Saturday, April 9, 2005

Canyon Visitation

The original plan was to lead a PARC (Protect the American River Canyon) hike to Green Valley, back in March, but heavy rain canceled and we rescheduled for April 9th. PARC's Eric Peach called to confirm a few days ago, when weather forecasts suggested a weak storm for Friday, with clearing on Saturday the 9th.

Friday's weak storm magically became a howling blizzard focused at the head of the Green Valley Trail, so at the very last minute, early Saturday morning, Eric and I decided that Canyon Creek was the more reasonable destination, with its lower trailhead elevation. The group would meet at the Gold Run exit on I-80 at about 9:45 a.m.

The day dawned with a monstrous river of fog nearly filling the North Fork canyon, swiftly ruffled by the rising sun, beneath clear and azure skies. The fog soon boiled up into mysterious masses, and within three hours had evaporated, only to be reincarnated as fair-weather cumulus clouds, a few thousand feet above. I was stuffing lunch and camera in my day pack when the telephone rang. Alex Henderson reported that I-80 was being closed at Colfax because of a major accident up on the Summit, and that our crew ought to take the back roads if at all possible.

Fortunately, Eric too made one more call, just as his gang was leaving Auburn, so I told him all about the back roads. Then I left for Gold Run and paced around in the sunshine for an hour with Alex. Eric et. al. arrived, and after some fussing around with packs and boots we set out south into the Diggings, towards the Canyon Creek Trail.

By a lucky break the esteemed Otis and Jane Wollan were among the group, along with Tony and Margie, Ann, Alex, and Eric's wife Paula. Like Eric, Otis has long been an advocate for the North Fork and the environment, here in Placer County. The world was fresh and wet and cool. As we walked south on the Main Diggings Road, we encountered ATV tracks made that very morning. I had heard of a new ATV trail in the Diggings, and sure enough, the tracks sprang from that very trail, which leads from a house on Garrett Road down to the Main Diggings Road.

We hit the Canyon Creek Trail hard and fast, or rather, we bumbled along admiring wildflowers, of which there were many: Houndstongues and Shooting Stars and Balsam Root and Indian Pink were all in bloom along upper reached of the trail. We stopped at the great tunnel of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co. (1873), blasted twelve feet wide and nine feet high from the blocky-fracturing metavolcanic rock of the Calaveras Complex. This tunnel splits into two smaller tunnels a few hundred feet in, each branch over a thousand feet long, ending in vertical shafts in the Diggings. These tunnels allowed the GRD&M to wash the Eocene gravels all the way down to the bedrock floor of the ancient river. Millions of cubic yards of tailings flowed through the tunnels in massive sluice boxes, only to enter yet other sluice boxes for the last mile down Canyon Creek to the North Fork.

The day was absolutely lovely, with billowy clouds and deep blue sky and roaring cascades and waterfalls all along the creek. Vultures careened along aloft. The Leaper was in good form, with somewhat too much water slamming across the deeply incised chamber for its most ideal shape to manifest. Then we reached the Inner Gorge. First one spots it from afar, then the trail is cut into cliffs rising directly above the gorge, and many fine views are had.

Eric and I had noted some scuffed patches on the trail, made by a bear or more likely a human, earlier in the morning. I criticized the coordination and walking ability of whoever or whatever it was, and joked that it must be an overlarge man, Budweiser in hand; for the scuffs and slips were oddly frequent and deep.

The PARC folks made an especially good group to appreciate the wonders of Canyon Creek; they were astounded, even stunned, by this strange strange twisted gorge-within-a-gorge, where the creek drops in waterfalls into a kind of cave, from which all kinds of hissings and thunderings emerge to echo and reflect from the cliffs.

Lots of yellow Biscuit Root and some few Slender Larkspur are in bloom along that part of the trail. Canyon Nemophila and Lacepod were abundant.

We took the steep cross-country route down to the Big Waterfall, enjoying a lunch break while being cooled by drifting spray. The white pigeons were back, in that neat group of seven seen in there for two years now. They seem to love the Big Waterfall and are almost always near it.

The sun became lost in the clouds and we felt a chill set in, so back on with packs and on down the trail it was. At The Terraces we found my overlarge-man-with-a-Budweiser, in the form of four young men with backpacks, tarps and sleeping bags spread across the lower terrace.

This reminds me that many parts of the Canyon Creek Trail need work; the trail is easily damaged in its present, over-fragile form.

We walked out Lower Terraces Trail to the main trail and on down to the river, where we enjoyed another sustained break. Once again the clouds intervened and threw us into shadow and once again we shouldered our packs and started hiking--up, this time.

But not for long. Soon we reached the semi-secret HOUT (High Old Upriver Trail) and struck out towards Giant Gap, rounding Bogus Spur to reach the excellent east-facing overlook, the North Fork all emerald and white below, and Giant Gap rearing up into massive cliffs and pointy pinnacles just up the canyon. Cloud shadows drifted across the cliffs.

I should say that the flowers are not yet at their peak, but down there on the HOUT, on south-facing slopes at about 1800' elevation, there is a ton of flowers. There are tens of thousands of Blue Dicks, and quite an array of Harlequin Lupines, and, well, many other species.

It is beginning to look like this may be a very remarkable wildflower season, a once-in-a-decade bloom.

The Canyon creek Trail is steep lower down, and we paused to rest near the Inner Gorge. There were the Seven Pigeons of Doom, or whatever they're called, perched across the gorge. Someone said they wanted to see the lovely birds take flight, so I heaved a rock their way with some shouted imprecation such as, "avast, birdies!" The rock almost hit them, it was a remarkable and lucky heave. Of course they dutifully took flight and zoomed around.

On the hike up and out we found time to walk the short and scary Six Inch Trail, and then the Blasted Digger Trail. So it really became the Grand Tour. When we finally returned to the main trail, my slow and steady pace easily outpaced the rest of the group, and, rather than repeatedly waiting for them to catch up, I just kept on slowly climbing, and reached my car around 7:00 p.m. I trust they arrived not too long after. I myself rushed home in a horrible hunger and made quesadillas with Chinese hot sauce and spinach and garlic, for me and my family.

It was another great day on the North Fork.

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