Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Visit to Meadow Lake

On Monday Ron Gould and I made a visit to Meadow Lake, the site of a gold-mining boom town of the middle 1860s. This lake stands high on the divide between the South and Middle Yuba at nearly 7000' elevation. A low dam of dressed granite was made late in the 1850s to impound water for hydraulic mining, and the lake trends nearly north and south, draining south to Fordyce Creek, a major tributary of the South Yuba.

Nothing is left of the town, with its many buildings, saloons, hotels, stores and houses. Several wagon roads led to Meadow Lake, one from near what would be known as Cisco. The story of this town makes a fascinating chapter in local history. The gold is found in heavily mineralized areas which to my eye seem unusual, since they do not seem to be dominated by quartz. The gold proved too difficult to refine away from its binding mineral matrix, the boom ended abruptly, dozens of claims and thousands of stock certificates became instantly worthless, a fire swept off most of the buildings, and now, nothing. Just high rocky ridges, and high forested ridges, and sloping dry meadows, and a top-of-the-world feeling, with the granite massif of Old Man Mountain rising to the southwest.

Driving up Highway 80 eastbound, one gains several fine views of this same Old Man Mountain, a sort of grey half-dome-looking-thing. A glimpse near Nyack is followed by more sustained and closer views at Yuba Gap and just beyond. Like Red Mountain, Grouse Ridge, Black Buttes, Snow Mountain, and Black Mountain, Old Man Mountain is a "bedrock high," a topographically high part of the old, ancestral, pre-volcanic Sierra. Now that the glaciers have ripped up and torn away so much of the great plateau of andesitic mudflow and rhyolite ash, these old mountains have been redefined and reexposed. They are found in a rough line parallel to the Sierra crest, about five to ten miles southwest. Some stood too high to ever have been buried by the young volcanics, others were so buried, but only shallowly.

At any rate, Ron and I drove up to Highway 20, dodged a few miles down towards Nevada City, and picked up the Pacific Turnpike, one of the old wagon roads to Virginia City. One branch of this road began in Dutch Flat, another, in Nevada City. It crossed the Sierra at Henness Pass. We drove north across the South Yuba and, passing the side roads to Grouse Ridge etc., paused a minute at Windy Point, above a major tributary of the South Yuba called Canyon Creek. Here a trail drops away into the heavily-glaciated canyon and proceeds down towards the Yuba, near the town of Washington. We scouted around for the trailhead, and saw something which looked probable, tho unsigned and unmarked in any way. This trails runs along the base of the canyon for maybe seven miles before climbing to Windy Point.

Just east we passed Bowman Lake, an old hydraulic mining reservoir revamped by PG&E. This was once a huge meadow. In a few miles we turned south onto a road which climbs past Tollhouse Lake to finally reach Meadow Lake. Here some signs inform one of the town's history. One is a polished rock slab placed by the Clampers, a joking take-off on fraternal organizations like the Masons and Odd Fellows, dating nearly to the Gold Rush.

We had two main objectives: to find and explore a trail leading north from Meadow Lake down into the headwaters basin of the Middle Yuba, near Moscove Meadow; and to visit some petroglyphs just southwest of Meadow Lake.

Ron had seen this trail on several old maps. It is not shown on modern maps. By correlating the old maps to one another and then to the modern topographic map, we felt we had a good sense of its course. We had visions of some fine old path winding through ancient forest with ancient blazes cut into the trunks of the gigantic trees.

At the north end of Meadow Lake the dividing ridge separating the South and Middle Yuba has been torn down by the glaciers into a low pass. It looks much as though ice from the Fordyce basin, to the south, spilled north through the pass into the Middle Yuba. Here a topographic low in the pre-volcanic topography had accumulated especially thick sequences of andesitic mudflows, on the order of 1000' or more. All of the ridges nearby, and the pass itself, were carved from these mudflows or lahars.

As we approached the probably trailhead, in the very axis of the pass, we saw a road leading north into the Middle Yuba. We parked and scouted widely for blazes or any sign whatever of our trail; I went east, Ron west. We found nothing certain, except skid trails, stumps, log decks, roads, and OHV tracks.

Undaunted, we descended a couple hundred feet to a lower level. The nearly flat-lying strata of volcanics often find topographic expression in broad terraces. Again we scouted high and low and every which way. Rich forests of Red Fir, Western White Pine, and occasional Lodgepole Pine were interspersed with sloping dry meadows, with a precious few late-season wildflowers still gleaming with color here and there. I saw some asters and some Mustang Mint in bloom. Troops of birds threaded through the forest. Once again we found nothing of our old trail.

A still lower terrace level seemed to express the presence of a layer of welded rhyolite ash, probably the same "pink welded tuff" one sees exposed at many places in the upper North Fork American.

Eventually, we drove on down the road to Moscove Meadow, explored various side roads, and returned back up to the pass. We were struck by the almost universal extent of timber harvests in the area. Often many large trees remained, to the point one might well expect vestiges of a trail to persist; but the logging had been done with bulldozers swarming everywhere, plowing up the forest floor into grooves and ridges, and despite our best efforts, we never found even one blaze, or one scant inch of the trail itself. By constantly comparing our maps with the topography, we at last concluded that there was a good chance the main road had been cut directly into the line of the old trail. We had to leave it at that.

Returning to Meadow Lake, we parked near the southwest corner and followed an old trail through the woods, past several mining prospect pits, to an exposure of glaciated fine-grained granitoid rock threaded through with a million tiny dikes and veins of lighter rock, perhaps aplite. A small woodland pond nestled nearby, and Hartley Butte reared up darkly to the east. On this expanse of polished and striated rock are the petroglyphs. Here and there patches of a dark, almost black "varnish" had developed somehow on the smooth surfaces, and many of the petroglyphs were cut into these dark areas.

There were a wide variety of designs spread across a broad area. I was struck by the seeming absence of the "bear footprint" motif, and yet in general, the petroglyphs looked distinctly akin to those found elsewhere in the upper Yuba and American basins, a style which has been called "Sierran Abstract." These carvings are thought to date back before the advent of the bow and arrow, to between 1500 and 4500 years ago.

The Meadow Lake site is one of the largest, in terms of number of designs and areal extent. One projecting boss of rock was covered with circles and concentric circles. At other places, strict geometric patterns of triangles or ladder-like objects are found, or closely-spaced sets of curving lines, or star motifs. There is one design which looks as tho it was meant to depict a rattlesnake.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the site, and resting on the sun-warmed rocks, until the sun lowered and the breezes began to bite shrewdly cold. We left via a road leading east and then north, to Webber Lake and a paved road breaking east to Highway 89. We had rejoined the line of the Pacific Turnpike. It had been a very nice day in the local high country. A longish drive took us to Truckee and I-80 which we followed west across the Sierra to our homes.

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