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.

No comments: