Friday, February 13, 2004

Before The Cedars, II

Public use of the upper basin of the North Fork American was quite considerable before the "No Trespassing" signs of The Cedars began to appear on the scene. One of my favorite accounts of the area is that of (here quoting the Library of Congress): "New York journalist Benjamin Parke Avery (1828-1875) emigrated to California and became part owner of the Marysville Appeal in the 1850s and later published a newspaper in San Francisco and served as state printer. Californian pictures in prose and verse (1878) contains his "word-sketches," which are largely confined to California scenery, although some picture Native Americans and miners whom he knew when he prospected on the Trinity River in 1850 as well as the city of San Francisco. Most of the book is devoted to poems and essays dealing with mountains of the Coast Range, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Santa Cruz range and their passes and lakes; Yosemite, upper Sacramento Valley, Mount Shasta, and the geysers."

The following was written by Avery between 1869 and 1875. He passes from Summit Valley--the broad meadow at the head of the South Yuba, near the present town of Soda Springs (named for the actual soda springs, miles away in the North Fork)--into Anderson Valley, now the site of the Serene Lakes subdivision, and then down the wagon road to the soda springs. "Eagle Cliff" is our Snow Mountain, which also appears as "Bald Mountain" on some old maps.

Later, Avery describes the inner gorge at Heath Falls. This is reached by the Heath Springs Trail, which follows the North Fork down from The Cedars.

Summit Valley, lying three miles west of the highest point on the railroad, is six thousand seven hundred and seventy-four feet above the sea. The air is keen and invigorating; there are few summer nights without frost, but the days are warm enough for health and comfort. Nine miles southward, and six hundred and sixty-one feet lower, are the little known but remarkable "Summit Soda Springs." The drive to these springs is one of the most picturesque and enjoyable in the Sierra. Passing by fine dark cliffs of volcanic breccia to the right, and over low hills covered with tall, red firs, the road leads to Anderson Valley, a green meadow, embosoming three little lakes, which are perfectly idyllic in their quiet beauty. These lakes are the remnants of a larger single body which evidently once filled the whole valley. Their outlet is through a narrow rocky gorge which empties into a tributary of the north fork of the American River. The road follows the steep side of this gorge for a short distance, then reaches the summit of a ridge overlooking the ca–on of the American , two thousand feet below. Looking down this ca–on, one sees rising from its blue depths the grand bulk of Eagle Cliff,-a rocky promontory whose top is probably eight thousand feet above the sea, and whose bald slope to the river presents a precipitous front of inaccessible steepness. The largely exposed mass of this elevation makes a magnificently long outline across the sky, and when the ca–on is hazy in the afternoon, and the sun declines towards the west, the sharp sculpture of the cliff is obscured behind a purple veil and presents a front of ethereal softness, like a vast shadow projected against the heavens, or a curtain let down from the infinite. Directly across the ca–on, looking southward, the ridge separating the north American from the middle fork of the main river sweeps up in a still longer and grander line, which swells into snow-peaks from nine thousand to ten thousand feet high,-as high above the valley at the bottom of the ca–on as Mount Washington is above the sea,-exposing four thousand feet of uplift to the glance, and weathered into a rich variety of pinnacled, domed, and serrated forms. The descent into the ca–on is a long zigzag through a lovely forest, in which the red fir, with its deeply corrugated bark, attains a height of from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty feet, and frequently has a thickness at its base of four or five feet. The yellow pine (P. ponderosa), even more massive, lifts its rich foliage above a bright and leather-colored trunk, the bark on which is almost smooth, and is divided into long plates. But the monarch of these woods (though infrequent here) is the sugar pine (P. Lambertiana), whose smooth trunk, often six feet through, rises a hundred feet or more without a limb, perfectly straight, and is crowned with a most characteristic, irregular, and picturesque top, its slender cones, a foot or more in length, hanging from the tips of the boughs like ear-drops. The eye constantly seeks out these magnificent trees, and every large one is hailed with admiring exclamations. Dwarf oak and manzanita, ceanothus and chemisal, are the prevailing underbrush. In sunny open spaces, or on bits of timberless meadow, the rose, and thimble-berry, and a purple-blooming asclepia abound. Occasional large patches of a broad-leafed helianthus, when not in bloom, curiously resemble ill-kept tobacco fields. About grassy springs a very fragrant white lily sparingly unveils its virgin beauty. A spotted red species of the lily is more common, and small, low.flowering plants are numerous. The southern slope of the ridge, descending to the soda springs, has a deep soil and is very thickly timbered. At its base the small streams are lined with thickets of quaking aspen, cottonwood, and balm of Gilead, alternating with more continuous groves of alder and willow, where the prevailing undergrowth is a silkweed, four or five feet high, whose slender stalks, bearing narrow, sharply.cut leaves, are thickly crowned with purple blossoms. Thickets of thorn afford cover for numerous quail. Coniferous trees continue along the narrow banks of the river, but stand more apart. At the head of the ca–on, the granite breaks down in huge benches, or shelves, presenting perpendicular faces as looked at from below. The river tumbles a hundred feet, in cascades and falls, through a gorge of granite set in a lovely grove of cedar and pine, and pools of green water sparkle in clean basins of granite at the foot of every fall. The rock of this gorge is richly browned and polished, except on the gray faces of the cliffs overhanging the stream. Farther up the ca–on, where the main crest of the Sierra describes the arc of a circle along the eastern sky, and is crowned by several high peaks, the granite is overlaid with lava and breccia, the product of the volcanoes which anciently dominated and overflowed this region, and whose relics are seen in the sharp cones of trachyte at the summit. Near the junction of granite and volcanic rocks, numerous soda springs boil up through seams in the ledges, often in the very bed of the stream. The water of these springs is highly charged with carbonic acid, is delightfully cool and pungent, and contains enough iron to make it a good tonic, while it has other saline constituents of much sanitary value. Where the fountains bubble up they have formed mounds of ferruginous earth and soda crust, and their water stains the river banks and currents at intervals. One of the largest and finest springs has been utilized, forming one of the most picturesque resorts in California. About two miles below, the river has cut a narrow channel one hundred and fifty feet deep and one eighth of a mile long through solid granite. This chasm is but a few rods wide at top, and only a few feet wide at bottom, where there are numerous smooth pot.holes, forming deep pools of wonderfully transparent water of an exquisite aquamarine tint. There is enough descent to make the current empty from one pool to another in little cascades, over sharp pitcher.lips of polished rock. Lovers of angling are provoked to find no fish in these charming basins. A few stunted but picturesque cedars are stuck like cockades in the clefts above, and the summits of the chasm walls are rounded and smoothed by ancient glacial action. To this place was given the name of Munger's Gorge, by a gay picnic party last summer, in honor of the fine artist who sat with them on its brink, and was first to paint it. A few miles below is a still deeper and grander gorge, at the foot of Eagle Cliff, where the precipitous granite walls rise a thousand feet or more, and the stream makes a sheer fall of a hundred feet. Above this fall fish cannot ascend, and so it happens the beautiful upper river is the angler's disappointment. There are many fine climbs to be made in the vicinity of the soda springs, including Mount Anderson and Tinker's Knob, companion peaks, separated only by a saddle-like depression a few hundred feet deep and scarcely a mile long, at the very head of the ca–on, dividing it from the head of Tuckee River, on the eastern slope, by a few miles. These peaks, having an elevation from three thousand to three thousand five hundred feet above the river, and from nine thousand to nine thousand five hundred above the sea, can be climbed with comparative ease in a few hours. Tinker's Knob, the higher of the two (named after an old mountaineer, with humorous reference to his eccentric nasal feature), is a sharp cone of trachyte, rising above a curving ridge composed partly of the same material and partly of lava and breccia overlying granite. Its summit, only a few yards in extent, is flat, and paved with thin slabs of trachyte, and cannot be scaled without the aid of the hands in clambering over its steep slopes of broken rock. Anderson is shaped like a mound cut in half and is composed of breccia (volcanic conglomerate), rising on the exposed face in perpendicular cliffs, similar to those which occur lower down the slopes. The ridge crowned by these twin peaks is approached over a steep mountain of granite boulders, morainal in character, which leads to a tableland clad sparsely with yellow pines and firs. Clambering over the broken rock to the top of Tinker's Knob a magnificent panorama is unfolded. Over three thousand feet below winds the American River,-a ribbon of silver in a Concavity of sombre green, seen at intervals only in starry flashes, like diamonds set in emerald. The eye follows the course of the ca–on fifty or sixty miles down the western slope, marking the interlapping and receding ridges which melt at last into the hazy distance of the Sacramento Valley. With the afternoon sun lighting up this slope, shooting its rays through the ranks of pines, and making glorious the smoke of burning forests or the river vapors, which soften without concealing the scene, the effect is wonderfully rich. Looking north and south, the eye discerns a long procession of peaks, including Mount Stanford, the Downieville Buttes, and Mount Lassen. To the east lies Lake Tahoe, revealed for nearly its whole length, with environments of picturesque peaks. There, too, lies its grand outlet, the basin of the Truckee River, which can be followed for fifty miles to the Truckee meadows in Nevada, past several railroad towns. The line of snow-sheds from the ridge above Donner Lake to Truckee is distinctly seen, and the roar of passing trains comes faintly up. The Washoe Mountains bound the view in that direction, completing a grand picture. The view is amphitheatrical, and the radius of it cannot be under two hundred miles. A still finer outlook can be obtained from a somewhat higher peak to the southward, which heads the next ca–on in that direction, and is approached over or along a succession of volcanic spurs, edged with sharp cliffs of breccia, of true drift conglomerate, and narrow plateaus of the same material resting on vertical walls of basalt. The cliffs in one place are a dark Vandyke brown, faced with brilliant red and yellow lichens, and the talus at their base is a grassy slope of vivid green. Opposite these, across a gulf perhaps two thousand feet deep, rises the bluff face of the peak we seek,-shaped like the South Dome of Yosemite, but a mass of crumbling breccia of a pale chocolate or drab color, enameled with patches of snow. Some hard climbing is necessary to surmount this, but the view repays the labor. Though much of the character described above, it is more extensive, giving a finer idea of the summit peaks for a distance of one hundred and fifty miles along the range. Mount Lassen and the Black Butte, its neighbors,-volcanic cones both,-are beautifully exposed, and towers higher than any mountain points in that direction until Mount Shasta is reached, only seventy miles farther north . Looming into view one after the other, as the eager climber ascends, they excite the mind and stimulate the weary limbs to renewed effort; and as the view, at first limited by near ridges, expands to a vast circle, melting on every side in the atmosphere, the soul expands with it, and the very flesh that holds it grows buoyant. "What now to me the jars of life, Its petty cares, its harder throes ? The hills are free from toil and strife, And clasp me in their deep repose. "They soothe the pain within my breast No power but theirs could ever reach; They emblem that eternal rest we cannot compass in our speech. "-John R. Ridge.

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