Monday, August 11, 2003

The China Trail, and the NFNFAR

Two adventures:

Saturday some eight of us met at Alta, drove up to Lost Camp, and descended the China Trail to the North Fork of the North Fork American River (NFNFAR).

We took a look around Lost Camp first, examining some few of the 590 acres to be logged. Lost Camp was a boom town in 1858, but declined rapidly. Old house and cabin sites are common, and mining pits are everywhere. The THP specifically states that not all trees to be cut are marked, so it is a little strange, to drive past tall Sugar Pines, and know their death sentence hangs over them, even tho not marked with blue paint.

At the trailhead, many trees *are* marked, including one middling large Incense Cedar which escaped the last round of logging, only a couple decades past, and which holds a rare blaze marking the trail. We were surprised to find a bit of flagging marking the trail, although it is never mentioned in the THP.

Something near a mile of walking over a descent of 1300' brings one to the confluence of Texas Canyon and the NFNFAR, the Ladybug Capital of the Universe, where, true to this strangely special place, even tho it is not the time of winter hibernation, many thousands of ladybugs cover rock surfaces and tree trunks in tightly-packed almost motionless masses, while others more or less scamper about everywhere.

A ramble up the river led us to the Pool of Cold Fire, where the amazing Gorge of Many Gorges may be said to begin, and a few of us swam up the long, deep, cliff-bound pool of crystalline, cold water; I nobly swam with one arm above the water, camera in hand, determined to at last photograph the remarkable waterfall and pool in Fulda Canyon, a ways above. I fought against the rippling, ever-strengthening currents and finally dragged myself from the icy grip of the narrow pool, and, quite naked, made the somewhat perilous climb up angling ledges into the Fulda Gorge. Arriving at the great round pool, I raised the camera, clicked the shutter release, and--found that my batteries had expired.

We saw ouzels and heard wrens and there were flowers and cute little garter snakes and the renowned Foothill Yellow-Legged Frogs and the giant Indian Rhubarb with leaves larger than dinner plates, and it was a fine day if rather tame so far as gorge-scrambling goes, and then up the trail we slowly went, and home.

Sunday, I met Steve Hunter for a foray into the NFNFAR, some miles downstream from the China Trail. Last Friday I had visited the good offices of Tahoe National Forest in Nevada City and enjoyed a brief tour of their very remarkable collection of old maps. While leafing through an enormous volume of maps devolving upon the Lost Camp area, I saw several maps of patented mining claims. One of these caught my eye, a lode claim, on a gold-bearing quartz vein, since the map showed a foot trail descending from Sawtooth Ridge to the NFNFAR, crossing a bridge, and at least starting up the north canyon wall, towards Lost Camp Ridge (the divide between the NFNFAR and Blue Canyon). I called Steve to ask him about this trail, as he is the ultimate authority on this canyon, and, not knowing it, he felt, as I did, that it must quickly quickly be known. Hence our foray.

Steve and I drove up to Emigrant Gap and in Forest Road 19, stopping briefly to say hello to geologist Allan James at Tunnel Mills campground, and then continuing past Texas Hill to Sawtooth Ridge. A maze of logging roads was negotiated, past horrendous clearcuts in Section 35 near Helester Point, on SPI lands, and eventually we trundled down a switchbacking jeep trail which had some exciting sections, very jeep-ish, until we were stopped by a ravine. However, our tortuous course had worn away much elevation; we were deep within the canyon, and only about 700 feet or so above the river. We parked at 3150' elevation; the river was somewhat below 2400'.

A steep descent over slippery slopes in a mixed forest of Canyon Live Oak, Douglas Fir, and California Nutmeg, that yew-family conifer with the stiff stinging needles, brought is to the sparkling river about three-quarters of an air mile from the east boundary of the lode claim. The canyon here, as at the China Trail, is incised into almost vertical strata of the Shoo Fly Complex metasediments. They are wonderfully shaped and polished and threaded everywhere with quartz veins, large and small. Trout darted about or hung lazily in the current, facing upstream, easily seen in the clear cold water.

We had a good scramble downstream over the polished rocks, sometimes crossing the river, and admiring soaring cliffs of slate-like rock, with blade-like eminences hundreds of feet above us. We began to sense that we must be nearing our goal, and examined the cliffs and ramparts of rock for old iron pins or bolts, marking the site of our bridge, and thus, our trail. Eventually we set the packs down and struck out more swiftly downstream. Almost immediately we saw a cable stretched across the river, well downstream, and hurried towards it.

Terraces of glacial outwash deposits appeared along both banks, the flat tops about fifty feet above river level. These would date from the Tioga glaciation, around 12,000 years ago; the ice itself did not reach this far down-canyon, but sediments disgorged by the glacier were of such a quantity as to overwhelm the river's ability to transport them, and a kind of narrow floodplain developed. Then the ice melted away, the sediment load diminished, and the river carved quickly down to bedrock, leaving these terraces, wherever topography conspired to protect them.

We saw some small scars and hollows left by ground-sluicing, long ago, in these terrace deposits, and then a 6" riveted iron pipe, used in that ground-sluicing, and then, a chunk of concrete--the bridge! We had found the bridge! And we were directly below the old cable!

However, as we scanned the banks on both sides, what we found was no bridge, but a dam, a low dam, of concrete, reinforced with much odds and ends of iron and steel, including narrow-gauge railroad track, said dam breached by flood events and their tumbled boulders, in the center of the stream, but intact on both banks. Crossing, we found that the dam had diverted the river through a short tunnel, and soon all became clear.

What we had found was the "take" for the water supplying the powerhouse at the Rawhide Mine. There, twin Pelton wheels were fed by twin penstocks. I had always wondered where the water came from. It could only come from the NFNFAR, but, where? Usually Pelton wheels are set up with high "heads," so the water can drop a long ways into the turbine. If the Rawhide wheels were typical, well, a rather long ditch was implied, high on the canyon wall, and "taking" the waters of the NFNFAR far far upstream.

Yet, here were were, not an air mile from the powerhouse, and with utterly no question that this very dam was the one and only "take." Thus there was no very great "fall" to the Pelton wheels, perhaps as little as 100 feet, surely less than 200 feet. We were inordinately pleased by all this and sped downstream, past places where the iron penstock, around four feet in diameter, had been anchored to the very cliffs, past benches blasted out of the solid solid rock, and down to a meadowy area where the NFNFAR bends sharply to the south. There we called a halt. We found a cabin site, with a rather strange and ornate cast iron artifact nearby, and, just above the ditch-line--for here, at least, they had switched from a pipe to a ditch, to move the water along--just above, we found a sort of wagon road, badly overgrown, but suggesting that it was the way all these many materials had been brought upstream to the diversion dam.

So, it was all very good, and shows that, from the Rawhide, an excellent trail could be opened up to the old dam. This is all the more reason to try to secure the passage across private property at the Rawhide, for all this area (except the patented lode claim), like the trail from the Rawhide up to Sawtooth Ridge, is, thank goodness, Tahoe National Forest. But these old trails, open to our grandfathers, are closed to us.

While returning upstream to the dam site, Steve and I noted some large bolts let into the polished rock flanking a little inner gorge, and realized it was a bridge site, and very likely, the very bridge site, with its associated trails, which had lured us down into the magical canyon. But the sun was westering and a long hike led up to the jeep, so we did not take time to look for the trails.

In the fullness of my extreme genius I left the camera in my pack and obtained no photos of the dam or bridge site or wagon road.

I should say that in the vicinity of the dam, up and downstream, are some very nice pools. We swam one of them. They are deep and broad and cold and clear.

We swam one last time before making the steep climb to the jeep, and soaked our shirts in the cold water, and it was not too bad, and not too long, and not too hot, and not too buggy, and so, then, having arrived, it only remained to depart, and make the very long drive back to civilization, at Emigrant Gap.

Such were two great days in the NFNFAR.

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