Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Sawbug V

Tuesday morning Catherine O'Riley and I drove out to the Euchre Bar Trail and set off down to the North Fork. This is one of two trails which lead to bridges across the river, the other being far upstream, above the Royal Gorge, at Palisade Creek. The Palisade bridge is relatively new, a little over twenty years old, I believe; but the Euchre Bar Bridge is old, and has seen multiple incarnations over the past 100 to 150 years. The most recent incarnation dates from the 1964 flood event, which must have torn out the previous bridge.

At the bridge, one can see abutments and massive iron pins or bolts of various descriptions from an older incarnation of the bridge, slightly downstream from the present bridge. I do not know when a bridge was first built there; I have a newspaper article describing a collapse of the bridge, in the 1890s, which plunged two men, a horse, and a mule into the river, forty feet below. I also have the diary of I.T. Coffin, a gold miner who lived up in the Texas Hill area at the time (1863), which implies that the bridge existed then.

The long existence of the bridge shows that the Euchre Bar Trail's importance had more to do with points farther up the canyon, than with Euchre Bar itself. As one follows the trail up the North Fork from the bridge, one passes many old mines. In about two miles the trail reaches Humbug Canyon.

At Humbug Canyon, or rather, immediately downstream, another bridge crossed the river, at Humbug Bar. Like Euchre Bar, Humbug Bar was a large deposit of glacial outwash sediments. Both were mined heavily, probably by multiple methods, including drift mining, ground sluicing, and hydraulic mining. The Humbug Bar bridge facilitated access both to mines up and down the North Fork on the north bank, but to what I call the Sawbug Trail.

The Sawbug leads up to a pass, at 4000' elevation, on Sawtooth Ridge; from there, the Sawtooth Trail follows the ridge northeast and connects with a variety of other trails, giving access to, for instance, the Texas Hill and Burnett Canyon mining districts, where I.T. Coffin lived from 1858 to 1864. So again, the bridge's importance had as much to do with the Sawbug Trail as with mere access across the North Fork to Humbug Bar.

The Sawbug does not show on many maps. I can only think of the ca. 1900 USGS Colfax Folio maps. In November 2002 Tom Molloy and I searched for the upper end of the Sawbug, and found it. We covered a lot of ground that day, both in quartering the slopes trying to follow the Sawbug down towards Humbug Bar, and then later, walking the rest of the way to the very end of Sawtooth Ridge, above the confluence of the North Fork and the North Fork of the North Fork. We managed to get stuck on the wrong side of a huge patch of manzanita, and, by accident, stumbled upon the Rawhide Mine Trail.

Whew! That was one long, tough bunch of walking. Sawbug I.

Last summer, I visited Humbug Canyon and the Dorer Ranch with Steve Hunter and friends, and scouted for the lower end of the Sawbug, beginning at the bridge site. I entirely failed. Sawbug II.

In the fall, Ron Gould and I visited the upper end of the Sawbug, clearing some nasty little fallen Knobcone Pines from the trail. We failed, as Tom and I had, the year before, to find the true line of the trail as it dropped away into the great canyon. Sawbug III.

Last week, I returned to Humbug Canyon, again with Steve Hunter and friends, and Catherine, Ron, Jerry Rein and I scouted from the bridge site, in search of the Sawbug. We found it, but lost it at a shallow ravine, followed game trails and old human trails east on a climbing contour, and then found it again. Ron and I explored both east and west along the trail, over a distance of almost half a mile, perhaps. A very nasty patch of manzanita prevented us from connecting back down to the bridge site. Sawbug IV.

Yesterday, the plan was to hike on up to Humbug Canyon from Euchre Bar, where Catherine would enjoy a leisurely swim and a visit to Danny and Grant, the caretakers at the Dorer Ranch, while I thrashed around in the hot sun and heavy brush, in hopes of finding the complete line of the lower part of the Sawbug, from the bridge, up to where Ron and I had been stopped by brush, last week. Sawbug V.

Sawbug V proved to be the absolute charm. I forded the river, and clambered up to the bridge site, on a "strath terrace" (a bedrock terrace cut when the canyon was choked with glacial outwash, say, 12,000 to 20,000 years ago) about 60 feet above the river. Immediately I was sweating and huffing and puffing. It was just past noon and the day was fairly hot. Twenty or thirty feet above the strath terrace of the bridge site, there is another strath terrace. From here I picked up faint traces of the trail, which soon entered a dense patch of young Douglas Fir. All these slopes were scalded by the 1960 Volcano Fire, and a distinct generation of manzanita and young conifers seeded in after the fire. Many of the larger trees survived that fire, but some did not, and the bleached white trunks of fire-killed Ponderosa Pines criss-cross the slopes.

I had lopped a corridor through the young Douglas Firs last week. The Sawbug was quite well-defined, although buried within this dense little grove of conifers. At the east end, a shallow gully is met, and the trail disappears beyond. Last week we had continued a climbing traverse to the east, had found various suspiciously well-trodden game trails, had discovered an old hard-rock mining prospect well to the east, and then Ron had spotted the Sawbug, above us.

Yesterday I followed much the same course as we had last week, and met with the same difficulties, following a game trail onto steep rocky slopes where it eventually petered out, and I climbed higher to a very well-defined game trail, in open, easy terrain. Yet this, we had later found, was too low to be the Sawbug. I set my pack down and began a methodical scouting of the slopes around me. Bearing west, I squeezed through a gap in the manzanita and live oak, and suddenly found the Sawbug, wide, well-defined, and almost hidden in live oaks and young conifers. I lopped down and west, and entered a more open area, in which the post-Volcano-manzanita had mostly died, leaving an impassable welter of stiff branches. Several pines were down in the area. I trusted to a well-stomped bear trail, and began to detect traces of the Sawbug beneath the dead brush. Following the bear trail up the hill, looping around a fallen pine, found an old mining claim corner monument near a large multi-trunked Canyon Live Oak, with a bear bed beside the monument, and continued down in search of the Sawbug. At first it eluded me, and I ended up on a narrow promontory overlooking the bridge site, around 250 in elevation feet below and to the south. Retreating north onto the main canyon wall, a very faint trail appeared beneath a welter of mostly dead bushes, and between live oaks with many side branches to lower levels.

If this was the Sawbug, it meant that there must be a switchback; for my sense was that I was right up the hill from the corridor-through-little-conifers section of the trail, that I had lopped last Wednesday. So, I forced a route through the maze of trees and bushes, and, sure enough, about a hundred feet below, I found myself at the east end of the corridor, in the shallow gully. The vegetation was so heavy above that it utterly hid all signs of the switchback.

I was about 90% certain that I had found the true line of the trail, and put the loppers to work while following it back up. Most of the iron-hard dead manzanita was too big and too much for me to take on, but I hacked out a few short reaches of the trail, and even, horror upon horror, made a couple of rock ducks to mark its course. There were times I could not come within twenty feet of the trail, not while wearing shorts and a T-shirt, anyway.

I followed back up the Sawbug to the game trail where I'd left my pack, and thought I saw the Sawbug enter an even denser and even larger patch of half-dead manzanita and fallen pines. There was no possibility of following the old trail itself. I walked to my pack, just below the manzanita patch, and climbed onto a fallen pine and walked up the hill right into the worst of the brush. Fortunately other fallen pines made for a zig-zag route which allowed me to find the Sawbug again, and it was plain that just this one patch of manzanita and the fallen pines could keep four or five strong workers busy for hours, just to open less than a hundred yards of trail. Striking up (north) and east, I found another "corridor" which Ron and I had lopped last week, and realized I was exactly where we had stopped, when following the Sawbug back down towards the bridge.

From here it was easy going up and east, except, I was verging upon a sunstroke or something, in the hot weather, fighting brush and lopping and walking up and down and every which way. Since the trail entered a grove of larger trees, with almost no brush, and good shade, I didn't push it, but made slow steady progress, and stopped to rest frequently.

I reach the sunny bunchgrass opening with the view across the North Fork into Humbug Canyon and the Dorer Ranch. This was close to the highest, easternmost point Ron and I had reached. I GPSed my location, and, seeing how far the Dorer Ranch was below me, and knowing the ranch to be nearly if not all of 200 feet above river level (roughly, 2000' in elevation, at Humbug Bar), I figured I must be 400 to 500 feet above the river. However, the GPS settled into a reading of 2350' elevation, with reasonable satellite coverage. Later, when I plotted my track on the Westville quadrangle, it came in a little higher, about 2400' at that grassy viewpoint, or 400 feet above the river. I would still think I was a mite higher yet.

The trail remained open and easy to follow, although there were many oak branches and little conifers lopped. The lop count rose into the hundreds, and again and again I sank to the ground to rest, not even bothering to remove my pack. It was hot. I could hear a group of people playing and swimming and hooting and hollering far below, on the river. I heard children, too.

Climbing east and north, the trail narrowed, and I began to worry I might have lost it, when I began to notice very old cuts in manzanita branches, made by a machete twenty or thirty years ago. Why, they might even date to the Volcano Fire itself, when fire crews would have traversed the canyon walls to knock down hot spots, after the main fire had swept through. This was reassuring. Also, a bear or bears had made frequent use of the trail, which is often a good sign.

Eventually I hit a nasty little patch of manzanita and collapsed in a heap. After resting, I left my pack behind, and, carrying only the loppers and my GPS unit, climbed on up the trail.

Soon even better signs that I was on the true line of the Sawbug appeared: massive dry-laid stone retaining walls, quite a few of them, bolstered the trail. I was crossing a broad ravine or steep valley, easily a quarter-mile across, itself riven by many smaller ravines and gullies, some with impressive expanses of water-polished rock, pointing to transient, occasional flood events in the rainy season. The trail sometimes leveled out a little in crossing these minor ravines, but all in all maintained a steady climb to the north and east. I crossed the main axis of the valley, and ventured a few hundred yards further. I could scarcely even lift my loppers and was soaked with sweat. Several hours had passed since I had left Catherine, at the river, and I had told her I would be no more than three hours. It was time to retreat.

I switched on the GPS for the return, to record the line of the Sawbug. I was surprised by how far back down the trail I had left my pack. It took twenty or thirty minutes to reach the bridge site; I had followed the Sawbug almost a mile, almost half-way to the pass on Sawtooth Ridge. I was scratched bloody by the brush, and dripping sweat, and a kind of lanky horse-fly besieged me the whole way down to the river, and followed me right across as I forded. I stripped off my clothes and dove into the deep pool by the bridge site, hoping the lanky biting fly would leave me be, once I was a little cleaner, but, no.

Catherine was gone, up visiting Danny and Grant, but I had no wish to add another climb to the day's outing. I had climbed the better part of 1000 feet above the river, on the Sawbug, and had over 2000 feet of climb to get back out via Euchre Bar. So, I lazed around beside Humbug Creek, drank Gatorade, and stayed in the shade. After half an hour or so I began to wish Catherine would return so we could start the long march out, and gathered my stuff and climbed up a little ways to save her the trouble of dropping all the way to the river to find me.

Almost immediately I heard an engine, and surmised that Danny was giving her a ride down from the ranch, on some kind of ATV. This proved to be the case. Soon we were hiking back down the canyon, and to us both, the climb up from Euchre Bar seemed longer than usual. We hit the top about 7:30; the sun was lowering, and we could see the very notch in Sawtooth Ridge where the Sawbug Trail meets the Sawtooth Trail, just falling into shadow, while the "teeth" of the ridge were still up in the sunshine.

It had been another great day, but a greatly strenuous day, on the North Fork. Much progress had been made in establishing the route of a long-abandoned historic trail. Perhaps one day people will hike that trail again; perhaps, like I.T. Coffin, they will follow up Sawtooth Ridge, enjoying the awesome views of two awesome canyons. I hope the day will come when Sawtooth Ridge and the canyons on either side will be managed for wildlands and open space, and motorized vehicles will be blocked off well up the line of the ridge to the northeast, perhaps near the head of Wilmont Ravine.

To ever achieve this, Tahoe National Forest must acquire the private lands along Sawtooth Ridge, most of which belong to Sierra Pacific Industries, famous for clearcutting.

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