Monday, August 4, 2003

The Placer Queen

Gus Wiseman, a student at U.C. Davis, joined me Sunday for an exploration of upper Wildcat Canyon and the Placer Queen Mine. For those who aren't familiar with that area, Wildcat Canyon is a short tributary of the North Fork American which heads up along the Foresthill Divide, east of Robinson Flat. From Auburn one drives northeast through the town of Foresthill a long ways, losing the pavement at Robinson Flat. The sign there tells us that it is 25 miles on to Soda Springs on I-80. The Foresthill-Soda Springs road is often fairly rough over this high country reach. I consider it one of the great drives in California, with wonderful views of the North Fork canyon and the Sierra crest.

A couple miles east of Robinson Flat is the unmarked trail to Sailor Meadow and the Walker Mine. Another couple miles east brings one to the unmarked trail to the Placer Queen Mine, a drift mine near the confluence of the east and west forks of Wildcat Canyon. Sailor Meadow is notable for its large tract of old-growth forest, at about 5600' elevation. This forest, and several wet meadows, inhabit a broad bench or terrace along the east side of Sailor Canyon. Both Sailor Canyon and its neighbor to the east, Wildcat Canyon, are notable for the unusual thickness of the "superjacent" young volcanics lying on top of the vastly older "subjacent" bedrock. The young volcanics are comprised, from the top, down, of the andesitic mudflows of the Mehrten Formation (about 1000' thick here!), the "pink welded tuff" of the Valley Springs Formation, and then, beneath that, more rhyolite ash of the Valley Springs fm. Beneath all these volcanics is at least one old river channel, with gold-bearing gravel, so, in both Sailor and Wildcat canyons, there are various drift mines, where tunnels were driven into the ancient channels.

The underlying bedrock is metamorphic volcaniclastic rocks of the Sailor Canyon and Tuttle Lake formations, which appear to have been deposited in an oceanic environment, before being rotated almost 90 degrees to the east while being smashed up against the western edge of North America in the Jurassic, say, 140 million years ago. So all the strata are "on edge," nearly vertical. This rock was then uplifted and eroded, valleys formed, rivers flowed, then all was buried beneath the "young volcanics," and then, at last, our modern canyons were eroded into all of this, cutting right through the young volcanics, into the subjacent bedrock, and on down below the levels of the ancient, pre-volcanic rivers.

If one is sensitive to the variable thickness of the young volcanics, as seen along the ridges between the modern canyons, one can deduce the presence of the ancient valleys of the ancestral Sierra. Where these valleys were, the young volcanics are thicker than usual. This is especially evident around Sailor Canyon and Wildcat Canyon, where the ridgetops are up around 7000', and the ancient channels down around 5400', so that the exposed section of the volcanics is around 1500 feet thick.

At any rate. I cannot refrain from mentioning one of the most obnoxious timber harvests to take place in Tahoe National Forest in recent years. It went by the name of a "hazard tree removal" along the Foresthill Road, above Robinson Flat. It sounded innocuous enough: if some big old tree is leaning over the road, and might fall, cut it down. However, what actually happened was that, in a broad zone along either side of the road, many large trees were cut, bulldozers scrambled everywhere, log landings were constructed, and the tops of the Sailor Meadow and Placer Queen trails were obliterated. What especially galls me is that this part of the road *was* so especially virginal and lovely, winding narrowly through one of the all-to-rare unlogged parts of Placer County, a forest often dominated by Red Fir, with some Jeffrey Pine and Western White Pine here and there. So, what had been quite palpably virgin forest, often extending for miles to either side, now has the generic appearance of the run-of-the-mill logged forest.

It amounts to petty vandalism on the grand scale.

So, then, Gus and I drove up the Foresthill road, and a little past the side road to Deadwood, an old mining camp, we explored an obscure road on the left which was cut directly into the line of the historic Iowa Hill Ditch. This ditch was constructed in the 1870s, and was projected to take directly from the North Fork, way upriver, not far from the Cedars, and to take also the waters of all the North Fork's southern tributaries: New York Canyon, Sailor Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, Wabena Canyon, etc. Fortunately it was never completed; it ends a little east of Tadpole Canyon, and never reached New York Canyon. We followed the road east for a mile or so; it has been freshly re-graded only this year, and the newly-bulldozed road eventually leaves the line of the ditch and drops towards one of the several drift mines on the north, North Fork side of Hogback Ridge. I have no idea what's afoot down there. It worries me that so much expensive work has been done.

Where the road leaves the ditch, the ditch-road itself continues east, I don't know how far, seemingly in TNF lands, and purposely blocked by a large dead tree and berm of dirt. We walked in a short distance, then returned to the car, drove back to the Foresthill Road, and on up to the Placer Queen Trail. Parenthetically, I have wondered whether this part of the historic Iowa Hill Ditch might form part of the proposed Capitol-to-Capitol Trail. It would certainly make for a beautiful trail; there are some great views out into the North Fork, with Big Valley Bluff almost directly across the canyon, and Snow Mountain to the east.

I had scouted around for the trail down to the Placer Queen several times in years past. The USGS 7.5 minute Royal Gorge quadrangle shows the trail following a ridge crest down into Wildcat Canyon from a point along the road, a little east of Sunflower Hill. This time I stored waypoints for the trailhead and several points along the trail onto my GPS unit, and even with this additional help, it was very hard to find the trail. That wonderful hazard tree removal had done a good job of tearing things up at the trailhead, and what trees which might have carried blazes had been cut. We struck a likely line and started down, but, after a descent of perhaps 150 feet in elevation, when we broke free of the forest onto the crest of a barren little ridge of andesitic mudflow, I saw the true trail beside us, coming down very slightly to the east side of the crest. So, we had missed the uppermost line of the old trail.

Continuing down the mudflow ridge, we saw signs that this trail had actually been a small road in its day, a jeep trail, perhaps, although more likely it long pre-dated jeeps, and was either a wagon road, or a track used by some kind of ancient light truck, or both. Whatever the case, it has not been driven for a long, long time, and is fairly steep. As we passed again into forest, heavy brush buried the trail in places, and we sometimes simply had to veer away into more open terrain, and come back to the trail somewhere below. I had my loppers and was able to open up a few sections of trail.

At last we reached the top of an especially steep and forested section, and completely lost the line of the trail. We scouted back and forth along the hillside below, and picked it up again. This is the lowest, most northerly section depicted on the Royal Gorge quadrangle. The map is in error, for it shows the trail leading straight down the hill to the mine, when in fact it has several switchbacks. It is quite wide, but badly overgrown, and many were the eight-foot branches of Pacific Dogwood, many the small White Firs, I cut away from the trail. We had descended through the entire section of mudflow and were entering the pink welded tuff in particular, and the rhyolite ash of the Valley Springs fm. generally, which formation, almost everywhere in the Sierra, is the source of springs and seeps. Thus the many dogwoods, thus the rich forest of large pines and firs and Douglas Fir and Incense Cedar.

We saw that someone else had lopped branches along the trail, perhaps ten years ago, or more. However, just to follow the trail was quite a challenge, and at one point we succeeded where the previous explorers had failed, for there were no more old lopped branches. Eventually we reached a forested flat--truly flat--where several stumps spoke to the needs of the miners, perhaps for timbering in the tunnel, or for a cabin; but no cabin site was evident.

We rested a very short while, until clouds of mosquitos discovered us, and I began scouting back and forth along the flat terrace. I soon struck an old human trail leading back to the north into the east branch of Wildcat Canyon, so I went and got Gus and we explored along the trail for quite a ways, until it diminished into almost nothing as it neared the creek.

We were just above the point where the creek crossed from the young volcanics upstream into the old bedrock downstream. A moderately large landslide in the weak almost white rhyolite ash flanked the creek on the west side, apparently freshly remobilized and cut by the January 1997 flood event. We were to see several other, similar slide areas in the volcanic ash, in the general area.

We followed the creek down into the bedrock, which looked to be metavolcanics of the Tuttle Lake fm. This is variegated, with layers of pyroclastics, similar to the mudflows of the young volcanics, but all squished and metamorphosed and much harder and denser, and layers of fine-grained dark sediments, sometimes showing tight folds. The creek was charming, a little difficult to follow, and when we reached one deep little pool, of a sort which made one want to swim, I wondered whether a trail might have led to the pool from the mine, saw a terrace just above, and so we climbed back up and scouted the hillside. While we found no particular trail to the pool, we did strike the continuation of the main trail, again, very broad, which I had missed altogether in the large flat with the stumps, somewhere above us.

We followed along in a westerly direction and soon reach the mine residence, a log cabin around twenty feet square, with carefully hewn logs, squared off on the inside, still showing the marks of the broadaxe, and a shingled gable roof. The cabin had collapsed, probably many years ago. There was a fair amount of milled lumber in the thing, too, and an old wood stove, and so one, and all round nails, so, certainly 20th century; but nothing I saw could pinpoint the date of its construction. It might have been as late as the 1930s, maybe even a little later.

We found that the trail continued down and to the west, and followed along. We never found the main tunnel of the mine, although we saw many prospect holes, and did pass one very likely candidate for the tunnel, at least, it looked just as though a large tunnel had collapsed, along with portions of the steep slope above it.

The trail continued. We reached a rather large and steep slide area in the Valley Springs rhyolite ash, with many springs and seeps and dogwoods and alders along its base, lost the trail, and eventually emerged on a steep bank above the west fork of Wildcat Canyon. Here we decided to cross the creek and strike west and north on a contour, towards Sailor Meadow. If the going got too rough, we could always retreat to the Placer Queen.

Looking for an easy place to make the steep 100' descent to the creek, I saw what seemed like a continuation of the old trail, and joked to Gus that I was always seeing old trails, whether they existed or not. We followed it down and looked for a way up the far side; only one good possibility presented itself, and after a bit of a scramble, we were on steep heavily forested slopes, and immediately struck an unequivocal old human trail.

It was easy to lop the obstructions away, as the trail made an easy climb to the northwest. Soon we topped out on a small ridge, which at first I mistook for the main divide between Wildcat and Sailor canyons. A large flat lay just west, and we were unable to pick up the line of trail across the flat. Huge Sugar Pines and White Firs towered everywhere, with many fallen giants making for an intricate sequence of climbing and jumping and weaving back and forth.

Checking my Royal Gorge quadrangle, I saw that, as is often the case, this large flat area was not well expressed on the map, and that we must be a quarter-mile away from the divide. We contoured along and climbed a little, unwillingly, for my sense of location indicated we were on a perfect elevation to feather right in to the level part of the divide, where the long narrow pond lies, and the unmarked trail west to Sailor Meadow breaks west from the trail on down to the Walker Mine. I was sure that the old human trail must continue to the Sailor Meadow-Walker Mine Trail, but I saw no sign of it.

Our broad flat had narrowed to a terrace, and that in turn ended on steep brushy slopes which forced us still higher. We struck the main trail a scant hundred feet above the level reach by the narrow pond, and crossed right over to the west, circling around the north side of large and lush Sailor Meadow, then around the west side to the Indian grinding rock, and the old stockman's camp; for someone had grazed cattle here, once upon a time.

The ancient forest around Sailor Meadow is so very lovely, so amazing. Just west of the stockman's camp is a grove of tremendous Ponderosa Pines which range towards eight feet in diameter. Gigantic Sugar Pines are everywhere, along with huge White Firs and Incense Cedars. The largest Douglas Fir I have seen in the Sierra, maybe ten feet in diameter, is somewhere to the north; I have passed it twice in years past, wandering the broad terrace, over a mile long, but have been unable to find it again in the past two years.

A breeze blew up and scared the mosquitos away, and made the aspens tremble, and billowing cloud castles half-filled the sky, and distant thunder was heard, while we rested and ate a late lunch. Around 3:30 p.m. we started up and out, following the Sailor Meadow-Walker Mine Trail up the divide, a climb of about 1500 feet, to the Foresthill Road. This we followed east to Sunflower Hill, and then took a shortcut, contouring around the steep north side of Sunflower, which faces into Wildcat Canyon, and merging with the road again a half-mile to the east. We were a scant hundred yards from the car.

During the long drive down to Auburn, Gus fell asleep while I rattled on about the Placer County Big Trees and William Lardner's ~1925 expedition. So I held my peace and drove and drove and at last we reached Auburn and stopped in at the Shanghai for supper, where I chatted a little with my friend, the genial Richard Yue, proprietor. A blues band was revving it up nicely to an appreciative audience on the outdoors terrace, but Gus and I stayed tamely inside and listened to a strange old player piano execute jazzified versions of jazz standards like "Green Dolphin Street" and "When Sunny Gets Blue," both favorites of mine, which I play on guitar and piano. The food was fine.

Such was another day exploring the upper North Fork, with so many great views of Snow Mountain, and Devils Peak, Sugar Pine Point, and the many side-canyons, all made more dramatic by cloud shadows drifting slowly over the cliffs and forests.

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