Yesterday Ron Gould and I visited the North Fork of the North Fork American (NFNFAR). Leaving I-80 at the Blue Canyon exit, we followed the road down towards the tiny settlement until a road forked left near some houses. This quickly loses its pavement and becomes rather raw and dusty; in a quarter-mile a fork is reached, and the right hand leads down to a crossing of the railroad. An almost immediate right turn follows; this is the road to Lost Camp, a hydraulic mining town which flourished briefly in the late 1850s.
For a number of years I have urged Tahoe National Forest (TNF) to try to acquire the private lands at Lost Camp. Old patented mining claims span about 590 acres of ridge and canyon, with many old mines, ditches, cabin sites, and trails. Chief among these last is the China Trail, which leads from Lost Camp down to the NFNFAR. This lovely old trail, graded for mules, once crossed the NFNFAR and climbed Sawtooth Ridge to meet other trails, such as the Burnett Canyon Trail, and the main Sawtooth Trail. However, timber harvests over the past fifty years have made for a welter of roads, log landings, and skid trails along the north slopes of Sawtooth Ridge, and that part of the China Trail has been obliterated.
However, TNF has (as of yet) expressed no interest in Lost Camp or the China Trail, which was once a formal part of the TNF trail system. Those were the good old days. And now, a major timber harvest, verging upon a clearcut, has been approved for Lost Camp, including helicopter logging in Blue Canyon, Texas Canyon, and Fulda Canyon, where the logger's axe has never rung, and giant trees stood safe for centuries. The uplands between these canyons have been logged before, in places, several times over. But the canyons were always too deep and too steep for timber harvests.
The logging has not started, yet. I'm afraid it will be rather drastic in its impact upon the whole area, and upon Lost Camp in particular.
What remains of the China Trail is very nice: a somewhat short trail, little more than a mile long, which switches back and forth within the shelter of a rich forest, down to the river. The forest mixes Canyon Live Oak with Douglas Fir and occasional Ponderosa and Sugar pines. As one descends, the interesting California Nutmeg, Torreya californica, appears. This usually small conifer can easily be mistaken for a fir or a Douglas Fir; it has exceptionally stout, sharp, large needles, and a strong smell, if its needles are bruised.
The NFNFAR has a much smaller flow than the North Fork proper, but for all that is not crossed easily. Well--it can be forded in many places--and boulders sometimes align to offer a series of hops, hops which grade into serious jumps of six feet or more. Our plan was to follow the river downstream, towards a cliffy area we had spied from Sawtooth Ridge last year. Those cliffs promised a gorge, and deep pools.
The route downstream involves crossing the river several times. In the upper reach, near the China Trail, we were amazed by the clumps of Indian Rhubarb, preternatural plants from outer space, which have round, coarsely-toothed leaves fully two feet in diameter, atop raspy stalks three or four feet high. They grow in clumps, from reddish, sinuous rootstocks, a couple of inches in diameter, which cling to the water-scoured rocks at river level, like masses of intertwined snakes.
Large masses of Creek Dogwood lined the banks in places, with some White Alders and willows, and an almost surprisingly uniform forest of Canyon Live Oak and Douglas Fir rising up and up and up on both sides of the canyon. Incense Cedar was present in small numbers, and Torreya (we saw some nearly two feet in diameter, giants in their terms), and more rarely, Ponderosa and Sugar pines. Bigleaf Maples and California Bay Laurel were also present. Springs broke from the bedrock above the river in places, supporting lush eruptions of Giant Chain Ferns, largest of native ferns, with fronds upwards of six feet high, growing in large clumps of many erect fronds.
Tiger Swallowtail butterflies were hovering over the river, all along the way.
Soon the character of the river changed, with gigantic boulders clogging the channel. All the boulders were of purely local origins, the Shoo Fly Complex metasediments into which the canyon is incised, strata tipped up on edge, mainly metasandstone, with some slate, much in the way of slaty structure everywhere, and occasional small folds in evidence.
The river often runs at right angles with the strike of the near-vertical strata, and small variations in the hardness or the massiveness of the rock have lead to attractively ribbed clifflets, bordering the channel in many places.
The gradient of the river steepened considerably, with many small waterfalls among the giant boulders. At one point there was a lovely round pool below a waterfall, twenty feet across, with an active Ouzel nest under an overhang, eight feet above the water. Around a mile down, a castle or pinnacle of stone rears two hundred feet or so from the river; on old winch is bolted to a tree, and a large engine is nearby, and various cables snake along both banks. Gold mining, from the 1960s, or somewhat earlier.
Continuing down, the going got a bit tougher, the boulders, larger yet, and we reached and followed the river around the base of a huge castle-like cliff, absolutely dwarfing the castle upstream. We could see downstream along the west base of the castle. More huge boulders, more steep gradient. The day had grown hot and every scrap of shade was precious. We decided to call a halt and head back up the river.
Steve Hunter, who has been exploring these canyons for fifty years, tells me that we stopped just short of a large mining camp with the remains of several cabins, which dates, he thinks, to the 1960s.
In the afternoon sun, the hopping of a thousand boulders, all tending uphill, was real work, and when at last we turned a corner into shade, beside a long, long, very deep pool, we stopped to swim. This pool is the site of a major camp along the river, on the south bank, where slaty slabs of Shoo Fly have been stacked into an elaborate fireplace surrounded by massive thrones. Seating for seven, at least. Somewhat minor garbage was scattered about; a thing like a tent, and a zippered bag, and some bottles.
After swimming we lazed around and I took photographs of the long pool. I had just put my camera away when Ron exclaimed, "Look! An otter is swimming right towards us!" And so it was, its wet sleek head barely out of the water. As I fumbled my camera back out of my pack, it reached a narrow slate rib jutting into the pool fifty feet away, and rose half out of the water to peer at us. I took numerous photographs, but in my haste, had the camera set incorrectly, and none of the photos came out. It looks as though my shutter speed had fallen below 1/60th of a second, *and* I had inadvertently activated the digital zoom, which I hate and never use unless by mistake.
Well. It was great to see the otter. It messed around the lower end of the pool for perhaps fifteen minutes, occasionally swimming back to its safe little slate rib to peer at us, then turning back to its diving and circling farther down. Finally it dove, and we saw it no more.
The hike up the trail was slow but relatively easy. It had been a great day on the NFNFAR.