Falling For You
story: Gary VanDeWalker photo: Taryn Burkleo
THE RUSHING WATERS OF McCLOUD FALLS
At 14, Jeff Summers felt hands push him into the swimming hole below Lower Falls for the first time. He’s been going back ever since, now introducing his children to his favorite swimming place. Lower Falls on the McCloud River is at the bottom of a three-step series of waterfalls, which cascade through a forest canyon on the east side of Mount Shasta.
The top stair is Upper Falls. Here, the water moves in a lazy pattern across a lava skirt. Mt. Shasta looms between the tree branches as the quiet of the water belies the power it possesses before moving into a narrow rock channel, churning into a white froth before plunging into a deep emerald pool below. The roar of the spring thaw is deafening, sounding like a beast as the river comes alive, snaking through the canyon.
In 1829, Hudson Bay Company trappers Peter Skeen and Alexander McLeod stood in this valley, finding a community of Native Americans whose days were spent along the river. The river at the time teemed with salmon, as herds of elk grazed along the grassy fields outside the woods. Now the Summers’ children’s voices mingle with the history here, carrying the river into yet another generation.
The trail moves along the edge of the canyon, dropping against the dark moss covered walls of rock, appearing as the foundation of an ancient castle. Each falls can be accessed by its own parking lot and the trails nearest each falls are paved and lined with steel safety railings, making the path easy to travel to the observation areas. The sound of the river follows with the changing pitches of the water as one travels.
Middle Falls is the largest of the three. In summer, the drop reaches 46 feet with 100 feet of curtained water. Anglers on the rocks below look for trout as the green forest grows in the summer heat on the walls around them. Deer dash across the path, wary of hikers, but brave enough to take notice of those around them. The Summerses walk slowly down the path, each child noticing a different detail of the world unfolding around them.
Between Middle and Lower Falls is Fowler’s Campground. The 39 spaces lay along two loops of the road, recalling the days when Fowler’s Hotel stood here, welcoming guests who wished to vacation near the water. The hiking trail follows the edge of the campground, with only a five-minute walk to Lower Falls.
The view of Lower Falls is like a dream. The Summers’ first child, Zack, stands on the trail above and sums it up: “Cool.”
As the children descend the walkway to the bowl of water beneath the falls, their father, Jeff, calls out, “I used to come here every Memorial Day and the water was so cold.”
A wooden jumping platform is built into the volcano-poured patio surrounding the falls. Here, kayakers navigate over the edge of rushing water, hoping to land upright. Fishermen come early to find the allusive German Brown trout. One can easily think of the Native American Wintu tribe, which called this place home, referring to Lower Falls as Nurum-wit-ti-dekki: “Falls where the salmon turn back.”
Watching his children play in the cool of the water, Summers remembers the day he first fell in and says, “Growing up in McCloud, this has always been the place to go.”