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.

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