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.

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