Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Bears of Giant Gap

One thing or another kept me trapped indoors and off the trails for most of recent weeks. A little weather here and there--it snowed here at my place as recently as last Wednesday evening--and the exigencies of schools and children.

Friday morning I met Ron Gould at the Dutch Flat exit and we contrived to drive into the Gold Run Diggings and parked at the top of the Canyon Creek Trail. Our objective was the HOUT: the HOUT has many "problem" sections, where the original almost-level line of the Giant Gap Canal has been lost, so that game and humans alike have been forced up or down (almost always, down), until whatever obstacle is passed.

The "obstacles" are often patches of gnarled, rock-hard, half-dead buckbrush interlaced with poison oak. We wanted to take a closer look at one such section, about three-quarters of a mile up from the Canyon Creek Trail.

The Giant Gap Canal was never built. It would have carried water from the North Fork to San Francisco, via a series of ditches, tunnels, and pipelines. The most difficult section of the work was in the awesome gorge of Giant Gap. So, to demonstrate the feasibility of the project, men were hired to "break grade" through the Gap, and they even began work on two of the tunnels.

Fortunately the project never advanced very far. Work stopped around 1900, and it is passing strange that some of the clear heart sugar pine 4X4's are still there in the Gap, a century later, protected from wildfires by the cliffy terrain. These 4X4's seem to have been used to make catwalks across cliffs, and such-like purposes.

If anyone ever sets eyes on one of these 4X4's it means they have nerves of steel. They are only found in the very heart of Giant Gap, in the midst of the steepest cliffs, where the HOUT degenerates into something, almost nothing, the ghost of a dream of a trail which scarcely ever was.

And yet, there it is.

As only makes sense, the men breaking grade used the line of the proposed canal as a trail to gain access to their work. So they built small dry-laid stone walls at many locations, to bolster the path. It looks as tho they had several camps during the year or two work was in progress: in Green Valley; at Canyon Creek; right in the middle of Giant Gap itself, near one of the tunnels; and, likely enough, near the North Fork, just downstream from Big West Spur.

It only makes sense that they were not too concerned to hold the ideal line of the canal across difficult, cliffy areas; after all, when it came time to actually build the canal, a maelstrom of blasting would erase everything they had done to break the grade. So in cliffy areas the HOUT often wanders a bit off-line, and you can see that they built their little stone walls nonetheless, for it was essential to have easy access to the work.

The flowers are now far too many to name, not that I know them all anyway, and the peak bloom is still weeks away. Pacific Dogwoods are in full bloom along the Indiana Hill Ditch on the upper CCT, and we saw the first few salmon-pink blossoms of our local Bush Monkeyflower. Tufted Poppies by the hundreds, lupines and clovers of several species, the first of the Mock Orange, the many thousands of Blue Dicks. The day was warming rapidly and I felt a little overheated, wearing blue jeans. We hit the HOUT and pushed up the canyon, amazed by the flowers, the river roaring and sparkling below, clear as clear can be. Some kayakers appeared, on their way to Mineral Bar from Euchre Bar. And the HOUT was suddenly adorned with large and rather fresh piles of bear poop, in the classic spring fashion, no seeds or berries, much grassy fibers, and almost black.

So we began to wonder whether we might walk right up on the well-fed creature.

We reached our problem section and scouted the area well. It looked as though the original line of the HOUT could be restored rather easily, so we forged on and beyond, passing Big West Gully and crossing steep open slopes crowded with blue bush lupine. The North Fork stretched away west on a nearly straight line before entering a sequence of interlacing spur ridges at Canyon Creek. To our amazement mosquitos were out, which is a bit unusual in such high and rocky and sunny terrain. It is not just a good flower year, apparently, but also a good mosquito year, and I already know all too well it is a good year for ticks.

Too little hiking has left me old and decrepit and as we crossed those sun-baked west-facing slopes I felt strangely weak.

Quite near the steep patch of bush lupine is the Bear Bed, a cute little nest surrounded by multiple trunks of a Canyon Live Oak. It is not impossible that these many trunks stump-sprouted after the original tree was cut down, during the breaking of the grade a century or so ago. Canyon Live Oaks grow quite slowly, for the most part. The Bear Bed has been used a lot in recent weeks, and is almost guarded or defended by amazing masses of poop.

Ron and I think that one of the four tunnels proposed as part of the Giant Gap Canal would have been cut directly through Big West Spur, thus avoiding a long section of steep cliffs where it is almost inconceivable that a canal could have been blasted out. At any rate the HOUT suddenly climbs away from the ideal grade and circles around the end of Big West Spur on a high line, winding in and out of a series of small ravines separated by major spurs of rock. We finally turned the last corner and reached one of the more amazing of all the fine viewpoints along the HOUT, nearly 400 feet above the river, and less than 100 feet away on the horizontal. It looks as tho one could jump right in. Lovers Leap is in full view to the east, and some of the waterfalls of Lovers Leap Ravine, and portions of the HOUT itself are visible, towards Onion Point.

Yet another pile of poop showed that our mystery bear had recently used the HOUT to enter Giant Gap. Ten years ago I doubted that bears would have much to do in a place like that, so full of cliffs; but again and again I see both bears and their sign, in the steepest parts of this amazingly narrow gorge.

When I go there I feel like a real stud. For a bear, it's probably nothing; ho hum, a cliff. Any yellowjacket nests to plunder?

The sun had crossed into the western sky and the embrace of deepening shadows was not welcome for long, as a stiff breeze was running up the canyon. We retreated to the first rock blade west, and sunshine, and rested a good rest, so that I began to feel myself again.

On the way back out we paused to scout another "problem" section on Big West Spur itself, and discovered an improved line for one short reach of the old trail.

We rested again above the Land of Blue Bush Lupines and were amazed to see a duck of some kind standing in the exact center of the river, a few hundred feet below, on a large rock, which looked entirely submerged to the naked eye, but under binoculars seemed to reach the surface, albeit barely. It was probably a Common Merganser, the most-frequently seen species of duck on the North Fork.

The shadows began to cover more and more of the canyon wall west of us as we finally settled into the return, and after we left Big West Spur the hike was pretty much all in the shade.

Between Bogus Gully and the Canyon Creek Trail we finally met the elusive bear whose pungent sign had marked so much of the trail. It was resting beneath a Canyon Live Oak a few feet above the HOUT, and as I happened to be in the lead, it fell to me to almost bump right into the thing, after turning a sharp blind corner. The bear and I were about equally shocked. It was a lovely reddish bear, at least a two-year-old, and only a little less than full-grown, fat and well-rounded. It scrambled up a ravine while I fell back around the corner to tell Ron, hoping it would not disappear before he had a chance to see it. But he was too far back, so I returned only in time to see it making zig-zags up some steep slopes well above me. It was interesting that it only used the direct upward line to make the first fifty yards and get above some intervening scrub oaks; there, it felt safe enough to switch back and forth up the canyon wall, just as we humans would do if we climbed such an area.

There's not much more to tell. A slow slog up the steep trail. From time to time we had seen some rather robust black caterpillars, with an impressive halo of red hairs radiating away from their bodies, and a funny kind of Mohawk-style crest of longer white hairs down the middle of their backs. We saw some more of these punk Mohawk caterpillars on the climb. The Leaper is much diminished but still in excellent form, better even than when the creek is higher--more focused, as though a fire-hose were hidden in the top of a cliff. Such a strange waterfall it is. One can't see the water flowing to the top of the falls, just a jet of white arcing up and out before crashing into a vertical wall six or eight feet away.

We reached the top around 6:30 and despite the strange lassitude and weakness which afflicted us both out on Big West Spur--I had had the strongest desire to just take a long nap--it had been a great day in the great canyon.

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