Thursday, August 7, 2003

Lost Camp THP reconnaissance

I joined Steve Hunter of Colfax for a reconnaissance of the Lost Camp THP area yesterday. We left at 8:00 a.m. and drove up to the Blue Canyon exit on I-80, proceeding south and across the railroad tracks to the road fork leading east to the ridge (let us call it Fulda Ridge), in Section 24, between Fulda Creek and Texas Canyon (Texas Canyon is not so named on the modern USGS 7.5 minute Westville quadrangle, but is named on the 1866 General Land Office map of that area). We found this road gated closed with a sign reading "no trespassing" and "if you enter you will be shot."

Another road forked left near the gate and we tried it. It almost immediately leveled out and I realized it had been cut into the line of an old ditch, which could only be the historic Bradley & Gardner Ditch, or Placer County Canal, which drew from the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork, and went to the hydraulic mines of Dutch Flat and Gold Run, arriving in 1859. It was following almost exactly the 4680' contour where we met it. In a while we reached a locked gate, and, knowing the ditch must swing around Fulda Ridge, followed the road in. We passed a group of small cabins of recent construction, and then suddenly the road ended and we could follow the ditch itself. It is about five feet deep, and six or eight feet across at the top, and was said to have a capacity of 5000 miners inches, in the olden days.

A little less than a mile along the sinuous course of the ditch brought us to Fulda Ridge. Immediately below us to the south, a fine stand of coniferous timber had shaded out the brush, and made for easy going. We noted flagging where we left the ditch, marking it as a "truck road," and knew we were just entering the Lost Camp THP, on the north line of Section 24.

This forest had been logged at least twice, decades ago, we believed, but by a "selective" method, in which only the largest trees had been cut, and the forest canopy had remained largely intact, and no brush and relatively few small trees had become established, in the shade. So, it was a pretty patch of forest, and easy to walk through, and as we descended, the crest of the ridge flattened out to a dead level. Unfortunately this forest will be pretty well all harvested, according to the THP.

Steve has explored this area almost incredibly thoroughly over the past fifty years. He and his friends have pulled off some amazing adventures. For instance, Fulda Creek, below us to the east, has a steep gradient which only gets steeper as it approaches the North Fork of the North Fork, to the south. There is a series of high waterfalls along the creek, and essentially no way to hike up or down this section. Steve and his friends brought ropes and rappelled down the cliffs beside each waterfall in turn, all the way to the river, and then came back up the China Trail.

But this was only one of Steve's forays into lower Fulda Creek. On other occasions he had found an unusual old mining railroad. Since this is within the THP we wished to document it. I myself also hoped to discover some shred of the old trail from Lost Camp to Monumental Camp, constructed in 1862. However, in this I failed. The logging of decades ago had involved bulldozers, and the usual disruption of the land surface had effaced any sign of the old trail.

Reaching the southern end of the flat top of Fulda Ridge, where it drops away in ragged cliffs of the Shoo Fly Complex metasediments, into the main North Fork of the North Fork canyon, we veered east and began working down towards Fulda Creek. Almost immediately we struck a broad old trail or wagon road, which led back to the north and east. Following it, for a time I hoped it was my lost trail from Lost Camp, but soon it was obliterated by bulldozer skid trails from, what, 35 years ago. So we just angled on down the ever-steepening canyon wall, through a thinning mixed coniferouse forest increasingly dominated by Canyon Live Oaks, until another segment of broad trail or wagon road was reached, this, very nearly on a level.

Following it south, we passed sections of dry-laid stone walls, and finally reached a small mining area with abundant chunks of angular quartz scattered around. There the road-trail seemed to end. A sort of gully choked with angular talus was above the terminus, but no tunnel was visible. We made a short scramble beyond to some cliffy outcrops with fine views out into the main canyon, and we could see all the tributaries which make the Gorge of Gorges: Fulda, Sailor Ravine, the North Fork of the North Fork, the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork, Burnett Canyon and Wilmont Ravine, and Texas Canyon. Across the main canyon, Sawtooth Ridge rose steeply to Helester Point. There, a drastically ugly SPI clearcut made a square hole in the forest cover.

Fair-weather cumulus clouds graced the pure blue sky. It was cool, perfect for hiking.

Retreating north along the road-trail, I saw a faint old human trail leading down, and we followed it a short distance to a smaller trail, also about level, perhaps one hundred feet lower. This we followed south until it appeared to end at some cliffs. A bit of iron strapping stuck out of the trail at one point, of the sort one sometimes sees in old mine tunnels, a sort of poor man's railroad track, used for moving ore carts along the tunnel. Also, we saw an ancient cable stretching straight down the hill. Steve's recollection was that this cable led down to his mining railroad. However, our level old trail must be explored first, so we turned and followed it north.

It too had its dry-laid stone walls, and we walked it for a long distance, well, a quarter-mile perhaps, and saw Douglas Fir trees of increasing size, one, perhaps six feet in diameter. Strangely, the THP specifically states that there is no old-growth forest within the plan area. These large trees are clearly old-growth. The only logging which had ever occurred at this depth within Fulda Canyon (we were near the 4200' contour), was minor harvest of medium-sized trees, for mining purposes, around 100 years ago.

Suddenly, though, the old trail was crossed by what seemed to be a skid trail, which had been undoubtedly made by a bulldozer, and yet which looked very old. No stumps in the area signalled that it had been made for logging. Its rough steep bench cut had been much softened by the passage of decades. We tentatively ascribed an age of fifty years to it. The level old trail did not seem to continue, so we followed the steep bulldozer trail down a short distance. There we found large stockpiles of quartz ore, and a variety of mining equipment, including an ore cart, a sort of crucible, and several odd tubes of galvanized metal, something like water heater tanks, but meant to rotate on a longitudinal axis, some still having their axles. We could not imagine what they were for, but, clearly, it had to do with gold mining. They were of several different diameters.

We were now close to the creek, on a small flat, everywhere sloping, but not too far from level, and with a find stand of large Douglas Fir. Steve's sense was that we were far to the north of the mining railroad, which broke out onto the sunny cliffs we had visited earlier. So, with considerable difficulty, we contoured along to the south, while the creek fell away below us, and reached increasingly rocky areas with some rather large outcrops, almost house-sized. At one point Steve climbed up some shattered rock above me, and as I followed, I came within inches of a rattlesnake, which he had passed already. It was a calm snake, half-hidden in a hole, and did not rattle. I stepped away a few feet and climbed up after Steve.

After a time we found a great viewpoint and stopped for lunch. We reviewed the situation. It was impossible that the mining railroad had disappeared. It was virtually impossible that it could be below us. I suggested that perhaps his mining railroad was just the same as our lower level trail; but Steve recalled, vividly, railroad tracks crossing a cliff, and hanging into space. We had followed the entire length of the lower level trail, and had checked the slopes well for hundreds of feet below its line. So, what then?

As we continued, Steve saw a familiar-looking outcrop above us, and as we made for it, he saw a rail. A steep climb brought us to a gully where, perhaps a hundred years past, a trestle had supported narrow-gauge track. The trestle was gone, the track hung in the air, supported by cliffy outcrops at one side. So, we climbed over to the cliffy area, and, voila! There were the railroad tracks, winding sharply around a blasted-out bench on the cliff, and hanging into space at either end of this curved reach. Old cedar ties were still in place, with small railroad spikes, and round nails, and square nails too. It all suggested a turn-of-the-century date, around 1900. We had, again, tremendous views, very similar to those we'd enjoyed earlier.

It was hard to see how far the original line of trestle and track might have continued, to the west, but, as we climbed up above the tracks, the question was likely answered, for we caught sight of a steep-walled, steeply-plunging gully, which I recognized as a quartz vein complex which had been "stoped out" along the surface, to a depth of nearly if not more than twenty feet, measured perpendicular to the overall steep rocky slopes. This may well have been because the material closer to the surface was more weathered, and the gold easier to extract by ordinary, gravity-based methods, i.e., crushing followed by of a sluice box. Sometimes at greater depths, the gold is far harder to separate from other minerals.

We followed the stoped-out vein complex on up the cliff. I have seen very similar workings in the Stanislaus river canyon. At the top of the cliff, the stoped area continued down the far side, and we realized that we had returned to the southern end of our first, highest, level road-trail. Thus Steve's mining railroad was really part of the lower old level trail; and we had just been mistaken, when we thought it had ended at some rocks, earlier.

Thus, the two parallel, almost-level trails are ore cart runs leading from the stoped-out vein complex, north to the ore stockpiles in the little flat with the old mining equipment and the old bulldozed steep road.

Steve says there are other mining artifacts down along the creek itself. I want to emphasize that, not only are these artifacts on private property, but in any case, all such things should be left alone. Carry nothing home, no old railroad spikes, no arrowheads, nothing. Photograph them if you like. Be careful about even mentioning such sites to anyone. It is a shocking fact that many archeological sites have already been looted. This has to stop.

We climbed back to the level summit of Fulda Ridge and retraced our steps back to the ditch and to Steve's jeep.

Later in the day we took a look at various parts of the Lost Camp area, including the proposed new road, to cross Texas Canyon, which is detailed in the THP, and which will require rather extreme cuts on steep slopes and a huge culvert, and, all in all, I would like to see this and other new roads *not* constructed, for this timber harvest, instead, if any harvest occurs, let there be much more in the way of helicopter yarding, much less tractor yarding, and no new roads.

Later we drove down the Lost Camp Divide out of the THP area and into some horrible clearcuts on what I presume is SPI lands.

Such was a very interesting day.

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