Thursday, July 1, 2004

Thunderstorm in Wildcat Canyon

Wednesday morning I met Ron Gould & Catherine O'Riley for an expedition to the Walker Mine, in Wildcat Canyon (see the USGS 7.5 minute "Royal Gorge" quadrangle). Tuesday, I had been laying slabs of sandstone in mortar, to make a path, and had heard the constant rumbling of thunder to the east; and at sunset, the lovely smell of fresh rain wafted down from the high country.

The forecast was for more of the same, but, inasmuch as Wildcat Canyon is fully ten miles from the Sierra crest, and a few sprinkles on a warm day could scarcely hurt, I made no storm preparations beyond packing a long-sleeved shirt. Instead, I took focus on baking some soy sauce and garlic tofu, and buying crackers and cherries and sports drinks.

Thus equipped, I felt ready to enter the wilds of Wildcat Canyon. To get there, we drove to Auburn, and up the Foresthill-Soda Springs road for many miles, past the Mumford Bar, Beacroft, and Sailor Flat trails, past Robinson Flat (which is often labeled "Robertson Flat" on the old maps), at about 7000' elevation, and then, in a couple of miles, we reached the unmarked trail to Sailor Meadow and the Walker Mine.

Except, it was now marked. A single new white Rav 4 was parked across the road from where a large boulder of andesite had been spray-painted with an arrow between the letters "S" and "M." This was especially strange, as Ron had just visited Sailor Meadow last Sunday; there was no spray-painted boulder, then. We saddled up and hit the trail, finding another painted boulder just up the hill.

Smalls trees and bushes were flagged with orange surveyor's tape all along the way; the flagging was new, since Sunday. And, quite often, cairns of boulders had been made to further mark the trail. To our utter horror, the spray-painted arrows marked many larger boulders along the trail, as well.

This is not a hard trail to follow. It is a little vague in a few places, but since its unvarying scheme is to *follow the ridge dividing Sailor Canyon from Wildcat Canyon*, one cannot go far astray. There is no point in flagging this trail, no need for cairns or ducks, and it is an out-and-out crime to paint large yellow arrows on boulders.

Fresh footprints of at least two hikers pointed down the trail, ahead of us. Were these the very culprits? The paint seemed dry. We wondered, and as we wondered, Catherine and Ron stripped every last bit of flagging from the bushes and trees, and kicked down every cairn. I happen to know it's a bit of a religion with her, to knock down ducks and cairns. Now she could exercise her faith with a holy vengeance.

There is a very thick section of andesitic mudflow (Mehrten Formation) at the heads of both Sailor and Wildcat canyons. For the first thousand feet of descent, we were in the mudflow, but as we approached the long leveling of the ridge which marks the vicinity of Sailor Meadow, out of view to the west, we entered the older rhyolite ash of the Valley Springs Formation, none of it directly exposed, only revealing itself as small white angular boulders, here and there.

Where the ridge levels, around 5400' elevation, there is a long narrow pond just below the trail on the west. The most-used trail to Sailor Meadow forks away west just before one reaches the pond, and we saw the flagging continue towards the Meadow, on this route.

We, however, stayed on the trail to the Walker Mine, and saw no more fresh flagging, nor any paint, nor any new cairns, as we continued north along the ridge. There is quite a fine old-growth forest in this general area; Sailor Meadow is famous for it, but the forest extends far beyond the meadow itself, occupying a broad bench on the east side of Sailor Canyon, with a smaller bench on the Wildcat Canyon side of the ridge. These quasi-level surfaces are fully in the volcanic ash layer, and in places, beneath the ash, are old river gravels. And in those gravels is gold. So there are various mines and prospects having to do with these old river channels, in both canyons.

Beneath the rhyolite ash and the river gravels is the bedrock, here, the Middle Jurassic Sailor Canyon Formation, made of beds of sandstone and slaty stuff, much derived from volcanic source material, which beds or strata are tilted up on edge, not to a pure vertical orientation, but near to that, having rotated about 75 degrees east. The strata strike slightly west of north, and, on the north side of the North Fork, cross Big Granite, Little Granite, and Big Valley canyons, reaching the South Yuba just east of Cisco Grove.

Fossil ammonites are sometimes found in Sailor Canyon fm. rocks. These sea organisms are much like a chambered nautilus. The one fossil I saw during our hike, tho, resembled a clam.

Both Terry Davis and Gene Markley had told me that the Walker Mine Trail continues past the mine to the North Fork American, a little ways west of Wildcat Canyon. Ron and Catherine and I hoped to reach the river, but this would mean a climb of nearly 3400' on the way out, so, without really saying so, we were planning to let events dictate our course: would we be exhausted by lopping, before ever nearing the river? Would the trail be easy to find and follow, or hard? Would the day be hot, or cool?

Catherine and I had been down to where the Walker Mine Trail plunges down the east side of the ridge a few years ago, but none of us had ever been down to the mine itself. We found the trail much larger than we had expected, badly overgrown in many places, yes, but showing signs of having been well-lopped maybe ten or fifteen years ago, and lightly lopped within the past few years.

By "well-lopped" I mean many things. First, one never cuts obtruding branches at all close to the traveled way of the trail, if one can help it; lean over and stretch your arms out and cut the branches several feet away. Second, get the cut brush off the trail, and if possible, well off the trail where it can't be seen. Try to get the cut ends pointing away from the trail, too.

Of course, on really bad brush--and we saw some of that--there are too many branches to cut in one pass; they make complicated, imbricated masses; often all one can reasonably do is take out some of the worst branches, and not worry too much about cutting these several feet from the path. These initial cuts often open the way for the deeper cuts which are still necessary. Multiple lopping expeditions are called for.

And finally, do not be fooled by small conifers. Let them live, and they will utterly consume the trail. They will soon get too large to lop, and cutting tree trunks with a handsaw is so very much harder than lopping small trees. If a small conifer is within a foot of the traveled footbed, have no mercy. It is actually better yet to take out every small conifer within reach. This is often impossible in practice, as there are hundreds of them, thousands, tens of thousands--you get the idea.

Well. We had started under clear skies, and soon had seen some wispy fluffy little white cumulus clouds materialize over the high country, and we watched these clouds grow and grow until they covered the sky, and thunder began muttering and rumbling at distance. We were thankful to be in the shadows of the swelling clouds, while lopping our way slowly down the trail.

The clouds only thickened and darkened, while the thunder grew louder. In fact, it rapidly grew so amazingly dark, I would have thought sunset was at hand; yet it was just after one in the afternoon.

Rather nice views open up across the North Fork canyon to Snow Mountain, from this part of the trail. One also sees well into Wildcat Canyon, to a series of high waterfalls on the east side, and to the head of the canyon. One can see the strata of the Sailor Canyon fm. as it sweeps up the south face of Snow, and see the contact between it and the next metamorphic rock unit to the east, the "pyroclastic member" of the Tuttle Lake fm.

This contact between the two formations follows up Wildcat Creek itself, although it often seems to fall just a mite up the east wall of the canyon. Supposedly, the contact is "conformable," that is, the pyroclastics to the east (pyroclastics: "fire broken" rocks, volcanic, eruptive rocks, such as mudflows, and ash beds; *not* lava flows per se) were deposited directly upon the Sailor Canyon fm. sediments to the west, in an uninterrupted continuation of the sedimentary sequence. Originally the Tuttle Lake rocks sat on top of the Sailor Canyon rocks; now they lie to the east. They are but slightly younger.

There was far too much brush for us to take on, and retain any chance of reaching the North Fork. The trail was very well-defined, despite being often buried beneath brush. It much reminds me of the Wabena Trail, a couple miles farther east. Most of the bushes were Huckleberry Oak, with a good amount of Green Manzanita, many live oaks, and many small White Firs and Douglas Firs. Bay Laurel became common, too, as we dropped below 5000'.

I forged ahead, while the others lopped, and reached the little flat near the main portal of the mine. This around 4400' in elevation. I explored down the side trail into a ravine where the main tunnel is located, with its ore-cart tracks, and where cliffs of meta-sandstone (?) with a very blocky, hackly texture rise quite steeply. Then I returned to my pack. I snacked, and explored to the east, and found the continuation of the main trail, down to the North Fork, and also another side trail, holding a level line east to a cabin site.

Returning again to my pack, surprised not to hear Ron and Catherine, I called out and heard an oddly distant answering shout. How could they still be so high above me?

Then it began to hail, very lightly. I moved under the shelter of a Canyon Live Oak, and dug out my long-sleeved shirt. I heard both Ron and Catherine shouting up above, but could not make out what was up. The hail ranged up to half an inch in diameter, and often bounced off the ground. It gradually turned to rain. Lightning was flashing in the clouds above, and some seemed to be hitting the summit ridge of Snow. The thunder grew much more intense, and, just as Ron finally appeared, the rain began to fall more heavily. He went off to see the tunnel; I waited for Catherine at the small flat, where bits of mining equipment are strewn about. A fire-ring is there, too.

When she finally arrived, we followed Ron, and found him crouched beside the hackly sheer cliff, which, just barely, kept the rain off, since it had some slight overhangs above. We all crowded into the dry spot. Thunder was crashing constantly, and lightning flashed closer, and closer, and it began, not just to rain, but to pour.

It was quite exciting. I was already pretty soaked, but the temperature was not cold, and it was really rather nice to have this little shred of shelter, and a view of a rousingly good thunderstorm. There were lightning strikes within two thousand feet, and the thunder that followed was extraordinary, deafening crackling, staccato bursts, set into a matrix of deep booms. What seemed to be a single strike could trigger thunder which lasted five or ten seconds; of course, the vast cliffy south face of Snow must have been echoing the thunder back upon us, but still, it seemed strangely long-drawn-out.

It was wonderful.

Once in a while, the rain would let up, and we would explore. Once we visited the cabin site to the east. Another time, we followed the main trail down to its crossing of the ravine, at about 4200' elevation.

We had to give up on reaching the river, for the trail continued badly overgrown, and now every bush and every tree was laden with rain, and to hike, or to lop, was to get soaked.

We had worked hard, too, and worried that one last descent of nearly a thousand feet, would transform an acceptably strenuous hike of the first order, into a nightmare thing, a staggering and demented and unending climb beneath an uncaring moon.

So, another day.

The storm lasted about an hour. We sorted ourselves out and started up the trail. Now every uncut branch shed its loads of rain, and we were all pretty wet, especially in the legs and shoe areas, as we climbed.

The trail is often somewhat steep, but really not that bad. We reached the level ridge near the narrow pond, and took a long rest, exploring the ancient forest into Wildcat Canyon a short distance. What appears to be a well-formed glacial moraine is near the trail here; all of its boulders look to be andesite, from the Mehrten fm. Also, we found an old sign post, which had once been set into a pile of boulders next to the trail, perhaps, even, a claim marker: it was made of a piece of old, fire-charred Incense Cedar, and had the initials "M" and "W" carved into it.

Did the "W" stand for "Walker"? It was below the "M" so it is hard to make the letters stand for "Walker Mine."

Continuing up the trail, we found that the orange flagging had been replaced, in the four hours or so since we had walked down. This meant that the party ahead of us, in the brand-new Rav 4, were indeed responsible for the flagging, and, one couldn't help but suspect, for the spray paint as well.

This would be confirmed if the Rav 4 was gone when we reached the top of the trail. The rain had washed away any clear footprints, but their ghosts remained, and they seemed to point up the trail, rather than down.

Ron and Catherine went back to work and removed another fifty to one hundred lengths of flagging. It was infuriating. We each nurtured our own little fantasies about the sort of beetle-brained, why, less than beetle-brained idiots who would perpetrate this. One theory is that some kind of 4th-of-July party is planned for Sailor Meadow.

We reached the top around 7:30 p.m., and found the Rav 4 gone, as we expected. This thing was so new it still had dealer plates: I think they may have read "Maita Chevrolet" or Maita something (Toyota?).

They should be made to remove all the rest of the flagging and scrub the paint from the boulders.

Such was another fine day in the North Fork canyon.

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