Still Snowbound

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every day, Marilyn Parris searches the skies above Lassen National Park, hoping for a break in the leaden snow clouds that have been fixtures since fall.

"I came here from Pennsylvania nine months ago," said Parris, the park's superintendent. "Pennsylvania! I mean, I know snow. I don't know snow like this."

California's long, wet winter has hit hard the rugged park and neighboring communities that depend on Lassen as a tourist attraction.

Since the first flakes began to stick, more than 800 inches of snow have fallen on the national park, which stretches from the northernmost Sierra Mountains into the southern end of the Cascades.

And the snow just keeps coming, further burying the main route running through the mountains.

"I have my blinds shut, I'm so depressed about the rain," said Bob Warren, head of the Shasta-Cascades Wonderland Assn., a trade marketing group for eight Northern California counties.

When it's raining at his Redding office, Warren said, he knows it's snowing again in the mountains. And that's bad news for Plumas, Butte, Modoc, Lassen, Siskiyou, Trinity, Tehama and Shasta counties.

"The diagonal route that Highway 89 takes across the southern Cascades and the Northern Sierras, through Lassen, is virtually the only way through this area," Warren said. "When the road is closed through the park, it literally affects scores of businesses, from Lake Tahoe to Mt. Shasta."

Lassen is what Parris calls the perfect park, a volcanic gem offering Yellowstone's geologic phenomena with none of the crowds. It boasts sulfur springs, dramatic mountain views, towering pines, more than 100 miles of hiking trails and two dozen lakes teeming with fish.

This June, the park's charms remain buried under snowdrifts as high as 35 feet.

Parris has borrowed heavy equipment from as far away as Death Valley and begged extra money from the park service in a dogged attempt to get Lassen's access road open by July 4.

The snowfall has beaten the season record of 700 inches set in 1983--the last time El Nino thwacked California. Most of the 30-mile stretch of California 89 that crosses the park remains under 23 feet of snow.

"El Nino is kicking our teeth in," Parris said. "We have 50-foot tall pine trees out here that look like shrubs."

Parris realized that the park was in trouble back in February, when the snow was 20 feet deep on much of the road. With the highway closed, the park's visitors are reduced to the hardy or the foolish.

Normally, the park's access road is open by Memorial Day weekend, Parris said. In heavy-snow years, it opens by mid-June. This year, Lassen's southern parking lot had 15-foot snowbanks on the Memorial Day weekend, and most visitors just turned around at the information booth.

Each year, about 400,000 people visit Lassen. This year's numbers are expected to fall far short.

"Just finding the road to plow it under that much snow is an adventure," Parris said.

Several times, the huge Caterpillars and snowplows that rangers are using have slid over the mountains with the snow they were pushing. Drivers have been rattled, she said, but no one has been hurt.

Snowplows have been belching across the park's valleys and hillsides 10 hours a day since April 3, even as fresh snow heaps drifts higher.

On Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, a storm dumped two more feet on the 23-foot base. Road crew members consider themselves lucky if they clear two-tenths of a mile of the road each day.

And even if only 10 miles of the access road is cleared, the park is open.

"I tell people they should make a point of coming here now. This is like a hundred-year event," Parris said. "It's beautiful."

When it's not snowing, visitors are greeted by alpine views reminiscent of Switzerland in the winter--just a three-hour drive north of Sacramento. Stalactites glisten from snowbanks that tower above the cleared road. Ponderosa and lodgepole pines are heavy with snow, and chipmunks and squirrels skitter across patches of ice.

James Porter, a 29-year-old management consultant from Palo Alto, went snowshoeing up Lassen Peak the last weekend of May with a buddy. The sun was out during most of their hike, Porter said.

"It was cool, really beautiful," he said.

It was the first time Porter had hiked there when the park was covered with snow and he found it a wildly different landscape from the summer Lassen he's familiar with.

"I was looking for summer landmarks, and they were just covered over," he said. "There's a 20-foot-high pole that marks the start of the trail up to the mountain and it was totally gone. You really couldn't tell where the parking lot started. But it's perfect for winter camping because you have the snow, but it's warm."

Just two days before Porter trekked Lassen, 10 hikers from a snow camping course at Santa Rosa Junior College had a vastly different experience.

They trudged on cross-country skis through the park, their heads bowed against the falling snow. On breaks, the hikers huddled, looking miserable under backpacks and rainproof slickers.

"It's a lot more work than we expected this time of year," said instructor Scott Butler, as the group paused to rest near sulfur springs where steam was melting a small patch of snow.

"Sooner or later," said Parris, shaking her head as the campers shuffled off, "Mother Nature has just got to give us a break."

If the access road isn't opened by July, she said, businesses in tiny communities such as Chester and Mineral, on the edges of the park, and in larger towns like Red Bluff, will be hurt.

"We've asked them to go after that road with a vengeance," said Marshall Pike, a Red Bluff businessman whose company runs a lodge, restaurant and souvenir shop at the park. "And they are doing that. But there's just so much they can do."

Pike said that he opened the park's restaurant and souvenir shop Memorial Day weekend, "but it was a cruddy weekend. It was me, the staff and about four visitors."

Down the road a half-hour, in the onetime logging town of Chester, owners of antique shops and bed-and-breakfast inns said they have seen only a slight dip in customers, but worry about the impact if the road doesn't open soon.

Ranger John Janc, however, finds all the snow invigorating.

He spends his days running a specially equipped snowmobile, doing the dangerous work of finding the road under the snow and guiding heavy equipment along it.

He loves the job. It's the constant queries from neighbors that get on his nerves.

"I live in Red Bluff and people come up to me every day and ask: 'When's it gonna be open?' " Janc said. "I tell them, 'We'll have it open when we get it open. This year, winter just won't give up."

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