Thursday, August 5, 2004

The Mystery of the Sawbug, VI

Sawbug VII now looms on the horizon, as the Sixth Expedition failed to discover the line of the old trail from Humbug Bar to the crest of Sawtooth Ridge. The unusually cool August weather inspired Ron and Catherine and I to meet at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, to drive to Iron Point and the Euchre Bar Trail, pausing to leave one vehicle down at the gate on the rough road to the Rawhide Mine.

For we would follow the Sawbug up to the ridge crest, or failing that, just bushwhack up to the crest, and then walk the Sawtooth Road west to the Rawhide Mine Trail, drop down to the mine, and then, crossing the North Fork of the North Fork and Blue Canyon on the bridges there, climb up the Rawhide road to the aforementioned gate.

It would make a loop of about ten miles, with total elevation gain of about 3000 feet.

We started down the Euchre Bar Trail at 9:00 a.m. sharp, and reached the bridge at 9:30. After a rest, the long march up to Humbug Canyon was followed by an immediate ford of the river, and the short climb to the bridge site at Humbug Bar. Another rest, with the same biting quasi-horse-flies pestering us, for the passage across the canyon to the south-facing north slopes had bumped up the temperature instantly, and the siren song of sweat brought the hungry flies from near and far. It was nearing 11:00 a.m. when we shouldered our packs and started up the Sawbug.

There was the crucial switchback we had missed, two weeks ago; there, and there, the nasty patches of half-dead deerbrush and manzanita and fallen pines which so effectively hid the trail, but then, fairly soon and low on the line of the old trail, we were above the worst of it, on shadier slopes with much less brush, and the long climbing traverse to the northeast began.

Following The Plan we did little lopping, saving our strength for the unexplored upper half of the trail. Although occasionally this part of the Sawbug degenerates to the appearance of a game trail, it is punctuated by impressive dry-laid retaining walls, some all of six feet high, defining a trailbed four feet wide. Both Ron and I had our GPS units turned on for the duration, but mine often went into my pocket to free my hands for lopping, and when I returned home and transferred the track record to my digital version of the Westville 7.5 minute quadrangle, my track record proved to be fragmentary, made of many short tracks, interrupted by gaps where satellite coverage had been lost.

We crossed the main ravine along the line of the trail, and soon thereafter entered Terra Incognita, as we climbed around a spur ridge which springs away south from the knoll marked 4210 on the crest of Sawtooth, now somewhat less then a thousand feet above us.

The trail was marked in many places by old machete cuts, but as I recall, once we passed the spur ridge, there was not much in the way of dry-laid stone walls to reassure us as to the "true" course of the trail. We maintained a continuous climbing traverse, and after a time, reached an old gold mine, a tunnel driven into the solid rock. This was interesting in that it contained the single largest bear bed I have ever seen, where masses of Canyon Live Oak leaves had spilled into the tunnel from the slopes above, and been hollowed deeply by the bear, making a large bowl.

GPS put us at about 3500' elevation.

From the mine, the trail seemed somewhat fainter, and yet offered a climbing traverse of the same sort as we had seen all the way along. I saw more machete cuts. But after a time we felt we had lost the darn thing, and scouted across the steep slopes. I interpreted a certain ridge, dimly seen to the east, as the spur falling from the far side of The Pass, that certain low spot on the Sawtooth Crest, below the 3800' contour, where the Sawbug had been found and explored from the top, down, twice, in 2002 and 2003, seeming to end at yet another hard-rock mining prospect.

Since the USGS topographic map of 1900 shows a sweeping switchback almost directly below The Pass, and since we were well up towards 3700' in elevation, I was drawn to the east, towards the dimly-seen spur ridge. Ron and Catherine scouted a little farther west, out of sight and often out of hearing as well. The steep slopes were quite difficult to traverse. Occasional game trails led us here or there, but then, again and again, we were forced into scrambles directly up the steeps. I veered back west to Join Ron and Catherine. We were huffing and puffing and sweating like mad. GPS put us nearing 4000' in elevation; above the level of The Pass. But if that were so--then we must be well west of The Pass--we rested and thought it over.

In a few minutes we were ready to go. We had lost the line of the Sawbug, were too high, and too tired to retreat west and south and down, and the slopes to steep and nasty to contour east. The only sensible course was to scramble on up to the Sawtooth Road wherever gaps in the brush might permit. A few steps brought a beguiling terrace into view, above me. I pointed it out to Catherine. Ron had ranged farther east, and we heard indistinct exclamations, and as I climbed to the terrace, so did Ron, a hundred feet away, and we simultaneously realized we had found the good old Sawbug.

Having found it, we could scarcely believe we had ever lost it. For it was broad and well-defined and was often bolstered by dry-laid stone walls. However we had lost the line of the Sawbug--a switchback had been passed, perhaps--it had, somehow, climbed more steeply than we had.

There was no question of following it back *down*, we were too far gone for that. I recorded a waypoint, noting that we were near to 4000' in elevation, and we followed the Sawbug *up*. Almost immediately, it fed us onto the Sawtooth Road, but, far west of The Pass. I recorded another waypoint, and we hung a sharp left and started walking west towards the Rawhide Trail.

The upshot of all this is that the Sawbug does not climb to the pass-below-the-3800'-contour, but to the next pass west, between Knoll 4210 on the west, and a smaller knoll about a quarter-mile to the east, a little above 4120' in elevation.

A fine breeze stirred along the Sawtooth crest, and a mile and a half brought us to the top of the Rawhide. It was around 5:00 p.m. when we started down, through the dense tangle of manzanita Ron and I had lopped through a few weeks ago, and onto the easier north slopes of Sawtooth.

We had noted minor inconsistencies between the line of the Rawhide Trail, on the map, and the actual line of the trail, on the ground, while exploring it a few weeks ago. But now, as we followed it down, we realized that it departed rather drastically from the map, a long series of switchbacks taking the place of a direct descending traverse. The loppers came back into play, although we had already passed the more sensible limits of exertion. We passed an upper tunnel, and then dropped all the way below the main mine portal (not on the trail itself) without realizing it. We were too tired to climb back up and visit the interesting portal area, and just followed the trail on down to the mine road, and the road, down to the river, at about 2150' elevation.

Another rest, and then it was over the gate, over the bridges--the caretaker was not in residence--and past the houses, and up and up and up the rough road to the gate, and Ron's truck, at about 2900' elevation. It was around 6:30 p.m. Another great day in the great canyon.

It looks as tho Sawbug Seven will require a drive out to Sawtooth Ridge from Emigrant Gap, to the New Pass. From there the trail could be followed down, and we should need to go no farther than the Bear Bed Mine to finish the job of discovering the line of one of the North Fork canyon's historic trails.

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