Friday, January 28, 2005

Visit to Canyon Creek

Thursday morning I met Ron and Catherine for a visit to Canyon Creek, near Gold Run. From the Gold Run exit on eastbound I-80, we doubled back west a short distance on the frontage road to Garrett Road, which leads south two miles to the edge of the North Fork canyon.

The heavy rains of the day before, and light showers throughout the night, had kept Canyon Creek high. There is still a lot of snow in its upper basin. And, with the passage of the air-mixing storm, the atmosphere had stratified, cold air sinking lower, warm air rising higher, and a river of fog had formed in the great canyon.

This happens the first night and morning after almost every storm. We reached our trailhead, at the BLM gate, just before 9:00 a.m. Cirrus clouds above slowed warming by the sun, and every leaf and needle sparkled with water droplets.

The red clay road follows the rim of the canyon east towards Canyon Creek, with the Diggings adjacent on the north, but hidden by a screen of heavy manzanita. Here grows the California Ground Cone, a startling plant which looks like a Douglas Fir cone growing erect from the light duff of manzanita leaves. In the Broomrape family, it has no chlorophyll whatsoever, instead relying on the roots of the manzanita for its nutrients. It is a parasite. But it is too early for these ground cones, yet.

Turning in and out around the head of Sheldon Ravine, we reached the unmarked Pickering Bar Trail, and just to the east, stopped at the wonderful scenic overlook. Black Mountain and Quartz Mountain stood fifteen miles upcountry, freshly dusted with snow, and in the middle ground, the tremendous gorge of Giant Gap etches its profile against those distant ridges and forests. Fog wreathed the canyon in many places, here, still flowing slowly west, like a river, there, warmed by the sun, rising into towers and disjoint masses of many hues. In the foreground one can see Canyon Creek's own gorge, more by implication than directly, and the Blasted Digger is easily picked out, on the ridge dividing Canyon Creek from the North Fork.

Continuing down the road we crossed Indiana Ravine and passed the Stone Cabin, which has suffered even more damage in recent months. A bit of a scramble up the steep banks of this old hydraulic mining pit brought us to the dry reservoir at the end of the Indiana Hill Ditch. We took a shortcut across the Diggings and reached the ditch just where the trail to Diving Board Ridge forks away into the unseen depths. A few steps east along the ditch brought us to another fine overlook, where one can see directly down Canyon Creek to the North Fork, only about 1400' below. Parts of the Canyon Creek Trail could be seen. The waterfalls were roaring in their hidden chasms and recesses. We took a longish break and admired the views, and the fog, rising everywhere now in writhing phantoms and ghostly shards, merging with The Void. We watched it happen, watched as the fog lifted and evaporated in the warmth of the sun.

The Big Waterfall was directly below us, 600' or so below us, and therefore, certain non-native pigeons were surely down there as well, silent sentinels perched on some crag. I gave a suitable rock a tremendous heave, hoping, cruelly, to scare them, to make them flutter away from the cliffs, and circle endlessly, which always amuses Catherine. It is important to keep Catherine amused. But my ruthless rock reaped no rewards, that is, no pigeons circled in endless deliberation about just when and just where to land and settle into yet another sustained vigil.

Duty beckoned, having left Point A, one must actually reach Point B, so we followed the old mining ditch around the corner into Canyon Creek's own proper canyon and took an unmarked shortcut down to the trail, reaching it just above the tiny bridge. Crossing the little inner gorge on wet two-by-sixes, we ambled around the corner and took yet another break, where a fine view of The Leaper opens from the trail. The Leaper was in fine form, shooting out from hidden source in a narrow jet, and crashing against the cliff face opposite (for it enters a kind of vertical rectangular chasm), free-falls into a round pool, from which yet another waterfalls spills into a lower pool. In the meantime, the main, large waterfall is partly visible, a more massive cylindrical region of raging white water plunging into its own pool.

Many kinds of roarings and hissings and thunderings could be heard from the falls and cascades up and down the creek, but The Leaper makes its own special slapping sound as it crashes into its chasm wall. We spent quite a while there and took some photographs.

Then down and down, past Spike Point to Gorge Point, where the Brewer's Rock Cress's purple blooms have been joined by the yellow of Biscuit Root. Yet again, for all its storms and all the supposed excess of snow and precipitation of every kind, this winter has somehow nurtured the earliest bloom I have ever seen. Biscuit Root in January? You surely jest.

I saw the pigeons, and followed up with another rock aimed their way, which scattered them into their usual gyrations, so all was well on that count, anyway. I only hope Catherine appreciates my sacrifices.

We turned away from the trail and followed a steep but easy cross-country route down to the Big Waterfall. Again the cameras came out. Then it was down Big Waterfall Trail to The Terraces, where some dozens, or hundreds, of California Milkmaids were not only in full bloom, but had actually started to set seed. Lower Terraces Trail took us back to the main trail almost exactly where the High Old Upriver Trail, or HOUT, secretly forks away east.

The HOUT is a tenuous little track, often enough blasted right from the very cliffs, and runs along a nearly level line east into 2400'-deep Giant Gap. It is hard to find. Having found it, it is hard to follow. It is a lovable little trail and we are quite devoted to it.

In many reaches of the North Fork canyon there are no tributaries worth the name, and a strongly insular quality obtains: there is The Canyon, and then there is, at least, they say there is, somewhere, out of all view, The Rest of the World. No little valleys enter from the side, offering one a route out and away to The Rest of the World. This reach of the North Fork, from Canyon Creek to Green Valley, is much like this. Yes, the canyon walls are scored by minor ravines and gullies, but (from across the canyon, say) one can see every inch of the "basins" of these "tributaries," for they are entirely within the canyon.

The only exception is Lovers Leap Ravine, in the heart of Giant Gap, which heads up in a little valley on the gentle summit uplands of Moody Ridge, west of Lovers Leap itself. But it approaches the North Fork in a series of high waterfalls amid very steep cliffs. Since it carries little water, it has not deeply incised itself into the canyon wall. I interpret the bend in the canyon wall there, the "inside corner" Lovers Leap Ravine follows down to the river, to be more an artifact of gross structural relations in the bedrock, than an artifact of incision by that tiny stream.

The bedrock here is all the metavolcanic member of the Calaveras Complex, several thousands of feet, more than a mile, of lava flows and volcanic ash beds and mudflows, all laid down perhaps in a subaqueous environment, that is, on the flanks of some oceanic volcano or chain of volcanos, and underwater; and some very disrupted strata exist, too, which may represent turbidity flows, mixing already heterogeneous volcanic strata into chaotic jumbles. And pretty much all of it seems quite mafic, poor in quartz, rich in iron and magnesium, roughly basaltic in composition, say, dark, and often fine-grained. Occasionally some lighter stuff is seen. Bogus Spur has some strange orange-weathering rock. Sometimes there is chert, or at least cherty "stuff" of uncertain provenance.

And these several thousands of feet of strata of volcanic quasi-sediments, were originally, let's suppose, roughly horizontal, but now are all tipped up on edge, nearly vertical. They were smashed down under the margin of North America 150 million years ago, and at last, uplifted and exhumed by long erosion, in their new, vertical, orientation.

And metamorphosed, along the way.

But this metavolcanic part of the Paleozoic Calaveras Complex (one of the more strongly-marked "terranes" within the Northern and Central Sierra block) is not uniform in composition, for some parts are very massive, other parts, more platy and divided. The most massive parts are in Giant Gap, where they are organized into a series of huge parallel slabs, and the river turns in tortuous sharp angles, around the bases of these (vertical) mega-slabs. Lovers Leap and The Pinnacles seem to be founded from one and the same mega-slab, for instance.

One might have quite a bit of trouble trying to climb up and out of the canyon, following Lovers Leap Ravine. I've never tried, but I do hope to at least roughly parallel the thing, from rim to river, someday.

We reached Bogus Spur a little after noon and took lunch on a mossy lawn two hundred feet above the river. The North Fork was running moderately high for this time of year, apparently because rather warm temperatures have melted much snow in the last two weeks, and this in turn has been followed by rain up to high elevations. The water looked quite clear, where one could even see at all, for all through Giant Gap there is white water, lots and lots of white water. There are even some low falls, in the Gap.

Fair-weather cumulus clouds had been reincarnated from the vanished, evaporated fog, and above them, cirrus clouds continued to filter the sunshine. It was sometimes cool.

Later, we had time for a portion of wandering out along the HOUT (a fourth species of flower was observed in bloom), but at 2:30 we saddled up and made the long march out. We followed quite a circuitous route which took us back up the Canyon Creek Trail, past the great tunnel of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co. (GRD&M, 1873), then up the Old Wagon Road (also 1873) to the Indiana Hill Ditch (1852, now that I'm doing dates), where we followed someone's secret route over Judd Pass (at the head of Judd Ravine, a tributary of Canyon Creek, on Indiana Hill) into The Diggings, where some roads seemed to lead us in circles down into the huge pit of the GRD&M, which we immediately left on yet another road, climbing to the west and south, back to our vehicles, at the BLM gate.

Such was an especially fine day in the North Fork canyon.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Blue Wing Trail

Wednesday I joined Ron Gould, Catherine O'Riley, and Gay Wiseman for a hike on the Blue Wing Trail. I was up well before dawn and noted that the overnight temperature never dropped below 50 degrees, unusually warm for a winter night at 4000' elevation. When it grew light I saw clear skies and relished the thought of a day outdoors in full sun.

Near Iowa Hill, the Blue Wing Trail forms the southern half of the historic trail from Gold Run to Iowa Hill. On the Gold Run side it is called the Fords Bar Trail, and public access has been blocked at Garrett Road for about twenty years now. In the 19th century a toll bridge crossed the river at Fords Bar, the bridge at first belonging to Ford himself, later to someone named Warner.

We met at Colfax and piled into Catherine's muscular Land Rover for the long and intricate drive across the North Fork canyon. Iowa Hill boomed in the early middle 1850s and briefly had a population of something like five thousand people, with swank saloons and hotels and, for miles on every side, gold mines. Hydraulic mines, drift mines, river mines, ground sluicing claims, tailings claims, every kind of placer mine, and probably a few hard-rock claims were being worked as well. The south fork of the Eocene-age "Ancestral" Yuba River flowed north through this area, on its way to Gold Run, Dutch Flat, and Nevada City. It was a lazy river meandering through a landscape long softened and reduced by erosion; unable to transport its own sediments, a broad floodplain developed in its shallow valley. A rich subtropical forest covered the land and flanked the rivers. This was, let's say, 55 million years ago.

Then this old landscape was buried beneath a long succession of volcanic effusia, at first, rhyolite ash, in many layers, followed by andesitic mudflow, in many more layers. Sometimes these are called the "young volcanics," because the bedrock of the Sierra, granites and metamorphic rocks, is so very much older.

A vast volcanic plateau developed. To the east, the volcanics were a thousand feet thick and more, to the west, they thinned, and parts of the foothills seem to have escaped burial altogether, but here and there the mudflows extended all the way down into the Central Valley. In this part of the Sierra, only a few islands of the old bedrock land surface stood above the volcanic plain: Banner Mountain, near Nevada City, is one such island; and a whole line of ancient bedrock summits is found to the east, running from Snow Mountain north through Signal Peak, Old Man Mountain, the Black Buttes, and Grouse Ridge. These too were not buried.

The andesitic mudflows ended about five million years ago, and a new drainage pattern began to be incised into the mudflow surface, but still younger basaltic lava flowed into these nascent valleys. We find these lavas at places like Devils Peak and Lyon Peak.

The Sierra Nevada began to uplift and tilt to the southwest at this time. A brand new dendritic drainage pattern took shape on the volcanic surface, with most streams aiming directly downslope to the southwest. These, over a period of five million years, deepened into our present-day canyons. Like rivers to the north and south, the North Fork cut quickly through the volcanic veneer and into the bedrock beneath. And then, while uplift continued, steepening the new stream gradients even more, and therefore accelerating downward incision, glaciation began in the Sierra.

We might imagine an average glacial event (there were many) to have covered everything above 5000' under ice, with valley glaciers extending down the various canyons to around 2500'. The Sierra Nevada icefields were not physically connected to the great continental glaciers, but waxed and waned by much the same inscrutable schedule. The last major glaciation ended a short ten or twelve thousand years ago. There is no reason to suppose the Ice Ages have stopped.

The glaciers added even more water to the young rivers flowing in their steepening channels, and the bottom line is that we have today a set of deep canyons, which are actively cutting deeper yet into the landscape.

So. A mature landscape was buried, a youthful landscape has replaced it. The flat-topped ridges we see everywhere in middle elevations are remnants of the andesitic mudflow plateau. And beneath the crests of those flat-topped ridges are fragments of the old river valleys of the Ancestral Sierra.

As at Iowa Hill.

So we drove through the tiny town, and about a mile east hove left and followed a muddy road around the base of the mining bluffs at the southwest end of Roach Hill.

Suddenly flagging appeared on both sides of the road, and continued to the large clearing at the trailhead, where we were startled to see new-looking "No Trespassing" signs. This does not bode well for the future of the Blue Wing Trail.

The upper end of the trail was ruined by logging some years ago, and an ad hoc alternate route is being kept open by volunteers, notably, Evan Jones and his gang.

One of the several mines near the trailhead seems to have been called the Blue Wing Mine, hence the name of the trail. The red bluffs above the trailhead can be seen from a long distance, and illustrate the somewhat unusual case of hydraulic mining through a thick sequence of volcanic ash and andesitic mudflow, to reach a relatively thin stratum of gold-bearing river gravels underneath. That is, the red bluffs themselves are made of the young volcanics.

We grabbed packs and loppers and started down the trail. Soon we were in a shady Douglas Fir forest, on well-graded switchbacks. The trail looks as though it was fully three feet wide, in its heyday.

This trail, from Iowa Hill to Gold Run, is older than the Stevens Trail, and was moreover of greater importance to the local communities of the day; for the late-coming Stevens Trail provided but an alternative to an existing wagon road, while the Fords Bar/Blue Wing Trail was the one and only good way to travel between Dutch Flat and Gold Run on the north, and Iowa Hill on the south.

Therefore the Blue Wing Trail is even more historic than the Stevens Trail. It is older, and of more pointed utility. Yet the Stevens Trail has received designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at Folsom is entrusted, and has been since 1978, with management of this part of the North Fork of the American Wild & Scenic River (W&SR); they know full well that the Fords Bar Trail has been blocked to the public, they know full well that the Blue Wing Trail heads up on private property.

In fact, this has all been clear for some time. Now, I myself expect that an agency (the BLM) entrusted with management of a W&SR (the North Fork American) will take every possible care that historic trails giving access to the river remain open to the public.

I am not aware that the BLM has taken any care at all with the Blue Wing Trail.

Near the river, one can take a fork right to the Truro Mine, where a trail leading upriver two miles to Pickering Bar is found. Here too is the Ford/Warner bridge site. A road descends to the Truro Mine from Roach Hill. This road should be gated, well above the river. Or is it a part of the management of a W&SR, that 4WDs and motorcycles and OHVs should make the river their playground?

No, it is not part. Yet I am not aware that the BLM is taking any care at all with the Truro Mine Road.

We took the left fork, which drops gently to a cabin site above the river. It had been a few years, I guess, since I had hiked the Blue Wing; the cabin is now gone, only a few blackened hunks of wood show that it burned.

The river was fairly high and fast, full of snowmelt from these warm days.

The air was colder near the river, and the sun would take a long time to rise clear the ridge to the southeast, so to escape the shade quickly, we continued along on the downriver trail. The trail was marred in many places by the tracks of OHVs gaining access via the Truro Mine Road.

Half a mile brought us to the "other" cabin, a dilapidated combination stone and log structure, the roof collapsed. It looks to date from the Depression. By no accident, the cabin was in full sun. If one is to spend a winter in that deep deep canyon one takes care to garner every scrap of sunshine. We took a break before continuing on the downriver trail.

Ron said that a side trail led up and over the ridge to the west, and I had never explored the thing, so we elected to give it a try and found it quite a nice path, a definite artifact of the 1860s if not the Gold Rush itself; like so many of the trails which follow the river itself, it does not follow the river itself, but stays rather high above it, often 100 to 200 feet.

Gaining the west side of the ridge, we enjoyed a more favorable geometry with respect to the sun, and began to shed layers. Half a mile or so brought the old trail low and near the river, so we took lunch on some sunny polished rocks, metasediments, I would guess, of the Calaveras Complex. Our elevation was about 1300'.

A pair of ouzels could be heard singing and chattering somewhere upstream, and they soon arrived nearby, diving into the rapid river and foraging for food on the bottom before popping up like corks. Then they would flutter to a boulder and dip up and down, up and down. It was a warm day and the ouzels were glad of it.

Now, it was warm, and birds were singing, so I took my shirt off, and was getting a fine tan, when it occurred to me that I had never been to this place in my life, and, after all, the trail did continue. So I re-shirted, grabbed the loppers, and set off exploring.

Suddenly the trail seemed of a lower caliber, and a number of trees had fallen across its course, helping blur its course along the canyon wall. Quite a few California Milkmaids were in bloom. But I stayed with it, and in a time Catherine appeared, and together we forged ahead into a small ravine, where a good-sized terrace was buttressed by large dry-laid stone walls. It was an old cabin site, certainly from more than a century past. Not one stick of lumber remains. It is a flat lawn supported by walls of mossy rocks.

The ravine itself split into two branches there, each cut deeply into bedrock so prettily sculptured I felt sure that it must be limestone, or at the least, limy metasediments. The deep polished chasms were quite remarkable, adorned with moss and ferns. In fact, the whole ravine was fair a wonderland of moss and ferns.

We marveled at all this and explored this way and that. I picked up a continuation of a downriver trail, which became too faint too soon. Something was wrong, and only the mystic trail sense of Ron Gould could make it right. So I tramped the quarter-mile back to our lunch terrace, informed Ron and Gay of great and momentous discoveries, and soon we were all on the scene of the Twin Chasms and cabin terrace.

I should say that this Twin Chasms Ravine received the tailings of several hydraulic mining claims, once upon a time; it may well have been worked as a "tailings" claim, all fitted up with sluice boxes like Canyon Creek and Indiana Ravine once were, and the cabin may have had to do only with that, with the guarding and maintaining of sluice boxes, not with the older, Gold Rush era of mining down along the North Fork itself.

Scouting higher than I had before, Ron detected a trail line, and sure enough, it acted as though it were "the" continuation of the downriver trail. Following it, we found that it became fainter yet a ways along, and, retreating, our eye was caught by another trail climbing away above.

We had already guessed that whoever had once lived at the cabin would have had some kind of trail climbing the ridge just west of the Twin Chasm Ravine, which ridge topped out quite near where we had parked. Catherine had caught us up and we decided to give the climbing trail a try. We found a neat series of switchbacks and I for one am sure that we were, in truth, on an old human trail.

It seemed just the thing to follow this old trail back up to the top and make a grand loop. So I went back after Gay, and soon enough we were all climbing the ridge, and soon enough our faint switchbacks melted away, and an increasingly heavy growth of Deerbrush, Ceanothus integerrimus, began to turn us this way and that. There was no question of detecting a lone human trail amidst a welter of game trails; it was simple survival, finding whatever small gaps in the brush and lurching another few yards higher.

We climbed to a thousand feet above the river before the brush finally tightened up completely and barred our way. It was nearing four in the afternoon when we finally conceded defeat and retreated back down to Twin Chasms, back to the north and then south on the river trail (for the river makes a tremendous 180-degree turn around a ridge, in this area), reaching the base of the Blue Wing as the last red light of sunset lit up the forest, high above Wolverine Canyon, to the east.

The slow trudge up the trail was actually quite nice. For a time I saw the faint ghosts of my own shadow flitting beside me, cast by fading twilight of the northern sky (for all the main part of the Blue Wing is on a north-facing slope), and then the light of the waxing moon became stronger, my ghosts were reincarnated as real shadows, and then the stars were out as well, and then we were back on top.

So, what had seemed like such an innocent and moderate hike, the descent and reascent of a mere 1600', became, somehow, some way, a Monster, with something a lot more like 3000' vertical to contend with, all told.

But it was after all another great day in the great canyon.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Visit to Canyon Creek

Happy New Year!

There's been a ton of snow around these parts, and scarcely an ounce of hiking. The last fair weather in December found me visiting Green Valley with friends, and packing out the last of the garbage gathered up from an old marijuana grower's camp last winter.

Then came the storms. Snow and then rain, snow and then rain. Heroics of shoveling snow. The building of igloos and arches and sculptures only to see them melt in the rain. The shoveling of hundreds of feet of driveway only to see it buried all over again. There came a final snow storm, with no rain afterward, a final igloo was built, with the visage of a wild and mighty mouse glaring from one corner (my igloos can have sharp corners, spires, windows of any shape, buttresses, and so on, including, perhaps, the hundred-times-life-size bust of a mouse).

And then there was at last one sunny day. Wednesday. So the intrepid Catherine O' Riley and I dared to hike through the snow into Canyon Creek and wander a mile or so down the old trail.

The Diggings were only lightly frosted with snow, and dotted with crystalline icy puddles, and walking the Paleobotanist Trail, we saw many interesting ice patterns, as we crunched along. Snow almost obliterated by rain had frozen hard under the stars, Tuesday night. Reaching the Canyon Creek Trail, we soon dropped below the snow, and continued quickly down past the little bridge to the sunny side of things, where first big waterfall comes into view, The Leaper almost hidden beside it.

The Leaper needs middling high water to even exist. Water surges into a narrow polished channel which plunges over the top of a cliff. The channel leads into a shallow pothole which makes the water shoot out and up with great force. It sails across a narrow chasm and hits another cliff before falling to a deep pool at the base.

Yesterday The Leaper was in good form.

We decided to visit the Blasted Digger Overlook, and took the side trail from Waterfall View. Arriving at the spur ridge dividing Canyon Creek from the North Fork, we followed down the ridge, which narrows to a single sharp blade of rock, and suddenly one is at this ancient lightning-struck Digger Pine, and Giant Gap is in view, and the river, and in fact, one can look far upstream and far downstream.

Gazing through the Gap, two snow peaks floated like clouds above distant dark forests. These were Monumental Ridge and Quartz Mountain. Rarely are they so white.

We explored some other viewpoints, cliffy spots where the sun beat hard on bare rock and a glorious warmth and light embraced us. This is California in the winter. One day after a snowstorm, and even at 2600' elevation, one gets a tan, or looks for shadows to hide in.

A bird appeared in Giant Gap, with small white things dropping away from it. After a moment, we realized these were feathers. It took a while to grasp what was going on. The feather-dropping bird flapped vigorously east, a thousand feet above the river, and behind it five, ten, twenty, who knows, fifty little feathers sparkled downward in the sun, easily seen against the shadowed cliffs of the far canyon wall.

Suddenly a second bird, much like a hawk, shot out from the side of the canyon and chased the first bird out of view, in the vicinity of Big West Spur. We realized that the first bird had been attacked just before we'd seen it, and had probably just been attacked again.

Retreating to the main trail, we walked on down in the sunshine, to the Inner Gorge and Gorge Point and the Six-Inch Trail. The rock doves or pigeons were circling about, perhaps fifteen in all, and I counted nine pure white. A couple of Brewer's Rock Cress were in bloom at Gorge Point, which is second only to The Terraces in priority of bloom.

We'd had a late start and while lazing around down there next to those wild cliffs and chasms and waterfalls, the sun slowly lowered toward Diving Board Ridge, to the west. The faintest hint of the ridge's blurred shadow-edge touched us, and that was all it took, we were on the trail immediately, slogging back up to the Diggings, and crunching across the snow and ice.

It was another great day in the North Fork.