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.

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