Friday, December 17, 2004

Return to Canyon Creek

Yesterday morning I met Catherine O'Riley, at last returned from Europe and Jordan, and Patrick Kavanaugh, for a visit to Canyon Creek. This was Patrick's first experience of this remarkable place, so we decided upon the Grand Tour. However, these short days, so close to the Solstice, tend to reduce the scope of what may be done in the way of hiking, and we really only touched a few of the high points. It was to be, then, only the Semi-Grand Tour.

Under this winter fair-weather regime which brings day after day of fog to the Central Valley, and nothing but sun to the Sierra, we of course had nothing but sun. We stopped to see the giant drain tunnel of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co., nine feet high, twelve feet wide, which carried tailings from the hydraulic mines to Canyon Creek. We stopped at Waterfall View. The Leaper has now stopped its leaping, as less water flows in Canyon Creek than did a week ago, following the last storm.

Down the steepening trail past Gorge Point, we took the Six Inch Trail, one of the old sluice-box-access trails from mining days, into the Inner Gorge. To my astonishment, we scared off a passel of pigeons from the most recondite part of the chasm below. It is difficult to describe this twisting inner gorge, with its hidden waterfalls and polished rock sides. It makes a corkscrew plunging descent to the top of the Big Waterfall, where Canyon Creek leaps boldly into space, after being trapped in the dark caves of the gorge above.

An off-trail shortcut brought us to the creek just below the Big Waterfall, only just being touched by the morning sun. Then down the little waterfall trail to The Terraces, where the men who tended the sluice boxes which once lined Canyon Creek had their main camp. I had mentioned finding the Brewer's Rock Cress in bloom at Lovers Leap, and had carefully examined the cliffs at Gorge Point, where this species first blooms along the main trail. Nothing. I reminded Catherine of the yet-earlier-blooming species, the California Milkmaid, of the genus Cardamine, also in the Mustard Family, which we have often seen in flower at the Terraces in January, even early January.

So we kept our eyes peeled in case some further freak of nature might occur. We saw young Milkmaids, but no blooms. Leaving our packs at the Terraces, we took the side trail to the creek, crossed easily, and had a look at the three waterfalls directly below the Terraces.

Upon our return I noticed, right beside our packs, several Milkmaids in full bloom, and many about to bloom. So, a new record: the spring bloom in Canyon Creek has now been seen to begin as early as December 16!

Lower Terraces Trail took us back to the Canyon Creek Trail just above the hidden High Old Upriver Trail or HOUT, and we decided to ramble the HOUT on up the canyon, which was quite nice, in the full sun of the early afternoon. We walked beyond Bogus Spur to the fork in the trail where one can either keep to the HOUT or drop down to the river just west of Big West Spur. We chose the river, and had a long break beside the sparkling clear stream, so embossed with sunshine downstream, so bright, one could scarcely look at it. Just upstream, the river emerged from the shadows of Giant Gap, and a cool breeze wafted over us, heavy cold air flowing down the canyon, near river level.

This reversal of the usual fair-weather regime of (warm) up-canyon anabatic winds during the day, and (cold) down-canyon katabatic winds during the night, is interesting. I wondered whether this katabatic river of cold air, at midday, was continuous, all the way down the canyon, or just an artifact of the shadowed gorge upstream.

Whatever the case, it was pleasant to leave the cold air near the river, and make a scramble up the sunny slopes of Big West Spur to regain the HOUT. Just above the river of cold air lies much warmer air. It was likely all of seventy degrees at the HOUT, and probably below sixty degrees at the river. A classic temperature inversion (for usually air is colder with increasing elevation).

Then followed the long and intricate and delightful walk back west. When we reached the Canyon Creek Trail all was in the shadow of Diving Board Ridge. A slow slog up the steep trail brought us to the trailhead at about 4:15.

It was a perfect day in the great canyon of the North Fork.

Monday, December 13, 2004

A Walk on the Wild Side

I visited Lovers Leap with a few friends on Sunday. South of Dutch Flat and Alta on Moody Ridge, this tremendous cliff rises nearly 2400' above the North Fork American, at Giant Gap. The main mass of Moody Ridge trends northeast-southwest, dividing Canyon Creek from the North Fork, parallel to both--tho Canyon Creek bends south to join the North Fork, around the southwest end of Moody Ridge. And from the main mass of the ridge, with its nearly level cap of volcanic mudflow, a lobe of highlands extends south.

At the very southern tip of this lobe is Lovers Leap. Access is had from I-80 at the Alta exit. On the south side of the freeway take the frontage road, Casa Loma, east, turning right on Moody Ridge road, and then in a mile or so, left on Lovers Leap road, until it ends at a turn-around, elevation 4139'. A trail leads south down to the overlook. We instead turned aside to visit "Lazy Man's Lovers Leap," an east-facing clifftop near the turn-around. Snow peaks from near Bowman Lake on the north, to the Crystal Range on the south, were in view, along with the main North Fork canyon, leading up past Snow Mountain to Tinkers Knob.

Parenthetically, there are several "Lovers Leaps" in California, and no fewer than eight in Missouri. All kinds of crazy romantic legends are attached to these many Leaps; some say such fables go back at the least to Sappho, a poetess of ancient Greece.

A patch of public, BLM lands barely includes the rim of the canyon here, and for a half mile west. The usual contrast between a repeatedly-logged forest of smaller trees (private), and an unlogged forest of larger trees (BLM), is seen along the boundary.

The BLM built an ugly little concrete block building near the turn-around a few years ago. It houses a radio repeater, and some solar panels are mounted on a mast above the building. Perversely, the panels aim north, away from the sun. For some reason, a large Incense Cedar was felled just above the building, which now is much more visible than it had been.

High clouds covered most of the sky and a weak sunshine sometimes filtered through. I had hoped for full sun, for the complex architecture of Giant Gap needs shadows to evoke its stunning relief.

Our goal was to explore cliffy regions to the west of the Leap itself.

When seen in profile from the east or west, the great rock blade of Lovers Leap shows two large "steps" high on the blade, but below the overlook. First we aimed for the Upper Step. I knew that it was well-guarded by brush, and in years past had worked out the very best sequence of gaps in the brush and rocky ledges, to approach Upper Step from the west. Confidently I led us into the wrong gaps through the brush, and over the wrong ledges. We did eventually arrive. In the shade of the far-flung clouds a cool breeze made us shiver. A distinct edge could be seen bounding the cloud mass perhaps a hundred miles west. It could be hoped that the clouds would move to the east, as is their wont, and, in an hour or two, the unmasked sun would warm up our world of cliffs.

We could look right down on the white fog filling the Sacramento Valley and the Delta, an unusually deep fog ocean, lapping well up into the Sierra foothills, with only the very highest ridge crests peeking out, in the Coast Range north of San Francisco. Even Mt. Diablo, usually standing well above the winter fog across the Delta, was hidden.

A strange slot-like cave may be reached with all due difficulty by descending an impossibly steep and cliff-bound ravine to the west, and then circling around the base of a gigantic rock blade. One can see this cave from the Pinnacles, across the canyon. Then again, from the ravine itself, a deep crack in the cliff can be entered, and once with a friend I went deeply west inside the cliff, and reached another crack which led south and dropped into a series of narrow caves, before exiting to the south. In search of crack and cave we wandered west along the mossy ledges.

Entering the ravine high, we found ourselves on a steeply-plunging bear trail. Our local Black Bears take on some surprisingly steep terrain. Perhaps the exertion loosens their mighty bowels, for bear poop was abundant.

The ravine drops so steeply that out-and-out rock climbing is sometimes required. Cliffs pinch in on both sides. We were sheltered from the wind down there, and then the cloud mass did in fact drift past, and the pure sun warmed the cliffs rapidly. To my amazement we found the Brewer's Rock Cress, Arabis breweri, in bloom. I often see this species begin bloom in February, on the warmest cliffs along the Canyon Creek Trail. And once upon one sunny day, on January 1st, 1976, I found it in bloom on Lovers Leap itself, after driving miles through deep snow.

I remember crouching over the purple flowers, on the very edge of the eery precipice, with my old friend Greg Troll. "It's clearly in the Mustard Family," I was exclaiming, "but is it an Arabis, or a Draba?" And exactly then a diminutive Asian goddess leaped down from the rocks above to join us, a bright young sprite who knew wildflowers well; and she shared in our exclamations and wonderings. And that was Fate, and another story altogether.

And now, on December 12th? Brewer's Rock Cress? That's verging upon a Freak of Nature. The deep purple flowers were clearly brand new, not any kind of hold-over from the summer season. In fact, these Rock Cress flowers rather quickly set seed and drop away, after blooming.

Well. Microclimate is everything. And these past few days have been unusually warm, here in the Sierra.

Read, by the way, William H. Brewer's "Up and Down California in 1860-64," a true classic of the Golden State.

I never could find my mysterious crack cave. We lost a few hundred feet of elevation before following the bear trail right around the base of the rock blade, to a point below the main cave. An overhanging cliff rises on the west side of the thing, rather unsettling in appearance. A steep climb leads to the cave itself. We considered the matter carefully and decided that we could see it well enough from a distance.

The climb up and out was much easier, tho we had to pause for rest after especially steep sections. Hmmm. Come to think of it, they were all steep. We had great views into Giant Gap, with portions of the river visible, and could see Big West Spur, Bogus Spur, and the Diving Board, among the many many interlacing spur ridges flanking the canyon. Soon we were back at Upper Step and, after regrouping, and snacking, we headed west for what has been called Little Lovers Leap.

We noticed that quite a lot of firewood had been cut along the steep "fire road" leading west on BLM lands. As the road leveled out and bent north into Lovers Leap Ravine, we heard a chainsaw and found two men with a pickup truck gathering more firewood. They seemed to be taking only dead and down wood.

Dropping due west into Lovers Leap Ravine, we found the main bear trail down in its shaded forest depths, crossed the brook, and climbed though a stand of tall Ponderosa Pines, Douglas Fir, and Sugar Pine, to an old mining ditch. Following this south, we soon reach Little Lovers Leap, where little terraces had been blasted from the cliffs to allow for a wooden flume.

More fine views. The day was waning. Ron and I followed the ditch west, until we reached the end of the BLM lands and the first of about ten parcels of private property scattered along the canyon rim to the west, to Bogus Point and beyond.

This ditch would make for an especially fine trail, leading right along the canyon rim in Giant Gap itself. The trail could connect Lovers Leap to Canyon Creek. For many years I have proposed that efforts be made by the BLM to purchase all the private parcels along the rim above Giant Gap, in order to protect the viewshed, and to build the trail. This would take a ton of money and several minor miracles. Far more likely, a series of houses will be built, each arrogating its million-dollar-view.

The world-class, irreplaceable beauty of Giant Gap will be bent to the purposes of a subdivision. This, it has always seemed, is Placer County's vision for our future.

Regrouping once again, we admired the fog down in the valley, slowly gilding under the westering sun, the fog surface ruffled into waves here and there, as southwest winds drove it into the foothills. We then re-crossed Lovers Leap Ravine and slowly climbed to our vehicles, at the turn-around. Vagrant shafts of golden light lit up the leaf-strewn forest floor in patches of flame.

It seems to me that the BLM ought to carefully gate both roads (LL road and the western fire road) north of the turn-around, so that visitor parking is held farther back from the Leap, by a hundred yards or so. There's getting to be a bit too much firewood cutting, and too many OHVs are driving right down the foot trail from the turn-around. This is such a special place.

It was an especially fine day, high on the cliffs above Giant Gap.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Visit to the HOUT

Stormy weather, cold weather, and an episode of geometry have kept me off the trails in recent weeks.

Yesterday I broke away for a visit to the High Old Upriver Trail (HOUT), which leads away east into the fabled Giant Gap, from the Canyon Creek Trail, south of Gold Run. A warm air mass had drifted into California from the Pacific, chasing away the frost, and a gentle and genial sun blessed the Sierra.

At 10:00 a.m. I left the trailhead in Potato Ravine, swung out of the ravine on the Indiana Hill Ditch (1852) into the very canyon of Canyon Creek, and suddenly heard its rushing waters below. The waterfalls would be in good form. Down to the Old Wagon Road, past the great tunnel of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co. (1873), thence south along the often mossy and ferny east-facing slopes above the creek I strode, neither hurrying nor dawdling, and reached the tiny bridge at 10:16.

Is the word "bear" cognate with "berry"? The dung of foxes and bears was often seen along the trail, always full of berries, mostly manzanita from the looks of it. A bobcat had left its own messy contribution near the bridge.

For the entire hike I was as often in shadow as sun, and in these short days, with the sun passing so low in the southern sky, parts of any canyon in the Sierra will never even be touched by the day star. In such places everything remained wet, despite thirty-six hours without rain. To touch a bush or a young Douglas Fir was to unleash a miniature storm of droplets. My boots were soon wet, but with remarkable forethought I wore thick wool socks and never much noticed.

The creek was at only a moderate flow. I had hoped for more. Still, it made a long succession of cascades and low falls even above the bridge, and below, its rough voice suddenly deepened into the thunder of larger waterfalls amid cliff-bound chasms. In fact, as one walks the Canyon Creek Trail, the cliffs beside the trail sometimes reflect the hissings and roarings so well one might imagine creeks on both sides.

The Leaper, a waterfall which manages to arc upwards into space before crashing into a cliff and falling forty feet into a hidden pool, was in good form. At low flows it dries up, being fed through a polished trough in the bedrock well to one side of a larger, perennial waterfall.

The fall rains have already spurred new growth, new grasses and young sword ferns, the tiny beginnings of what will be Larkspurs, tall and brash, in six months. The Goldback Fern is common all along here, and over the dry summer months it curls up, revealing the light golden undersides of its fronds, and seems dead. But when water is plenty the fronds uncurl, and so they were yesterday, peeking out from rocky niches everywhere.

The awesome Inner Gorge of Canyon Creek took form below me, and as the trail increasingly was hewn from the cliffs themselves, and that strange and wonderful twisting chasm with its hidden waterfalls appeared, those pure white racing pigeons which began roosting near the Big Waterfall last winter flocked into view. They flew vigorously in large circles. There seem to be seven of them now, where only five were ever seen last winter, and now two darker pigeons had joined them. Native Band-Tails? I could not tell.

The pigeons landed on a sunny and noble rock directly above the chasm, directly across from Gorge Point. Suddenly the North Fork canyon lay before me, and I could look across to the vicinity of Roach Hill and Iowa Hill. Now I had nothing but sun, the sweater came off, and down and down steeply the trail led, past the two side trails to the Terraces, to the unmarked and almost invisible HOUT. It was 10:35.

This trail follows the line of the Giant Gap Survey. In the late 1890s a scheme was floated to make the North Fork American the principal water supply for the city of San Francisco. Men were hired to eke out the line of a large ditch leading through Giant Gap from Green Valley; not to actually build it, but to "break grade" and set the stage for the main work. This seems to have been done to show The World at large, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in particular, that the principals of the project meant real business. So the line of the thing was surveyed and marked and a tenuous trail constructed, with little ledges blasted out of cliffs here and there, and two hefty tunnels were driven though giant rock blades in the very heart of Giant Gap. Well. One of these two never quite penetrated its blade.

The amount of work done was quite respectable, but the Supervisors never bit, and the ditch was never built. Yet enough work was done that, simply to gain access to the more recondite and difficult areas in Giant Gap, the line of the Survey was made a trail in its own right.

Not much of a trail, not then and certainly not now. The wooden bridges and catwalks they used to span difficult areas have long since been erased by wildfires. Still, one can follow the thing readily enough, and although it does not hew perfectly to the line of the ditch, and has any number of awkward sections, in the larger view of things it amounts to an almost level trail leading into Giant Gap. Near Canyon Creek it stands about 300 feet above the North Fork.

This was high enough to be in the sun and above the chilly shadows which hugged the river below. The North Fork was rather large for this time of year, and boiled and roared in many reaches of white water. It even had a slightly muddy cast to it, quite a rarity, except during heavy rainfall events.

I did not anticipate that the HOUT itself could lie in shadow, even so close to the solstice. Yet soon enough I passed from the warm and bright to the cold and dark. This eroded my desire to wander very far. Passing Bogus Spur, a half-mile east, I had fine views of Lovers Leap and the Pinnacles, framing Giant Gap, but could also see that much of the HOUT might remain dark and chilly for a good while. Sunshine lit up the slopes a few dozen yards above me.

I made some minor explorations and found a sunny spot to have my lunch, a single scrawny sandwich, before retreating to Canyon Creek. I visited the Terraces, one of the camps constructed by the miners who tended the huge sluice boxes in Canyon Creek, in the hydraulic mining era, pleasant little lawns hemmed by massive stone walls, and then continued up the Big Waterfall Trail, the most well-built of all old trails giving direct access to the sluice boxes.

The Big Waterfall was lovely, as always, and a fragment of rainbow glinted in the spray, near a hundred feet above the base of the fall, the rainbow proportionately high above me, as the sun lay low, behind me. I saw two pure white pigeons perched on the cliffs beside the falls.

A steep trailless climb led me back to the Canyon Creek Trail, where I rested in the sunshine and gazed around at the awesome cliffs and canyons. The pigeons suddenly appeared, flying with great strength and purpose, circling, climbing, circling, climbing, then shooting into the chasm below me.

"Ah ha," mused I, "their old perch lost its sun, hence they must needs climb higher, and escape the gloom building below. Now they surely roost in the sun, all warm and safe from The Shadow."

However, continuing up the steep trail, I soon saw them, not in the sun at all, but clinging to a cliff within the all-dark Inner Gorge. Who can predict what pleases a pigeon? It seems that I can't, at any rate.

So I left the pigeons and the waterfalls and chasms for the easier upper reaches of the trail, and soon enough was at my car. It was only 2:45. I was in good time to pick up the kids from school and bus.

During most of the day I had worried about how this most beautiful of all local trails can ever be brought into public ownership, as Congress directed in 1978. I remembered with pleasure so many wonderful hikes in the trail, often in the company of Catherine O' Riley. Would it all, in the end, be so much trespassing? For after all, most of the trail is on private property. The property is for sale. Signs could go up any day of the week, forbidding access.

But to sift through and record the gist of a pretty day's discontented musings would add several thousand words to my story. I only know that a way must be found to buy the Gold Run lands now for sale.

It was an especially nice day in the North Fork and along Canyon Creek.