Saturday, September 27, 2003

Visit to Humbug Canyon

One of the most popular trails in Tahoe National Forest is the Euchre Bar Trail, which drops something less than 2000 feet to the North Fork American. A drive of a few miles leads from the Alta exit on I-80 to the trailhead. At the base of the trail, a suspension bridge spans the river across opposing cliffs, and large trout can be seen swimming the deep pool hemmed within that little gorge.

Euchre Bar has a body of glacial outwash sediments clinging to the canyon wall. This was attacked by a variety of methods, and gold was wrested from the ponderous masses of boulders, cobbles, sand and silt. It was a mining camp in its own right, and in the early newspapers of Placer County one can read the election returns for many such camps, including Euchre Bar. Most are now deserted.

From the bridge a trail continues up the North Fork two or three miles to Humbug Canyon. This short tributary of the North Fork has its own complex of outwash deposits, and was worked quite intensively in the early 1850s. Like Green Valley it counted as a town, for a few years anyway. In 1862 it was regarded as "worked out," the "music of the saw and the hammer" was no longer heard, no one was left. Yet, as seems often the case, that "no one" was an inexact and relative term, and the Humbug Canyon of 1862 had a store, and sixty men worked the mines in the summer, and twenty remained working through the winter.

Later an era of hard-rock mining began, for many are the gold-bearing quartz veins which lace the Shoo Fly Complex rocks in that area. The Pioneer Mine, the American Eagle, the Dorer Mine, the Blackhawk, the Southern Cross, and many many more, are scattered across the steep slopes.

The Dorer family arrived in Humbug Canyon at least as early as 1864, and to this day own the Dorer Ranch, near the base of the canyon in a sunny meadow with an Indian grinding rock, on a glacial outwash terrace. A house and some outbuildings still stand there, and a road switches back and forth all the way down to the ranch, from Elliot Ranch Road, up on the canyon rim.

The easiest approach to Humbug Canyon from civilization is along the Foresthill Divide. Yet the Divide runs to near 5000' in elevation on the approach to Humbug, so snow lies deep in the winter. Hence from the earliest times supplies came, during the winter, on mule trains from Dutch Flat and Towle (near Alta). These pack trains continued into the 20th century.

Saturday Gay Wiseman and I joined Steve Hunter, and Alan and Jay Shuttleworth, for a visit to Humbug Canyon. Steve is a good friend of Bob Dorer and has a key to the gate. I was quite interested in trying to find an old trail from Sawtooth Ridge down to Humbug Bar, where a bridge once crossed the North Fork. Last fall Tom Molloy and I had found the upper end of this trail, but had been unable to follow it very far. It seemed to disappear. Here was an opportunity to follow the same old trail--call it the SawBug Trail--from the river, up. Waldemar Lindgren's ca. 1900 geologic map shows this trail crossing the Dorer Mine quartz lode on the climb to the summit of Sawtooth.

The ca. 1960 "Volcano Fire" burned a vast area between the Middle and North Forks of the American. We drove through the old burn for miles, up on top of the Divide, where plantations of young trees seem to be thriving. As we approached Humbug Canyon, more and more patches of larger, older trees appeared, which had survived the fire. The descent into Humbug was through forests of Black and Canyon Live Oak, alternating with coniferous forests dominated by Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine. Around springs there were masses of dogwoods and maples and alders and ferns.

We stopped for a time at the Dorer Ranch, and met Bob Dorer and the ranch caretaker, Danny. Then we walked to the North Fork, a scant couple hundred yards away.

The rest of the party, led by Steve, hiked up to the American Eagle Mine, and then crossed to the north bank of the North Fork to visit other mining areas, including a gigantic cavern with railroad tracks leading into it. I, however, hopped across the river at the confluence of Humbug Creek, found the old bridge site, and struck out upriver on the old north-side trail.

This upriver trail shows on various old maps, but not on our modern Westville 7.5 quadrangle. I was a little surprised to find it changing into a wagon road, complete with large dry-laid stone walls, and in places, blasted out of the very cliffs.

With loppers at maximum power I made swift progress in the midday heat. I sensed that I had likely passed the Dorer Mine, but had seen no sign of it, and the old road was so easy, that it seemed best just to follow along. Without realizing it, I walked nearly a mile, and entered a forested flat, with the remains of an old wood stove, and other artifacts of human occupation and mining.

Could this be the Dorer Mine? Scouting around, I found a couple of wagon roads leading up the canyon wall, and began following the most likely, the most user-friendly, of the two. Difficulties arose. Ten thousand small Douglas Fir trees blocked my way at first, and then my "wagon road" seemed to melt into a squirrel trail, and that led into a knot-hole, and I was done.

Done? No! I thrashed around on the steep slopes, up, west, east, and then, saw another trail, which insensibly widened, and widened, and my wagon road was reborn!

I followed it higher and higher as the day grew warmer and warmer. Could this be the pesky SawBug Trail? No; I was too far east; or was the old map in error, as old maps are wont to be, so that maybe I was *not* "too far east'' but rather, exactly the right farness east? These serious questions occupied me as I lopped hundreds of branches and watched my wagon road shrink and swell and admired its dry-laid stone walls and the places where even it was blasted from the very rocks ... .

But wait; why would the SawBug be blasted? How could one justify that much work on a mere trail? Surely this wagon road led to some obscure gold mine: a hole in the ground, masses of dirty quartz lying everywhere. And soon enough I found just that. A tunnel, partially collapsed, followed a quartz vein into the sun-kissed mass of Sawtooth Ridge, and, peering past a disturbed bat, I saw light within the gloomy room, and realized that a shaft opened to the surface, somewhere above.

My wagon road seemed to end right there. Yet, climbing to examine the shaft, I caught a glimpse of a trail continuing, climbing up Sawtooth Ridge, and bearing east. So I struck out on that, and lopped many many more branches and small Douglas Fir trees, and the trail shrank, and widened, and had dry-laid stone retaining walls, or had none, and once again I began to think, This is It! This is the long-sought-after, the legendary, the one-and-only SawBug Trail!

But then a nasty notion darkened my mind's eye: perhaps this fine old trail only led to yet another hole-in-the-ground-with-quartz-all-around.

And so it did. In fact, it led to a very deep hole, a strange rectangular shaft plunging at the least a hundred feet down, only two by four feet in cross-section. And near this shaft, some signs of a collapsed tunnel. And once again, the trail seemed to utterly end. I scouted higher and to the east, I followed a bear trail to a bear bed, and I found strange masses of white quartz sand sown across the steeps, and did some involuntary skiing on these sharp little shards. And so I knew that more mine workings were somewhere above.

I was over five hundred feet above the North Fork and was drenched in sweat. One member of our party needed to get back to Colfax by some ungodly early hour, so my explorations must stop. It was nearly two p.m.

So, I lopped along back down the trail, back down the high wagon road, to the main wagon road at Wood Stove Flat, and heard voices. I lopped along the main wagon road east and found the rest of the party near a pile of old narrow-gauge track and iron strapping, such as were used for ore carts. They had just visited a most amazing cavern, and reproached me for missing out. I in turn reproached *them* for missing out. Silly aficionados of mining history who laugh at my loppers!

Then we marched on back to Humbug Canyon and swam in the lovely pool near the bridge site and ate lunch and talked with Bob Dorer and Danny, the Caretaker. After a time we dragged ourselves up the short trail to our cars.

On the way back, I took Elliot Ranch Road and passed the long and lovely meadow at the ranch site. Skirting along the rim of the North Fork canyon, I passed the head of the Green Valley Trail and met with Giant Gap Road and at last was on pavement again at Iowa Hill Road.

In another hour I was home.

Such was a visit to Humbug Canyon.

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