Thursday, July 8, 2004

Return to Wildcat Canyon

Wednesday morning at 7:30 I met Ron & Catherine for a return to Wildcat Canyon. Last week's tremendous thunderstorm had stopped us from continuing down the Walker Mine Trail to the North Fork, for all the bushes--and of those there were many--were dripping with rain, and we would have been thoroughly soaked, had we lopped into their trembling architecture of leaves and drops.

Hence a return, and with the hot weather at last cooling, it was time to go. This time, we forced a descent to the river, by leaving Catherine's 4WD rig at the bottom of the Sailor Flat jeep trail, and driving around to the Walker Mine Trail in Ron's almost identical truck.

In the meantime, the mystery of the painted arrows, the many cairns and many ducks, and the dozens upon dozens of surveyors' flagging, all along the trail down to Sailor Meadow, had been solved. The person responsible proved to be someone who enjoys working on our old trails, and worries that they will fall into utter oblivion if not marked, and well-marked.

He was apologetic, and promised to remove the spray paint; and then we heard that he had already done so. All this within a week. We were curious to see the results.

Parking at the trailhead, we saw at once that the large boulder of andesite, painted with the letters "SM" and an arrow, had been righted (we had turned the paint down to the ground). So we tipped it over again, and set off down the trail.

The paint removal was done very well. It was close to impossible to see where the arrows had been. One had to look closely. We were quite pleased.

The Walker Mine Trail follows the crest of the ridge dividing Sailor Canyon from Wildcat Canyon, as the ridge drops inexorably north to the North Fork. It ends in a classic glacially truncated surface, facing Snow Mountain, and rising more than 2000' from the North Fork. As one descends from the Foresthill Divide, one passes through various layers of andesitic mudflow, and then other layers of rhyolite ash. Changes in these layers' resistance to erosion has found expression as flattened portions of the ridge's profile. The best-marked of these flat areas is where the trail to Sailor Meadow forks away west.

Here a "use trail" has evolved over recent years, where the main trail levels out, at about 5800' (the trailhead is just less than 6800', and the meadow is about 5600'). Someone had tied two ten-foot Incense Cedars together to make an arch over this use trail. It was as tho all the cuteness of K-Mart had arrived at Sailor Meadow. The corn lilies are on sale! Go through the cute arch, you can't miss it!

Parenthetically, the "true" old trail down to Sailor Meadow seems to be a little farther north, and is blocked by a large fallen pine; so it has dropped out of use. A roll of barbed wire, left along this old trail, harks back to the days when cattle were driven down to Sailor Meadow every summer.

We tore the trees free of each other and continued down to the Walker Mine.

A second round of lopping made this part of the trail more passable. It veers off the ridge onto steep slopes facing east into Wildcat Canyon, and wastes no time dropping down and down and down. Excellent views open up of the main canyon, and Snow Mountain. We must have hit the Walker Mine around noon. The day was warm, the lopping, strenuous, and we were already soaked with sweat. A good rest and a change into shorts and lighter clothes (for me, nothing but shorts and shoes) followed. It must have been a little past noon.

Then at last we entered our own personal terra incognita, well-known to intrepid explorers like Terry Davis and Gene Markley and his merry band, but unknown to us: the continuation of the Walker Mine Trail down to the river.

It dropped steeply from the mine and then turned west to cross the ravine-of-the-mine-tunnel. I would say the crossing is above 4000' and below 4200'. Immediately there was more lopping, quite a lot of it, but less than I had feared. We were among Canyon Live Oak, Bay Laurel, Douglas Fir, and of course, Manzanita, and the shrubby Huckleberry Oak, but also were on slopes so steep that they were often too rocky to support dense vegetation. We were amazed at the width of the trail, and if possible, even more amazed at the very level course it held.

Reflecting on this width and that levelness, we tentatively ascribed them both to the "La Trinidad Mine" effect. The La Trinidad is in Sailor Canyon, right along the Sailor Flat Trail. Yet it was supplied much more from Cisco, over on the South Yuba, than from Foresthill. Pack trains came by way of Huysink Lake and the Big Granite Trail. For a time, I believe, there was a bridge across the North Fork. And why? Because many fewer miles of snow were crossed, in the winter and spring, coming from Cisco.

That the Walker Mine Trail actually improved between the mine and the North Fork revealed that this was the more important part of the trail. Hence supplies came *up* to the Walker Mine, from Cisco.

Or so we surmised. In the meantime, this strangely wide trail remained strangely level, and offered unusually good views out into the main canyon, as it rounded the corner out of Wildcat Canyon proper, onto the north face of the glacially-truncated spur at the end of the Sailor-Wildcat Divide.

Occasionally, the trail would steepen and lose one or two hundred feet, and we would think, "Ah, at last it makes for the river; no more fooling around."

Then it would level out again. We were making good time to the west, but, without really wanting that: for, we wanted to explore east of Wildcat Canyon, towards the Royal Gorge, after reaching the river.

Finally the trail sank ever so slowly to near the level of the main glacial outwash terrace flanking the river. Here, a "river trail" winds along nearly level, connecting Sailor and Wildcat canyons, along the North Fork. We were confident that the junction of the two trails was just ahead. But then, our Walker Mine Trail abruptly faded away. One fork dropped straight down the slope, violating the universal pattern of the last mile; the other continued nearly level, to the west. Of course we chose the latter, but it seems the correct path must have been the former, for we quickly ran out of anything like a trail, and were forced to just make right down the gentle slopes to the river trail. It was scarcely a hundred yards away. We were disappointed not have found "the" junction of the two trails, but wished to spend no more time on the problem, as yet another old trail beckoned.

We had made a descent of about 3400 feet.

Turning east on the river trail, something like a half-mile brought us to Wildcat Canyon creek. Here, a collapsed log cabin is at trail level, on the outwash terrace. The river cannot be seen, but is close by to the north; the river trail drops away east to the creek. Here we rested a good while before entering upon the second stage of our adventure.

The river trail crosses Wildcat Canyon Creek and climbs right back up to outwash-terrace level; then it keeps climbing, to the south, paralleling the creek, until at last it breaks away to the east. Ron and I had explored and lopped part of this trail last summer and again this spring. It is an important trail on a couple of counts: it allows one to pass above one of the greatest obstacles to canyon travel, a gigantic barrens of lichen-dark boulders I call the Big Talus. This talus-field verges upon half a mile in length, and a quarter mile in breadth. Some of the boulders are so large that caverns open up beneath them, and one must beware of falling in. To cross the Big Talus during the middle of a summer day, the dark boulders radiating tons of heat, is an interminable tedium of boulder-hopping. And the boulders are not rounded, nicely, gently, like river boulders; they are sharp-edged, angular, angry, implacable things, where a slip and a fall could easily result in serious injury.

The Big Talus Trail is important on another count: it could be, it must be, a part of a trail depicted on old Tahoe National Forest maps, leading from Wabena Canyon on the east, west to near Wildcat Canyon. The issue here becomes confused; for there is yet another trail, on a lower line, leading up to Wabena Creek from Wildcat; and, on the main Wabena Trail, use is concentrated on a more easterly line, which crosses Wabena Creek itself, near waterfalls, before dropping a final thousand feet to the North Fork, just where Wabena itself reaches the river.

We had more terra incognita, then, ahead of us, and Gene Markley's somewhat vague description, that the trail runs high, but stays below the cliffs, as it approaches Wabena. After a little wandering, where the trail breaks east through a forested flat, we picked up the track and lopped along, impressed, here again, by how well-defined the old thing remained, after all these years, tho of course much overgrown and occasionally blocked by fallen pines.

My own expectation was that the trail would continue climbing, making steady progress towards the crossing of the west fork of Wabena, at about 5200'. I began to hope that the "La Trinidad" effect must have come into play, making for an easily-followed trail, serving the mines in upper Wabena Canyon. Just above the Big Talus, our trail reached an elevation of about 3720'. It hewed close to the talus and offered us several fine views of that strange sea of angular giant boulders. This vast mass of talus looks to have originated high on the cliffs of Snow Mountain, and to have crossed the river and run hundreds of feet up the far (our) side, in a catastrophic rockslide event.

Such giant rock slides often develop a cushion of air beneath them, and travel great distances.

As we passed the Big Talus, the trail dropped. And dropped. And kept right on dropping. All the while I kept my eyes peeled for a fork right, for a trail which would hold our precious elevation as down payment on the long climb ahead. But no. After a time the trail reached an area near the ravine and perennial creek shown in the southeast one-quarter of Section 25, T16N R13E, on the 7.5 minute USGS Royal Gorge quadrangle. In this area, the ravine had apparently sustained a major flood event of its own in January of 1997, and spread smallish rocks over a zone over a hundred feet wide. Leaves had settled in and started to soften the harsh, purely mineral flood debris, and our trail disappeared altogether. We were only fifty or a hundred yards from the river, tho, and as we dropped to river level, we passed the lower "river trail" which leads up to Wabena.

We rested by the burbling clear water. I waded, and was at once shocked by how very cold the North Fork remained, at this late date, and stung by a hundred scratches on my legs, which all seemed to take fire.

Across the way we could see another ravine, dry, now, dropping down the cliffs of Snow Mountain. A talus fan spread down to river level from this ravine. This steep fan showed signs of having been trenched deeply by runoff from the cliffs, in the January 1997 flood event. We could also see up the canyon half a mile to the giant talus fans along the base of the Snow Mountain cliffs, where the North Fork goes completely underground, in the summer months.

Eventually we started back. There had been too much lopping and too much hiking already, for further explorations east. We walked west, crossed Wildcat Canyon, and in another mile or so reached Sailor Canyon, and the sometimes-level, sometimes-steep Sailor Flat Trail, up past the La Trinidad Mine to Catherine's truck. By our use of two vehicles, we had replaced a climb of 3400' with a climb of only 1700'. Of course, we were thrashed, when we reached the truck, we were hot and bothered, mosquitos hovering in clouds (for most of the day we had been free of them). The sun was almost setting, it was past eight o'clock, and we would not be home before ten.

It was another great day in the North Fork.

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