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.

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