Bear River Awakening

Holding On to the Heart and History
of the Simpson Ranch

It's an early-June evening and Richard Simpson is sitting with two guests beside Wooly Creek, which winds quietly through what's left of the 640-acre ranch begun by his great grand father in 1852 near Meadow Vista. Asked to name his favorite place on the Bear River, he takes a meditative sip from his wine glass before answering.

"The area around Dog Bar Bridge," he says, then adds, "and below the Combie Lake dam. There used to be a swinging bridge that you could walk across and the rocks below the dam are just amazing. Lizzie [Enos] used to talk about that place as where the water swirled around and around and where the giant people ground their acorns before Indian people came along."

Lizzie was the last of the local Nisenan Maidu people who lived according to the traditional Maidu culture that was virtually wiped out during the gold rush. She was born around the turn of the century and near the end of her life Simpson wrote a book (Ooti) that chronicled the process of leaching, grinding, and cooking acorns into a Maidu dietary staple.

Simpson says he doesn't use Nisenan "because it's really an anthropological term, and Lizzie always insisted on Maidu. She'd say: 'Maidu is the name for man.'"

At one point she lived just down the creek from where Simpson and his guests were sitting, and would make frequent visits to his mother.

"They were good friends and my mother took me over to meet her one day after I got out of the army," he says. "There was always someone over there talking to her because she was so knowledgeable about her own language and English. She was also a fantastic botanist and people from the University of California were always coming up here to ask her questions about native plants because she knew so much about them."

"I think she put up with all their questions because she understood the value of it," he says, glancing down creek as if half expecting Lizzie to appear from the dusky shadows. "She knew her children and their children were not speaking the language or showing much interest in traditional things and that it was all going out."

Just like the disappearance of wild salmon from Wooly Creek. Simpson says both his great grandfather and Lizzie had confirmed the presence of salmon in the creek. Told that state fish and game agents have always said that salmon could never have gotten past the falls drowned beneath Camp Far West reservoir, Simpson says, "Baloney."

"Both my great grandfather and Lizzie said otherwise. They talked about baking the salmon bones and grinding them into powder. It's hard to know what it looked like before Camp Far West was constructed because so much dirt has been moved, but all these little creeks up here probably had salmon in them."

The ranch itself narrowly avoided following local salmon runs into extinction when family feuding and government demands for back taxes threatened to force the property onto the auction block. With the backing of a wealthy relative, Simpson brokered a deal to buy out other family members but was eventually forced to sell a large portion anyway when his backer's personal fortunes reversed and the loan was called in sooner than expected.

"It was at a time when nobody wanted to buy, but my mother ended up with 280 acres when it was done," he says. "It broke everybody's heart to see the property sold off and then watch it being cleared for houses and roads, but at least we saved the heart of it. So it worked out."

Whether or not it can work out again is the question now vexing Simpson, who must find a way to accommodate the next Simpson generation's expectations of an inheritance while keeping what remains of the ranch in one piece.

"My feeling is that it should be kept together not just for the family but for the community as well," he says. "It would be really nice to save the meadows, including the Indian village site, and the creek so that nothing ever happens to it."

Similarly, he admits his vision for the Bear River's future conflicts with society's expectations of having more water for development, food production and recreation.

"Everybody is drinking the river," he says wistfully, "but I would love to see the Bear River drain into the Feather River and ultimately into the Sacramento River again, connecting the Bear back to the tree of salmon."

Read more about Lizzie Enos — Ooti: A Maidu Legacy

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