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.

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