PLACES: Chinese Catfish Pond near Donner Pass
The fish were planted to augment fresh food supplies when the Chinese were helping construct the first transcontinental railroad over the Sierra.
The pond is located at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, and it is a small body of water isolated from any feeder streams. Naturalists say that there are no indigenous catfish in the High Country of the Sierra, but this isolated pond, teeming with black, whiskered bottom dwellers, is no mountain myth. It exists.
There are several ways to approach the pond, but the easiest is to drive west from Truckee and Donner Lake on Donner Pass Road (old Highway 40). Go up past the concrete, arched bridge (Rainbow Bridge). Just as you reach the top of the pass you will see the Alpine Skills International mountaineering school on your left. Find a place to park as the trailhead is across the road from the school's parking lot.
Follow the trail north-northeast as it climbs away from the road, for about half a mile. The terrain is undulating granite and open; there are a few trees and various other trails meandering through the area. As you gain elevation you will see a large reservoir, Lake Angela, about 400 yards to the west. It is identified on the topo map for the Donner Pass area.
Next you cross a little ridge and descend into a small valley. Now look to the northeast for a large, dead, pine tree with no bark. The catfish pond is located on a small plateau about 70 yards to the north of this tree. If you don't find it immediately, a bit of reconnaissance will get you to it.
When I finally stumbled upon the elusive pond, I immediately took out the slices of bread that I had brought with me. I used them to chum the water for conclusive evidence that there really are catfish thriving in this harsh, alpine environment. Lo and behold, within a few minutes, there were hundreds of 6-inch-long catfish churning up the greenish water like a school of piranhas. I am told the pond is deeper and clearer earlier in the summer season.
Figure this: The pond is in an area that averages 33 feet of snow each winter(!), but generations of the catfish have managed to survive.
During the construction of the railroad, Central Pacific Railroad supplied its Chinese workers with fresh seafood like abalone and other requested items the Asian laborers preferred. It does make sense that the Chinese cooks would stock a local pond with tasty catfish to supplement what the railroad provided. Incredibly the fish have managed to live and re-generate for more than 140 years in this little pond that is frozen and covered with deep snow for up to seven months a year.
Mark is a weather historian who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe.