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Upper Ruffey Lake below the Mount Etna summit is known for fishing and swimming. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]

Earning the views from Mount Etna

Tell folks you're planning to climb Mount Etna and some will do a double-take and look concerned. That's because the Mount Etna they're familiar with is a fiery, explosive, volcanic mountain on the Italian island of Sicily.

More than 200 eruptions on Sicily's Mount Etna have been documented since 1500 BC. The most powerful recorded eruption, which happened in 1669, destroyed part of the summit, and lava flows reached the sea and town of Catania more than 10 miles away.

But the most remembered eruption was recorded by Diodorus Siculus in 425 BC and described by Roman poet Virgil in the epic poem "The Aeneid." Etna hasn't stopped its volcanic belches. Three relatively minor eruptions, which injured several tourists and news people, occurred in March.

There aren't any epic poems about the Mount Etna our group hiked. Instead of traveling overseas, we drove to a trailhead up the road from the Scott Valley city of Etna in nearby Siskiyou County. Etna has its own history, but one that's less explosive than its Italian namesake.

Etna's history began about 1867 when a flour mill was built in the town then called Rough and Ready. Nearby was another small mill and town called Aetna Mills. When flooding severely damaged Aetna Mills in 1861 and 1862, businesses and residents gradually moved to Rough and Ready.

In 1874, to avoid confusion with other two central California towns also named Rough and Ready, the Siskiyou County town's name was changed to Etna Mills by the California Legislature. About 1930, the town petitioned the Legislature to drop the "Mills" from its name.

Our trip began about 10 miles from Etna at the Etna summit, also called the Salmon Mountain summit, an elevation of about 6,000 feet. We followed the Pacific Crest Trail south uphill for about 1½ miles to a spur trail to Upper Ruffey Lake. The trail drops 400 feet, offering peeks at Upper Ruffey, before reaching the lake.

Some of our group elected to stay to swim, read or just soak in the sun. After a brief break, most of us followed a faint bushwhacking trail before eventually weaving up a strenuous, slippery slope to a rocky outcrop below Mount Etna. Some clambered up the rock face, but most of us angled clockwise, a longer but gentler ascent to Etna's 7,500-foot summit.

From the craggy mountaintop we enjoyed a 360-degree panorama, including views west of the Marble Mountain, Trinity Alps and Russian wilderness areas, along with Upper Ruffey and several other lakes. We weren't alone. Waves of migrating butterflies, including swallowtails, swirled around us, while ladybugs oddly attached themselves on exposed legs. Fascinating, too, were a smattering of foxtail pines, a rare five-needled pine found only in California on exposed, high-elevation outcroppings and ridges.

The slippery slopes that had been grueling on the hike up — a climb of about 1,000 feet from the lake — made the downhill cruising fast and easy. Our reward was Upper Ruffey, where most everyone jumped in for a welcome, cleansing soak and swim.

Our hike and climb was challenging and rewarding, but our Mount Etna experience was nothing compared to Virgil's tale.

According to a translation by A.S. Kline, Virgil wrote, "... Etna rumbles nearby with fearsome avalanches, now it spews black clouds into the sky, smoking, with pitch-black turbulence, and glowing ashes, and throws up balls of flame, licking the stars: now it hurls high the rocks it vomits, and the mountain’s torn entrails, and gathers molten lava together in the air with a roar, boiling from its lowest depths."

Siskiyou County's Mount Etna is provided us with the best kind of butterflies and other delights, but compared to Virgil's lava-snorting mountain, our comparatively uneventful outing didn't qualify as epic.

— Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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