Thursday, November 6, 2003

Mike and Jason Return to the North Fork

Mike Case sent me this account of the beginning of a trip from Euchre Bar to Mineral Bar (Colfax-Iowa Hill bridge) with his son, Jason, in August. Sounds like another great adventure, and less hassle and hard work, too! Thanks Mike!

Hi Russell, here is part one of my son Jason and I's trip back down the North Fork of the American river in August, 2003 We had the adventure of a lifetime last summer, and now we were setting off to do it all over again. I am from Alaska and rarely get the pleasure and opportunity to experience Gods best creations. Here in Alaska there the rivers are all full of ice water, full of water coming directly out from under glaciers, all silty and dirty. There are valleys un-peopled and still, but they're impossible to explore because of the hordes of mosquitoes and the muskeg that will swallow you alive. They say its easier to live in these valleys than it is to attempt to travel through them. I've lived in Alaska for 35 years, and have owned airplanes, snow mobiles, and atv's, and have seen most of this state. But nothing - and I mean nothing can compare to what Jason and I found on the North Fork of the American River in California during the past two summers. I wrote briefly about our trip in August of last summer in a 3 part story last fall, and now will attempt to put this years trip into words. Some of the things we saw are completely indescribable in words however, you'd have to be there to experience the feeling and awesome power of Gods creation. Our trip last year was really a learning experience. We had 12 days to make the trip in last year, and now we were taking 14. We didn't know what we were getting into then, and had no idea of the hardships that lie ahead of us when we were dropped off at the Euchre Bar trailhead. We had too much gear, we were not prepared for the 105 degree temperature on the trail, and especially not prepared mentally or physically for the hardships that presented themselves to us on the river between Euchre Bar and Mineral Bar Campground. There were many times we wanted to give up, but we couldn't. We knew we couldn't hike back up that torturous trail with all of our gear, and even if we made it up, there was no one to pick us up once we got there. We couldn't climb out of the canyon either for the same reasons. The only thing we could do was keep going. There were times last year in Giant Gap and Secret Gorge that I was nearly at the end of my mental wits. One time in Secret Gorge the mental pressure was so overwhelming that I threw away all the change in my pockets and half the nuts and bolts holding my small sluice box together just to lighten the load! Not knowing what lie ahead, when these gorges ended, and finding camping places before dark was mighty stressful! Of-course it didn't help any that after traveling only 1/4 mile down river from Euchre Bar we had met a couple coming back up the river who had given up in Giant Gap and were re-tracing their steps out of there! It was these people who told us of the 20 foot water fall we would encounter with no way around it. They couldn't remember exactly where it was but had encountered it some 15 years before. We knew it lay just around each bend a little out of sight, and we dreaded coming to it. Our simple 3 man rafts we were using to transport our gear quickly developed holes in them from the rocks and shallow gravel bars we encountered, and we spent the entire trip lining them by hand with 3 to 4 inches of water in their bottoms. No matter how much we patched them, new holes would form and quickly fill them with water. This made for extremely hard travel. And the portages! Oh Lord, did we ever find some rough places where we had to portage everything. Over shallow gravel bars, over and around gigantic boulders where the river just oozed through them with no where to float a raft, and up and around house size boulder jambs completely blocking the river! We were completely spent both physically and mentally by the time we reached Mineral Bar campground last year, but for some reason we both had a sense of fulfillment and victory that neither of us had ever felt in our lives before. We had persevered, and finally won. We succeeded where others had failed. We felt as though we had been tested and found worthy. Thus it was that we found ourselves this year back at the Euchre Bar trailhead, ready for more punishment. August 12th, 2003 I had just worked my last night shift at the Trans Alaska Oil Pipeline Terminal in Valdez, Alaska. Getting off work at 6 a.m. I fitfully slept for a couple hours, then drove to Anchorage, 305 miles away. I work a two week on and two week off shift, and it was good to get home and see my wife again, if only for a few short hours. I quickly threw my remaining un-packed gear together, having packed most of it two weeks before. My main pack this year weighed 65 lbs. and I had ratchet strapped a pack frame to it. I had spent much time packing it with everything I would need for the trip, and in the order that I would need it. With the time for my departure growing near, my wife drove me to the airport. After checking in, I boarded my "red eye special" and headed south to adventure once again. August 13th, 2003 My son picked me up on my arrival in Sacramento at 9 a.m. He lives over by Moke Hill, California. He spent most of his life in Alaska with me, but recently moved to California to help his relatives with their sand and gravel business in that area. As I picked up my baggage from baggage claim, I noticed that my main pack had been "inspected" and was in shambles. After repacking it and finding nothing missing, we started up interstate 80. Stopping in Auburn we picked up a 6 pack of bottled water that we knew we'd need for the trail, and some last minute food items and things that they wouldn't let me carry on the airplane like Coleman fuel and lighters. We found our way to the trail head with little problem, and quickly said goodbye to the friend who would drive the car back. We were alone once again in Gods great creation! After taking several pictures of the trailhead area and each other ready to conquer the trail again, we shouldered our packs and headed down. As I had last year, I brought a small luggage cart for our heavy carry on bags, and it worked excellent this year. Last year I had attempted to carry everything on it, almost 140 lbs. of gear and it had been a dismal failure. We had spent almost 5 torturous hours on that trail in 100+ degree temperatures fighting that cart. This year the temperature was hovering around 85 degrees. Last year the cart seemed to tip over every hundred feet or so threatening to send my whole outfit plunging down the steep mountain side. In many areas Jason would have to help me carry one end of the cart with everything on it over the worst areas. I quickly got over heated, tired out, dizzy, was shaking, and came the closest I had ever been to a heat stroke. But we rested a lot, luxuriated in any stray breeze that came along, worked together as a team, and eventually made it to the river - 2500 feet below. This year, wearing my pack lightened the load on the cart and it only tipped over a couple times. We had ample water, we rested, and we made it down to the river in just under 3 hours. We both felt pretty good about that, and was so thankful that this years trip down the trail was so much better than last years. Once at the river we quickly set up camp in the same spot we had last year, after taking pictures of ourselves triumphantly on the bridge with full packs. Last year I was so whipped at this point, that Jason had to pack my heaviest bag from the bridge down to camp for me. This year I had no problem, as we had purposely packed lighter and learned a lot from our mistakes last year. My whole outfit this year weighed in at around 85 lbs. and Jason's was about 75 lbs. compared to 140 lbs. and 120 lbs last year. We had the opportunity to really take in the beauty of the trail this year, and noticed things we hadn't last year, such as wild flowers, the beautiful pine trees, the sweet smelling mountain air, and the sound of the river far below. After camp was set up, we relaxed a few minutes and gave thanks to God for guiding us down the trail so swiftly and safely. Last year we had only thin pads to sleep on, and Jason didn't even have a sleeping bag. He merely had a thin bed roll blanket that he thought would be warm enough. Several nights he got cold, and would have to get up and put on all his extra clothes just to get warm, especially in Giant Gap where the wind blew at night. For Christmas last year I had got him a nice light weight sleeping bag, and someone else had got him a nice 2 1/2" self inflating air mattress. And I had got a 3 1/2" self inflating air mattress for Christmas too. So, our sleeping situation was drastically improved! I have a bad back, and one of the things last year that had hurt it the most was sitting on the ground or laying on my side trying to carry on in conversation or cook meals. So for my one luxury item this year I had packed in a collapsible chair complete with arm rests. Believe me, the 2 lbs. that it weighed was certainly worth packing it! It felt soooo good to sit down in that thing at the end of the day! This year we had better photographic gear, less mining gear, and a far better knowledge of what we were in for. Instead of candle lanterns, this year we had 3 LED flashlights that we wore on our foreheads on headbands. What a luxury! And we could actually see to cook our meals! We had new 3 person rafts, the same as we had last year. We also brought along several hundred feet each of small line, which we lashed back and forth across our rafts to keep our gear off the floor. Last year we had put so many holes in the floors of our rafts from our gear sitting directly on the floor, that water continually leaked in through the holes and rips. This year, our gear was tied high on the rafts, and we hoped this would prevent so many holes. I also had a new fishing pole that broke apart in 5 pieces and some small lures, that I hoped would add to the quality of this trip. This year our food supplies consisted of mostly freeze dried food, but also 5 lbs. of Tang orange drink, an assortment of kool aid, 8 lbs. of pancake flour, a couple squeeze tubes of peanut butter, a small bottle of syrup, cookies, sardines, and an assortment of peanuts and cashews. We also brought along 2 packages of the new pre-cooked bacon, something which proved to save the day later on. This year we had both brought along a shorty wet suit. I had found them in Anchorage months before for $29 each. Last year we had wanted to swim so bad, but the water was uncomfortably cool which really limited our swimming activities. This year we hoped it would be different. So, in camp at Euchre Bar bridge and before the sun went down we each got into our wet suit and got in the river. The water was very cool, but the suits kept us noticeably warmer after we got used to it. The cold water initially seeping down our backs made us gasp for breath, but soon it was warm. After spending an hour swimming around and exploring we noticed the sun dropping behind the canyon rim and decided it was time to get out and think about something to eat. We remembered from last year that the temperature dropped fast when the sun went down, so we got out and got dried off and into warmer clothes. Last year the mosquitoes at Euchre Bar were numerable, but this year they were 4 or 5 times as bad. From the time the sun went down until the bats came out we were tormented by those pesky small mosquitoes. In Alaska they are huge, but here they were so small it was surprising. But they bit just as big! But, soon our bat friends came out and promptly all the bugs disappeared, just like we remembered. We cooked supper, and each had mountain house beef stew. It tasted darned good, even if it was just freeze dried food! We lay on our sleeping bags after our meal watching the stars, the meteorites, and the satellites, and just couldn't believe we were here again! It was almost too good to be true! We knew that we had 2 extra days this year, and decided to spend the next day just exploring around the Euchre Bar area. Last year at this camp we had heard music. Music that we couldn't recognize. We only heard bits and pieces of it, but we could make out voices, fiddles, pianos, and singing. We soon realized also that there was no one else around us, and that the music was some sort of ghostly music from the past. Sometimes we could make out whole songs, but didn't recognize any of them. This year we were curious if the ghostly music would still be present, and I had even brought along a small hand held tape recorder to see if I could get any on tape. But unfortunately, this year it just wasn't there. Sometimes we could hear a note or two, but not much more. Soon I started getting drowsy and realized that I had only had about 2 hours sleep since the previous morning. I tried desperately to stay awake and answer Jason's questions and conversation, but after I woke up a couple times with him still talking, I politely said good night, and thus ended our first day on the river at Euchre Bar, 2003. August 14th, 2003 We had slept very comfortably through out the night on our new air mattresses, and now the sun was waking us up as it came over the eastern rim of the canyon. It was strange how hot it was, and it had only been up 5 minutes! In Alaska it takes a good hour after sunrise before you feel any heat. Our LED lights had come in very handy too. We had decided to cook a breakfast of pancakes, and then explore up the river. Scrounging around in my food bag I could not locate my PAM cooking spray I had purposely packed for this trip. I went through everything, and it just wasn't there. We finally came to the conclusion that security at the airport must have confiscated it because it was in a pressurized can. Nice of them to tell us! Had we known we could have easily replaced it at the store in Auburn the day before. As a side note, when I returned home I called the Transportation Security Association and inquired as to why I wasn't told what was taken, and was told in no uncertain terms that they do not have to report what they take. Out of common courtesy it seems as though they would! So, we made do the best we could. The pre-cooked bacon didn't have much grease in it, but had just barely enough to grease a Teflon pan to cook our pancakes. The T.S.A. definitely isn't one of my favorite organizations! After organizing camp and shouldering our small packs with the gold pans, cameras, and Tang, we started off up river in the hot sunshine. Last year we had followed what looked like an old road up the river from Euchre Bridge on the north side. It went to within about 500 feet of where North Fork of the North Fork enters the river. It was strange, because it appeared to just end for no apparent reason. We never did find out what this old road was used for, but someone went to a lot of work in building it, because it was blasted right out of solid bedrock. I'm guessing it could have possibly have been where a flume was once situated to move the river so the old miners could mine the river bed. This year we decided to explore up river on the south side and follow the trail. It had been an excellent trail at one time, but is now in sad need of some maintenance. We managed to follow it up to the bend in the river, to where the North Fork enters, and then there was just too much poison oak growing in the trail to follow anymore. Occasionally we'd see where someone had been cutting it back from the trail, and I wondered it Russell hadn't been down here recently with his loppers. We found it very sad that these trails, once so heavily traveled, are now falling into ruin. On the trail about 200 yards up river from Euchre Bar bridge, we came upon a wooden sign nailed to a hanging tree perhaps 50 feet above the river. It said" Jeffry Allen Blondell 1956 - 1984 A good miner but a better friend" We wondered what had happened to Jeffry, had he fallen to his death from this spot in 1984? We proceeded on up to where the North Fork enters the main river, and did a little gold panning, and marveled at the depth and clarity of the water up there. We took a lot of pictures and wished we'd have brought our wet suits up there. Just up river from there we noticed where a whole cliff face had fallen into the river, and the river just disappeared under it. We were both very glad we didn't have to portage around that one! Heading back to camp we came to the bridge, and followed the trail down river a ways. Once again, it had once been an excellent trail, but soon became too overgrown with poison oak for us. Both Jason and I are highly susceptible to it, and sure didn't want something like that to ruin our trip. We were very happy so see where some caring souls had cleaned up an abandoned camp just on the other side of the bridge that really be-smudged the area last year. We couldn't understand why people just went off and abandoned their trash and gear! Arriving back at camp we explored the main Euchre Bar tailing piles. Much of them on the south end are now covered in wild grapes. It was awesome to see how much earth and boulders had been moved by the old timers. We thought, if only these rocks could speak, what stories they would have to tell! We re-traced our steps back up the main trail a ways to an old foundation. It was obvious that a cabin used to sit there, but someone like BLM had burned it down. There were irises that had gone wild and were growing a long ways down the hill from there. And beside the foundation was a tree that we couldn't identify. It had sort of flowers all over it, and they reminded be of a cross between a common purple thistle and a Hawaiian bottle brush flower. It was beautiful, and I got a great picture of one of the flowers. Some one had also written their names in the concrete steps, but time had erased it to the extent that it was no longer legible. Arriving back at camp again, we swam awhile, got cleaned up, blew up our rafts, lashed the line across them to keep our gear off the floor. We organized camp a little, and then the sun dipped below the canyon rim once again and here came the mosquitoes. Pesky little things really got us again, right up until the bats came out. After supper we lay there on our sleeping bags, silent, just wondering what it would have been like to have been here in the 1850's, especially when a note or two of music would come drifting to our ears from God knows where. I have often thought I was born in the wrong century, about a 100 years too late. Times like this confirmed it for me beyond a shadow of a doubt! I sat there in my chair that evening, watching the peaceful river flow by, talking to my son, both of us wishing we could step back through the window of time. We were once again at peace with the world in one of Gods greatest creations! August 15th, 2003 We were up before the sun came up, had breakfast cooked, and our rafts packed by 9:30 a.m. We were looking forward immensely to our first day of lining our rafts down the river. It was a hot day, and we both started down river without our wet suits on. At the first bend down >from Euchre we came upon an excellent place to camp, only about 400 feet away >from where we had camped. Had we only known! Here there were huge pine trees, flat sandy areas, and a great view of the sky. Oh well, maybe next time. It was here that we done our good deed for the day. In an abandoned 5 gallon bucket left standing up-right by someone, we discovered a large lizard trapped in it. I dumped him out, and boy, was he ever glad to be free! Jason put his wet suit on here, and we continued on down the gorge to Green Valley. I had forgotten just how beautiful this little gorge is between Euchre Bar and Green Valley. It was some of the most picturesque scenery we saw on the whole trip. It is very narrow, but fairly easy going. I think we only had to portage 3 times the whole day. On our first portage on the 2nd bend below Euchre, we had just finished carrying everything over a large boulder bar to a beautiful pool below with some rapids rushing into it, when a couple overtook us. I forget their names, but they were very friendly and said, "you're the guys, right?" In partial bewilderment I looked at them, and they said it again, "you're the guys who wrote that story last year, right? You've got to be because you've got the same rafts & everything!" I then mentioned that yes, I did write a 3 part story for Russell Towel last year. They then said that it was great to be able to put a face with the guy who wrote that story, and that my story was the reason they were there!. Well, that made me feel pretty good. They were traveling very light weight, both in full length wet suits, and were carrying their pack on a small Styrofoam surf board type thing. They were going to the end of Giant Gap and climb out on some trail that goes up the north wall there. They were supposed to be home the next night. I've often wondered if they made it. It took us 3 days just to get through Giant Gap, much less Euchre Gorge and Green Valley! We wished them luck, and they pushed on leaving us far behind. We continued on down the gorge, wondering for the life of us why it had been so hard for us through here last year? We were now having the time of our lives! It was fun, exhilarating, and not the challenge this part of the river had been last year. It had taken us >from 10 a.m. last year until 5 p.m. to travel this short 1 mile gorge, and we had been so happy to emerge into wide Green Valley at last! Last year by the time we reached Green Valley our rafts had numerous holes in them, and were filled with water. Our gear was wet, we were beat, hungry, and had rafts to patch. Now, we were having the time of our lives! We traveled all day without putting one hole in our rafts, and they were so easy to line down the river with the gear tied up off the floor. And due to the fact that they had no water in them, they handled all that much easier. We took our time, savoring the scenery, surroundings, and serenity of the area. We were actually trying to go slower, because we knew we'd come to Green Valley soon enough. We took many pictures through the gorge, both with a digital camera, a 35 mm camera, and an underwater camera. We came through some of the loveliest scenery on earth this day, and the river was so beautiful. Instead of riding our rafts over the deep pools, we chose to swim through them towing our rafts. This way we kept water out of our rafts, and somehow felt more connected with the river. There is a beautiful little waterfall somewhere in about the middle of the gorge. I got a fantastic picture of it, even though it was in the shade. The picture came out with the most beautiful shades of blue and green. Soon enough we came to Green Valley, and found our old camp spot we had last year. It was at the last pool in the gorge, right at the beginning of Green Valley. Everything was the same, except that the log we used last year to dry out our gear was gone. We quickly made camp, and got cleaned up in the river before the sun went down. I fished some in the beautiful pools near camp, catching and releasing several nice sized trout. As the sun went down we started getting supper ready. It was almost dark when we noticed little tiny hummingbirds buzzing around our camp. They were after some little white flowers that grew around camp, which sort of reminded me of morning glories. They were the smallest hummingbirds I had ever seen, and it seemed so strange that they would only come out at dark. There weren't many mosquitoes here, thank heavens! Pretty soon our bat friends came out, and all was peaceful in Green Valley. Last year at this camp we heard the ghostly music quite clearly, and we were both wondering if it would be here now. As night progressed and things got quieter, we began hearing it. But again, it wasn't as loud or as clear as last year, although we could make out voices, singing, and some kind of instrument, probably a fiddle. Again, like last year, it made us feel welcome on the river by the old time miners who have all gone to that big gold mine in the sky. The same ghostly light appeared on top of Lovers Leap that had appeared there last year and startled us so much, but now we knew it was nothing more than a lovely house up there. It had been an eventful day, and we were so glad to be back in Green Valley. The day had ended with no mis-haps, no holes in the raft, no bone tired bodies, and no stress - unlike last year. Today had been a perfect day on the North Fork of the American river between Euchre Bar and Green Valley. Thats about it for part 1. I'll try my best to have part 2 out next Tuesday, I have a busy weekend ahead. Best regards all, Mike Case

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