Donner Party ’99: A safer sequel
If the plight of the Donner Party taught us anything, it was to hurry along and never take a shortcut – two rules I broke within the first 10 minutes of the hike.
“We’re waiting for you!” cried a voice in the distance, but it was too late. By now I had found rabbit tracks in the snow, and was following them toward what I was sure was a shortcut back to the highway. I was wrong – rabbits are rather self-sufficient, and hardly ever need a ride into town. It was beginning to look like a long day ahead.
The morning began in promising fashion. The sun was out and the snow was firm – great conditions for a snowshoe trek. California Department of Forestry Ranger Gayle Green would be leading her annual Donner Party Escape educational hike, from a trailhead on Highway 40 up into the Donner Summit area.
Along the way we would hear tales of the ill-fated Donner Party, an emigrant group which set out for the promised land of California in the spring of 1846, only to be trapped in the Sierra during the worst winter in recorded history.
The Donner Party had been part of a larger contingent that set out from Springfield, Mo., en route to Sutter’s Fort, a journey of more than 2,500 miles. In July of 1846, the Donner Party split off from the main group to try an untested shortcut through the barren reaches of the Great Basin, in what is now Wyoming.
It proved to be their undoing. The difficult route put them weeks behind schedule, and they didn’t reach the Sierra mountain range until late October, where they were stopped by a blizzard near what is now Donner Lake. They were trapped in the snow for five months, where 42 of the original 91 members perished.
There is hardly anyone who is not familiar with the Donner Party, much of that notoriety coming from reports of cannibalism, which a few of the survivors resorted to in order to stay alive.
“There are Donner Party buffs just as there are Civil War buffs,” said Steve Adkison, a graduate student in English at the University of Nevada-Reno, who was among the 50 people making the three-hour hike. “It’s a real human story, full of hope and tragedy. It strikes a chord.”
Much of the discussion during the hike centered on the Forlorn Hope Party – a small group which made two attempts to cross the mountains and get help.
Hikers on Saturday also traced a portion of the Emigrant Trail, stopped at the Pacific Crest trailhead and learned about the China Wall, an abutment that the Chinese built during construction of the railroad in the 1860s.
But details of Green’s historical discussion are sketchy, mainly because I wasn’t there for any of it.
The party left the trailhead at 10 a.m., and I was a little late. So I met up with a group of eight other latecomers, and together we set out to find the main body of hikers. We were making nice time, until I decided to split off and find a shortcut, intersecting the trail of the main group and joining in.
But it was not to be. Around 11:30 a.m. I lost one of my snowshoes and couldn’t get it back on. A little later I attempted to ford a frozen creek, and my unshod foot broke through the ice.
Around noon I was beginning to get hungry. Really hungry. That was fitting, I suppose.
“Donner, party of fifty! Donner party!”
Would I end up like the skeleton that Robin Williams animates in “Patch Adams?”
How do you build a snow cave, anyway?
But just then fate intervened. I found the highway, stumbled to my vehicle and drove rapidly toward town and a nice cold soda. Ah, caffeine.
When I caught up with her back at the Donner Memorial State Park Museum, Green brought me up to speed.
“I think the thing that surprises most people is the fact that so many survived,” said Green, referring to the original Donner Party and not Saturday’s group. “Also, the fact that the families were scattered throughout the area in different camps. It was not a cohesive group, many of the party didn’t like each other.
“What surprises me is that more didn’t die of exposure. They just didn’t have the clothing or equipment to deal with the winter, like we do today. They must have been cold and wet all winter. But more than half of them made it.”
Green has been studying the history of the Donner Party for 14 years, ever since she has been working for the State of California.
“It’s just something that has always interested me,” she said. “And I learn something new just about every day.”
And now, I can relate. I trekked through the snow of Donner Pass and survived. I feel one with the hardy pioneers. Anybody got some Chapstick?
Donner Party history snowshoe tours are Jan. 24, Feb. 13 and March 21. For more information call (530) 582-7892.
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