Thursday, July 22, 2004

In Search of the Sawbug

There are some really great trails in the North Fork canyon, many quite old. Some are abandoned and no longer appear on modern maps, not Tahoe National Forest maps, nor on the USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps, which are the most detailed maps readily available.

Old maps often show these now-abandoned trails, and for many years I have pored over these antique maps, studying them inch by inch with a magnifying glass, and transferring the lines of trails to our modern 7.5 minute quads. I have also visited map archives at the USGS headquarters in Sacramento, and studied the surveyor's notes which accompany some of them.

For instance, in 1866, in the Dutch Flat area, the government surveys focused upon laying out the section lines, dividing each "township" into a grid of thirty-six sections, each section a mile square. This was the primary goal, and the positions of roads and trails were often only partially recorded, where they happened to cross some section line. The surveyor's notes often contain more information about these roads and trails.

One of the more interesting of the old maps is the USGS Colfax Folio (from the "Geological Atlas of the United States", ca. 1900), the first good topographic map published of this general area. Contours are at an interval of 100 feet, with bold contours every 500 feet, of elevation. This map is notable, among other things, for showing trails from Sawtooth Ridge down to the North Fork, which do not appear on any other map I have seen. East of Helester Point, a trail is shown dropping away south from a pass on Sawtooth, to Italian Bar. West of Helester Point, another trail is shown dropping from a pass, south and west to Humbug Bar, where a bridge existed. Since this trail connects Sawtooth Ridge to Humbug Bar, I've dubbed it the "Sawbug" trail.

From the pass, the trail can be followed for a little ways, before a maze of game trails obscures its course. If one just forges ahead in what should be the right direction, a human trail reappears, which leads to a hard-rock prospect on one of the many quartz veins in the area. From there, the trail again fades away. I searched that area a couple of years ago with Tom Molloy, and then again last year with Ron Gould.

The upper part of the Sawbug had disappeared so completely that it seemed the next step must be to go to Humbug Bar and try to follow it up from there. Last year I joined Steve Hunter and others for a visit to Humbug Canyon, and while they visited old mines, I tried and failed to locate the Sawbug, beginning at the bridge site, finding instead an old wagon road on the north side of the river, and another wagon road which climbed up the canyon wall, in much the direction one would want to see on the Sawbug, but, sadly, too far east.

Yesterday Jerry Rein, Ron Gould, Catherine O'Riley and I met Steve Hunter and friends in Colfax for another visit to Humbug Canyon. Steve knows one of the owners of the Dorer Ranch, near the base of Humbug Canyon, and obtained a key to the gate, up high on the canyon rim off Elliott Ranch Road. We drove out there and down the road, pausing at the ranch to greet the caretaker, Danny, and his friend, Grant. The ranch is located on a meadowy terrace of glacial outwash sediments. It is an amazing, albeit somewhat ramshackle, place. After a time we made our way down to the river, a short distance away. A lovely deep pool is just downstream from the confluence of Humbug Creek, and we all swam, for the day was waxing hot, hotter, hottest.

The river was a comfortable 64 degrees, as a fisherman among us determined, and we jumped and dove from the polished bosses of rock beside the pool.

Soon, tho, our sub-group packed up, forded the river, and climbed to the bridge site, in search of the Sawbug.

Our search lacked a little in method. Howsoever, some widespread wandering up and down and back and forth eventually revealed a human trail, winding through a dense thicket of young Douglas Fir. I lopped a line through, where bears had often stomped, but soon enough we lost the thing, and wandered east, up the canyon, some scouting high, others low.

I found a plausible human trail amidst a regular maze of very well-trodden game trails, and called the others up. We followed along well enough for a ways, and then our trail again blended into the generality of game trails, in a forest of Canyon Live Oak, Ponderosa Pine, and Douglas Fir. I scouted high while the others took shelter beneath some trees, and found yet another supposed human trail, and, walking back west, and then east, and then up and down and every which way, established that a certain combination of the most heavily-trodden game trails, which combination might be interpreted as lightly-used human trails from long ago, led to a hard rock prospect with some terraces bolstered by dry-laid stone walls, littered with chunks of quartz.

I went back and retrieved the others, and we walked to this "prospect terrace." As we neared it, Ron split away and scouted higher, thank goodness, for soon he called down to us that he had found an even broader trail, and I hurried up to see.

Ron had found "it." The Sawbug. Finally, another piece of the puzzle.

It was past noon and sweltering, blazing hot. A climb of perhaps 100 feet brought me to Ron's trail, where a gigantic Canyon Live Oak and Douglas Fir were clasped in a strange embrace. The trail was broader than most we had explored that day, and was in just the right position, following just the right course, ascending to the east and north, to be the Sawbug.

We followed it up and east, passing some springs, and began to see dry-laid stone walls bolstering the trail. In a sunny, grassy opening, we could look across the North Fork canyon into Humbug Canyon and see the meadow and Dorer Ranch. We were perhaps 400 feet or so above the river.

Retreating down and west, we followed the Sawbug past the Trees of the Embrace, and became if possible even more convinced that this was indeed IT, the one and only Sawbug. Its course was gentle but inexorably down and to the west, drawing a bead on Humbug Bar. However, upon entering an especially brushy, overgrown area, we lost it, and, already scratched, tired, dripping with sweat, we set the problem aside for another day, and made our way back to Jerry and Catherine.

From there, a blundering descent was made to the northside wagon road, which we followed up towards the Cavern Mine, where the Steve Hunter party might be found. This mine is one of many in the area, has a stamp mill near the portal, and a slightly flooded tunnel, with ore-cart track still in place, leading perhaps a hundred yards into the cool depths of Sawtooth Ridge, to a sort of narrow cavern with side tunnels branching away, and a great, indefinitely high, stoped-out area above, with some relict timbering spanning a narrow kind of chasm. The mine was probably one of fifteen claims (the Adeline, I find, from old maps) owned and worked by the American Eagle Mine.

We met Steve Hunter et. al. on the wagon road; they were on their way back to Humbug Bar. We continued east to the mine, explored the cavern, and then swam in a great, great, deep pool below the mine.

As shadows began to lengthen we picked our way downstream along the river, over water-polished masses of almost-vertical Shoo Fly Complex strata, with unusual laminations, intercalations of limy sediments bordering upon being outright limestone. These were in close association with the ubiquitous quartz veins, and probably account for the white dripstone deposits within the Cavern.

After a time we were able to make a short climb to the American Eagle Trail on the south side of the river, and followed it back to Humbug Canyon, where another round of swimming cooled us in preparation for the final short sharp ascent to Catherine's trusty Land Rover. We left the Dorer Ranch at about 7:00 p.m., and made it back to Colfax a little after nine.

Such was another great day on the North Fork. It was especially notable on these two counts:

1. We found the long-lost Sawbug Trail.
2. Catherine O'Riley actually went swimming in the North Fork!

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