Saturday, March 26, 2005

Sawtooth Ridge Basalt Dated!

Over the past few years I have occasionally gathered samples of basalt, from this area, and sent them away to Professor Brian Cousens, in Ottawa, Canada. Brian has been investigating the petrology of basalts and andesites north of Lake Tahoe, and south of Truckee. He has spent quite a lot of time in Squaw Valley, which had been a major eruptive center, in the closing phases of Tertiary volcanism.

My interest goes to geomorphology: how old is the North Fork canyon, say?

If we could answer that question, we would then guess the same age for all other major canyons in this part of the Sierra.

It is clear that all these canyons--all the forks of the Yuba and the American, in particular--are relatively young, and have been incised into a generalized volcanic mudflow plateau. The flat-topped ridges seen everywhere in middle elevations are relicts of this surface. And beneath these "young volcanics" are buried remnants of the "ancient bedrock" land surface.

In more detail, there was an "ancestral Sierra," in which a system of broad valleys had evolved over millions of years, a somewhat over-mature landscape in which streams aggraded (built up thicknesses of sediments in flood plains) rather than eroded.

We have a fine fossil flora from remnants of these old (55 m.y.) river channels, preserved on the divides between the modern canyons, as for instance at Gold Run.

The ancestral Sierran landscape was developed upon a complex of different bedrock types, from granites to serpentines to slates, with chert and limestone and more. A system of ridges ran north and south, along strike of the more resistant rocks, which were often metavolcanics called "greenstone."

About 30 m.y. ago, rhyolitic eruptions blanketed the region in volcanic ash, and some of the shallower of the existing valleys were filled outright. New patterns of drainage would then form. More volcanic ash would fall, filling these brand-new valleys.

Then, say, 15 m.y. ago, the eruptions became andesitic, and andesitic mudflows or lahars swept over the area, often filling the valleys, whereupon new drainage patterns would arise, but then new lahars would fill those new valleys.

Over millions of years, a generalized plateau of andesitic mudflow developed. Only a few parts of the Ancestral Sierra stood above the volcanic sea. Banner Mountain, beside Nevada City: and Dutch Flat's Lovers Leap, and it only by the skin of its teeth.

And then, finally, at long last, volcanic activity began to wind down. Eruptions of basalt sent streams of lava down the valleys draining high and mighty places like the Squaw Valley Eruptive Center.

Summarizing, the "standard sequence" of the Tertiary volcanics, from old to young, is

1. Valley Springs fm. (rhyolite ash, some welded tuffs).
2. Mehrten fm. (andesitic lahars etc.).
3. Basalt.

Now, most of these basalts have been eroded away entirely. In the high country they are fairly common, most notably of all at Devils Peak, made of columnar basalt.

The thing is, since they are youngest, and since basaltic lava is famously liquid and runny, these basalts ran down and partially filled valleys which almost must have preceded the incision of our modern canyons. I don't know if this is at all clear, but my thinking is, the modern canyons developed *after* the basalts. So if a patch of basalt on Sawtooth Ridge, for instance, is 5 million years old, then that too is the age of the adjacent North Fork canyon. And then we could say, "Broadly, the canyon is five million years old and two thousand five hundred feet deep, hence the average rate of incision is six inches per thousand years."

The nascent North Fork likely made quick work of the young volcanics and began incision into the ancient bedrock quite early on.

But how early? Oh, if only we could date the basalts!

And just where are these supposed basalts?

Well, it turns out that on a ca. 1900 geological map of this area, by Waldemar Lindgren of the USGS, quite a few small patches of "Pliocene basalt" are identified on ridgecrests between the modern canyons.

And among the most southerly of these little basalt patches, is one on Sawtooth Ridge, and another on Lowell Hill Ridge. I sent samples of these to Brian a couple years ago or so. He did a detailed chemcial/petrological analysis of the basalts, which varied significantly, one from the other; so it began to seem we had two very distinct and disparate lava flows on our hands, although topographically and stratigraphically, the two sites were equal.

Both sites are on ridges where no continuous volcanic plateau remnant remains, but smaller remnants persists as knolls, while the passes are commonly at the level of the ancient bedrock, on both ridges, the Shoo Fly Complex metasedimentary rocks.

Both sites show the basalt in direct contact with andesitic mudflow, but both flows sit directly on Shoo Fly basement.

It should be noted that the topgraphy has completely reversed: both flows were in the bottoms of valleys, now, they are on the crests of ridges.

OK. To make a long story short, dates have finally come in on the two samples. They are indeed disparate, as the Lowell Hill basalt came in at 16.3 m.y., while the Sawtooth basalt came in at 3.82 m.y.

Hence *iff* the assumption is correct, that incision of the North Fork canyon began after the Sawtooth basalt, we have a nominally 2500-feet-deep canyon which is only 3.82 million years old, and now we have .654 feet/thousand years, or roundly, eight inches of incision per thousand years.

A few miles upstream, the North Fork canyon is over 3000 feet deep.

So what are we to make of the Lowell Hill basalt, at fully 16 million years? It is coeval with the andesitic mudflows, so far as I know, so it is not much of a stretch to imagine some basaltic eruptions from time to time. The age of 16.3 m.y. is indistinguishable from the age of the Lovejoy Basalt, so widely exposed farther north in the Sierra and nearby areas. It would really be a hoot if it turned out that the Lowell Hill flow is in fact the Lovejoy; but Brian seems to think that's impossible, for its chemical signature is much different than the Lovejoy's.

Clearly more samples should be gathered, from the Lowell Hill and Sawtooth sites, as well as from other potentially related flows, farther north, near Bowman Lake, etc. I sent Brian samples from Lyon Peak, Needle Peak, and another nearby flow, and also from Devils Peak, last summer. It will be exciting to hear what dates come in for these flows.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Flowers and Falls

Thursday morning I met Catherine O'Riley for a visit to Canyon Creek and Giant Gap. Wednesday's showers had tapered off and almost ended at sunset, although the sky still brooded in masses of clouds, with a south wind aloft, and occasional shafts of sunlight draped across the forested landscape. The several inches of snow at my place translated into no snow at all in Gold Run, and as we tromped down a road into the Diggings, we essayed to meander across hill and dale, leaving the road for a little wilderness of old sluice cuts, ancient manzanita, and quartz cobbles. This was a more direct line towards The Canyon, cutting off a northerly bight in the road.

Water was everywhere in the Diggings. The drastic rains of Tuesday afternoon had brought Canyon Creek up higher by far than at any time over this rainy season, over all this past fall and winter. I had seen, earlier Thursday, that Canyon Creek was at roughly half the flow of Tuesday. Still high and fast, and as we reached the trailhead in Potato Ravine, we could hear the creek roaring in the distance. This is unusual.

We began to see many flowers as the trail dropped away from the Indiana Hill Ditch: Houndstongues and Shooting Stars, all beaten down and in disarray after the torrential rains. Reaching the Old Wagon Road, we saw that the creek was perhaps a mite higher than anytime earlier this year. It was running fairly clear, loud and brash and strong.

Reaching the little bridge, we found that it had (somehow!) survived being overswept by Canyon Creek, presumably on Tuesday, when the North Fork itself jumped up to 29000 cubic feet per second, near Auburn. Driftwood was still floating in little pools a foot above the level of the bridge. The tiny span of twelve feet had not budged an inch.

Continuing, The Leaper hove into view, an overcharged tumult of whitewater beating against a cliff. The main waterfall was impressive, and a third fall had appeared between it and The Leaper. The other main channel, a few feet away, was dry, but looked as if it had formed a fourth waterfall, during Tuesday's high water.

At Gorge Point the spectacular views into the chasmatic Inner Gorge were all framed in masses of flowers, mainly Biscuit Root, yellow-flowered of the Carrot Family, but with some of the early-blooming species of Larkspur mixed in, and many Blue Dicks, of the Lily Family. We began to see a hundred Blue Dicks at a time, which had luxuriated into a tall, leggy full bloom in the recent warm weather, only to be smashed down by the storms.

Now they were lifting themselves slowly into the light, all laden with the dew and rain of the night and day before. We ourselves began to enjoy some sunshine, and clothes went from backs to packs. We took the cross-country route down quasi-cliffs to the base of the Big Waterfall, a route which has become known to a number of people, and will need some care to remain passable, especially in the clay section, where a patch of old hydraulic mining clay clings to the side of a narrow ridge.

The Big Waterfall doubles up in high flows, and was in fine form, the second (new) channel making a more direct descent down the roughly 120 feet from top to bottom.

Spray billowed out explosively and filled the cauldron-like basin of cliffs and overhangs almost surrounding the falls. It is such an amazing place.

This part of Canyon Creek was operated as a "tailings claim" in the 1870s, and was fitted with huge sluice boxes. For a time this patented claim, all of a mile long, and which contains nearly the entire Canyon Creek Trail, was owned by one W.H. Kinder. Later title passed to the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co., and still later, to James Stewart. Now it is part of the 800 acres for sale in the Gold Run Diggings.

Often the quantity of tailings overwhelmed the capacities of the giant sluice boxes, and piled up deeper and deeper, while gangs of Chinese laborers shoveled madly to try to restore flow in the boxes themselves. It is strange to think of them working their 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, away down in that awesome gorge, with boulders careening over the waterfalls, and mist filling the air, and muddy tailings filling the creek ... .

Iron spikes driven into the cliffs fully fifty feet above the creek suggest that the tailings themselves piled up that high from time to time, and almost strangely there are tiny masses of tailings wedged into some of the cracks in these cliffs, far above the creek, to this day. The spikes may have anchored sluice boxes set into a higher position once the main boxes had been irremedially buried, over the short term. And there was gold in them there tailings. Once they reached the North Fork, all chance of processing them further, and extracting more gold, was lost.

The Big Waterfall Trail took us down to the Terraces which we swept past and made for the HOUT, pausing to photograph some bush lupines along Lower Terraces Trail.

There are many flowers along the HOUT, including the exceptional bloom of the Blue Dicks, the Biscuit Root everywhere too, but suddenly we saw Tufted Poppies and two other species of Lupine, one, the Harlequin Lupine, notable with its oddly fat leaflets and its yellow and purple flowers. There were any number of other species in bloom; Brewer's Monkeyflower, always astounding with its magenta floral tube and freckled yellow throat-patches; and the vine I call Virgin's Bower but which seems to be more often called Chaparral Clematis or Pipestem Clematis, was in full bloom out on Bogus Spur (the spur ridge dropping from Bogus Point, on Moody Ridge, 2000 feet above us).

Overall, the canyon was breathtakingly beautiful under swirling clouds, the river high and mighty and mostly white, the rain-dark cliffs scored with long bright stripes of cascades and falls, fresh snow across the way on Giant Gap Ridge, and moss and ferns and meadows and flowers everywhere.

There is an unusual bloom underway, with much more to come. The warmth of this winter season brought early-blooming California Milkmaids and Brewer's Rock Cress into flower in December, weeks earlier than usual. This will be one of those years when one must wade through the flowers on the Canyon Creek Trail. Not yet; but in May ... .

Beyond Bogus Spur a steep meadow is crossed by the HOUT, ever so faintly. We stopped there and took off our packs.

Catherine went off in search of the umbrella and water bottle which had gone missing during her pack's exciting spinning plunge down the canyon wall a couple weeks ago. I amused myself by following the "true" line of the HOUT in an area where a use-trail, game-trail thread has become the HOUT by default, the true line of this High Old Upriver Trail being lost in the woods above.

This trail follows the line of a large canal which was never built, although preliminary surveying work and some blasting was done, a little over a century ago. What remains is the ghost of a trail; one could scarcely call it a "real" trail, but it does exist, and it follows an almost level line almost all the way into Giant Gap.

I had to pick up my daughter after school, so we left earlier than might have been nice. Catherine had found her water bottle, but no umbrella. It must have been flung artfully to one side, I suppose, when her pack leapt over an especially tall shrub, on that memorable March day. She remarked that the weather forecast had been, 'chance of showers', and here we were, in a kind of secret Yosemite, waterfalls every which way, flowers up and flowers down, the sun shining benevolently--and there were no showers, and we were dry, and we were warm, and it was just our luck.

Almost immediately it began to rain lightly. To the south, near Iowa Hill, a regular shower seemed in progress, but here, one could almost count the raindrops as they fell. They were actually a welcome cooling mechanism as we trudged up the steeper parts of the Canyon Creek Trail. As we neared Waterfall View, I turned to look back and saw a goodly beam of sunshine reaching the river near Canyon Creek, half a mile south. Yet raindrops were falling on my head. This could only mean, a rainbow, so we broke back south on the Blasted Digger Trail and reached that remarkable overlook of Giant Gap and points upcountry in a few minutes, eagerly scanning the great gorge for arcs and colors.

There were some cute little snow showers falling into pure sunshine up on Sawtooth Ridge, maybe ten miles east, near Helester Point, like shimmering white curtains hanging from the sky, but no arc, no rainbow. There seemed to be too little rain for a bow, for sunshine was entering Giant Gap, at least in patches. Suddenly Catherine spotted the arc, much lower than I had been looking. It was faint and it was faded but it was, indeed, a rainbow.

We had only moments to enjoy the spectacle before a rapid return to the main trail and a no-nonsense slog back to and through the Diggings was mandated. We reached the freeway at 3:35 and I was in Alta at 3:42, three minutes ahead of my daughter's bus.

Such was an especially nice outing in the North Fork canyon.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sugarloaf Falls

The heavy rains of Tuesday brought up Canyon Creek to a raging torrent, and from deep in the canyon the North Fork raised its voice, telling the stories of a hundred thousand rivulets suddenly adding their many mites to the river. Yet--it was just too nasty and wet to go in search of waterfalls.

Then the rain turned to snow, and a hike planned for today fell through, as the weather seemed intent upon precipitation. More and more and more precipitation.

Towards late morning I noticed with a start that the snow had stopped and the skies, although all full of clouds, had brightened. Suddenly I simply knew that I must go to Iron Point and, unless the rain and snow returned, go beyond, and down, down the Euchre Bar and Iron Point trails to East Knoll.

For East Knoll commands an intimate view of Sugarloaf Falls. There is an eminence above Euchre Bar named Sugarloaf, on the south canyon rim, and these waterfalls head up in a broad basin just to the west of the Sugarloaf. Hence my name.

This all played out just as imagined; rain showers still fell at Iron Point, but a certain undeniable brightness in the sky gave me hope. I parked and started off at a jog down the EBT, with loppers and camera. The snow was patchy and easily avoided.

From East Knoll one obtains tremendous views of Giant Gap and also, directly across the canyon, Sugarloaf Falls. At high flows these falls present quite a spectacle from Iron Point, and all the more from East Knoll, so much closer. One section of the falls must be nearly 200 feet high.

East Knoll is just the easternmost knoll in Green Valley. Its summit stands about 800 or a thousand feet above the North Fork. A sort of saddle or pass connects East Knoll to the main canyon wall. From the Euchre Bar Trail, about half or three-quarters a mile down from the parking area, the Iron Point Trail breaks away west and drops into the east end of Green Valley, crossing this saddle-pass.

The IPT is unmarked and easy to miss, yet I noted that it is more visible than is usual, apparently receiving slightly increased use, over the past year. A series of faint switchbacks lead down through Black Oak and Canyon Live Oak forest, to a ravine, where a rather large flow made me get my feet a little wet (the crucial boulder at the ford was under water). A few hundred yards brought me to the Saddle and from there I left the trail and followed along the ridge crest, climbing to the east.

I walked right past the spectacular views of Giant Gap from the summit, making down and east to a special viewpoint for Sugarloaf Falls, where an enormous slab of slate forms the ridge crest. There I paused and took many photographs. It had been raining lightly the whole way down the trail and then while climbing East Knoll; suddenly the rain increased, and I started back up.

However, it soon stopped. For a little while. Rather nice views of Sugarloaf Falls are had right from the IPT itself. I took more photos. But then the rain set in again, and gradually increased, and I had the unusual experience of walking up out of rain into snow. At the EBT parking area the ground was swiftly whitening under a heavy snowfall. I shook as much snow and water off as possible before getting in and cranking up the heater to the max.

I never did get back and work on the water bars on the EBT. The rains of recent days have been following the trail along for hundreds of yards at a time. It is a certainty that Tahoe National Forest will not do anything to maintain this, one of the more popular trails in the Forest. They do not have the budget. If we want National Forests which actually maintain the trails, we must, I am told, talk Congress into it. They hold the purse strings.

The BLM is holding a public meeting tonight in Colfax, about their new management plan for the extensive BLM lands in this area. I plan to submit my own comments and ideas in writing, rather than make the 35-mile drive there and back. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Colfax High School cafeteria.

Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Expedition to Cherry Point

The remarkably warm weather has me thinking of the 500-foot waterfall in New York Canyon. NYC is a north-flowing tributary of the North Fork, heading up along the Foresthill Divide at just about 7000 feet elevation. The principal trails into that part of the canyon are still blocked by snow, though a few miles of skiing and then walking over snow makes the Mumford Bar Trail a feasible access. Then the American River Trail can be followed up to NYC, and then--well, then it's a serious bit of bushwhacking and route-finding, merely to see the waterfall.

However, one can see it from Cherry Point, at around 6800' on the divide between Little and Big Granite creeks, south of the Loch Leven Lakes. And from the top of the NYC waterfall one can see, across the main North Fork canyon to the north, not only Cherry Point, but also two high knolls or peaklets I call Fisher Point and Loch Leven Point.

A couple of springs ago I made an effort to get in to Cherry Point via Huysink Lake, a mistake on two counts, for not only is Huysink not the shortest line one can follow, but the weather was so warm as to render the snow almost unskiable.

This morning, on impulse, I had another try. I was up at six, drinking my coffee, and by seven-thirty I was tuning my skis, that is, if by "tuning" one means filing the rust off the metal edges, and rubbing an old candle stump over most of the bases and sides. These trusty old cross-country skis have carried me thousands of miles, but I haven't done much skiing in recent years.

I was on I-80 before 8:00 and reached Kingvale before 8:30, crossing under I-80 to old Highway 40 and driving west a little ways past Donner Trail elementary school, to Troy Road. It was important to start early, for I had quite a few miles of skiing to get in to Cherry Point and then back out, and the colder and harder the snow, the better. The first presage of doom was that, even at the bottom of the South Yuba canyon, where things should be coldest, I shed my sweater and left it in the car, and set out in just plain jeans and a t-shirt.

There was no point in snapping on my skis for the climb up Troy Road. The snow was packed and frozen hard. I just carried skis and poles in my arms and stomped on up, taking the left fork, which leads in to Devils Peak. I noticed a fancy new "No Trespassing" sign hung directly over the center of this old road, which happens to be one of the historic trails for which Placer County residents fought to maintain public access, back in 1953.

Fought and lost.

The "No Trespassing" sign was signed "Sinnock Properties." I tried to contact this fellow Sinnock a couple years ago, but he did not reply. I believe he's over in Grass Valley.

Just beyond the sign, the road crosses the Union Pacific tracks. I continued on up, carrying my skis, and took the right fork just beyond, which a sign marks as a Nordic ski trail to High Loch Leven Lake. In years past I had always skied up the Devils Peak road, and though friends had recommended this side trail to me, I had never tried it.

Ron Gould and I explored in that area a while back, while following the route of one of the many historic trails which have been obliterated by logging, the Big Bend-Devils Peak Trail. So I knew my way around and soon left the ski trail for a more direct line south towards Fisher Point.

Almost immediately I found out why my friends had told me to ski there. People like Gene Markley and Steve Hunter, who know this area very very well, had recommended it to me, Gene, way back in 1985. But I had never given it a go. Now here I was, on really decent snow, hardpack with a film of soft stuff on the very surface, the true and finest silk spring skiing can offer, and there were vast expanses of easy slopes and hills and valleys, just wide open, no forest, fine views of Devils Peak and Castle Peak etc. etc.

It was clearly quite a popular area as it was criss-crossed by many ski tracks laid down over the last several days, including yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon. I was startled by the sudden appearance of a small flock of Sandhill Cranes, making their odd chattering warble; they rose from the vicinity of Nancy Lake, below me to the east, which could not, cannot have any open water yet. Not that these cranes need open water. But I have never in my life seen the like: cranes in the snow. They flew away north.

I wasn't there to play around and practice telemarking, so I just kept on making my way south and a little west, and reached the summit of Fisher Point, a little over 7200', and just above frozen Fisher Lake, by about 9:30 or 10:00.

I whipped out my 12-power binoculars and looked down the canyon of Big Granite Creek and across the North Fork into New York Canyon.

Oh-oh. It was as I knew it would be. I could see Chert Knoll, the amazing overlook right beside the 500-foot waterfall, but not the waterfall itself.

Loch Leven Point was quite near, and being slightly to the south and west would offer a better angle on the falls.

Cherry Point looked to be about one air mile south, with quite a descent necessary, all complicated with ups and downs and rights and lefts, before I could level out and ski a simple line directly towards it. I thought, "Hmmm, one air mile means two ski miles, and that means four miles of skiing to get back here, and I'm nearly four miles in from I-80 already."

I didn't have a map with me, and later I found that I was not one but over two air miles from Cherry Point.

The snow seemed perfect, and I decided to just forge ahead and see how it went. A series of telemark turns got me off Fisher Point and I skied below and south of Loch Leven Point, a high granite knoll quite near Middle Loch Leven Lake. So soon as I dropped below 7000' on those south-facing slopes, the snow just went to hell. I was sinking in, and even breaking through altogether and dropping a couple feet, where the snow covered talus and brush.

A minor summit south of Loch Leven Point seemed to offer a chance of a view of the NYC waterfall, so I skied to the top and took out the binoculars.

Sure enough, I could see the upper 50 feet of the waterfall. It was in shadow and was not much to look at. The great spur ridge dropping away from the summit of Snow Mountain to the southwest was blocking my line of sight to the rest of the falls. The one and only remedy would be to ski farther south, towards Cherry Point.

But the snow was rotten and the route was nasty and I decided it would be a bit too much to take on, under today's conditions. It was bizarrely warm for a March day at 7000' elevation, with snow for miles in every direction; it was like skiing in June, yes, but not like skiing in March.

I visited the summit of Loch Leven Point, which I hadn't set ski on since about 1985, and which has truly exceptional views, from the Coast Ranges of Mendocino County to Grouse Ridge, Red Mountain, Old Man Mountain, Mt. Lola, Basin and Castle peaks, Devils Peak, monstrous Snow Mountain almost within reach it was so close, and even including Tinkers Knob and Lyon Peak. Big Valley Bluff was prominent to the southwest.

Part of the reason the view is this broad, is that the South Yuba canyon is shallow and could never hold the full flow of the great ice-field, during glacial episodes, so the ice just rode up and over the divide and dropped into the North Fork canyon. The dividing ridge was worn down low by the ice, so one can see easily into the South Yuba high country, even though one is in the North Fork basin.

In fact, the difference between these two parallel and adjacent canyons is so extreme, that it makes one of the great geomorphological contrasts of all the Sierra. The floor of the South Yuba at Kingvale is at about 6000', while directly south, the North Fork is racing along in its tremendous canyon at about 3500'. The two canyons have similarly-sized basins, hence should be similar. But they are vastly different.

The difference in form seems to reflect the difference in bedrock: granodiorite in the South Yuba, metamorphic rock in the North Fork.

There is enough in the way of bare granite on the summit right now that one could camp without touching the snow. The summit falls away in cliffs to the south.

I noted that, for all the abundance of ski tracks to the north of Fisher Point, I could not see one single track, either here at Loch Leven Point, or to the south. It's just a bit too far for folks on a single-day ski tour.

After taking some photos and looking at the distant waterfall through binoculars, and noting that Chert Knoll itself is entirely free of snow, I telemarked off the summit northward and decided to just meander through the forest until I struck the Nordic trail to High Loch Leven.

It was nice to ski in the shade of the forest, and I let myself veer west a little, hoping to strike the Nordic trail all the sooner, and maybe catch a glimpse of the lake.

I missed the lake but found the trail. A couple of miles of easy going brought me back to where I had forked away earlier, and I was soon back down at the car.

It was 1:00 p.m. exactly. I had skied about eight miles or so, with a good amount of climbing involved, and was basically thrashed. Two cars were parked there; I had seen their fresh new tracks, on my way out. They too had left the Nordic trail for the Wonderland north of Fisher Lake.

When I reached my home, at 4000' elevation, it was 75 degrees!

So, a second attempt to reach Cherry Point on skis failed. I am much of a mind now, as I was a couple years back, to just give up on the distant-view thing, and hike right to the waterfall itself, by way of Mumford Bar. But that is more than just a hike, it is a backpacking trip. I've done it in two days, one night, but that is too much, too strenuous. To visit the falls, walk back down the North Fork, and then make the 2700-foot climb up the Mumford Bar Trail, only to have to ski a few miles to one's car, all in one day--ouch!

Oh well, I guess it's time, maybe past time, to make the somewhat drastic hike via Mumford Bar, and visit the waterfalls of New York Canyon before the snow is all gone, and the trails, all open.

Monday, March 7, 2005

Visit to Canyon Creek

Near Gold Run, Canyon Creek turns to the south and enters the North Fork canyon in a long series of waterfalls. Sunday I met several friends for a walk down the Canyon Creek Trail (CCT). There were ten of us altogether. We left our cars at the Gold Run exit and sneaked through the defunct gas station to a road leading into the Diggings. A walk of half a mile or so brought us to the CCT trailhead in Potato Ravine.

A man named -- -- contacted me several years ago, seeking information about waterfalls in the North Fork. He was developing a website about waterfalls. I made the mistake of telling him about the CCT, for, despite my request that he not publicize it, he put up pictures and maps on his website. Then he went further, and put the pictures and maps on a major trails website. Suddenly large numbers of people were wandering around out on Garrett Road, trying to find the way to the CCT.

I do not know whether this led directly to the recent closure of the old road from Garrett to The Bluffs and the Paleobotanist Trail.

The CCT is fragile. It has not been adequately maintained for over a century. I absolutely believe in public access to this fine yet fragile trail. I myself have led many many people in there. I myself have a map of the trail on my website. But one has to worm one's way into my North Fork American web pages to find it. My idea was, only someone who actually cared about the North Fork would find it; and that kind of person is welcome, and needed.

I write about the CCT to this email list all the time. So, I'm not keeping any secrets. But I maintain the notion that the people on this email list care about the North Fork, and that some kind of positive action on some issue or another, Canyon Creek, for instance, could result.

For if we don't succeed in finding a way for the BLM to buy the private lands now for sale in the Gold Run Diggings, including about 90% of the CCT itself, well, history shows that our access could be lost, or at least, broken and restricted. As has just happened, by the blockage of the Paleobotanist Trail.

I have worked on the CCT for over twenty years. Most of my work has involved cutting brush from the trail. I built a bridge where the CCT crosses Canyon Creek, six years ago or so, and then rebuilt it, a couple years back. Many many parts of the trail need work. It cannot well tolerate much use. It will be damaged further. It has been damaged further, already, by the increased use since -- -- publicized it.

As our group filed down into the canyon, the young folks, ages 13 to 20, dashed ahead, running down the trail. Being young, they did not have the sense to keep their feet on the narrow path. The edge of the trail was broken down in places.

Now, I have carried a shovel in there many times, and have restored, with extreme care and delicacy, several hundred feet of the trail, where bushes once forced animals and humans alike downslope. I made a tiny bench cut in such places, in keeping with the overall narrowness of the trail, merely restoring its proper line. I tried to do it in such a way that no one would even realize the work had been done. But there are many many problem areas which remain.

After we reached the great drain tunnel of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co., 1873, where three to five thousand cubic yards of Diggings gravel per day once flowed through the giant sluice boxes into Canyon Creek and into the creek's own giant sluice boxes, a few of us old folk took the lead and left the youngsters behind.

I noted footprints less than two days old on the trail, Vibram-soled prints unlike those made by me and Catherine and Alex near a week ago. Here again, one problem area on the trail had been broken down further by a careless hiker. This will about force me to restore this segment of the trail.

Now, I actually like trail work. I wouldn't mind making a complete fix of the CCT. It's going to require backpacking quite a few 50-pound sacks of mortar and concrete all the way down to the rockslide below Gorge Point. Then the stone steps can be built which will fix this dangerous reach of the trail. And before that is done, the deep gaps near the tunnel should be fixed. In fact, I have nurtured a vague and pleasant fantasy that, once the BLM buys the CCT parcel, they will let me repair the trail. Not to make it a highway; just to fix the bad spots and prevent further damage from occurring. Some hundreds of hours of work would be needed. I already have done a hundred or so hours of work on the thing, not counting the lopping which I do on a routine basis.

Perhaps it is not strange that I have developed a proprietary attitude towards the CCT. I have hiked it since 1976. I have literally bloodied myself working on it. I carried the lumber for the bridge over a mile on my shoulder, both times. It took several trips.

Oh well.

Sunday was a blessing of a day, warm and sunny. We straggled down the trail and some of us made it all the way to the North Fork. We had worked up a sweat just going down the trail, and at the Last Waterfall, beside the river, butterflies of several species landed on our heads and hands, to delicately sip our sweat.

A Great Blue Heron suddenly winged past, heading down the river, and I said, "Just wait; some kayakers or rafters will not be far behind." For the kayaks scare up ducks and herons and hawks and eagles and the birds usually go down the river to escape. Sure enough, five kayaks soon appeared. They stopped at Canyon Creek for a break, on their way to Mineral Bar from Euchre Bar.

We made a nice slow climb up and out in the afternoon sun. At the bridge, a cute couple was met, hiking down the trail with backpacks. Well, the man, a tall young fellow, had a tall backpack. I did not recognize them and gently asked how they had learned about the trail.

"I found out about it on the internet, on a waterfalls website," the tall young man replied.

They looked like good people, and I have no fear that they will leave garbage along the trail. It is likely enough that they will damage the trail a little, just as our party had. It is a fragile trail.

When we reached our cars, around four or five in the afternoon, I-80 westbound was at a near standstill. Perhaps there had been a wreck on Three Mile Grade, a few miles west. The traffic was backed up all the way up to the Alta exit, a few miles east, and beyond. What a nightmare.

It was a lovely day on the Canyon Creek Trail.

A Remembrance of Times Past

The Inimitable Julie, a hiker par excellence who stands about five feet two inches tall, and somehow takes ten-foot strides, as near as I can tell, writes:

My first experience with Canyon Creek was about 28 years ago. I spent quite
a bit of time at Pickering Bar with friends who had a mining camp there,
downriver on the north side where all those lovely ledges make a perfect
summer home. My friends were living in a tipi. ( Not Robert, the fellow who
lived in one at Green Valley years later.) Anyway exploring upriver led to
the discovery of an unbelievable sight. A creek that cascades down the side
of the canyon in a series of magnificent waterfalls, each one with it's own
deep clear pool, the rock is scoured clean like you expect to see on a big
waterway. We explored up the creek several layers of pools and lounged on
the large terraces of stone. Further up a huge waterfall pounded down
filling the air with a cold mist and rainbows. I don't think I'll ever
forget the first time I saw Canyon Creek. I visited the falls many times
over a two summer period. Then life changed, and different things were
happening. It seems I forgot about Canyon Creek for some years. I never knew
then that there was a trail. We were using Pickering Bar and Blue wing. I
have only learned about the trail from you, it was Larry who mentioned it.
He Was talking about a trail, with a creek, with many waterfalls, in the
vicinity of Gold Run. I had never heard anyone else mention Canyon Creek.
Thank you for telling us about the special trail. As time goes by we do see
more and more people in the canyon. Each person wants to show one or two
very special friends, and those friends tell their special friends. And so
it goes. There is no answer. It's just the nature of things.However I now
have a different appreciation of the trail and will be even that much more
careful. I visited there a week ago or so. I have never met anyone on the
trail! See you. Julie

Thursday, March 3, 2005

Revisiting the HOUT

Wednesday dawned showery, after a night of sustained heavy rain, yet the morning news showed the storm passing rapidly east into Nevada, chased by clear skies to the west. I can't tell you how impressed I was by the views from Big West Spur, last week. It seemed only sensible to return and photograph the spectacle of Giant Gap emerging from its shrouds of storm-wrack and fog. An early start was demanded.

Driving my son to school at 8:00 a.m., a regular downpour of cats and dogs quelled my ardor. Sometimes these storms hang up in the Sierra for many hours, or even a day, after they have ended in lower elevations to the west. Who could say if this storm would stay or go?

Alex Henderson could. He called around 9:00, while light showers persisted here, to report sunshine there (Auburn), and proposed a hike. In a matter of minutes Catherine O'Riley was on board, and we all met at Gold Run, rather too late in the morning for Big West Spur and the good old post-storm Phantasmagoria of Fog, but at least the showers had ended.

We parked near Garrett and marched across the soggy Diggings to the Canyon Creek Trail. Little creeks one usually strides across without pausing had swelled into rushing rivers, within an ace of stopping us and forcing a ford. We were in the headwaters of Potato Ravine, not so labeled on modern maps. The waters of Potato were captured by the "Big Pit" of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co. in the 1870s, and since then have flowed into the more northern shaft and out to Canyon Creek in the huge drain tunnel.

At the head of Potato, west of Canyon Creek, stands Cold Springs Hill, where volcanic ash strata of the Valley Springs Formation create a perched aquifer, and a perennial spring nurtures a meadow high on the warm southwest slopes, where Indians lived for thousands of years, and where some enterprising 49er set up a trading post.

There is every reason to believe that the original beginning of the Canyon Creek Trail was at the Cold Springs Trading Post. Potato Ravine formed a kind of pass leading out of the gorge of Canyon Creek. In yet another meadow, also associated to the perched aquifer in the headwaters of Potato, were grown the very potatoes which gave the ravine its name, in 1849 or 1850.

If one is very clever and practiced using Google, one can find the diary of a doctor who spent the summer of 1849 near this trading post. Lamentably, we learn very little of this area from the doctor's diary. A mention of the impossibly steep cliffs of the North Fork (probably referring to Giant Gap), a mention of huge pines near the trading post (the Eocene river channel, unrecognized at that time, had evolved deep soils, and well-watered as well; we should imagine Ponderosa and Sugar pines, up to eight feet in diameter).

Soon we were beside Canyon Creek, high and loud and fast and a little muddy after the night of drenching downpours. Across the bridge, the roar of the first big waterfall greeted us well before it came in view. The Leaper was far beyond the fire-hose aspect of lower flows, and was a confused mass of white water bridging the little chasm-notch beside it with great force and sound and fury.

As the main North Fork canyon hove into view to the south, the last shreds of fog were already lifting and dissipating, and the clouds above were lifting as well, their bases already thousands of feet above. The showers had ended.

More and more flowers are appearing along the CCT, and really it bids fair to be an exceptional year for the things. In some years one wades through forests of flowers. Other years, drier years, they are much reduced in size and number.

The creek was raging into and through the amazing Inner Gorge, a corkscrew chasm with mist and thunder rising from hidden waterfalls. We took the steep cross-country route down to the base of the Big Waterfall, perhaps 120 feet high, which splits into two falls in high flows. It was generating an impressive cloud of spray, which drifted all around us, a hundred yards away.

I have been there several times when the creek carried *much* more water, and a kind of hurricane of mist sweeps over the very spot we were standing, and one is almost instantly soaked.

An ephemeral stream spilled down the cliffs across the creek, those remarkable steep slabs broken on right angles to make gigantic overhangs. In fact, the steep cliffs around the base of the Big Waterfall make it a hazardous place; rocks crash down frequently, and smash to smithereens of shards on the big rounded bosses of bedrock along the creek. Large sluice boxes were once mounted below the falls, and the stout iron pins in the rock, which somehow (using cables, I guess) anchored the boxes, have been smashed down flat by flood events, probably many decades ago. The pins are unchanged since I first saw them, in 1977 or 1978.

The sun broke through suddenly, and a rainbow played in the mist. We continued down the Big Waterfall Trail, past The Terraces, to the Canyon Creek Trail, and soon thereafter, struck away east on the HOUT.

The clouds thinned and the sun rapidly warmed the canyon wall, lush in spring grasses, mosses, flowers, and ferns. Last week no fewer than four ticks dug into my hide, during a hike on the HOUT. They are quite a nuisance in the rainy season, yet seem to disappear when summer comes.

Bogus Ravine, on the west side of Bogus Spur, named for Bogus Point, far above us on the canyon rim, was full of whitewater. We crossed without incident and soon reached strangely steep Croquet Meadow, just beyond where the River Trail forks right. There Alex decided to stop, but Catherine was of course ready to forge ahead to the overlooks on Big West Spur. Not a shred of fog remained, but some rather glorious cumulus clouds drifted here and there, draping shadows over the two-thousand-foot cliffs.

Here as elsewhere the world was alive with the sound of water and waterfalls; every little ravine in Giant Gap had its own long series of cascades and falls, and the North Fork itself must have been flowing near a thousand cubic feet per second, and was still a mite muddy, or at least, not its usual picture of clear clarity.

We had found the sweater, so full of holes, I had left along the trail last week, the very sweater which actually inspired "darn it, darn it!" Now, as we followed the HOUT east towards Big West Spur, we saw that the "true" line of the HOUT was above us, in trees and brush. At a certain point we found the HOUT's tiny bench cut and decided to explore back west towards Croquet Meadow: perhaps the original line of the trail could be restored.

Catherine set her pack down on the narrow trail, and I watched stupidly while it slowly turned over and began to roll away, straight down. It was almost stopped by a fallen Digger Pine, but snuck beneath its trunk and turned into a little cyclone of mass and momentum, making glad leaps and bounds and spinning away out of sight.

This changed everything. We decided to let Alex know where things stood, but on reaching Croquet he was gone, already away on the return trail. We dropped to the River Trail in hopes the pack had hung up in the brush somewhere, rather than plunging directly into the North Fork, below. No sign. We split up and I climbed back up to where it had first escaped. Then, climbing right back down the fall line, I passed the fallen pine and carelessly dislodged a good-sized rock, which instantly whirled away on its own trip to the river. Unless Catherine had veered east, she was safe, but I shouted out warnings in any case. As it went out of sight a spot of color caught my eye.

Descending, I grabbed the pack and set out west, to find Catherine scouting open grassy slopes below the River Trail. A water bag and umbrella were still missing, and we took a quick look but could find no trace of either.

Now three in the afternoon, it was prudent to retreat, rather than push on to Big West. We enjoyed a nice hike into the westering sun, enlivened somewhat when I left my GPS unit at Bogus Ravine, and had to run back over a quarter-mile of rough trail to retrieve it, while Catherine waited.

Despite these minor calamities it was a wonderful day in the great canyon. We reached our cars a little before day's end, a little wet and bedraggled, but quite pleased to have acted on impulse and taken the path less traveled.