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The Navarro Saga: More Memories

Well, it's been a longer journey than I anticipated through my recollections and reminiscences warehouse 49 years of residence in Navarro has provided me. My original plan was three articles; this one is number ten.

And to catalyze browsing through my own memories I have gone back to reread the Anderson Valley memoirs I have collected over the years, among them being Maurice Tindall's DOWN TO EARTH, Wes Smoot and Steve Sparks' ANDERSON VALLEY THEN AND NOW, and the oral history collection the high school kids did twenty years ago, VOICES OF THE VALLEY, and so on.


Living with the wildfire threat is embedded in the annual life cycle of Mediterranean climate rural California and in recent decades urban areas as well. In the history of Navarro the first dramatic fire event touching the village was also, to my knowledge, the biggest, the famous Comptche fire in October, 1937. This one, if I remember correctly, began as a ranch control burn up at Nigger Nat opening near Big River.

Then one afternoon the weather changed to hot and dry and the fire took off first west above Comptche, then overnight south through the West Side of Philbrick Ranch. The next afternoon the heat rose more, humidity went down to near zero and the fire took off like a rocket, across Micky Smiths at Kean Summit, down Dutch Henry Creek and the North Fork, up its South Branch and over the Company Ranch headed for Navarro.

As the late afternoon descended the fire was now drifting down the hill toward the town, and there was little equipment locally available, never mind CDF, to build a defense line. But then after two days of inferno a miracle: at dusk the weather changed, the fog rolled in, temperature dropped and the fire simply withered away into little flare ups around stumps and slash. Navarro lived on.

Bill Witherell, woods and mill equipment operator, lived right next to the 10,000 gallon redwood tank behind The Doctor's House that served the community water distribution system. And each time he told me the story of the Comptche fire's attack on Navarro we would walk over the back yards to examine the noticeable ten inches of charred stave tops on the tanks' northwest side. The fire had died just as it reached the very edge of town. The scarring on the staves was still evident when I visited the tank last month.


In 1948, Perry Gulch Ranch west of town was still owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad and probably leased to a stock rancher. An autumn control burn there got away from its managers and came up the hill onto my place, then the Ingram Ranch. Today I can still find evidence of the fire's path by the scarred trunks and burnt-out tops of redwood trees on the Perry Gulch side of the forty acres west of the vineyard.

For some topographic reason I still can't fathom the fire then turned right and wandered south and downhill through grasslands and forest partly on Southern Pacific land, partly on the south 80 acres of Ingram Ranch and headed for Floodgate Creek. That trajectory I know because of the fire line a self-appointed firefighter built down the east side of the blaze. Navarro resident and woodsman Emil Niemela had somehow found a logging Cat tractor on Ingram or nearby, driven it over to the fire's east flank, dropped the blade and scraped a clean buffer straight south down the grassy ridge smooth as a dirt road and the blade wide.

In the nineteen seventies, during our "early" and "late" hunting seasons morning and evening ritual Bill Witherell and I regularly drove his old open jeep down that "road" Emil built into the eighty acre bottomland. Today when I take my pick-up down there I can still use pieces of it to smooth my ride down the hill to plant redwoods or do streambank erosion control. Thank you "volunteer" fireman with his borrowed equipment, Emil Niemela.


The next local wildfire episode I know about was a more modest event that occurred on Labor Day weekend my first year living in Navarro. My consort and I were out of the Valley that holiday, so this is a second-hand story. Around 4:00 Saturday afternoon it was hot, dry but not much breeze. Neighboring rancher Cap Salmela saw smoke coming from the west end of our ranch. Cap was also AV volunteer fire captain for Navarro, so he goes down into town, starts the old Ford pumper water wagon and drives up my ranch road to the grove of redwoods and tan oaks in the northwest corner of what is now vineyard.

In September of 1971 the only evidence of future vineyard was a gate for the ranch road going down into Perry Gulch and steel fenceposts every ten feet running south for a hundred yards or so. Cap did a quick survey, saw the flames walking assertively up the hill from Perry Gulch on a front about a hundred yards wide, fortunately little assistance from the dying breeze. Cap goes back to the tanker, lays out the one inch hose toward the head of the fire, and as he swings around to go back and start the water pump a borate bomber arrives and dumps its load of orange retardant right on top of the fire captain.

Simultaneously the CDF lowbed from Boonville pulls up with a Cat D 6. So while Cap is being administered emergency first aid for his highly alkaline borate bath, mostly with dirty rags and water, the Cat tracks down below the now ten acre grass fire and builds a blade-wide lane up its windward right flank toward its crown. The remnants of the fire trail are still there today just below the vineyard, though I never did figure out why it had to be so straight that the equipment operator drove right over and crushed one of my precious $1.69 Sears and Roebuck steel fence posts. Cap's recovery from the bombardment was swift enough he could drive the fire truck to Floodgate for his five o'clock beer. The cause of the fire to this day is unknown.


I had a similar encounter with the Borate Bomber one August afternoon around 1978. I was a minority owner of Edmeades Vineyards, along with Deron Edmeades, Jed Steele and Earlene Merriman. It was a marketing custom in those commercially quieter days to hold an afternoon picnic, wine tasting, music festival under the almond orchard Hamar Olson had planted earlier in the century between the garage tasting room and the old equipment barn.

It was a perfect day for the event, temperature in the low eighties, a gentle breeze, and maybe fifty cars parked around the property, over a hundred local friends and city people all enjoying the wine, food and music, everyone behaving. The winery partners were the catering staff.

As I stepped out of the orchard shade to return a bunch of dirty dishes to the kitchen I noticed a brief but obvious plume of smoke trailing up from the next ridge north of Edmeades about a mile away. I was also a member of the Navarro battalion of the AV Volunteer Fire Department. I went into fire drill mode, put down my load of dishes, jumped into the pick-up and started north on Highway 128, looking for the smoke through the trees on the west side.

I didn't travel very far: at the big Lazy Creek turnout I could see the smoke was coming from somewhere between the south side of Husch Vineyard and The Creek itself. I drove in Monte Bloyd road and arrived at its end near Monte's old homestead farm then occupied by Skip and Carol Bloyd. I jumped out of my pick-up, and lo and behold found in its bed two brand new McLeod fire-fighting handtools I had just bought for the Ranch. I grabbed them and ran up the trail toward the house where I encountered Carol carrying an armload of small furniture away from the house and toward the road.

At that point the fire was almost all grasslands and was walking slowly downhill from Husch's deer fence on a hundred yard front. There were also three other young males on site, names I don't remember, and somehow the authority of the tools I was carrying enabled me to become momentary battalion captain. Finding a Bloyd shovel leaning against the house I devised a combat strategy that included the McLeod tool handlers each building a one foot wide scarified earth fire lane toward one another from the east and west corners of the house. The shovel handler worked from the middle toward us, doing the same, while the other "volunteer" was told to find cotton shirts, soak them in water and use them to slap the creeping flames into submission just as they reached our dirt defense line.

Well, the combat went on for about fifteen minutes, I hoping just one AVFD tanker/pump truck would show up. But you know how it is on a Saturday afternoon in August, no one at home to respond to the AVFD telealarm system. We were doing good work on the battlefield, but losing ground, our defense line getting closer and closer to the north side of the house. At a certain point I knew we had lost, went over to Carol and said that for safety sake we had to quit, go grab the most valued items. Carol burst into tears.

Then as I sidled over to the other end of our fire line to tell the crew we needed to surrender the field, I heard that sound I knew so well from post-World War II childhood near a Navy base, the low grumble of the twin engine borate bomber, the Grumman S-2-F anti-submarine plane, known as the "Stufe." The moment was like a Hollywood John Wayne movie I had worshipped as a kid, The Cavalry had arrived at the last moment to save the homestead family from the Apaches.

In this instance the plane flew straight down the fire path and Lazy Creek about 200 feet over our heads, disappeared into the trees along The River. Then we could hear the roar of the huge engines increase as the plane banked up at maybe 60 miles an hour and turned back up the creek. As it came into sight again, it began dropping its 500 gallon load of orange borate water. One perfect pass placed the load along the whole fire path and where a minute ago there was flame, smoke and heat, now nothing but steam, burnt grass odor and peace. And as the AVFD showed up in force to do the boring clean-up work, I went back to my catering job a bit sweaty and smoky but not a drop of borate on my being. The cause of the fire, likely a spark from the Husch diesel irrigation pump smoke stack. (More wildfire stories next week.)

Hunting & Fishing with the Bloyds and Maberys

This story came to me via noted local historian Jeff Burroughs. He remembers back in the eighties when he was a teenager, he, Rick Bloyd and Bob Mabery were April fishing for steelhead on Masonite land under a rocky bluff on the Navarro between Floodgate Creek and Clark's Crossing. It was a stealth game where they were looking through the alders on the riverbank into a fairly deep, grey-green but clear water hole, spotting a good fish, then gently tossing a worm-baited flyrod line into the hole.

As they continued their quiet stalking they also heard the soft sound of gravel drifting down the logging road embankment twenty feet above them and to the sandy beach to their west. The sound of hoof steps on the gravel was followed by a fat forked horn buck tip-toeing across the sand to get a drink of water. A serious hunting/fishing decision-making dilemma had arisen.

To be compounded by the sound of a pick-up truck arriving on the logging road above them. Out of the pick-up steps Dale Mabery, older uncle to both Bob and Rick Bloyd. Dale was a hearty, overweight cat-skinner always of comradely good cheer, and he yells down to the hunter/fishers, "what's up?" Jeff and Rick raise their index fingers to their lips signaling "quiet, please," while pointing toward the buck directly below Dale at the river edge.

Dale takes a peek and without hesitation kicks a large square road rock over the edge of the bank, all watch it bounce down and hit the buck square on top of his skull. He staggers and falls head first into the river shallow, Rick Bloyd lays his fishing rod down and strides thirty feet across the sand while pulling a large folding knife from his pants pocket.

Deftly he cuts the buck's throat with one slice. Bob is right behind Rick, grabs his rear legs, rolls him over on his back so Rick can field dress the animal with his knife. As he finishes the job and dumps the whole digestive system from windpipe to anus into the river, saving the heart and liver of course, a rope comes down the stream bank from the road, Rick attaches it to the buck's feet, Dale' truck motor starts and the buck glides up the bank where the boys on the beach can hear the carcass being dumped into the pick-up bed. A five minute deer hunting trip.

Alvy Price Educates Some Hippies

I can no longer remember how this social encounter got arranged, but one warm autumn afternoon we compacted with the old Navarro bachelor woodsman Alvy Price to accompany us on a firewood making expedition on Masonite Corporation forestland.

The firewood crew included Tom English, Jerry Theros, me and, I think Bernard Avery and Alvy, four pick-ups, three chain saws and a dog or two. One May afternoon we drove up the Masonite Industrial road about a mile to where there was a prominent rocky bluff on the left, some woods and the North Fork main stem on the right. Out of the base of the sandstone bluff ran a vigorous sweet spring several of the Navarro community used as its potable water source to supplement the hygienically questionable Caves water.

As we parked our vehicles along the edges of Masonite Road, the Hippies all jumped out of their pick-ups, trotted up the gentle slope to the left of the bluff, jerking their chainsaw starter cords as they climbed. Tom and Jerry fell on a downed medium size madrone, one at each end of the tree, saw bars swinging this was and that, provoking a small avalanche of twigs, limbs and firelogs downhill to the road.

Alvy had driven up to our logging site last, and as the action on the sidehill began, was leaning against his clean '70 GMC Stepside truck, surveying thoughtfully his preferred work site, right alongside the road in a grove of oaks and madrone. And when the skirmish above began, he walked around to the passenger side of his vehicle, opened the door, pulled out a white hardhat and fit it carefully on his head, a piece of public irony I had never seen him perform before.

Next Alvy signaled a meeting of all of us at his truck. He then walked us down into the grove, selected a medium size live oak compatible in size to his saw bar, and felled it in a couple of swift under- and backcuts. Next he began a carefully planned campaign of converting the downed tree from limbs and logs in half the time and energy the Hippies had consumed making their mess.

The message was clear and graphic and we got it. Living successfully in the country consumes a lot of physical energy a day and if you want to play the game over the long run, use your valuable personal resources, body and brain, carefully and strategically. Thank you, Alvy Price.

A "Modern" Road Trip

In August, 1978, Brad, Sam Prather and our mutual Friend, the old German American sheep farmer living up Nash Mill Road decided we wanted to attend the National Ram Sale in Salt Lake City. My personal finances had improved in recent years to the extent I had just purchased a brand new 1978 ¾ ton GMC pick-up, forest green with white headboard and side racks just like Sammy's and hand made out of Doug and Grand Fir by Bill Witherell. We hand-painted the racks bright white, I got twelve years use out of them, hauling around as many as eighteen fully wooled pregnant ewes at a time. The racks still hang on the barn wall here, almost brand new.

Anyway, our travel plan was to leave Boonville at 7 PM Friday, after Sammy got home from his woods job choker setting, and drive in shifts all night and the next day to Salt Lake, once to Sacramento all Interstate and boring. I drove the first shift from Boonville to Donner Pass on I-80. Around mid-night I pulled over at the Pass, relinquished the wheel to Sammy and exhausted crawled into a sleeping bag on an inflatable mattress in the truck bed. Interesting resting spot I had never tried before. From Donner the Interstate was all gently winding down hill, I trusted Sammy's driving, drunk or sober, from years of sheep related travel adventures around California, and had a delightful semi-sleep as the galaxy gently rolled here and there above my head.

Around daylight I woke up from a sound rest, to find us in a Safeway parking lot on the outskirts of Reno. It was something shopping for breakfast and lunch snacks in company with drowsy housewives pushing shopping carts and dressed in hair curlers, no make-up, nightgowns, bathrobes and flip-flop slippers. The morning side of the entertainment industry work force.

From Reno east on I-80 travel is as dreary as it can get in America. Desert, mountains, then the Utah Salt Flats west of Mormon Heaven. Most exciting event of the day somewhere near Lovelock was a raging inferno consuming a huge stack of hay bales, probably spontaneous combustion from harvesting too green alfalfa and clover.

Sometime after our no-stop lunch and somewhere east of Winnemucca I was back at the wheel again, Sammy was dozing in the middle slot, his head on my right shoulder, and Lyle was navigating and story-telling from the window seat. Actually our conversations were usually of a political and philosophical nature. Lyle was of mid-western German stock, raised in the prairie-Progressive "fight the monopolies and banks" tradition, and read a lot of politics, metaphysics and science fiction.

Out there east of Winnemucca I don't remember the conversation's thread, but Lyle paused, turned slowly to study Sam's face. Satisfied, he lowered his voice and said "Brad, do you believe in reincarnation? I know I am coming back in another life..." I don't remember where the conversation went from there but have never forgotten that personal worldview my friend Lyle trusted me enough to share his belief with at 70 mph somewhere in eastern Nevada.

The rest of the road trip was uneventful, some of it very interesting, a lot incredibly boring. Salt Lake has to be one of the most drab cities in the US, all gridded suburbs and shopping malls, public buildings sterile in design and materials, Mormon people boring in their pious personal affect. The only element of beauty is the backdrop, the west slope of the Rocky Mountains visible for fifty miles north and south.

We found a cheap motel, made a quick visit to the phony Georgian Mormon Temple nearby and headed for our business destination, the National Ram Sale at the county Fair Grounds. What was exciting about this part of the trip was to see the endless array of pure bred sheep stock on display in small lots throughout the exhibit sheds. Some breeds, Columbias, Dorsets, Rambouillet, Suffolk I was familiar with, others like Norfolk, Ayrshire, Romney Marsh I had only heard of.

Our Salt Lake Road Trip mission was ram purchase, both for Sam to improve his nationally famous pure bred Prather Ranch Columbia stock's genes, for me to buy the physically largest ram I could afford to help the Suffolk serving my sixty head band of ewes. After dinner we came back for one more inspection to list the rams we wanted to bid on at the Sunday noon auction. I still remember one incident of Mormon piety that evening: Sammy and I had each bought a bottle of beer as we began our Columbia offerings last survey. An hour later we were still thirsty and went back to the same kiosk where we had bought our first. I remember the look of shock on the woman's face when we placed our order. "You want another?..."

The next morning, I abandoned the Road Trip. Sam and Lyle drove me to the Salt Lake airport, and I flew back east to spend a few weeks with my parents and childhood friends at oceanside Rhode Island. Lyle and Sam returned to the Fairgrounds, successfully bid on the three rams we wanted and headed back to Anderson Valley with the livestock bouncing around in the back of my brand new pick-up. My ram, the smallest of the three weighed in at purchase at 275 pounds, a hundred more than I.

(Next week: Navarro stories, Last Remnants.)

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