Saturday, May 28, 2005

East Fork of the NFNFAR

Friday morning I zoomed up to Emigrant Gap and Forest Road 19, destination, the East Fork of the North Fork of the North Fork of the American River.

Hereinafter called the East Fork.

This FR 19 is an old road, having been used by the Towle Brothers Lumber Company in the 1890s to haul sawn lumber cut at Burnett Canyon and Texas Hill out to Emigrant Gap and the railroad. Giant steam tractors were used. The wonderland of old-growth trees swiftly disappeared.

In those days, narrow-gauge railroads were an important part of timbering operations. Dutch Flat's Towle Bros. had a large Chinese road gang which made the little bench cuts and built the trestles needed for their narrow-gauge railroad. In 1902 Towle Bros. sold to Read Lumber Co. of Oregon, who continued in the same area using the same methods. The Smarts and other lumbering families of Old Placer also had timber operations in the area served by Forest Road 19. Most all used narrow-gauge railroads.

There is a persistent legend of a "lost locomotive" somewhere back in those forested canyons near FR 19.

So, there are many old narrow-gauge railroad roadbeds wandering through the woods in that area, south and east of Emigrant Gap. These vary from main lines to ad hoc, very temporary railroads, driven as low as possible into some valley so as to command all the slopes above. Logs were rolled carefully and directly downhill onto the flat cars. I have an old photograph showing this method.

Everything was set up to minimize labor; the roadcuts were narrow, as the gauge was narrow, and gravity was always an ally in yarding logs. Rarely if ever were logs yarded uphill. At the Towle Bros. Burnett Canyon Mill, a steep railed "incline" was run directly down into Burnett, with a fixed steam engine on top. Again, flat cars were loaded down in the canyon, and yarded up the incline.

I had very little time, my son getting out of school at noon, so I arrived at the East Fork, around seven paved miles in from Emigrant Gap and I-80, by around 8:30 a.m.

It was already warm. I had noted many car-campers aswarm in the woods; a large party had set up just across the bridge, on the left bank. Memorial Day weekend had started a day early for some. I drove past and parked at the first available spot, where the road switched up and northeast.

This is an interesting little part of Placer County. The East Fork heads up on Quartz Mountain, nearly 7000'--so there is snow, deep snow, at the headwaters, right now--, and a few hundred yards above the bridge on FR 19, Monumental Creek enters from the north. One perhaps has noticed that there is a "Monumental Creek" and a "Monumental Ridge" and, well, once there was a mining camp known as "Monumental Camp."

And what is this "monument" for which these things are named? What is so "monumental" about anything in these deep and dark and piney woods laced with crystal streams? The trees, perhaps. Once upon a time the genuine giants grew here. Eight-foot-diameter Sugar Pines.

About a hundred and fifty feet up Monumental Creek from the East Fork, there is a tall thin spire of rock, rising from the creek itself. Other pinnacles nearby make a kind of family of rock spires; but the one rising from the creek is the tallest and the thinnest and most impressive, and, it is, it must be, The Monument for which all those things were named.

In the meanwhile, the old Bradley & Gardner "Placer County Canal" winds through this exact area, having had its very beginning just a little ways up the East Fork, above The Monument. This rather large ditch diverted water for the hydraulic mines at Dutch Flat. It followed a very long and complicated course, winding in and out of many canyons.

I myself aimed southwest, away from these things, and clambered through many fallen trees in a nice patch of heavy timber about 100' above the East Fork. I was in effect skirting the base of the northwest face of Texas Hill, a thousand feet above. A faint trail began to appear, along with some old fire-rings. An old fishermen's trail? Could be.

But almost immediately it assumed the character of a remarkably flat and narrow road.

It was, in fact, one of the old narrow-gauge roadbeds in the area. I followed it and noted a steady gentle climb, rising higher and higher above the East Fork, which flowed southwest. This suited me, for I wished to get a look at a certain knoll or hill of some kind, adjacent to the East Fork, about a mile down the canyon from the bridge. Elevation, 4588'.

I call it Blade Knoll, or Blade Dome. It forms a narrow crest of rock which rises into little spires and knife-edge ridges, and stands about 400' above some waterfalls, several in turn, on the East Fork. I had seen it on the topographic maps for years and wanted to visit it. Today was the time.

A rock outcrop was met, and the roadbed narrowed to a trail and wandered off-grade briefly before the rocks were passed and it expanded to full size and resumed its proper grade again. Apparently, some trestling had once bridged the rocky area.

At some places, large dry-laid stone walls held up the roadbed. The country rock is all Shoo Fly Complex metasediments, with a preponderance of metasandstones, and some light grey chert.

Then horror struck: the mossy old road passed onto private property, in the SW 1/4 of Section 17, T16N, R12E, and the canyon wall dissolved into a medley of skid trails, large and small. No attempt had been made to preserve the historic narrow-gauge roadbed; instead, it was obliterated. The logging looked to be about ten or fifteen years old, but I am unsure, it may have been more recent. When a heavy bulldozer pulls heavy logs around on a steep canyon wall like that, mantled with often deep and moist soils developed upon glacial till, well--a dozer grinds a channel several feet deep, in such a place.

Here the skid trails often had cut banks six feet high on the uphill sides. Very much raw subsoil remained exposed to erosion, despite the passage of years; this modern, bulldozer-oriented mode of logging leaves scars which will stand the test of centuries.

I struggled across a couple hundred yards of this nightmarish logging before I caught sight of my narrow-gauge roadbed again, a bit above me. I climbed to it and it was more or less intact before passing into Forest Service land again, where it was pristine.

Some blue flagging with black bars suggested that a TNF archeologist had surveyed it in recent years.

I wandered along west, trying but failing to catch a glimpse of my destination knoll; I was now well above the East Fork. Yet it spoke all the louder and I guessed waterfalls were below.

Another patch of private property was met (Section 19), and once again the narrow-gauge roadbed had been obliterated, in this case, by a wide bulldozed road. And this wide new road was overgrown with young Douglas Fir of about ten years' age. Impenetrably overgrown!

Oh, well, I had seen that bears used the railroad I had been following, and they continued right along into the thicket of small trees, but not much of a path remained. I struggled into the knotted problem for a hundred yards or so and then retreated.

There was still no sign of my Blade Dome. I was more than a mile southwest from the bridge, where I'd parked; hence I could only have passed it without seeing it. To be able to exclude the possibility that it was directly below me, I started zigzagging down the canyon wall, aiming towards those waterfall sounds. One east-running zag brought me in view of Blade Dome. It reared a couple hundred feet above me into a sharp matterhorn, springing from a long crest of grey rock.

The summit beckoned but first--the falls? I continued downslope far enough to realize that I was still hundreds of feet above the river, and time grew short. So back to Blade Dome I went, climbing to the valley-pass which separates it from the main canyon wall, and then up through masses of stunted Canyon Live Oak and manzanita to the summit ridge.

Here a bear trail was followed along the crest to the little matterhorn. I began to have glimpses of several waterfalls, generating clouds of mist, at the west base of Blade Dome. The crest narrows to a two-foot-wide strip out there at the west end of the summit ridge. Great views, all the way down the East Fork, the NFNFAR, and the main canyon, to and through Giant Gap.

During the last, "Tioga" glaciation, which ended about 12,000 years ago, very much ice from the South Yuba ice field broke away south into the North Fork. Some of this overflow ice went right over the top of Quartz Mountain (the summit is a patch of Shoo Fly Complex chert) and down the East Fork.

If the country rock in the East Fork had been granite, we'd have a bit more in the way of exposed glacially polished rock, and probably some granite domes here and there. But these Shoo Fly rocks, with their often slaty texture and foliation, are more likely to end up mired in glacial till, rather than forming broad exposures. Still, this little Blade Dome counts as the Shoo Fly equivalent of the granite domes we see so often in glaciated parts of the Sierra. Across the East Fork are some impressive cliffs, obviously planed back flat by East Fork ice.

It is not the hardness of the rock--Shoo Fly chert would win in a scratching war against granite, every time--but its massiveness, which determines its resistance to glacial erosion. Granite is more massive than chert and metasandstone; freer from joints and foliations and discontinuities in structure which allow ice to pluck and grab and generally tear things up.

It is not so very clear that this East Fork area is glacial topography. The many canyons are most often "V-shaped," not "U-shaped" as one is taught to expect from a glacially-carved canyon.

My time had run out so I beat a hasty retreat up the East Fork canyon to Forest Road 19.

It was a nice day of exploration, and more is needed--those waterfalls should be quite nice to visit--but I am reminded of the rapacity of Sierra Pacific Industries, and of how important it is for Tahoe National Forest to acquire the private inholdings in this area.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Iowa Hill Ditch Trail

Huge waterfalls casting plumes of rainbowed spray, the spicy air of true fir forests, a loud and rampant river, and snowy peaks. But first:

"Description of the Works - The company has already built about 27 miles of main canal, of the following dimensions; bottom, 8 feet; top, 11 feet; depth, 4 feet, with a grade of 10 feet to the mile and a capacity of about 8000 inches. This canal, so far as constructed, begins at a point in Section 29, Township 16 North, Range 13 East, Mount Diablo base and Meridian, marked "A" on the large map, and reaches the main reservoir in about 20 miles, receiving by the way the Secret Ravine branch, 4 miles long and 3000 inches capacity and the Eldorado branch, 3 1/2 miles long and not yet completed. The Lower Humbug Ditch, which controls the water supply at Damascus, is about 6 miles long and, and enters the reservoir direct. The South Shirt Tail Ditch is 2 miles long. These are all collectors and have an aggregated length of 34 1/2 miles."

Such is a portion of the material gathered by archeologist Nolan Smith of Tahoe National Forest's Foresthill-American River Ranger District, concerning the Iowa Hill Ditch (IHD). The ditch was intended to serve many hydraulic and drift mines.

This material dates, I think, from 1882. The 1884 "Sawyer" decision stopped hydraulic mining, and therefore stopped work on the IHD.

There is an error in the description above: the "point of beginning" actually lies to the south in the center of Section 32, of the same Township and Range. It was tough going, surveying in the North Fork canyon, in the good old days. The point in question is in the middle of a cliffy area, a mile west of New York Canyon, a mile east of Tadpole Canyon, and directly south and across the North Fork from Sugar Pine Point.

The ditch is close to the 5400' contour.

There is one other bit of confusion in the above description: the point of beginning is actually the point of ending, the last-constructed portion of the IHD. It would have continued farther up the North Fork, gathering the waters of all its southern tributaries (New York Canyon, Sailor Canyon, Wildcat Canyon and Wabena Canyon) before drawing from the North Fork itself high up towards Summit Soda Springs.

From the Sugar Pine Point cliffs, or from Big Valley Bluff, one obtains a good view of this old mining ditch; and in descending the Beacroft Trail, the IHD is crossed almost immedately. For years I had gazed across the canyon at this huge ditch, and for years I dreamed it would make a wonderful trail. The brush fields it crosses signified that it would be nearly impossible to actually follow the thing.

Then, a year ago, I obtained a copy of a 1962 TNF map, the same map I used to use for my explorations in the early 1970s, a map notable because it shows many of the historic trails, trails since ruined by logging or simply abandoned.

These were some of the same trails shown on still older TNF maps, a few of which Ron Gould and I had followed as best we could through a churned-up mess of slash and skid trails.

One trail which immediately caught our eyes (for Ron and I share digital forms of many old maps) branched from the top of the Beacroft and followed the IHD east across Tadpole Canyon to its Point of Beginning.

Today I finally got a look at this old-time trail. That wasn't the plan, tho. Once again Alex Henderson and I pondered the mysteries which attend upon remodeling his kitchen. Once again the better part of valor was to get into his sporty little Beamer convertible and drive to the North Fork canyon.

Our first stop was North Fork Dam, at Lake Clementine. Crossing the high Foresthill Bridge, a drive of a mile or so brings one to Lower Lake Clementine Road. Follow this road down until the dam comes in view, and then find and follow the use trails leading closer to one of the most spectacular spectacles in all Placer County: the entire flow of the North Fork American spilling over the broad arched top of the concrete dam, in a sort of Niagara Falls about one hundred feet high.

It was a gigantic, almost horrifying cauldron of white water, with spray exploding forth and streaming hundreds of feet down the canyon. The water is spilling across the entire length of the dam. Amazing.

I suggested that it would be a really cool thing to drive up the Foresthill Road to the snow. I've been wanting to get in to see the 500' waterfall in New York Canyon during these high flows, but access is difficult. Choice of route would depend on whether one could reach Canada Hill or not.

So up we drove on the long and winding road, through Foresthill, through Baker Ranch, past China Wall (which is on the IHD), past the Mumford Bar Trail, and snowdrifts began to dot the sunny forest.

The road stayed clear enough until we rounded the head of Little Secret Canyon at the beginning of the Beacroft Trail. Suddenly snow blocked further progress.

We adapted to the situation, parked a ways shy of the trailhead, and walked over snowbanks and waded shallow streams of meltwater until on the trail proper. A forest of mixed White and Red Fir scented the air. I wanted to get another look at the line of the IHD and see what remained, if anything, of the old trail.

First we stopped for lunch in a little clearing opening north, just below the canyon rim, offering a view to 3500' Big Valley Bluff, and also of several waterfalls across the canyon. We saw some of the major falls of Big Valley, Sugar Pine Point, and Big Granite Canyon. Snow Mountain was visible to the right, and Castle Peak to its left and much more distant. Devils Peak seemed to be hiding, but we had some Douglas Fir trees blocking a complete survey. Red Mountain was also visible, near Cisco Grove.

The North Fork roared loudly 2700' below us, out of our view. We could see some of the forested glacial outwash terraces near the river, tho.

One massive waterfall in Big Granite Canyon reminded me that, strangely, due to inexcusable laziness, I have never visited the thing, tho knowing of it since 1975. This waterfall is maybe two miles up Big Granite from the North Fork. More than one mile, certainly, and well above the crossing of the Big Granite Trail.

The line of the IHD is especially confused in the area of the Beacroft. The Beacroft heads up in a deep pass in the Foresthill Divide. Through this pass, beneath it, actually, in a tunnel, flowed the waters of one of the IHD's tributary ditches, the above-mentioned Scret Ravine Branch. One passes the downstream end of this short tunnel a few feet below where the Beacroft begins its descent. Another little ways brings one to the IHD. To the west, it runs along deep and wide through heavy timber until suddenly it opens directly into the North Fork canyon, appearing to end. This is one of what are likely very many areas where the water would have passed into a wooden flume.

Alex and I explored that area, then turned back and tried to follow the IHD east. Things quickly became problematic. We found two rather massive dry-laid stone walls running straight into a vertical rock-face, as tho this had been an earlier course planned for the tunnel under the pass. Then we lost all trace of the IHD as steep cliffs, streaming with snowmelt, appeared. We were able to pick our way along for a little ways, and then sheer wet rocks stopped us.

Presumably a large wooden flume had crossed this point. But the fragmentary character of the IHD had me a little spooked. Maybe it actually ran, who knows, one or two hundred feet lower on the canyon wall, and all I was seeing were remnants of the Secret Ravine Branch. I told Alex I wanted to settle the issue and would scout down the steep slopes below.

Shoe-skiing over little snowfields and clambering over fallen firs, I made my way into a deep little hollow which probably has a glacial origin: the heavy timber in the area is mostly growing in glacial till. As I left the hollow and neared the main canyon wall again to the north, a small trail-like thing led me east a ways before disappearing in heavy brush.

I hollered up to Alex that I wanted to scout a little more, and hearing an indistinct answer, I started up the steep slopes east of the hollow. An unnatural groove in the hillside betokened a ditch blow-out, a commonplace below mining ditches throughout this region. The berm of the ditch is breached, and the vagrant water cuts a channel straight down the slope below.

This boded well, and I eagerly pushed up higher and higher until I had regained every last inch of the over one hundred feet of elevation I had given up since leaving Alex. And there it was, huge, with large trees growing along the berm: the Iowa Hill Ditch.

I hollered again, Alex hollered back, the result being that I imagined he was coming to join me. I couldn't see how to save him the rough descent into The Hollow; the wet cliffs we had seen forbade following a contour around.

I decided to explore east along the giant berm. It was easy going; bears often walk this trail, and in the shade of the forest, there was little brush.

I saw no blazes to suggest that it had been a maintained TNF trail, but did not look too closely. There were such "small i" blazes, long healed over, near the head of the Beacroft, scarcely a tenth of a mile away.

Occasionally, brush blocked the berm and neat little bear trails angled down into the bed of the ditch itself for fifty yards or so, and then just as neatly climbed back up to the berm. After a quarter-mile or so I reached another blow-out, or perhaps, a flumed section: the ditch ended, and a game trail continued along steep brushy slopes. But Alex might have arrived, farther back, so I retreated. I was probably within a half-mile of Tadpole Canyon.

There was no Alex, so I walked to the west end of my ditch-section, where it ended near the wet cliffs. A steep and broad ramp led down through brush and fallen trees. I distrusted the ramp and scouted back for another, better trail. Finally, dropping over the side, I wandered a bit until the ramp came into view again, and seeing it was longer than I had thought, I joined it, and followed it down and down until suddenly it leveled out entirely, and contoured along the forested hillside.

I was just above the deepest part of The Hollow, and the level, road-like bench curved right around the thing. Bits and pieces of old flume timbering began to appear, with square nails showing that they likely dated from before 1900.

It was not a ditch: it was rather, I think, the foundation bench-cut for the massive flume which would have been needed for a canal of the IHD's capacity. I followed it all the way west to a point on the Beacroft Trail, and then followed the Beacroft back up into the scented forest above.

Time was growing short, I knew, so I hastened back to the car, where Alex awaited me. I am puzzled by the various ditch levels I observed, and by the bench cut. Why would it have continued so far west, as to intersect the Beacroft?

More exploration is needed. I would love to see the crossing of Tadpole, and to reach the "point-of-beginning" terminus in Section 32. I fear the brush out that way. It could prove impassable.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Raging Rivers

At 10:45 a.m. Thursday I met Mike Wall of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for a visit to the main drain tunnel of the Gold Run Diggings, which debouches into Canyon Creek at the end of the Old Wagon Road. With Mike were his assistants, Amy and Kyle. Mike's objective was to sample the waters of the tunnel for mercury contamination.

I obtained permission to park at Bob & Judy's place out on Garrett Road, since the road to the head of the Paleobotanist Trail is now blocked. Ron Gould awaited us there. A steady light rain fell as we set off into the Diggings, forded strangely huge Potato Ravine Creek, and met the Paleobotanist. The sky was auspiciously bright, and we hoped for the best.

Last Monday Catherine and Leslie and I had seen the North Fork running quite high and somewhat muddy, after a warm storm had started melting the big snowpack in the high country. Canyon Creek had been high, but not exceptionally so; there is no snow to melt, now, in its upper basin.

Tuesday night a light rain set in, becoming a steady heavy rain Wednesday morning. This lasted through the day Wednesday, and all through the night. Snow level, above 8000'. Thursday morning the rain turned to showers. I woke up around four in the morning and checked the North Fork Dam stream-gauge website. The river had climbed to over 12,000 cfs and was rising rapidly. I stayed up for a while and saw it reach 14,500 cfs, gaining over 1000 cfs/hour.

The meeting and water-sampling hike with the NRDC folks had been scheduled for a week, but I began to think in these terms: first, leading them to the Big Tunnel, and then second, abandoning them and dashing down to the North Fork, to see the rarely high flows. At four in the morning I shot an email to Ron and Catherine, with the stream-flow data pasted in, suggesting we take a look at the waterfalls and the river.

By ten in the morning the North Fork had risen to 17,500 cfs.

Having driven up from San Francisco itself, I was surprised that the NRDC folk were at the Gold Run exit on time. So strange, to go from the streets of San Francisco to the wilds of the North Fork, in a few hours.

Mike wished to obtain reference samples upstream from the tunnel system, so we first visited the North and the South shafts in the main pit of the Gold Run Ditch & Mining Co., where they worked through the entire 400-foot section of sediments, right to the bedrock floor of the Eocene South Yuba river. Millions of cubic yards of gravel washed through the shafts and tunnels, to Canyon Creek and the North Fork.

From the pit we broke out of the Diggings into Potato Ravine East and picked up the Canyon Creek Trail. The creek was loud, and very big, and as we reached the Old Wagon Road and had our first good looks at the thing, I said, "The bridge is gone!"

There was some chance it was still there. I asked the NRDC folk if they wanted to get a look at the waterfalls; they did, so it was decided that Ron and I would await them near the bridge, and they would join us after gathering samples, from the tunnel, from Canyon Creek upstream of the tunnel, and also from a point downstream.

It was a joyous moment to see the bridge still there, unmoved, two or three feet above a raging torrent of whitewater. We crossed and took our packs off.

It was still raining lightly and the wait grew long. Ron and I made a quick visit to Waterfall View, and saw, instead of one, four waterfalls breaching gaps in the cliff-top. It was all rain and spray and fog and thunder and a loud hissing which permeated everything.

After about forty-five minutes, the NRDC people joined us, a daring bunch, picking their ways calmly across the narrow bridge and up the rain-slick rocks. We were all wet. Earlier, Amy had slipped into a creek in the Diggings, and wetted her boots. Now all boots were wet. At least, mine were, I might as well have stepped into a creek myself.

Being wet already has its advantages. The worry of getting wet was removed. We could descend the trail laughing at the million grass stalks laden with water, the hundreds of bushes shaking their little deluges upon us.

I was a little surprised at how hardy these NRDC folks were. A rough little trail crossing steep cliffs was nothing to them. We took the cross-country route to the base of the Big Waterfall and paused a while in its spray; it was raining anyway, so why be shy.

Canyon Creek was huge and every waterfall differed very much from its usual appearance. The Big Waterfall is usually a two-stepped affair; now it was one almost unbroken fall, the "step" hidden in swirling whitewater.

Then down the tiny trail past the Terraces, which some recent campers violated by building a fire in the middle of one terrace. Back on the main trail, we stopped at the amazing overlook-spot, where one can look almost straight down to the North Fork, and up the canyon to the Pinnacles and Giant Gap.

The river covered every bit of its channel bank-to-bank, all the rough old gravel bars with their big boulders underwater. When Catherine and Leslie and I had seen it, it was somewhat reddish-brown with suspended clay.

Now the North Fork was an odd grey color, which I deduced was imparted by suspended sand. I expect that a million little sand beaches will appear along the river, as it recedes.

Here the NRDC folk consulted the time and decided to start back up the trail. Ron and I wanted a closer look at the river, so we continued down the trail to its end, and spent half an hour looking around and taking photographs.

At long last the rain had stopped. The sky glowed brighter. I had developed quite a hot spot on my left heel, from wearing my ski boots in the vain hope of keeping my feet dry, this time, and I stripped off boots and socks for a look. A big blister had formed, popped, and drained down. No amount of tightening my laces had stopped that left foot from rubbing up and down at the heel. I took the drastic measure of stuffing my boots in my pack and making the two-and-a-half-mile hike up and out in my bare feet.

I had my doubts about this, for I don't go barefoot all that often, but it worked rather well. No more heel pain, and really it was nice to feel the earth itself, to feels rocks warming slowly in the weak sunshine--yes, we actually had shadows, blurred shadows, yes, but shadows, on most of the hike out!.

Anyhow, it was fine, I just had to be more careful where and how I stepped on that rocky little trail. I liked dead leaves and live grasses, for they cushioned the sharp little pebbles which covered so much of the path.

When we rolled into Bob & Judy's we found that the crafty and able NRDC folk had mysteriously found their own way back through the Diggings and up to the house--quite an achievement, for their first time ever in the area!--and had beaten us by full forty-five minutes.

Hence they could not have rested much if at all, in ascending the trail.

It was a great great day in the great canyon, and quite a privilege to see the North Fork during such high flows. The last such were in the late 1990s.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Hail Hike From Hell

For quite some time a hike had been in the works, with Catherine O'Riley and Leslie *****, date, Monday, May 16, destination, the HOUT. Somewhat surprisingly, weather had entered the picture, as storm after storm wetted the Sierra, so with some anxiety we had watched the forecasts change from a dry Sunday and a sunny Monday, to a possibly-wet, but-if-wet-only-slightly-wet Sunday, followed by a clearing Monday.

The maybe-just-maybe-slightly-wet-Sunday lived up to its billing until, at day's end, heavy rain set in here at 4000' elevation, and continued through the night, tapering off at dawn to light showers and drizzle.

Now, I have been laughingly complaining, to anyone who will listen, about the "girlie-men" geologists, so scared of the mean-old, deep-old North Fork canyon, that it is a kind of terra incognita, a blank spot on the map of Sierran geology.

Indeed, on those girlie-men maps, the old canyon trails are marked, in ancient uncials, "Here Be Monsters."

Heck, I know one girlie-man geologist who has been relying on the work of yet another girlie-man geologist of a century ago, to form his ideas of the magnitude of the most-recent, "Tioga"-age glaciation in the North Fork. Neither one troubled himself to actually enter the canyon; for them it is enough to see it from a distance, to shudder with fear and fright, to turn away, to carefully comfort their quaking knees, and then to publish nonsense based upon nothing.

Howsoever: at least Catherine O'Riley is not one of these. At least Catherine O'Riley dares to descend the abysmal abyss. There is that one fixed point in a sea of quivering variables. That one thing is certain. All other stars move, the Pole Star holds its place.

So I was surprised when Catherine called Monday morning to complain that it was foggy and wet, and to suggest that some day in the future might just be dry.

Foggy and wet? Since when is that a factor? She was quick to apologize for her wimp-like caution, yes, quite quick; but there was a strange hint to her apology, a hint of the merely dutiful and rote obligation, while Prudent Maturity reared up behind her words, carrying a large placard which read, The Sky Is Falling!

With all the sense and sensibilities of a trained psychologist, I reminded her of other hikes when fog boiled in the great canyon, and talked about possible strategies, such as gaiters and umbrellas. Of course Catherine came around. After all, weren't the clouds beginning to glow? Didn't the satellite imagery show the frontal cloud band already passing into Nevada, with clear air behind? Hadn't the rain almost stopped?

So the hike was on, and we would meet at the Dutch Flat exit, to hell with the weather, on to the HOUT!

We duly met and loaded packs and gear into my little Subaru, Catherine's rig being a bit on the bulky side for the narrow path of unrighteousness which puts us onto the Main Diggings Road. A light drizzle dotted the windshield as the crux of the route was reached. All clay, all wet, all leaning crazily to one side. Easing the Subie through, it began to slip downhill into some pines. I was inches away from major body damage.

Fortunately my shovel was in the car, and by quarrying gravel some distance away, bit by bit we contrived to add some traction to the equation. A second attempt was made, and failed. More trips with the shovel, the slick and soggy clay salted with more bits and pieces of rock. And then, at last, success. A loud crunching from the undercarriage, and freedom.

In a few minutes we were at the trailhead, and the rain had stopped. The forest was soaked and Canyon Creek raised its voice in a joyous tumult. Passing the bridge, the Flowery Realm was entered, the trail rife with tall grasses nodding under the burden of a thousand droplets. From the knees down, never mind the gaiters, we were increasingly soaked. The falls were big, Canyon Creek, a mite muddy and unclear. Our old friends, the white racing pigeons, huddled forlornly on ledges in the Chasm, that strange and wondrous inner gorge above the Big Waterfall. Even a well-placed rock hurled across the narrows failed to move them into flight. Could they be dead? Leslie fancied one was on its back, its pitiful little feet aimed at the sky. But no. They were alive, only somnolent, at rest. A falcon winged by above, offering one more reason to hide on little ledges in twisted chasms.

We left the steep trail for the even steeper cross-country route down to the base of the Big Waterfall, impressive in sound and fury, spewing spray, big enough to split into a second channel near the top. A brief break, then down the Waterfall Trail to the Terraces, and on to the Canyon creek Trail.

Soon we entered upon the HOUT. The clouds had gradually lifted and brightened, not a speck of rain had fallen, yet the grasses and flowers stayed soaked, the blossoms almost all nodding low, clotted with water. My light leather shoe-boots, so carefully Sno-Sealed the night before, were squishy-wet. My two layers of woolen socks, squishy-wet. We picked our way quite slowly over the slippery rocks and those threads of ledges which form much of the HOUT, not so much a trail as the ghost of a dream of a trail. In dry conditions I can reach Croquet Meadow in a little less than one hour from the top of the Canyon Creek Trail. Today we would need three hours to make Croquet. It seemed to take forever. Rounding the many rock spurs along the HOUT, we were treated to views of the Pinnacles, set nicely against a backdrop of distinctly darker clouds.

I saw a pair of Golden Eagles soaring around the Pinnacles; they crossed to the east and out of view before Catherine and Leslie caught me up.

And the North Fork was huge, raging, roiling, muddy as it is almost never muddy, and out of all proportion to the moderately high flows of Canyon Creek: this was a genuine flood event, such as I have not seen for years.

I had been keeping tabs on the North Fork Dam stream gauge on the Internet, and noted that it had climbed from 2000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 3000 cfs by Sunday morning. Monday morning I was shocked to see that it had climbed up to 4000 cfs. Of course, Auburn is well downstream from Giant Gap, and many tributaries add their mite. But right here, right now, the North Fork was huge, broad, very fast, full of backward-curling waves and whitewater.

Sunday night's rain had been heavy in the high country, it seems, with the snow level above 8000 feet. Ron Gould had recorded a quarter-inch at Weimar. I could not doubt but that as much as two inches had fallen over the terrain flanking the upper canyon.

So we struggled along, Leslie, having been exposed to Bad Hiking Influences, as I darkly surmised, using no less than two walking sticks, and making a tough going of the rocky places. If there is a better way to ruin one's sense of balance and weaken the musculature of ankles and knees, I can't think what it would be.

To reach Croquet quickly seemed important to me. But we advanced in agonizing slowness. Dilatory! Catherine stopped often to photograph the miserable flowers, while barely a pace or two ahead was that strange patch of Sidalcea at Croquet! Why waste one's time picking through bits of finger in Wendy's Chili, when there's an ocean of Nectar and Ambrosia around the next bend?

Somehow we did advance from Point A to Point B and there followed C and D and E until at last we came within ten feet of the Croquet.

At that exact moment all hail broke loose. Just before the actual ambrosia could be quaffed, we took shelter beneath a Canyon Live Oak and ripped into our packs for sweaters and jackets and caps and hats.

The hail graded slowly into rain and for several minutes we held to the cover of the trees. Then hard rain gave way to soft showers and we advanced into the Sidalcea Colony.

Like most all the larger flowers they nodded low and hid their glories. We moved along to the Meadow of the Whirling Dervish Backpack, and found the Monarch caterpillars visibly larger than they'd been last Friday. Catherine photographed the behorned and striped little puppies, and we took a break.

Another shower moved in and intensified into a deluge. We retreated beneath the trees. Thunder rumbled. Directly across the canyon, The Eminence soared two thousand feet above the river, and the showers had spawned the usual lovely threads of waterfalls on its steep cliffs.

After ten minutes or so, the rain tapered back to showers, and we left the trees to get a look around. We were all a bit soaked. Instead of a day steadily clearing, we had apparently picked a day steadily deteriorating into thunderstorms and drenching downpours. The only sane and sensible thing to do was to make a mad dash for the Canyon Creek Trail and then, quickly-quickly, up and up and up to the safety of the car.

However. There is more to life than mere sanity. I observed that we were all wet already; what could the harm be, in walking just a little farther, and that little *not* over nasty wet rocks but instead over an easy forest path, until we broke out onto the steep Blue Lupine Barrens of Big West Spur, by the Bear Bed, and could see back down the canyon?

Where's the harm in that? Leslie would be able to scan at a glance the entire mile of canyon we had ascended from Canyon Creek, and if the storms closed in again we were really not so very much further from safety and civilization.

What were we, after all? Girlie-men geologists?


So off we went in the wrong direction, not to the west and safety, but east into deeper and deeper danger. Lo and behold, the sun came out. I felt sure that for the first time since leaving the trailhead, I was actually getting drier rather than wetter. We reached the Bear Bed in short order and took another break.

The sun felt so very very good. The river was surely as high as ever and Leslie thought that it sounded louder. I saw no difference and heard no difference, but when I checked the North Fork Dam stream gauge later, I found that the river rose steadily until about 2:45 in the afternoon, topping out over 7000 cfs.

So Leslie was right.

7000 cfs is enough water to cover an acre of land a foot deep in six seconds.

Clouds boiled all around, fog clung to the canyon walls in shreds and curls and sometimes in long level windrows, and there seemed every chance of more rain. We felt encouraged by the sun and dared the storms to do their worst and just kept on following the HOUT, as it climbed from its long level line into an intricate and narrow path around the several big rock blades at the base of Big West Spur.

We crossed to the east of the eastern blade into the Elfin Forest and down a short distance to a remarkable overlook. We were in the heart of Giant Gap with the Pinnacles and Lovers Leap to the right and left. Eagles reappeared and disappeared. To penetrate so far along the HOUT under such dramatic and somewhat adverse circumstances was a notable achievement.

Then it only remained to retrace our steps. Occasional very light showers maintained a scattered boiling of fog in the canyon, such as is more commonly seen early in the mornings after storms. When I tried to rest on the Canyon Creek Trail a mass of mosquitos attacked and so I started a slow slog up and up and up. Catherine as is often the case forged into the lead and left Leslie and I to our own peculiar pace. When we reached the car, a moment of consternation: no Catherine. How could we have passed her? Had she branched away to the Blasted Digger? Which, in retrospect, we all ought to have done. I unlocked the Subie, threw my pack in, and scouted ahead to see if footprints showed what was what. But there she was in a patch of weak sunshine, having merely left the shadows around the car for the light a few yards away.

The slight drying over the last of the afternoon had firmed the clay where disaster so nearly struck in the morning, and the Subie crawled through the narrow pass without incident. It was about 6:30 p.m.

Such was another great day in the great canyon.

Incidentally, I have managed to identify the species of coarse moss which plays such a prominent role in the ecology of our canyon walls, often knitting together talus, why, without this one species of moss the HOUT itself would scarcely be passable. It clings tightly to the bedrock and makes critical and durable footholds. It is Selaginella hansenii, or Hansens Spike-moss.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Caterpillar Photos


is a photo of tiny, days-old Monarch butterfly caterpillars on Purple Milkweed.

And at

is another picture which better illustrates the lovely flowers of this milkweed.

The photos were taken in the North Fork canyon south of Gold Run at about 1850' elevation, on a steep meadowy south-facing slope. As a child I loved the Monarch butterfly caterpillars, living jewels, and developed a facility for finding their chrysalises, also like jewels.

As an adult I mysteriously lost the childhood instincts which often led me to these caterpillars. Years and years go by without seeing any. So I was pleased to find these.

This is a banner year for wildflowers. I have made more trips into the canyon than usual this spring, often to the HOUT, and have watched as one species finishes its bloom, and another begins. The larger blue bush lupine has set seed, but the Harlequin Lupine is still in full bloom. This area is on the cusp of transition into the late-spring peak bloom; the grasses are setting seed and turning brown, while new flowers like Blue Field Gilia, and the shrub Mock Orange, always late-season species, are making their first appearances.

The poison oak flourishes as I have never seen before, and mosquitos gather in menacing clouds if one stops to rest on a steep trail. And they don't just threaten; they act, and quite vigorously.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

NFART Bites the Dust

Some good news. Placer County's plan to build a broad multi-use trail up the North Fork canyon (the "North Fork American River Trail," acronym, NFART) from The Confluence to Ponderosa Bridge has been abandoned, as of Tuesday, May 10. The following item was on Tuesday's BOS agenda, and was passed without discussion:

b. North Fork Trail--Vacate the Board's action taken on August 24, 2004 to approve the Initial Study, Mitigated Negative Declaration and Environmental Assessment for the North Fork American River Trail Project; rescind the California Environmental Quality Act Notice of Determination filed August 24, 2004; and vacate the Board's August 24, 2004 adoption of the North Fork American River Trial Plan.

The typo at the end, "Trial" instead of "Trail," was a happy accident, since it was the lawsuit brought against Placer County which forced this decision.

It came as a surprise to those who brought the lawsuit, notably, Michael Garabedian, Bill Newsom, and Catherine O'Riley. The mandatory settlements talks with County Counsel, required before actual litigation begins, had yielded nothing; the County seemed determined not to compromise at all. Hence it only remained to go to trial.

I hear that the BOS was a bit burned up over their recent loss on another environmental lawsuit, involving plans for massive residential developments up in the Martis Valley, near Truckee. Apparently they thought, "Here's another lawsuit, possibly costing the County yet another ton of money."

The North Fork Trail project could be revived; for now, it is dead.

Many thanks to Garabedian, Newsom, and O'Riley!

Trails and Things

Terry Davis of the Sierra Club informs me that Placer County is *not* giving up on the Confluence-Ponderosa trail, but rather, plans to perform an EIR/EIS on the project, and then carry it forward.


It may be that another lawsuit will be required to stop this ill-conceived trail.

Today I met with Acting District Ranger Jan Cutts and Recreation Officer Ed Moore of the American River (Foresthill) Ranger District, and we talked about trails issues, and OHV issues, in Tahoe National Forest (TNF).

We spent some time out by Iron Point at the Euchre Bar Trail (EBT) trailhead. In the short time we were there, one party of hikers arrived and headed down the trail, and another came up from the river--evidence that this is indeed a popular trail.

Ron Gould had instructed me to ask, why is there no OHV-closure sign at the top of the EBT? I was surprised to learn that no formal closure exists on this north side of the canyon. Such a closure arises from a Forest Order, and a Forest Order was issued for trails leading to the North Fork from the Foresthill side of the canyon some years ago. This Order was made because a large area with a large complex of trails was set aside for OHV use on the Foresthill Divide, and with so many OHVs attracted to the area, and the North Fork being a Wild & Scenic River, it was felt necessary to effect a closure on that side of the canyon.

Hence the OHV closure signs one sees on the EBT at Elliott Ranch Road, and on the Italian Bar, Mumford Bar, Beacroft, and Sailor Flat trails. I believe there are also such signs on the Green Valley Trail, and the washed-out trail from near Wabena Point to Palisade Creek.

So far as the EBT at Iron Point, a new Forest Order would be required to effect an OHV closure there. Since there is a Forest-wide TNF OHV study happening right now, due for completion and resulting decisions in 2007 or 2008, we might look towards a Forest Order closing the EBT to OHVs at Iron Point then.

I was favorably impressed with Acting District Ranger Jan Cutts, who has a background in archeology among other things down in the Inyo National Forest.

We also visited the interesting Casa Loma prehistoric occupation site, which manages to combine unusual significance from an archeological standpoint (since it shows some signs of great age, possibly Martis Culture, pre-bow-and-arrow-age), with an almost incredible destruction and disruption of the site. Both the Martis people and the more modern Nisenan Maidu favored sunny spots with great views. If therefore one can combine a year-around spring with a meadow with southwestern exposure, well, in this part of the Sierra you have an Indian village site, or at the least, some kind of seasonal camp.

Often these old village sites were claimed as homesteads by white settlers, who, in order to "prove" their claim, planted orchards. In Grass Valley, if one sees an ancient, decrepit pear orchard in a sunny meadow, one sees an Indian site. It is much the same here in Placer County.

Back in the early 1970s I made a half-systematic exploration of Maidu village sites in the Grass Valley area. A few sites had remarkable views, sometimes extending across the Sacramento Valley to Mt. St. Helena, in the Coast Range. At other places the village views included the Sutter Buttes, those magical mountains which figured in Maidu myths, the cave-ridden place where the souls of the deceased stopped, on their paths to the Afterworld.

Ed Moore suggested that those of us interested in the Euchre Bar Trail might get involved in TNF's Adopt A Trail program, and perform some of the minor maintenance which is needed, such as constructing water bars, and trimming vegetation back. I myself like working on trails.

When I learn more about this I will let you know.

Sunday, May 8, 2005

More Photos

I've uploaded a few dozen new photos to the CalPhotos website. Subjects include flowers, snakes, waterfalls, and canyons.

To see these, go to

and choose either to view them by thumbnail (about 12 at a time) or as a long list. In the list view, the landscape-type photos have no captions.

There about sixty of my photos there now.

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Odds and Ends

Just a little in the way of news.


see my photo of a Gopher Snake on the HOUT.

And at

see my photo of the Common Tarweed, Madia elegans, also on the HOUT.

OK. I received a reply to my letter of a week ago or so from Jan Cutts of the newly-named American River Ranger District of Tahoe National Forest, re OHV damage to trails, garbage, etc.

As must be expected, there is very little if anything which TNF can do with its Green Sticker OHV money to repair OHV damage to trails, effect OHV closures anywhere, or to clean up garbage brought into the canyon using OHVs. The reason? They are tightly restricted in uses of these funds.

However, Ms. Cutts seemed interested in these problems, and I will have a chance to meet with her soon.

On a related front, down by Upper Lake Clementine in the Auburn State Recreation Area (ASRA), a 30-acre parcel has come up for sale, asking price, $49,000. The parcel straddles the river near Long Point in the SW 1/4 of Section 15. The owner, on his web site, makes much of the road and jeep trail forking away from Applegate's Boole Road, and leading down to Long Point. He considers this road to be a public road by prescriptive right, and to constitute legal access to the 30 acres, where he suggests someone could build a nice house with a great view of the North Fork canyon. He describes the route in some detail.


for the owner's presentation of the 30 acres and its access.

From his description I deduce that this is one of the routes OHVs use to gain illegal access to the North Fork. They drive up and down miles of the canyon in the summer and fall. I have complained to ASRA about this OHV invasion of a very wild and pretty reach of the North Fork, between Long Point on the west and Codfish Canyon on the east, but thus far ASRA has mre or less thrown up its bureaucratic hands and replied, "What can we do, unless we know how they are getting in there?"

So, I have made a point of telling ASRA about this 30-acres-for-sale, and the road and jeep trail at Long Point, where ASRA tried to block the road/jeep trail years ago, but, it seems, failed.

Parenthetically, I would like to see ASRA buy this 30 acres.

There is a major OHV invasion going on here in Placer County. It's past time to insist upon some limits.