Monday, August 9, 2004

The Seven Sawbugs of Doom

Sunday morning Tom Molloy, Catherine O'Riley and I drove up to Emigrant Gap, out Forest Road 19 to Texas Hill, and then on up Burnett Canyon to Sawtooth Ridge. We drove the Sawtooth Road down the ridge to the southwest, the North Fork to our left, the North Fork of the North Fork to our right. We passed the steep SPI clearcuts in Section 35, just west of Helester Point, and at last reached the False Pass, a deep notch below the 3800-foot contour, climbing onto the minor knoll or tooth to the west, and parking at the True Pass, at about 4000' elevation.

It took about two hours to reach the True Pass from Dutch Flat. Immediately west of the True Pass is Tooth 4210, as may be seen on the USGS 7.5 minute Westville quadrangle.

We were determined to close the gap on the historic Sawbug Trail. It only remained to stroll merrily down the wide trail, bolstered by dry-laid stone walls, to, presumably, the Bear Bed Mine, where Ron and Catherine and I had lost the Sawbug last Wednesday. The task seemed so insignificant we were concerned to imagine what we would do with the rest of our day; drive out to Big Valley Bluff? Visit Burnett Canyon?

We gradually became ready, as the noon hour neared, and the sky was blue, the temperature, warming to hot, and as if in presage of what would befall us, I immediately seized upon a faint trail line leading through heavy brush from the road, and declared it to be The Trail; so we fought our way through it, and found it was actually not at all The Trail.

It was at least near. A short scramble put us on track, and there were the dry-laid stone walls, there was the wide trail bed we had walked so little of last Wednesday. So now, down to the Bear Bed! We lopped through the usual types of obstructions met on the upper Sawbug, mainly Canyon Live Oak branches, and some few spiky Torreya branches; an occasional Deerbrush, and one patch of manzanita. The trail began to make switchbacks, but its overall trend was down and to the west--perfect. We found some remarkable views all the way up the North Fork to Snow Mountain and even Tinkers Knob, on the crest. There was little to no doubt as to the line of the trail.

A long descending traverse west led us to a terrace fronting a collapsed tunnel. Immediately below, another terrace held some heavy bits of equipment of some sort. We were hot and sweaty after much lopping, and rested in the shade on the Upper Terrace. We would later call it the Upper Mine, for, as it transpired, there was a series of tunnels leading almost straight down the canyon wall, bearing only slightly to the east, and we developed names for each tunnel in turn.

Let us say there were five tunnels. From top to bottom, then, we had Upper Mine, then the Winch Terrace (not a tunnel site--a fragmented gigantic winch with hundreds of feet of cable embedded amidst various and sundry massive chunks of iron, axles, wheels, many spilled down the steep slopes, etc. etc.)--and then the Big Oak Mine, where the broad opening of the tunnel was framed by a truly ancient and enormous Canyon Live Oak, and an unusually massive wheelbarrow, all of dark iron, lay nearby; then what I thought of as Shaft and Stope, a tunnel which led quickly to a shaft opening just below the Big Oak Mine--but I believe we also called this the Fallen Tree Tunnel--then another tunnel, perhaps we never gave it a name--and then at last the Bear Bed Mine.

So. Almost right away we established that the Bear Bed was about 300 feet in elevation below the Upper Mine, and slightly to the east. I had dropped down slightly west from the Upper Mine, hit the Sawbug west and below the Bear Bed, and followed it up to that tunnel.

So, it only remained to connect the Bear Bed to the Upper Mine with a trail.

We scouted high and low and side to side. We dropped down to the Bear Bed, followed the Sawbug down and west to a certain spur ridge, and looked high and low for a switchback which may have carried the Sawbug higher onto the spur. Numerous game trails confused the issue, as usual, but we satisfied ourselves that the Sawbug did indeed make straight for the Bear Bed.

We followed the most proper continuation of the line of the Sawbug, up and to the east, past the Bear Bed, just as Ron and Catherine and I had, last Wednesday, and found a plausible trail line which, however, soon leveled out and then even dropped, only to essentially end in a clump of close-set Torreya.

Torreya californica is a conifer in the Yew family, a naked-seed gymnosperm, and rather than having cones bearing many naked seeds, it has single seeds, which resemble large green olives. Many of these somewhat scrubby and stunted Torreya, which have stump-sprouted again and again following wildfires, were carrying heavy crops of these giant green seeds.

Several times we ended up back at the Upper Mine, resting in the shade of the terrace, and discussing the problem. We were so darn close, a few hundred feet on a horizontal, and a couple few hundred in elevation. The miners must have had their own trail linking the many tunnels. Find the miners' trail, and let it count as the True Sawbug.

So. We had already often followed a certain switchback just below the Upper Mine, using it to gain the Winch Terrace, which trail, all in all, was the most plausible continuation of the Upper Sawbug. We spent quite a bit more time on this trail, and did discover its possible continuation, in a series of switchbacks which wore off roughly half of the elevation down to the Bear Bed.

But we never could connect it through.

Smoke had filtered into the canyon. Had one of the Calaveras fires flared up strongly? They had filled the North Fork with smoke two days before. We began to smell the smoke. The day was now hot, quite hot, and I for one had had quite enough of these steep slopes, with their slippery Canyon Live Oak leaves, and the constant slipping and stumbling which could attend even a very short climb.

We made our way up to the Upper Mine, frustrated, disconsolate; it was almost impossible, given how throughly we had scouted the length and the breadth and the very depth of these ragged slopes, impossible to have missed the trail. The most rational explanation I could find was that, since the Sawbug pre-dated the mines by several decades (the Sawbug was in use at least as early as 1863, as evidenced by the Diary of Isaac Tibbetts Coffin, of Dutch Flat; and the mines looked to date from as late as the 1920s, probably no earlier than 1900)--since the Sawbug was older, the debris from the mines may have slid down the steep slopes, and completely buried the line of the trail.

This seemed reasonable enough.

However, the uncertainty of it all weighed heavily. Could the Sawbug have leveled out past the Bear Bed Mine, which I GPSed at about 3600' elevation, and made for the False Pass, at 3720+ feet? So that the False Pass is in fact the True Pass, and the well-defined trail dropping in switchbacks to the Upper Mine, was a trail to the mine and nothing more? It cannot be entirely discounted.

So. The mystery continues.

We found the going rather tough, going back up to the Sawtooth Road and the Land Rover, but to was nice to drive along with the windows down, and gradually recover from our exertions. I was streaked with blood as usual, wet with sweat, little branches and leaves caught in clothes and hair. We all lamented our failure and kept on going over the same ground, in our minds, and in conversation, that we had criss-crossed on foot for hours.

I spotted a chunk of plastic trim on the road, and we snagged it, speculating it may have been stripped from Ron's truck, a few weeks ago.

Climbing east out of the False Pass Which Still Could Maybe Be the True Pass, we suddenly met Ron himself, who had on the spur of the moment decided to drive out there to see for himself. The piece of plastic was indeed from his rear bumper. After a brief chat--we learned that the smoke was from a fire near the Stevens Trail, down by Colfax--we went our separate ways.

By the way, the Sawtooth Road can absolutely eat a vehicle. The brush will scratch your paint. I can't recommend it to anyone, not much west of Helester Point, anyway.

It could be that Ron found the trail, where we failed to find it; he has an almost mystical sense for old trails.

I would like the benefit of cool weather, the next time I have a go at the old Sawbug.

Maybe the eighth time is the charm!

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