Monday, March 10, 2008

Buckland Station - Pioneers and Pony Express

My legs are tired today. Aries and I went on a Sierra Club hike yesterday. It was mostly over flat ground, but our leader set a fast pace for 8-9 miles. There's still too much snow in the Sierras for hiking, so our itinerary was out in the Great Basin. This high-desert area, 500 miles across, stretches from the plateau country east of the Great Salt Lake to the Sierra Nevada mountains on the California/Nevada border. Our starting point was Buckland Station, 45 miles east of Carson City.

Samuel Buckland began ranching on the banks of the Carson River in 1859, building a toll bridge across the river, next to his house. His home became an important way station for pioneers traveling the Overland Route. His livestock, garden, and orchard supplied emigrants, travelers, and the soldiers at nearby Fort Churchill. The Overland Stage Company kept horses at the Station, and Pony Express riders stopped here to change mounts. Fort Churchill is now a Nevada State Park, encompassing the Station and two other historic ranches on the Carson River. This 9-mile stretch connects to Lake Lahontan State Recreation Area, creating one of the largest publicly accessible river corridors in Nevada.

We cross the river on a modern highway bridge, and follow a trail east along the south bank. Snowmelt hasn't really begun up in the Sierras so the river runs calmly, filling only half its banks. No water in the Great Basin ever reaches an ocean. Some of our rivers end in lakes with no outlets, the water lost to evaporation or seepage, and some end in sinks. The Carson Sink is the eventual fate of the Carson River. After impoundment behind the dam of Lahontan Reservoir for recreational and agricultural use, the river continues eastward another 70 miles until it just disappears into the sand.

We hike beneath Fremont Cottonwood trees and among the willows, still bare of leaves this time of year. In the shade, the ground is still frozen, and even a couple of remnants of snowbanks remain, but where the sun has struck, there's soft, silty sand underfoot. We see a few Canada geese out on the water, but it's still too early for much other wildlife. We pass through one section of beaver activity - bark stripped from the larger trees three feet up the trunk, and felled smaller trees, gnawed to pointy pencil-stub stumps - but no sign of the beavers. Three miles from our start, we turn south away from the river towards a small ridge. Once on top, there's a small picnic area for our lunch stop.

One hiker finds an obsidian flake. We imagine a Paiute Indian, hundreds of years ago, sitting atop this lookout point to craft his new arrowheads. The line of cottonwoods marks the course of the river on one side, and the ridge drops off into a sagebrush-dotted plain on the other. On the hills beyond the plain, horizontal lines mark the remnants of an ancient shoreline. The Great Basin was once an immense inland sea, the prehistoric Lake Lahontan, with some of the higher hills rising up as islands. Looking across the plain, we can also see small dry lakes here and there. We've had some pretty good snowfalls this winter. One of the lakebeds close by still has water in it.

We drop down off the ridge, heading across the plain towards the distant hills. The walking is easy - mostly sandy ground dotted with widely spaced sage and other desert shrubs. We cross a couple of the dry lakes. Their surface has dried to a shiny brown clay broken by a grid of cracks. It easily supports our weight and seems completely dry. But lifting up a section of the grid shows the crust is only half-inch thick, with sticky, damp clay soil underneath. This type of terrain is treacherous to vehicles. A truck venturing out onto this dry lake would break through the crust and be mired, all four wheels, up to the axles.

Eventually, we come to a dirt road running along the base of the hills, and take it back towards the Station. This road follows the original Pony Express route. A rider waiting at Buckland Station would be ready to take over, riding 75 miles up and over the distant peaks to Friday's Station at Lake Tahoe. This section was regularly assigned to "Pony Bob" Haslam, one of the most well-known Pony Express riders. His famed ride was 120 miles in a little over 8 hours, while wounded from an Indian attack. He carried the text of President Lincoln's inaugural address from Buckland's to Sacramento in California. The Pony Express riders covered 650,000 miles in 18 months, with only one rider killed, and one packet of letters lost. Eventually, the Overland Telegraph Line would follow this same route, putting the Pony Express out of business.

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