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.

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