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.

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