Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Sawtooth Ridge

It being Columbus Day, Ron Gould and I decided to Discover America, at least, that part of it comprising Sawtooth Ridge, which divides the main North Fork American on the south, from the North Fork of the North Fork (NFNFAR), on the north. The crest of this ridge ripples high and low in a succession of peaks and passes. On some old maps it is named Texas Ridge, and I.T. Coffin, a Dutch Flat gold miner and photographer who once live at Burnett Canyon and Texas Hill, calls it the "Camel Humpbacked Ridge" in his 1863 diary. Also living at Burnett Canyon at that time was one E.B. "Tex" Smithwick and his wife; I have suspected, never knowing for sure, that Tex Smithwick himself might have lent his nickname to Texas Hill, Texas Diggings, and Texas Ridge.

Howsoever, Sawtooth Ridge trends roughly east and west, running higher on the east, the summits verging upon 5500', and lower on the west, the very last knoll just clearing 4000' in elevation. The slopes on the North Fork side are south-facing and sunny, much more rocky and open and given to brush and Canyon Live Oak, while on the north-facing, north side of the ridge, there is more in the way of coniferous forest. In the olden days a trail led along the ridge crest, avoiding the very summits where possible, and just nicking the passes. Several trails dropped away from this main trail south into the vastness of the North Fork canyon--to Mumford Bar, Italian Bar, and Humbug Bar--, and others dropped away north into the narrower confines of the North Fork of the North Fork, to China Bar and the Rawhide Mine.

Only the Mumford Bar and Rawhide trails show on our modern USGS 7.5 minute Westville quadrangle.

A Tahoe National Forest lookout tower once stood at Helester Point, 4930', midway along the length of the ridge. Gradually roads penetrated west along Sawtooth Ridge, probably reaching Helester Point by the early 1900s. From there, a jeep trail of likely more recent vintage continues west down the ridge. The checkerboard pattern of land ownership, dating back to President Lincoln's land grants to the Central Pacific Railroad, are much in force in that area. Around 1985 a corporate takeover attempt scared Southern Pacific (the successor of the CPRR) into selling its vast land holdings in Tahoe National Forest. A lumber company, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), ended up with the most of these lands.

The steep north slopes of Sawtooth, then, already networked by logging roads and skid trails to the utter obliteration of the China Bar Trail, have in recent years been the target of SPI clearcuts. Some of these are highly visible from the scenic overlook called Iron Point, or from the line of the railroad near Blue Canyon, and from many places. They are on extremely steep slopes. SPI used herbicides to kill the natural groves of Kelloggs Black Oak and Canyon Live Oak interspersed with the Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir timber on these slopes, and replanted to a pure coniferous stand. I don't like this industrial approach to timber "management." I believe that Tahoe National Forest ought to be trying to purchase these SPI lands on Sawtooth Ridge, along with the Siller Brothers property at Lost Camp, and other SPI lands along the Lost Camp Ridge.

Whether it is clearcutting or ordinary, selective-harvest tractor-logging, old foot trails tend to be obliterated by timber harvests. Again and again I see every vestige of some historic trail erased, hidden forever under a welter of skid trails and log decks. Nobody looks out after these trails, which once comprised a vast network. One might well think that in this day and age, Tahoe National Forest and CDF would declare, "Enough is enough! More than half of the old trails are ruined, but no more! Harvest your timber, yes, but leave the trails intact!" One would be wrong.

But I digress.

Ron and I drove up I-80 to Emigrant Gap and caught Forest Road 19 out to Texas Hill, continuing east up Burnett Canyon, past the old Towle sawmill site, past the tiny thread of I.T. Coffin's old mining ditch, first below, then above the road, until almost insensibly we reached Sawtooth Ridge, and the road curved to the west, around the head of Burnett Canyon.

We passed the obliterated beginning of the Burnett Canyon Trail, and swung around the headwaters of Wilmont Ravine, where I.T. Coffin's oft-drunken partner, Tommy Williams, once washed a 20-ounce gold nugget out of the creek. We reached one of Sawtooth's passes near here, where old maps show a trail descending to Italian Bar, almost, as it were, the direct continuation of the Burnett Canyon Trail. I.T. Coffin used this Italian Bar trail from time to time. The top has been erased by logging, but Ron and I picked it up within a couple hundred yards of the pass, and followed it down into a mixed grove of large Ponderosa Pine and Kelloggs Black Oak, where the slopes eased a bit. We saw no very clear continuation, and since we were really more concerned with the trail down to Humbug Bar, another "lost" trail, we climbed back up to the pass and drove west.

Within a maze of logging roads on very steep slopes, where the roadcuts sometimes rise thirty feet high--apparently we can afford to just throw away topsoil and subsoil alike, in order to harvest timber--we bumped along in Ron's trusty old Toyota 4WD pickup, looking for one certain left turn which would put us on the old jeep trail west of Helester Point. We took a guess and found ourselves bucking up and over high waterbars within one of the major SPI clearcuts in Section 35, T16N R11E. Then we plunged down into a swale, and although still within SPI land, we had reached an area so lightly timbered that it had suffered relatively little.

At a certain point a large oak blocked the narrow road, but we managed to pull it aside, and continued west to one of the most pronounced passes on Sawtooth Ridge. We were now on TNF land, in the very northeast part of Section 3, T15N R11E; it was so nice to see an unlogged part of the ridge. Here the ~1900 Colfax Folio topographic map shows a trail dropping down to the North Fork at Humbug Bar, where a bridge once spanned the river. We parked and Ron immediately spotted old blazes on some oaks, and then another on a large pine just above us. The oak blazes were just where the Humbug Trail (I also call it the Sawbug Trail, because it runs from Sawtooth Ridge down to Humbug Bar) forks away from the equally-old Sawtooth Ridge Trail. Further explorations showed that we had stumbled upon a section of the original Sawtooth Trail which is now distinct from the road--for this old road, or jeep trail, had been, in many areas, cut directly into the line of the original trail.

Tom Molloy and I had found the upper end of the Sawbug Trail last fall, but had lost the line of the thing as it dropped away south and west into the steeps of the North Fork canyon. Ron and I worked hard on clearing fallen Knobcone Pine trunks and other obstacles from the well-defined uppermost section of the trail. These Knobcones are fire-adapted pines, members of the Closed-Cone group of the genus Pinus. The gigantic Volcano Fire of ~1960 had swept across the Foresthill Divide, down through Humbug Canyon, and right across the North Fork and up onto Sawtooth Ridge. These pines had seeded in thickly after the fire, and fought one another for sun, and those which lost the battle had died and fallen across the trail, in dozens. So Ron and I had our work cut out for us.

Eventually, we left the snarled mass of dead Knobcones for a more open forest of scattered large Ponderosa Pines, Kelloggs Black Oak, and Canyon Live Oak. A deep layer of leaves and pine needles covered the ground. Bears and other game had often used the old human trail above us, but here, on gentle slopes, in an open forest, the paths of animals were not tightly constrained, and soon we had really nothing to go by--not a blaze, not a suspiciously well-defined game trail, not anything.

We zigged and zagged down past some old prospect pits, with chunks of quartz lying about. The gold-bearing quartz veins here are allied to those worked so heavily down below us in the North Fork canyon, as for instance at the Dorer Mine, the Central Mine, the American Eagle Mine, the Gem Mine, etc. etc. A trail appeared, and we followed it west to one of the larger prospect pits, where it seems to end.

Once again a variety of factors conspired to make it seem more reasonable to search out the line of the Sawbug from Humbug Bar going up, rather than from Sawtooth down. The slopes where the trail disappeared were steep, and only getting steeper, below us. Then again, this last portion of "the trail" might well have had only to do with the mining prospects, not the Sawbug itself. The Sawbug itself may have dropped away into the great canyon a smidgin to the east, and then passed to the west far below us.

So, we retreated up to the truck and explored the vicinity of the pass. I followed the faint trace of the Sawtooth Trail up moderately steep slopes to the west, and had the satisfaction of finding another ancient blaze, on a huge Sugar Pine, and just above, a well-defined section of the trail itself. I eventually rejoined the road, and saw a large oak down.

Regrouping, we drove west, but were soon stopped by the large fallen oak. There was no pulling this aside. So we walked another half-mile along the meandering little road, and found some more very old blazes along the way, showing that here at least the road had been cut right into the line of the original trail.

The sun was lowering, and we retreated to the truck and started back out.

Sawtooth Ridge is interesting from the standpoint of geomorphology, and the evolution of the landscape of the North Fork. Its geology is part of this story.

Especially here in the Northern Sierra, the major canyons are young, freshly-incised, and steep-walled. A long series of volcanic eruptions, commencing around thirty million years ago, had buried the Ancestral Sierra beneath a plateau composed of rhyolite ash below, and andesitic mudflows above. Finally, and apparently very locally, basaltic lavas flowed down minor valleys eroded into this plateau. These youngest of the volcanics date from as much as seven to as little as three million years in age, and we may place the beginning of the incision of the North Fork canyon to the time of these youngest flows. One tiny remnant of basalt caps one of the knolls along Sawtooth Ridge, just east of Helester Point. Suppose it is "five million years old." Then the North Fork canyon is also five million years old, and here it has cut down nearly three thousand feet in that five million years.

The idea here is that the basalt atop Sawtooth was following the lowest, deepest valley available at the time, say, five million years ago. Which is as much as to say that the North Fork canyon did not exist at that time. The Sawtooth basalt followed and filled some minor valley in the plateau.

The generalized volcanic plateau sloped to the southwest. It was thickest near the crest, and thinned westward. The Sierra began to tilt up en masse several million years ago and this uplift increased the gradient of the plateau, sloping down to the southwest. Almost simultaneously the climate cooled and a long series of glaciations began. The steepened gradient and the glaciations combined to make for rapid downward incision of the new canyons. As they deepened, they widened. And we are at just that stage in the deepening and widening, which continues to this day, in which the main ridges between the canyons still hold remnants of the volcanic plateau.

Hence the flat-topped ridges of the middle elevations of the Northern Sierra.

But Sawtooth Ridge is not flat-topped. It does have some few tiny vestiges of the volcanic plateau on some of its knolls. Other knolls are "bedrock" of the Subjacent Series, here, metasediments of the Shoo Fly Complex, all the way to the top, for instance, Helester Point is a bedrock knoll.

We can ascribe this peak-and-pass topography to the near proximity of two canyons, the main North Fork and the North Fork of the North Fork. In their deepening and widening they have managed to erode intervening Sawtooth Ridge below the level of the plateau. In a sense Sawtooth offers a preview of what the more common flat-topped ridges will look like in another million years or so.

However, the extent to which glaciation may have figured into all this is not well known. It is clear that the very last "Tioga" ice extended well down Fulda Canyon, down the main North Fork of the North Fork, down the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork, and down the North Fork itself. But exactly how far? This remains to be established. My own guess is that the Tioga-age North Fork glacier, which melted back up the canyon some 12,000 years ago, came down at least to Mumford Bar. And I guess that Fulda and NFNFAR ice came down at least to the Gorge of Many Gorges, just upstream from the China Bar Trail.

On Sawtooth Ridge itself, right up along the crest, are minor bodies of much older glacial till. These till bodies--the largest being just west of Helester Point--show that during one of the earlier episodes of glaciation, perhaps Tahoe I or Tahoe II (ca. 130,000 and 65,000 years before the present, respectively), ice in both the main North Fork and in the NFNFAR came up at least as high as Sawtooth's low passes, and likely right over the top of everything, all peaks, all knolls. In fact, the passes are places where, as the ice began to recede and its surface lowered in elevation, ice probably flowed right through, probably from the main North Fork into the NFNFAR.

I have found patches of old till almost all the way down Sawtooth Ridge, to a point directly above Humbug Bar, and all of 2000' above the North Fork. It is almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that glacial ice reached down the North Fork to Euchre Bar and perhaps even Green Valley itself, these places being a scant two to three miles down the canyon from the last till on Sawtooth's crest.

On the other hand, temperate-latitude glaciers such as these are well known to have steeply-plunging termini. It is within the range of possibility that the ice never reached Euchre Bar itself. This is another open question which begs serious study.

Together with these visibly old till bodies on Sawtooth--visibly-old, because of the redness of the fine silts, and the punky rottenness of some of the boulders--there are other signs of glaciation along the ridge crest: planed-off patches of Shoo Fly slates, not bearing any striae, but on the other hand, such flat surfaces are not to be expected in this region of near-vertical strata of rather friable, easily-splitting rock.

As we drove back out, we took the higher, older road, much the nicer route by the way, and no longer blocked by a huge pine log, as Terry Davis and I had found it several years ago. Ron and I stopped at Helester Point and enjoyed the views, up to Snow Mountain, Tinkers Knob, Lyon and Needle peaks, and Little Bald Mountain. Some rocky crags on the verge of the North Fork canyon, just east of Tadpole Canyon, caught our eye; they look like they would offer some especially fine views. They are near, but above, the eastern terminus of the old Iowa Hill Canal, the line of which we could see, faintly, up near the Beacroft Trail.

We could also see more to the north, to Bowman Mountain, Grouse Ridge, and the Black Buttes.

All along Sawtooth Ridge one is treated to views into either the North Fork or the NFNFAR, and we would sometimes stop and scan the terrain with binoculars and sort out which canyon was which: there lies Fulda; there is where the NFNFAR drops in waterfalls into the Gorge of Many Gorges; there is Texas Canyon; there are the cliffs of the Railroad Tracks in Space Mine; and so on.

After reaching Texas Hill, we drove out past some rather major hard-rock diggings with large piles of angular quartz, presumably unprocessed ore, in search of still other hard-rock workings, where I.T. Coffin had one of his two cabins, and where he would use the blacksmith shop to "put steel" into crowbars and other mining tools. However, I misremembered the roads, and we missed these other diggings, and found ourselves instead on a road which drops into lower Burnett Canyon. So we gave it up and hit the homeward trail.

Such was a day in a wild and beautiful area, much scarred by logging, and most notoriously and terribly scarred by recent clearcuts. I would like to see this area treated much more gently; I would like to see We the People purchase the private inholdings; I would like to see timber harvests done in the snow, so that the land underneath is left untouched, not churned up into a miasma of sickening skid trails and roads. I would like to see the NFNFAR get Wild & Scenic River designation. There are limits, or there should be limits, on which areas are suitable for timber harvests. To my way of thinking these limits have already long been exceeded on much of Sawtooth Ridge and, for that matter, over across the NFNFAR on the Lost Camp Ridge.

There are limits, or there should be limits, on the proliferation of roads. To my way of thinking there are already far too many roads.

So, looking towards the future, I can imagine a Sawtooth Ridge in which much less timber is harvested, and many roads are closed. Let Helester Point be the most-westerly part of the ridge open to vehicular use, and let the jeep trail to the west lapse back into a foot trail. Not an OHV trail, a foot trail, a foot and equestrian and mountain bike trail, let's say. Let the timber harvests continue in selected areas on the higher parts of the north side of Sawtooth, but none at all on the south, North Fork side. But for God's sake, let the timber harvests take place only in the snow, or using such methods as do not tear up the slopes. And have a care for the old trails.

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