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September fires charred Mt. Shasta area

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The twisted and chard remains of a once green forest extended east and west on both sides of Interstate Highway 5 as Dottie and I drove north last weekend. Although scenes of such terrible devastation are now sadly familiar to us Sonomans, we had not seen it previously in our many annual drives through the Siskiyou Mountains toward Mt. Shasta.

This time was different.

Two raging wildfires flared up suddenly and savagely in early September, combing into a firestorm that swept across I-5 with little warning, forcing motorists and truck drivers to abandon their vehicles and flee for their lives.

The route, the major north-south highway between California and Oregon, was closed for five days. It finally opened in mid-September, but certain parts were confined to one-lane so that crews could repair the damage and begin the long process of removing the thousands of dead trees.

The burned out area extends for several miles along the highway north of Lake Shasta and is visible in the steep, blackened hills for as far as you can see on either side. Firefighters managed to keep the blaze from moving north and damaging even more sections of the route and threatening small villages along the way like Sweetbrier, Castella and Dunsmuir.

Closer to our destination near Dunsmuir, the forest around us returned to its usual lush green appearance, punctuated in parts by the brilliant orange and yellow of the deciduous trees transitioning to fall.

Dunsmuir, nestled at the bottom of a steep pass and next to the Sacramento River, was once a thriving railroad town and the largest city in California north of Sacramento. Dottie and I stay in a cabin owned by Ken and Mona Carr in Castella, a few miles south of Dunsmuir.

Castella, a vacation destination in the days when the only way in was the Union Pacific Railroad, is now a small residential area tucked between the rails and the river. It is also our favorite spot in which to enjoy fly-fishing.

As usual, the fishing was excellent. The Carr cabin is located on a particularly pretty section of the river, and access to it is virtually out our back door. The water was clear and cold, and the trout were willing to take a nymph if it was drifted through their feeding zone.

We each caught nice rainbows averaging eight to 12 inches, with the largest at 14 inches – not big, but all pretty, wild fish with lots of fight.

We also used the occasion, as we often do, to have dinner at Cafe Maddalena, without question the best restaurant in the entire Mt. Shasta area.

Over the last two decades, we have considered dining at Maddalena’s, among the high points of every trip. When the fishing’s only fair, it becomes the high point of the trip.

Just around the corner from Maddalena, Bob Grace runs the very nicely appointed and well-stocked Ted Fay Fly Shop. Bob is an avid fly-fisher and a truly nice guy. He knows every trout in the river by name and can help you find the best place to fish.

Over the years, it often seemed to us that Dunsmuir had little to offer, except for Maddalena’s incredibly fine cuisine and Bob’s excellent fly shop. But last weekend, it showed signs of renewed life. There was a “Jazz in the Canyon” music festival in progress, and many local merchants were offering special sidewalk bargains.

Most interestingly, one of the oldest buildings in town was given rebirth as the Mossbrae Hotel and was holding its grand opening during our visit. Built in the 1920s, the building has been lovingly restored and the rooms delightfully furnished.

There’s a glimmer of life in the old town and we’re happy to see it.

Also during our visit, the changing of the seasons took place virtually over night.

On Saturday afternoon it was warm enough to fish in shirtsleeves. By nightfall it was cool and pouring rain. Sunday broke cold and cloudy. Mt. Shasta, which looms over the entire region like a sleeping giant, wore a new coat of white snow.

Whatever hint of smoke that remained on our arrival was replaced by the cool, fresh scent of a freshly showered forest when we departed. It was a nice way to complete a lovely weekend.