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.

No comments: