Sunday, February 20, 2005

Lake Clementine

On Saturday Catherine O'Riley and I took advantage of a spot of sun and a break in the weather to explore the North Fork canyon in the vicinity of Lake Clementine.

There one can find the flagged route of Placer County's proposed and approved "North Fork American River Trail" (acronym, NFART, which we will shorten to the more graceful NFT, for North Fork Trail), which would run up the canyon from The Confluence to Ponderosa Bridge.

With others (Friends of the North Fork, or, just "Friends") I have filed suit against Placer County to block construction of this trail, and force an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the project.

The NFT would be a multi-use trail, four feet wide, with vegetation cleared to allow equestrian use, along with bicycling and hiking. In places it would swell to nine feet wide, for "passing lanes."

With so many historic trails in and around the North Fork canyon already closed or at risk of being closed, I am not much of a fan of building new trails. Take care of our old trails, first, and then let's see where we stand.

There is a bit of a complicated history at work in all this, for the NFT is actually Phase One of Rex Bloomfield's Capital-to-Capital Trail (CCT), which was originally projected to directly parallel the North Fork American, from Auburn, all the way upstream to the headwaters, along Sierra crest.

There the CCT would cross into Squaw Valley and connect across to the Tahoe Rim Trail and thence to Carson City, somehow.

The CCT would be five feet wide and would largely have to be constructed from scratch. As the County began to advance this project, a brochure was made promoting the idea, with a photograph of a waterfall in the Royal Gorge, on the cover. The Secretary of the CA Resources Agency, under Gray Davis, saw this brochure, and approved, in principle, a $1.4 million State grant.

In the Auburn area, the North Fork canyon is within the Auburn State Recreation Area (ASRA), which is administered by CA State Parks. CA Parks advised the County that the CCT would force them into a gigantic and expensive and unwieldy EIR; better to take the CCT a step at a time, and, for instance, treat Phase One, from The Confluence up to Ponderosa, as a "stand-alone" project.

To think was to act, and the County proposed the NFT as a stand-alone project. A Trail Advisory Group (TAG) was constituted from local citizens. Eric Peach of PARC and Terry Davis of the Sierra Club were, it seems, the only members of the TAG who expressed any opposition to this huge new multi-use trail. They lobbied successfully for a higher trail alignment, well back from the river itself. Greg Wells, retired head ranger of ASRA, duly flagged this new, "high" route.

Two principles seem to have guided the placement of the flags (little strips of yellow surveyor's tape, tied to bushes):

1. The NFT should be as level as possible, and follow a contour about 200 feet higher than river elevation.

2. If the NFT nears an old mining ditch, it should avoid it, and pass below it if possible.

Add to these the practical principle (3) that, should the NFT near a traveled road, with motor vehicle traffic, it should avoid that road, rather than follow it.

Also, please note that, if one holds the trail to a given elevation, following a contour line as it were, one might possibly closely parallel a road or existing mining ditch, and be unable to take advantage of these existing "bench cuts" in the canyon wall, and be forced to make a brand new bench cut, four feet wide.

The TAG approved the high trail line of the NFT and the County prepared a "Mitigated Negative Declaration of Environmental Impact" for the project in May 2004. This was approved by the Supervisors and $200,000 of Placer Legacy money was directed to be spent on the NFT, with hopes of obtaining the $1.4 million from the State.

Within 30 days, Friends filed a CEQA-type suit to force an EIR on the NFT.

At this stage in our proceedings it is very important that members of Friends be well-acquainted with the route of the NFT and with possible alternatives. We might possibly find a way to settle with the County, and agree upon an alternate route of some sort. Studying both the NFT and the multiple possible alternate routes is a tall order for 12.6 miles of canyon, much of which is very remarkably wild and beautiful, for all its proximity to centers of population. And, it is not always easy to find and follow the flagged route of the NFT.

Finally please note that it is impossible to exorcise the spectre of the bad old CCT, hanging over all this NFT business. The NFT is in fact Phase One of the CCT, and to reduce environmental hassles, the County pretends it is not Phase One.

So. Catherine and I stopped at the Foresthill Bridge and took photos of the south canyon wall, where the NFT would follow the line of an Old Wagon Road, climbing slowly up the North Fork towards Lake Clementine.

Crossing over the highest bridge in California, we drove up to Lower Lake Clementine Road and followed it down to North Fork Dam. This was built around 1939, to impound future hydraulic mine tailings (it never served its purpose; another story). It diverts no water, the entire flow of the North Fork spills right over the top of the spillway, at elevation 715'; while the 600-foot contour bumps into the base of the dam.

Thus there is a sort of Niagara Falls there, 115' high, boiling up clouds of spray, just thundering along, day and night. It is quite a remarkable place and I have always thought some sort of nice stone overlook terrace should be built, facing the falls.

We admired the falls for a time before turning to business. The Old Wagon Road joins Lower Clementine at a certain hairpin curve, low down towards the dam. The task was to find the flagged route above, or up the canyon, from this point.

A few minutes' scouting revealed yellow ribbons, neatly splitting the gap between the upper and lower legs of the hairpin switchback.

We noted that, while the trail might have availed itself of one of the existing roads above or below, there is some traffic on the narrow winding way, and it would be better not to mix equestrians and bicyclists and hikers, with cars and trucks.

On the other hand, Lower Clementine is already much used by bicyclists, without any apparent problem; we saw several, on a day which threatened rain.

After getting a feel for this area, and for the flagged route, we drove back up top to the Foresthill Road, parked in the area set aside for an existing multi-use trail, and walked down what I call Middle Clementine Road. This is gated closed to motor vehicles, and is seldom used by bicyclists.

We had fine views across the canyon to the cave-ridden marble eminence called Lime Rock or Robbers Roost, with its old quarry-era access-road contouring along the canyon wall beside it. Unfortunately, a large house now glorifies its owner on the hilltop directly above, almost dominating the viewshed, considering that all eyes are drawn to the Roost.

Middle Clem road has quite a gentle gradient at first, and winds gently through oak woodlands with a startlingly large number of Madrone trees in the mix. A brushy knoll rises to the west, showing a mixture of Chamise and Manzanita. Across the canyon to the north another large patch of Chamise is visible, in direct contradiction to the rumor that the northernmost stand of Chamise in the Sierra is right there on the Foresthill Divide.

And now I hear of Chamise in the South Yuba.

Middle Clem steepens and at a hairpin turn left we saw a faint road right. Another couple hundred yards brought us to the intersection between the flagged route of the NFT and Middle Clem Road.

This is quite low, not far above the reservoir. The road itself has quite a gentle grade there, and we could not see why a brand new trail should be cut from the canyon wall, in that area; this road has no traffic. So use it.

We retraced our steps up to the hairpin and investigated the side road. It broke away east and immediately ended at a ravine, with a pretty little stream gurgling along down below. It was easy to pick one's way down and across and back up the far side, where the road reappeared.

Bears often step in the same old spots again and again and make a curious kind of dimpled trail, the dimples six or eight inches across and sometimes inches deep. A very faint dimpled bear trail led down this road. The sign of bobcat and fox was abundant.

The narrow road led down the ravine, and was soon joined by the flagged route. Then it flattened out altogether, and by all my experience of such things, this meant that it almost certainly had been cut into an old mining ditch.

In years past people had kept this old ditch-road lopped open, as a foot trail, but it is now overgrown again. We were not high above the river, in fact, GPS put us consistently on the 800' contour, 85' above the lake, while on the line of the ditch.

In something like half a mile, the bulldozed road=line left the ditch, dropping towards reservoir level. The ditch continued right along, now undisturbed and visibly an old mining ditch. At this point the flagged route suddenly left the line of the ditch and climbed above, slowly.

I knew that the NFT was intended to avoid old mining ditches; here it had followed the line of one, for half a mile; but now that it became obvious that it was, not just a road, but a ditch, the flagging split away high.

We stayed with the ditch, for if it continued, there could be no reason not to align the NFT directly upon it; the bench cut needed for a trail is already there, for goodness' sake. We had to find out.

Flowers were in bloom in many places: Houndstongues, Shooting Stars, and quite a few others; a species of Indian Paintbrush; Madrone and Bay Laurel; the day had a spring-like feel despite the clouds and occasional showers.

After another, more awkward ravine crossing, we followed the ditch into an open grassy glade of Black Oak and Ponderosa Pine. The flagged route had climbed high enough, now, that we could not see it. Below us we could see the boat camping area and its picnic tables and tall Cottonwood trees. From somewhere in the lake a raucous honking dialogue was held in echoing tones by water birds of some sort. The mossy old ditch makes for a magical trail and the canyon is a magical place, even there, even where quenched by a reservoir. The honking birds seemed to speak to this. And, being this low to the river, no more houses gloried over us. It seemed utterly wild.

The ditch became blurred as it crossed this glade, and just beyond, narrowed to a single trail, a foot wide if that; and then there was no trace, just a big patch of steep, rocky terrain which the ditch had crossed in a wooden flume. Game trails threaded everywhere, and seemed for a time to openly avoid the ideal level line of the ditch, carrying us too low or too high by turns.

If there was a way to make money from poison oak ...

At last the trail re-formed almost magically, game threads coalescing into one beaten track, a foot wide, on the one true ideal line of the ditch, that is, at or very near the 800' contour.

Here we stopped. We did not know exactly how close we were to Upper Clementine Road; if we broke through, we could climb it to Foresthill Road and follow that back down the two miles to our car. The showers had been increasing. We decided to return the way we came. Out of curiosity we climbed to the line of the flagged NFT, and reassured ourselves that it was, indeed, a scant 100 feet or so above the line of the ditch.

Later, with the map in hand (actually, on computer), I would realize we had walked within a half-mile of Upper Clem.

The walk back out was delightful, tho high on Middle Clem it began to really rain, and we arrived at the car a little on the wet side of things.

Such were a few hours in the North Fork along Lake Clementine, trying to make sense out of the County's harebrained scheme to build a road up twelve miles of canyon.

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