Monday, May 24, 2004

Expedition to New York Canyon

After a long time in which Summer seemed about to leave poor Spring a dusty memory, Spring has returned, and with it, great hiking weather; cool, breezy, fragrant with flowers.

Tho all in all, this is one of the poorer years for wildflowers I have seen.

Sunday morning Gay Wiseman, Catherine O'Riley, Tom McGuire, Peter Fortune and I met at the Raleys in Auburn and drove out the Foresthill Soda Springs road, packed into Catherine's Range Rover. Our objective: the Big Waterfall in New York Canyon. Our plan: to drive down the Sailor Flat road and jeep trail to a certain spot from which, with difficulty, one can make an almost level traverse, across some rough and rocky and brushy country, to open slopes above the falls. From there, we would cross the West Fork of NYC and make an anything-but-level traverse west, across the tops of steep cliffs, to where a descent could be made to the Chert Knoll, a minor eminence between the two forks of New York Canyon. There we would finally *see* the great waterfall.

Sailor Flat is twenty to thirty miles east of Foresthill; it is a meadowy area right on the Foresthill Divide, at about 6400' elevation. Its name likely goes back to the Gold Rush, when it was a commonplace to see sailors mining for gold, in the Sierra; when the very ships which brought the 49ers through the Golden Gate were left abandoned beside San Francisco. Part of their anchorage would later be incorporated into the very fabric of the city, and the hulls of those very ships became warehouses on dry land, as a great fill was built out from the original shores.

I was worried that a certain snowfield, often late to melt, would keep us from even entering the Sailor Flat Road. However, it had almost melted away and gave us no problem. But, a couple hundred yards down the road, another patch of snow brought us to a halt. It was about sixty feet across, and probably two feet deep at its center. The snow was firm in the cool of morning. But we had no shovel; would the Rover high-center as we drove across?

With some trepidation, we gave it a try. Again and again we lost traction and had to use loppers and branches to clear loose snow from around the wheels; but we did not seriously high-center the thing. By layering in slabs of bark and branches before the wheels, we crossed the snow in a series of fits and starts and stops.

It is perhaps useful to blame what followed upon the Civil Engineer among us. Young Peter Fortune added up all the variables: no shovel, the likelihood that the snow would soften as the day wore on, and of course, the remoteness of our location; and young Peter Fortune decreed we go no further, but immediately re-cross the snow and park the Rover on the safe side of things. This would add several miles and nearly 1500' of elevation loss and gain to our hike, which was going to be an awkward piece of business in any case. But the air was cool, the sun warm and bright, the day perfectly made for hiking any number of miles, so, without a speck of trouble, we raced the Rover back across the trenched snow and the dozens of branches and bark slabs to safety. We saddled up with packs and loppers and set off down the road.

At this elevation, still well above 6200', we were in a forest dominated by Red Fir, with some White Fir beginning appear and more to come as we descended, and, a little ways below our precious snowfield, there stood a gigantic, fire-hollowed Incense Cedar, which must have been fully seven feet in diameter, four feet above the ground, flaring to over ten feet at ground level.

In this part of the Sierra one draws a sharp distinction between the young volcanics of the Superjacent Series, and the vastly older bedrock formations of the Subjacent Series. All the flat-topped ridge-crests in this part of the Sierra are remnants of a generalized plateau of andesitic mudflow which pre-dates all our deep canyons. The mudflow is arranged in roughly horizontal strata, and is often named the Mehrten Formation, although it represents many different mudflows, of varying compositions. Below the mudflow lie more horizontal strata of the Valley Springs Formation, layers of creamy rhyolite volcanic ash. And below the rhyolite ash, the oldest parts of the Superjacent Series, not always present: Eocene-age river gravels from the "Ancestral Sierra," the low ground of the ancient landscape of hills and valleys which was buried beneath the young volcanics.

And then below the river gravels, when present, or below the rhyolite ash, otherwise, the ancient ancient bedrock. Much of this, in our area, is metamorphic rock, either sedimentary or volcanic in origin, its originally roughly horizontal strata now tipped up to near vertical. And to complete the picture of the Subjacent Series, there is our Sierran granite, usually much younger than the metamorphics, having melted up into them from below, in giant bubbles of granitic magma, called plutons.

Plutons are named after Pluto, the God of the Underworld; for these granites, somewhat rare in the North Fork American, are "intrusive" igneous rocks, emplaced miles beneath the surface, and only exposed to our view after many millions of years of erosion. That is, these plutons of granite have been "unroofed" and are often seen in razor-sharp contact with the surrounding metamorphic rock.

At any rate, we began our hike up in the andesitic mudflow, perhaps ten million years old, and soon were passing an especially thick section of the rhyolite ash, perhaps twenty-five million years old, here much more like a welded tuff, than one sees farther west in the foothills, likely because this spot was that much closer to the volcanos from which the rock-ash exploded, again and again; these volcanos are thought to have stood somewhat to the east of our present Sierra crest.

The unusual thickness of the young volcanics here points to the existence of a river valley in the Ancestral Sierra. And this is echoed and confirmed by several gold mines in the area, drift mines, where horizontal tunnels were driven into bodies of river gravels, underneath the rhyolite ash, above the bedrock.

The bedrock in New York Canyon is almost entirely metasediments of the Shoo Fly Complex. These are the oldest rocks in this part of the Sierra, about 400 million years old, and here they are twisted and sheared more than usual by a complex of thrust faults. Large bodies of chert are found, here a nearly white rock, made almost entirely of quartz. Otherwise, this part of the Shoo Fly is mostly metasandstone, itself highly siliceous and resistant to erosion; witness Big Valley Bluff, a few miles west and across the North Fork, standing fully 3500' above the river.

However, the bedrock hereabouts is complicated by a thin screen of younger Triassic metasediments, flanked by the still-younger Jurassic Sailor Canyon Formation, noted for its ammonite fossils. We would scarcely touch the former, and never see the latter. These lie to the east of the Shoo Fly, and are exposed in lower New York Canyon.

The road is steep, the jeep trail is steeper yet, and we sailed along merrily, making good time, until we reach a certain point at about 5160' elevation. A short distance below this point, the jeep trail ends, and the foot trail (Sailor Flat Trail) begins. This is the easiest of all the trails into this part of the North Fork canyon.

We were not aiming for the North Fork. Instead, we rambled away west into untracked forest, with gigantic Sugar Pine and White Fir towering over an understory of smaller conifers and Kelloggs Black Oak. Roughly holding to a level line, we meandered ever west, picking up the faint traces of last year's two hikes along this route, and then suffered a major delay at a minor ravine.

Here I could not remember exactly where the ravine was best crossed; there is a small gold mining "prospect" near the ravine, and from there I would know the way; but how to find the prospect? After a considerable amount of just plain wandering, up and down and back and forth, I bade the others to rest and made a more systematic exploration, finally finding the prospect, rather lower than I expected; we regrouped and continued west.

The importance of this prospect pit cannot be understated. It marks the "trail." There is an ocean of heavy brush to the west, and then a long line of steep cliffs. The one known feasible route leads through the brush-ocean and then gains the cliff-tops by a sort of magic, without any climbing required. And the prospect pit marks this one route.

We struggled and straggled across the brush-ocean. I noticed that Tom McGuire was just sauntering along, with the loppers I'd lent him in his pack, while I heroically opened something somewhat like a clear passage through the Huckleberry Oak and native cherry bushes. I set him to work, but Tom was talking, talking, exclaiming, marveling, joking. And he would talk to such a degree that he would just stop lopping. Again and again I chastised him into more lopping. Finally he invented a kid of motto with which to express my fundamental philosophy: "Less lip, more lop."

If only he had lived up to that motto. Ah, the young!

Once the cliff-tops are reached, there is a short steep descent, switching back and forth down a broad forested gully, and then one breaks free into a large open slope, dotted with Jeffrey Pines, but mostly just rock and ferns and some few flowers, such as the lovely Mariposa Lilies.

Directly below, the West Fork began to make its quiet voice heard; with so much of the snow already gone, we could not expect much flow over the falls, no thunder, no billowing masses of spray, at least, not on the grand scale. We zigged and zagged over easy open slopes and then paused for lunch near the creek. Several beautiful waterfalls are found there, pretty enough in their own right to inspire a hike. Catherine amused herself by climbing into a swaying, trembling alder tree arching over the creek, and taking photographs, as I understood it, of her shadow, in the water below. And this was all part of some work long in progress, having to do with documenting shadows and spirits, in many different canyons.

Ah, the young!

Eventually, we picked ourselves up and crossed the creek. A climb of 250' allowed us passage across the tops of tremendous cliffs just west of the Big Waterfall, of which we had yet to see any part. There was again a certain amount of fumbling for the correct route, but soon enough we were zigging and zagging down and down and down, and then we veered over to the welcoming cliff-tops, and there it was.

The Big Waterfall. The Mythic Waterfall, they had been calling it, for by now it seemed we had been on the trail forever, and would never ever reach the Chert Knoll, never ever see the falls. But there they were, and everyone was suitably impressed. They all confessed that they had doubted my "500 feet" and my "565 feet." Russell's exaggerating! Again! And then they all confessed that what we were seeing was indeed every inch of 500 feet high.

All along our ridge-route down to the Chert Knoll there are amazing views of the Mythic-Mystic Waterfall. One has the sense, we all had the sense, and it is quite likely true, that people never ever come here, never ever hike to the Chert Knoll, with its almost perfectly direct view of the Big Mythic-Mystic New York Canyon Waterfall.

The Chert Knoll is near the base of the ridge which divides the West and East forks of New York Canyon. The confluence of these two forks is at 3800' elevation, while the summit of the Knoll, or dome, is at about 4560'. The confluence of New York Canyon and the North Fork itself, a mile or so down the canyon, is at 3200', while the west rim of New York Canyon is up around 6400'. There is, then, a lot of relief in the area, in fact, the topography is quite severe, heavily glaciated, full of cliffs, and with what must be waterfalls in the dozens, along the two forks of New York Canyon, allowing anything with more than a ten-foot drop to count as a "waterfall."

The Chert Knoll is fairly well rounded and smoothed by glaciers, and yet, while exhibiting many patches of glacial polish, it is hard to find glacial striae, or scratches, in the chert. This is the same Duncan Chert which forms the summits of Duncan Peak and Little Bald Mountain, near Robinson Flat. During the last, "Tioga" episode of glaciation, which ended a scant 12,000 years ago, New York Canyon would have been full to overflowing with ice. This is evidenced by the young, fresh-looking bodies of glacial till above the canyon rim. Deep in the ice, in the two forks of New York canyon, ice flowed "locally" north, directly down the canyons. Above, near the ice surface, tho, there was likely a more "global" western flow, since the main North Fork glacier was over three thousand feet deep here, and from above, looking down, one would have seen no trace of New York, Sailor, or Wildcat canyons, or their dividing ridges, all being under the ice.

There are very few trees on Chert Knoll, none to speak of, really, but we saw an abundance of Bead Ferns and Common Juniper, this last, in other species, a tree, but in this circum-polar species, Juniperus communis, in the North Fork canyon, at any rate, it rarely reaches a foot in height, and spreads out in heather-like masses.

From the Chert Knoll, one sees, not only Mythic-Mystic, on the East Fork, but also a lovely broad cascade or waterfall, over in the West Fork, and Tom and Catherine and I made a difficult traverse, over very steep terrain to reach the creek, a little ways downstream from the main falls. Here cliffs pinched in tightly upon an inner gorge, and there was no easy way up to the falls.

Eventually Tom and I fought our way over cliffs and spurs to the main falls, perhaps fifty feet high, plunging into a deep round pool, and all encircled and embraced within a lovely amphitheater of solid Shoo Fly. It was almost like being in the crater of a volcano. Tom, amazingly, took a swim, which left him hooting and gasping and about frozen solid. But the sun was warm and bright.

We tried for an easier traverse back to Chert Knoll, but again found ourselves passing cliffs and ragged spurs, the only difference being we were a hundred feet higher on the canyon wall. But we won through to the easy terrain near the Knoll, where Catherine joined us, and where we were hailed by Peter, who had made his own solitary way to the same waterfall Tom and I had just left.

The rest of us just lazed about, and tip-toed around the cliff-tops, admiring the Mythic-Mystic. The sun had lowered to such an angle that rainbows played in the mist, and shadows were rapidly deepening on the west side of the canyon. We could see, as we had from so many vantage points all day, the great massif of Snow Mountain, across the main North Fork canyon to the north, and parts of Big Granite Canyon, and the Cherry Point ridge, and a more distant granite knoll, away north towards Middle Loch Leven Lake. Both Cherry Point and this Loch Leven knoll ought to provide views of the Mythic-Mystic. Cherry Point offers a better chance of seeing the entire waterfall. A trip to Cherry Point, on skis, in April, say, or even May or June of a heavy snow year, would be just the thing, to get "the ultimate" (distant) view.

The Chert Knoll provides the ultimate of all ultimate near views of the Mythic-Mystic.

Eventually we were all together again, and began the long and complicated traverses and obscure zig-zag sequences which brought us back to the jeep trail. We faced a climb of over one thousand feet to the Rover. I myself argued that the principal architect of this prolonged uphill agony, Civil Engineer Peter Fortune, should race nimbly ahead, and bring the Rover back down to some sane and decent elevation, such as 5160' (exactly where we met the jeep trail, as it happens). But no. He had so hypnotized us with his senseless prattle about lacks of shovels and remote locations that we just buckled down and slogged ever so slowly up that same road which had seemed so fair and short in the morning.

We reached the Rover just as the sun was setting over the ridge on the west side of New York Canyon. It had been an amazing and wonderful day, with a hike only to be classified as extremely strenuous. But we survived and all agreed that the Mythic-Mystic and the Chert Knoll are in the highest echelon of the serried ranks of the most wondrous places of the North Fork American.

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