the riders deliver about 30,000 fish to 14 lakes -- with mixed results.
One group of mules and riders winds its way seven miles through thick stands of redwoods, cedars, Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir to the rocky shore of Union Lake. But the sun has heated its shallow water to bathwater temperatures, and at least four dozen of the ice-cooled fish sink to the bottom and die.
"Come on, chil'ren," Jim Griffith of Palo Cedro calls to the fingerlings. He and others try stirring the water and gently tossing stunned fish deeper into the lake to revive them.
Things go better the second day, when not a single fish is lost at Eleanor Lake. After a steep scramble up a high ridge that offers a distant view of snowcapped Mount Shasta, however, the group somehow misses restocking heavily fished Shimmy Lake. Hill says he thinks they mistakenly stopped half a mile short and left their fish in a tiny, unnamed rock-rimmed lake instead.
Fish are among the easiest cargo packed into the Trinity Alps.
Steele's great-great-great-grandfather hauled in supplies for gold miners in 1849. His great-grandfather once packed in an upright piano slung between two mules. Cast-iron stoves and heavy mining equipment were moved the same way.
His mother, Ethel, 83, still rides her mule and helps out on the annual fish run, despite having had surgery on both hips and a knee.
"I have a little trouble getting on, but after I'm on, I'm fine," she says. She started her first string of pack animals at age 11; her son, Charlie, says he shod his first horse at age 9 and led his first pack trip at 12.
Like others who lived in the remote area early in the last century, Ethel Steele's family first packed in mining equipment, then switched to running hunting and fishing trips after World War II. Her late husband, Nathan A. Steele, had a contract to stock about 25 lakes in the 1950s, just before the state switched to airplane drops.
Henry Carter, a miner born on a Coffee Creek homestead ranch in 1874, helped start the annual fish pack-trips with his brother, Jess, in 1924.
Hill's father, Clair, was a 14-year-old Boy Scout in the mid-20s when his scoutmaster, Jess Carter, recruited him to drive the fish truck from the railhead at Redding to Coffee Creek. Then, as now, the fish come from the Mount Shasta Fish Hatchery near the mountain.
Hill himself was just 12 when he helped pack in fish along the McLoud and Pit rivers in the early 1950s.
"No roads in that country," Hill recalls. "Only horseback."
The cost of the modern fish-packing project to taxpayers is minimal because the riders are volunteers, says Bernie Aguilar, the Department of Fish and Game's district fisheries biologist for Trinity County.
"It's good for them, it's good for us," says Aguilar, an honorary member of the horsemen. He regularly quizzes backwoods anglers on their success at mule-stocked lakes and streams and monitors marked fish.
"You can catch 14-, 15-inch trout on a flyrod. This is a tremendous difference to what was there before," says John Ellery, a veterinarian from Anderson who helped pack in the fish.
"If they can catch three or four fish and have them for dinner, that's a big deal. Whether you're 8 years old or 80, that's pretty neat. We went through a 10- or 15-year period where you couldn't do that."
End Adv for Sunday, Sept. 3
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