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.

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