Monday, February 23, 2004

Of Moss and Men

Over recent weeks I have made quite a number of visits to the Gold Run Diggings, the Canyon Creek Trail (CCT), and the HOUT (High Old Upriver Trail). On several occasions I have hiked from the end of Garrett Road to the Secret World and beyond, to the Indiana Hill Ditch. There are rarely fine views into the North Fork canyon and Giant Gap from that area. Since the late 1970s I have dreamed of a "Giant Gap" trail connecting Lovers Leap to the Gold Run Diggings at the end of Garrett. The idea arose during hikes along the canyon rim west of Lovers Leap, where a small mining ditch makes an almost level trail. From this old ditch one can look directly down to the river in Giant Gap, and across the canyon to the Pinnacles, and southwest to Iowa Hill.

Unfortunately, there are about ten private parcels along the rim of the canyon west of Lovers Leap. These parcels account for but a small fraction of the distance between the Leap and Garrett, the rest being almost all BLM land, but several of the parcels drape across the line of the ditch. Suppose the parcels were all for sale and the BLM had a ton of money: then buy them, buy them all, even at absurdly high prices, they'd be more than worth it.

For, these are "view" parcels, and it should be regarded as a certainty that some or even all of them will sprout the usual monuments to egotism, large houses with large fire breaks, the fire breaks allowing the houses the widest and deepest of views. Right now, this part of the canyon rim, best seen from near Iowa Hill and Roach Hill and Giant Gap Ridge, is still of a perfectly natural appearance. Were we to have any respect for our heritage and for future generations, we would make sure that this view remained perfectly natural.

The remarkable views of Giant Gap from near the head of the Pickering Bar Trail could also be impacted by construction on some of these view parcels.

The Indiana Hill Ditch was completed on September 13, 1852. It would, I always thought, make for a wonderful trail. It could be a part of the Giant Gap Trail. Its terminus is a small mining reservoir perched above the Secret World. Following the ditch east from there, it bends around to the north. It is infested with heavy brush. For years my friends and I kept a small path open along the ditch; for a time, it was the best way to get in to the Canyon Creek Trail. Since the upper end of the CCT has been opened to Potato Ravine, the ditch has not been needed. The bushes have grown and closed our narrow gaps. Recently, I have made a more careful investigation of the ditch. I find that the berm is broken down in many places, and that, even if it were cleared of brush, it would not be in good shape for much use as a trail. It is of sufficient historical importance, and scenic and recreational value, to deserve special care. With some work, it could be stabilized for use as a foot trail.

Howsoever, it is a wonder. From a certain point along the ditch, one can look directly down Canyon Creek to its confluence with the North Fork. I was there last Wednesday, after days of sustained heavy rainstorms, and Canyon Creek was a raging roaring river in its own right. I could see the creek itself over much of the reach from just below the Big Waterfall to the North Fork. Amazing!

Several species of early-blooming wildflowers have appeared. The first blooms are always near The Terraces, one of the camps used by the men who used to work the sluice boxes in Canyon Creek, in the 1870s. This camp site was undoubtedly selected for its warm microclimate. I have often seen California Milkmaids in bloom there in early January. This year, what with the coldness of the weather, the Milkmaids appeared a week or so later than usual.

At Gorge Point on the Canyon Creek Trail, Biscuit Root and Brewer's Rock Cress are now flowering. In the meantime, dozens of Milkmaids have appeared along the lower reaches of the CCT. And on the HOUT, last Saturday, I saw my first Blue Dicks of the season, along with a few Biscuit Roots and some really small guys I didn't recognize.

I used the Paleobotanist Trail, from the Bluffs off Garrett Road, to reach the CCT. This adds nearly a mile, and makes a hike on the HOUT a fairly long affair. Canyon Creek had settled into a medium to medium-high flow, enough to make The Leaper, a waterfall which eagerly rises before falling into its own little chasm, rather bold and noisy. In fact, the sound of the waterfalls along the CCT was everywhere quite loud; various hissings, thunderings, and low, almost cyclic bass-drum boomings reverberating from within the Inner Gorge.

A mile east on the HOUT carries one past Bogus Gully to a fine viewpoint. The North Fork swirls in emerald and white a couple hundred feet below, while Giant Gap frames the eastern sky. Just a few yards beyond this viewpoint is another, similar, but with the whole stretch of the North Fork up to Big West Spur in view. Awesome.

Rain showers had come and gone all day, and as the clouds seemed to gather and darken, I retreated. Wondering whether I might find some short-cut up to a higher point on the CCT, I left the HOUT early and followed a deer trail up. Soon enough I was scrambling across rock outcrops and ducking under oak and manzanita.

The canyon wall there faces south, and catches a lot of sun, and has much exposed rock. Woody vegetation is somewhat sparse, dominated by Canyon Live Oak, Digger Pine, and various brushy species, like White Manzanita, Toyon, Buckbrush, Mountain Mahogany, and Silktassel. There are many grassy areas, and many mossy areas, which last present an interesting subject in themselves.

There is a species of coarse moss--I think it is a type of club moss, but may be mistaken--which colonizes many slopes. It knits together fine material which passes for soil, and in places, this sheath of coarse moss covers talus slides (elsewhere it covers solid rock). Hidden from our view are underground galleries, where mice and other rodents have their little dens, as do snakes.

To what extent does the nitrogen from these animals' excrement fertilize and sustain the sheathing masses of moss?

This moss--when I say it knits its quasi-soil together, I mean, it knits it *very tightly together*, so that a shovel would have trouble cutting it, and if one tore away at it, it would come up in chunks.

One sees at first glance that these moss-sheaths, somehow, some way, are terraced, like so many miniature rice paddies. Small areas of mineral soil, a few inches or a foot across, lie perfectly flat, held up by walls of moss. How do these areas arise? Why are they free of moss?

At times, looking over a moss-sheath, the quasi-soil bound by the moss seems much as though it had flowed into position, or been built up like travertine around a hot spring.

I am tempted to believe that it literally *has* flowed into position, and *has* been built up "like travertine." I believe these moss-sheaths may be thousands of years old, and that they are indeed constantly fertilized by excrements, but that, perhaps, it is wildfires which are most critical to their development.

For, a good wildfire will leave deposits of ashes on the steep slopes, and these will be mobilized by rain storms, and work their way down the slopes. At the same time, the thin soils on these steep slopes will become exposed to higher-than-ordinary rates of erosion after wildfires, and the soils too will wash downwards.

In the meantime, whatever moss colonies exist, having, let's say, survived the fire (because they are in an especially rocky, untreed, unshrubbed area)--these moss colonies tend to trap and slow down the sediments and ashes. So the mossy areas expand. Slowly.

So far as the little bare-soiled mini-terraces in the moss-fields: could these represent the traffic of animals of all sorts, over the long term? Does a deer or a bear or a fox or a bobcat or a human tend to step in some certain places, and those certain places become moss-terraces? Maybe.

On Saturday, while struggling along on my supposed short-cut, I came to a neat little cliff, all sheathed in moss, with a clump of poison oak leaning out over the top. It was the easiest way to continue on my short-cut. As I debated which sequence of moss-terraces to use for my hand- and toe-holds, I saw one sloping moss-terrace--an oddity--right at the base of the cliff. I realized, suddenly, that this one barren spot was exactly where bears, for who knows how long, hundreds, thousands of years, have made their first step onto the cliff from the ground below.

Soon enough I was at the top of the little cliff, and ducked my head and bulled through the poison oak, and angled up and west, up and west, and reached some really fine cliffy viewpoints, just before crossing a rocky ridge to the Canyon Creek Trail. The last few hundred yards were really rough going, and could never make any kind of short-cut to the HOUT. Perhaps a lower line might work instead.

So, I have been out in sun and storm, watched flowers gradually come into bloom, listened to waterfalls, enjoyed many fine views, and pondered moss-travertine deposits. And last Saturday, I found the Paleobotanist Trail blocked by fallen trees in two places, and this morning, carried my saw through the dripping forest at The Bluffs and on down the trail, and cut through the trees, rolling the logs away.

It is clear that Spring is on its way, and I hear, from a bird-watching friend, that hundreds of robins, and hawks of many kinds, and eagles, have been seen migrating upslope and northeast, in the canyon down near Auburn.

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