Thursday, June 10, 2004

Visit to Canyon Creek; the HOUT

Yesterday I met Catherine O'Riley for a hike on our beloved Canyon Creek Trail. After the thunderstorms and rain of the day before, Wednesday dawned cool under a general overcast, but by ten in the morning the clouds had parted into fair-weather cumulus, of which there were many, but all in all giving much more sun than shadow. It was in fact *the* perfect spring day.

We were delayed for a time while I learned the bad news about the family Subaru from Randy of Dutch Flat Motors. A rather modest dent would require some thousands to repair; and worse, Randy was not equipped to do the work. Randy is a jovial man, on the large side, now favoring hoggish Harley Davidsons, but once upon a time a racing bicyclist, who competed in the 1972 Olympics, at Munich.

We used our usual secret road into the Diggings and drove a mile or so to the trailhead in Potato Ravine. The Gold Run Diggings is a vast complex of hydraulic mines, once an irregular tiling of dozens of discrete claims, but over time some 800 acres fell into the ownership of one James Stewart, a friend of Jack London and Franklin Delano Roosevelt; except that a number of worked-out claims in the southern part of the Diggings had lapsed back into public lands, now managed by the BLM. For years many of us have urged the BLM to try to purchase ever so much of the 800 acres as possible; for a number of important trails, historical sites, and paleobotanical resources span the irregular boundary between private and public lands, there to the south.

In recognition of this most-remarkable part of the Diggings, when Congress designated the North Fork American a Wild & Scenic River, in 1978, they created a special "Gold Run Addition" to the W&SR corridor, which extends fully a mile north of the river, well into the Diggings. The BLM was directed to acquire the private inholdings within this special area; but the owners were not willing sellers, and nothing could be done.

The 800 acres has been for sale for the last few years. Time for the BLM and act, swiftly, decisively! But no. There is no money. Land trades have become difficult to execute. And now we learn that a credible offer has been received on the 800 acres, by someone desiring a "private reserve," and the owners have made a counter-offer. I have been afraid to call the one owner with whom I am acquainted, for fear that disaster has already struck, and the sale is in escrow.

We set off down the trail, winding out of Potato Ravine on the Indiana Hill Ditch (which, in testimony recorded during the 1881 trial, State of California vs. the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Company, we learn was completed on September 13, 1852), and then dropping away south and east to closely parallel Canyon Creek. For a time we were on BLM lands, then crossing onto a part of the 800 acres, which runs right down to the North Fork itself. We made rapid progress down the trail, across the little bridge, stopping briefly at the first large waterfall, and enjoying the late-season wildflowers.

Notable among these were the Two-Lobed Clarkia, Harvest Brodiaea, a species of Lotus, a species of Madia, and the very last of the Bush Monkeyflower. The bloom this warm and dry spring has been pushed forward nearly a month, so many species which would still make a fine display, have already shed their flowers and set seed.

We passed the Rock Slide and were on the steep slopes above the Big Waterfall when a family of Canyon Wrens caught our eye. They were foraging for insects among a jumble of rocks, not singing at all, but busily poking into every tiny cave and crevice. These birds are a rusty brown with a creamy breast, pert wren trails, and a curved beak. Their wild lilting descending sequence of notes is a classic ornament on cliffs and in canyons, in the Sierra and elsewhere.

Then to our amazement one of the mysterious white racing pigeons which had taken up residence near the Big Waterfall, winter-before-last, soared into view, disappearing towards the waterfall, then circling back and sweeping away south into the main North Fork.

We decided to break away east on the HOUT (High Old Upriver Trail), a strangely level thread of a path which can be followed miles up the canyon into the heart of Giant Gap. It is a relict of the Giant Gap Survey, a scheme of a hundred years past to divert waters of the North Fork for San Francisco's water supply. The schemers put men at work to rough in the line of the proposed canal, and they dutifully blasted out narrow ledges from the cliffs, and drove a couple of tunnels through the flaring rock spurs below Lovers Leap.

The clouds had gradually increased in size and their shadows drifted across the cliffs all around us. The views east, of Lovers Leap and the Pinnacles, which opened occasionally to our admiring eyes, were made even more dramatic and lovely by the fluffy clouds. These clouds seemed to swell higher before our eyes, and for most of the day, we felt a kind of restless excitement, at the prospect that a fully-blown thunderstorm might develop. To which we only said, bring it on!

At a certain point, nearly a mile east from the CCT, a fork is reached, where one can either hew to the line of the Survey (the HOUT), or drop away east and down to the North Fork, just shy of massive Big West Spur, which might be more esthetically named Castle Spur, in honor of a fine large conical mass of bare rock adorning its summit, a thousand feet above the river. The river makes a funny kind of square turn around the base of this spur ridge before turning again to bear nearly west to Canyon Creek. A large expanse of large boulders occupies the outside of this last big bend in the river; all the boulders look to derive from the steep slopes in the immediate area, being various types of metavolcanic rock of the late-Paleozoic Calaveras Complex.

We took a long lunch break here amid the boulders, which at the base of the little trail contain some level pockets of sand. The river was sparkling clear, moderately cold, and moving along quite nicely. Across from us and a ways upstream, a gigantic boulder reared up ten or fifteen feet above the water, and a little clump of moss caught my eye. I pointed it out to Catherine, remarking it looked much like what I had thought to be an extraordinary Water Ouzel nest, on a mid-river boulder, up in the Royal Gorge. These ouzels a like large grey wrens and dive right into the river, foraging for insects etc. underwater. They zoom up and down the river itself, a foot or so above the water, and have a rippling, chattering, random song which hardly sounds like a song at all. John Muir's favorite bird. And they nest, almost always, in the spray of waterfalls, making a hollow ball of moss and such, which a downward-sloping entrance, often impossible to see unless the birds are actually going in our out.

That's a water ouzel's nest. But I had seen that one rarely strange nest in the Royal Gorge, like some kind of miniature wigwam, perched atop a boulder. Here, perhaps, another, and I might have to stop thinking of such an ouzel nest as so rare or unusual. We went to investigate, hopping from boulder to boulder to boulder to a last boulder almost at mid-stream, only forty or fifty feet from the Big Boulder. The truth could not be denied. It was an ouzel nest, the rock near the entrance streaked with white excrement. The entrance was plain to see, opening to the west, downstream. The nest was about six feet above the water, on a ledge.

Swallows were zooming around, but there were no ouzels visiting the nest. The young must have been already fledged, several weeks ago perhaps. After a time we started back.

I placed my right foot on a polished little boss of stone and with my usual casual expertise made a leap to the next boulder. Then, with all the grace of a ballet dancer, I slipped and turned, in slow motion as it seemed, and made what amounted to a swan dive right into the North Fork. I remember seeing a boulder underwater as my face slammed down, and darting my hands down to break my fall. Boulders to either side bruised my hips as I plunged fully and completely into the river, but I kept my face safe. It was complete submersion, a total soaking from head to toe.

Standing up, the bruises almost incapacitated me; it felt as though I had pulled the muscles; I could really barely stand, and made a slow and awkward business of climbing out of the water.

After a minute I could move again, and used much more caution than usual in hopping back to the main boulder-field and our sand hollow.

I had a long-sleeved shirt to change into and just wore my blue jeans dry. Actually, they're still drying, right outside on my porch.

After a time we decided to follow an old miners' trail up the river to the first square corner of the base of Big West Spur. As we hopped along, I tested my bruises and kept up a decent pace and felt reassured that I was, after all, OK. Then a holler was heard. I looked back; no Catherine. What; a rattlesnake? A strange flower, a rare frog? What could make her holler like that? I retreated a dozen yards and she came in view, dripping water.

It was a double baptism, then, into the North Fork; except, Catherine had not equalled my own total submersion, only managing a modest three-quarters. We can now justly claim admission into the ranks of those hardy souls who swim the North Fork in spring.

So we squished along in our wet shoes and reached our square corner, a ways up above the river on a cliff, admiring the narrow gorge there, and the deep pools, and remembering a few years past when we had scrambled and swum Giant Gap, with Chris Schiller, and had finally left the swimming behind, at just this point, just this sunny bar of rounded boulders, a hundred feet below us.

Eventually it was time to start back, and we took it pretty easy, as is best after all, reaching Catherine's truck around six p.m.

Such was another fine day on the North Fork.

No comments: