Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Visit to the South Fork

... of Big Pine Creek ...

Hi all,

Only rarely do I get away from the wild and lovely North Fork American, yet last week I joined Ron Gould for an expedition to Middle Palisade, a fourteen-thousand-foot peak on the Sierra crest south of Yosemite.

We drove east and south, passing by Lake Tahoe, and reaching Highway 395 at Carson City. I remember so fondly the vast open spaces around 395, south of Carson City. Now new houses are perched upon ridges, and entire subdivisions have sprouted along what can only be regarded as one of the most scenic roads in North America.

Pausing at Bridgeport to examine some fine hot springs on BLM land, it seemed to me that use of the area had increased a hundred-fold since the good old days in the 1970s. From the springs, one can look across the great flat meadow of Bridgeport to the Sawtooth Ridge peaks, along the north boundary of Yosemite. Spectacular.

Then south, past Mono Lake and Mammoth into the Owens Valley proper, where we turned west into the Buttermilk Country, just south and east of gigantic Mt. Tom, rising 9000' above the valley floor, near Bishop. Deeply weathered granite outcrops into clumps of egg-like boulders, some the size of houses, with sagebrush and rabbitbush (in bloom!) sparsely clothing the gently sloping desert. We camped beside a small creek with some great "view" eggs close by, from which Mt. Humphrey and many other jagged peaks along and near the crest could be seen to the west, and the White Mountains to the east, across the Owens Valley. Ron's friends, Dave, Brian, and Mark, met us there, and the next morning it was on to Bishop and a humble cafe for breakfast.

Driving south to Big Pine, and then up to Glacier Lodge at 7800', we assembled our gear and stashed our cars and finally finally were on the trail, holding to the left where the more popular trail up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek leads away right, towards the Palisade Glacier, largest in the Sierra.

Cottonwoods and willows grew along the South Fork, and a scattering of groves of red-trunked Jeffrey Pine, but our trail stayed high and in the sun, through the usual sagebrush and rabbitbush, with some interesting gnarled ancient Desert Mahogany bushes along the way. Here in the North Fork we have Mountain Mahogany; this was the eastside, desert version.

We had glimpses of the high peaks and glaciers ahead, mainly Mt. Norman Clyde, with its sheer cliff-like eastern faces.

A couple miles brought us to the first big step in the canyon. The trail switches back and forth up a talus field to one side, and, crossing a ridge, suddenly our goal was in view. Middle Palisade. The east-face route we intended to climb led from a ridge dividing two lobes of the Middle Palisade glacier, up to a certain gully or couloir, which one followed to the summit. From our vantage point, this couloir looked quite steep, nearly vertical, but one usually finds that such things look steeper than they actually are.

We were troubled, tho, to see abundant snow from the storm of the weekend before, slathered all over the east face of Middle Pal, and extending down to the terminal moraine below the glacier. In particular, our couloir was half-covered in snow.

This changed the complexion of the climb rather drastically, and when we reached Brainard Lake, at 10,300', with an even closer view of Middle Pal, it did not take much discussion to agree to give up on the climb. We had ice axes, but the snow would be too thin for the axe. It would only be just right for making an already steep climb, very slippery.

We were, in any case, in a rather wonderful place, one of the most alpine and scenic areas of the Sierra, with peaks rising to 11, 12, 13, and 14 thousand feet every which way, glaciers clinging to their northeast faces, and many lakes and tarns. Most of the rock was granite, some with enough in the way of the darker minerals to be called diorite, some almost white. Across the canyon to the north a small pluton of this white granite made a peak between the two forks of Big Pine Creek. This unnamed peak had interesting horizontal bands of krummholz (stunted and wind-twisted pines near timberline), up around the 11,500-foot level, where, apparently, severe west winds had allowed new trees to grow only to the lee of an existing tree. Some of the krummholz bands may have been a hundred feet long.

East of this Krummholz Peak was Temple Crag, a 13,000-footer, and between the two was Contact Pass, where the white and dark granites met. People cross between the two forks of Big Pine Creek through this pass, at about 11,800'.

Vertical joint planes seemed to dominate in all the granite, and the planes were closely-spaced, leading to the development of innumerable pinnacles along the ridge crests, even along the minor spur ridges of spur ridges. Through all this varied granite a system of dikes had intruded, of some very dark, mafic, iron-rich rock, almost black if not black. The dikes inhabited the system of vertical joint planes and could be traced for a mile at a glance, sometimes.

Interestingly, there was also a system of light-colored aplite dikes, such as one very commonly sees in granite; these may have been fed by the white pluton of the horizontal krummholz, but in any event these white dikes were youngest, cutting the darker granite and the black dikes both.

We camped at Brainard, and enjoyed a moonlit hike onto glacially-smoothed granite ribs, above the lake. Despite the moon, the stars were many. Sagittarius was setting over Middle Pal.

No tents, perfect fall weather, not a cloud in the sky, and we all woke up once or twice to glare at a too-bright moon or, later, to marvel at how many more stars appeared, once the moon had set. Before sunrise I was up and brewing instant coffee and rushing to get my camera as "rosy-fingered dawn" lit up Middle Pal, beyond a shadowed granite ridge across the lake.

With Ron and his friends there is a long history of climbing and skiing in the High Sierra, and a sort of ritual is followed. Apparently a portion of the ritual involves making an incredibly slow and deliberate start to the day. The morning was on the wane before we set out cross-country, holding to the more eastern side of things, above Brainard Lake. Two pater noster lakes were on massive steps in the canyon above, and we crossed from the higher lake into another canyon still farther east, below a high ridge studded with perhaps hundreds of pinnacles.

A large moraine-like ridge occupied the center of this canyon. I believe it to be an example of a "rock glacier," in which what appears to be a ridge of sand and angular boulders hides a core of flowing ice. At the head of the canyon is Southfork Pass, a little notch above a regular, albeit small, glacier, with its own bergschrund, the crevasse at the very top of a mountain glacier. A rather sheer peak called "The Thumb" rises above this canyon on the south.

We determined to climb the ridge beside us and look for a pass, hoping to traverse around high and make for the Middle Pal glacier. We found a pass too low for our purposes, and followed the crest west, over large blocks of granite and talus, well over 11,000 feet. As we climbed above 12,000 feet, the ridge narrowed to a near knife-edge, with cliffs to either side, but an almost sidewalk-wide flat summit made for easy going.

One tried to not look down to either side, howsoever easy the footing might be. No sense in getting dizzy. Wrong kind of place for dizziness.

Then the ridge narrowed and a massive peaklet or pinnacle sprouted from its summit, ahead. It looked as tho our "easy traverse" could be had only by surmounting this pinnacle, which looked not at all easy. We carried no ropes. So, we were stopped. But, no worry, the views were awesome. To our south a white, frozen lake was cut right into the Southfork Pass glacier. To the north, a lovely round lake with water a milky turquoise from glacial "flour," and a smaller, half-frozen lake above it. Middle Pal rose above us, so close, to the west. We retreated down the ridge and found a set of ledges which zig-zagged down and north to the half-frozen lake, directly below the south lobe of the Middle Pal glacier, where we followed a low granite rib back down to the east, towards our blue-green Milk Lake.

After resting above Milk Lake, we continued down to Finger Lake, at 10,800', a long and narrow lake inhabiting a genuine chasm, with cliffs plunging into deep water in places. Extremely scenic, just below timberline, and often used for camping, by climbers on their way to Middle Pal.

Two of our party had already split off and found their own ways back to camp at Brainard. We three found the "use" trail from Finger to Brainard and soon joined them. The sun was still up, yet we had made a moderate loop of a few miles, much above timberline, and enjoyed truly tremendous and intimate views of many peaks, including Mt. Sill, another fourteen-thousand-footer.

The next morning we made the usual ritually slow start and had quite an easy time of it, walking the five miles back to Glacier Lodge, arriving around 2:30. Then it was time to pack up the cars and return, some to the Bay Area via Tioga Pass, one to San Diego via 395, and Ron and I back north to the North Fork country.

It was a great visit to the High Sierra.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Tommy Cain Ravine

Blurring our focus, we can describe the North Fork American as flowing from east to west. Its true "global" direction is northeast to southwest, but it is easier to say and to write, east to west.

In the Gold Run area, a series of tributaries enter from the north. Beginning on the east, we have Canyon Creek, by far the largest of these tributaries; then Indiana Ravine, Sheldron Ravine, and Tommy Cain Ravine.

In all my research into the history of Dutch Flat and Gold Run I do not recall ever seeing the name, "Tommy Cain," anywhere except on the modern-day USGS 7.5 minute Dutch Flat quadrangle. It would be safe to imagine Tommy a miner.

Indiana Ravine is noteworthy for being the site of the supposed original discovery of gold in the "high" gravels of what would become the Gold Run Diggings. This discovery took place in 1851, or perhaps 1852--I have seen both years cited. Several men prospected up Indiana Ravine from the North Fork, finding good "color" all the way, until they reached beds of cemented gravels near the top of the ravine. These cemented gravels proved rich in gold, and mining claims were staked out immediately. By September of 1852 the Indiana Hill Ditch had been constructed to bring water from Canyon Creek to these nascent "diggings." An Indiana Hill Mining District had already been formed.

All four of these tributaries must have been enriched by gold from the high Eocene-age gravels of the Gold Run Diggings--but Tommy Cain Ravine, the most eastern of its headwaters on the very west margin of the high gravels, would likely have been enriched the least.

I often think of the North Fork canyon as "insular," meaning "island-like," even though topologically, a canyon is a concavity and an island is a convexity. What I intend by calling it insular is that it is an entity of its own right, separate, walled off from the terrain around it. There is often quite a distinct canyon rim which divides the steep canyon from the gentle uplands beyond. Streams entering the North Fork in their own smaller canyons, then, create "passes" between the main North Fork and the uplands. Such "passes" can become trail routes, as, for instance, the Canyon Creek Trail.

Hence it is natural enough to imagine that Tommy Cain Ravine might have been used as a trail route, offering an easier, less abrupt path out of the steep-walled North Fork canyon. The 1865 GLO map shows the Fords Bar Trail using this "Tommy Cain Ravine Route" (TCRR). But the 1865 surveyor's "field notes" do not agree with the map itself.

The 1865 map shows two crossings of Tommy Cain Ravine by the TCRR. It so happens that faint old human trails cross Tommy Cain almost exactly where the 1865 map would have the TCRR making its two crossings. What a coincidence! Too much of a coincidence, one is sure. Yet yesterday's exploration has convinced me that it is, indeed, merely a coincidence. The upper crossing is part of a trail which connects the true, ridge-line Fords Bar Trail to a mining area in Tommy Cain Ravine. This trail, as plotted on a map, makes a kind of sharp upside-down "V" from the Fords Bar ridge at 2600' on the west, to the mining area at 2200' on the east, the point of the "V" being the crossing of Tommy Cain.

At the mining area are two camp or cabin sites, each with its own ancient cast-iron wood stove. Yesterday Ron and I gathered the fragments of the higher cabin site and assembled them as best as possible. We even found the maker's mark, reading as I recall "Buck's Patent" and then "McCoy and Clark, Albany" and then "Patented 1859."

Hence 1859 can be taken as the earliest possible date for the use of this stove at the Tommy Cain Ravine mining site.

On the Internet I searched without success for "McCoy and Clark" but I did find reference to "Buck's Patent" and especially to Albany, New York, as a center of cast-iron construction, especially of wood stoves, in the middle 19th century.

Near the upper cabin site a narrow bed of limestone appears within the metasediments of the Calaveras Complex rocks. This limestone might well bear fossils which would help to date the sedimentary part of the Calaveras Complex. I thought I saw some vague fossils in fragments of limestone near the stove/cabin site.

Also of interest in this area is "The Groove," an old lumber slide, it seems, similar to the lumber slide on Diving Board Ridge, between Canyon Creek and Indiana Ravine, to the east. It is a groove dropping straight down to the North Fork from Point 3007, on the divide between Tommy Cain on the west and Sheldon on the east.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Crossing the 'T' of Tommy Cain Ravine

With regret I must announce that Dean Decker, archeologist with Folsom BLM, is right: there is no "Tommy Cain Ravine Route" of the historic Fords Bar Trail.

The Fords Bar Trail is the Gold Run side of the old trail from Gold Run to Iowa Hill. The 1865 General Land Office map shows this trail ascending Tommy Cain ravine a ways before climbing to the "ridge route" which is shown on all subsequent maps.

A series of explorations were made over the past two weeks or so, mainly with the inimitable Ron Gould, in search of the mythical Tommy Cain Ravine Route (TCRR).

Complicating the issue is that, in the North Fork American River canyon, there are innumerable old trails used by the miners of 1849 and times since. And complicating that complication is that there are innumerably innumarable bear trails criss-crossing the steep canyon walls. At times these bear trails are indistinguishable from an old miners' trail, a trail which might have been, let's say, used from 1857 to 1864, and then abandoned.

Today Ron and I met for a fifth exploration of Tommy Cain Ravine. We were able to definitely establish that there is no true TCRR; what we had taken to be the TCRR is, in fact, an old miners' trail, but it is certainly not an old line of the Fords Bar Trail.

We found that this false-TCRR is a trail which runs from the ridge west of Tommy Cain, from the true Fords Var Trail, into Tommy Cain Ravine on a shallow angle, crossing at around 2500' elevation, and then, on the east side of the ravine, paralleing the creek and descending slowly to the south, until finally, it gives access to the old mining cabin sites I found last week with Alex and Jerry.

And there it ends.

We cannot rule out that a branch from this miners' trail leads directly up onto the ridge east, containing Point 3007, but whether such a branch exists or does not, we can at least say this:

There is no "Tommy Cain Ravine Route" of the Fords Bar Trail.

However, *if* a branch leads up to Point 3007, then this old miners' trail would allow a public-land access route from the end of Garrett Road to the "helipad" at Point 2650, on the "true" Fords Bar Trail, west of Tommy Cain.

That is interesting. The gap to be closed is rather small.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Tommy Cain Ravine IV

Thursday morning I met Alex Henderson and Jerry Rein at the Gold Run exit on I-80 for a visit to Tommy Cain Ravine. This was my fourth visit to Tommy Cain, in search of old human trails, and most especially, of a variation upon the route of the Fords Bar Trail, as depicted on the 1866 General Land Office map.

The Fords Bar Trail (FBT) is part of the historic trail from Gold Run to Iowa Hill, crossing the North Fork on a toll bridge, and then continuing south up and out of the canyon on the Blue Wing Trail. Various old maps show the FBT, and do not always agree upon its course. In 1866, the General Land Office was engaged in the "cadastral survey" of lands in this part of the Sierra, in which first the "townships" (blocks of land six miles on a side) were laid in, and then the "section" lines (a section is one mile square, thirty-six sections to a township, unless errors in laying out the township lines force larger or smaller sections to compensate).

It was a "cadastral" (from the French cadastre) survey because the exact locations of section lines and corners form the basis for the legal descriptions of all land parcels, large or small.

There is an all-too-typical complicated pattern of land ownership over all this area between Gold Run on the North and Iowa Hill on the south: there is much federal, public land, typically, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and much private land. It is almost inevitable that a trail of any length will cross from public to private lands, and back, perhaps several times. The Fords Bar and Blue Wing trails do so. Both are listed as public trails on the notable 1953 Placer County Board of Supervisors ordinance.

But that counts for little or nothing.

The FBT forks away from Garrett Road south of Gold Run just where it has since at least as far back as 1866, but since about 1986 it has been blocked by a fence, and more recently, a gate.

So. Part of the motivation to find and follow the 1866 Tommy Cain Ravine Route (TCRR) has been to see if a way can be found to stay on public land, and avoid problems with fences and gates.

Ron Gould and I drove down to the Truro Mine, on the Iowa Hill side of the canyon, a few weeks ago, and tried to find the TCRR from the North Fork, climbing up Tommy Cain. We had somewhat uncertain and dissatisfying results. TCRR I. Then Ron and I returned, a week later, and took on Tommy Cain from a certain ridge in Section 16, T15N R10E, which as seen on the Dutch Flat 7.5 minute quadrangle, has a surveyed elevation, on the ridge crest, of 3007'. On that occasion we had better luck, and found a portion of the TCRR, following it to its "upper crossing" of Tommy Cain, and then south and west towards the "main" FBT. TCRR II.

On this second reconnaissance we encountered major areas of manzanita and very steep slopes. We found a marijuana growers' operation, from some years ago, spread over large areas of the sunny manzanita-clad slopes, with many plastic pipes and one large plastic water tank.

Now, Dean Decker of the BLM at Folsom has investigated the course(s) of the Fords Bar Trail. Dean is an archeologist and has access to many of the old maps and original survey notes. After reading my account of TCRR II, Dean wrote to say that he did not believe the TCRR even existed, and cited the survey notes from the 1866 GLO cadastral survey, in part,

"From the corner of Sections 16, 17, 20, & 21, I run S86E on true line
between Sections 16 & 21 ...

18.00 ch (1188') Bottom of ravine running SE

28.38 ch (1873') Top of Ridge and Trail from Ford's Bar to Gold Run bearing
NW and SE; 5 ch (330') on course SE trail turns and runs S down ridge -
descends toward American River.

40.00 ch (2640') Set post for 1/4 Section corner ... Bluff becoming too
steep for measurement with chain, discontinue line."

So. The surveyor followed the section line east, until, as the slopes steepened in Tommy Cain, he gave up.

If one studies these notes, there is no escaping the conclusion that the TCRR as depicted on the 1866 map is not mentioned at all, while the "classic" or "main" Fords Bar Trail route is specifically mentioned, as it was crossed while following the line between sections 16 and 21. A certain ridge holds this classic FBT, and one sees this ridge on the Dutch Flat quadrangle in the SW 1/4 of Section 16, and the NW 1/4 of Section 21 to the south, said ridge contain a surveyed elevation of 2650' in the north part of Section 21.

Point 2650 is exactly where the surveyor records that "[the] trail turns and runs S[outh] down ridge--descends towards American River."

So it is a confusing situation. The 1866 map shows the FBT coming right up Tommy Cain Ravine itself, while the field notes made by the surveyor in 1866 put the trail up on the ridge (where it really should be!), to the west of Tommy Cain!

OK. A week ago I went out with Bob and Judy Suter on TCRR III. This was not much of an exploration, involving scouting a way down into Tommy Cain which avoided the horrible horrible infinite groves of elfin sunstruck manzanita. Bob and Judy wandered away and I followed bear trails through open forest, switchbacking down and down far enough to satisfy myself there was every chance of getting to the creek without major brush trouble.

This set the stage for TCRR IV.

Alex and Jerry and I made quick work of getting out to Point 3007 from the end of Garrett Road, staying on BLM land, and followed a bear trail south and west into open forest, and then a series of bear trails down into the depths of Tommy Cain. Suddenly we struck a truly major bear trail, beaten down to the bare dirt, striking steeply into the ravine. Following it, we found the reason why it was so well-used: a fine pool of water was right there where the trail reached the otherwise-dry creekbed.

We followed the creek down almost due south. Here I must confess to a major mistake in reckoning my position. I knew we were slightly south of the east-west center line of Section 16, and anticipated reaching, first, the confluence of two branches of Tommy Cain, and then, second, the crossing of the TCRR where Ron and I had followed it, on TCRR II.

The country rock there is the metasedimentary part of the Paleozoic Calaveras Complex, and the tipped-up-vertical strata strike due south, and Tommy Cain just follows along on strike. We had easy going, and noted a fair amount of garbage which had been swept down from the private residences upstream, probably during the January 1997 flood event.

I was looking, then, for the confluence of two branches of Tommy Cain. I saw it but decided it was not big enough to be "the" confluence I sought. This was my main mistake. There was no satellite coverage in the narrow bedrock channel, so no GPS to help, and moreover, I had neglected to bring my map.

I began to mutter that I worried we might walk right past the crossing Ron and I found in TCRR II, and right about then, we did walk right past it. Possibly I was distracted, just then, for we found evidence of gold mining in the alluvium of Tommy Cain itself, boulders stacked up neatly into walls alongside the channel, and so on; an old old shovel blade embedded in the bouldery sediments; and then a spur ridge was seen on the left, which I pointed out as a possible trail line.

I still wrongly believed we were upstream from "the" confluence. I wrongly believed we were, therefore, still upstream from the trail crossing found on TCRR II. We passed the spur ridge and came upon an old mining cabin site, a little flat hacked out above the creek, with a somewhat ornate wood cookstove standing in the middle of the flat. We paused to photograph the rusty old stove. I found an old human trail leading up from the cabin site, at first following the spur north, then winding away east on a gentler line.

We resumed our course down Tommy Cain, and soon found a larger mass of alluvium, a terrace, which likely was the reason for the cabin's existence, with deep mining pits pocking the terrace. We found a second cabin or tent site, with another wood stove, near the creek.

Water came to the surface and we descended steep, water-polished rock along the creek. I realized more and more clearly we had come too far south. The North Fork canyon began to appear before us, and then we hit a series of waterfalls which effectively barred further progress downstream.

We had passed the crossing of TCRR II and I had never even seen it.

A bear trail, predictably, climbed up and out of the narrow chasm, to the west, and since one of my objectives was to reach the ridge-crest west of Tommy Cain, where the "main" FBT as cited in the 1866 surveyor's field notes ran, we scrambled up the steep trail.

Almost immediately we hit what appeared to be a human trail. Some very small Douglas Fir branches had been cut along the thing, a couple or few years ago. We followed it south until it turned a ridge west out of Tommy Cain, and suddenly the North Fork canyon was visible. We could see east into Giant Gap and south towards the old bridge site on the FBT. I realized we had managed to drop much farther south, and much lower in elevation, than I had intended, and had not only passed the crossing of TCRR II, but we were to the south and below Point 2650 in Section 21.

Hundreds of feet below. So we retreated on the "possible human trail with the tiny lopped branches" and followed it north up Tommy Cain, about 200 feet above the creek. It mostly had the appearance of a series of bear trails someone had followed a few times. I hoped it would climb more steeply, but it took its sweet time, and finally we gave up on the thing, and struck away up the steep slopes, and, strangely, hit what can only be an old human trail. Its bed was much broader and its course more continuous than the bear trails we had been following. But this trail too did not climb enough towards the ridge above, and we left it on still another old human trail which led back south. This too did not climb steeply enough to put us on the ridge crest anytime soon, so we left it and struck east on a climbing traverse.

The sun was hot. It was the middle of the day. Resting in a tangle of fallen trees and manzanita and some fine Sugar Pines, with a view of Giant Gap and Black Mountain, up by Lake Valley reservoir, in the distance, Alex spotted a metal plate on a tree, which proved to be a BLM property line marker. It was on or near the boundary between sections 16 and 21. Not far from there we found a line hacked through the heavy old manzanita above us, and, following it up and to the south, reached Point 2650, also known as the Helipad.

Point 2650 is on the main line of the FBT, and has been heavily bulldozed. We followed down the ridge-crest to the southwest along the FBT, but I could discern no trace of the old trail, with all the bulldozing. We dropped down to the 2400-foot contour before retreating to Point 2650.

We had seen enough of Tommy Cain for one day and chose to just follow the ridge road north and eventually east to Garrett Road. This is apparently the main line of the Fords Bar Trail. However, the ridge crest had been bulldozed into a broad fire break, and no traces of a trail, distinct from the road itself, could be seen.

It was a long march in mainly full sun back to Garrett Road, where we turned back to the south to reach our vehicles, a half mile away. We stopped at the Indian grinding rock above the Diggings, hidden in the manzanita beside the road, before continuing past an old hydraulic mining reservoir, now dry, to our cars. We had made a long loop with much off-trail hiking and scrambling around on steep slopes, and were tired, but it had all happened in a little less than five hours.

We had, I think, somehow managed to never set foot on the trail Ron and I had found in TCRR II (except where we unwittingly crossed it while following the creek), but had, in exchange as it were, stumbled upon three or four other human trails, some quite old, and two cabin sites.

The Mystery of the Tommy Cain Ravine Route continues; it deepens; it proves intractable; it begs for further exploration.

Having hiked this area repeatedly, and GPSed my several paths, and compared many different maps, old and new, and plotted the boundaries of the public and private lands over much of this area, I am reminded of how very very important it is that the BLM, somehow, some way, acquires ever so much of the private lands out there as is possible. The private lands in Section 21 should have a high priority, along with the 40-acre chunk of private in the SW 1/4 of Section 16. Private lands in Section 29 to the west must also be considered important.

Across the canyon, private lands near the head of the Blue Wing Trail are likely critical to the future of that trail. And of course, the Gold Run Diggings itself, and Canyon Creek, are tremendously important.

How in the world can the BLM ever find the money to purchase any of these lands? What do we as citizens need to do to forward the process? How can we make a case for land acquisition outside the narrow Wild & Scenic River corridor, which hitherto has been the guiding rationale for BLM land acquisitions in the North Fork canyon? The North Fork canyon, and all we love about it, is so much more than a narrow strip along the river itself. What of the viewshed? Do we want to have any chance at all of maintaining the fine views of Giant Gap and Lovers Leap and Moody Ridge, from the Iowa Hill side of the canyon? And add to these classic views, the views more directly across the canyon, towards Gold Run and Point 2650. As things stand now, there are enough private parcels within this North Fork canyon "viewshed" to severely impact the views, once residential development occurs.

For, as everyone knows, fire is king in the canyon, hence, if a house is built near, one must needs bulldoze all the vegetation away, to protect that house. And of course, one obtains a million-dollar-view as a corollary to that bulldozing proposition, and that's all to the good, one's portfolio is all the fatter, with some great chunk of Placer County's heritage crammed in.

I don't know what to do.

Howsoever. It was another great day in the North Fork canyon, tho we never caught sight of the sparkling clear river, itself.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Wabena Trail, West Branch

I met Ron Gould early Monday morning for a drive up Foresthill Road, to find and explore the West Branch of the Wabena Trail. We lost hte pavement at Robinson Flat, and a little more than eight miles brought us into the headwaters of Wabena Creek, to the unmarked trailhead.

We parked and set out down the trail with loppers in hand. The day was fresh and cool and hinted of Fall. A mining road switches back and forth, the trail almost insensibly forks away north, and soon one reaches a rocky point, offering great views into the Royal Gorge, Snow Mountain, Devils Peak (a tiny spike from this angle), and then also east to the Sierra Crest.

Wabena Point, with its petroglyphs, stood a scant mile to the east. The trail leaves the rocky knoll bearing northeast and plunges north down the canyon wall, into a miasma of heavy brush. Commonest is the Huckleberry Oak, but cherry bushes, and currants, and manzanita, and Ceanothus, were well represented. This main trunk of the Wabena Trail is seldom used, and despite repeated passes with loppers over recent years, is still badly overgrown in many places.

A descent of about 1200 feet, to an elevation of 5200', brings one to the vicinity of a mine shaft shown on the USGS 7.5 minute Royal Gorge quadrangle. The North Fork is still well below, around 3600' elevation. Near the mine shaft, which I have still never found, the West Brnach of the trail forks away from the main trail, which breaks northeast and crosses Wabena Creek itself, near some waterfalls, before continuing down to the river. A tributary of Wabena Creek is near the mine shaft.

We scouted the tributary, which is quite steep and cliff-bound, looking for a crossing, found one, and pushed northwest onto steep slopes with cliffs, big patches of brush, scattered patches of timber, talus slides, and many tantalizing ledges and bear trails which all seemed to lead nowhere at all.

To make a long story short, we searched for hours, gradually making down the canyon wall to the northwest, as the trail must, as it passes beneath the cliffs of Wildcat Point; we found any number of possible trails, but never a cairn, never an old lopped branch, and never any kind of rock work, to suggest a human trail. At last we could commit ourselves no farther; we descended quite ways, hoping that perhaps our lost trail followed a lower line than we'd expected, but, no.

I believe the trail is there, but that, unaccountably, we missed it.

We were exhausted. The long slog up to the truck wore us down to nothing, but we could not pass by Wildcat Point without a visit, driving out the unmarked logging road to one of the very best of all the best scenic overlooks flanking the North Fork canyon. We were three thousand feet above the river, and could see Wabena Falls (on the main river) plainly, with is large pool back with depth, and even hear the falls. Snow Mountain was directly across from us, and as the sun lowered to setting, the great thousand-foot-high talus piles skirting its base, along the river, were brought into sharp relief by the light streaming east up the canyon. Big Valley Bluff, a 3500-foot cliff some six miles down the canyon, was almost lost in a glowing haze around the sun.

It was another great day in the great canyon, but, strangely, we found ourselves baffled in finding the West Branch of the Wabena Trail.

We probably struck its line a few times without even realizing it.

Friday, September 3, 2004

The 1866 Tommy Caine Route, Revisited

After Wednesday's mixed results in finding the 1866 Tommy Cain Ravine Route (TCRR), of the Fords Bar Trail, going from the North Fork, up, Ron Gould and I drove out to Gold Run and south on Garrett Road to try to find the TCRR from the top, down.

Well, not exactly that, but like that.

On the Dutch Flat 7.5 minute quadrangle, note the ridge in the center of Section 16, T15N R10E. It so happens that almost the entire eastern 1/2 of Section 16 is public land, mostly BLM, but with a chunk of strange California State Lands thrown in for curiosity's sake (see the Tahoe National Forest "big" map: this parcel is shaded blue). On this ridge is a surveyed point with elevation 3007 feet.

We found a rough route to the center of Section 16, found a sign marking the State boundary, almost on the 3000-foot contour, and made a series of explorations off the end of the ridge, through some of the deadliest manzanita I have ever seen. It ranged from huge and elfin-forest-like, in which case one could often slither through somehow (possibly by crawling), to young and stringy, in which case it made an impenetrable thicket. Bear trails were common in more open areas, of which there were many, but in my mind's eye it is all manzanita, and all bad. Bad manzanita!

Off the main spur south of Point 3007 we found The Groove, that clearest of all trail-lines we had seen Wednesday; clear, but really too steep to be a trail, and likely as not marking the route mining equipment had been skidded down to the North Fork a century or so ago. We climbed back up and regrouped.

To make a long long story somewhat short, our final foray invited us to descend, lower and lower, through a convenient gap in that horror of manzanita. My best guess as to the upper crossing of Tommy Cain on the 1866 TCRR was that it occurred near the 2400-foot contour. At a certain point we steeled ourselves to drop just that low.

Canyon Live Oak forest, with rare old Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Fir, and patches of severe manzanita on every side, allowed our descent on quite steep slopes, in the heat of the early afternoon. Beguiling bear trails were everywhere, often, over a distance of fifty or one hundred feet, resembling old human trails. But then the bear trail would split into smaller trails, and these were positively inhuman.

We found more marijuana growers' garbage; plastic pipes, chicken wire, even a 1000-gallon plastic tank.

Finally we dropped to the 2400-foot-contour, and by golly, we found the old thing, the 1866 TCRR. In appearance it was much like the best of all bear trails we had seen, but what set it apart was that it continued, and continued, and continued, unsplit, undiminished, a narrow track, often six inches wide at best, but, after walking it for a few hundred yards, there was no doubt. It was the TCRR and it was making for Tommy Cain Ravine.

We followed it up to the crossing, a little higher than I'd guessed, perhaps 2480' elevation, and found it continuing on the far side, plain as could be.

At a certain point over there it seemed to fork into higher and lower lines, and we could see we were within an ace of converging upon the crest of the ridge dividing Tommy Cain from the ravine-to-the-west. This ridge would then be followed on up north, and then finally, the TCRR would break east to the old-time intersection with Garrett Road: in 1866, the Road From the Mines. For Garrett is quite an old road, and led right on down to Indiana Ravine, the site of the original discovery of gold in the high Eocene-age river gravels of the Gold Run Diggings, in 1851 or 1852.

My time had run out, I had to pick up my son from school, so we retreated back down the TCRR and then up and up and up to the State Lands sign and our secret bear trail over to Garrett. I was only five minutes late.

It was quite a satisfying day.. A trail which is depicted on an 1866 map, but on no later map that we know of, was found, still passable after all these years. I saw not one faint sign that it had been used by humans for any number of decades. No old cut branches, no nothing.

It was a great, albeit brushy, day, around Point 3007 and Tommy Cain Ravine.

More exploration is needed.

Thursday, September 2, 2004

The Tommy Cain Ravine Route

Wednesday morning I met Ron Gould, and we threw light packs and loppers into his trusty old Toyota 4WD truck, and drove out the Iowa Hill Road from Colfax, to Roach Hill and the Truro Mine Road, thence to the North Fork of the American. We aimed to explore Tommy Cain Ravine and discover the line of the trail labeled "Trail From Ford's Bar" on the 1866 General Land Office map.

Tommy Cain Ravine heads up south of Gold Run and west of Garrett Road. From the North Fork to its sources it measures some three miles in length, thus slightly exceeding nearby Sheldon Ravine and Indiana Ravine to the east. To the west, its headwaters adjoin Secret Ravine, a much larger beast, and its lower reaches are divided from an unnamed ravine by a flat-crested narrow ridge, which figures into the presumably later-era "Ridge Route" to Fords Bar.

Now, Fords Bar itself is a glacial outwash terrace of the most recent vintage, dating to the so-called "Tioga" episode of glaciation. The terrace best expressed on the south side of the river, its flat top about 60 feet above river level, and is of the same genesis and age as Pickering Bar, a couple miles upstream. Such terraces do not derive from the present flow and sediment regimes of the North Fork, but are relics of the times, ending 12,000 years ago, when a mighty glacier occupied to upper canyon, and fed drastic amounts of bouldery sediments to the river, overwhelming its ability to transport those sediments.

Hence a kind of narrow floodplain grew within the canyon, which seems to have existed all the way down to the Sacramento Valley. When the glacier melted away, sediment load decreased to modern levels, and the river was quick to nick back down to bedrock. Where conditions were favorable, remnants of this narrow, canyon-bound floodplain persist as terraces, which the 49ers named "bars."

So far as the ancient bedrock, Pickering Bar seems to mark the transition from the metavolcanic part of the Calaveras Complex, as seen upstream in Giant Gap, to the metasedimentary part, which is more finely divided and slaty and more easily eroded. Hence the canyon suddenly widens, and we can note the contrast between an almost complete absence of glacial outwash deposits in Giant Gap, and an almost continuous presence of glacial outwash, from Pickering Bar, down to Fords Bar.

The outwash deposits were attacked through several episodes of mining. We can divide the early efforts of the 49ers from the later efforts of the Chinese, and still later, in the 1890s, mining resumed at Pickering Bar, and some mining of these high gravels probably took place yet again in the 1930s. The Truro Placer Mine, south of the river and embracing much of a tributary named Wolverine Canyon on old maps, is notable because here, still older deposits of glacial outwash are preserved, much higher above the river, as high as 400 feet. These deposits are red with age, for the iron in the sediments has had much time to oxidize. The high outwash of Wolverine Canyon has no equivalent that I know of, up the canyon, until Green Valley; tho we might well expect to find at least some small patches of this older, redder stuff above Pickering Bar. But I have never climbed up to see at Pickering. These patches of high outwash may date from one of the so-called "Tahoe" episodes of glaciation, around 65,000 and 130,000 years ago.

The Truro Mine Road is a nasty piece of business, often scored deeply by gullies running down the course of the road. We saw plenty of recent tracks. 4WD is a must. If water bars are not cut in soon, this road will wash out altogether. The North Fork runs a little below the 1400-foot contour, and on the road, as one approaches the 1800-foot contour, a trail forks away to the east, from a rare flat area. This rather major trail leads up the canyon towards Pickering Bar.

We, however, drove on down the road, passing what I think of as the main upriver trail connecting Fords and Pickering bars, and then a strange tree Ron identified as an Osage Orange, to a little flat piece of outwash terrace perhaps 100 feet above the river, where an abundance of Vinca and a gigantic Canyon Live Oak, with a little terrace above the oak, and a much larger terrace below, mark an old house site. Some old apple trees were scattered on the larger, lower terrace. We parked, and I whipped out my GPS unit, and in rather short order I found that I had been mistaken for many years about the location of what was named Ford's Bridge, on early maps, and the Warner Bridge, on later maps; for I had placed it farther downstream, but a careful comparison of the ca. 1890 mineral plat showing the Warner Bridge and Warner's Toll House, with the modern Dutch Flat quadrangle, had allowed me to scale off some distances taken from the former, onto the latter, and store waypoints in the GPS unit.

And thus I discovered that this Giant Oak Terrace was the site of both bridge and toll house. The other bridge site, a quarter mile or so down the canyon, is shown on the ca. 1890 mineral plat, and marked "Wire Bridge." I had always mistakenly assumed that to be the Warner Bridge site.

We scanned the far side of the river, or actually, the cliffs at an equal elevation, and saw faint signs of the long-vanished bridge, in a certain flat spot, and what might have been sections of trail. We were most interested, however, in the Tommy Cain Ravine route (TCRR). The 1866 map shows the TCRR descending the east side of the ravine to near the North Fork, then crossing the ravine to follow the river itself down to Ford's Bridge.

From Giant Oak Terrace, or maybe we should call it the Bridge Terrace, Ron and I followed a lower trail which leads upriver, and eventually climbs and connects up to the main upriver trail. We had good views across the North Fork and were not encouraged by what we saw. It took an actual effort of the imagination to believe that a major trail had ever existed, although there was what seemed to be a game trail, enhanced by occasional human use, at what had to be the "right" level. We climbed to the main upriver trail and continued up towards Tommy Cain Ravine, the better part of a mile from the Bridge Terrace. At a certain point we passed the "high trail coming down from the flat on the road above the 1800-foot-contour," which down here, as it had above, looked to be a very broad and well-built trail, tho rarely ever used. Then the main upriver trail began lowering (it attempts to follow a level line, about 100 or 150 feet above the river, but must rise and fall as much as a hundred feet, to accommodate itself to the realities of the topography), and at an especially low spot, a side trail led away to the river.

Various little mining sites located in small sections of glacial outwash were passed, various little flats which may have once held cabins, and then we reached a cable across the river, with an ancient plank suspended from a pair of pulleys. We were certain to be in the vicinity of Tommy Cain Ravine, and of a cabin shown on the ca. 1890 mineral plat, labeled "Griffin Cabin." GPS readings confirmed this. A likely crossing appeared upstream, and we walked on up and hopped from boulder to boulder and began looking for our ravine.

It proved elusive. We scrambled up the bare rock beside the river into a welter of vegetation where old trail lines were common, but often could only be followed a few feet at a time. I was beguiled by a faint trail continuing up the North Fork, and crossed Tommy Cain without even realizing it. It has unusually poor expression, as a topographic entity, near river level. Ron stayed behind and scouted up and found the ravine. After GPS revealed I had gone too far up the river, I retreated, found Ron, and we visited the Griffin Cabin site, following the line of an old mining ditch across almost imperceptible Tommy Cain Ravine.

The cabin site is located upon, yes, another outwash terrace, and there is quite a bit of modern garbage strewn about. Above the cabin terrace quite a number of shallow gullies, fairly well forested, evidence heavy mining of outwash deposits, perhaps from the Chinese Era of mining. Since our 1866 map was made during the waning years of that era, two possibilities existed for the line of the TCRR: a lower line, crossing the Griffin Terrace, or a higher line, staying above these mining gullies. The higher line seemed likelier to me, so I scouted high, while Ron hewed to Tommy Cain Ravine itself. Somehow we would find the trail crossing, if it existed.

For my part I found plenty of game trails, some of which seemed human-enhanced, but nothing to get too excited about. By shouting back and forth we could communicate our lack of significant findings. I could not discount that the trail might follow a rather high line and kept on climbing whenever possible. Some rather well-defined human trail segments appeared and disappeared. Then I spotted a good possibility above, and scrambled up the steep slopes, slippery with live oak leaves, to find a small mining ditch. It was of an elevation, easily 250 feet above the North Fork, to have supplied the water which had carved the mining gullies above Griffin Terrace. I followed it up into Tommy Cain, and noted that in its smallness it could tolerate a steeper grade than can the larger ditches. It made an excellent trail and, reaching the creek, I found a pool of water in what was otherwise a dry creek-bed.

A trail climbed out of the little gorge on the far side, plain as could be, and I felt quite sure that this was the TCRR. Ron scrambled on up and we rested. The day was warm to hot, and a strong warm breeze wafted up the ravine. We GPSed our positions, found ourselves just south of the north boundary of Section 21, and continued climbing.

The trail seemed to angle up and away from Tommy Cain, rather than paralleling the creek, and soon enough seemed to degenerate into a game trail. On the one hand, we could see that Tommy Cain itself was flanked by especially steep and cliffy ground unsuited for a trail, so we must needs stay away from it; but how far away?

So we zigged and zagged back and forth, closer to the ravine, then farther, then closer, and climbed and climbed and climbed. We were in a fairly open forest dominated by Canyon Live Oak and some Douglas Fir, California Bay Laurel, and rare small Torreya. We found very little if anything which we could call a human trail, no matter how old and disused and overgrown. However, we did find plastic pipe, etc. from an old marijuana growing operation. We crossed the lines of two more old mining ditches, one surprisingly high. Eventually we got up to easier terrain at about the 2200-foot contour, 800 feet above the river, and rested. We were fairly near Tommy Cain. Above us, brushy areas began to infest the forest. Since I had to be in Alta by 3:45, time was running out. After a rest, we scouted away from Tommy Cain, worming through brush here and there, and allowing ourselves to drop lower when necessary. Suddenly more distinct signs of a trail appeared; Ron picked up a semi-new glass liquor bottle. The trail seemed to drop straight down the faint crest of a ridge paralleling Tommy Cain, in Section 16, which shows a surveyed elevation of 3007 feet, on the Dutch Flat quadrangle.

This ridge was of special interest to us since a 1947 Tahoe National Forest map showed a trail dropping to the North Fork on this very ridge.

I found the remains of an ancient automobile seat, which looked to have been cooked in one or more wildfires, the seat possibly dating to the 1920s. We had clearly struck some kind of trail. However, the best-defined line of the thing followed straight down the steeply-plunging ridge; it seemed too steep for loaded pack animals, and too steep for a human to reasonably use, in the uphill direction. Occasionally, side trails made switchbacks away from the ridge trail, and then back to it. Some of these were certainly human trails. And, we came across lopped branches in places, where we had hit the line of the ridge trail on the way up.

Generally speaking, it is easier to find and follow overgrown old trails like this when traveling downhill, than uphill.

Often the trail could not be followed, because of brush or fallen trees, but it made a well-defined groove on the ridge crest. We speculated that it may have been used to skid mining equipment down to the river. Down and down we went, reaching the lowest ditch at the same level as Griffin Terrace, and from the Terrace, a short distance away, we found a trail down to the river at our original crossing point, crossed, and hiked back to the truck, almost a mile away.

We were scratched and hot and dirty and sweating. As we walked back to the Bridge Terrace, we noted even clearer signs of the old TCRR paralleling the North Fork, across the river. We were inclined to think that we had indeed discover the TCRR up above, on the ridge just east of Tommy Cain Ravine, but a complete confirmation of the 1866 route must await further exploration. From our highest point, where the terrain begins to ease off, and the steep slopes give way to, well, at least less-steep slopes, we would expect the 1866 route, the TCRR, to leave the ridge, and following a climbing traverse of the slopes flanking the ravine itself, to the upper crossing. We had reached a point not much more than a quarter-mile from the upper crossing, as shown on the 1866 map.

If the 1947 TNF map is to be trusted, then our ridge trail should have continued right up to Point 3007. We must have climbed quite near to where the 1866 and 1947 routes diverged.

Since the east half of Section 16 is public land, it should be possible, from the end of Garrett Road, to work out a route on public land which reaches Point 3007, and from there, our "Ridge 3007" trail drops right down to the river. We think it possible that the too-steep Ridge 3007 trail is in fact flanked almost everywhere by switchbacked routes which ease the grade, but we found only a few such routes.

I myself believe that the TCRR as depicted on the 1866 GLO map does cross Tommy Cain Ravine about 250 feet above the elevation of the North Fork, and used that very mining ditch I followed into the ravine, to break out of the ravine into the main canyon, aiming downstream, for Ford's Bridge. It should, therefore, be found to leave the line of the ditch and drop closer to river level, probably not far from Griffin Terrace.

If one were to ask, just how much might a major trail be erased by erosion, etc., were it unmaintained for over 100 years, perhaps the answer is that section of the TCRR, as it follows the North Fork on down to the bridge site. I look forward to walking it. I also want to explore the trail leading away west from the Ford's/Warner bridge site, on the north side of the river. This would appear to form the lower part of the "ridge route" west of Tommy Cain Ravine, a more recent (than 1866) alignment of the Fords Bar Trail.

Such was the result of an expedition to Tommy Cain Ravine.