Monday, March 1, 2004

Visit to Pickering Bar

Today it is snowing (but not sticking; it is 38 degrees here). Yesterday, however, was a bright and dark and dry gem, and an early conference with Catherine O'Riley led to an expedition to the North Fork. My son Greg came along. We intended a quick in-and-out and met at Gold Run at eleven o'clock. A towering cumulus cloud adorned with wispy cirriform layers caused a brief photographic detour, then we were off on Garrett Road to the BLM gate.

A half-dozen of young men were there, wrestling with their unbelievably small kayaks and gear, and we paused to chat. They were about to drag their boats down the Pickering Bar Trail (PBT) and paddle down to Yankee Jims bridge.

I looked around in vain for a certain august legal personage and/or any members of the NFARA board who reside in this area. These people seem to live in and around Dutch Flat as tho it already were Orange County. One of the most amazing canyons in California is in their own back yard, yet they are never there. Sometimes I wonder whether they are afraid of the great canyon and its deep-plunging cliffs, in the way it is said that wealthy Europeans of the Middle Ages feared the Alps, and would have themselves led through the scary passes with their eyes blindfolded, safe from the sight of wilderness.

I ask these people again and again to come take a look at the Canyon Creek Trail, and the North Fork, but they are invariably Busy. It is quite an important thing to be Busy, as I am made well aware, and as is completely understood, in Orange County.

Soon we were all on the march, although straggling behind and forging ahead seemed the order of the day. We paused to enjoy the view of Giant Gap from near the head of the PBT. As Ron Gould remarked recently, this view is much like Thomas Moran's etching of Giant Gap, but in reverse, a mirror image as it were; for Moran's view was from the railroad above Iron Point, looking west, but the top-of-the-PBT view looks east. The unusual cliffs of Lovers Leap and The Pinnacles at once define Giant Gap itself, and frame more distant subjects: Green Valley, Sawtooth Ridge, and then the snowy summits of Quartz Mountain and Monumental Ridge make up the very background.

We sailed on down the trail, Greg and Catherine chattering away while I held my peace and communed with the manzanita and buckbrush, using my loppers. There are quite a number of excellent canyon views from the PBT itself, one of the first met on the descent being an open rocky area I call Chert Point. They day had started cloudy, turned sunny, clouded over again, and now the sun had returned, and now we had to stop and strip away layers of clothing. Half-way down this steep steep trail indicates a rest in any case, and while we rested, most of the kayakers passed us, dragging their boats right over the ground. A certain amount of erosion ensues from this dragging, but not too much. If boats were dragged every day or even every weekend, we might have to worry, or even worse, do something, cut some water bars into the trail, perhaps.

Rested, we dropped down and down and down and then took the old mining ditch west to Sheldon Terrace. This old ditch drew from Sheldon Ravine and supplied water for mining the smallish glacial outwash terrace below us on the north side of the river. Sheldon Terrace was lush and green, the 100-foot waterfall was pretty, and near the falls were many masses of Waterfall False Buttercup (Kumlienia hystricula) in full bloom. We rested and explored and then retreated to the main trail, noting in passing a smallish side trail down and east which is undoubtedly an old human trail and looks to provide a short-cut to the PBT.

Or maybe a long-cut, for the one objection I have to the PBT is that it is altogether too steep. It actually could be that this cryptic little side trail would make a better trail than the PBT itself, merely by following a gentler line.

Near the river the PBT leaves the ridge--let's call it Sheldon Spur--which it had hewed to, and strikes east, and leads you to the river directly across from Pickering Bar. However, trails fork sharply away to the west from this east-trending part of the PBT. These west-aiming trails converge into one main West Trail which crosses the little outwash terrace mined using the Sheldon Terrace waters; the remains of a stone cabin are passed, handsomely mossy, but also sprouting broomy clumps of poison oak, and then the trail breaks out of the forested area and a really fine view downstream opens up. The trail makes a tortuous and brief descent of a cliffy area to another, lower outwash terrace, where some fine camping areas are found, on a sandy flat.

We enjoyed an hour or so down there, on a kind of sunny bouldery beach. Our kayaker friends were all suited up and were carefully evaluating some rapids where the North Fork splits around a large boulder. For a long time they walked up and down the bouldery area and looked and looked and looked and then, ever so gradually, one after another got into his kayak and floated down to a stop *just above the rapids*, disembarked, and, from mass of bedrock across the river, continued studying. For most of the time that Catherine and Greg and I were there, the kayakers were slowly, ever so slowly working themselves up to that fever pitch of readiness which would actually send them into that horrendous maelstrom of whitewater. When they finally did paddle through, even then, it was a long and drawn-out process, one by one, slowly but still-more-slowly.

Finally they were gone. A war between sun and shadow had gone on all day, and now the sun failed us, and shadows chilled us, and we were in no way on schedule for anything like the quick in and out planned. Time stretched away before us, hours and hours of it, yet, at some point, we had to climb up and out of that canyon. So we let the shadows chase us from the river and started up that horribly steep trail.

It is good to rest often on horribly steep trails, and we did so, well, fairly often, pausing to photograph Giant Gap. At one of our first rest-stops, our view east to the Gap was blocked by masses of trees, including one grand old Canyon Live Oak; even so, looking through its branches, we could see that something very dark was out there.

Was it the impending storm, which rumor had would hit the Sierra first? We were again blessed by sun, yet, whatever lay almost hidden behind that screen of trees, was not so blessed. We climbed higher, and a most remarkable view broke out before us: all the near parts of the canyon in full sun, but the main framing cliffs of Giant Gap, Lovers Leap, and the Pinnacles, all in shadow, and all that is beyond them dark and brooding as well. "It looks like Mordor," Catherine exclaimed, and yes, the gigantic cliffs with their strangely alpine forms looked even more otherworldly than usual. We rested and watched while small patches of sunshine found their way in to that sharp-etched, dark gorge. It was the very essence of chiaroscuro.

Then it was up and up and up and up. It took a little less than an hour and a half to reach our car, at the BLM gate, from the river. It was another great day, but especially great, in the North Fork canyon.

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