Monday, March 29, 2004

Ultima Humbug

Catherine O'Riley and I met Sunday morning for an expedition to Euchre Bar and beyond, to Humbug Canyon. High clouds filtered the sun at first, but the day had started mild and promised to ripen into warmness, which it did. The clouds soon cleared to a spotless blue.

We expected to find the inimitable Julie on what she had called the High Ditch Trail, and noted her truck near the trailhead. For those unfamiliar with the area, the Euchre Bar Trail descends about 1800' to the North Fork, from the vicinity of Iron Point, roughly, east of Dutch Flat and Alta. From the eastbound I-80 Alta exit, turn right and immediately left onto the frontage road (named Casa Loma Road), and in something like a mile, hang a right, leaving the frontage road, and crossing Canyon Creek on a narrow bridge. This is still Casa Loma Road. Pursuing a twisted course, it crosses the railroad and passes very recent, and, I think very regrettable subdivisions and developments, before entering TNF lands in a grove of tall old pines, and then suddenly breaking out into full view of the canyon. Giant Gap is to the west, the Sierra Crest to the east, Green Valley directly below. A spring issues into a metal trough, and once TNF's "Casa Loma" campground was here.

This is also the site of one of the more significant, and yet most distrupted and disturbed, Indian sites in the area. With its tremendous views and year-around, all-day exposure to the sun, it is a classic. It has been routinely dug and looted by artifact hunters for many decades. The site extends over a large area, and may even be taken to include a generalized zone of heavy use and occupation which runs west onto Moody Ridge. A complex of springs and associated meadows, related to a layer of rhyolite volcanic ash, runs all along the rim of the North Fork canyon here. The railroad rounds a long curve, cut into the serpentine bedrock, below the spring; this is famous Eureka Cut, the subject of many old photographs taken during and just after the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, in the 1860s. Why "Eureka"? What was found, with such fervor, as Archimedes once found the principle of specific gravity? Gold? No.

Giant Gap and Green Valley were found, in a word, a few words, what would be known as the Great American Canyon. To call the view of Giant Gap awe-inspiring understates the case. For a time in the 1860s there was a movement to change the name to Jehovah Gap, and so one sometimes sees the old photos labeled.

A friend of mine, well-acquainted with the basics of local archeology, agrees that the flakes of stone marking the Indian site here exhibit enough in the way of fine-grained quasi-basaltic rock, to justify at least the tentative hypothesis, that occupation here may date back all the way to Martis Complex times, 1500 to 4500 years ago. The many flakes of chert also found at Casa Loma speak to more recent, Nisenan Maidu occupation, as well.

At any rate, we cruised past without stopping, crossed the tracks again to the south, losing the pavement in the process, and wound on down to Iron Point. Those who have been on this email list for a few years will recall an issue which reared its ugly head, involving a certain 40-acre parcel directly above Iron Point and the Euchre Bar trailhead. This parcel is flanked by TNF lands on three sides, and runs from Iron Point on the south, to the railroad, on the north. To reduce property taxes, the owner had it enrolled in the special, non-residential Timber Production Zone zoning, back in the 1970s. Although obstensibly this required a formal timber management plan, Placer County never requires any actual plan or actual work in such cases.

A woman from the Bay Area began negotiating the purchase of this 40-acre parcel a few years ago, contingent upon obtaining a Special Use Permit from Placer County to build a residence commanding the widest possible view of this so remarkable canyon, directly above the historic scenic overlook of Iron Point, and the Euchre Bar Trail. She needed a house in order to "manage the timber." Right.

Briefly, she was at first granted the permit; for why would Placer County refuse residential development, on a parcel with non-residential zoning, within one of the greatest canyons of California? Several of us decided to appeal the decision to the Planning Commission, requiring a filing fee of several hundred dollars. We appealed, then, and won: the Commission denied the Special Use Permit. The viewmonger appealed *that* decision to the Board of Supervisors, who calmly overturned the appeal and approved the permit.

Thus far no house has appeared on the sun-scalded, fire-swept ridges above Iron Point, but the oh-so-wonderful Timber Management has begun. The elfin manzanita which occupied these steep, almost soil-less slopes has all been ground down to the ground; a fence is a-building along the road, right at the fork to Iron Point, and "No Trespassing" signs warn us all away.

An request to Tahoe National Forest to take an interest in this issue met with some sympathy from the Forest Supervisor, Steve Eubanks, who at first agreed, in principle, that this 40-acre parcel might well be included among the land acquisition targets in the North Fork canyon--as well it might, considering its proximity to the historic scenic overlook of Iron Point, and to the historic and very popular Euchre Bar Trail, which begins there. However, TNF quickly retreated into a hands-off stance.

So, it was somewhat shocking to see the fence and the shredded manzanita and the no trespassing signs. Business as usual in Parcel County. We parked and set off down the trail.

Euchre Bar is just below the confluence of the main North Fork and its largest tributary, the North Fork of the North Fork. A bridge, in various incarnations, has spanned the river here for over one hundred years. The trail at first follows a ridge south, then drops away east onto one face of the ridge, and makes long switchbacks through a forest dominated by oaks, to the river. A trail forks away west to Green Valley at the top of this east-facing switchback sequence, but is faint and difficult to follow.

Near the river one passes an old house site, with a cellar and some remnants of stone and concrete work near its entrance. I believe a man named Ford lived there, around one hundred years ago. An inscription in concrete, at the entrance, may be read with some patience; as I recall, it reads "Enter Friend" and below, "Euchre Bar."

Euchre is the name of a card game popular with the 49ers.

From the house-site down to the bridge one passes a number of mining areas, in patches of glacial outwash which assume almost Green Valleyean proportions. An acquaintance hailed me, returning to the trail from one of these mining areas. Mike Perry had joined us last year for a romp down the Canyon Creek Trail. He had dropped down to Euchre Bar just for the morning. After a chat we bade him goodbye, crossed the bridge, pausing a little for photographs, and climbed to what I figured to be the High Ditch Trail, where Julie would be found.

This ditch leads up to the confluence and well beyond; it drew from the North Fork, and took its waters down the canyon to the Green Valley Blue Gravel mine. It crossed the North Fork on a flume right in the gorge between Euchre Bar and Green Valley. It is this ditch which inspired the HOUT, that is, the Giant Gap Survey, the 1890s scheme to deliver North Fork water to San Francisco. So in a way, we were on the HOUT.

We followed the old ditch-line upstream. For the most part is just a bench cut blasted out of the solid rock, sometimes on steep cliffs. The cut supported a wooden flume. We passed the confluence and soon reached an especially cliffy area where no bench cut was even attempted; they must have grappled the flume to the cliff using cables, and supported it by heavy timbers springing from tiny notches in the rock. These east-facing slopes are all green with moss and rife with springs, while directly across the North Fork are the sun-blasted, dry, mossless steeps of Sawtooth Ridge.

We retreated to the confluence and admired the roaring, brawling white water of the North Fork of the North Fork. The North Fork itself, although carrying more water, seems to carry less, as it quietly turns the corner in a deep green pool. Where was Julie? Probably long gone, in her usual hurry to reach ever-more-distant points. After a time we shouldered our packs, retreated to the main trail, and headed for Humbug Canyon.

The trail holds a nearly level line, a couple hundred feet above the North Fork, occasionally bucking up higher as a zone of more resistant rock has made for a higher cliff than usual, flanking the river. The rock is all the ancient metamorphosed sediments of the Shoo Fly Complex, fully 400 million years old, turned up on edge, and threaded with quartz veins. There are many many hard-rock mines and prospects in this area, and many, too, are the little patches of glacial outwash sediments which were worked off to varying degrees. Something like two miles brings one to Humbug Canyon, where the trail suddenly widens into a faint road. The old Dorer Ranch is just above. We stopped there, having seen only one down-crushed Shooting Star, of the early-blooming species called Mosquito Bills, to indicate that anyone at all had preceded us on the trail.

Lunch was in progress when Julie strode swiftly into view, coming down the trail from points beyond. It developed that she had meant a different High Ditch Trail than I had thought, on the south side of the river; she had gone there, duly worked away lopping brush from the canal berm, as planned, looked for us, waited for us, finally figuring we had cruelly left her behind for the glories of Ultima Humbug. So she whipped on up there, passing us while we were at the confluence, below the trail. She had crushed the Shooting Stars.

So we all rested and ate and, as Julie had a schedule to adhere to, more or less hurried back to Euchre Bar so that she could show us her High Ditch Trail, before leaving us in the dust in a pure gallop up the Euchre Bar Trail.

At the house-site she led us on a trail which contoured through a hollow and then dropped to the line of the ditch. A much more direct trail, tho overgrown, connects this ditch to the Euchre Bar Trail, just a little ways below the house site. The reason she calls it the High Ditch is that, much lower and near the river, the line of yet another old ditch can be seen from the bridge, leading up towards the confluence. This "Low Ditch" may record an effort to turn the whole North Fork from its bed, in order to work down to the bedrock floor of the channel, where the coarse gold lives. Its line seems too low to be of much use for working the glacial outwash terraces of Euchre Bar.

The High Ditch, tho, is high enough to supply water for mining the outwash terraces, and that is undoubtedly its purpose. Some little hydraulic mining occurred here in the 1860s and 1870s, and this High Ditch must have provided the water, which it took from the North Fork of the North Fork, well upstream.

The thing is rather large, for an in-canyon ditch, built to mine sediments of rather limited quantities. We followed it along for a quarter-mile. It is quite a lovely thing, and has clearly been heavily used as a trail, over the long years since it carried any water. The gradient of the North Fork of the North Fork is notably steeper than that of the main river, and the level of the ditch seemed to be rather quickly converging upon that of the river below. We wondered whether it might extend up to the Rawhide Mine itself. Julie pointed out a ridge another quarter-mile ahead, where the ditch was still well above the river.

We decided it would be a good thing to return to this High Ditch Trail next Saturday, and see about following it right up to its beginning. Those interested in joining us should contact me. While not as bad as the Green Valley Trail, the Euchre Bar Trail is strenuous, and there is a tremendous amount of poison oak over all that area. To follow the High Ditch Trail will require some scrambling, some lopping, maybe some crawling.

Julie sped off up the trail. Catherine and I made a slow slog of the long climb, slow but steady, and paused at the top of the switchbacks to scout the line of the trail west into Green Valley. This trail needs some work. Its few switchbacks have almost melted into the steep slopes, making its course almost impossible to see and follow.

Soon we were at the Land Rover and heading home, after another great day on the North Fork.

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