Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Ponderosa Bridge

With several others I am pursuing a lawsuit to stop construction of Placer County's proposed North Fork Trail (NFT), from The Confluence, below Auburn, upstream to Ponderosa Bridge. The NFT is actually Phase One of ex-Supervisor Rex Bloomfield's Capital-to-Capital Trail (CCT). The CCT was envisioned to follow the North Fork all the way up from Auburn, crossing the Sierra crest into Squaw Valley, thence on the Tahoe Rim Trail towards Carson City, Nevada.

The CCT was planned to be a five-foot-wide multi-use trail, suitable for horses and mountain bikes at the same time, and hikers, as well. The County went to the State for money; and the State said, "Best divide and conquer. The CCT will be hard to sell. Better to build the first phase of the CCT, and swear up and down it is a stand-alone project, thus avoiding environmental hassles."

Thus the NFT, a multi-use trail up 12.6 miles of the North Fork canyon. It's not built yet.

A Trail Advisory Group (TAG) was constituted to advise the County on matters of route and design. A route was flagged, which only one member of the TAG ever walked. The TAG said, "Build the NFT here," without ever even walking the proposed route themselves!

Well. At any rate. Over the past year I have made several explorations of this part of the canyon. It is remarkably wild and beautiful, for all its proximity to Auburn.

This morning I met Michael Garabedian, who is leading the charge against the NFT, at 9:00 a.m. at the Ponderosa Bridge, the upstream terminus of the NFT. We planned to hike downstream on "use" trails paralleling the North Fork. We sometimes hope that we can persuade the County to settle for a foot trail over (at least) the six miles or so between Upper Lake Clementine and Ponderosa Bridge. So, we aimed to see just how hard or easy it might be to locate a foot trail in this reach of the canyon.

Rain the night before had left everything wet, and the sun would not clear the canyon rim for hours, so it was somewhat dark and dank and cold as we set out, following the south side of the river downstream. A "use" trail leads down a long gravel bar and past huge piles of boulders, dredge spoils from a huge floating dredge used there in the 1920s, and after half a mile, bedrock flank the river, and further progress is impeded.

Here a short, invisible trail leads through poison oak up to an old mining ditch. This is followed for perhaps half a mile, and when directly opposite Codfish Canyon, one leaves the ditch on an old miners' trail, and passing an old mining camp from a century ago, reaches the river just downstream from the bad bedrock.

Here another long gravel bar is followed, also studded with dredge spoils. Then rocks break out again along the river, and a faint trail can again be found climbing up and over the hazardous terrain.

Well. It is perhaps not so hazardous. In the summer, when the rocks are dry, one could scamper like a monkey every which way. Today, with the river running high and cold and fast, the rocks, wet, mossy, and slippery, you would be taking your life in your hands.

So a "high trail" is often needed when going up- or downstream, on the North Fork. At the end of the second gravel bar is just such a trail. It is narrow, but I take it to be an old human trail. Of course, in situations like this, almost all kinds of game face the same choices: stay close to the river and risk your life, or climb up and over the rocks, safely away from the river. So bear and deer and bobcats and foxes and so on all use this same old trail.

It is its continuity which gives it away as an old human trail.

Passing a rock blade, the trail drops to yet another long gravel bar. One can either follow the gravel bar downstream, or stay on the faint old trail in the woods just above. In another quarter-mile one is forced down to the gravel bar in any case. Then, the bar ends, and yet another high trail climbs up into the woods to pass a rocky area. Here the big spur ridge dropping to the river from south to north, about half a mile upstream from Upper Clementine, is finally met. It has a gravel bar at its very toe. However, one must climb into the woods to avoid steep terrain along the river, and sure enough, an old human trail is fairly easily found and followed.

Michael and I were amazed that such an easy ad hoc trail leads so very far downstream from Ponderosa Bridge. In it current condition it is not easy to follow in places; but one could have a passable foot trail with very very little effort and expense; for it is essentially already there.

As we followed the ancient trail through the woods, a forest of much Interior Live Oak, Buckeye, Big Leaf Maple, and some Digger Pine, Douglas Fir, and Ponderosa Pine, we reached the very spine and axis of this spur-from-the-south. And exactly at this point the shrub Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) makes an appearance. My "Sierra Nevada Natural History" calls this the commonest shrub species in Sierran foothills chaparral. However, that is all to the south; this is the northernmost natural stand of Chamise, and Michael and I were within a few yards of the northernmost edge of the northernmost stand: for it stops at the river, not crossing to the north bank; and it also stops exactly on the crest of this particular spur ridge; so let us call this ridge "Chamise Ridge." I wonder what the exact climatic parameters are, which govern the distribution of Chamise, and why that exact spot was the northern boundary.

It was past noon and I had to be in Alta to pick up my kids from school. So I left and Michael stayed. The map suggests that the same pattern may persist all the way to Upper Clementine, of long gravel bars separated by rocky or steep terrain where old "use" trails dating to the mining days lead one to the next bar.

I climbed up Chamise Ridge until nearly 300 feet above the river, and found a nice knoll with a tower of chert standing twenty, twenty-five feet high on top. So this I call Chert Knoll. Here too the Chamise holds to the downstream side of the ridge crest, the boundary almost ruler straight. A faint fire trail was bulldozed down here, by the looks of things.

I had hoped to find another old human trail in the pass south of Chert Knoll, but no, or rather, I found any number of game trails which sometimes looked all too human. After flailing around like that for a while, I pushed back upstream.

I found several species of flowers in bloom or very nearly so. One, with bright red flowers not yet open, had somewhat triangular leaves, coarsely but not sharply toothed, in a rosette at the base; and each leaf had a thin pelt of white hairs, perhaps 1/32" long. A single flower stalk rose a few inches from each rosette. I have no idea.

At one lovely terrace I found a well, dug a century or more ago, lined with stones around the top. Just below, a long row of large boulders evoked at least the notion of a mining ditch. At another place I found a spring in the woods, the water just flowing instantly from the ground, all dry slopes above, but many maples around the spring.

I must have been about four trail miles downstream, for it took a couple hours to reach Ponderosa Bridge, without wasting much of any time.

I am amazed that this four-miles-at-least-long trail is not in constant use. It is mostly level, never far from the river, and is in what can only be the prettiest and wildest part of the North Fork canyon between Ponderosa and the Confluence.

But the canyon was deserted. We had to whole thing to ourselves.

Clouds thickened and thinned and the sun was never very strong, but it was quite a nice hike, quite a nice day on the North Fork.

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