Saturday, October 9, 2004

Sawtalian Trail V

Friday Ron Gould and I drove up to Emigrant Gap, out Forest Road 19 past Texas Hill and Burnett Canyon to Sawtooth Ridge, and parked on the edge of the North Fork canyon at an ugly log deck area, where, by all considerations of old maps, i.e., the Waldemar Lindgren Colfax Folio, and topography, i.e., the modern Westville quadrangle, the head of the lost Sawtalian Trail must be. We were in the SW 1/4 of Section 29, T16N, R12E, quite near surveyed elevation 5076'.

Our best efforts to transfer the line of the Sawtalian from Lindgren's map to the Westville quadrangle had suggested that we hew rather to the east, at the very top, than a little west, where years ago Tom Molloy and I discovered what surely seemed to be an old human trail, dropping into a magical grove of Kelloggs Black Oak and ancient Ponderosa Pine. This grove occupies a broad bench or terrace in glacial till, much like what one sees on the south side of the North Fork, along the main Italian Bar Trail, but here, at least, graced by many exotic boulders of granite, dragged down the North Fork canyon from many miles east. The bench is about 300 feet below the rim of the canyon, where we'd parked.

So we hewed to the east. Descending rough steep ground with no hint of an old trail, we reached the more eastern continuation of that same bench, and, bearing west, but giving up elevation southwards towards the river, we scouted back and forth, in search of the Sawtalian.

We left the lovely bench with its magical grove for steep slopes below, without glacial till, cloaked in Canyon Live Oak and some Douglas Fir with a somewhat unusual proportion of Torreya californica, California Nutmeg. All this area had burned in the Helicopter Fire, when nearby Section 31 had been logged, by Sierra Pacific Industries, as I would think. There were stumps scattered all across this steep terrain. We found the going quite tough. Often we spread apart to cover more ground, occasionally getting beyond shouting distance, but always reconvening every once in a while. There was never any good news to report. A game trail or two, but no old human trail.

After a descent of 1500 feet over this difficult ground, Ron was to the east, I was to the west, and tracts of Ceanothus, Deerbrush, began to cover large areas, all having seeded in or stump-sprouted after the Helicopter Fire. These brush groves were close to impassable, so my route, at least, became governed by gaps in the Ceanothus. The best gaps lead me gradually onto a small ridge, where, to my delight, a faint trail appeared, better by far than anything I had seen. I shouted out to Ron and heard a faint reply in the distance, east, and we managed to agree to meet at a flat bench visible a few hundred feet below.

At this bench we had lunch and scouted widely for some sign of the trail. GPS showed that we were near to our plotted route of the Sawtalian, in fact, the ridge I had followed was directly on this plotted route. So that was satisfying. However, the combination of helicopter logging on the bench, and fire-fighting efforts, made it quite difficult to read the terrain. For instance, the firefighters had made many small fire lines, chopping into the ground with their Pulaskis, tools which are like giant hoes and rakes combined. These fire lines looked much like faint trails. So we wandered about and scouted up and down and every which way. Our elevation at this particular bench was 3200'. South and slightly east we could see yet another bench, and I was gratified, on one of my explorations, to see the very "trough trail" I had found last Wednesday, near a ferny ravine, in the NW 1/4 of the SE 1/4 of Section 31. This is on yet another bench, slightly lower than the one we could easily see below us to the southeast.

Reluctant to give up any more elevation, tho, we decided to check out the Ridge Trail, and ended up following it all the way to the top, reaching the Magical Grove on the Upper Bench exactly where the "faint human trail" leading west and south from Point 5076 had always seemed to mysteriously end.

We were satisfied that we had, indeed, found the old Sawtalian Trail. It is much much less well-defined than the Sawbug Trail, a few miles west. This makes sense on several counts. The Sawbug is closer to sources of supplies, for instance, Dutch Flat, or Foresthill. The Sawbug had the benefit of a bridge across the North Fork, at Humbug Bar. And the Sawbug follows an easier grade than the Sawtalian. This all combines to explain why the Sawbug shows often amazingly large dry-laid stone walls, while the Sawtalian has essentially no rock work at all, and, even worse, on the ridge-crest part of its course--the "main" part of the Sawtalian--shows no sign of ever having been a "constructed" trail in any way shape or form.

As Ron remarked, the Sawtalian is kind of like a country road to the Sawbug's highway.

So. A two-thousand-foot climb brought us to Ron's truck around 4:30 p.m. On the way out we stopped at the easternmost, highest sawtooth of Sawtooth Ridge, and crossed ugly bulldozer-ravaged White Fir forest to the south-facing, North Fork side of the ridge, where truly wonderful views are had of the upper canyon. There was Big Valley Bluff, Snow Mountain, and even Tinkers Knob, on the left; and the Tadpole Canyon cliffs, Wildcat Point, Wabena Point, and Lyon and Needle peaks on the right. We could also see Duncan Peak itself, and the north end of the Mildred Ridge, near Picayune Valley.

A trail, routed near the top of these open, south-facing slopes, would provide an alternate to following the Sawtooth Road itself, east and west along the ridge. And such a trail would offer some of the best views in all Placer County.

I saw it remarked, on a rafting web site, that some people think of the North Fork American as the most beautiful river *in the world*. This seems to be carrying the point a little far, but I'm not the one to argue with them. It is beautiful, quite exceptionally so; its canyon is beautiful, beyond any of my words. Wild & Scenic River status is all very nice, but it seems far from enough. I have advocated Wilderness designation for the North Fork American "roadless area" since 1976. This would be a good thing. This would respect the truly exceptional qualities of this great river and great canyon.

But even this would fall short of what really must be done. When, in the year 2004, bulldozers can casually obliterate one of the most historic trails leading into the great canyon--the Big Granite Trail--when egomaniacs can build houses beside Giant Gap and, again, use bulldozers to clear all vegetation below them, for their million-dollar views--these are just a couple of the attacks on our heritage, on the North Fork, which should tell us, beyond any doubt, that the time is already long past when the stewards of our public lands, Tahoe National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management, should be working feverishly, constantly, to acquire the private inholdings in the region surrounding the North Fork.

For it is not just the wild and roadless areas, mainly within the great canyon, which we ought to protect, but regions flanking this wild "core" area--regions like the Gold Run Diggings, Sawtooth Ridge, the North Fork of the North Fork, Lost Camp, Big Valley, Sugar Pine Point, Big and Little Granite creeks, Snow Mountain, Devils Peak, Palisade Creek--just to name a few.

Later we visited Texas Hill, where some old patented mining claims are nestled within TNF lands. Apparently the owner recently convinced TNF that the historic public roads which cross his property should be closed to The Public, and remain open only to him. We walked around, and saw some of the hard-rock gold mining activity near I.T. Coffin's Texas Hill cabin site, and saw the new little cabin and trailer which has so inspired Tahoe National Forest to block our old public roads. We had some amazing views to the west, of Giant Gap, the Pinnacle Ridge, and Lovers Leap, in the sunset hour. We also got all too good a look at a clearcut on very steep ground flanking the East Fork (of the North Fork of the North Fork), in Section 17, T16N R12E.

It was yet another very nice day in the great canyon.

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